Style: Southern gothic folk, compare to Alexi Murdoch, Nick Drake, Aaron Strumpel
Top tracks: "Mourning Train to Memphis," "Solar Flares," "Little Broken Birds"
New York-based singer-songwriter Christopher Paul Stelling has made an album both haunting and haunted. The collection was recorded mostly live in an apartment above a Louisville, Ky., funeral home that has been in operation since 1848. Apparently, pausing out of respect while loved ones gathered downstairs for final farewells provided the perfect respite and catalyst for Stelling's intensely crafted grapplings with life and death.
Songs of Scorn & Praise is more scorn than praise, more lost than found. Yet its doubts and laments are seasoned with spiritual yearning. On one hand, Stelling mourns, "Ain't it a shame all the people on this earth they have to die," ("Mourning Train to Memphis"). On the other hand, he practically prays, "But if we must burn then, Lord, let us burn bright / We must at times face blindness to regain our sight" ("Solar Flares"). And Stelling's incisive lyrics and impassioned delivery leave no doubt that he's willing to stare down the sun to come to grips with the forces of the universe.
Guitar-wielding troubadours run the risk of blurring into the background, and Songs runs that risk on a casual listen. But Stelling's occasional incendiary yowlings snap listeners back to attention. Overall, there's a stark and sincere quality to the album. He does a lot with a little, relying on exceptional finger-picking skill to carry his melodies. His style ranges from a delicate Nick Drake-like lull to ferocious almost classical flurries. Occasional backing violin brings a mournful or soothing ethos, and Stelling's vagabond vocals carry an earthworn timbre, often creaky around the edges like John Mellencamp, always bearing the grit and resolution of an artist who made his start playing New York subway platforms.
But it's the haunted lyricism that sets Stelling apart. His Southern gothic vignettes are more cryptically Faulkner, but his raw biblical imagery builds an organic yet tense coexistence between heaven and earth that would make Flannery O'Connor proud. There's Leviathan and demons, grief and guilt, God and the devil and, of course, death and resurrection—at least a glimmer of hope for resurrection.
Songs of Praise & Scorn will reward listeners who aren't afraid to face a few ghosts or to get their hands dirty wrestling the ambiguities of earthbound existence. Stelling offers his invitation in "Strange Darkness:" "Come close but beware / These bones are made of thin air … / Yeah be careful, please be gentle with me / Swear I'm not a bad person, no / Just got a strange darkness living in me."
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