10 March 2016 07:33PM
When she beckons a lover down to the river or onto a dream-ship for a dark ride, she means you too, and you go, because why not? Okay, she’s wearing a stuffed ram’s head, with whom she has a close relationship, but she’s also wearing a beautiful black dress with a skirt like the petals of a dark flower. And yes, she plays accordion and ukulele, but unlike any accordion or ukulele you’ve heard before. And by her own admission, she’s “a strange girl”, but her strangeness is also her loveliness, and it’s not just a dark ride, it’s a great ride.
Ryder Cooley, queen of the Dust Bowl Faeries, which include Karen Cole (lap steel guitar and vocals), Jen DuBois (electric guitar and vocals) and JoAnn Stevelos (percussion and vocals) have come of a certain age. They’re still deeply quirky and hard to categorize, although they call themselves “ethereal gothic-folk,” whatever that is, but, they make mesmerizing music together, now newly accessible, even entertaining, thanks, at least in part to the self-titled debut album, cannily produced by Seth Rogovoy, and celebrated Sunday night at Helsinki.
For one thing, it’s possible, on both the live and recorded versions of the twelve-song set, to hear most of the words, which is not insignificant. That Cooley is a visual artist is evident in lyrics laden with imagery, and when she sings them in her almost-but-not-quite-little-girl voice, they sound good enough to eat.
For another, the band, which included guest performances by the likes of cellist Melora Creager, bassist Peter Toigo, and (alternating) pianists Luis Mojica and Cameron Melville (and more on the album) could have been a cacophonous mess, but the instruments are arranged, by Cooley and Rogovoy, and mixed, by Rachel Alina, to render them harmonious and often distinct.
As for the songs themselves, with one collaborative exception, all were written by Ryder, who seems more interested in melody now, and some are memorable. I can’t, for example, get the chorus of “Great Whiteish Bear” out of my head, nor do I want to. It’s a lament for the melting polar cap that sounds nothing like a lament, except that the refrain, “Oh, my polar home” has a mournful catch in its throat.
“Lady Ramshackle”, the story of “a very strange girl and a very strange ram”, a fantasy version of her own life and relationship with Hazel (yes, she has a name) ends badly, which makes you wonder whether she sees the way she lives her life as unsustainable.
There are ten more, with titles like “Seasick Moon” and “Zebra,” many but not all love songs. “Dust Bowl Faeries” isn’t likely to hit the charts, but if you are willing to be wonderstruck, support a truly local business—made in (and around) Hudson—and buy it (on iTunes or from Ryder herself: firstname.lastname@example.org) and listen in your car, more than twice, so the faeries can sing and play around and with your head.
As the Faerie Queen sings, in one of her best lines from a song called “Troll”: “You can’t erase me/I’m a ghost now/I can haunt you/If I want to.”
Four days later, she still does.
Ryder Cooley and Dust Bowl Faeries