Gold Rings and Fur Pelts is the debut solo album from Montreal singer-songwriter Molly Sweeney, but it is not the first time she has made her presence known in grand fashion. She first made a memorable appearance on Land of Kush’s 2009 album Against the Day, writing lyrics and showcasing her powerhouse vocal chops on the epic “Bilocations”. Since then, she has gone on to perform both live and on record with Sam Shalabi and the various incarnations of his ambitious Land of Kush project, and a healthy trace of that outsized ambition has evidently rubbed off on Sweeney. Gold Rings and Fur Pelts splits its attention between intimate psych-folk and stylized chamber-pop, often with an emphasis on mood and atmosphere rather than songcraft.
As a vocalist, Sweeney is a remarkable talent. Her elliptical songwriting and acoustic instrumentation have already led to some inevitable comparisons to Joanna Newsom, but that seems to me a bit misleading. Sweeney has a multi-octave range that lends her vocals considerably more versatility than Newsom’s, and in its lower registers her voice can recall classic Joni Mitchell or Judee Sill before then soaring upwards in wild swoops reminiscent of Josephine Foster. Sweeney herself alludes to Marianne Faithfull with one title here, “Not Faithfull”, a nice homage that seems another red herring– she’s got innumerable cartons of cigarettes ahead of her before she can approximate Faithfull’s rasp.
With Sweeney’s voice as the music’s constantly shifting center, she and co-producer Radwan Moumneh surround her performances with discrete orchestration, using an extended group comprised largely of various Land of Kush and Constellation label veterans. Together, they produce moments of aching loveliness, such as the shivery cello and viola that opens “Spirit, Will I See You” or the spot-on woodwinds that encircle the opening “Swollen”. Ultimately, however, Sweeney and the group are not able to disguise the impression that most of these songs are just not quite there.
Despite, or perhaps because of, her ambitious style as a songwriter, Sweeney does not sound much interested in repeating choruses or crafty pop hooks. This tendency doesn’t matter as much on the detail-oriented “Spirit, Will I See You” or the ornate, jazzy closer “Radiant Sun”, which maintain interest through their ever-changing color palettes. But without memorable hooks, Sweeney’s simpler, folky pieces such as “Florida” or “Full Moon” are rendered meandering and aimless, and border dangerously close to generic, Jewel-like coffeehouse pop. At the other end of the spectrum, the album’s title track is a daring pastiche of Argentinean tango, enlivened by Sweeney’s full-throated vocals and French lyrics, yet it is unconvincing as anything but a diverting bit of theater.
The album’s lyrics are also a stumbling block. In several instances Sweeney’s lyrics seem to have been written in a strange rush, leading to clunky rhymes (“You were fit once, just like a god/ A sweet young child in a grown-up’s bod”) that can stop an otherwise sophisticated song dead in its tracks. Here again, her ambition seems to have gotten the best of her, as on “Eros and Psyche” whose mythic title might suggest a lavish narrative but instead details a romantic encounter (“His hands were softer than a breeze/ I’d put my fingers in his curls/ That gathered like the tops of trees”) better suited to a Harlequin paperback. These distractions accumulate enough to leaveGold Rings and Fur Pelts a tantalizing misfire, one that can hopefully be improved upon once Sweeney manages to bring her extraordinary voice and grand songwriting ambitions into tighter focus.