“You gotta bleed a little bit to put on the show,” Rachael McElhiney sings on a track from Apricot Trees, an EP of four, folk-soul demos she quietly self-released last week on Bandcamp. McElhiney knows the message well. As the frontwoman for Reno-based soul-rock trio Failure Machine – a band more amped up and with more modern signifiers than anything on display here – McElhiney realizes she might sound her best when she’s wailing about heartbreak. But the new EP, which appears to be her first solo outing, takes her musicianship to a whole new level.
The EP is sparsely adorned and recorded dry, in what seems, for the most part, like single takes. It’s just McElhiney’s beautiful, sometimes playful voice and a gently strummed ukulele. Only on “Quick Cuttin’ Hand” does her baritone sax appear. And the whole thing is absolutely goddamned transfixing.
The jazz-inflected record opens with “Liar,” which features a ukulele measure that carefully repeats itself before loping into the chorus. But what steals the show, time and again, is McElhiney’s voice. She’s always been a force to be reckoned with, but, on this intimate collection of bedroom-ish recordings, her voice calls to mind the sugary-soulfulness of Etta James and the sensuality and lighter-than-air smokiness of Billie Holiday. Those comparisons, by the way, are not made lightly. This is that good.
On “Grandpa’s Song,” she ditches the uke strings all together, and simply coos her smile-inducing lyrics (“Always put pepper on your cantaloupe/Always keep Tabasco on your inside coat”) over a beat of hand-claps recorded lower in the mix. The hand-claps say a lot while playing mostly as a backdrop; there’s an attention to the recording here – the reverb throughout on McElhiney’s vocals is exquisite and pitch-perfect to 70s soul – that’s really surprising, given how uncluttered the EP is in the first place.
“Violet” continues in the shadows of “Liar,” gently strummed acoustics and vocals that dance. And closer “Quick Cuttin’ Hands,” from which the review-opening lyric was borrowed, might be the best thing you’ll hear for a long, long time, as McElhiney unfurls a ballad about an iconic woman named Amy. (“She’s the rattler of my boots,” McElhiney coos.) It’s a piece reflecting on romantic longing and the fine lines between love and admiration, and it is imbued with the spirit of contemporary feminism, a woman’s respect for the power of another woman.
The only negative thing you could say about Apricot Trees, which is available on Bandcamp – if you can believe this — for any amount of money you see fit, is that it doesn’t go on for longer than four songs. McElhiney sounds alarmingly comfortable in her own skin on this departure from Failure Machine. If the guys in that band know what’s good for the world of indie music in Reno – and, hopefully, well beyond – they’ll encourage her to cut a full-length LP out of this wonderful cloth. Must-listen material!