If you heard the album The Autopilot Knows You Best earlier this year by The Places, chances are that one of the major things that drew you to the group was the amazing vocals of Amy Annelle. If you were one of those people who enjoyed that release, then reading the rest of this review is basically a null point since you should go out and buy this one right away as well.
Although it's a more stripped-down affair, A School Of Secret Dangers is just as listenable as that other album, mainly because of the knack of Annelle to write and sing amazingly catchy songs, evne if it's just her and a guitar. Okay, so it's not just her and her guitar, and that's part of what makes the album so interesting. Compiled from a batch of self-recordings using vintage microphones, short wave radios, and analog tape, there's an interesting, warm quality that lends itself to the entire recording, including found sounds that drift in and out of the mix and a warm fuzziness to some of the recordings that is a combination of the analog tape and the old mics.
The album starts out with some of these field recording sounds before Annelle fades in a couple strums of her guitar and the slight ticky-tick of a drum machine on "The Birds Start Talking English." With the hop-along rhythm and almost banged-out quality of the guitar, it feels like a nice update on the classic campfire song (I mean, who brings a drum machine to a campfire anyway?). If the first song was good, though, it's the next couple tracks that Annelle really starts hitting her stride. "Broke Down" is the epitomy of a bleak autumn track, and when she sings the line, "I wish that I could wrap myself around you in the ground" it sounds like she's been taking hints from Bonnie Prince Billy's I See A Darkness release.
"Ugly Stray" takes on a slightly happier subject (not by much), but the song itself is one of those rare tracks you find yourself singing along with on the very first listen. Creating almost a round out of two different vocal tracks, Annelle never gives herself a chance to get a breath, but it works perfectly in the context of the track. Likewise, the slightly louder amount of tape noise on "Idaho" gives it the quality of listening to a well worn record and again ties into the vocals talking about listening to old 78's.
Although two of the tracks on the disc are re-workings of songs off The Autopilot Knows You Best, it's hardly a problem, as they sound just as good in their quiet state. I know it's not an easy task to create songs ones that seem to flow almost effortlessly, but Annelle almost makes it feel this way with both of her past recordings. Part Cat Power, part Liz Phair, and even a touch of Jenny Toomey (remember her?), it's an excellent stripped-down album that showcases the excellent talents of Annelle. Most people probably haven't heard of her yet, but here's hoping that with this release, they do.