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Agent Ribbons - Chateau Crone

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Artist: Agent Ribbons

Album: Chateau Crone

Label: Antenna Farm

Review date: Oct. 6, 2010

Behold the fruitcake: sugar, nuts and flour, and then more sugar and candied cherries, soaked in booze. Constitutionally devised to be as overstuffed as the next Tim Burton flop. The fruitcake -- in its quest to be a gift and a delight, it ends up in a stack of painted tins on the endcap of a department store, fodder for sitcom punchlines. Yet the ingredients are so promising -- nuts and liquor and Christmas. Few can make them delicious, but they exist.

Natalie Ribbons is a fruitcake of a songwriter, cramming puzzles and extra bridges into guitar-drum-violin arrangements with her two bandmates. They probably have a long list of favorite performers, mostly drawn from $3 vinyl bins. Bits of Shirelles hits and Kurt Weill cast recordings make their presence felt, yet ultimately don’t leave a much of a stamp, because the band throws together so many styles. As metaphors are stretched long past plausibility, Natalie reaches for the booze/cake/Santa cleverness of boys like Stuart Murdoch, Lee Hazelwood and Kim Fowley. And she gets there just about all the time on Chateau Crone.

Really, these kind of songs could go off the rails at any point. They don’t. The opener defines a safe place -- a two-note garage riff that could snake along satisfactorily by simply repeating itself three times. But harmonies grow denser with each pass, the melody is recalculated, and the skeletal twang transforms into something ornate. With a band line-up that sometimes shrinks to a duo, Agent Ribbons defines open spaces, then fleshes them out with strings, the occasional horn, or percussive flourishes. One can sense that these songs were created with daydreams of expanding them in the studio.

“I’ll Let You Be My Baby” is the moment where the daydreams go too far. A slow polka guided by accordion, it slips up by using too many bowler-hat cliches of cabaret. The problem is that it’s a single reference, an obvious turn at vampish man-eating. Even more self-conscious, yet completely successful, is “I Was Born to Sing Sad Songs,” wherein the singer struggles to complete the writing of a love song, only to have the beloved dump her before she can finish. It floats through the contradictory world of mid-century pop -- Tin Pan Alley blues, variety show rock. It’s retro without being escapist. Had it flowed from the pen of one of those clever boys, they’d have gone looking for an aloof and husky-voiced gal to sing it.

And that’s how this record gathers it’s weight. Natalie has quite the husky and aloof delivery, somewhere between Peggy Lee and Daria Morgendorffer. Her singing shorts the circuit -- there is no studio Svengali shaping these performances. She’s pulling her own strings. Nor is there the typical indie rock amateurism. There’s plenty of quirks, but just as much control. When her voice cracks during the final number, it’s no accident. The crack happens on the same line each time.

The narratives on Chateau Crone aren’t personal, but the vision is. She’s as much a character as the broken-hearted girls who inhabit her lyrics. This is the work of a fruitcake. Expect a long shelf-life.

By Ben Donnelly

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