Amy Millan Honey From the Tombs

[Arts & Crafts; 2006]

Rating: 4/5

Styles: country, americana
Others: Stars, Bosque Brown, Richard Buckner

For Stars co-frontwoman Amy Millan, heart-drenched melodrama isn't particularly new territory. The band's 2005 opus, Set Yourself on Fire, was one of the year's most incredible releases: a grand, sweeping orchestral narrative of the pain wrought by exes past. And the band's other output - a pair of LPs and EPs - are similar permutations on the record's mopey, synth-twinged theme. What is new territory for Montreal's darling indie-rock daughter, however, is the sparse and subtle land of solo country music. Less isn't more for Stars, whose instrumental repertoire on record is as vast as any other's. Needless to say, it's hard to picture either of the band's members swearing off most non-acoustic accompaniments in a folk-filled solo debut.

But Millan does it (well, sort of), and she does it beautifully. Of course, a few of the album's tracks are more than reminiscent of her band's sound; she's cheating, a little bit. "Skinny Boy," with its muddled drums and foggy vocals, would feel perfectly at home on any of Stars' records (and the ending refrain, in which all the days of the week are named, is strikingly similar to the month motif of Set Yourself on Fire's "Calendar Girl"). The same goes for "Come Home Loaded Roadie," which is backed only by a buzzing synth progression and is indistinguishable from a Stars song - except for an unusually backwoodsy accent. She's trying, but she hasn't switched gears entirely.

But for the rest of the record, Millan has managed to assume the persona of a down-home, whiskey-soaked Southern gal with six strings and a whole lot of sadness. And she manages this particularly well, on no small account through the quality of her voice. Part of why Stars are as good as they are at striking a solidly melancholic tone are Millan's soft, earnest, sometimes almost childlike vocal performances; co-frontman Torquil Campbell's obnoxious tenor makes them sound even better. Millan's voice is just as strong on Honey From the Tombs, and for the most part, it doesn't suffer at all from a newfound country twinge; the heartbreak is easily as convincing as it's ever been.

The lyrics are also of note; Stars do them well, and Millan does them even better, particularly in the leadoff track "Losin' You." In a short, simple acoustic guitar song (with bare hints of an occasional mandolin), the poetic musings come across even stronger: "I'm losin' you" is prefaced by a number of resigned lines like "Your eyes are like burned-out headlights in the thunder of the night"; "You know, you smile like a lying stranger when I ask you if you're doing all right"; and "Always thought you were the one/ I guess I still do." Meanwhile, the playful-but plain chorus of "Baby I" — "Baby, I'm goin' on without you/ Maybe I'm even gonna get through/ But baby, I'll tell you something that'll never be true:/ Baby, I'll get over you" — seems frightfully honest. And in a genre where, more than any other, lyrics are one-half the equation, this means a lot.

It's a crowded arena, for sure; plenty of Americana artists are pushing similar albums, some of them first-time soloers like Millan. But Millan has created a balanced and nuanced effort that plays off equally on both her more-than-formidable Stars roots and the tried-and-true guitar-and-banjo basics of the genre; on Honey From the Tombs, she's just as accomplished as a woodsy singer-songwriter as she is a synth-pop Star.

1. Losin' You
2. Skinny Boy
3. Ruby II
4. Baby I
5. Headsfull
6. Wayward And Parliament
7. Hard Hearted
8. Blue In Yr Eye
9. Come Home Loaded Roadie
10. All The Miles
11. He Brings Out The Whiskey In Me
12. Pour Me Up Another

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