MUSIQUE BOUTIQUE: Elizabeth King, Marianne Faithfull, Merry Clayton & Evie Sands

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.

Elizabeth King’s life was always centered around the church. “We had preachers in our family, my mom and my daddy was church people, and mom was a great singer,” she told the Memphis Commercial Appeal. “That’s just how I was brought up.” She began singing at the age of three, later recorded with the all-male Gospel Souls, and subsequently formed another singing group, the Stewart Family. But she wasn’t interested in seriously pursuing a singing career, because of her reluctance to tour while she was raising her family (she was eventually the mother of fifteen children).

Which is why it’s taken her so long — King is 77-years-old  — to finally release her debut album, Living in the Last Days (Bible & Tire Recording Co.). King has a commanding voice, as is evident from the opening track, “Blessed Be the Name of the Lord,” performed acapella to further emphasize her power. Elsewhere, she’s backed by the vibrant Sacred Souls Sound Section, who make foot-tapping numbers like the title song really jump and swing. When King and the Sacred Souls lock into a groove together, as in “Reach Out and Touch” and “Testify,” the musical force they generate is irresistible. She’s just as compelling in slow burning numbers like “Walk With Me” and “You’ve Got to Move.” This is uplifting music that will soothe your soul.

When Marianne Faithfull was hospitalized with coronavirus last year, she wasn’t expected to survive. But she beat the odds and pulled through — and went right back to work on her 21st solo album, She Walks in Beauty (BMG), created in collaboration with Warren Ellis (best known for his work with Nick Cave the Bad Seeds), and featuring guest appearances by the likes of Cave and Brian Eno.

Its release fulfills Faithfull’s longtime dream of recording an album of poetry. It’s an area she’s explored before — her 1965 album Come My Way featured “Jabberwock,” a recitation of Lewis Carroll’s poem “Jabberwocky” — but never in such depth. Her resonant voice is tailormade for the classics, and when set against the languid, atmospheric musical backing, the effect is sublime. The title track is the renowned love poem by Lord Byron; “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” is John Keats’ tale of a woeful knight; “The Lady of Shalott” is Lord Alfred Tennyson’s epic ballad of a doomed young woman (Faithfull chooses the darker 1833 version of the poem). Faithfull breathes new life into these timeless works, turning them into something exquisite.

Merry Clayton has the kind of music resume that could fill the entirety of this column. You’ve heard her voice on records by Carole King, Ringo Starr, Tori Amos, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Linda Ronstadt, Coldplay, and Odetta, to name a very few, as well as her riveting guest appearance on the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter.” She’s released her own records too, and was profiled in the 2013 documentary 20 Feet From Stardom.

Now, twenty-seven years after the release of her last album, comes Beautiful Scars (Motown Gospel/Capitol CMG/Ode Records). Its appearance is even more remarkable considering the challenges Clayton has faced in the last decade; following a serious car accident in 2014, both her legs were amputated below the knee. Clayton’s resilience can be seen in her first question to the doctor: would her voice be affected? No, it would not. Beautiful Scars is the result.

Indeed, she wears those scars proudly, calling them “beautiful proof that I made it this far” in the album’s title song, so filled with emotion it moved her to tears. There’s a wonderful version of Sam Cooke’s “Touch the Hem of His Garment,” her voice soaring with ecstasy. She revisits Leon Russell’s “A Song for You,” which she first recorded in 1971, her voice now grown in stature to become fuller and richer. And as always, there are songs of the faith that helped her persevere, such as the joyful testifying of “He Made a Way” and “God Is Love.” Merry Clayton’s indominable spirit vibrates through every note of this record.

Evie Sands launched her music career in the 1960s. But after watching other artists go on to have hits with songs she’d previously recorded (including “Take Me For a Little While,” “I Can’t Let Go,” “Angel of the Morning”), she began moving into songwriting herself. She eventually stopped performing in 1979 to pursue songwriting and producing full time, though still releasing the occasional record.

Get Out of Your Own Way, on Sands’ own R-Spot Records label, is her first solo album since 1999. It’s fairly bursting with warmth and positive vibrations; the musical mood is an engaging rock/pop mix, with elements of country and soul, and rich harmonies throughout.

Highlights include the soulful “My Darkest Days,” a powerful number about overcoming despair, and the opening track, “The Truth is in Disguise,” a solid rocker addressing the confusion and uncertainty of diving into a new relationship. The title track provides a gentle reminder that you might be getting in the way of your own success. “Don’t Hold Back” is a go-out-there-and-get-’em ode of affirmation. “Leap of Faith” encourages you to make one.

