Satin Nickel | Shadow of Doubt | (Independent)
3 out of 5
Brooklyn five-piece Satin Nickel dance with the devil on a brutally unnerving retelling of the story of Yankee Jim Robinson. “The Ballad of Yankee Jim,” a pinnacle on the band’s debut album, Shadow of Doubt, excavates the 1852 case with a raw, theatrical intensity ─ a sinister concoction of dark, visceral stringwork and southern gothic folklore.
“Come gather ‘round me children / For a dark and frightening song,” singer-songwriter Morgan Hollingsworth opens the nearly-seven-minute epic. “About a rugged crook whose life was took / By the law that did him wrong / You won’t hear of him in schools / Or singing any hymn / But here’s the ruth, the dead-set truth / Of the ghost of Yankee Jim.”
“The Ballad of Yankee Jim” twists colorfully with historical details in a way that’s even more chilling without compromising factual integrity. In August 1852, Jim Robinson was charged with grand larceny (for stealing a boat) and sentenced to death by hanging. Reportedly, the “dreaded desperado” (as San Diego’s Union daily once described him) was “wounded during his capture and left unconscious during most of his trial,” author Iris Wilson Engstrand writes in 2005’s “San Diego: California’s Cornerstone.” Even more disturbing, the scaffolding on which Robinson was hung was so unstable that Robinson allegedly “strangled for fifteen minutes before actually dying.”
Satin Nickel ratchet up the story, also presented in playwright Frances Bradacke’s 1966 play, “The Ballad of Yankee Jim,” with equal parts blues, folk, and rock with a defined Shovels & Rope volatility. “Poor Jim was dead and gone / You could see it in his eyes / Then they broke his legs to fit him in / A small man’s coffin size,” reads an especially unsettling lyric.
The band ─ including Samantha Aneson (vocals, guitar, banjo), Ariana Karp (cello), Nikola Balać (drums), and Andrew Shewaga (bass) ─ operate best under similar musical configurations. Songs like “Train Song,” “Just Keep Running,” “Secondhand Smoke,” and the title track demonstrate a strong knack for pounding, pitch-black storytelling.
Standing at nine songs, Shadow of Doubt, which ties together themes of grief, devastation, solitude, and freedom, runs lopsided. While their arrangements remain reliably tight-knit and complex (the underpinnings of “Call It” and “Good Love” are particularly satisfying), their true power lies in their daring to go bold and grim ─ and almost revel in it. They are the kind of collective showing great promise, and even when compositions don’t quite gel, they stand by the work.
Photo Credit: Milos Balać