This marks, by my count, the ninth article I've written for this site concerning either Jay Munly, Slim Cessna or both. It's certainly no secret around these parts that I'm a tremendous fan of these guys; I've seen them half a dozen times or more, I've done a couple of interviews with them, and I've enjoyed watching their bands, musical styles, and songwriting strengths develop. Munly, who here fronts an assemblage of musical talents he calls the Lee Lewis Harlots, has dramatically expanded the scope and musical variety of his solo efforts from album to album. While his previous solo disc, Jimmy Carter Syndrome, was easily his most accomplished and musically intriguing release to that point, his new, expanded backing band seems to have driven him to an entirely new level of originality and art.
If you've had the pleasure of experiencing Munly's muse on previous albums, you'll immediately notice how much the Harlots' string section adds to Munly's alternately low-voiced-solemn and high-voiced-frenetic vocal styles. The fiddles and cello add drama to his already earthy, frequently tragic narratives, yet never slip into melodrama or self-parody. In addition, Munly seems to have brought over some of the tempo and arrangement variety that he and Slim have made a hallmark of the Auto Club's efforts. While previous Munly albums have been dominated by downtempo songs detailing gothic rural stories, this volume includes several uptempo songs. Admittedly, they are uptempo songs detailing gothic rural stories, but hey, if it ain't broke, don't fix it.
The album starts strongly, with a big, hollow, repeating guitar figure tightening like a clenched fist. Munly, in low voice, counterpoints himself on the chorus with mid-range chanting overlaid with the sort of yodeling ululation that is normally Mr. Cessna's stock-in-trade. "Big Black Bull Comes Like A Caesar" builds from a two-note acoustic riff to an insistent, string-accented affair that's all tension; it culminates in swirling instrumentation and ghostly female backing vocals, backing up Munly's red-faced ranting.
Further album highlights include, but are not limited to:
"Another Song about Jesus, A Wedding Sheet, and a Bowie Knife", the appeal of which is nicely encapsulated in its initial lyrics: "Someone needs to take / a rusty Bowie knife to you / from your groin to your chest, boy / and spill the truth / that way you might touch / your insides." Weirdly, these lyrics spill out in a quiet, melodic stream, and not the apoplectic screech you might assume.
"Song Rebecca Calls 'that birdcage song, Which Never Was Though Now Kind Of Is Because of Her Influence..." From spoken-word opening to sparsely-sung initial voice, to full-on psycho hoedown, it's a perfectly paced six minutes of weirdness.
"The Leavening of the Spit-Bread Girls" features some brilliant back-and-forth between Munly and the female harlots. The icing on the cake is the girls' "Wop-bop-a-doo-bop" bit.
"Jacob Dumb" leans hard on the violins, and the song's waltz-time rhythm provides a tasty contrast with the other cuts.
Oh, and he sings the entirety of one track in falsetto, because it's about a castrato. In a men's prison.
Munly and the Harlots have done a tremendous job of fleshing out and adding drama to Munly's core gothic country sound; the expanded instrumentation and true band dynamic do wonders to improve what was already a singular sound. The disc stands as both the apex of Munly's solo work, and an excellent entry point into the rich world of his imagination.
-- Brett McCallon