Reviews for Karen Haglof’s debut solo album, so far, have been schizophrenic. Some critics simply hate Western Holiday, claiming it’s a poorly produced muddy mess. Others praise it as one of the most listenable albums of the year. While I tend to be in the second camp, I can understand why some listeners might scratch their heads wondering just what is going on.
The main reason for this is that Western Holiday defies easy categorization. For example, Amazon describes the album as blues, acoustic blues, roots rock and “miscellaneous rock,” whatever that means. Well, if you’re a blues lover, this record is clear evidence not all the blues sounds remotely the same. Other sites note that it also has elements of folk, country, and Americana. True enough.
One website says Haglof was influenced by “cowboy/country/blues/noise.” Sound a bit avant-garde to you? In the main, Western Holiday deserves to be experienced by a wide audience without many preconceptions and a willingness to hear the vocals, guitars, and quirky songwriting of an artist who can be infectious, creative, and reflective in surprising musical settings.
Back in the ’80s, Haglof was first involved in the Minneapolis music scene, most notably with the post-punkers The Crackers. After moving to Manhattan, she was a short-term guitarist of the “noise rock” Band of Susans, an outfit known for many personnel changes, and then she became involved with the experiments of composer Rhys Chatham and painter/sculptor Robert Longo. Then she set her axe aside and became a hematologist/oncologist affiliated with the New York University Hospital.
According to her website, it was seeing the music documentary It Might Get Loud at an East Village theater that inspired Haglof to get back into playing, especially the work of Jimmy Page, Edge, and Jack White. In 2011, she emailed her former Crackers bandmate, singer/songwriter Steve Almaas, with parts of two new songs. Thus began the road to Western Holiday.
The band on the album includes Haglof on guitar and vocals, Almaas on bass, vocals, and slide guitar on “Lincoln Letters”, and C.P. Roth on drums, percussion and piano. In addition, Almaas gets to sing lead on the album’s happy, rocking closer, “Won’t Wake Up to You,” the late Faye Hunter sings lead on “Lincoln Letters,” and Mitch Easter plays slide guitar on “Musician’s Girlfriend Blues.”
Speaking of “Musician’s Girlfriend Blues,” I suspect there’s many a muse out there who can readily identify with this country ditty. Why should boyfriends be singing sad songs about the ones that got away rather than writing happy songs about the girls who buy their guitars and pay for their cars? That song follows a track with a similar theme, “Righteous Anger,” but the list of grievances is longer and delivered with a harder rock edge.
Touching other bases, “Don’t Straddle Fences” stretches into neo-psychedelic territory. The surreal “Demon Soul Clap” also deals with boundaries, in this case “living on the verge” with demons inside and out of the singer’s mind. The beautiful acoustic “The Button Song” is more than an echo of the early Dylan, and “Danger Point” is reminiscent of mid-’60s AM singles.
In short, Western Holiday should appeal to nearly everyone, at least in part, if not in whole. This is a collection that might best be sampled first online before taking the plunge into the full program. The ideal starting point, no surprise, would be Haglof’s own website: http://www.karenhaglof.com.
Then make up your own mind—but don’t pass on the opportunity to at least become familiar with an artist who just might challenge your musical definitions.
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