Loene Carmen’s Peach State… again!

The eagle eyed amongst you will certainly notice that we have reviewed Australian Songstress Loene Carmen’s newest release, The Peach State, already, but Lloyd Bradford Syke has something he’d like to add:

This review comes very late. The time is long past ripe. God only knows how long The Peach State has been around now. Well, actually, I know. It was released 13.11.12, so it’s been ’round a good five months. I owe Loene a big apology. Mind you, for an indie artist, you can never have too many relaunches, as chances are a swag of people didn’t latch onto your product the first time ’round. That’s my excuse. My story. And I’m sticking to it.

Speaking of sticking, and stuck, the first time I saw or heard of Loene Carmen was in John Duigan’s The Year My Voice Broke. The film might’ve primarily and deservedly launched Noah Taylor’s career but Loene had just as much right to the adoration of the camera: she was seventeen and she already had that special something; charisma, allure, or call it what you will. (Of course, with Ben Mendelsohn there as well, there was a lot of luminosity.) I’ve been stuck on her ever since.

In the intervening years, Carmen has done many things. She’s starred in numerous interesting feature an television films (The Nostradamus Kid; Tom White; Red Dog; Blue Murder). She’s guested on Rockwiz. Been at the centre of a Parallel Universe of her own invention, on the interweb. Painted many pictures. Travelled through (and recorded in) the US.

She’s given birth to children, with interesting names. Three from her womb. And many more by way of her songwriting and performing talents. The latest among these comprise an EP entitled The Peach State, which opens with a track so-named.

With her five-dollar Stella parlour guitar (that’s a lie, it actually cost $4.94, at a Goodwill store on the highway, as Lo tells it, almost suffocated by toasters and chairs), she effects a languid pose, one entirely relative to the relentless heatwave she experienced in the deep south where, earlier in the year, she wrote these direct and intimate tunes. Then, her babies in tow, she made her way, in a Ford Mercury rental, to East Nashville, where producer Ferg awaited. Ferg, as he’s affectionately nicknamed, is David Ferguson, John Prine’s partner in the Butcher Shoppe studio. Chances are you know Ferg, even if you don’t realise it: he was the man standing behind Johnny Cash for the renowned ‘American’ recordings.

This heat is relentless,
The air is so scentless,
I never felt like I meant less,
Than some time ago.

The opening line of the title track is a smoke signal, flagging Carmen’s talent for evocations of place; both geographical and emotional. She may be worn down, even oppressed, by the heavy, heady, humid atmosphere, but even in her vulnerability, there’s a strength and gathering resolve. It’s merely implied, but it’s definitely there. The spareness of the sound has an authenticity, sincerity and purity of purpose that harks back to the likes of Woody Guthrie. This is folk music. Or country, real country, before that moniker meant chart-topping pseudo-rock that’s had the soul sucked out of it, so it’s but a desiccated skeleton. Carmen is the mistress of evocation. Perhaps it’s her sense of the cinematic that enables her to suggest pictures worth a thousand, from precious few words. And make each and every album a discrete episode in her musical life, with its own distinct atmosphere.

But now I’m in ‘the peach state’,
And boy, this ain’t our first date,
But don’t worry darlin’,
I ain’t got no complaints.

Again, in the space of just a few phrases, Carmen encapsulates the head-on, mind-fucking frustration of the long-term relationship: the involuntary tug of love; the ongoing quest for freedom and individuation; the grass-is-always-greener daydreams and wet dreams; the longing; the loyalty; the inevitable restlessness, itching and twitching. No wonder the air is so scentless: this is a dry spell; despite the damp, dank, clammy climatic condition, there’s an airlessness that’s reflected in Lo’s breathy vocal.

But even in that cloying circumstance, there’s still the great outdoors; the unknowns and uncertainties that inhabit it. There are faceless men, if you will; lonely and hungry. Even in the confines of a small town, there can be unbridgeable distances between people. Sometimes, it’s better that way. Sometimes, not. Usually, both. Again, LC, numb with waiting, gets this, knows it and expresses it as succinctly and evocatively as ever.

I’m vast and nameless,
I’m soft and painless,
I’m fighting off strangers
I’m waiting home, for your kiss.

But while she faithfully waits, stubbled, toothless men breathe baccy and beer down her neck, making their clumsily veiled, fruitless passes.

‘It’s hot, ain’t it?
Highway sign there, to state it.
Ah this raunchy humidity’;
This is what he said to thee,
With a smile and a wink.

And she notes the street wisdom of ring with the flow; as always, with a wry twist of lemon, to complement her chinks of ice. Even in this oppressive, heavy heat, the girl can be cool as a cucumber.

When you’re in the peach state,
It ain’t worth the debate,
Keep your head down and act straight,
Don’t let on, you think it’s wrong,
What they’re on.

Who Told You Butter Was Evil? is proof positive of Lo’s tongue-in-cheekiness. It’s a poke in the eye with a blunt stick to wowsers everywhere. But underneath the humour and homage to reckless, high-fat hedonism is a more important message.

The things that you hear when you’re young, son
They stick in you harder than truth.

In a single line she takes a rather sharper stick straight to the heart, puncturing that wellspring form which pours all our most primitive and potent emotions. In a flood of sensory awareness, we bring to mind, albiet in an unintelligible barrage, every fundamental lie we’ve ever been told as an innocent babe in the woods, like so many fairytales turned suddenly Grimm. This is her surreptitious literary genius: hook us with a joke; reel us in with a poignant yoke. It’a a moment in which my admiration for her songwriting swells to bursting.

Who told you butter was evil,
It’s time you heard them with some doubt.

Growing up can take quite some time. We have to look ourselves squarely in the mirror and ask ourselves when we’ll stop believing butter will fill up our veins, or make our heart explode. It’s hoarding such chestnuts that makes our heart explode. I’m fresh (or wrung out, more accurately) from viewing Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence In The House Of God, Alex Gibney’s doco of last year, zeroing in on the first (known) protest against clerical sex abuse in the US by four deaf men but discussing, more widely the depth and breadth of the church’s culpability, reaching all the way to the top. I can’t help, now, but associate Carmen’s allusions to big lies told to little children and their ability to form stubborn emotional plaque. With characteristic grace and eloquence, LC reaches the parts other songwriters can’t touch.

Lonesome Beauty has the same direct honesty: in the singing, playing and writing, but is huskier, smokier, darker, more guttural. We probably all recognise the subject. Sometimes, any company is good company. Sometimes, no company is good company. Sometimes, both are true. At once. Confounding, ain’t it? It could be self-talk, but the second verse reveals it as a judicious, gentle ‘thanks, but no thanks’, given in full knowledge, understanding and appreciation of the bereft other. Sometimes, fatal attraction can be averted, saving the lives of both. Carmen almost sounds like she’s been up all night crying, or at least up all night; her timing wavers and her playing is imperfect, but it’s this, which may well be deliberate that lends the song such desperate poignancy. (She is an actor, after all. Then again, this might be a revealing, deeply personal document.)

Lonesome beauty, howling at the moon,
Hopin’ someone else is singing your tune.
Any old arms will do on a night like tonight;
You always get this way when the moon is shining bright.

Lonesome beauty, I’m not the one for you,
Because my darling, I would only make you blue.
You need someone who will take good care of you,
Yes, I could kiss you, but I’m not the one for you.

I Must Be Seein’ Things has all the trappings of a really good country ballad. (It even features guitar, played deviously, to sound for all the world like a banjo.) But it still has that irresistibly engaging, subversive, indie sound, with Loene’s unmistakable vamp stamp; this time with an achy-breaky, heavy heart, at the mercy of a troubled mind, trying to cling to denial. Again, it’s all about the lyrics; the style; the delivery. Half Lo’s tale is in the telling. And even as we’re about to burst into tears of recognition self-pity or, God forbid, empathy, her irrepressible mischievous streak can’t resist a wry twist of a knife, at the end of the second stanza. Whatever you think of her as a performer (and, for me, that’s a shedload), you have to admire her as a craftswoman: Loene Carmen is a great country songwriter; I put her on the same pedestal as kris Kristofferson, Tom T., or Merle Haggard.

I must be seein’ things: I thought I saw you sit too close to her.
Since I put on your ring, every thing seems to be a blur.
Maybe I’m flying high, on this love you’ve given me,
But that sure looked like your hand in hers, but I know that’s insanity.

I know you love me true, and you’d never play around.
That’s why I must be seein’ things; better keep my feet closer to the ground.
My eyes are just plain’ tricks on me: that just couldn’t be her lips on yours.
She better just be kissin’ you goodnight, or darlin’, that’d be grounds for divorce.

Black Tambourine is fatalistic, on the one hand. Aftre all, who is so loved that at least the occasional doubt doesn’t slip through the shabbily-mended tears in one’s ever-fragile self-belief, to ponder whether anyone will mourn one’s imminent and inevitable passing? After the lightning bolt that strikes you down, will a tear be shed? Again, perversely, in the very midst of tragedy, having painted us this bleak picture and sweet-talked us into buying and believing it, Lo waggishly toys with us, pointing to her died pretty corpse, eliciting a snigger even while our heart bleeds. To paraphrase Muriel’s Wedding, ‘you’re terrible, Loene!’

We all know, we ain’t got long to go,
It goes down fast and it comes up slow.
Blame everyone you know,
What’s that comin’ down?
What’s that comin’ down?

There’s just one thing that I wonder:
Will it all crash down like thunder,
And who will shake my black tambourine?

I’ll be dressed in pink, to match that unholy tint, across my cheek,
And lookin’ down, you would think I’d speak.
What’s that rollin’ down?
What’s that rollin’ down?

And, on the other hand, suggestive as, at first glance, she seems, possibly, to subvert the verse. Is she talking of heavenly ascension for eternity, or a mere day or night of intense pleasuring? A second listen confirms the grappling with fear, anger and the unwelcome, capricious inconvenience death tends to impose of its victim, to say nothing of survivors.

And who will shake my black tambourine,
When the morning comes?
You know I’ve had my fun.
And it won’t hurt a bit, when you’re in the thick of it,
And everything’s white as snow.
Blame everyone you know.

I don’t know of a specifically black tambourine being a customary feature of, say, a New Orleans funeral procession, but perhaps this is an inspiration: it’s certainly credible and sounds likely. It’s also just possible Lo’s making reference to Hart Crane’s eponymous poem, which tells of a black man’s fruitless struggle for recognition and equality; his aspirations thwarted by his untimely end (‘a carcass quick with flies’).

The fifth and final cut from what I consider to be a seminal EP is Doorways. It’s the right note to end on. A ‘parting-is-such-sweet-sorrow’ farewell, with an aqueous aesthetic, ever so simply evoked, by way of an electric guitar and some echo.

Sing your songs of the ocean;
Tell your stories of the sea.
Just remember, when you get there,
You gotta come back for me.

I’ll be back, Loene. Rest assured. For more songs, just like this. Once more, though, she can’t help but throw an ironic spanner in her own works.

Ain’t nothin’ gonna change ’round here, ‘cept the weather.
And my dress.

Right on, Lo. Don’t go changin’ anything, ‘cept your dress.

Review by Lloyd Bradford Syke. For more reviews like this, follow us on Facebook.