Review Summary: A solid starting block for an eclectic folk group with star potential
In the past few years there have been so many quality folk music releases (Helplessness Blues, For Emma Forever Ago, The King is Dead et al.) that it’s easy for some of it to fall through the cracks and never get recognized. This is the case with Peggy Sue’s Fossils and Other Phantoms. Despite opening for Kate Nash, who called them ‘my favorite band,’ on her North American tour and having a decent sized following in their native England, their debut LP went largely unnoticed by audiences everywhere. They had a pretty good shot at hitting it big so the question is: why haven't they?
The answer to this question is quite simple: that there is no member of the group that stands out as exceptionally talented. When one looks at indie-folk as a whole, they see a group of talented musicians and standout vocalists. This vocalist is the major component that Peggy Sue lacks. Although Rosa Slade and vocal counterpart Katy Young sound good, they never deliver that knockout blow that makes you say “this is why I’m listening to this band. “ Furthermore, the two sound strikingly similar to each other, allowing for little variation musically. The closest that they come is on Carless Talk Costs Lives when Slade breathily chants “I love the way my name fits in the corners of your mouth,” in a lovely staccato that keeps pace with the frenetic guitar line. But, for the most part, they fail to provide enough punch for the listener to identify either of the duo as a true talent. On tracks like Long Division Blues, Slade meanders along, saying a lot and yet having absolutely no impact on the listener. A stronger vocal performance, or at least some variation in sound or tone, would catapult Peggy Sue into the spotlight.
Another issue that the album suffers is lack of lyrical weight. The lyrics, like the vocals, are light and airy, a huge detriment. The generally melancholic atmosphere set on the tracks would seem to lend itself to dark themes. Regrettably, darkness is nowhere to be found in the lyrics, setting off a stark contrast between the musicianship and the vocals. At times, this contrast is interesting, but it never engages you enough to want to listen over and over. Frankly, a big reason why folk music is appealing is because of the stories that are told but Peggy Sue has no such yarns to spin. The album cover is a perfect descriptor of what their lyrics sound like: an empty, grey room. There isn’t enough substance there to keep the listener interested for the entire 43-minute long experience. This isn’t to say that the lyrics are bad, they aren’t, but it does mean that the lyrical content is part of what’s keeping them from being a big-name folk act.
Yet, there are times when you hear them and can’t help but think they’re creating something special. Matilda is a beautiful story and the one time it looks like Peggy Sue has everything in one place. The rhythm section complements the vocals beautifully and the lyrics are the best of the album. You finally think that they have it all figured out. They then proceed to erase that thought from your head with the next two songs. Consistency is not their best trait, another component that keeps them from being a formidable band in the genre.
Criticisms aside, Peggy Sue has still created an album that is intriguing enough to warrant listening to. Sure, there isn’t a lot of vocal variation but the music is pretty strong. Drummer Olly Olly Olly plays drums in a lackadaisical manner that somehow gets the job done in a big way. When the vocalists seem lost, he is always there to provide a reason for their wandering; a feeble path in their roaming woods. Furthermore, their instruments are all handmade by the band members themselves. This gives them a unique sound; one that is unvarnished and rustic. This sound is a big part of their appeal and is part of what makes them a special band. Their sound could be considered signature with a little more development and time.
Essentially, what we have in Peggy Sue is a promising group that isn’t quite poised to take over the spotlight. Every aspect of the group can be considered solid yet none can be singled out as exceptional. This is ultimately where the group and the album falter. With no driving reason to continue listening or to court masses of fans, Peggy Sue will continue to falter around in their ‘about to make it’ limbo. They can continue to build on this album though. Songs like Matilda and Careless Talk Costs Lives makes me believe that they can progress from making a great but flawed album into making a classic. Here’s to hope.