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Heather Leigh, "Throne"

cover imageThe Heather Leigh that recorded 2015's excellent I Abused Animal seems to have split into two separate artists this year: one who plays wild experimental guitar in a duo with Peter Brötzmann and another who is something of an outsider art-pop vocal diva. This is the latter Leigh. Ostensibly "a record of late-night Americana and heavy femininity," Throne is quite a bold and radical departure from expected territory, often resembling a bizarre and hallucinatory collision of Lou Reed and Kate Bush. That is only the tip of a very strange and intimate iceberg, however, as Leigh also has a curious approach to structure and a bent for confessional subject matter. For the most part, Leigh manages to make this experiment work, as Throne is a memorably unique album, but it only truly catches fire when her guitar playing bursts into the foreground.

Editions Mego

The opening "Prelude to Goddess" does not waste any time in throwing down the gauntlet with Leigh's curious new vision, as it lyrically lies somewhere between a lust-filled teenage diary entry and Velvet Underground-esque street-level reportage.That makes for quite a disorienting stew of uneasily co-existing elements, as lines like "the way you dance makes me cream" and "I love your leopard jeans so much" are swooningly delivered over a sublime backdrop of slowly pulsing and chiming guitar.The following "Lena" takes that eroticism into considerably darker and more uncomfortable territory, with lyrics about lifting up her skirt and being "the kind of girl that never forgets what your daddy did."It would be an understatement to say that Leigh's approach to Americana is an idiosyncratic one, but Leigh's tales of sex, longing, heartache, drunken dancing, and troubling family dynamics undeniably fit well within the timeless country and blues continuum, even if she updates the language and the context a bit.Her unconventional use of slide guitar fits the bill as well.I suppose that makes Throne a deeply experimental and post-modern blues album of sorts, yet Leigh's vocal delivery and approach to song structure render it almost unrecognizable as such, as she sounds far more like an atypically throaty and libidinal classical vocalist than like Bessie Smith and she willfully eludes almost anything resembling a conventional verse, chorus, or hot-blooded rhythm in favor of a languorous and dreamlike amorphousness.There are some repeating refrains of sorts, but they seem to blossom forth organically rather than pivoting on a chord change or adhering to a structured trajectory.

While the first half of the album definitely delves into the more daring and nakedly intimate subject matter, the strongest pieces come a bit later.On "Scorpio and Androzani," for example, Leigh's tender and understated vocals fit a bit more seamlessly with her woozy slide guitar accompaniment.The difference is subtle, but it feels more like a complete song than a vocal piece that also happens to have to guitar in the background.Even better still is "Soft Seasons," which is built around a viscerally howling guitar melody and a feeble, broken-backed drum machine groove.Even when the melody disappears to make room for the vocals, the strangled and moaning guitar tone often remains, which provides an appropriately primal foundation for Leigh's swooping and wailing vocals.Much like the rest of the album, however, it can feel bizarrely anachronistic, as it features rhyming couplets like "Hypnotized by fame, bitten by fire.Won't you say my name?It's my only desire."That subject matter (fame is hard!) seems far more at home at home in classic rock and contemporary hip-hop fare than it does on an avant-garde guitarist’s album, which makes me feel like there is also a bizarre invented persona element to this album akin to Haley Fohr's Jackie Lynn project.I truly have no idea where personal/confessional ends and artifice begins with this album.

That said, just about everything about Throne is bizarre and wrong-footing, which makes it quite a challenging listen from start to finish.On the one hand, the most immediately gratifying pieces tend to be either the more straightforward ones or those that feel like a continuation of I Abused Animal, such as "Soft Seasons" or the alternately rippling and fiery centerpiece "Gold Teeth."For me, the latter pieces are definitely the best ones on the album.On the other hand, I very much appreciate that Leigh took quite a gamble with this album rather than just making I Abused Animal 2, particularly since she is revered primarily as an inventive instrumentalist rather than as a songwriter.I also appreciate what a truly bizarre album this is.It is abundantly clear that Leigh put a lot of time and thought into crafting a coherent and unique vision: regardless of its flaws and quirks, Throne is unquestionably a strong and confident artistic statement unlike anything else that I have heard.I just do not know quite what to make of it.Perhaps it is simply not for me though.I am not sure who such an album would deeply resonate with, but my guess would probably be someone like David Lynch.He would no doubt be delighted by Leigh’s ungraspable and vaguely unnerving blurring together of "Siren" and "honky-tonk jukebox" into something that ambiguously rides the line between hypnagogic country music, catharsis, and nightmare.

Samples can be found here.