MUSIQUE BOUTIQUE: Partner, Dust Bowl Faeries, and Evelyn “Champagne” King

Welcome to Audiofemme’s monthly record review column, Musique Boutique, written by music journo vet Gillian G. Gaar. Every fourth Monday, Musique Boutique offers a cross-section of noteworthy reissues and new releases guaranteed to perk up your ears.

Canada’s Partner have returned with their second full-length album, Don’t Give Up (You’ve Changed Records). But perhaps the best way to be introduced to their music is by checking out their fiendishly clever videos first. The bright and sparkly “Hello and Welcome” opens the album, and the animated video transforms co-founders Josée Caron and Lucy Niles (lead and rhythm guitar, respectively, though they also play other instruments) into glam rock superstars, who enthusiastically assure you their latest work will deliver plenty of great times: “It’s really gonna be like a show you won’t have to leave your house to go!” Then they blast off into outer space and get abducted by aliens. You’ll experience that kind of playfulness throughout the record.

Or how about “Big Gay Hands,” a nice chunky rocker about finding romance at the local tavern (the singer becomes enamored by the skill with which another woman wields her pool cue), matched by a video where colorfully dressed-up hands take center stage. What’s the secret behind their thick, sweet guitar sound? You’ll find the origin story in “Honey,” a song with a monster hook, and a video that has Caron and Niles wreaking havoc in their rehearsal space, playing 10 different characters between them (Caron’s bee outfit is especially fetching).

Having worked with other musicians in the past, Caron and Nile scaled back to themselves and drummer Simone TB for this release. This is indie rock with plenty of heart and soul, whether the mood’s giddy or glum. “Couldn’t Forget” is a raucous love song that unexpectedly veers into country rock. “Good Place to Hide” was influenced by the band’s love of Rush (they’ve previously covered “Limelight”) and reveals the classic rock underpinnings that are evident throughout the album. “Roller Coaster (Life Is One)” is a contemplative piece, starting out as a piano-based number before exploding into the guitar action of the chorus, with a lyric about finding your way through troubled times. “Here I Am World” is a deceptively upbeat number about trying to understand the purpose of it all. “Crocodiles” is the dazzling closer, a song about avoiding pitfalls, that vaults from the low-key guitar strumming of the beginning to cascading walls of sound.

Above all, Partner finds salvation in rock ‘n’ roll. The cheery, propulsive “Rock is My Rock” is their manifesto, distilling all that’s great about it in a concise two minutes and 19 seconds. Partner gets right to the heart of the matter, shakes you up, and has a good time doing it.

“It’s hard to sing while wearing masks.” Welcome to the spooky, surreal cabaret hosted by the Dust Bowl Faeries, where you can expect the unexpected. Their latest LP, The Plague Garden, draws on the sounds of past to create music that has a powerful resonance in modern times.

Along with guitar, bass, and percussion, the music is given a phantasmagorical touch with the addition of a well-to-the-fore accordion, ukulele, castanets, and the quavery wailings of the “singing saw” (the latter instrument dubbed “the poor man’s theremin” by illustrator/musician Dame Darcy, whose own gothic aesthetic would fit in nicely with this troupe). The album opens with the doomy sound of Chopin’s “Funeral March,” but then ends with a laugh as the group launches into “Dust Bowl Caravan,” a number written at the beginning of the pandemic “to cheer ourselves up!” It’s certainly jaunty enough to prompt a smile. But there’s also a dark thread underscoring the merry mood, as lead singer Ryder Cooley offers the sobering reminder, “Life is short, and then you’re gone.”

But until then, there’s plenty of time to dance, and the Faeries are happy to provide the soundtrack. “Serpentine Samba” conjures up visions of the ethereal aquatic realm where the titular serpent resides. And there’s two tangos to choose from. “Vampire Tango,” inspired by a trip to New Orleans, has a decided gothic sensibility, while “Pandemic Tango” sees Ryder making the best of a dreary situation: “As people hide themselves away/The animals come out to play.” A similar ploy is used in “Candy Store,” the Faeries’ reworking of a traditional Yiddish folk song in which the protagonists find a way to make the obstacles they face go up in smoke — literally.

The song titles are as atmospheric as their music; who knows what awaits you at the “Cyanide Hotel” or in the “Forest of Breath”? The Plague Garden is a carnival of beguiling delights, ready to whirl you around the dancefloor of your mind.

Evelyn “Champagne” King is rightly hailed as one of the most compelling singers of the disco/dance music era of the ’70s and ’80s, regularly landing records on the pop, R&B, and dance singles charts. And her new eight CD box, The RCA Albums: 1977-1985 (SoulMusic Records), gives you a great opportunity to really dig into her work. It’s the first time all eight of her RCA albums have been presented in one collection, expanded editions that feature extended mixes and non-album B-sides.

King had just turned 17 when her first album, Smooth Talk (1977) was released, featuring her first big hit, the classic dance club number “Shame,” and its successful follow up, the smooth, delectable “I Don’t Know If It’s Right.” Her cool, soulful vocals gave her songs a greater depth and maturity, and later hits like “Shake Down” (from 1983’s Face to Face) and “I’m in Love” (from the 1981 album of the same name) had her turning up the funk.

And beyond the hits, there’s much to discover. Tough, forthright tracks like “If You Want My Lovin’” and “I Can’t Take It” give I’m in Love a real potency (it’s the strongest album in this set); “Don’t It Feel Good” and “Making Me So Proud” on Face to Face (1983) are all dressed up with those heavily processed drums that were the signature sound of the ’80s; Long Time Coming (A Change is Gonna Come) has King’s heartfelt cover of Sam Cooke’s immortal song. Like her nickname, King’s music sparkles.