Review Summary: You want an album with the finesse of a train wreck? "The Bad Wife" delivers in more ways than one.
Last year I was perusing my local record store and found myself reading an issue of Cowbell for the sole purpose of finding out why Julie Christmas was listed on the cover as one of their featured stories. Upon turning to the page that had a gaunt image of Christmas and the subtext that read "Singer Julie Christmas trades 'heavy' for 'harrowing' on her first solo album" I was beside myself with excitement. Being an avid fan of the now defunct "Battle Of Mice" and Christmas' other band "Made Out Of Babies", I anticipated its release from the git-go and even asked one of the clerks to order the album for me. After weeks of waiting, I finally acquired said album and, as soon as I got home, I haphazardly threw it into my disk drive for a first listen. I was wondering how she would go about escaping the throes of her other bands to front a solo effort and if it would sound like her previous projects. By the time I got through maybe thirty or so seconds of the first track I realized I was dealing with an entirely different monster. One that may actually be more bold or brash than anything else she has done.
The quiet intro and vocals at the start of album opener "July 31st" set you up, in the worst way, for a bludgeoning over the head. You don't expect the direction to turn as suddenly as it does from a creepy calm to a bombastically heavy chorus that literally comes out of nowhere. This theme is utilized for most of the album, creating an almost bipolar atmosphere in which the listener has to differentiate between the bleak and heavy-as-balls aspects being applied to each song to guess what is coming next. Which you can't.
When the reviewer for Cowbell, Jeanne Fury, said Christmas had traded "'heavy' for 'harrowing'" on her solo debut she wasn't joking. There is still a heavy approach to the record but it is not focused on the heavy aspect in terms of musicality but more so on the sheer emotional attitude attributed to and lurking within every song. "The Bad Wife" is brimming with malcontent, sadness and an overall feeling of hopelessness, like she is desperately trying to communicate something to you but is either lost in her anger or the situation she is in that is violently spiraling out of control. What makes this trait even more monumental are the covers of Jacques Brel's, "If You Go Away" and Willie Nelson's, "I Just Destroyed The World". The way she goes about reinventing these songs make them sound like original material instead of b-sides that should have been released by way of an EP instead of on a full-length. "A Wigmaker's Widow" is one of the stand-out tracks that incorporates an accordion instead of guitar, allowing Julie's vocals to be showcased against a different medium. In numbers like "Six Pairs Of Feet And One Pair Of Legs" and "Secrets All Men Keep (Saltwater Bridge II)", her amount of restraint is unnerving and lends to the subdued side of the album, allowing gradual builds that come to no actual fruition, opting out for an overall sound that keeps you wanting more instead of continually showing you song after song. Vocal highlights come from all over the record, but her roar after the lonesome guitar part in "Bow" pretty much sums up the realization that you can't even compare this to her other bands.
Although the song lengths run long, being nine songs at almost forty-two minutes in length, she keeps you interested from beginning to end. When guitars get loud they definitely get loud, but when they back off and allow a piano to become a major component or even the bass or vocals, you wait for the guitar to reenter the fold, not because you miss the guitar but because its arrival will bring new life to the sound or add a new dimension. That is the beauty of this debut. Although the sound may be extreme it also very modest in its delivery. Something that most bands can't seem to find between here or there. The ferocity of "The Bad Wife" isn't in it's chords or the way Christmas screeches and moans through its songs. It is ferocious as a whole. The entire album is a journey into the recesses of insecurity and an almost quenchable feeling of shame or anger. The music fuels the confusion and Julie Christmas provides a perfect muse to allow it all to get through to the listener and maybe even smother them in all of its gloom.
What makes "The Bad Wife" a step-up for Ms. Christmas isn't the fact that it is her debut solo album. It is because she seemed to have poured every amount of herself into it and didn't settle for anything that may have sounded like her previous bands. She has shown me something I never expected from her. A debut that has all the brains and balls of her previous bands or releases along with a new sense of composure and song-writing I never knew she was capable of. Here's to one of the most criminally overlooked albums of 2010.
Highlights: "Six Pairs Of Feet And One Pair Of Legs", "If You Go Away", "Bow", "A Wigmaker's Widow".