The Upshot: With its classic overtones of Nyro, Mitchell, Mann and Van Etten, the Tarheel musician turns in one of the most engaging and unique debuts (produced by Chris Stamey, no less) in recent memory.
BY FRED MILLS
Durham, NC, songwriter/chanteuse Skylar Gudasz has been characterized on more than one occasion as the proverbial “best kept secret” Triangle-based artist—most recently by longtime BLURT pal and confidante David Menconi, who recently profiled her in the Raleigh News & Observer but concluded, sagely, “She’s not going to stay the Triangle’s secret for much longer.”
That is eminently clear on her long-playing debut, released recently by Daniel 13 (via the music arm of the eclectic multi-media books/film/art house established a few years ago by erstwhile R.E.M. manager Jefferson Holt). While sharp-eyed readers may already recognize the Virginia native’s name from her involvement with a host of N.C.-centric projects – among them, the Old Ceremony and Chris Stamey’s Big Star Third live explorations – as well as a well-received 7” single from last year (“Car Song” b/w a cover of Big Star’s “Dream Lover”), no one was adequately prepared for the sheer emotional depth traversed on Oleander. It’s co-produced by Chris Stamey and features a who’s-who of NC talent, including Stamey, Mitch Easter, Brett Harris, Robb Ladd, Megafaun’s Brad Cook, and Old Ceremony’s Django Haskins and Jeff Crawford (also guesting: Teenage Fanclub’s Norman Blake).
Although her singing style and confessional lyricism bring to mind such classicists as Laura Nyro and Joni Mitchell plus contemporaries Sharon Van Etten and (to a degree) Aimee Mann, she nevertheless stakes out territory that’s uniquely her own.
That much gets established right from the get-go when she makes the risky move of opening Oleander with the symphonic, piano-powered “Kick Out the Chair,” not so much a mash note to suicide as a cautionary paean to agnosticism (“who am I to say who’s to go, who’s to stay?”), framed amid orchestral strings, horns and percussion. This could’ve been a recipe for losing the listener right off, unless he or she were a die-hard Brian Wilson fan; but to Gudasz’ credit, her winnowing voice intrigues just enough to compel you to hang in, hold your breath, and see what comes next.
Which is the strummy, sunny “Just Friends,” with its gorgeous guitar licks, clarinet flourishes, and vocal overtones of Mitchell; followed in quick succession by the pedal steel-powered Americana lilt of “I’ll Be Your Man,” the brash, twang/fuzz garage-rocking breakup song “I’m So Happy I Could Die”; and the stark ballad “I Want to Be with You in the Darkness.” (The latter track channels the aforementioned Nyro with such effortless aplomb that it can’t possibly be intentional; Gudasz has simply absorbed several generations’ worth of sonic iconography and lets it out, instinctually, at just the right moments.)
Late in the album Gudasz slips into a trans-Atlantic reverie called “3000 Miles.” Amid an arrangement that slips easily between orchestration and more straightforward pop-rock (that’s surely a Stamey guitar lick or two in there), Gudasz ruminates upon what could have been (“I have laid too long beside you to be fighting the blues like I do”) and what actually is (“I ain’t scared and I ain’t gonna be sad”), ultimately staking a claim for what shall be (“I got a wandering eye and wandering’s what settles my mind”). It’s a remarkable moment, both confessional and brazenly manifesto-like, and it also serves as a musical metaphor for the album as a whole. An oleander, after all, is not the kind of plant—ornamental, naturally occurring, or otherwise—you want to approach with anything but clear-eyed caution. This Gudasz gal, she’s not to be taken lightly.
DOWNLOAD: “Kick Out the Chair,” “Car Song,” “I’m So Happy I Could Die,” “3000 Miles”