Listening to Caroline Sallee, better known as Caroline Says, the most apt descriptor for her music is “pleasant.” The Texas-based singer/songwriter is not a household name in indie-rock, but those who know her love her style. She creates beautiful, minimal compositions soaked with ethereal vocals and reverb.
She exhibited this style on her 2017 debut “50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can’t Be Wrong.” Her sophomore effort “No Fool Like An Old Fool” comes out Friday.
Thankfully, she didn’t forfeit her captivating and dreamy style. This new album’s glaring quality is its all-over-the-place lyrical themes, and the result is a sunny yet jumbled album.
From the album’s leading single, Caroline Says makes it clear that she is a neglected indie-rock figure. The song is titled “Sweet Home Alabama.” No, it is not a cover of the classic Lynyrd Skynyrd song, though Says has done covers. Prior to her debut, Caroline Says made a name for herself by covering the late Elliott Smith’s “No Name #3.”
Instead, this song is strongly anti-Lynyrd Skynyrd. Sallee, who grew up in Alabama, said that Lynyrd Skynyrd’s version represents “pride in the worst aspect of the state’s history and it’s an embarrassment to me” in an interview with Stereogum. Caroline Says’ version is a perfect juxtaposition to the southern classic. It is much more personal, incorporating dreary instrumentation and dulcet yet forlorn lyrics.
The lyrics accompany murky, downtempo instrumentals, but feel disjointed at times. “A Good Thief Steals Clean” is a confusing track; a lo-fi piano riff kicks off a dark-sounding indietronica track. Looking into the lyrics, though, the song is about dating a heroin addict. This is the exact juxtaposition Caroline Says is going for.
“I tend to write from the perspectives of characters in dark situations, even though my songs may sound bright,” she said in a press release.
Immediately following is “Rip Off.” It features more of the same dainty vocals and drum patterns, but with lyrics about an NPR story about an Iraqi man killed by ISIS before moving to New York City to pursue his dream of dancing. The two components feel tenuously connected.
It is appropriate that Caroline Says is associated with Sun Kil Moon, an indie-folk project from Mark Kozelek. She is almost a complete carbon copy of him, but with a less-intelligible lyrical delivery. Kozelek’s 2014 effort “Benji” has no vocal modulation, pro tools or anything to distract you from his voice. This clarity is necessary. He delivers tale upon tale, from personal anecdotes concerning his second cousin who burned to death to all-encompassing issues such as the Newtown school shooting. He does so with a stern, anti-melodic delivery that conveys the seriousness of his lyrical content. This is the angle Caroline Says goes for on “No Fool Like An Old Fool,” but her muddied vocals prevent the concept from coming full circle.
But what Caroline Says lacks in clarity, she makes up for in dreamy instrumentation and virtuosity. On the tracks “First Song” and “Lone Star Tall Boy,” she incorporates wonderful guitar-picking that complements her vocals well.
Then there’s the more cacophonous tracks “Black Hole” and “Mea Culpa.” The blend of her jangly electric guitar licks and light drumming waters the lyrics down, resulting in relaxing, ethereal jams. Her lyric/instrumental pairing is questionable, but she knows what she’s doing.
The highlight of the album comes near the end. The penultimate track “I Tried” almost sounds like a track off a “Latin Lounge” compilation CD, but with Caroline’s own twist on it. This is the most melodic vocal delivery of the entire album. Because of this, “I Tried” is the most emotional-sounding song on the album.
Caroline Says has a solid resume, but as an indie artist she may not stand out as much. There are plenty of singer/songwriter artists who make similar attempts at the ethereal indie music trope. But Caroline Says does not exploit tropes. She takes these elements and maximizes them in a wonderful, elegant effort. Though it is short, “No Fool Like An Old Fool” is perfectly sweet.