A country artist with a serious set of pipes is nothing new, nor is rock-heavy country music with a psychedelic twist. Equal parts Dolly Parton and Jefferson Airplane, Hayley Thompson-King's solo record Psychotic Melancholia is a poetic and measured critique of life as a woman in the 21st century, but don't let that turn you off. There's still plenty of rollicking on this record.
Psychotic Melancholia opens with "Large Hall, Slow Decay" a good-natured single focused on teasing a holy roller who's found herself on a mission to save King from her sinning ways. With a guitar riff ripped straight from Chuck Berry's "Johnny B. Goode.," the song is an energetic introduction to what Thompson-King has repeatedly called her "Sodom and Gomorrah concept album." As far as a country record goes, that's is a damn good place as any to kick it off.
Thompson-King was born and raised in Florida, the daughter of "an actual cowboy" (her words) who enjoyed horseback riding and had a knack for finding herself at church-organized events on a quest to figure out exactly what it would take to get sent to hell. At one point, she was a proud member of a group called "Clowns for Christ" an organization that is exactly what you think it is. Eventually she moved to New York, then to Boston, where she earned her master's degree in Opera Performance from the New England Conservatory of Music. She didn't start out doing the country thing seriously, as the band she helped form in 2012, Banditas, emphasized garage rock and gospel influences more than others. You can still hear some country in a few of the band's songs, but they're hidden enough to make Psychotic Melancholia feel that much more like a head-first dive into the genre than a gradual transition.
"I feel that what's been done to perfect country [music], we could try and get as [close to] perfect as we can" Thompson-King says of the record's sound, which heavily borrows inspiration from old rock 'n' roll and Opera alike, "but whenever I get into that mindset, no one likes it. It doesn't work for me. So we went this other route with it where we just got really psychedelic."
Going psychedelic doesn't always fit on this record. A song like "Teratoma," for example, where Thompson-King's opera-trained voice seems restricted to a specific octave and forced to maintain a monotone voice in between each choral refrain feels restricted to the theme instead of enhanced by it, whereas her cover of Dolly Parton's "Old Flames Can't Hold a Candle to You" probably would have run wild and free with that treatment. "Dopesick," which was written from Thompson-King's personal experience of watching a loved one struggle with a heroin addiction, on the other hand, which begins in an eerily similar way to the Parton cover, ends itself with a guitar spot and a wild howl that hints at just how psychedelic this thing could become. It often feels like Thompson-King and company's music is being reined in when it needs to be allowed to roam freely.
It's not a record that's all disappointment and no worthwhile pay off, though. Thompson-King ends it with an Opera song "Wehmut," which is a German word for "wistfulness," that's totally out of left-field and absolutely not in line with the album overall, but Thompson-King's vocals are so spectacular I'm willing to let it slide. And, as far as concepts go, there's hardly a better one than Sodom and Gomorrha. They were just trying to have a good time, after all.
Listen to Psychotic Melancholia below. It's out September 1 on Hard to Kill Records.