by Edd Hurt
I'm tempted to call Sarah Siskind's new full-length, Novel, the best late-'70s Joni Mitchell record I've heard in a while, but that overlooks what's both compelling and distracting about Siskind's take on the folk-jazz cusp. What the Nashville singer and songwriter does throughout the home-recorded and tinkered-with recordings on Novel reminds me of Mitchell, absolutely — the overlay of cool harmonies on oscillating rhythm-guitar figures sometimes reminds me of Mitchell's 1976 Hejira. Strangely enough, I also hear in my mind's ear a very odd combination of Carly Simon's tales of romantic disappointment and the slightly jazzy tone of Phoebe Snow. I've often mused over the result of an imaginary collaboration between Brian Eno and Simon, and Novel is almost it.
That's a compliment to Siskind — except I have to say I don't think she's as good as either Eno or Carly Simon. What's missing for me is any sense that she's involved in the literal aspect of her words — her big voice is certainly amazing. Siskind zeroes in on a note like someone very happy to be letting loose in what I'd call the Great American Modal Tradition. The melodies of such songs as "Take Me" and "I Think About Love" derive from The Beatles' "Norwegian Wood" and a thousand raga-rock hits of the past, and Siskind sings them fiercely.
Considering the casual nature of the recordings — there is plenty of amplifier hum and percussion that crashes on after the guitars and vocals fade — Novel advances the avant-folk movement that Siskind's earlier work hinted at and Cortney Tidwell's first couple of records explored. (Siskind appears on Tidwell's 2006 release Don't Let Stars Keep Us Tangled Up.)
Yet I find her a basically limited singer-songwriter, with the insular concerns and gnomic utterances that you'll find in the work of such ambitious tunesmiths as Mitchell and Laura Nyro. What I find interesting in Siskind's equally ambitious, impassioned work is what makes it difficult for me to enjoy it on anything but a theoretical level: She's obviously more concerned with sound than sense, and there are times her voice sounds too fake-naive for my taste. Unlike Mitchell, Eno or especially Carly Simon, she writes lyrics that seem oddly evasive and abstract: "Someone's gotta come down here and strengthen my will / I'm about to make my shroud," she sings in "Take Me."
Still, the sound her voice can make is often glorious, even if I think a singer-songwriter should learn to lie back a bit more — Siskind lets it rip, but she approaches every song the same way. I'd rate her as an interesting talent who ought to find a collaborator worthy of her. I put on Christian Fennesz's 2001 release Endless Summer after listening to Novel, and I swear the Austrian guitarist's soundscapes soothed and grated in a way that reminded me quite a bit of Siskind's attempted lyricism.