Poison & Snakes
n her debut album Done Gone Fire, Liz Janes threw all her influences in a pot and made a weird, messy, beautiful concoction that was called folk for lack of a better term. She never strayed far from the blues, and even at the album's noisiest moments her voice stood out amid the lo-fi mayhem. With her new release, Poison and Snakes, Janes tries to simplify; the music's less interesting, but nearly as affecting, due to the increased reliance on her voice to carry the album.
The move towards simplicity raises complicated issues. At first listen, it sounds as if Janes has regressed, having removed the avant from her work for the sake of accessibility. The aesthetic question isn't that easy, though. Janes still employs smart dynamics in unusual arrangements and song structures. This album has less attention-grabbing moments, but no fewer intricacies. While the country-punk-folk music (performed along with guests from Castanets, Soul Junk, and other groups) satisfies on its own, Janes elevates the album with her voice. Her press materials all mention her phrasing, and with good reason—she sings like a studious jazz vocalist, pausing and shifting at fitting but unexpected moments.
This unpredictable vocal style ties the mostly straightforward music to the frequently abstract lyrics. Even when Janes's lyrics appear to be transparent, they're complex, as in the opening track "Wonderkiller" when her true love possesses elements more divine than human, leading Janes to sing, "His promise is not dependent upon my belief, but on his word only". The acceptance that belief doesn't matter is itself an act of faith, even as Janes admits that this relationship is killing all of her wonder. In one verse and chorus, Janes progresses from love song to conflicted spiritual meditation. For better or worse, that's about as direct as she gets. The title track, for example, says that "without you" everything is "poison and snakes", which sounds great even if it doesn't quite work literally. That style works sometimes (yes, cf. Bob Dylan), but it also fails on occasion, when emotional strides are cut short by obtuse imagery. Janes rarely falls victim to such moments, but with her voice as such a focus, it’s an inevitable pitfall.
Despite the lyrical density, Janes's themes come across clearly, if not always rationally. Like old-time blues singers, she sounds as if there's an eternal spiritual struggle raging, even when she doesn't name it. Janes doesn't shy from religious themes, as in "Vine" and its New Testament allusions, and the spiritual intensity carries throughout Poison & Snakes, whether she's dealing with personal, relational, or eschatological concepts. No matter how simple or complex, or aggressive or restrained, the music gets, Janes always performs like there's something at stake.
That said, Poison & Snakes isn't quite a great album; there are a few directionless moments and a few lyrics that don't sit quite right. Indeed, the overwhelming feeling throughout the album’s 45 minute running time, is one of an uncomfortable child shifting around looking for a place to settle.