At first blush, the pairing seems odd: abrasive American indie-rock idol and whimsical French soundtrack doyen. Like horseradish and marzipan, they’re two great tastes, but do they taste good together? To the few thousand people out there who know her work with Crowsdell and her devastating solo CDs, Shannon Wright is the quintessence of the tortured artist, all raw nerves and naked emotion. Yann Tiersen’s name might not be immediately recognizable to American audiences, but the French multiinstrumentalist’s delicate and impossibly pretty soundtrack to the surprise hit Amélie has saturated the collective consciousness in a way that Wright’s music never will.
Beyond the superficial differences, however, are deeper compatibilities that make the two artists’ self-titled debut an unqualified triumph. Anyone who’s given Wright more than a cursory listen knows that her songs, though ferocious and often dissonant, aren’t hapless, bang-’em-out exercises in catharsis. Instead of the blues-based I-IV-V progressions of the typical rock song, she favors intervals more common in contemporary classical music — and, despite her sometimes scary howl and habit of recording with noise maestro Steve Albini, she’s fully capable of delicacy and nuance. The classically trained Tiersen, for his part, has done time in punk bands and shares Wright’s fascination with emotional extremes, contrasting textures, and unconventional structures.
Produced by Fabrice Laureau, who introduced the pair and served as interpreter, YT & SW is a study in bleak romanticism, 10 stunning tracks in which luminous harmonies materialize from moody maelstroms and dark dirges give way to ravishing lullabies. Wright wields her famous caterwaul rarely, but when she does, watch out: “While You Sleep” finds that savage bellow in fine form, the perfect counterpoint to Tiersen’s violin, which takes a two-note pattern, blows it apart, and then grinds its arpeggiated shards to a frenzied conclusion. Mostly, though, she croons and whispers, letting the drama develop organically from the evocative, eclectic orchestration. “Ode to a Friend,” a moody waltz, is both gorgeous and disturbing, with Tiersen’s piano arabesques darting between Wright’s tormented lines, which she delivers in a hushed contralto that’s no less dramatic for its softness. The dreamy “Dragon Fly” starts out with an almost stereotypically Gallic accordion and lyrics that seem, at least by Wright standards, positively uplifting, but a faintly plucked guitar percolates below, creating nightmarish undertones and making the narrator’s emergence from a “tall, tall sleep” to wide-eyed courage seem more like a trial than a reprieve.
On this soundtrack to a documentary inspired by one of his own albums (whew!), self-proclaimed “hick-pop” purveyor Jim White assembles like-minded oddballs to pay tribute to the South. A former military brat whose family settled in Pensacola, Fla., when he was 5, White understands that sometimes it takes an outsider to notice the strange allure of a place, the regional quirks that distinguish it from the rest of this faceless, franchise-clogged country. Authenticity, a loaded topic in alt-country circles, isn’t so much rejected as deconstructed, with former New York Doll David Johansen cohabitating comfortably with sin-haunted holler-dwellers Lee Sexton, Clarence Ashley, and Doc Watson. Card-carrying bumpkin Johnny Dowd makes an appearance, as do indie-rock icons Cat Power and the Handsome Family. Fortunately, White loves old-time rural music too much to condescend to it, and his three contributions, as well as those of his co-conspirators, never stoop to parody. From the spoken-word introduction by backwater prophet Harry Crews to a haunting musical-saw rendition of “Amazing Grace” by Trailer Bride’s Melissa Swingle, Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus is as richly paradoxical as the region it celebrates.