I have to confess that, as soon as I began listening to Loner – the new full-length album by Caroline Rose – I realized that everything I thought I knew and expected from the singer was incorrect. My first contact with Rose was with the song “Yip Yip Yow” from an NPR live performance, and that was enough to get me looking around for other music by the singer. What I found was largely music which drew a lot of inspiration from the roots and alt-country traditions: soulful and beautiful, but with a fresh excitement which was pretty infectious. Listening to Loner, all of those things could be perceived as true – but there is also much, much more at work on Loner. It is far more complex than anything Rose and her band have attempted before.
As soon as “More of the Same” reaches out carefully to open the album, listeners will instantly be able to mark the difference between Loner and everything which preceded it. There, with an almost uncharacteristic care and discipline, Paul Butler lays down some Steven Drozd-inspired synths capable of sending a chill clean through listeners to open the song. The simplicity is unnerving – particularly when one compares it to the band’s previous output – and the difference between “More Of The Same” and all the music that preceded it gets even deeper when Rose steps to the microphone and delivers a deeper and more stern vocal melody than she has ever previously offered.
Previously, even when Rose has addressed darker subjects, her vocal has remained fairly jubilant – but her vocal performance here is so out-of-the-norm that it will have many listeners rushing to the album’s liner notes to see if the part was performed by a guest musician; the tone of it is just that far removed from what listeners expect. When they find that, no, the voice associated with “More of the Same” is indeed that of Caroline Rose, there’s no question that listeners will be baited – they’ll be eager to see what comes next.
What listeners find as the A-side of Loner progresses is a fantastic (delightful, not enormous) challenge. First, Rose boldly superimposes a whiny vocal melody which is perfectly representative of a song called “Cry” on top of a watertight New Wave composition before getting more than a little manic and snotty for “Money.” There, Rose threatens to send listeners hearts into arrest as a road-running guitar part sets the song’s tone, tenor and tempo, but it is Rose herself who overturns all that when elects to straddle the line between sweet and salty with the words, “He didn’t do it for the man/Didn’t do it for the world/Didn’t do it for the high-powered supernova/ He didn’t do it for the war/Didn’t do it for the peace/ Didn’t do it for me, didn’t do it for the law, I did it for the money” before lapsing into a stuttering and garish stomp which is jarring no matter how often one hears it. The song gets a little more manic as its rhythm figure hits listeners relentlessly too.
By the time it ends, listeners will be left reeling and dazed by “Money” but, happily, Caroline Rose shows a bit of mercy and coasts through the temperate rhythm of “Jeannie Becomes A Mom” before revelling in the domesticity of “Getting To Me” which is driven by a great, syncopated string backing. As all of that is happening though, Rose also starts to betray how subversive what she’s doing on the A-side really is. Granted, it hasn’t been perfectly overt – but the way the side ends with “Getting To Me” proves that, on Loner, the singer is intention reinventing herself beyond the folky blues with which she became previously associated. Rather, this A-side is a terrifyingly smart, witty and formidable artistic vision and that it becomes clear at the end of the side will have listeners running to flip the record over and see where the band might go next.
As soon as listeners flip Loner over and the B-side begins to play, they’ll find that they’re immediately rewarded for the effort. First, the darkness which was recessed just beneath the surface in Caroline Rose’s personality elsewhere gets pushed right to the fore for “To Die Today.” There, the singer nearly croaks out the first lyrics of the song (“Gonna feel the sound/ Gonna hear the way the light hits the ground/ Gonna know what it feels like to drown”) and throws a genuine shiver through listeners as her Telecaster slithers ominously along through the beginning of the song. Right away, listeners will want to know where the singer is going with this and what she’s doing, and that’s when they’ll realize that they took the bait and the hook is set. They’ll find that they adore the darkness of “To Die Today” in much the same way they adore those moments when Ani DiFranco and Tori Amos get dark, and for the same reason: they know the darkness doesn’t own the artist, they’re simply touching on it.
After “To Die Today,” Loner‘s B-side immediately lightens up as “Soul No. 5” begins skittering along and is then backed by the fantastic, Ween-aged weirdness which is “Smile” as well as the fluffy malice dance anthem, “Bikini.” In the latter’s case, the band discovers a perfect beach blanket bingo-informed arrangement and couples it with a vocal that just seems to drip vitriol. Here, Rose seems to be actively annoyed as she clips her phrasing through lines like “We’re gonna give you everything you’ve ever wanted/ Hang a banner with your name upon it/ Pour three shots in a glass and call it a martini/ All you’ve got to do is put on this little bikini – and dance!” The funny thing is that the song doesn’t really outline the reason for such objectification, it just spits at the possibility of it as it simultaneously gives up a pretty good and ironic dance number. It’s fun, it’s stupid and it’s angry – and if that’s all it was intended to be, it’s a raging success.
As the side begins to approach its terminus, “Talk” plays with a bit of Brechtian cabaret à la Dresden Dolls before finally winding up and closing down with the carnal pleasures of “Animal.” The sexual tension and almost macabre fascination which dominates “Animal” is absolutely palpable as both singer and band indulge in a series of near-complete stops after each stanza of every verse and only dilates for fluid play during choruses. The discipline which was required to not break the rhythm down through the verses must have been incredible – they’re so tight, meticulous and measured, there’s just no way to phrase a description; all that one can do is respect it and appreciate it. That “Animal” is the song which closes the album ensures listeners won’t be able to stop at just one play through Loner too; “Animal” leaves the gate wide open which will have listeners wanting more in the end, no matter how they can get it.
After having run front-to-back with it, no listeners will be able to deny the achievement that Loner represents for Caroline Rose: after having refined her craft through the releases of one album and a handful of singles, she has arrived, ready to take the world by storm. All the world needs now is to make sure it’s ready for Caroline Rose – Loner is the singer’s star turn. [Bill Adams]
(New West Records)