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Heather Leigh - Throne Music Album Reviews

Known for her improvisational aplomb, the pedal steel guitarist and singer returns with her second and most complex batch of composed songs, subversive and rich documents of love and lust.

For more than 20 years, the improvisational music of Heather Leigh has traveled a clear throughline. From her early 2000s work in Charalambides and her many solo releases since 2002 to more recent collaborations with like-minded experimenters Chris Corsano, Jandek, and Peter Brötzmann, her way of improvising with voice and pedal steel guitar has been distinct. She’s equally skilled at creating subtle, folk-leaning tones or dense, aggressive noise.

But recently, Leigh has forged a kind of rebirth. In 2015, she wrote proper songs for her album I Abused Animal rather than fully improvising them, subsequently recording them during a day in a proper studio. For Throne, she’s ventured even further down that path, spending a week in the studio to make structured, interconnected tunes that are her idiosyncratic versions of pop. She’s made this turn with typical conviction, so the compelling qualities of her previous work remain intact. Even so, Throne feels like a breakthrough.

Leigh’s lyrics come off as sincere but subversive love songs. She cleverly plays with familiar tropes like intimacy, infatuation, and disillusionment. Opener “Prelude to Goddess” expresses the entranced adoration of a teen ballad: “You’re so interesting… You’re the kind of girl I’d like to meet.” But its starry sentiments are undercut by oversharing (“The way you dance makes me cream”) and ghostly vocals that suggest a mind questioning itself. Likewise, the words of “Days Without You” exude bliss—”Why worry about tomorrow, on such a beautiful day?”—while the tense guitar is as ominous as footsteps down a dim path.

And Leigh grippingly extends the themes of oppression explored on I Abused Animal during “Lena,” detailing sexual abuse in a hymn-like tune. The scene she paints is vivid: In verses, a daughter hazily recalls her father (“Been sleeping all night in daddy’s garage again”), while the father reenacts his violations in the chorus (“Oh Lena/Come and sit on my lap/...And lift up your skirt”). Leigh heightens tension with rising hums and guitar plucks. Additions to Leigh’s palette boost such complexity throughout Throne, including drum machine, synths, and backing by John Hannon on violin and her husband, David Keenan, on bass. This layered music feels simple but echoes deeply.

The most complex song on Throne is also its longest. The 17-minute “Gold Teeth” is less a love song than an abstract poem, as Leigh repeats simple phrases to conjure new meanings. Lines like “into the sea” and “it’s the wind” emerge over and over, forming a hypnotic hall of mirrors. A middle section of guitar noise darkens the piece, but Leigh’s lyrical images emerge from the chaos stronger than before.

That may sound heady, and Throne is not easy-listening, even if it is Leigh’s most song-oriented album yet. Leigh, after all, calls her music a personal religion, and it often feels like a series of spiritual explorations and epiphanies. But Throne is also quite sensual, reveling in bodies and the environments through which they move. The album’s back cover shows a posterior, presumably Leigh’s, pointing to her hope “that listeners can connect with the seriousness of the work on one level while shaking their ass to a total fucking banger at the same time.” Throne might not get butts on the dance floor, but its sense of movement—both within its songs and within the arc of Leigh’s evolution—is profound.


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