The King's daughter, trespassing into T Bone Burnett territory, finds her voice on "Storm & Grace"
Some thoughts on Lisa Marie Presley: “Too bad she ain’t just like her daddy/Oh what a shame/She got no talent of her own/It’s just her name.”
No, that’s not our review. That’s Presley anticipating (or reviving) some of the conventional/cynical wisdom about her musical career in “Sticks and Stones,” a bonus track on the deluxe version of her new album, “Storm & Grace.” She even refers to her own possibly hereditary pout: “She looks bad, she looks mad … Why’s she so angry and mean?”
Why ask why? Although the “angry” part kind of holds true on her frequently embittered third album, the rest of the expected criticisms are rendered irrelevant by how much she’s grown into her role as a singer/songwriter. Working with an all-cult-star team of collaborators — T Bone Burnett as producer, and Ed Harcourt and Pulp’s Richard Hawley as co-writers — Presley has come back with a superior, Americana-styled effort that leaves her earlier, slicker, ill-considered musical efforts in the dust.
The test: Would you want to listen to it if her name were Lisa Marie Schwarzenegger? Happily, “Storm & Grace” would be a rose under any other singer’s name. Even though I’m still kind of partial to “The Naked Gun,” this might be the best thing any Presley has done since “Suspicious Minds.”
If you were going to take a stab at which musician’s style “Storm & Grace” most sounds like, it wouldn’t be her dad’s so much as a guy who took a lot of cues from her father but put his own exceptionally dark and moody spin on that sound, Chris Isaak.
Of course, producer Burnett has his own take on those lonesome tremelo guitar sounds of the distant past, and anyone who enjoyed his rootsiest early solo work — or, say, the celebrated album he produced for Robert Plant and Alison Krauss — is due to find huge enjoyment in the deliciously mysterious sound beds he’s created for Presley.
Low-key is the order of the day. Presley had a minor pop hit with her debut in 2003, but in her semi-retirement since 2005, she seems to have given up any thoughts of going for a brass ring. Her voice, which sounded stretched thin on those two earlier albums, is no longer a concern now that she’s found cohorts who know just what kind of musical pocket works for her unexceptional but alluring enough chops.
And while it may be tempting even for some admirers of the album to say its artistic success is all Burnett’s work, the songs themselves (which he didn’t have a hand in) are strong enough that you can believe him when he swears Presley’s demos were impressive. Suffice it to say that the highlights here would be the highlights on a Ryan Adams or Son Volt record.
The opening “Over Me” picks up one of the album’s better heads of steam — which is to say, it’s a medium-tempo country-rocker — as Presley sings mixed messages about how she feels about the new girl in a former lover’s life. “She’s cool in a gap-toothed hippie chick way,” Presley sings, nonchalantly, of her successor. “She took my place, saved the day.” Is she upset or relieved at having been replaced? It’s not quite clear, though it’s probably both, which is part of what makes the song such a delight.
But Presley does get more clearly pissed in the following track. “You can think that I’m evil and I’m off the rails/You ain’t seen nothing yet,” she threatens in the following tune. And though she’s seemingly been happily married since 2006 (her husband, Michael Lockwood, is one of many guitar players on the album), she’s certainly feeding off some beefs, past or present, with something or somebody.
It’s a depressive enough album that Presley frequently seems friendless, questions her own bad karma, and/or has some questions for the Almighty. “On my forehead, does it say/Unleash all hounds of hell this way?” “Farewell, fair-weather friends/I can’t say I’ll miss you in the end.” “Somewhere along the line I must have been a backstabbing liar/Maybe in another life I was a snake or vampire…/S—, it keeps on coming/Maybe should change my plumbing.” “Whoever is running the show/There’s one thing I need to know/Could you soften the blow.”
The last couple of tracks strike a more hopeful tone (see “Forgiving”), but “Storm & Grace” has decidedly more storm than grace, which makes it a pretty good late-night album in the lonesome tradition of, say, Sinatra’s “Only the Lonely,” or just about anything Jay Farrar ever wrote.
The subjects of the songs may inspire speculation. If I were a betting man, I'd guess that "I Was Wrong" is a sort of eulogy for ex-husband Michael Jackson, given its tender, rueful sentiments about two people who couldn't quite bring themselves to believe that their partners loved them. It's just a hunch, of course, and she'll never tell.
As for “Sticks & Stones,” the self-referencing track mentioned in the opening to this review? It’s the weakest track on the collection, being a bit too on-the-nose in describing What It’s Like To Be A Presley. It’s also fascinating, of course, which is why it makes a perfect bonus track, even as Lisa Marie was smart enough to leave it off the standard edition in favor of more poetic and universal laments.
Neither Elvis nor T Bone raised any dummies.