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Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2006 09:31 am

A vagabond's scrapbook

Amy Annelle and the Places sing of escape

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The PlacesSongs for Creeps(High Plains Sigh)

Amy Annelle, the singer, songwriter, and sole permanent member of the Places, traffics in narcotic dream-folk cut with aleatoric noise. Sometimes alone, sometimes accompanied by a revolving cast of musicians, she makes music both sordid and soothing, deadpan parables and sour lullabies inspired by the haunted places that she passes through between tour stops, forgotten cities peopled by softening blondes, blue-eyed saviors, sore losers, saps, and liars. The band name might be somewhat drab, but it’s apt: The Places flit from place to place until all the landmarks disappear, until regional distinctions give way to a charged interiority. Wherever it is, the place these songs reside, it’s always already elsewhere.

On Songs for Creeps, the Places’ fourth album, Annelle sings about buried miners and speed-freak angels, lonely flophouses and unmarked graves. More varied, if perhaps less cohesive, than 2004’s Call It Sleep, Creeps compiles rinky-dink four-track home recordings and busier, more polished efforts that came out of sessions recorded at the Wonder Chamber, in Austin, Texas, where she worked with producer/collaborator Brian Beattie, and at John Vanderslice’s Tiny Telephone studio, in San Francisco. You can hear the distance and time, the errant, aimless happenstance of it all, each track a collage of blurry snapshots, a vagabond’s scrapbook. A passing airplane drifts into one song; muted laughter prefaces another. The songs are more about the spaces between than about the places themselves. Where are they going, and where have they been? How can you escape something that’s part of you?

Well, mostly you can’t. “The poison wells inside you, the poison well’s inside,” Annelle lilts in the opening track, “Miner’s Lie!” a dissonant dirge in which her voice, normally a diffident murmur, swoops and dips past the margins of her register while a detuned guitar throbs in the foreground like a rotten tooth. “The Lion’s Share,” a plangent country-blues ballad consisting only of Annelle’s voice and a Dobro, takes the predator’s point of view. She delivers her threats lazily, with an offhand sensuality: “Caught you with one paw, tore you open with one claw/ And your blood came out in waves till it was drained.” If relationships aren’t violent, they’re still probably doomed. In the scratchy telephone confessional “The Damn Insane Asylum,” she conflates a bad date with the inaccessible ruins of an old mental institution; in the lovely, lap-steel-embellished “Gold to Green,” she uses the changing of the seasons as a metaphor for a dying love affair.

From the deconstructed Bo Diddley-isms of “The Natural Arc” to the frayed folk of “I’m A-Gone Down to the Green Fields,” most of these songs are about escape, be it through sex, drugs, sleep, or death. It’s a bit jarring, in fact, that the album ends on a relatively hopeful note. “Such as the Earth (Neveroff’s Fate),” the second-to-last track, is based on a Tolstoy novel; lines such as “He was a man made out of glass/And clear I see into him” glisten with a hallucinatory sweetness befitting the great humanist. The closing cut, “Worse & Wise,” is as close to an actual love song as Annelle is likely to get. Warbling like a slacker Joni Mitchell against a dainty finger-picked guitar, she recounts a conversation with a kindly prophet: “Darling, you are here for a reason,” he tells her, “Your only hope now is love.” There’s a strange drone surging through the song, a murky pulse that darkens but doesn’t disrupt the pretty surface. Whatever it is, it’s something she can’t shake off, something she must have brought along with her.

Contact René Spencer Saller at rssaller@core.com.

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