Karen Elson - The Ghost Who Walks

by Pete Sykes Rating:4 Release Date:2010-05-24

Among the unexpected consequences of the breakup of The Beatles were the musical careers of Yoko Ono and Linda McCartney. Both artists, rather than musicians, they were directly implicated in the band's implosion and, in the 70s, were seemingly used as proxies in the Lennon/McCartney feud as each joined their husband's new band on backing vocals/tambourine/whatever. "My wife's more talented than yours!", John and Paul appeared to be saying to each other. Yoko eventually became quite good at a certain type of experimetal shriek-pop, while Linda sensibly retired from music and turned her hand to marketing vegetarian sausages. But the damage was done, and the pushy rock wife - adoring husband blind to her lack of talent as she unforgivably gets in the way of the fans' homoerotic hero-worship - quickly became a time-honoured cliche, so much so that it was satirised in This is Spinal Tap.

Of course, you don't need me to tell you how sexist it is that women in rock were traditionally groupies, and the first rock girlfriend to attempt something more - Ono - was hysterically blamed for breaking up the greatest band on the planet. Thankfully, that time has passed, but the pretentious wife stereotype is entrenched enough to explain the rather sniffy reaction to the news that Karen Elson - spouse of a certain Jack White - was to release an album. Soundblab likes to be contrarian, so would love to report that The Ghost Who Walks is a work of genuine interest. But sadly, as they so often do, facts get in the way. Elson - born and bred in Oldham, Greater Manchester, not that you would know it from this record - is extremely beautiful, by all accounts down to earth and, yes, she has got quite a nice voice. But would this tasteful, conservative, slickly staid collection of gothic folk songs have been released by a label like XL if she hadn't been married to White? No. And since the record was released in the States by White's own label, Third Man, we can probably assume that it wouldn't even exist but for her rock star husband.

Things get off to a strong start with the title track, a dark and robust tale of love and death, full of atmosphere and drenched in woozy organ. It's rather good, and it's followed by 'The Truth is in the Dirt', equally sombre and effective and featuring some magnificently rootsy, sun-cracked lead guitar - presumably contributed by White, even though he's not credited for it, so much does it sound like the Stripes. Unfortunately, things continue in more-or-less the same vein for the rest of the album. There are a handful of nice enough tunes - 'Lunasa' and 'The Last Laugh' in particular - but on the whole the songs are simply not good enough to compensate for the sheer lack of originality on show.

Yes, the main problem with The Ghost Who Walks is that it all feels like nothing more than an exercise in spooky Americana, with scarcely any wit, passion or invention. Elson's voice is pleasant, but curiously inexpressive; she's confident enough with a melody, but never convinces you that she means what she's singing. Her lyrics contain small amounts of striking imagery, but are far too reliant on portentuous cliche - vultures circle, darkness hangs in the sky; hearts are forsaken, people are lonesome, and there's lots of saying goodbye to her love under the light of the moon - to convince. What's more, the music takes no risks whatsoever: even when Elson pulls a surprise out of the bag - like the spoken word interlude on '100 Years From Now' - it's something you've heard a million times before. Soundblab was aching for just one chord, one note even, that felt out of place, or different. But, alas, no. 'Stolen Roses' is the worst culprit for this; after the first line, you will be able to predict exactly where the song will go. Like everything else here, it's classy and well-produced, but it's pastiche and nothing more; there's just no reason, other than the involvement of White, for this record to exist, except perhaps as a Dummies' Guide to Incredibly Unimaginative Americana.

Pete Sykes

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