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Review: Annie Hardy, 'Rules'

Note: NPR's First Listen audio comes down after the album is released. However, you can still listen with the Spotify or Apple Music playlist at the bottom of the page.

Annie Hardy: <em>Rules</em>
/ Courtesy of the artist
Courtesy of the artist
Annie Hardy: Rules

Pouring tragedy into a work of music is nothing new. What's different each time around are the particulars. For Annie Hardy, the pain that inspired her debut solo album, Rules, is as personal as it is unimaginable. In March 2015, her newborn boy Silvio died of SIDS. He was 17 days old. Ten months later, her partner Robert Paulson—Silvio's father—died of a drug overdose. At that point, she'd given up her career as a professional musician to become a fulltime mother, despite the fact that her previous band, Giant Drag, had been signed to Interscope Records and accrued a devoted following. The urge to process her loss compelled her to launch a solo career. But where Giant Drag specialized in huge hooks, juicy riffs, and playfully risqué lyrics, Rules is a gaunt rumination on the ravages of grief.

On songs like "Train" and "Want " — with assistance from drummer Don Bolles of the legendary punk band The Germs and guitarist Stephen McBean of the indie outfits Black Mountain and Pink Mountaintops — Hardy plays haunting, folk-rock of the Neil Young variety. "Train," in particular, bears a passing resemblance to Young's "Danger Bird," but that ethereal sound is transferred to some piercingly direct imagery, punctuated by skittering drums and dissonant cascades of piano: "Here comes the train / Here to take my baby away." That mournful eeriness carries over to "Want," with its vintage vibe enveloping the stark lines, "I want my baby back / What else can I do? / I want my baby back / If I can't have him, I don't want you."

The ambiguity of the word "baby" — as both a term of affection for her lover and, literally, her child — is only one way Hardy evokes a drifting aura of confusion in the face of death. The closeness of her voice in "Shadow Mode" is startling, so intimate it borders on the obscene: "In the cold, cold rain / I call your name / You don't answer," she sings over menacing, slightly gothic instrumentation. Her words dissolve in a wash of echoing chants and spectral whispers.

On "Mockingbird," gentle acoustic guitar and atmospheric swirls of autoharp underpin the album's most wrenching lyrics: "Come what may, my little mockingbird / I will love you all my life / You flew away, my little mockingbird / But it's all right." Just as powerful are the droning psychedelic loops and impressionistic piano of "Goodbye My Love," whose softly phrased sentiment — "Goodbye my love / Such sorrow to part / But you always hold a place / In my war-torn heart" — funnels more sorrow than any song should ever have to.

Two tracks, "High Forever" and "Batman," strike a similar tone. Both are built around the skeletal chords of an organ; Hardy's melody reverberates around them like a lost soul. "I thought the high would last forever / I was wrong" she laments inside a disquieting swarm of keyboards. "Batman" delves even deeper into regret and doubt: "Call a doctor, call a lawyer / I don't know if I'll survive anymore." Her son died while wearing a Batman onesie.

Somehow, Hardy finds the strength to include a bit of her trademark playfulness from those Giant Drag days, toying with the word "robbin'" rather than "Robin" and even joking about The Joker. It isn't exactly an overwhelming message of hope, but that would have sounded jarring on Rules anyway. Instead, "Batman" — which closes the album — gives the slimmest glimpse of light amid the darkness. "Writing these songs saved me," she told LA Weekly. And in that salvation, she's crafted one of the most moving pieces of music likely to be released this year.

Rules is out April 7 on Full Psycho Records.

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