Hearts of Animals, Another Mutation
Time sometimes mellows a musician, and in a lot of instances, that can be a very, very bad thing. On Another Mutation, though, a little bit of mellowing and stepping backwards helps, allowing singer/multi-instrumentalist Mlee Marie’s clear, beautiful voice to shine through without some of the more experimental/noisy trappings of her early work cluttering things up. And once that happens, another thing immediately snaps into focus: she’s truly one hell of a songwriter.
Okay, so I knew that already, it’s true. Ever since I first saw her about a decade ago, I’ve been pretty bowled over by her live performances — in person, she’s haunting and damn near mesmerizing. What I’ve gotten to check out of her recorded output, though, was always harder to get into. It’s always felt (to me, anyway) like the music worked far better live, where the songs had the room on stage to expand out and grab some room; in recorded form, though it seemed too layered, chaotic, and, well, odd.
Now, at long last, Marie (aka Mlee Suprean) has managed to bridge the gap between the live environment and the studio, and the result is freaking brilliant. Throughout its 10 tracks, Another Mutation rides a line between gentle, jangly, slightly weird folk and hazy, sunburned, late-’60s-ish psych-rock, weaving back and forth but never completely diving off into one side or another.
On “Sea Babies,” for one, the overall sound is delicate and warm and psych-tinged, despite the murky, somewhat creepy, Cthulhian vibe you get from the lyrics, and Marie’s voice is like a cross between Sarah Jaffe’s and Joanna Newsom’s, and further on, “Ever Be” goes a similar route, all hazy and swirling but with just a hint of menace in the washes of lush noise. Closer “Go To Sleep” serves as a thematic bookend, echoing “Sea Babies” with its distant-sounding murkiness as it gently urges the listener to head off to dreamland.
Then there’s the more overtly “folk” stuff, like “Songbird,” a beautiful track that reminds me (in a good way) of Neko Case circa “Deep Red Bells,” and “Drain Me,” which is fragile and quiet, possibly the most minimalist song on Another Mutation and definitely reminiscent of a lot of contemporary indie-folk stuff. They’re both utterly beautiful and haunting, with an underlying current of loss and pain coming through in Marie’s vocals.
Actually, scratch that bit about riding a line between two styles; it’s more like a triangle, or hell, maybe even a square. Because there’s also “Laden Mind,” which comes off like a long-lost Velvet Underground track with its languidly-strummed chords and glacial, slow-drifting vocals (oh, and then the recorder and saxophone come in, and the time warp feeling is complete), and “Truth,” which is jaunty and ’60s-ish, with some excellent, somewhat eerie, carnival-esque organ parts.
And I can’t forget the straight-up pop side of Hearts of Animals’ musical spectrum, because it’s brilliant. There’s “Money For That,” a buzzing, full-throated blast of fuzz-pop like something off of Mint Records (Cub, in particular) or Kill Rock Stars back in the ’90s, all practical and self-aware and sharp-edged, with Marie shrugging and acknowledging that while she’d like things like “Kombucha, every day / Trip to the motherfuckin’ ballet”, she just plain doesn’t have the cash. “Porn from the Seventies” is friendly and cheery, with a fun blast of wah-wah guitar courtesy of Clint Heider of the Linus Pauling Quartet.
Which bears mentioning, actually, because the LP4 pretty much pops up here in its entirety across various tracks, with members Heider, Charlie Ebersbaker, Ramon Medina, Larry Liska, and Stephen Finley contributing, and Finley co-producing and engineering. Young Mammals guitarist Cley Miller steps in on a couple of songs, as well, and Marie’s cohort Joey Vee Mains handles the drums on most of the tracks.
My favorite track by far, though, has got to be “Jesus Drug” — it’s warm and sweet and propulsive, an irresistible burst of Belle and Sebastian-esque pop that barrels along in a pop-narcotic haze for too damn brief a time. It’s Britpop-sounding, in the best way imaginable (and hey, I love the little harmonica and recorder touches), and the lyrics have dug their hooks into my head with a vengeance: “‘Cause Jesus is a drug / And it’s not easy / To get along without him / It’ll make your Sundays full…”
In short, Another Mutation is great, really and truly. At first glance, it’s all over the map, but Mlee Marie holds it together somehow, blazing or meandering through each track like she knows full well where she’s going and occasionally looking back at you and beckoning with a quirky, sly smile for you to hurry up and follow her. And yeah, you definitely should.