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Chelsea Wolfe - Unknown Rooms: A Collection of Acoustic Songs

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Artist: Chelsea Wolfe

Album: Unknown Rooms: A Collection of Acoustic Songs

Label: Sargent House

Review date: Oct. 16, 2012

The word “gothic” can conjure up some lamentable clichés, so it’s best not to throw it around too freely. That said, Chelsea Wolfe basically dares us not to use the g-word when describing her music, even as she walks around the edges a few genres. If you’re going to whiteout your eyeballs for a sepia album cover, there’s an adjective for that. She doesn’t shy away from being creepy.

Unknown Rooms: A Collection of Acoustic Songs is restrained with regard to all that. Wolfe moves into richer production, with swoops of strings and vocals darting back and forth in stereo; it’s clear she’s attempting to move beyond flourishes. The goal here is clear-voiced folk, albeit with rock mascara, like what Kendra Smith brought to the 1980s band Opal. When Smith departed, Opal mutated into the more commercially successful alt-somber pleasantries of Mazzy Star, while Smith herself apparently disappeared into the California hills, perhaps continuing her music with the parlor organ she hauled to a cabin up there.

That’s a good definition of the split ambitions of insistently dark music. It’s looking for remote destinations. At its best, this type of art is a form of checking out, leaving behind the shopping mall goth as much as anything else in the pedestrian world.

With less adornment, and without clever nods towards black metal and such, we get a clearer shot of Wolfe’s skills, and Rooms doesn’t exactly present a brilliant songwriter emerging from the foggy incantations of her past work. The tracks here are more slight than Apoaklypsis, and the effectiveness of each track depends on arrangements more than songwriting. Her self-harmonizing on "Spinning Centers" brings to mind Cocteau Twins otherworldness, with a strikingly tight focus. The piano hammers of "Sunstorm" have a sawtooth plainness that’s just right to show off the call-andresponse of her delivery.

There’s only one track I’d declare a real keeper, though, and it’s a cover of sorts. "Boyfriend" is the result of guitarist Ben Chisholm’s other project with Karlos Rene Ayala. The original sounds like a more macabre Magentic Fields. Wolfe and Chisholm keep much of the lo-fi arrangement intact, but her delivery, and the more generous production, open it up in a major way. In a reversal of the scores of indie rock manic-pixie girlfriend songs, Wolfe is addressing a fragile man. She’s stoic, not confused or love-struck. A limping synth line arrives near the end, underscoring the feeling of sympathy and letting go. Wolfe seems out in the open for the first time – overall, though, she’s more interesting when she’s deep in the woods.

By Ben Donnelly

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