Album Review: Amy Millan – Masters of The Burial
(Posted at TheLineofBestFit.com)
Amy Millan has the kind of impeccable indie-rock background most musicians would kill for – after the breakup of her rock-roots band 16 tons, Millan’s musical career began in earnest when was inducted into seismic indie-pop outfit Stars, where her glassy vocals were responsible for the band’s epic breakthrough single ‘Ageless Beauty’.
After her successes with Stars, she was invited to join legendary Canadian supergroup Broken Social Scene, and ‘be the girl’, and embarked on a prolific series of live tours with the band – and if the harem of stellar indie musicians that make up the Broken Social Scene alumni weren’t enough, she’s also collaborated with Apostle of Hustle, Kevin Drew, Gomez and Jason Collet and – to add to the indie cool – performed a tactfully rewritten version of ‘He Brings Out The Whiskey In Me’ (‘She Brings Out The Broccoli In Me’) on children’s TV show Mamma Yamma and Friends.
So with such a strong background in indie rock, it’s admirable that when Amy finally decided to release a solo record, she went for a whole new change of pace. ‘Honey from the Tombs’ was released in 2006, and found Millan going back to her country roots. In direct contrast to the sleek, sonic bluster of Broken Social Scene and Stars, ‘Honey from the Tombs’ was a traditional country affair – all weary heartbreak and mentions of whiskey brands and dilapidated hotel rooms. However, Millan’s fans – more used to the surging indie rock of BSS and Stars – felt a tad alienated. Clearly Millan is treading uncharted territory, and the announcement of her second solo effort found Millan standing at a crossroads – would she carry on with the folk of ‘Honey From The Tombs’, or would she retreat to her indie-rock beginnings?
From the first, plucked chords and woozy slide guitar that herald album opener ‘Bruised Ghosts’, it’s clear that Amy has stuck to her guns – however, on ‘Masters of The Burial’, Amy has let her country influences dilute slightly, letting
her past works seep into this effort. The drizzling horns on ‘Bruised Ghost’ are almost identical to the horns in Broken Social Scene’s ‘I’m Still Your Fag’, and the rattling, rumbling guitars on ‘Run For Me’ more than faintly recall the guitars used on BSS’s self-titled. On ‘Masters of The Burial’ Millan – after immersing herself in both the world’s of country and rock – has finally drawn a happy medium, and is all the more better – and wiser – for it.
On ‘Masters of The Burial’, Millan has also allowed herself to experiment slightly with her instrumentation (although the overall effect is still that of a country record) – the a-capella ‘Day To Day’ lets the subtle melodies in Millan’s voice shine through, the rumbling ‘Run For Me’ see’s Amy step out of her meek persona and into a sulky, Cat Power-esque swagger, and the grainy, DIY recording of ‘Lost Compass’ makes her voice seem even more piercing and high. Admittedly, she still seems shy – she isn’t exactly bounding into Fiery Furnaces-style experiments, but it’s heartening to see an artist slowly gaining confidence in her abilities.
Lyrically, Amy Millan has also matured – gone are the self-aware urban sophistication of her Stars lyrical contributions (‘I’m so hot for a rich girl, her heels so high and my hopes so low’) and the naïve romanticism of her lyrics on ‘Honey from the Tombs’ (‘I’ll get over you when the moon gets tired of chasing the sun’) – her lyrics are still romantic, surely, but they have a kind of depth and cohesiveness missing from her debut. Amy may sigh ‘I’d rather love you than leave you, my darling’, but ultimately she decides ‘you’re not mine to give away… it’s never the same again’. This lyrical depth – rather than the throwaway, saloon heartbreak references on ‘Masters of The Burial’ – provides the greatest emotional impact Millan has ever produced in her lengthy career.
However, the album centrepiece – the track that everyone will be talking about – is Amy’s cover of Death Cab For Cutie’s emo lynchpin ‘I Will Follow You Into The Dark’. Personally, I despise this song with a passion – the combination of Gibbard’s embarrassingly sincere vocals, the stark guitar chords and the ridiculously sentimental lyrics has always proved too much for me.
However, Amy has managed to do the impossible, and actually made me like the song – she’s cleverly toned down the syrup by making the instrumentation as busy as possibly, loading on woozy slide guitar, trickling guitars chords and flickering banjo and by delivering the lyrics in her trademark meek deadpan. The sentimentality thoroughly neutralised, Millan’s version lets the gentle, rushing beauty of the song – obscured by corniness in the original – shine through nicely.
At first listen, ‘Masters of The Burials’ may come off as bland and uninspired but the devil’s in Millan’s details – scratch the surface and there’s a veritable treasure trove of heartbreak and lost love. ‘Masters of The Burial’ is bursting with subtly intelligent ideas, and my only hope is that Millan will continue to grow in confidence, and be able to expand on these ideas in her next efforts. Perhaps then – inside of floating in limbo between the indie-rock of Stars and the country of her past – she can finally begin to carve her very own niche.