self released, 2009, CD album, 34m 57s
VK Lynne plays to the mythical archetype of the strong but vulnerable, hard drinking rock chick: how much of that is VK Lynne the narrator of this sequence of songs, and how much of it is VK Lynne the writer and woman is above my pay grade to speculate, but there’s a powerful sense of sincerity in this music. God crops up quite a lot, which I’ll return to below, and unless an artist is playing to a specifically religious audience, which Lynne does not seem to be doing, that’s sticking your neck out.
Musically she doesn’t stick her neck out too far, preferring to work within a genre and master its conventions: from reading her bio it seems that producer James Thomas has as much to do with the sound of this album as she does, and he is obviously a consummate professional. Stylistically it is informed but not enclosed by the conventions of blues based hard rock: there is also some country in the mix, and a more inventive approach on a few songs. Everything is precisely right about these arrangements, the performances that realise them, and the way they are recorded and mixed; another team would have made some different choices, but they couldn’t have showcased these songs to better effect. Regular readers who know my taste for black metal, free improvisation, psychedelic prog, experimental electronica and so forth may be surprised to read me praising something that is as generically conventional as this, but generic conventions can be manipulated to expressive effect as much as any other musical material, and they are used here with a huge amount of knowledge, sophistication and imagination.
Of course the best arrangements in the world can’t cover for a mediocre performer out in front: VK Lynne is the lynchpin here, and the album stands or falls on her contribution. She is an excellent singer: I don’t know if she works in other styles, but the technique required to work in this one has been completely mastered. She has the capacity to control her dynamics and timbre, syllable by syllable, to give each word a delivery that precisely expresses its sense within the wider lyric and melody, shifting registers as required, and pushing her vocal chords when she needs to like a guitarist drives their amp. Her diction is impeccable, and her phrasing is idiomatically perfect. It’s a blues/ country/ hard rock style of singing, and you will have heard other vocalists that sound similar, but the most surprising parallel I heard was with Chrissie Hynde: she is not as mannered or unconventional as Hynde, and she is a better technician, but there’s a similar rasping purity to her voice, especially on ‘Coming Down’.
Most of the songs and arrangements are what you’d expect, although all have some twists and turns that show everyone involved was awake, but a few stand out. Dynamics are exploited to the maximum on ‘Mess Like You’: it has a slow-burning, funky verse with some very tasty slide work, and a sexy, almost menacing vocal, which releases into a storming hard rock chorus. ‘Dust Between The Dirt’ also has an unconventional verse groove, embellished with slide guitar imitating a police siren; ‘He Rolls’ employs a muted, overdriven bass groove, that also prowls along in a similar manner to the aforementioned tunes. This is an interesting song for other reasons, in that I felt this was when I got closest to the ‘real’ VK Lynne (curiously, since it’s the only time she features another vocalist, Høgni).
Like other songs on Whiskey Or Water, ‘He Rolls’ addresses an overtly religious theme. I’m an atheist, and I’ve often noticed other atheists being quick to ridicule ‘Christian music’, but I’m also sympathetic to peoples’ need to experience the spiritual in their lives, through whatever means works for them. On the face of it, if you don’t believe, the specifics of religion can seem pretty silly, but if you subscribe to a faith it provides you with a language in which to discuss the spiritual. The fact that I may regard it as metaphorical when its author regards it as literal is really irrelevant; I can still be moved by the poetry of it, as I am moved by Gregorio Allegri’s Miserere, Handel’s Messiah, John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme or Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On. And let’s be clear, I am moved by these works, not in spite of their religious inspiration, but precisely because they address the universal spiritual aspect of human experience.
Does this sound like an apology for Lynne’s religious subjects? Well, I am aware that a lot of people like to give some stick to overtly religious work, and I would defend anyone’s right to explore spiritual themes in the language with which their personal background equips them. When Lynne writes ‘you got religion /you got wrong and right/ you got decisions/ you got black and white’ I agree, but I suspect we place different valuations on the statement. My moral universe is a place of many colours, many beautiful, and many startlingly ugly: for me it is a negative that religions like to simplify that to black and white, but to hear another person’s passionate attempt to connect the spiritual to the ethical is still a moving experience, enhanced by that differing perspective. Personally I wonder how anyone who claims to be religious is able to write a whole album without referring to it.
This album is an extremely slick piece of work, but it is more than a glossy essay in generic hard rock: it is a passionate, sincere expression of its writer’s life experience, and its production has been painstakingly tailored to the specific needs of the songs.