Sam Woodring currently lives in Maryland. He formerly played music with Two Inch Astronaut, and currently performs as Mister Goblin. He hopes to never, ever, ever become a music writer.
It is in cases such as Claire Cronin’s Big Dread Moon that I begin to question my ability to be objective. From the first time I threw it on, I could feel my own bias growing as quickly and unstoppably as a parasitic alien, ready to burst through my chest and run out of the room. This album caters so directly to my tastes that it’s almost laughable — I love horror, I love when people care about lyrics, and I love anything that sounds remotely like Nina Nastasia’s The Blackened Air. By the end of the windswept album opener, when the darkly charming chord progression resolved into the lines, “Some unholy ghost in a cotton sheet/a kid disguised as a tourniquet/a sacrifice/a kitchen knife/so burn it,” I was, as they say: all in, baby.
Listening through, it doesn’t come as a surprise to learn that Cronin is not just a musician. Her album betrays a strong knack for narrative, pacing, and imagery, probably indebted to her other artistic endeavor as a writer. In that role, Cronin examines things one might think the maker of Big Dread Moon would write about: our attraction to ghosts and horror, the mysticism and hysteria of Hilda “H.D.” Doolittle, and many other spooky/not quite as spooky things well worth checking out if you’re interested. On record, Cronin soundtracks this array of interests with a fittingly stark assortment of sounds, including sparse percussion and other occasional ornaments such as strings and piano, but primarily her guitar and those vocals.
If an ominous cluster of Scott’s Pine trees was somehow able to become a fretted instrument, it might resemble Cronin’s voice a little bit. Nonchalant but still commanding, her vocals dart around in a way that builds suspense not only for what she is about to say, but for how she may or may not buckle her words into pitch-perfect severed parts. Take the way she intones the word “accurate” in the line “I was sharp — an arrow — but not accurate,” from the crawling “Wolfman.” The word zig-zags at the very last moment, like a blow barely missing your skull. The album is beautifully bare, but little details like these become magnified in the understated mix.
Like any horror movie worth its salt, Big Dread Moon isn’t totally relentless. This isn’t Hostel 2 — there are moments of reprieve such as standout “Saint’s Lake,” which feels a bit sweeter than the tracks preceding it, the line “coffins long for the touch of death” notwithstanding. The ending lyric, “Late at night, find me there/hear my prayer” feels a bit more like a protagonist looking for love by a lake rather than one waiting to be murdered near a lake (though I guess the two don’t have to be mutually exclusive). Ezra Buchla’s atmospheric accompaniments, which include among other things a moaning viola that often resembles a swarm of bees more closely than any stringed instrument, lend the album an appropriately sandpapery texture. This effect is particularly potent on the chilling closer, “The Lamb” which ends the album on the thrilling couplet “My God is calm and decisionless/and he breaks my back in deliverance.” I mean, damn.
If I try and wrench myself out of my excitement over this record to be objective for a second, I suppose that some people might complain that the album is a little one-note. It’s true that tempo-wise, Cronin favors the death-march waltz of “Six Guns” or “Wolfman” and doesn’t get much more animated than “Like a Shield” which, while not exactly a “barn-burner,” could definitely provide a decent soundtrack for burning down a barn. At eight songs, however, there just isn’t enough time for the momentum to sag, and Cronin’s knack for tension and melodic sensibility make it a fairly breezy listen. Maybe not something you’d want to put on during your first Tinder date, though.
Again, however, here’s where we run into the problem: the lack of variety and the thick smoky atmosphere might be sticking points for some listeners, but not for me. In the same way that I will always go see anything in the Halloween franchise, however derivative, I will always be down for any and all creepy folk songs. Particularly when, as in the case of Claire Cronin, they bring something refreshing and new to the genre.
Like the eerily striking album cover, the music feels familiar but belies something more nuanced and sinister. What appears to be a fairly normal portrait of Cronin in front of a curtain becomes on closer inspection… kind of fucking creepy. What is that blue light coming through the window? What are those things on the table beside her? Is this photoshopped somehow? Why is she staring at us like that? As with her music, the lack of clutter is an invitation to fixate on the small things, which can drive you as crazy as a kid in their room alone at night obsessing over a shadow.