Painful lullabies

The girl’s mother is at the sink, washing the dishes — not scrubbing, mind you — because she is elsewhere, in another country, another house, another time. She’s young and beautiful; the veins in her hands have blended into the smooth paleness of a teenage girl’s skin. She’s running in her dream, carefree and giggling, as she stands aching and sponging in her kitchen prison, meekly singing to herself, “When I was a girl, I dreamt of dancing/I dreamt of many things for I believed/The world was grand/With many precious things/I knew such precious things/It was my world.”

Upstairs, her daughter is in the bathtub. She’s been in there for an hour, the phone on the floor, disconnected from her boyfriend, now her ex-boyfriend, the one she truly loved, or at least the one she thought she truly loved. And sadly, with tears welling in her eyes, she sings, “When you ain’t got no one/You act like something’s amputated/When you ain’t got no one/It feels so very strange/Outside you are strong/Inside you are dying.”

Either of these women could be lip-synching the tragic lyrics to The Gentle Waves’ sophomore effort, Swansong For You. The Gentle Waves is the solo project of the feminine tinge to Belle and Sebastian, Isobel Campbell. The album’s junkyard of bells, chimes, vibraphones, violins, flutes, clarinets, harpsichords and guitars dances majestically with the elusive wispiness of Campbell. Her voice catches you off guard, as if you were tiptoeing through your grandparents’ attic until a misplaced hand or footstep upsets some stack of torpid junk, creating a domino effect of creaking and crashing. Then, it is silent, and you can see the dust swirling through the sunlight that pierces through the cracks in the ceiling. Suddenly, though you thought the catastrophe averted, a needle plunks down onto a concealed phonograph, which promptly warbles out through its ancient cumbersome horn the sweeping, beautiful cries of some unknown, long-dead diva.

Each song is subtly different. While “Solace For Pain” retains a twangy, country-western feel, “Partner in Crime” is a tender, marchlike ballad and “Sister Woman” departs for surfer-pop territory. The few songs that opt for slower, lullaby rhythms seem flat and weigh down the consistency of the entire album, making listening to Swansong For You in its entirety a chore of petulant fast-forwarding. However, listening to Swansong For You on a pair of headphones while sitting on a park bench will ultimately give the passing characters a surreal, haunting, poetic quality. For that alone, it is not simply a worthwhile album, but an essential one.

Joshua Gross writes about music for the Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].

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