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Artist: Elyse

Album: Elyse

Label: Isota

Review date: May. 14, 2006

There’s some minor rock mythology entwined in Orange Twin’s 2001 reissue of all-but-forgotten folk singer Elyse Weinberg’s 1968 debut. In the liner notes, Andrew Rieger (founder of Elephant 6 members Elf Power) claims he bought the record for a dollar at a Missoula thrift store on the strength of its cover alone.

Berkeley’s Isota Records, which reissued the LP version, reprints Rieger's notes. They paint a familiar scene for vinyl fanatics who buy records solely based on the album’s cover art. Rieger recasts this meme in the context of the crate-digger’s dogged search for an elusive and forgotten classic, a “holy grail.”

Elyse’s cryptic cover art certainly promises as much; the line drawing might as well be a map, with overlapping contours and textures suggesting the landscapes the listener will traverse. Weinberg’s voice is the compass; like Neil Young and Joni Mitchell - her contemporaries in the Toronto folk scene of the late 1960s - she has a ragged quality that is both earthy and ethereal.

The pastoral opening strains of “Last Ditch Protocol/John Velveteen” are hoarse and subdued, as if she was trying to play second fiddle to the soft-focus plucking and treacly strings. But the tactic's a lark; the thick buzz of a string smoldering against frets signals an abrupt change in tone, as the sun-bleached intro gives way to the album’s undercurrent of resignation. The song’s uncanny effect arises not from the delivery of the accompanying lines, but from the way in which the strings and Weinberg’s voice become entirely textural, the soft resonances that began the song abruptly replaced by a hollow scrape and uneasy verse.

Elyse is at its best when this oscillation between moods obscures signification. The entropic “Iron Works” burdens itself with studio effects and found sounds until Weinberg ties herself to the mast, desperate to outlast the chaos. Likewise, the album falls short at those moments when repetition stagnates: the interminable, turgid Joplin-esque chugger “Mortuary Bound” seems tacked-on and awkward despite its obeisance to theme.

Elyse is a musical “holy grail” only in the limited sense that it synthesizes the cathartic and the surreal, a longtime Elephant 6 obsession. While the patina of neglect suits it well, it falls short of total revelation.

By Brandon Bussolini

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