Album Review: Torres, “Torres”
by Samuel Tolzmann on March 24, 2013
Posted in: Album Review, Folk, Music, Rock
Genre: Rock, alt-country, singer-songwriter
RIYL: Cat Power, EMA, PJ Harvey, Sharon Van Etten, Sinead O’Connor, Thalia Zedek
Key Tracks: “Moon & Back,” “Honey”
Take a look at that RIYL list above: a sampling of some of the best woman solo artists in rock since the late 1980s, and some of the most miserable. I could have listed some contemporary male artists there, too (here – Elliott Smith, Okkervil River, Phosphorescent, Songs:Ohia, Will Oldham), but it’s important to note just how much newcomer Mackenzie Scott, aka Torres, is swimming up some serious stuff on this self-titled debut. Given the sounds and sentiments found here – vaguely country-inflected guitar rock; a lovely, haunted, grainy female voice that will set your neck hairs aquiver; frequently confessional narratives full of unhealthy dependency and personal abjection that crescendo to a borderline-apocalyptic scale – the potential for this album to evaporate on impact is perilously high. Sexism is engrained even or maybe especially in this corner of the alternative rock market, and the question everyone will want answered with a Record Like This, far more so than if a man were singing, is: Do I really need another?
So naturally, the immediate deterrent from Torres is that its broad stylistic range can read at times like uncannily effective pose-striking from an amateur singer-songwriter, and the women listed under “RIYL” above become unfair standards Scott could never hope to match. For example, dread-soaked, string-abetted opening invocation “Mother Earth Father God” is a dead-ringer for the indelible early Sinead O’Connor classic “Troy”, and eerie dirge “Chains,” if you want to get cynical about it, really does sound like it wandered over, a little dazed, from PJ Harvey’s brooding “experimental” moment, 1996’s Is This Desire? “Don’t Run Away, Emilie” is one very Sharon Van Etten moment on a record that, in general, sounds a hell of a lot like the work of Sharon Van Etten. This is, sad to say, how the sexist critical tradition has trained us to analyze female singer-songwriters, especially damaged ones: like sonic or thematic overlap is a fatal flaw we should not be made to suffer.
But while Torres is rife with these kinds of echoes, which tend not to flatter, it luckily has a way of forcing itself into the conversation nonetheless. Yes, it’s the raw, intensely personal work of another female rock solo artist, but that’s not grounds for dismissal. This album is, at the very least, a wildly impressive debut, and, though very good throughout, it has flashes of genuine brilliance. For one thing, it’s in the arrangements, which like those of Van Etten or Phosphorescent (who recently released the outstanding Muchacho, which also comes highly recommended from this writer) fuse traditional rock and country instrumentation with full orchestration and creative electronic augmentation, and are recorded intelligently and inventively to boot – witness the way the electric guitar in “Honey” shifts from homespun and atmospheric to stadium-sized and urgent through a simple alteration in clarity. Just when you think you’ve got Torres pegged, Scott (who financed the album herself, with help from family and friends) throws a curveball like the sinister soundscaping of “Chained” and “Waterfall,” then gives you generic whiplash by reverting to a standard rock sound on “When Winter’s Over” or modest acoustic singer-songwriter fare on “Come To Terms.” There are enchanting, funny details strewn generously throughout: the unexpected xylophone on “Don’t Run Away Emilie” is a surprise, but a welcome one, pitch-perfect and exactly what that particular ballad needs.
These divergent modes are held together by the thread of Scott’s voice. Her voice! Comparisons true and false be damned alike: her vocals transfix you like a piercing stare, and they communicate a vast unspecified history of personal suffering without resorting to theatrical tactics (e.g. vibrato, screaming). Mostly, though, the magic of Torres is in Scott’s lyrics, which are some of the most deft and sophisticated in recent rock. They’re filled with poetic details that are wisely left untampered with once introduced, rather than extended and overcooked: in “November Baby,” “your skin hangs off me like a lampshade,” and on the brutal chorus of single “Honey,” Scott moans a perfect scene-setter, “while you were ashing in your coffee,” at first elegiacally and later dripping with venom and contempt. Elsewhere, “Jealousy & I” and the lovely, suicidal closer “Waterfall” veer back and forth skillfully from anthropomorphic personification to straightforward confessional. Word for word, line for line, these are some of the best song lyrics in rock today, and the achievement is doubly commendable given such common pitfalls of the singer-songwriter genre as labored erudition and ostentatious sincerity.
When the individual lyrical, vocal, and sonic strengths of this album not only coincide, but complement one another in terms of composition and execution, the cumulative effect is singularly devastating and gorgeous. The howling climax of the viciously embittered “Honey” is one of this young year’s best musical moments so far, and “Moon & Back,” a fictional 1991 letter from a mother to the child she gave up for adoption, is as great as music in this genre can get, beginning as a somber acoustic number and becoming increasingly muscular as its absolutely heartbreaking narrative unfolds thanks to subtly propulsive drumming and stabbing bursts of electric guitar and austere strings. “Please don’t look at this like a hit and run,” Scott pleads on the refrain of “Moon & Back,” both mournful and desperate; but when Torres is over, that’s exactly how it feels – like she’s kicked in the door, shaken you by the shoulders, let loose a burning torrent of pain, and then abruptly left again. The catharsis leaves you wanting more despite the shock. Forget what else it sounds like; this is one new artist with special qualities all her own, and hopefully this isn’t the last we hear from Torres.
Torres, Torres: 1. Mother Earth, Father God 2. Honey 3. Jealousy & I 4. November Baby 5. When Winter’s Over 6. Chains 7. Moon & Back 8. Don’t Run Away, Emilie 9. Come To Terms 10. Waterfall