Album: “Lo! And Behold”
Label: Gonzo Media Group
I first met Carol Hodge, aka Crystal Grenade, when she was singing on Steve Ignorant’s “Last Supper” tour. I was immediately taken by her vocal range, stage intensity and ability to handle difficult avant-punk material. Following up, I discovered her past bands, which included an industrial trio and a tongue in cheek BDSM party band.
Her current solo release,“Lo! And Behold”, is none of that. The album is a haunting immersion into an abandoned Victorian dance hall…or bordello…or bedoir…and the phantasms trapped in each. Hodge takes on the character of Crystal Grenade, freak show chanteuse (or is it medium/seer?), delivering 11 songs of darkness and dismay, mostly accompanied only by her piano. The feeling throughout is incredibly close and atmospheric – it almost seems as if we are partaking in a psychic channeling in an abandoned farmhouse as the outside world falls away.
The album opens with “Welcome to the Freakshow”, a :52 soundscape of carnival barkers, carousel piano and crowd noise. It is a throwback to another era – the 1960s concept album, the theatrics of 1970s progressive rock – a minute to set the mood for what is to come. The track immediately segues into “You Could Have Lived”, a track that structurally sounds like the initial idea for a glam song. You can almost hear Ian Hunter saying “ooh, I can do something with that one, I can!” and, indeed, with a full arrangement this song would soar. But Crystal Grenade is not about to let any birds fly. Oh no. And simply clipping wings won’t do – they must be snapped like twigs. Hence “1892 Man”, a heart wrenching tale of spousal abuse. The music hall style implies a sadistic mocking, carried to further extremes by Crystal’s almost schizophrenic vocal delivery that careens between Plain Jane narrative to May West sultriness to feral anger that bespeaks of the psychic wounds that accompany physical bruises.
In an abrupt about face we move into “Lost For Words”, a tender love song full of regrets at opportunities missed or life less lived but filled with lines that speak of deep, soul drinking love – that aching love that transcends pain in its glory. I imagine a woman looking at her lover, lost in his work, silently imploring him to, if only for an instant, lift his eyes and just…look. Perhaps it is the prelude for “Changed”, which opens with the line “you’re not what I want anymore but I don’t know how to start to tell you why”. Silly us for thinking perhaps there were silver linings to be had here! The haunting ghost vocals tell us that whatever the “indecision” that drives this song, the resolution was not one that made for cheerful memories. “Take Aim” adds strings to the sparse mix, which again hints at how majestic these tracks would sound if fleshed out by a full band. Grenade’s vocals hit a real high point here – tonally this song does her lots of favors and the augmented arrangement only makes her already considerable strength even more formidable. The song has a sort of French feel to it that also smacks of glam – Alex Harvey Band’s “Next” comes to mind more than just a bit here.
“Go Round Twice” is a throwback blues song of a cheating heart and payback. Grenade’s voice oozes dark soulfulness on the murderous verses, although the choruses move into the desperate anger that we’ve tasted in previous tracks. I would have loved a slightly more restrained delivery here to match the verses as otherwise this is a standout track, especially the trailing ending that leaves us wondering if the narrator pays for her crime. “Leaving” is an instrumental, tonally a bit warmer than some of the other tracks but still well within the autumnal feel of the record. “Shape of Things” plays a delicate, dreamy tune but the wistful sway of the lyrics is belied by the cold words themselves. Never has the phrase “whisper in my cheek all the things you wish for and I’ll make sure they die” been crooned so lovingly. Remorse kicks in full gear with “Nothing to do with me”, a perverse anthem for every failed artist, athlete, dreamer and lover who has ever walked the face of the earth. The straight up honesty of this track is stunning; it is an utterly uncompromising delivery borne of bitter reflection. The character of Crystal Grenade does not fall away but Hodge definitely lets the mask slip a bit here – there’s a tone of autobiography here that is unmistakable and moving. It’s an unvarnished bit of self-loathing beauty, if there can be such a thing, and a marker of honesty against which few artists would wish to measure. The album closes with “For Allison”, another ode to flawed love but one that at least concedes “when I put my arms around you I don’t question, don’t doubt, don’t frustrate, don’t hate because I know that you feel it too”. Instead of betrayal, murder and despair on this last track Crystal Grenade gives us hope. It’s a shrewd play and gives the album the feel of an Alexander Payne film – after enduring every depressing foible conceivable to man you somehow leave the theater feeling happy, perhaps even uplifted.
“Lo! And Behold” sets an impressive bench line for Crystal Grenade. Strong songwriting and singing within a dramatic milieu that substitutes as a musical genre provides a focused, raw and haunting album. There is room for growth, both in emotional range and musical diversity, but the confidence shown on this album marks Hodge as a serious artist deserving serious attention. As a debut it is a mature and satisfying piece of work indeed.