Ambrosia Parsley is just waking up, so that lilting, little-girl voice of hers sounds a bit worn.
It's 8:30 in the morning in San Fernando Valley, Calif., where she's calling from her brother's home. The 33-year-old New York resident is on the West Coast gearing up to promote the latest album by her group, Shivaree. Who's Got Trouble? is a sophisticated, darkly witty collection of twangy saloon ballads. The CD is the trio's third full-length release and another dazzling showcase for Parsley, the group's focal point and chief songwriter.
"You try to keep moving, keep changing, keep writing new things with each project," the singer says between yawns. She apologizes and continues. "[The new album] is more direct than the first one. With this record, I just took a step back. I was in high-running mode on the first record."
It's been five years since Shivaree (which also includes guitarist Duke McVinnie and keyboardist Danny McGough) released its critically lauded debut, I Oughtta Give You a Shot in the Head for Making Me Live in This Dump. Two years later, the trio followed it up with Rough Dreams. But Capitol, Shivaree's label at the time, only issued the record overseas. The band continued to tour and write music under the pop radar. An overlooked EP, Breach, came and went last year.
Now signed to the independent Zoe / Rounder label, Shivaree hopes to build on the momentum of that first record with Who's Got Trouble? On it, the trio extends its quirky mix of Americana, alternative country and torch balladry all tinged with jazz.
"The guys create pretty interesting soundscapes," Parsley says. "I think you can just sit down and listen to this record."
Like Shivaree's previous albums, Who's Got Trouble? becomes more revelatory with each listen. Old, obscure pop culture references abound. The long title for the group's 1999 debut is a quote from an episode of the '60s sitcom Green Acres. And Who's Got Trouble? refers to a line in a song from the classic '40s flick Casablanca.
"The title applies to all complications of life," Parsley says. "Who's got trouble? We all do, right?"
The smoky cabaret atmosphere is maintained throughout, underscored by Parsley's cool, detached, high-pitched vocals. Horns and strings subtly flesh out the glacially paced arrangements here and there, bringing to mind the music of Aimee Mann and Nick Cave.
"I can list my influences all day," Parsley says. "Of course, there's Billie Holiday. There's a little of her in all of us. Louis Armstrong, Peggy Lee, Muhammad Ali, Dorothy Parker, Dr. Seuss. It all just turns into a bit of a stew."
While growing up in San Fernando Valley surrounded by her West Virginian relatives, the artist's early penchant for performance was encouraged by her eccentric, ukulele-playing grandmother.
"She had this Baby Jane thing happening," Parsley says, referring to the demented character made famous by Bette Davis, "but she was very musical and great on the ukulele, very interesting phrasing."
The singer-songwriter seriously pursued a career in music at age 13 after fronting a 99-piece senior citizen band at a local restaurant called Shakey's. Several years later, she hooked up with McVinnie and McGough, and collectively the trio started out as Junebug. But that name was eventually dropped when Parsley came across the word "shivaree" in a Jesse James biography. The word comes from the French word charivari, meaning a noisy mock serenade.
The music on Who's Got Trouble? is anything but noisy. Seductive and haunting, the album includes such vampish highlights as "Lost in a Dream" and "Little Black Mess."
"I'm probably too close to the page to tell you if I've evolved," Parsley says. "I enjoy writing lyrics and the stories about the dark, human side of life. I like to write where the lyrics can mean a lot of different things. I make sure there's a wink in it, because I'm a fun girl."
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