Band: Carmen Consoli
Album: Elettra
Best song: “Sud est” is my favorite, though “‘A finestra” features some pretty great Sicilian lyrics.
Worst song: “Ventunodieciduemilatrenta,” the album ender, is the weakest song on a very strong record.

Part of the issue with listening to music in a language/culture I don’t understand very well is that I don’t get the entire gist of the music’s place in said culture. I have no idea if, say, Dente is the Italian equivalent to Jack Johnson, Brendan Benson, Matt Nathanson or Bill Callahan. I really don’t know.

It’s somewhat freeing; I don’t know the Italian music industry, so I can listen to the music entirely on the merits of the way its recorded. I certainly don’t read much Italian music press — Panopticon writes an awful lot about American bands — so I really don’t know anything about the records I get recommended on Last.fm.

I came by Dente, for example, because I have an Italian penpal (shut up) and she likes an artist Carmen Consoli (the subject of this piece), whom I looked up on Last.fm. The site recommended Consoli and I fell in love with Elettra.

I’m no Italophile, but I do take a fair amount of pride in my Italian heritage, specifcally that of Sicily (not to discount my Jewish heritage, either. I take pride there, too.). Though Consoli hails from the other side of the island than my family does — she from Catania, my family from Palermo and its environs — Consoli shoots l’isola della trinacria a couple of notes in the Sicilian language “‘A finestra” and the ode to il mezzogiorno “Sud Est.”

At the onset of her career, Consoli was seen as something like an Italian PJ Harvey, thanks to her early guitar-fueled, harder stuff. Elettra is more subdued, largely taking an acoustic feel. The album’s first single, “Non molto lontano da qui” is an ode to regret and the need to be in two places at once (the title is translated to “Not far from here”). The idea of the video, on the other hand, is, uh, brothel-y.

Nevertheless, Consoli has a lovely voice that stands up to different arrangements — check the acoustic version of “A finestra “, for example, against a regular live version — of her songs. “Mandaci una cartolina,” the album opener, is lovely as a soft-rock ballad. Or my favorite song on the record, the moment-in-time seafaring tome “Sud est,” is lovely and meaningful and even holds up to an annoying Roman crowd:

Consoli’s writing is also a strength. Coming from the nation of Silvio Berlusconi and the stereotype of sexism, Consoli’s decidedly forceful in her writing and the politicism of her persona (even taking to TV to speak against Berlusconi or explaining how she blew people’s minds in Sicily when she sang at 8:00 here). “Mio zio” is a song that highlights the horros of child abuse, over a shuffling little beat. Her arrangement on “Col nome giusto” speaks to the uneasiness of finding the right words, while “Perturbazione atlantica” uses the sea as a metaphor for the relationship troubles.

But, ultimately, I don’t know if Consoli is just self-absorbed or a completely nonsense pop star. Maybe she’s Kelly Clarkson in Italy, as opposed to Cat Power or Julie Doiron or something. I have no idea.

Which, really, is kind of freeing. I don’t know much of the scene stuff in Italy; I like Teatro Degli Orrori and they have an At The Drive-In thing going on. But, for the singer/songwriter stuff, I simply can enjoy it. And for someone like Consoli, it gives me the opportunity to listen to the vocals without having to deal with stupid lyrics. Ultimately, I don’t speak Italian well enough to know if the lyrics suck.

Everything in Italian sounds great, after all.

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