I recently came across an intriguingly titled compilation called Soul Electric. I happened to be listening to Sue Garner's latest release, Shadyside, at the time, and was half-disappointed not to find her on the comp (which featured UK breakbeat, hip-hop and other apparently electric music). To me, Sue Garner is a complete embodiment of soul and electricity. Not soul as in the R&B diva belting her mightiest over some slick production, nor electric in the sense of mile-long wailing guitar solos Sue Garner's soul comes across through her lyrics, penned by herself and others, delivered with a delicacy that only just covers the resilience and mature sensibility that's underneath. And the electricity is delivered not only in the bluegrass-influenced riffs that appear in many of the tracks, but also in the ever-inventive ways that Garner combines instruments, both acoustic and electric. What stands out most about Shadyside is just how lovely the textures are. They're not meant to be subtle or to be unveiled slowly; whether it's drum machines and tambourines (as heard on "Old Women"), or various guitars (electric, acoustic, tenor, and baritone guitars are all featured throughout), the sounds are unusual and earthy and stand out very deliberately.
Garner is at her best when playing her own songs, and in her collaborations with poet Fay Hart, who composed the lyrics for a few of the tracks. The four Garner/Hart pieces, which fall in the strong second half of the album, stand apart from the rest of the record, with lyrics that come in short, evocative spurts, but are nearly unintelligible. Clearly inspired by Hart's work, Garner has used these poems as vehicles for some very rich sounds. She moves far, far away from country influences in the track "Beach," with a strange trip-hop-tinged vibe that relies primarily on deep bassy effects, accentuated by Garner herself on kalimba. "Tapas Bar," an unlikely but equally interesting track, displays barely-there spoken words that materialize amid slow-motion wails and electric noises. It feels like gently waking up to an unknown radio station, forgetting what day it is for a moment, and then shaking yourself out of the dark into the bright light of day. That feeling moves into the spooky abstract jazz of "Even Now," with Garner's voice echoing over heavy percussive noises. A bass clarinet, masterfully played by Doug Wieselman (Shudder to Think) accentuates several tracks, as does electric piano, played by Garner herself. Both add further warmth and texture to already intricate tracks.
No single piece represents a true Sue Garner "sound." At the same time, every track incorporates her warm and earthy twang, whether at the forefront in straightforward songs such as "Come Again" and "Paint a Design," or under surging metallic echoes in the quiet and emotional "These Old Walls," where she describes an "empty house/ filled with memories." Garner even rocks out a little on "Handful of Grapes," a somewhat grating and punchy track that, although at the chronological center of the album, is clearly not the focus.
The record is eclectic and difficult at times. Rather than being a cohesive work, it's more a collection of Sue Garner's favorite things. She's displaying her collaborations with close friends and loved ones, including husband and ex-bandmate Rick Brown, Yo La Tengo's James McNew, producer JD Foster, Sonic Youth member and Thrill Jockey favorite Jim O'Rourke, and many others. She pays tribute to overlooked folk hero Michael Hurley (covering "Paint a Design"), and rejoins former Sham bandmate Amanda Uprichards.
Throughout the record, Garner mines a wide variety of sources and sounds for inspiration, using them in her own fashion, with a little help from her friends. Her composition "It's Gonna Be," Shadyside's final track, brings the album to a smooth close with a traditional and rootsy ballad that's both simple and pointed, ultimately highlighting that's right Garner's soulfulness and warm electricity.