Steve Abel & The Chrysalids – Flax Happy (Kin’sland)
There’s a vein in Antipodean pop that deals with the very darkest material, from the ubiquitous Nick Cave to the newly valorised Devastations, who find melody and drama in life’s corners and crannies more than their highways and coffee shops. Sonically, Steve Abel’s second album aligns with many of these quite closely – it’s sparse but dense, quiet but intense the whole way through. Lyrically, Abel dashes from antiquated reference to almost-comical asides – is the phrase “boob rot” supposed to make us laugh?
What remains, despite the confusingly satisfying breadth of lyrical sentiment, is the desire to create utter and total warmth in all the album’s timbres. Rarely do we hear a roar, but when we do we know we’ve worked hard for it, and it’s effective. Like the similar work of James Yorkston, these atmospheres are inviting and accessible, but Abel is wise enough to pepper his expressions with enough challenge to render Flax Happy an engaging, not merely passive, experience. Pin Of Love is a bilingual triumph, with traditional Maori language mixing with simple, folksy English. It never raises beyond a titter but, thanks to the interaction between Abel and Texan guest Jolie Holland, results in a thick, foggy exploration.
As it develops, Flax Happy becomes ever more immersive. When we begin to wind down, the close-miced Heart Of Misery emerges as the album’s simultaneously lightest and darkest moment. Holland returns to add some colourful harmonies, but Abel’s lyrics are foxing – sweet but completely punishing. This is a man who has literally lost everything and concludes by making the ultimate sacrifice, perhaps with a wry grin on his face. It’s equal parts disturbing and lullaby-esque, but one certainly not designed to aid soothing slumber.
Hardly ever have the lines of prettiness and ugliness been so starkly crossed. It’s a fairly standard maxim for the prettiest tunes to have the ugliest sentiments, but Steve Abel sharpens the focus of how that might be possible. Consummately relaxed danger.
This is out today. More here.