If you live anywhere in the American Midwest and have the slightest taste for country/folk rock, you've probably seen Deanna Varagona. If you haven't tagged her as the only resident gal in the Lambchop massive, you've seen her share vocals with Chris Mills or watched her add some baritone sax spice to the likes of Neutral Milk Hotel. In Chicago, her adopted home, she's ubiquitous -- in the audience if not sitting in on stage, impressing us almost as much with the breadth of her interests, acquaintances and energy reserves as with her spirited playing.
If you live outside of the Midwest, you've probably heard your share of Deanna's musical contributions, but haven't matched her name to her face. I assure you, however, that with the arrival of Tangled Messages, you'll remember her. (Indeed, once you've seen a copy of Tangled Messages, you'll have seen far more of Deanna than most folks can heretofore claim to have viewed. And you won't forget it quickly.)
Tangled Messages is good rainy day music. Sparse and moody, these eight songs keep Varagona's musical and vocal performances in the spotlight, mixing the emotional weight of country, blues and folk traditions with the cinematic spatial experimentation of contemporary country-tinged rock. An envy-inducing multi-instrumentalist, she's also a vocalist of unusual subtlety. Varagona favors emotional range over flashy vocal acrobatics, bringing coy sweetness and austere sincerity to the David Lynchian "In Deep", a storyteller's twang to "Running So Long" and hard-edged, raw-throated blues anguish to "Take My Shovel".
The disc's centerpiece, "Goodbye Kiss", is a sprawling, mandolin-accented love song in which Varagona trades words with Chris Mills. If you've enjoyed Varagona's contributions to Mills' work, you know how well their voices mingle. If not, you have a pleasant surprise in store. Listen, also, for Music Tapes/Neutral Milk's Julian Koster bowing "Naked"'s singing saw, and drink in the rich, all-Varagona ambiance of "Blue".
Some listeners will be disappointed that Varagona has opted for a relatively narrow stylistic range. It's obvious that she could provide more variation if she wanted to, but has chosen instead to make the music that she knows best, the better to connect with her audience. As such, Tangled Messages won't whack you over the head with a cast-iron skillet. It's not a rollicking, rowdy album of good-time anthems, and if you drink to it, you're probably drinking alone. No, listening to Tangled Messages will send little, jittery electrical currents across your skin, as if the speakers themselves were fixing to let loose a bolt of lightning. It's relaxing, but in the way that drifting back to sleep after a nightmare is relaxing: you're calm for now, but ready for something unexpected and disturbing.