Review Summary: Old songs injected with new life in what turns out to be a bone-fide third studio album
Remasters abound. Every year there’s a rake of classic repackagings, anniversary editions and label retrospectives that get their mixed tweaked or cleaned up. These slight adjustments are usually a welcome improvement, but they hardly get the blood going. A re-recording, on the other hand, is a far more interesting prospect. Unsatisfied with the production job on their (excellent) 2011 EP, Strawberry Girls decided to record its six tracks from scratch with new arrangements and sprinkle in four new ones to extend the collection to album length. The result is so substantial that I wouldn’t hesitate to call it the third Strawberry Girls LP proper. And it’s phenomenal.
“Black Night, Golden Circus” asserts itself within seconds, benefiting massively from the beefy production of 2015’s American Graffiti. It’s perhaps changed least in structure from its old counterpart, but there was nothing to fix in the first place. Precision engineered grooves needle at the motor cortex forcefully enough that’d I’d recommend this song as an experimental treatment for paraplegia. Another reason to highlight “Black Night” is that it’s the perfect Strawberry Girls archetype. If you’re not swept up in the frantic interplay of Garren, Rosett and Jennings by the time the “Only in Dreams”-style breather arrives, turn back now.
In case you hadn’t got the memo, the band are instrumental. Well, they lack a dedicated singer anyway. Since their first full-length album, French Ghetto (noticed a pattern yet?), they’ve relied upon the vocal talents of a number of hired guns for those occasional moments Zachary Garren’s guitar steps away from the mic. Longtime collaborators Sara Glass, Kathleen Delano and Joey Lancaster do an admirable job layering soulful verses and buttery oohs seamlessly into the mix. I’m less enamoured of Nic Newsham’s contribution to “Thank God”. His nasal intonation clashes unpleasantly with the song’s RnB hook, and the lyrics – sincere or not – just come across a bit lame (“Having conversations with God / Cause I give what I cannot receive; love”).
One Irish band that appear to be influenced by Strawberry Girls, if only by zeitgeist-y osmosis, is All Tvvins. While guitarist Lar Kaye knew his way around a earworm guitar line back in his Adebisi Shank days, IIVV (which I ranked the #17 album of 2016) sits in that same sliver of the Venn diagram between math weirdness and pop bombast that Italian Ghosts does. It’s a bit of musical real estate I wish would expand, since it’s heavy and creative enough to take seriously but still palatable enough to pull in the uninitiated.
What’s clear after listening to Italian Ghosts (version 2.0) is that these songs didn’t get a fair shake the first time out. Far from an admission of creative bankruptcy, the subtle but smart updates here show just how far Strawberry Girls have come in six short years. With their fresh coats of paint, old songs bleed seamlessly into new. No matter how much you clean a reel of tape, no remaster is going to accomplish that.