ONLY NOISE: Finding A New Gospel in Unlikely Hymns

Julien Baker photo by Nolan Knight

ONLY NOISE explores music fandom with poignant personal essays that examine the ways we’re shaped by our chosen soundtrack. This week, Tamara Mesko reckons with her evangelical upbringing via songs by Julien Baker, Kevin Devine, and David Bazan.

As a child, my world was mostly black and white, consisting of lists of rules to follow and religious rituals to submit to within the evangelical church. The litany of required observances included maintaining a modest dress code, attending church at least twice a week, attending Christian school with weekly chapel services, refraining from shopping on Sundays, and submitting to the ultimate authority of the pastor. This sheltered community of my family, church friends, and school friends was the entirety of my world throughout my childhood. Though some people thrive within structured, controlled systems, I was a sensitive, emotional child, drawn to the mystical areas of life, and longed for more freedom. The high point of my week was always the musical part of church services, and I felt a deep transcendence while I was singing with the congregation.

This subculture’s rigid list of restrictions also extended to my music-listening allowances outside of church. My album choices came from a finite list: songs we sang in church, songs played on the religious radio station, or CDs from the Christian bookstore. On the rare day that our family trekked to the mall, I’d immediately hone in on the music section of the bookstore, joyously scanning the stacks of new cassettes and CDs. This was one of the few places where I felt at home. I was longing for a connection with songs that weren’t listing rules, but rather showcasing love and compassion for all types of people and perspectives. I was searching for musicians who could expand my limited worldview, and hoping they could save me from my restriction-heavy life.

The Beginning

let go of what you know, and honor what exists
daughter, that’s what bearing witness is

Through the end of my teenage years, most of the music I heard was written for churchgoers, save for a few Nirvana songs I’d secretly record off the radio. Finally, in the late ‘90s, after years of searching for more musical substance, right there in my beloved bookstore, I discovered a band called Pedro The Lion. Led by David Bazan, who was also raised in the evangelical subculture, this band was decidedly different than any I’d heard before: though their music had a religious angle, it was made by people with incredible talent, with true care for their listeners, and with brutal honesty in their lyrics. I bought the Whole EP and It’s Hard To Find A Friend CD at the same time, and immediately became obsessed with both albums. The subversiveness of the lyrics astounded me; they were part of this subculture and yet singing about controversial topics? They were calling out hypocrisy in the church instead of focusing on formulaic, pre-approved storylines? I quickly internalized their crystalline lyrics: “Your horse is ready to ride / when morning comes / from this church town / where damning rumors drip from holy tongues.” Or Bazan’s detail of the particular coldness of a routine church service: “But if all that’s left is duty / I’m falling on my sword / at least then I would not serve / an unseen distant lord.” My heart and mind were jolted out of complacency, little inklings forming into an eventual blooming deconstruction of the religion of my youth.

Many years later, I eagerly awaited Bazan’s first solo album, Curse Your Branches, marketed as “a break-up letter to God.” Amidst an existential and spiritual crisis of my own, I intimately identified with all of the questions and accusations laced throughout these songs. The comfort I felt from his words soon turned to hurt as I heard the majority of my religious friends write him off as a lost soul or a heretic. I realized they’d only listened to Bazan as long as he’d kept his proclamations safe within the evangelical worldview, and as soon as he began to grow outside of that label, they seemed to lose trust that he could still benefit them.

One of the healthiest ideas I learned from those in authority over me was the power of discernment. I was taught to consider the source of any truth I was ascribing to, and, if I felt there were harmful messages in it, to not be afraid to question and expose this harm. Yet as I began to share how Bazan’s discerning lyrics helped me reconsider what it really meant to have faith in God, I felt rejected and unwelcome in my community. I wasn’t sure yet if I agreed with his ideas – I just wanted space to discuss them and to articulate my own questions. Although I felt dismissed, I found great courage in Bazan’s example of vulnerable honesty, and knowing I was not alone gave me peace through this anxious time. Bazan has always been a prophetic voice for me, and he continues to challenge me to consider the countless ways my daily actions belie what I say I believe. The transparent way he persists in bearing witness to his experience provides such solace and inspires hope that I may also be able to find a clear, truthful path forward.


give yourself a breath
while you’re working it out
the answer’s in between
all the concrete and clouds
it’s anywhere you want
yeah, it’s next to you now

It was an extremely difficult step to start to define myself separate from the entire community I’d grown up in, to enter the scary unknown outside the previously clear, safe waters that now appeared murky and troubling to me. While I was immersed in this process, another musician, Kevin Devine, was beneficial in presenting an alternative perspective. Though all of his albums are incredible works of art, the one that strongly impacted my spiritual development was 2011’s Between The Concrete & Clouds. The title track traces the journey of his formative years, from Catholicism to atheism to existentialism to a mature, nuanced, slightly more solid ground that validates and gives grace to fellow questioners. The entire album pursues a resolution to elevate love and compassion to a first priority in all relationships, and in doing so it exemplifies a genuine Christ-like viewpoint.

