The unmistakable truth, and what will get the absolute most attention when talking about Karen Elson is that she’s married to the brilliant Jack White. Would she be releasing her debut solo album “The Ghost Who Walks” this week were White not involved? Probably not, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t deserve the musical success that’s already coming her way. Elson is also a model, and considering looking pretty is her full time job there’s plenty more people who will probably think she’s got little to no discerning talent otherwise. Well, that might be generalizing a bit too much. What many probably won’t hear or read is that Elson also has a healthy background in music. She plays guitar skillfully and has been a part of two bands: the Cabaret group Citizens Band and also a garage punk band called Mildred and the Mice. Those two projects are quite stylistically different from one another, and so it makes you wonder exactly what a Karen Elson solo record would sound like. Well, after playing a few songs she wrote for her husband, he insisted that she make an album and set about putting that in motion. White recruited many of his friends to help out, and he took care of the percussion work, as he does in The Dead Weather. The result is Elson’s solo debut “The Ghost Who Walks”, which is available now.
Stylistically speaking, “The Ghost Who Walks” might best be classified as an alt-country record. That’s not completely accurate though, as there are a number of songs done in a more traditional folk or American roots sound that tends to work in a dramatic and sweeping (but still cohesive) fashion. The opening title track is a darkly tinged murder ballad that’s made hauntingly beautiful by the addition of electric piano. That electric piano pops up again on a couple other tracks, as does everything from a fiddle to a steel pedal guitar to an accordion and a theremin. In fact, much of the album sounds great and is very well put together, most likely a product of Jack White producing the album and bringing in other talents to help flesh these songs out properly. The more sparsely constructed acoustic-dominant tracks like “Lunasa” and “The Last Laugh” serve as better showcases for Elson’s talents both vocally and instrumentally. Her darkly haunting vocal performance is enchanting for much of the record, even if it’s not nearly as strong as some of her contemporaries like Neko Case or Hope Sandoval. Where the record really runs into problems is when it comes to memorability. Gorgeous though they might be, in particular the final three tracks, none of the songs really stick with you once they’re over. After repeated listens, many of the tracks even start to blend together, and with little to no compelling hooks to latch onto, the whole thing becomes one formless blob. That lack of distinction is what turns a potentially great album into a merely good one. Still, this album does make it clear that Elson is a good enough musician to deserve a record deal, though one does wonder how strong of an album she might make if left only to her own devices. Maybe her husband will be too busy with his 10 million other side projects to help her out the next time around. Then we’ll see how far her talents really reach.