by Jake Muncy
“Weakest Limb,” the first track on Carry Illinois’s Siren, starts with a buzzy electric guitar. There’s some keys, too, and maybe another sound, something a bit harder to place. If the liner notes are anything to go by, it might be the work of a freon meter, courtesy of “Kim The AC Repair Tech.” Or maybe not, you don’t know what a freon meter sounds like. When Lizzy Lehman’s vocals come in, her voice is sifted through a vocal filter, making it feel a bit distant, a bit hazy. It’s all kinda moody. If you were a fan of the Blackwells, this may not be what you were expecting.
Okay, let’s back up a little. Lizzy Lehman is a former member of the Blackwells, a local bluegrass folk rock act which seems to have gone their separate ways, at least for the time being. Now moving forward on her own, Lehman– with Nick Droz on bass, Rudy Villareal on drums, and Darin Smith on guitar– has formed Carry Illinois, and they recently put out Siren, a five-song introduction to a new chapter and a new sound. It blends Lehman’s bluegrass-tinted songwriting with electronic effects, carefully produced fuzz and the feeling of a rainy-morning hangover.
Siren’s five tracks nurse that hangover while looking bitterly at the skyscrapers out the window. These songs are all about the city and its weight. If you wanna take their name literally, Carry Illinois is desperate to throw Chicago off its back. “Weakest Limb” introduces the city as something vestigial that you can’t throw off, as Lehman sings, “I done everything to make my heart beat/ to rise above the heat of these unforgiving streets.” It’s a short and striking opening, and the band’s website isn’t wrong when it calls it “futuristic gospel-folk.”
Next comes the title track, which feels like the most coherent articulation of the band’s vision, an atmospheric, dark track that filters Lehman’s husky voice until it sounds like smoke wafting through a damp room. Her songwriting here and elsewhere is narrative in a notional sort of way, a story of how urbanity’s “screaming siren can leave us bruised,” a story Lehman relates to a trip she took to Colorado. “It’s about flying out of the city to this utopia where there is clean air, no loud trains, and very little noise.” The rest of the album continues on a similar thematic bent, but this quote might shed light on a surprising and disappointing reality of this release: the longer it goes on, the more and more the electronica aspirations take a backseat. “Nothing to Despise,” an Americana paen to the grave (another kind of escape altogether) introduces an old member of the Blackwells on banjo, and compared to the opening two tracks, closer “A Good Farewell” feels very lightly produced, carried by straightforward fingerpicking in place of the deeper electro-infused soundscape of the opening.
Not that these are awful things, exactly, but it leaves the EP feeling a bit less than coherent, and Carry Illinois comes out feeling like a project that isn’t yet sure of its own identity. Lehman’s voice is powerful, but it doesn’t communicate the atmosphere nearly as well when it’s left on its own. It might be an occupational hazard of the subject matter, though. The noise that characterizes the production runs a risk of being conflated with the noise of the city Siren is trying to escape from. But when you’re left with the old quiets, you start missing the noise. In hindsight, that might be the point.
You can catch a live webshow by Carry Illinois on May 15th at Concert Window, where they’ll be broadcasting from San Francisco.