Anniversary by Sinister Luck Ensemble (Review)

When taken as a whole, Anniversarybecomes a pretty staggering experience.
Anniversary - Sinister Luck Ensemble

Anniversary opens with the title track, which starts off as a lonesome jazz number that fades out before a minute’s up. It’s a plaintive sigh, and as the final note holds on like a dying breath, you get a sense that this is going to be one heavy album. The titular Anniversary isn’t the joyful celebration of wedded bliss. Rather, the album is a poignant vision of a jilted lover looking through old photos and home movies while wondering just where it went all wrong, and if they’ll ever call again.

That this mood of reflection and melancholy is achieved with no lyrics or vocals is but one example of how skillfully these songs are wrought. Make no mistake, the vocals of John Grant, Mark Eitzel, or any other world weary romantic would find themselves quite at home here. However, the Sinister Luck Ensemble’s voice sings through Rob Mazurek’s plaintive cornet (“Cakewalk”) the lonely sigh of Charles Kim’s pedal steel (“Deep Ellum”), and they’re far more lyrical than any human voice could hope to be.

It should come as no surprise that Kim is the one who assembled this band (which also includes players from Wilco, Isotope 217, Central Falls, and Vandermark 5). After all, Kim’s written plenty of sad, atmospheric music through projects like Pinetop Seven and the Boxhead Ensemble. It could be pointed that many of these tracks do sound an awful lot like Pinetop Seven recordings, using many similar textures and styles. But is that really such a bad thing? Not in my book.

Regardless of how familiar some of these sounds may be if you’re aware of Kim’s other projects, that doesn’t diminish their beauty one bit. Anniversary is remarkable consistent on this front, with each song delivering it’s one emotional impact. Such that, when taken as a whole, Anniversary becomes a pretty staggering experience.

“The Black Pool” could easily stand up to Yann Tiersen’s work on the Amélie soundtrack. That is, if Jeunet’s little pixie had found herself traipsing through a ruined Paris shortly after the Occupation. There’s a tangible sense of Parisian loss, as if the Champs-Elysses is hung with grey flags on a grey December day and nothing but ruined circus themes can be heard in the city’s bistros and clubs. “Cakewalk” brings a vaguely western motif to the album, but with horns, delicate chimes, and rambling percussion rather than the instrumentation you’d expect (steel guitars, dobros, etc).

Compared to the tightly focused sense of emotion that permeates the rest of Anniversary, “Sinister Luck” is the odd track out. Tightly quivering strings and rumbling percussion hint at something very dark just lying below the album’s surface, and adds an oddly, menacing quality to the album.

“Spit In the Well“ s dusty violin and stumbling percussion echo some old drinking ballad waiting for Paula Frazer’s voice to chime in with the age-old story of a woman whose man done her wrong. Kim’s splendid steel guitarwork floats through “Reservation Dream” alongside Mazurek’s hornwork like half-formed memories. “Deep Ellum” takes everything good about early Friends Of Dean Martinez and rolls it into one song, crafting a perfect desert-soaked piece of wanderlust for those contemplative times out on the highway.

The album’s bluer-than-blue mood culminates in “What Holds Them Above,” which finds the weeping violin and pedal steel delicately intertwined and touching on emotions in ways you never thought possible. In a word, perfect, right down to the final notes, which suggest that there might be some sort of closure amidst it all. All in all, a wonderful album that provides a very complete and tangible listening experience. There’s not much more you could ask for.