Devine constantly examines how he enacts his belief system in real life, reflecting on both the consequences and the rewards of those actions. He’s shown me that I don’t have to ascribe to a religious tenet in order to be a moral, ethical, conscientious person in the world. On this album, his songs challenge me to break a cycle of default thinking, of cynicism, of obsessing about the past, and to instead process the past in a step toward redemption: “Leave ‘10 years ago’ 10 years ago / get back within yourself and listen close.” He places the burden of responsibility on each individual person, and motivates me to leave my comfort zone and consider spiritual, moral, and political viewpoints vastly different from my own. I’ve learned that it’s okay to disagree with those in authority who taught me discernment, and that my own perspective, intuition, and experience is valid and can be trusted. Listening to this revolutionary album, I’m led to reexamine the traditions I was taught, confront areas of cognitive dissonance, and move forward into a more holistic place where I’ve found an authentic path to love myself and to love others.

The Present

I think there’s a God
and He hears either way
when I rejoice
and complain

As I contemplated where I fit into modern religious spaces, often feeling out of place with both the evangelical and more progressive communities, I discovered another musician who solidified a specific, helpful foundation for me. This powerhouse of a writer and singer, Julien Baker, identifies herself as someone who believes in God, but weaves this belief throughout her life in nuanced, open-minded ways that strengthen my resolve to build up my own personal belief system. I so strongly identified with the emotions she expresses on her first album, Sprained Ankle, that I listened to it at least twice a day, every day, for an entire year.

Baker has an enduring, monumental power that she wields with such deliberate love. She makes all types of people feel welcome, even as she’s expressing her frustration with God in beautiful stanzas: “So I wrote you love letters / and sung them in my house / and all around the South / the broken strings and amplifiers / scream with holy noise / and hope to draw you out.” I can hear that she’s a seeker of truth, and she compels me to honestly profess what my current level of faith looks like, even if I continue to feel misunderstood by other people of faith. On this album she dives deep into themes of addiction, death, abandonment, and self-worth. There are no simple answers; life is complex, so it follows that religion cannot be reduced to a few statements. Belief systems must be given hands and feet and lived out, not in fear of, but in communion with other people. I know that as I continue to define my religious identity, Baker and her music will be there for me, to shake me out of complacency and point me toward a mystical spirituality and stability that has love and grace at its core.

Today, the black and white strictures of my childhood have blurred to gray, an evolving swirl of uncertain waters. But these three musicians have provided me a life raft, a sense of calm about setting adrift on my own spiritual journey. My system of morality is now primarily based on loving everyone and celebrating the spiritual connection that all of humanity shares. I try to use my many forms of privilege to advocate for those with less, and – a much harder task – try to have compassion for those with more. Religion doesn’t have to be organized, but I am currently part of a church community where I feel at home, in large part because of the music. Singing together with people who have also, at times, interrogated their faith is still deeply transformative for me, whether that’s in a church service or at a concert. When I think of the importance of these voices, I can’t help but be infinitely grateful for all of the beauty David Bazan, Kevin Devine, and Julien Baker provided as my belief system evolved, pointing me toward a more holistic truth with their unlikely hymns.

ONLY NOISE: Marjorie’s

On Sunday, in a part of town I rarely get to visit, I sat on a hard wooden bench staring at a wall. From beyond that wall I could hear trumpet, bass, and a drum kit played by invisible musicians. Their presence was confirmed not only by the sound, but by the rows of people sitting in fold up chairs in front of me, who had a better view of the action. The only musician I could see was an elderly woman in a close-cut purple sheath dress, hunched over a piano. She sat framed by a doorway, and if I craned my head to the right, the discomfort in my neck was worth what I could see.

The woman in the purple dress was Marjorie Eliot, and she was playing in the Harlem apartment she’s lived in for 36 years. For 25 of those years, Eliot has hosted a weekly Sunday afternoon jazz concert in her parlor, free of charge and open to whoever can get there on time. This magnitude of kindness is unusual coming from anybody, but especially someone like Marjorie Eliot, who has endured more tragedy than most – even for a decades-long New Yorker. The concerts began as a way for her to ease the pain of losing her son Phil to kidney failure; fourteen years later she lost another son, Michael, to meningitis. Another son briefly went missing in 2011 – Shaun Eliot, who suffers from an undisclosed mental illness, boarded a bus en route to a transition house on Wards Island and wasn’t heard from for over a month, when a nurse at Metropolitan Hospital finally identified him and let Marjorie know he was safe.

