Tara Elliott is a singer that doesn’t just walk into a room. Elliott explodes into it, letting you know in no uncertain terms that it’s her brand that you should be paying attention to. It’s not uncommon to watch Elliott outcuss and outdrink most men, and her penchant for over-the-top sardonicism is local music scene lore. That colorful and self-confident attitude splashes and spills over the rim on her new record, Drop A Needle On The King.
This is Tara Elliott And The Red Velvets’ second album, following her self-titled 2010 release. There are several differences between the two discs, most notably Elliott’s ramped up attention to the player and production detail on this seven-song platter. Elliott has also taken a deeper, more personal look at her life experiences, bringing intimate and confessional content to the front line of her turbulent lyrical observations.
Drop A Needle On The King showcases some upgraded performer additions on the record. Most notable is the recruitment of guitarist Joe Taylor (Cycle Of Pain, Doro, Lita Ford) on several songs. The disc was also produced by long-time Shoreworld familiar Tony Donato from Jack Brag. Donato’s stark, textured work ethic comes through loud and clear on Drop A Needle On The King, and he manages to point Elliott down an extremely focused path that allows her to move at her own seamless pace as she goes from song to song.
First up on Drop A Needle On The King is the Big Brother & The Holding Company magnetism of “21st Century Mata Hari.” Gritty guitar riffs slither like a sidewinder on this ode to the spy biz’s sultriest vixen this side of Pussy Galore. Elliott’s voice roars into the choruses with all the authority of Johnette Napolitano as she weaves around the chunky bass and drum work of Joe Rowley and Steve Buzbee. Also of note is Elliott’s guitar work. Blues sensibilities abound and the oscillations of guys like Sam Andrew or James Gurley came to mind as playing styles.
“Death Of Samantha” was in fact written by Yoko Ono back in the early 1970s and circled the inebriated indiscretions of John Lennon at a party that Yoko was also attending. The story goes that Lennon was so bummed that Nixon won the presidency that he just had to get drunk and have sex with another woman while his wife was a mere few feet away. I’m guessing by the title that this person was ultimately persona non grata at future Lennon-Ono shindigs. The Red Velvets pump hypnotic, metered rhythm into this two-chord fuzz monster like nobody’s business. Elliott’s vocal abilities shine as she unwinds with succulent and melodic resonance to the bone.
“Shine On” employs percussive skill and dynamic space. Instead of just exploding into the song full force, The Red Velvets build on the simple staging of primal drum and vocal. “Shine On” exudes a spooky, traditional blues style going back 100 years. Subject matter concerns the dark tale of a friend’s death and the positivism of surviving to seize the moment we all exist in now. Elliott’s vocal reminds me of the early mythical works of Bessie Smith as she sounds off on the spent days of past regret.
The LP namesake rocker is “Drop A Needle On The King.” Donato and Elliott do a laudable job bringing out a Concrete Blonde/Heart vibe all over this song, but with the exception of the performers, it doesn’t really go too far. The extension of a modified bridge would have emphasized the return to the last verse and a much-needed further dimension. Mid-tempo heavy guitars chug and rip underneath Elliott’s plaintive, full-throated wails and sultry growls. When you think of a true, full-range singer, you’ll always think of Tara Elliott. I love the two-string guitar bends contributed in the bridges. Tremolo-laced rhythms sparkle alongside heartbeat bass and drums. Reputedly written on a warm summer night while the king was on the record player, Elliott and company go to the end of the round in their raunched-out exaltation of the king.
“Nobody Can Break Me” is established and revolutionary Tara Elliott at her finest. There are actually two versions of this song. One is for radio (clean) and this pick which is somewhat explicit. This is the Red Velvets’ anthem cry against the perpetual foe of private and corporate controllers. Elliott pulls off a soulful Robert Plant inflection like no one else I’ve seen or heard around here. She doesn’t copy, but she picks out certain stylistic Plant ticks and injects them into her very own voodoo presentation. Her blitzkrieg phrasing and bomb dropping moans recall “Heartbreaker” or “Whole Lotta’ Love” vintage. Her lyrical communication is a simple and compelling warning shot. “I’ve got a school of hard knocks master’s degree/Don’t you fucking underestimate me.” Credit goes out to guitarists Lou Vito, Joe Taylor and Tara Elliott, who all provide unconventional and welcome tone on this delightful record.
The release ends with “A Leopard’s Spots Don’t Change.” Emphasizing simple strummed electrics under Elliott’s full-throated lamenting, this is my favorite song. This is where Elliott transcends. Emotionally charged, Elliott is smooth, settled and full of vulnerability that she never allows anyone to see. This is the open arms self-admonishment from history’s repeated errors concerning unrequited love. The pain, resentment and anguish pour from words written from the experienced misery of relationship woe. Guitars roll on, spewing truck stop riffage and country-tinged bends in wide-open bridges. The absence of standard drums is an attractive choice and illustrates the artistic gamble of a producer who knows the power of a well-written song. “A Leopard’s Spots Don’t Change” is compositional substance, and it just may be the origin of something brand new for Tara Elliott And The Red Velvets.
Tara Elliott And The Red Velvets have had their share of start and stop aggravations, but seem to be on a triumphant burst of both performance vision and style sequence. This record blends raw, unhidden individuality with edgy, original and compositionally smart writing.
The band may reside in Bruce Vegas, but they are far from the usual representations of the Jersey Shore, and that is such a welcome break for me and many others who think that this region of New Jersey needs new representational lifeblood.
Tara has shared the stage with national and global acts: Bon Jovi’s David Bryan, David Johansen and Steve Conte of the New York Dolls, Nicole Atkins, the Ramones’ producer Daniel Rey, Hamell On Trial and more.
Drop A Needle On The King is available as of this writing and more information on the band, the record and the nonstop terrestrial sphere of Tara Elliott can be explored over at www.facebook.com/theredvelvets.