Though The Ghost Who Walks is Karen Elson's debut album, she isn’t exactly a musical newcomer -- even if it might seem that way to those who know her as the model who married the White Stripes' Jack White. With previous projects ranging from the political cabaret of the Citizens’ Band to the garage punk tantrums of Mildred and the Mice,Elson has her share of musical experience, but with such wide-ranging credits, it was anyone’s guess what her own album would sound like. On The Ghost Who Walks, she runs the gamut from chilly murder ballads with British roots to Nashville twang, giving old-timey folk and modern rock the same intensity and singing of shipwrecks, stolen lovers, and storms with a beguiling mournfulness. Her voice’s dark dreaminess carries the album, especially on more stripped-down tracks like the acoustic late-summer lament “Lunasa” and the ghostly shanty “Stolen Roses.” Though the album is Elson's showcase, White produced it, and his touches are everywhere. “The Truth Is in the Dirt”’s earthy, apocalyptic feel gets added heft from sudden dynamic shifts and spooky organ and pedal steel that recall his work withthe Dead Weather -- and indeed, White's bandmate Jack Lawrence plays here as well, underscoring the repertory company vibe of projects White is associated with. His fondness for theatricality and Elson's cabaret roots combine on “100 Years from Now,” a lovelorn song that starts off sounding like it’s being played on a wax cylinder, then blooms into a sweeping waltz complete with theremin, and on the dust bowl ballad “Mouths to Feed.” Yet many of the album’s most striking moments are decidedly modern-sounding: “The Ghost Who Walks” -- which gets its name from one of the epithets Elson was called in school because she was so pale -- updates the murder ballad tradition with electric pianos that rain unearthly beauty onto the song; “A Thief at My Door” ebbs and flows, dipping into darker rock territory; and “The Last Laugh”'s gentle country-pop sounds like it could have come off a long-lost Dolly Parton album from the ‘70s. While The Ghost Who Walks occasionally feels a little long and scattered, it’s still a beautifully made album that earns Elson a place among moody songstresses such as Neko Case, Amanda Palmer, Hope Sandoval, and Paula Frazer.
Iris DeMent isn't a pop star, although she probably could have been had she been at all interested in playing that game. She's a careful, detailed songwriter with a confessional edge and a good sense of narrative, and her voice is a marvelous instrument that seems to rise out of the previous century. Her themes are universal -- love (both good and bad), loss, faith, memories -- and few singers or songwriters can convey the kind of passionate emotional distance she brings to all of this. Sing the Delta (the Arkansas delta, not the Mississippi one) is her first new album of original material in 16 years (her previous album, 2004's Lifeline, was a collection of her versions of the gospel hymns she sang as a child), and it fits right into the quilt of her earlier albums, full of searching, yearning songs that ache more than they bounce for joy, all set to sparse, piano-led arrangements that focus in and around her vocals without intrusion. Like all of her albums, it's down-key, wrenching passion out of things long lost, and one can't help but be amazed at the sincerity and desperation DeMent brings to every line she sings here. The songs are well written, detailed, poetic, and centered on her childhood, her father, her mother, her brothers and sisters, all those ties and bonds one carries all through life -- all well and good, at least as confessionals go. The problem here is that Sing the Delta sounds a bit like a great short story writer singing autobiographical stories rather than delivering songs. There's little that moves one to sing along here, unfortunately. The tempos are all slow, dramatic, and melancholy. The one song that actually features a little bounce in its rhythm, "The Night I Learned How Not to Pray," is a sad, harrowing account of a young brother's death, and while it's a great and emotionally effective song, it hardly feels redemptive. Everything here seems to fade into the same slow waltz, and while the lyrics shine, lyrics alone do not make for a good song. The best here, like "The Night I Learned How Not to Pray," the slow gospel burn of the opener "Go on Ahead and Go Home," "If That Ain't Love" (a portrait of DeMent's father), the spunky and wise "Mama Was Always Tellin' Her Truth" (a portrait of her mother), and the beautiful "There's a Whole Lotta Heaven," have choruses that rise out of their stories and connect -- one can actually sing along with them, which is the quickest way to bring a song into another's life. Too often Sing the Delta sounds like a poetry reading with great lines, wonderful metaphors, and a hard-earned wisdom on display -- a bit like Dolly Parton if she had gone to Harvard -- and there's no denying the talent, sincerity, and craft on display here. But a song is most a song when someone else can sing along to it, pull it into her or his own life, and make it speak inside that life, and there just isn't a whole lot of that on this album, impressive as it is.