I learned about Marjorie Eliot’s personal tragedies days after I left her home at 555 Edgecombe Avenue in Harlem. But I was already well aware of the events’ popularity, however. When my roommate brought me and a couple of friends to Harlem for Marjorie’s March 11th performance, he was somehow under the impression that her cover of obscurity had only recently been blown (isn’t it just like a white man to think they are the first to notice something special?). The fact of the matter is, The New York Times wrote about Marjorie’s in 1996, and NPR in 2006. Marjorie’s weekly shindig has pages on Yelp, My Secret NY, Facebook, and Place Matters. The cat is, as they say, “out of the bag,” and has been for quite a while. And that’s okay.

One of the most remarkable things about Marjorie’s was how gorgeous and unspoiled it was by the sheer volume of people in attendance. The apartment was packed like a sardine can. There were people crammed into the kitchen, peeking out from behind the doorjamb. Several rows of metal folding chairs held folks with far better views than mine, but this was the shared fruit of their punctuality. The sturdy wooden pew I perched on seemed to extend all the way down the hall, where more people simultaneously watched the band and waited to pee. And in the last grasp for a place to listen and maybe look, a string of guests lined the doorway and wrapped around into the outside hall, waiting for people to give up their seats. It was one of the few times in life I felt that the old saying, “the more, the merrier” actually applied. I occasionally wondered if the apartment was at capacity, or if Marjorie ever got hassled by the fire department, but not knowing only enhanced the experience – like there was some grain of mischief in music again.

Because Marjorie enlists a rotating cast of musicians on Sundays, the music is nonstop. She relinquishes the piano to a man in a fedora, so she can host and greet friends. Trumpet and sax players emerge from the parlor to rest, and beyond the wall another set of woodwinds and brass picks up. Most songs are instrumental, but Marjorie and a few male vocalists pepper in gospel and jazz standards here and there. I feel fortunate that these songs are rare, as it becomes increasingly difficult not to cry during them. For those of us who don’t do church, this is about as close as we get to seeing God.

Marjorie’s Parlor Jazz presented not only one of the most transcendent experiences I’ve had in my nine New York years, it was also one of the most wholesome, which is probably why the comparison to church springs up (not to mention the Lord-forward lyrics Marjorie sang). It felt so inexplicably wonderful to sit quietly for over an hour, not only not touching my phone, but witnessing dozens of phone-free people marveling at this exquisite music we were hearing, free of charge.

When I was in Paris last summer, my French friends and I ended up at a house party. Sadly, I can’t tell you which arrondissement we were in. By then I had imbibed two beers spiked with some kind of diabolical walnut liqueur, and all I remember is being invited to the party on the street. On the street is how most things begin in Paris, in my experience. Once inside the party, my friend told me that it was “nice luck” that we got invited, as seeing the inside of a Parisian’s apartment is a very rare thing. This moment rushed back to me as I sat in Marjorie’s home. It is just as special to see the inside of a New Yorker’s abode, given the premium put on personal space and privacy in this bustling burg.

While the Parisian soiree was fueled by cheep beer and menthol cigarettes, I was just as thrilled at Marjorie’s party favors. About an hour into my stay, an impeccably dressed woman in her 70s came around with a tray full of granola bars, and later one lined with Dixie cups of orange juice. In a city where the best stories are usually born in the wee drunken hours, it felt good to sit in an old woman’s home, drinking OJ in the middle of the day, accepting the enormous gift she gives the city, every week.

TRACK REVIEW: MisterWives “Same Drugs”


You know what life has been missing? A new MisterWives track! And although it’s not a new track per se, as it’s a Chance the Rapper cover, it’s still a worthwhile song to add to your weekly playlist (because everyone has one of those, right?).

In a lot of ways, this single is a deviation from the MisterWives we’ve come to know and love. “Same Drugs” holds elements of gospel music, complete with clapping and soft “ooh’s” in the background, and is overall more low-key and serious compared their usual bubbly, fun sound. Frontwoman Mandy Lee slays the track with her signature quirky vocals, yet this track has a more sobering effect. She handles it masterfully, hitting highs, lows, and everything in between while dodging playfully alongside keys and brass. It’s a great reminder that we all need a lot more MisterWives in our lives–and hopefully sooner rather than later.