Pekarek develops a full world.
Although Neyla Pekarek’s first album ostensibly tells a story based on another woman, it’s hard not to read a little autobiography into “Train,” the opening number on Rattlesnake. Pekarek, who recently left the Lumineers for her solo career, sings of boarding a train for a “new adventure” and “a better life and a better song.” While you could read a little jab into the song’s chorus, Pekarek’s departure from the band appears to have been amicable, and more about the sense of individualism and adventure that, probably not coincidentally, propel her solo debut. Pekarek develops a full world in her story (even beginning with a vocalized train whistle), with the energy to match her protagonist’s escapades.
That world comes from the life of Katherine (McHale) Slaughterback, a woman better known as Rattlesnake Kate after she killed 140 of them one day in 1925 in a peculiar feat of self- and child-defense, shooting them down and then clubbing them to death. Slaughterback came to fame for those heroics, but the event epitomizes her general approach to a life full of farming, midwiving, bootlegging and marrying with an Elizabeth Taylor-level frequency. Pekarek creatively revives this woman in a narrative song cycle, fleshing out not just the attack, but other elements of her story.
The album is described as a folk opera, but it has as much in common with musical theater as with contemporary Americana. It’s a significant departure from the Lumineers (increased by the clear production provided by M. Ward). Folk-rock roots remain, but Pekarek dips into ’60s pop, some Tin Pan Alley, classic Western sounds and more. Her cello, her primary interest, receives less focus that could be expected, but it develops the setting. Pekarek’s classically trained voice does the heaviest work here; the story of Kate could nearly work as a one-woman show.
The most memorable songs come in the first half, with the driving “The Attack” providing the album’s foundation and “Better than Annie” further developing the character. Pekarek’s Slaughterback doesn’t have time for vipers or show biz queens or anyone who messes with her. “Letters to the Colonel,” a piano-led track deserving of a stage, gives her the chance to show a softer side of someone who can “terrorize the mailbox” waiting on a letter. Within four songs, Pekarek establishes a well-rounded character, set on adventure, tough as anything, but suffering from loneliness.
The second half doesn’t match the first, but Pekarek doesn’t back down from her vision, using songs like the stomping “Miffed” to complicate the story. The strength of work lies less in its historical narrative than in Pekarek’s ability to make that story relevant. Putting the word “mansplain” into the story breaks the fiction a little, but it also connects Slaughterback to contemporary issues that drive this art. Rattlesnake thrives on connecting the past to the present, just as it does on drawing various musical styles into a single frontier. As Pekarek begins clearing her own path, she provides plenty of hope for the new adventure.