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Steve Abel & The Chrysalids
Flax Happy Daniel Ross , June 5th, 2009 07:42

There's a vein in Antipodean pop that deals with the very darkest material. From the ubiquitous Nick Cave to the newly valorised Devastations, these artistes find melody and drama in life's corners and crannies more than their highways and coffee shops. Sonically, Steve Abel's second album closely aligns with many of these ideas – it's sparse but dense, quiet but intense the whole way through. Lyrically, Abel dashes from antiquated reference to almost-comical asides – is the phrase "boob rot" supposed to make us laugh?

What remains, despite the confusingly satisfying breadth of lyrical sentiment, is the desire to create utter and total warmth in the timbre of this record. Like the similar work of James Yorkston, the resulting atmosphere is inviting and accessible, but Abel is wise enough to pepper his expressions with enough challenging moments to render Flax Happy an engaging, rather than a merely passive, experience. 'Pin Of Love' is a bilingual triumph, with traditional Maori language mixing with simple, folksy English. Thanks to the interaction between Abel and Texan guest Jolie Holland, it avoids gimmickry by becoming thick and foggy.

As it develops, Flax Happy becomes ever more immersive. When we begin to wind down, the close-miced 'Heart Of Misery' emerges as the album's simultaneously lightest and darkest moment, for very different reasons. Holland returns to add some colourful harmonies, but Abel's lyrics are foxing – sweet but completely punishing. This is a man who has literally lost everything and concludes by making the ultimate sacrifice, perhaps with a wry grin on his face. It's equal parts disturbing and lullaby-esque, but one certainly not designed to aid soothing slumber.

Hardly ever have the lines of prettiness and ugliness been so starkly crossed. It's a fairly standard maxim for the prettiest tunes to have the ugliest sentiments, but Steve Abel sharpens the focus of how that might be possible. Consummately relaxed danger.

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