It’s easy to forget the importance of fundamentals, especially at a time when individual artists have so little power, forced by an overabundance of product to resort to hollow flash and trend-adherence to gain attention. Yet it’s a tight grasp of the basics, and not all that much else, that defines Tristen’s Charlatans at the Garden Gate, an assured debut whose excellence flies in the face of convention.
Tristen was initially drawn to the inexorable black hole of Nashville, where countless young female artists have been paved over by the blandness of the Big Country establishment and turned into cute dolls fit for broad consumption. But rather than be consumed by the uniformity of this sound, the Chicago-raised singer employs it for her own purposes, adding country influences as surface inflection for a literate, elegant style of pop. Tristen’s songs are wordy and dense, spinning streams of lyrics that spill out over complicated melodies. Clever and feisty, her work at times recalls the prickly intelligence of Liz Phair, though less inclined to neuroticism and narrative complexity.
She’s also the better singer of the two, with a voice that sways from pure sweetness to suggestions of creaky experience. “Heart and Hope to Die,” with the sharp variance between its initially tender verse and aggressive chorus, might feel like a false move for a less versatile singer, but Tristen nails the transition. “Doomsday” is equally surprising, employing a breathless vocal progression that’s periodically eased by the soaring chorus.
The basic mastery of these songs, the way they skip between styles and voices, while maintaining a strict level of lyrical and vocal quality, is a great accomplishment in itself, especially on a debut. That Tristen represents such a resolutely un-gimmicky presence, instilling stock country elements with a renewed sense of life, is an added bonus, another encouraging sign for an artist with a distinctly bright future.