MUSIQUE BOUTIQUE: Tele Novella, Lael Neale, Lau & Dusty Springfield

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.

Tele Novella hails from Lockhart, Texas (33 miles south of Austin), and their music is so multi-faceted it almost defies description. “Coin-operated medieval pop songs through a 1960s western lens” is how their Twitter bio puts it, which gives you some idea. They take country, pop, indie, and folk, and twist it all into delightfully unexpected shapes.

“Words That Stay” is the striking opening number of the duo’s new album, Merylnn Belle (Kill Rock Stars). On the surface, it sounds like a song about a lost love. But Natalie Ribbons’ dry, husky voice has enough bite in it that you’re left unsettled. Something’s not quite right here. Something’s a little off-center. And that’s the hook that draws you in.

The album’s homespun sound is the result of recording on an 8-track cassette deck. Neither Ribbons or her co-collaborator Jason Chronis were keen on doing many overdubs, so minor mistakes were left in, and the use of vintage microphones adds further atmosphere. This record takes you into another realm. “Paper Crown” is a surreal nursery rhyme. “Crystal Witch” is a spooky fairy tale. The soft-shoe shuffle of “Technicolor Town” is the closing lullaby that sends you off to sleep with Ribbons howling like a wolf. Imaginative, captivating and intriguing.

Lael Neale also opted for simplicity in making Acquainted With Night (Sub Pop), recording on 4-track cassette, accompanied only by an Omnichord (an electronic instrument that produces both chiming music notes and pre-programmed beats, and is smaller than a keyboard). There’s a delicate gracefulness to the songs, even as they touch on sadness and longing. The beautifully-titled “Every Star Shivers in the Dark” is a song of aching vulnerability, with such haunting images as Neale waving to a man in a prison tower, though there’s a glimmer of hope by the end.

“How Far Is It to the Grave” is another evocative song; mortality, as seen from the perspective of a child, a lover, a banker, a slave owner. Neale’s empathetic, crystal-clear voice makes the song sound like a prayer, lifting it from despondency. The title track is a shimmering, seductive number about how very different things become under the “cold, white shape of the moon.” And “Some Sunny Day” is a song of farewell, of looking back and having no regrets as the sands run out. Neale’s lyrics also have the elegance of poetry: “I’ve known the sand that made the pearl inside my mind.”

Anyone whose tastes run to synthpop/synthwave has likely crossed paths with Lau (aka Laura Fares) over the past decade. The Argentinian-born musician relocated to the UK at the age of 17. After years of working as a session drummer, DJ, and teaming up with Nina Boldt on the albums Sleepwalking and Synthian (credited to “Nina featuring Lau”), she’s now stepped out on her own as a solo artist, with her debut album, Believer, released on her own Aztec Records label.

The album kicks off with “Stunning,” an instantly catchy track that’s one of the most effervescent breakup songs you’ll ever hear; it’s a smooth, streamlined, fuel-injected ride to freedom, an “I Will Survive” for the 21st century. The deluxe version of the album also features a “Popcorn Kid Nocturnal mix” of the track, reworking it into a slower paced, sultry ballad. There are remixes of four other album tracks as well. The soulful “True” is presented in three versions; an original, ethereal mix, a decidedly poppier “Luke Million Remix,” and a more dance-oriented “Austin Apologue Remix.” Indeed, Lau conjures up such a mesmerizing groove, it’s easy to forget that the album’s theme is the fallout generated by the end of a relationship. The rock-steady, electronic beats of “Recognise,” “Unable,” and the cover of HAIM’s “Now I’m in It” are sparkling sweet treats.

From 1969 to 1971, Dusty Springfield recorded some of her best work for Atlantic Records, moving from the pop songs that had made her a star to the soul music she’d always loved. On Dusty in Memphis (1969) she was backed by the legendary “Memphis Boys,” an informal group of studio musicians who played on hit records by Neil Diamond, Merilee Rush, and Wilson Pickett, among others, and the equally acclaimed Sweet Inspirations, the all-female backing group who recorded with the likes of Aretha Franklin and Van Morrison, and toured with Elvis Presley in the 1970s. On A Brand New Me (1970), she worked with noted songwriting/production team Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff (“Me and Mrs. Jones,” “Love Train,” and “When Will I See You Again,” to name a few). The best-known song from those years is of course Springfield’s classic rendition of “Son of Preacher Man,” with “The Windmills of Your Mind” running a close second. Now all of Springfield’s Atlantic 7-inchers have been compiled on The Complete Atlantic Singles 1968-1971 (Real Gone Music). Only eight of the 24 tracks have appeared on CD before, in their original mono mixes. It’s wonderful to hear sterling non-album tracks like “I Believe in You” and “Haunted” in such suburb quality.

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