As almost always seems to be the case, I have to start the "fall preview" by detailing this upcoming weekend, which promises to be one of the most active of the year. Last week, I discussed the new DEAD SEASON record, to be released September 19 with a show at the Asylum, but that's just the beginning. We'll also see ANNA'S GHOST release their self-titled full-length debut (complete with new lineup) September 18 at the Empire; ERIC BETTENCOURT releases his second full-length in roughly six months September 19 at the Empire; and BOREAL TORDU release their third full-length September 18 at One Longfellow. That's a busy weekend.
Anna's Ghost, released on Will Ethridge's Eternal Otter Records, may be the most exciting of the bunch, a follow-up to a well-received EP from 2007, but much more than that. In the meantime, duo Ian Riley and Gabrielle Raymond picked up some help from former Cambiata frontman Chris Moulton and Dead Man's Clothes bassist Jake Pike. And while signing on Moulton and not having him do much vocally is a little like buying a Porsche and never taking it out of the driveway, there's no mistaking that the quartet have meshed well.
The band have retained the dark carnival atmosphere of their debut, but moved beyond it, developing a disturbed and disturbing indie rock that is both operatic and bare-bones, enchanting and repellent. There are times, actually, where it's hard to say whether Moulton might actually be singing, as Raymond apes some of the ultra-emotive vocal acrobatics that were his signature with the Cambiata. Raymond pitches and rolls, like a writhing mental patient in a straight-jacket fighting for freedom. And if there are times when she seems to move below her natural range, it's also true that her guttural chant can be as electric as Annie Lennox's.
Best is when the band allow themselves to open up. "He Is in the Walls" opens with a somber minute-long meditation before launching into a guitar vamp that's worthy of the Queens of the Stone Age riff from "No One Knows." At song four, it offers excellent mid-album pacing adjustment. "After the Snow" starts with carnival bounce on the piano, picks up a rippling pairing with the drums, and finishes in an accordion-fueled waltz: "Hold the switchblade far from me/The truth is the blade will make us bleed."
Once again recording with Frank Hopkins, they've created a sound that's so painfully close that you feel every note in your gut. As Moulton's fingers scrape the strings on "Comeback," a banjo mixed to the deep background, it's hard not to believe Raymond when she promises, "When you come back, we'll all be dead."
Then again, not everyone's into the morose and maudlin. Luckily, Boreal Tordu return with Les Chevaliers, a disc that's not quite as irresistibly bouncy as their last, La Bonne Vie, but delivers a joie de vivre nonetheless. This time around, there is just one song in English from the Acadian throwbacks, but, no matter, they supply English translations in the liner notes for every tune. If you're someone who pays attention to the lyrics, it's true that French lyrics can be distracting (I keep hearing nonsense English phrases), but there's no mistaking the emotions being conveyed, and the playing is first-rate.
If I'm going to quibble at all, it might be that things can get a little too jaunty at times. "Ti-Jean," penned by band founder Rob Sylvain, is cute, but sounds a little like a French Rick Charrette tune (not that there's anything really wrong with that). The wolf howl at the beginning of "La Reine de Loup-Garous"? "L'Autre Bord" is like any Disney Randy Newman song, just sung in French. But all of that might just be me being a miserable scrooge. It's hard to say.
There's plenty that's outstanding here, though. "Gigue pour Jean-Paul," written by fiddler Steve Muise and J.P. Loyer, is a terrific acoustic journey, positively Fleckian. The take on Django Reinhardt's "Minor Swing" has a palpable bite and is light as air. And "Reel de la Sauvagine," particularly, gets a great old-timey sound, for which Marc Bartholomew and crew at Acadia Recording (naturally) should be commended.
Of course, you may just want to rock out this weekend, and for that, Eric Bettencourt's got you covered. Sure, you pegged him as folkie after Fine Old World, but he's been working on material with his old band, Giraffe Attack, for a few years now, and this stuff is decidedly more full-bodied, as evidenced by The Giraffe Attack Collection. He draws liberally from the classic rock masters — the Beatles, Clapton, a little Leon Redbone; I'd call the open to "What Works" a "Meg White" homage — but keeps things particularly robust, with multiple guitars, piano, banjo, trumpet, lots of backing vocals, continuing his reputation as someone who really knows how to use the studio.