Written by: Dave Cantrell
Few people know this but before he was famous, the teenage Tom Petty, back when he was raw and hungry and full of fire, fathered a child with Janis Joplin. They named her Star Anna and she’s recently issued what I assure you in 2013’s hiddenest gem, Go To Hell on Spark & Shine Records.
I’m not sure where she’s been or how I’ve missed her up til now (this is her fourth LP, plus she’s basically in my backyard) but none of that matters. What matters is I’ve heard this record, this voice, and that you should as well. It’s not as if there’s no precedent for Go To Hell – in fact there’s almost nothing but – it’s just that the gut-wrenching, rock ‘n’ soul depth and humanity that we depend on music like this to provide us is present here in near unprecedented spades. Closest we’ve had recently is Mary Gauthier and, in a broader sense, The Duke Spirit and Heartless Bastards, but Star Anna eclipses her competition by virtue of that powerfully vulnerable, battle-scarred voice, an instrument that fearlessly plumbs those shadowy corners and dark turns where most of us – quite sensibly – dare not go. Equally confessional and defiant in its every syllable, her voice’s prowess runs the gamut, and the gauntlet. Scorching, delving, seducing, and above all deeply satisfying in that classic raspy rock ‘n’ roll spiritual kind of way, it’s a vocal delivery that we surely don’t get enough of any more, not even close, but fortunately Ms Anna and her exquisitely rusted pipes are here to bring us back to that broken-promise land all by herself.
Well, by herself and in the company of a snapping, authentic, crack band [co-producer/keys man Ty Bailie, guitarist Jeff Fielder, Jacques Willis on vibes and the real-deal rhythm section of bassist Will Moore and drummer Julian McDonough] that brings these ten tales of woe, heartbreak, lust, regret and pain and anger – that whole standardized range of emotional wounds culled from a tough-earned life – to vivid, throbbing reality. In all the verbiage thus far loosed upon you here, the two most salient words may well be deeply satisfying. There’s a sound from the early 70’s – earthy, throaty, as stark and real as a fistfight in the parking lot – that’s largely gone missing, sacrificed and abandoned in the rush for slick on the one end (the photo-shopped ’emoting’ of The Voice) and post-ironic detachment on the indie end. It was – and is, in Star Anna’s hands – music you can bleed to, that retains a ragged jagged connection to its gritty country blues roots, distilling them into a timeless and potent mash that never goes out of date. This album exudes an effortless, leather-tooled groove, suffused with a blue-collar soul that reaches without apology straight into your chest and pulls out whatever secrets it can find. It is, in short, barroom rock ‘n’ roll gone sublime.
Playing now out of Seattle, the singer is originally from Ellensburg, WA, a city smack in the middle of the state most famous for its production of timothy-hay, though it may now add to its civic résumé the production of singers whose sandpapered honesty of voice could strip paint, as Star Anna follows on the heels of benchmark crooner-of-the-lonely-heart Mark Lanegan. Listening to this record, comparing the two, you’ll begin to wonder what’s in the water up there in Kittitas County.
“For Anyone” comes aching out of the gate with a kind of swaying, apocalyptic, falling-forward lurch that in its sub-gospel undercurrents – the slow surge of cadence, the haunt of organ, river’s edge imagery – has at least a hint of David Eugene Edwards to it and in fact the 16 HP preacher is Ms Anna’s nearest touchstone, not least in terms of her early Christian-themed work though, do not doubt, it’s the messy stirrings of the secular plane that concern us here, the baptismal font spiked with more than a dash of the devil’s water.
From the female-Jeffrey Lee Pierce-fronting-Manassas sound of “Let Me Be” (co-written by Nashville songsmith Shane Tutmarc), all punctuating loneliness and complicated leave-me-alone’s, to the sorrowful powerful piano-led ballad “Everything You Know,” the pathos – and the band – blowing up in spectacular fashion at the end, to the ferocious bar-chorded scorcher that brings it to a close, there’s nowhere to go on this record where you don’t feel the familiar – and welcome – sting and lash of a straightforward no-bullshit, all-heart rock album. A certain comfort derives from that, to be sure, but on Go To Hell there’s just as certainly an almost casual magic going on. In both the sonic details and how they’re quilted together, this is an album you feel you’ve owned all your life the first time you hear it. The amazing thing, then, is how such a putatively throwback sound could be this fresh and utterly vital. The answer, though, is simple: songs like this never go out of fashion.
“Electric Lights” could have been sung by Bobbie Gentry or Neko Case (even if neither would get it quite as right; no one nails regret like Star Anna), the mighty, conflicted, passionate and slow-burning title track should enshrine its singer in that great Janis pantheon on high, “Mean Kind of Love” – strummy and dobro-flavored – is a campfire singalong for the 21st century, and songs like the bawdy barrelhouse wink of the Tom Waits cover “Come On Up To The House” have been sung since time immemorial and won’t ever not be.
If it’s the case that the more mortal the song the more it stands the chance of becoming immortal, then Go To Hell will live imperishably, as it should. Yes we live in an auto-tuned world these days and it can all seem so stultifying and hopeless but then along comes Star Anna, appearing in the night sky like a lone, steadily shining polestar to guide us through the dross and back to the rock ‘n’ roll fountainhead. Get it, hear it, enjoy it, and you’re welcome. Merry Christmas.