LEAH BROOKE – Royal Jelly
(2016 Lucky Tooth Records)
Leah Brooke Conway has been putting a lot of time in as a local musician. Since moving here from her hometown of Edgerton she’s been involved with several groups including the Sills, Elks Teeth and Rabbits Feet, Low Rodeo and now Royal Jelly, her new band that is named after this, her first solo album.
Royal Jelly, the album, sees Conway backed by her fellow Sills band members: Blair Clark on bass and synths, David Ross on drums and Chris Moore on banjo. Royal Jelly, the band, is currently Ross on drums, Dave Jensen on bass and Karen Wheelock on keyboards.
The album title (and now band name) is curious. Royal Jelly is a protein (royalactin) substance in which honey bee larvae are immersed while in special container cells in order to produce a new queen. It is a nutritional supplement for humans with multiple benefits including antioxidants that prevent cancer and it has properties that improve metabolism and boost the immune system. It is used to treat a variety of ailments.
“Ailments” is a key word for Conway whether they be matters of the heart or body and for which music is a special balm. So the name is fitting; her music is a concoction of folk and unpolished rock that lets her real strength – her poetry – seep through. Much like the work of Patti Smith, the music is a means of conveyance that melds with the literary. All thirteen songs (plus one hidden track – a rough demo of “Queen Vaseline”) on Royal Jelly were penned by Conway. The album was produced, engineered mixed and mastered by Pete Mason at Solid Air Music. Mason does a fine job of capturing Conway’s passion for her music while not dressing it up too much. The songs began as acoustic or electric guitar vignettes and developed with Mason’s guidance.
Conway uses plenty of stylish accentuations. The timbre, quality and advanced control of her voice seems naturally suited for pop music or even jazz chordal voicings despite the dark and heavy nature of the lyrics, which often refer to a world-weariness and preparation for death. Although the combo arrangements add propulsion and fill out what could have been a monotonous hour-plus of singer/songwriter fare, it’s the more sparse arrangements that click. “Bonedust” succeeds on these counts; a lone guitar and a lonesome banjo providing the backdrop to the pained lyric while Conway’s hauntingly angelic backing harmonies dramatize matters further. “My life hangs in the gallows / I think I’m ready” are common sentiments throughout the album, spoken plainly on “Bonedust.” “Do tears really stain / or ease any pain… / Don’t pursue me now / I’ll only stare back cold / I’d make Medusa smile / Bagging up bones and denial” border on resolute solitude.
Moments of hopeful anticipation seep through the resignation. Juxtapose “Bonedust” with “Mansion Hill,” a song of lost love, pain and surrender, and yet, there is optimism: “I just can’t wait to be happy / I’ve saved up my pennies for years / I can’t relate but it’s happening / I’ve come much too late / But it’s good just to be here.” Another lone guitar this time is accompanied only by bass guitar and harmonized vocals on the chorus. The song repeats the refrain “All these holes in the walls / Moths in our cupboards,” conveying the desolation and struggle in courageous fashion.
Things really come together on “Heartstrings,” where the combo works most effectively. Mason’s drum treatment works perfectly against the synth and piano parts while Conway wretches out one of her finest melodies and one of her best lyrics: “Empty barrow / Waiting for the weight of stars / Shining on the endless reaping harrow.” What could be considered the key track, “Queen Vaseline,” similarly is genre-defining pop with its electronic treatments, mechanized rhythm track and plaintive vocal. This one has a strong hook in its chorus: “Royal jelly for the queen / Smile pretty vaseline / Royal jelly for the queen / Mother Mary keep it clean.” There’s a bit of Lucinda Williams in “Seafoam,” another venture into more pop realms with a simply stated keyboard lick providing a hook and accentuating the key line, “It’s all a pitfall.” Conway stays largely in her lower register here while Ross turns in a nice drum performance.
Royal Jelly is one of those albums with concealed depth which rewards repeated and focused listening, preferably while contemplating the lyrical content. It’s a challenging recording delivered with raw emotion and poetic substance by musicians who really deserve more exposure and credit for their tenacity as well as the creative content they’ve managed to produce in a concise timespan. Conway has hinted at relocating to a more suitable climate in Austin; reasonable given some of her health issues. This would be unfortunate for Madison as she would take great promise along with her, hopefully to fully blossom elsewhere.
Royal Jelly performing “Hollow” July 3, 2016, in Madison, WI. Leah Brooke Conway – guitar and vocals, Karen Wheelock – keyboards, Dave Jensen – bass, David Ross – drums