By: Nora E. Lindner
At first glance, Sweet Soubrette might be judged by its cover. The artist’s debut album, Siren Song (MH Records, 2008), is heavy with the themes of oceans, shells and mermaids — everything from the record’s title to its cover art, which shows a mermaid in hand-drawn blue-green waves. But even if The Little Mermaid traumatized you as a child, don’t abandon ship yet, because on closer look, this 12-track disk is buoyed by sincere artistic talent.
Sweet Soubrette is really Ellia Bisker and her ukulele. This Brooklyn songstress’ debut album is as invigorating as ocean spray. Suddenly the water themes seem appropriate. Bisker has written a modern-day sea-chantey, but this time from the siren’s point of view.
The ukulele is an oft-underestimated instrument. Its sweet, almost too cute appearance is much like Bisker herself: a petite, dark-eyed brunette. But despite appearances, the ukulele can convey a surprising array of sounds and emotions. Example: two songs that are together on the record show the distance between ends of the spectrum. “Cut-Up” is at one end, the most surprising, with guitar and bass orchestration that gives a complex, darker flavor, followed by the “Tear That I Cry” where the solo ukulele is as saccharine as an angel’s harp. Again, Bisker mirrors these skillfully breached confines — her voice can be sardonic, then sweet.
Bisker’s lyrics are just as brilliant if not just as brine. Others have called her a “dangerous femme fatale” — tender then venomous, audacious then introspective, but never apologetic. In Bisker we have an honest woman of our generation, singing lyrics that remain confident in their unwillingness to be watered down or glammed up. This is how she becomes charmingly “disrespectful of domestic tranquility” (a line from her song, “Homewrecker,” in which she tells her tale of falling in love with a married man, unexpectedly but unrepentant). Bisker taps at the edges of that part of the glass ceiling reserved for rock ‘n’ roll and smiles at you while she does it. One critique: It would be great to hear this soulful sea-sister’s opinions on other subjects — not just love.
While “Homewrecker” is refreshingly shameless — Alanis Morisette without the heat — likewise “Suckerpunch” is a cutting little ditty no less brash: “There’s nothing more romantic that a doomed romance.” “Safety in Numbers” is the most prosaic of the bunch, Brisker twisting clichés into new shapes, resetting their meaning.
She needs a man, she doesn’t need a man — polar conundrums of a modern women stuck in the chauvinistic hyper-feminist time we live in. In “This Little Song” she says, “At least I’ve got this little song/ To keep me calm/ To keep me company.”
And that doesn’t sound so bad, does it?