Audio Mixer: Joe Costa.
Recording information: Hidden Valley Studios; Sound Emporium.
It's obvious from the greasy opening blues vibe in "Exodus of Venus," the title track of Elizabeth Cook's first album in six years, that something is very different. Produced by guitarist Dexter Green, this set is heavier, darker, and harder than anything she's released before. Its 11 songs are performed by a crack band that includes bassist Willie Weeks, drummer Matt Chamberlain, keyboardist Ralph Lofton, and lap steel guitarist Jesse Aycock. The tunes are drenched in swampy electric blues, psychedelic Americana, gritty R&B, and post-outlaw country. Cook has been tried by fire these past few years. She's endured six deaths -- including her parents -- a divorce, a stint in rehab, and more. It slowed her writing to a crawl. Exodus of Venus is her way of telling that story, and as such, its songs often stray from the narrative storyteller's manner she's previously employed in favor of a more jarring poetic style that still communicates directly. It's wooly throughout and rowdy in places but it's not a party record. Its themes of betrayal, lust, sin, alcohol abuse, and grief wind throughout, revealing a dark night of the soul. Painful as some of these songs are, the album's real themes are ultimately compassion, forgiveness, and radical acceptance of self, others, and life on its own terms. It doesn't possess the humor of earlier records, but in places -- the funky, Rhodes-driven groove in "Methadone Blues" that continues the saga begun on Welder's "Heroin Addict Sister" -- it's wry as hell and in-your-face irreverent. The anthemic title cut is rendered with squalling rock guitars and popping snares in a haunted, psychedelic blues. "Dyin'" is fueled by a punchy B-3 and a Junior Kimbrough-esque, droning six-string, which reveal jarring contradictions evident in emotional turmoil and transition, and apologize for neither. The spacy textures in "Dharma Gate" veil a simple country tune. Cook's soft delivery and its processional tempo underscore one of the weightiest lyrics here. Patty Loveless guests on "Straightjacket Love," which commences as near gothic Appalachian mountain music and shifts toward a reckless bluegrass rocker -- à la the Earl Scruggs Revue -- before turning back on itself. "Broke Down on the London M25" is a swaggering rocker that metaphorically equates being stranded with her autobiography. It resolves as a manifesto of self-reliance, its sexual and emotional independence directly implying a middle finger to naysayers. "Cutting Diamonds" is a silvery psych blues whose lyric is a withering look at a romantic relationship and the need for reassessment. Cook employs a much more strident musical approach because the songs demand it. She celebrates the contradiction, pain, and liberation she's not only lived through but co-exists with. No quarter is given to guilt or shame. As a result, her music reaches an entirely new level. Ultimately, this set offers tough glimmers of empathic hope to those feeling lost and afflicted, whether or not the trauma is self-inflicted or circumstantial. Exodus of Venus is an achievement both redemptive and transformative. ~ Thom Jurek