Thursday, July 21, 2011

"Bison" -- a song by Skylar Gudasz & the Ugly Girls

A few weeks back, I posted on Facebook a link to a real nice cover of Gillian Welch's "April The 14th Part 1" on YouTube as performed by Skylar Gudasz & the Ugly Girls, a relatively young band from my neck of the woods that I've only recently come across. That clip led me to their own recently released debut recording, a seven-song disc that shows considerable promise, even if one senses their vision might not be fully formed yet.

My attention today is on one song in particular. It's called "Bison" and it's a fairly good representation of the group's artistic identity: tasteful acoustic-based arrangments which lend themselves to dramatic expression; lyrical explorations that wander adventurously rather than seeking a narrow focus; and an indelible vocal presence that's ultimately the music's primary calling-card (not only frontwoman Gudasz's highlighted lead, but also guitarist William Taylor's understated counterpoint).

This was the song that struck me most vividly when I first downloaded the record a little while back. On Tuesday, after seeing the band for the first time at the West End Wine Bar in Chapel Hill, I bought the CD, in part just to support the musicians but also because I felt the need to get a better handle on the lyrics. It was clear that Gudasz's words were an important part of her songs, but I'd been drawn in by the sound, and the lyrics are more elusive. Lines would stand out here and there, yet the stories remained mysterious.

I'm still not sure I fully understand "Bison" after having read through the lyrics, though I'm further impressed by their poetic nature, and perhaps more significantly, I'm fascinated by one very unusual detail. There is a spot in the song that one would commonly identify as the "chorus" -- Gudasz's voice soars sweetly, memorably, and this same striking passage comes around three times during the course of the song's five minutes. But here's the intriguing part: A chorus is usually a repeated melody accompanied by repeated words, yet Skylar sings a different set of words each time that melodic phrase comes around.

First it's "Lord knows I haven't dreeeamed since then / There ain't nothin' I haven't seen that I haven't seen before / That wasn't prettier the first time, prettier for sure." A couple minutes later, while the first line is repeated ("Lord knows I haven't dreeeamed since then"), it's followed by, "The shaman's wife swears it was your love that did me in / Soon they'll be pulling from the graves, those tree-wronged Indian braves." And then, a completely different address the final time around: "Its ivory slates wiped cleeean / Oak ain't just made for you to carve your heart all over into / I'm deeper than this forest, wider than Tennessee."

I've found myself somewhat torn between whether this is a sign of the artist needing a better hold on songcraft -- that perhaps she'd benefit from following standard structures a little more -- or if she's fully aware of the rules and is breaking them on purpose. It's probably the latter. Certainly she doesn't seem to lack for quality role models; the aforementioned Welch is an obvious one (underscored by her cover of a different Gillian & David number at last Tuesday's show), and I sense a bit of Laura Nyro, though I've really no idea if Gudasz is familiar with Nyro's oeuvre. Possibly Lori Carson, or Tori Amos. Not surprising that she also covered Neko Case on Tuesday.

Mostly, though, I hear Gudasz and her band finding their own space, which is what makes them worth hearing, and seeking out.

-- Peter Blackstock

You can hear "Bison" on the group's Bandcamp page, here:

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