Neyla Pekarek: Rattlesnake

Videos by American Songwriter

Neyla Pekarek
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

It’s little surprise that The Lumineers’ longtime cellist/multi-instrumentalist Neyla Pekarek would choose to leave the successful roots band. After all, having to sing “hey-ho” at every show for the past eight years would drive anyone crazy. Still, her debut solo jaunt is a wildly ambitious, rather unexpected work, completely disconnected from the sound of what is now her ex-band.

Pekarek has taken the tale of a woman named Katherine McHale Slaughterback, who reportedly killed 140 rattlesnakes in 1925 while defending her three-year-old son, and written an album’s worth of music around it. Nicknamed “Rattlesnake Kate,” she collected rattlesnake venom for research, was a trained nurse and taxidermist, and married and divorced six times. Pekarek penned this self-described “folk-opera” about Slaughterback’s life based on love letters she wrote to Colonel Charles D. Randolph who she never met. You following this?

Not surprisingly, the result is an audacious, somewhat cheeky album featuring Pekarek’s trilling, powerful voice and songs that shift from ’60s Grease-styled ditties to more histrionic moments, all seemingly made for the stage. It often has the feel of an original cast recording, although sung by one person (Brian Cronin takes the part of Buckskin Bill on a duet). You may expect a chorus to break into some of these performances, like something out of Oklahoma. It’s a lot to absorb — listening with the lyrics in front of you helps — and those expecting something similar to The Lumineers are advised to preview tracks before taking the plunge because this is nothing like that band’s style.

Pekarek enunciates like she’s singing to the back rows of a theatre without a microphone. Between the pop songs, the clean production, the song-cycle approach and her stylized vocals, this feels like it was written for the soundtrack to an as yet unwritten play. The singer-songwriter’s cello talents emerge only sporadically as on the ballad “Hold On Tight” as she concentrates on her voice and moving the narrative forward. Lyrics concern everything from a love song to Kate’s horse (“Brownie: Ode to a Horse”) to a cheery country ditty about adding poison to what may be an amorous admirer’s drink (“Arsenic”) and a diss of Annie Oakley (“Better Than Annie”).

It’s never less than interesting and well executed, even if few of the selections jump out of the mix. At times it feels like she’s shoehorning plentiful lyrics into melodies that can’t withstand their weight, compensating with melodramatic vocals to sell the songs.

Kudos to Pekarek for taking this bold step on her first solo recording, not just in breaking with The Lumineers’ more organic sound but deciding on this offbeat story and unconventional method of presenting it as a theatrically imagined batch of connected songs.

We’ll look forward to the movie.

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