Sarah June sings like a dead girl’s ghost. She’s got the kind of voice that sounds like the wind when it howls through door locks and window panes, the high-pitched and breathy wail of a drowned child’s spirit calling your name from the underworld. It’s the kind of voice you run from in your nightmares—not so much haunted as it is chilling—and the moment it raises a hair on your neck or a goose bump on your arm is precisely the moment June’s songs live in. To hear her sing for the first time is to never forget her, and the songs on In Black Robes, her sophomore LP released this past March on Silber Records, are no easier to get out of your mind than the name of the one who first broke your heart.
“This is the end, my friends / we’re all skeletons / with crossbones in our eyes / and wing-tipped shoes shined,” she sings. “I rattle like a poison snake / but that’s just the chance you take / when you get too close.” The song is called “Crossbones in Your Eyes,” one of the finest tracks to come out all year, and the second track on a record that plays like a goth-folk party in the graveyard of your mind. That’s where you’ll find Sarah June, rattling the bones of your fears and inviting you to delight in the mortality you’ve been sentenced to since the day you were born.
She’s cruising in her jet-black ’68 Caddy with blown speakers one minute and getting summoned to judgment day by a hooded man who points at her with his bony finger the next. “And now I’m just a lonely skeleton / in my coffin black / singin’ love songs to the grim reaper / I hope he brings me back,” she sings on “Judgment Day,” one of the record’s many standouts. Elsewhere she sings of peeling the label off of the bottle of regret amid a jazzy atmosphere of shuffling percussion and acoustic guitar that sounds like something off of Van Morrison’s Moondance, of the girl she studies from across the street as she ties her shoes–the one she loves “more than the girl on the second floor” or “the boy with the metal heart.” But mostly these songs gladly wander where your parents told you never to go, places where the night turns trees to “skeletons with filmy thin tired skin” and the people you cross paths with may be the last ones to see you alive.
In Black Robes is the work of an authentic American voice whose originality cannot be overstated. No one is making music like this–nobody. And while the songs may indulge an attraction to the mabacbre, they only do so with one eye fixed firmly on the influences that June weaves into her music like patches in some quirky quilt. She’s ballsy enough to drop an unmasked nod to Blue Oyster Cult (“don’t fear the reaper ‘cuz he’ll bring ya’ home”) just as she channels early ’60s girl-group pop with a shout out to The Crystals on “Mowtown,” her love letter to the Detroit where she cut her teeth playing gigs after dropping out of school as a teen (“and all the girls in the background sang / ‘da doo ron ron ron da doo ron ron”). She turns in a Jaynetts cover with “Sally Go ‘Round the Roses” and reaches all the way back to turn-of-the-20th-century gospel on “Bluesy Melody”:
Well this is what they call life, baby
That bluesy melody that swings me
that sweet chariot that brings me home
June’s guitar playing exhibits the aplomb of Dave Van Ronk, and the songs on In Black Robes are just as unadorned as the music that high priest of folk made famous in Dylan’s prime (It was Van Ronk who taught Dylan to play “House of the Rising Sun,” later immortalized by The Animals). June summons more power from the snap of someone’s fingers on “The Reaper” or the shy intrusion of percussion on “Crossbones in Your Eyes” than a more ornate production ever could have. Her stripped-down delivery reveals a confidence in her craft that puts In Black Robes on par with some of the most rending acoustic albums ever made–Hurt Me by Johnny Thunders or Springsteen’s Atlantic City come especially to mind. It’s that cycle of songs you only encounter once every few years, performances of such sincerity that they need little more than a lone guitar and a good mic to play it for.
The songs almost never linger beyond the four-minute mark, and the record feels like it breezes by in the time it takes to say your prayers. And how fitting that is, because after June takes you on her trip to meet the ghosts that haunt the anguished landscapes where she finds her songs, you just might want to say a prayer or two.