Review: Tristen – Charlatans at the Garden Gate (2011)
When you return from SXSW, awash in memories and a sheer wall of awe at the volume of participants, often you scramble to remember all musicians you saw. The second is all those you had wished you had seen. The third is reserved to those bands that were not even on the folded map or crinkled piece of paper with scrawled band names and set times of who you’d like to catch. After catching up on some that I had missed, Nashville’s Tristen became that ink scribble that never was. She handily impressed and left a buzz around her alt-country music. Admittedly I am not a fan of country (“children’s music“) and often quip that it’s the sole genre I can’t bear, yet there is something about Tristen Gaspadarek that throws this predisposition out the window of your car as you barrel down the freeway. Call it cross-over appeal if you may, but “Eager for Your Love” is the “Hmm…interesting” that focuses your attention for the charm of “Matchstick Murder.”
“Matchstick Murder” starts off with a traveling verse, not so much weary but at the start of one’s journey, leading into a hovering, suspended note “hung in the air” that manages to tug lightly at your attention. The slight crescendo of layered chorus vocals guiding you into, “Matchstick murder, who is to blame?” is the first true hook that sneaks up on you. Juxtapose death with catchy, Oldies-inspired pop? How dare you, especially with a foundation rooted in country rhythms? It’s a childish taunt packaged as Americana that teases you into “Doomsday.” The assumption that Tristen writes country pop is thrown out with this song, as lyrically it teeters more towards The Decemberists as a fable of queens and jesters and the abuse of power.
There is a taste of baroque folk in “Battle of the Gods,” due mostly to the bright ukelele and simple, barely changing singsong verse laced with Katie Studley’s violin and Larissa Maestro’s cello. It’s a dark, yet lovingly optimistic song that yet again runs contrary to traditional country; “I keep hoping you will find me, love, beyond the dark gray woods where they once burned the witches at the stake.” This somberness is a common thread throughout Charlatans at the Garden Gate, of love and fantasy. With her music, Tristen varies her influences often as with the rockabilly behind “Baby Drugs” or Matt Moody’s Oldies-inspired organ of “Special Kind of Fear.” Personally, the album is one of those rare full lengths that sustains the attention without withering on the ears. Lyrically, it contradicts that pre-conceived notion of alt-country the way Colin Meloy upended our ideas of what tales could be told in song. Once the melodies have become memorized, a dive into the lyrics solidifies Tristen Gaspadarek as an exceptionally gifted songstress with a musical legacy to unfold.
Adding allure to the brunette songstress, at least for Midwesterners, is that her origins are not some woe-begotten farm town but the earnest south suburbs of Chicago. She then moved on up along the Dan Ryan up to DePaul University, where she graduated with a degree in Relational, Group, and Organizational Theories of Communication prior to Tennessee. Yet all of this is just preparation for the fact that she calls this sound of hers the “musical backup plan” according to her interview with Rolling Stone. If this is evidence of what her inner talent is, Tristen’s bound to become unbridled following Charlatans and its enchanting melodies. Pay attention.