I have to admit that I approached Ambrosia Parsley, lead singer of the
band Shivaree, with a little prejudice. I've never been a big fan of
salad with marshmallows in it, or of people with culinary stage names.
But it turns out Ambrosia is her given name. And she's a lot more solid
than she is fluffy. With her velvety smooth voice, she sings about dying
romances and empty cocktail glasses with an air of mystery and
Shivaree's new release, Who's Got Trouble, is a collection of boozy
torch songs for the rock audience. Especially the rock audience with an
affinity for lounge. I know they're out there. In New York City, the
Loser's Lounge tributes to acts like Burt Bacharach, Prince and Queen
meld indie rock and cabaret, and regularly sell out. Bebel Gilberto and
the Brazilian Girls are constantly played in restaurants and bars. Even
Queen Latifah traded in the taunts and threats of hip-hop for sequins
and "standards." These polished voices go well with the polished faces
that took over when grunge's frumpy masses took to the salons. At this
very moment, there's a contractor with
better-groomed eyebrows than mine working in my basement.
Shivaree are doing their part to stir this rebirth of the lounge act.
Parsley has a versatile voice, and she uses it to mine a variety of
singing styles from the cocktail bar. Sometimes she's a brokenhearted
torch singer, while others she's a saucy burlesque dancer. Her fellow
songwriters, Duke McVinnie and Danny McGough (the other two-thirds of
Shivaree), blend jazz, blues and even a little new wave for Parsley to
drown her sorrows in. Who's Got Trouble is Shivaree's third album, but
their first U.S. release in five years. Their second disc was only sold in
Europe after a squabble with their label at the time (Capitol). While
working on the CD, Parsley has also become a sort of social commentator,
working on Al Franken's show on Air America: She sings the news.
The new disc opens with a plaintive and girly ballad, "The New
Casablanca." It's easy to get caught up in the melancholic swells and
swirls and Parsley's breathy pleading. The first word she sings is
"please." The title of the disc comes from the chorus, where Parsley
asks, "Who's got trouble?" "We've got trouble. Go ahead,
make mine a double," she answers, singing with a little quiver. Just as I was
to start crying in my own drink, Parsley's odd, old-fashioned Southern
phrases piqued my interest. She says, "I do declare" and "my handsome
buckaroo." But she sounds more like a retro vixen than a victim.
Especially when she rhymes "buckaroo" with "Wait until I get my hands all
"Someday" is a feather-boa-swinging burlesque number. As Parsley struts
away from her lover, singing, "Someday love will get you down, you'll
see: You're going to suffer for what you've done to me," a honky-tonk
organ and horn cheer her on. She sounds like Peggy Lee in all her
shimmying glory. It's one of the two songs on the disc not written by
the band; Dave Bartholomew, a New Orleans songwriter who worked with Fats
Domino, wrote it. The other cover is Brian Eno's "Fat Lady of Limburgh."
Shivaree channel '80s new wave band The Motels, as Parsley uses her
throatiest voice, and McGough and McVinnie fill in Eno's sparse and
herky-jerky original with a throbbing bass, an organ and electronic
"Lost in a Dream" sounds like what might be playing at the end of the
night, when the bar is empty and only the truly pathetic souls remain,
unable because of drink or heartache to get up and walk out. As
a stand-up bass is slowly plucked and a cymbal trembles, Parsley sings,
"I'm looking for a moonbeam to get lost in/ Everything will be beautiful
and bright/ 'Cause things come out at night/ They're ugly and some of them
bite/ So I'm getting lost in a dream." The organ and horn wail along with
her, until the bass picks up slightly and gives her a little kick.
The saddest song on the disc is "Mexican Boyfriend." You can hear the
pout on Parsley's lips as she tells the sad tale of a first love, of
the little girl who boxed up and gave away her dolls and the boy who
disappeared. She sings, "What they said was a man drifted over the line;
drove you away and a little girl out of her mind." The little girl is
there, in the high octaves of Parsley's voice and the lullabylike
keyboard and gentle guitar-strumming. Parsley paints a graphic picture
with her lyrics, of the carnations and stone that took the place of the
boy who had been by the side of the road. Now he won't know her first
kiss. Somebody else will.