Emily Haines & The Soft Skeleton
Knives Don't Have Your Back
These are high times for individualistic women singer-songwriters. Coming in the wake of 2006 career-peak albums by such different performers as Neko Case, Cat Power and Nellie McKay, Emily Haines’s new Knives Don’t Have Your Back asserts that Newton’s Third Law counts in popular music as surely as in the natural world. If every action produces an equal and opposite reaction, then Haines, taking a detour from her new-wave keyboard duties as frontwoman for the Montreal-based band Metric, offers the flip side of contemporary plastic divadom. Her beguiling, piano-based ballads nearly whisper their way into your imagination, though Haines never threatens to drift away into the ether like Cat Power’s Chan Marshall. She’s not channeling psychic pain, but rather outlining twisty and original perspectives on experience. “A Maid Needs a Maid” ripostes Neil Young’s “A Man Needs a Maid” with spare, resonating piano notes as Haines reaches for a delicate upper register: “You trouble me?/?Your breasts heave when you see?/?Your mouth should be working for me for free.”
Knives’ songs indulge an occasional chamber-pop flourish (horns on the slinky “Mostly Waving,” synths and electronic percussion on “Detective Daughter”), but their tasty minimalist accents serve the singer well. When the arrangements grow most elaborate, as on the stately “Doctor Blind,” they have the melodic appeal of vintage Elvis Costello (though Haines more clearly taps inspiration from her childhood exposure to Carla Bley, a friend of her poet father Paul Haines). Haines formerly used playful stuntwork in her stagecraft, playing piano while blindfolded. The twilight scenarios here show that there’s nothing obscure about her vision.—Steve Dollar
Emily Haines & The Soft Skeleton play Lakeshore Theater Friday 12.