Fistful of Desert Blues, the collaboration between Lydia Lunch and guitarist Cypress Grove, features a dozen songs united by two topics: the dark side of love and escape. These broken romances explore in richly atmospheric detail the frustration of unrealized and/or thwarted desire, shattered commitment, betrayal, devastating loneliness, psychic breakdown, and violence. In her work as a musician, spoken word performer, writer, and photographer, Lunch has spent a lifetime exploring and detailing all aspects of the labyrinth of feminine desire, as well as the institutional and historical struggle to oppress it. She co-wrote all but three songs here. Her prowess of description, formidable provocation, and unsentimental emotional honesty, renders this material poetically --sometimes uncomfortably--resonant. Illustrating her lyrics are Grove's guitars -- acoustic and electric. They rely on prewar and Chicago blues for their inspiration yet use the American West for articulation, supplemented by colorful basslines, keyboards, and rhythms. The spoken word opener "Sandpit" contains near cinematic sonic textures and atmospheric tensions. Steel- and nylon-string guitars (the latter by Mick Cozens) engage in sparse interplay entwining American blues and Spanish folk music, as Lunch confesses restlessness and the need for escape -- even from one's own shadow. Her words are luxuriant, poignant in their dark beauty; her delivery sounds hunted, simultaneously desperate and accepting of her protagonist's fate. "Devil Winds" underscores those themes inside a tragic narrative above Grove's slide guitar and sparse, ghostly keyboards. "Beautiful Liar" -- with a hypnotic guitar line reminiscent of "The Ballad of Hollis Brown" -- reveals the extreme consequences of romantic betrayal. Cozens' mandolin paints her lines before Grove adds tom-toms and bass drum sounds for dramatic effect. Their brooding vocal duet on the foreboding Americana blues "I'll Be Damned" is genuinely moving, a set highlight. Gallon Drunk's James Johnston plays additional guitar on "Jericho," a rumbling, Bo Diddley-esque number he and Lunch composed. Jeffrey Lee Pierce's "St. Mark's Place" is a fitting tribute to the late songwriter. In Lunch's grainy delivery, it's a reverse portrait of a stalker's perversity. Her layered vocals capture the subject's wanton desperation and hopeless, dreadful, dangerous, anticipation. "The Summer of My Disconnect" is a spooky, spidery rocker that explodes with Grove's most dissonant guitar work that ratchets the tension of Lunch's vocal. Van Morrison's "T.B. Sheets" is the closer. Rather than the songwriter's expression of shame for his protagonist's cowardice when faced with his lover's disease, Lunch inverts the song's meaning by the power of nuance. In her reading, panicked departure is predicated not by the fear of sickness, but of being confined and the lack of control: This is escape at any cost, even from love. Walter Daniels' moaning harmonica and saxophone and Grove's stinging blues frame her vocal in a near suffocating mix. Fistful of Desert Blues is fine and terrible beauty; a watermark of quality for both artists.
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AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek