Last updated on November 20, 2020
You had me at gothic folk, Charming Disaster. Ellia Bisker (vocals, ukulele, piano, music box, glass jars, percussion) and Jeff Morris (vocals, guitar, piano, ratchet set, canned air, percussion) honor the legacy of artists like The Decemberists and their iconic 2009 effort The Hazards of Love with Spells + Rituals.
This saga is complete in eleven songs. Haunting, nuanced entrances are key to suspending disbelief. Bisker’s vocals are enchanting, luring listeners into an eerie place. Her vocals intertwine with Morris on the lead single “Blacksnake,” where the tale begins. Starting with imagery of the temptress should tell listeners where this is going, but the fun is in the journey. It’s a testament to love, an all-consuming power transfixing us; melodic and hypnotic, against all reason, these lovers chase the dream.
Don Godwin (bass, drums, horns, backing vocals, percussion), Heather Cole (violin) and Jessie Kilguss (harmonium, recorded at Charlie Nieland Productions) create an out-of-this-century trip to somewhere else. Don Goodwin co-produced the record with Charming Disaster and mixed the record; Randy LeRoy mastered the record at Tonal Park in Takoma Park, Maryland. Illustrations from Magda Boreysza and graphic design from Jeff Morris add to the tone of this release beautifully.
Much of the album needs the body of work to be fully appreciated, as most songs do not stand alone. Yet “Wishing Well” can stand alone: Morris takes the vocal lead and contributes a lighter musical tone to the yellow brick road where these characters find themselves. Cluttered with heaviness and confusion from the bass line, brighter lyrics contrast brilliantly, lightening the mood. Hitting on themes like ambition and fame, the duo shows that whistling a happy tune does not help put sunshine back in the devastated landscape.
The tango “Devil May Care” shows why these two musicians found each other, as masterful pizzicato violin work surrounds harmonies. Perfection slides into angst, crafting a caustic cavalcade of not-so-thinly-veiled metaphor in “Blue Bottle Blues.” This is one of the most impactful tracks of the album: speakeasy smooth, this is a calling out of all the ills of society.
Fans of rock opera as a genre know that the best way to fully immerse in the story is to listen front to back, and the steampunk “Heart of Brass” marks the turning point where the gears shift into place and the engine of the album starts to hum. “Bride of Frankenstein” plods towards a cool monster mash, putting Nick Cave firmly in the vibe. To touch on each cut here will spoil the magic of discovery, and there’s still a lot to discover for those who are intrigued.
The album shines as a masterclass of musicality. Each note fully breathes in its absinthe, intoxicating the listener. Charming Disaster has crafted a gothic folk opera that is definitely going to find its audience in Spells + Rituals. Usually the strange and unusual takes time to find its home, but I am sure glad you found me, Charming Disaster. —Lisa Whealy