The beauty of great music – I mean truly great and timeless music – is that while listeners will feel as though they can easily pick out aspects of what they’re hearing and place it among other excellent or classic works, they’ll also breathlessly enthuse about how original that album is too. Listening to Blood Lemon’s self-titled debut album is just exactly like that; from note one, listeners will be able to hear echoes of the lonesome and cold voices which ignited Cowboy Junkies in their mid-Nineties glory days, but call out the names of Carole Pope, Corin Tucker and Kaki King at the exact same time and do it just clearly enough that one cannot mention one without citing the others as well.
Some readers and critics will call that confusing, and that’s just where Blood Lemon begins.
“Bruise” opens the A-side of Blood Lemon with tightly contained guitars and vocal delivery from Lisa Simpson which recalls the immediacy of Ann Wilson’s effortless power in the Seventies – but the real secret weapon is Melanie Radford’s thick and round low end which appears less than a minute after the song begins, but registers as bringing some fantastic sensuality with it as soon as it arrives. That bass tone is the hip angle that every woman can make even the most stoic man weak in the knees; it is one hundred percent passion, potential and, here, it instantly commands attention. Simpson is well aware of that fact too – as she attaches lines about swallowing the lightning and demanding accountability before dismissively telling listeners, “Your love is like a bruise” and sighing off frustration as a wordless hook.
“Bruise” is the kind of song that some bands try to write for their entire careers but never quite achieve. It’s for that reason the band will have listeners’ undivided attention for every turn they make through this album.
After “Bruise” drags listeners along and leaves them only able to ask meekly for more, Blood Lemon immediately shifts gears for “Whistleblower” but, rather than having listeners scrambling to find the feel for it, “Whistleblower” gets even easier to find with a recognizably “Sleater Kinney” slant. The play is easy and won’t challenge anyone who has been in an indie rock headspace for a while, but the lush low end will still hold listeners dearly into the cooler, more Cowboy Junkies-informed terrain that “Cut” treads onto. Many listeners will see this direction and relish in it, but others will be happy to see that kind of twilight fade and a more guitar-driven power come into focus with “Burned” – the side’s closing cut. Those listeners may see the movement of the A-side’s close as something of a reset; with brighter sounds and lyrics characterizing the cut, the dominant sensation seems like a brand new day.
The joy of a brand new day is quashed completely, however, as soon as side-closer “The Stone Castle” loads in. There, all hope evaporates as a far darker overtone colors the guitars and drums which power the song, and the instrumental which asserts itself upholds a bleak and hopeless expression from which there is no reprieve. As “The Stone Caste” winds to a close, some mild, atonal feedback makes it easy to hope that the needle will lift from the side soon.
Happily, the B-side of Blood Lemon opens on a better note than the A-side closed. As soon as the needle drops, the first thing listeners hear is a speedy and nasal bass figure reminiscent of some of the greats in punk history (particularly Mike Watt or Karl Alvarez), but that is not the centrepiece of the song. No, the image that Simpson radiates through “Master Manipulator” – that of a headstrong and self-confident “Double standard walking” individual – is the thing that will hypnotize listeners; as was true on the A-side of the album as well, Blood Lemon proves to be at their best when they’re feeling self-assured and self-confident, and that’s what makes this song really shine. The stomp and swagger through the song is a noxious, raucous thing of beauty, and is put into relief immediately as both “Black Capped Cry” and “One More Time” backslide into greyer, moodier climes again with a fraction of the same positive result. Some listeners may find such a move incredibly frustrating, but “Leave The Gaslight On” manages to find a balance between “moody” and “energetic” which closes out the side in a satisfying way. Granted, it isn’t perfect – the guitar which powers the song feels a little stiff and rigid – but at least it features some bright sparks of energy which will keep listeners engaged until the needle lifts.
So what is Blood Lemon’s debut album in the grand scheme of things? Well, without intending to sound coy, Blood Lemon presents as the archetype of a debut album:there are some really strong songs and some absolutely great performances, but it is not without some flaws too. There are a couple of cuts which could be better and, by including those songs alongside the great ones which are here, the band basically leaves a road map for listeners to get excited by. Very simply, listeners will be able to hear what works, but they’ll also hear what they’re intended to hope will improve on future releases. Such focus is rare – and that it’s presented so clearly on Blood Lemon is really, really exciting. [Bill Adams]
Blood Lemon is out now. Buy it here on Amazon.