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Standing Apart – Heather Leigh’s “I Abused Animal”

Heather Leigh
I Abused Animal
Ideologic Organ

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With Abused Animal, Heather Leigh has made her most compelling and intriguing album to date. Drawing from her accomplished vocals that are channeled through a folk tradition, and her trademark lap steel guitar playing, she has put together a cohesive album of songs that stand apart from her earlier LPs of noise workouts and vocal experiments.

The album opens with the title track, which reminds one of Anne Briggs, except Briggs never accompanied herself with ghostly vocal backing tracks. While Leigh’s voice is exquisite, the lyrics are somewhat hard to decipher. Trauma and emotional rawness seem to be at the heart of what’s being sung, in any case.

Second track, “Quicksand,” finds Leigh playing her lap steel sans all the crazed distortion she’s known for. Both this track and the next one, “All That Heaven Allows,” match her vocals perfectly with her playing. While “Quicksand” features guitar that is both gentle and minimal, “All That Heaven Allows,” shows a stronger-voiced Leigh wrestling to be heard alongside her over-the-top distorted lap steel — glorious noise that reminds one of Zeena Parkins’ album No Way Back, or the works of Keiji Haino.

heather leigh

[photo: Cole Peters]

A respite after the extreme but mesmerizing noise of the third track, “Passionate Reluctance” once again features Leigh’s accomplished and unaccompanied singing.  Following this is “The Return,” a pulsing onslaught of noise that relentlessly carries Leigh’s singing throughout the track.

The album closes with the woozy and complex “Fairfield Fantasy,” which finds Leigh altering the tuning of her guitar as she’s playing. The tempo also quickens and slows down as the song progresses, giving the impression that the whole thing could go off the rails at any second. Just as disorientation sets in, however, the playing levels out and we’re treated to some truly beautiful lap steel playing.

Leigh has a long history of solo and collaborative recordings which, apart from her vocal-only album Cuatro, showcase her propensity for gloriously unholy noise. Abused Animal marks a departure for Leigh, who uses all her musical and vocal talents to put together an album of songs that become greater than the sum of her roles as purveyor of distorted lap steel noise and gentle but strong folk-imbued singing.