Like a lot of people, I first became aware of Ambrosia Parsley and her band Shivaree from movie soundtracks. Goodnight Moon, from Shivaree’s first album in 1999 (I Oughtta Give You A Shot In The Head For Making Me Live In This Dump– one of my favorite album titles ever) has been on a number of soundtracks over the years. The one I saw first was Kill Bill Vol. 2, but it’s also on Silver Linings Playbook and at least a few other films. Someone I saw Kill Bill Vol. 2 with said it was a cover of a Leonard Cohen song.
It isn’t. Speaking as a writer, though, I would be pretty stoked if someone had mistaken my lyrics for Leonard Cohen. And lyricism is a real strength of Ambrosia Parsley. Her lyrics are both very visual and very conversational. Leonard Cohen has gone there before but it’s never really been his central strength. Cohen’s lyrics were extremely conceptual and economic like Allen Ginsberg. Ambrosia Parsley is closer to Jack Kerouac.
I don’t want to imply that Ambrosia Parsley doesn’t have concept-driven material either, and she definitely knows how to let a small collection of words do the work of many. But her writing for her Shivaree body of work definitely emphasized her ability to be explosive and colorful. There are some really cool surreal touches on the first two Shivaree albums, I Oughtta Give You A Shot In The Head For Making Me Live In This Dump and Rough Dreams. The lyrics to Goodnight Moon are suggestive and abstract and Daring Lousy Guy closely pairs the mental image of a flat-in-front (potentially plastic) Ken doll boyfriend getting spanked without pants on. That combination of mental images snuck up on me- her voice is just so rich and her music hugs the complicated edge of simple, straight-laced songwriting. For an example of her more conceptual lyrics, see her recent singles Atlantis and Let a Wolf.
Maybe that’s why her lyrics run such a wide range. She’s actually quite the disciplined musician. Maybe the effusive lyrics counterbalance the economy of the songwriting. David Bowie and Warren Zevon took advantage of that balance often. This actually makes my heart go out to Ambrosia. She exemplifies an aspiration of mine.
I’m a messy writer. And I love other messy writers. I love that Salman Rushdie included a number of vignettes in The Satanic Verses that fleshed out the world of the story but didn’t explicitly move the plot. I love it when Anne Rice (R.I.P), Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore do the same thing. Ambrosia also appears to be a messy writer but she’s a messy writer who understands simplicity. I’ve always aspired to that.
If you’ve never heard of her, Ambrosia Parsley’s music has always been somewhat close to what people think of with the words ‘singer-songwriter.’ The first two Shivaree albums included elements of country, folk and alternative rock. Daring Lousy Guy (Shot In The Head) and After The Prince And The Show Girl (Rough Dreams) are clearly influenced by R&B. Thundercats, John, 2/14 and Reseda Casino could probably do rotations on modern rock forums. All of those are from Rough Dreams, though, which was never released in America. John, 2/14 had a music video that aired on European MTV though, and the album charted in France. Shivaree recorded a rather beautiful concert that can be found on YouTube under the name ‘Rough Dreams in Paris.’ Ambrosia’s more complicated and experimental work make it fun to imagine her touring with bands like The Bridge City Sinners or Hillbilly Moon Explosion.
Her more recent material, though, errs on the side of simplicity. And maybe my radar isn’t the best, but Ambrosia Parsley’s recent offerings under the name Amb. Parsley kinda…flew under the radar. I only became aware of them when I saw her Instagram story almost a year ago advertising the single Over the Overlook. She has released eight singles in the last few years, and some years before then did a solo album called Weeping Cherry.
Over The Overlook and Heavy Metal Stacy both put Ambrosia’s conversational voice front and center. Heavy Metal Stacy could fit in alongside some of Ambrosia’s more whimsical and energetic songs like Reseda Casino, Someday or Thundercats. Mexican Boyfriend from Shivaree is less energetic and whimsical but it has a retrospective attitude that could work well alongside Heavy Metal Stacy, in a concert or something. Skin & Bone from Weeping Cherry would also work well on that setlist. Another quieter Shivaree song it could compliment well would be Five Minutes. Heavy Metal Stacy relates stories of a bygone best friend. It reminds me of a few of the totally unexpected friendships from my childhood. Growing up in a smaller, rural place, you make your own fun and you get used to a lot. The necessities of isolation cause some very unexpected (and sometimes very powerful) connections to form. This was echoed in the next single, The Kindness of Strangers.
On the other end of the spectrum are songs like Beneath the Bird Feeder and It Won’t Be Me. It Won’t Be Me is synthy, melancholy and remote with vampiric metaphors reminiscent of the costume Ambrosia is wearing on the cover. The song would be at home on the soundtrack of a David Lynch movie alongside scoring by Angelo Badalamenti. Beneath the Bird Feeder is simple and atmospheric with poetic lyrics about bird seed and falling snow.
Maybe this is an accident of my retrospective listening, but Beneath the Bird Feeder makes for a neat segue to Weeping Cherry which starts with the same solitary, mental point of view with the first two songs, Empire and Rubble.
There are some superficial connections between Weeping Cherry and other Amb. Parsley and Shivaree material, but not a lot. Weeping Cherry doesn’t really sound like anything else that she’s ever done. Maybe this is because of the material that she wrote for Shivaree, which was the band she broke through with, but when I think of Parsley’s writing I think of an outward-facing point of view. She’s just so good at using conversational delivery which always feels a little outward-facing, even if it doesn’t have to be. Weeping Cherry feels more personal and somehow transient. Empire has a soft rhythm that’s both anxious and resigned, as if some leave-taking is in process. Rubble follows with a less pressured voice but just as isolated with it’s speculations on the thoughts of a loved one and one’s own immediate fate. My Hindenberg takes a similar perspective to a more accepting and empathic place.
In case I haven’t emphasized this enough: she writes just as well in a solitary voice as she does in a conversational one. Good Shivaree examples of this are New Casablanca, Five Minutes, Mexican Boyfriend, Stealing Home and Arlington Girl.
Speaking of Ambrosia’s more stripped-down moments, with her voice taking the entire foreground, the title track of Weeping Cherry is a good one. She uses the dominance of her voice to focus on multiple characters. It even starts with a loose third-person point of view: “That was no way for a queen to end / what’s under her bed /never used to be a dark thing.” I’d be happy with an opening line like that for a story. More lines I have to mention: “Well, history / unwashed and unsaid / I left my best dress and my shoes on the bed.” That’s from Skin & Bone but it builds expectation in a way that’s similar to Weeping Cherry. Weeping Cherry looks backward at a story, giving the feelings up front but only fleshing it out bit by bit, so the contextualizing emotion goes through a number of changes. Skin & Bone is more rooted in the present but it uses expectation in a similar way.
Among the eight recent singles, Let a Wolf and Atlantis have the most concise and direct language. No Good In The Daytime is a close third and the more personal associations add depth to the philosophical lyrics. Those three songs would go beautifully with the five others on an album.