Karen Elson’s made a career for herself as a model. That fact, combined with the fact that it’s her name in the title, probably triggered a knee jerk reaction somewhere. However, she was also a member of the political cabaret group the Citizens Band, as well as a few other projects here and there. But most people are still wary of this release. Ok, does the fact that Jack White is her husband help any?
Alright, might as well get the quick and dirty parts out of the way. Without Jack, this album wouldn’t have happened, not at least on a scale where people would hear about it. The story is he heard her singing a song or two, got enthused, headed off to Third Man studio with a back band for his lady, and here we are. White himself plays drums and produces, and it’s hard to ignore his presence here; The Ghost Who Walks has that old-fashioned, rustic mix that was on The Dead Weather’s last album as well. Speaking of TDW, Dead Weathermen Jack Lawrence (who might as well be the only bassist White trusts) and Dean Fertita appear here, as do other members of Third Man’s revolving door lineup.
While there’s the implied Third Man “brand” here, The Ghost Who Walks is very much Elson’s record. Of 12 songs, she wrote 8 on her own, and three more were co-writes with Citizen Band members Rachelle Garniez (the sole writer of “Lunasa”) and Duke Bojadziev. Only once does White’s influence become too apparent; second song “The Truth Is in the Dirt” with it’s psychedelic keyboards and drum and bass groove sounds like a calmer Dead Weather cut.
Elson’s forte is an oddly gothic folk and vintage country sound. Normally I’d use a song or two as an example, but it’s so pervasive here that picking any song would give you an idea of what I mean. Aside from the usual band set up, slide guitars, fiddles, and an accordion adorn songs like “The Last Laugh” and “Stolen Roses”. Elson picks up the persona of the singer-songwriter with stories to tell, and boy are they a dark sort. There’s a preoccupation with sadness, nature, and the darker sides of man, and Elson’s morose delivery is the real seller here.
The better songs on The Ghost Who Walks are the ones where Elson isn’t afraid to make a scene. Such is the case with “100 Years From Now”, a cabaret throwback to Karen’s days in the Citizens Band, and has such a spooky romanticism to it I’m surprised Tim Burton hasn’t tried to get licensing for it in a movie. “Garden”, which might be the best song here, benefits greatly from Elson’s dramatic vocal and urgent music. The same goes for closer “Mouths to Feed”. Meanwhile, Garniez-written “Lunasa” is a particularly pretty Nashville ballroom piece, and the murder ballad title track is the perfect choice for an opener.
The times that The Ghost Who Walks misses, it’s in a very Jack White sort of way, particularly the issue that’s dogged The Dead Weather’s (few) lesser songs. The misses here aren’t misses because they’re bad or messy, but because they lack that special something that holds your attention. And despite a few stylistic flourishes, some of these songs can bleed together a bit too well sometimes. While the dramatic moments are great, they are also too few; a shock of life here and there would go a long way.
Is this a bad album? Not at all. Karen Elson is definitely talented, as is the band behind her. With a little work and some editing (I can’t imagine Jack giving his wife that much criticism), Elson could establish herself as one of the better singer-songwriters of the modern alternative scene. As it is, she’s already more than halfway there. Three out of five.
tl;dr: Karen Elson’s dark country debut shows that this model is more than a pretty face. Three out of five.