What does it sound like?:
Juanita Stein is one half of a brother/sister combination within Howling Bells, a band on an extended break to accommodate Juanita’s maternity leave and early motherhood. Rather than getting the band together again, she has decided to release a solo album. Having achieved the peak of human creativity, making another human being, this Australian lady living in London has been inspired to write songs about America, an America perceived through half remembered movies, TV programmes and magazines that were viewed as a child. When you listen, you’ll hear an enticing mixture of a romanticised American Dream, soured by bitterness, loss and the filthy reality of a seedy underbelly, “dusty trails, a whimsical Fifties suburbia and the haze of the Sixties” as she puts it. Juanita is exploring the dichotomy of what’s real and what’s a dream, in the tradition of Roy Orbison.
Her voice is wispy in the mid range and fragile in the high register. Her accent sounds English, rather than Australian. The music is Americana once-removed, a curious sounding second cousin, an elegant guitar adding the fine detail throughout. It’s the oddness that’s appealing, the feeling of looking at a landscape from a peculiar angle. Opening track, Florence, a tribute to the lady in a photograph taken by Dorothea Langue to illustrate the depression, focuses on the strength of the jaw rather than the despair in the eyes. Dark Horses does bring to mind a movie, but not the Western its script describes. It sounds like innocent, psychedelic pop. Black Winds is more adventurous, gently melodic with a pulsing rhythm. I’ll Cry is a graceful Country ballad with Patsy Cline spaces. Stargazer and Shimmering glow like gems on Sixties radio.
Then, the clouds gather, nagging away gently at first, until becoming almost all-consuming, just as Vietnam did with the American psyche. Someone Else’s Dime tells the story of life married to a gambler. It’s All Wrong, Walking After Midnight and Not Paradise are as emotional, lonely and dejected as their titles, until we are left with the weeping pedal-steel guitar of Cold Comfort and the tying up of loose ends of the title track.
Juanita has created a deeply personal, imaginative album, an outsider’s take on America. I suspect a good cohort of The Afterword will love it.
What does it all *mean*?
America joins an exclusive club of non-American acts singing about America. File somewhere between The Band and Tumbleweed Connection.
Goes well with…
A cowboy outfit. Doesn’t she look lovely on the cover?
Might suit people who like…
Dreamy, widescreen pop. Americana with a twist.