Karen Elson

The Ghost Who Walks

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Though The Ghost Who Walks is Karen Elson's debut album, she isn’t exactly a musical newcomer -- even if it might seem that way to those who know her as the model who married the White Stripes' Jack White. With previous projects ranging from the political cabaret of the Citizens’ Band to the garage punk tantrums of Mildred and the Mice, Elson has her share of musical experience, but with such wide-ranging credits, it was anyone’s guess what her own album would sound like. On The Ghost Who Walks, she runs the gamut from chilly murder ballads with British roots to Nashville twang, giving old-timey folk and modern rock the same intensity and singing of shipwrecks, stolen lovers, and storms with a beguiling mournfulness. Her voice’s dark dreaminess carries the album, especially on more stripped-down tracks like the acoustic late-summer lament “Lunasa” and the ghostly shanty “Stolen Roses.” Though the album is Elson's showcase, White produced it, and his touches are everywhere. “The Truth Is in the Dirt”’s earthy, apocalyptic feel gets added heft from sudden dynamic shifts and spooky organ and pedal steel that recall his work with the Dead Weather -- and indeed, White's bandmate Jack Lawrence plays here as well, underscoring the repertory company vibe of projects White is associated with. His fondness for theatricality and Elson's cabaret roots combine on “100 Years from Now,” a lovelorn song that starts off sounding like it’s being played on a wax cylinder, then blooms into a sweeping waltz complete with theremin, and on the dust bowl ballad “Mouths to Feed.” Yet many of the album’s most striking moments are decidedly modern-sounding: “The Ghost Who Walks” -- which gets its name from one of the epithets Elson was called in school because she was so pale -- updates the murder ballad tradition with electric pianos that rain unearthly beauty onto the song; “A Thief at My Door” ebbs and flows, dipping into darker rock territory; and “The Last Laugh”'s gentle country-pop sounds like it could have come off a long-lost Dolly Parton album from the ‘70s. While The Ghost Who Walks occasionally feels a little long and scattered, it’s still a beautifully made album that earns Elson a place among moody songstresses such as Neko Case, Amanda Palmer, Hope Sandoval, and Paula Frazer.

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