Leah Hayes, the singer-songwriter behind Brooklyn-based trio Scary Mansion, is, despite the vocal similarities, not Cat Power. It’s the first thing I mention because when you hear her band’s debut, Every Joke Is Half the Truth, it will be the first thing you hear. The comparison, on the surface, is warranted: Both write sparsely instrumented folk-based songs and, more noticeably, sing in an emotionally open, confessional style with a sometimes shaky, other times confident lower register.
In short, Hayes sounds a lot like Cat Power. And with the incredible access we have to the newest thing, the newest sound, it’s maybe easy to pass Hayes and her band off as imitators and quickly move on. But ultimately, the strength of Every Joke is found only in exploration, in breaking the surface and becoming fully immersed, confused, unsteady, open to change, surprised.
Opener “Captan,” with a droning mixture of processed drums, swirling, glitchy feedback, and heavily distorted guitar, does more than enough to separate the band from calmer, more conventionally melodic artists. The structure itself is simple, repeating only three chords, but the experimental tendencies of the band — densely layering the vocals to become essentially a haunting call and response — make it not only an album standout but also one of the stranger, and stronger, and more memorable songs I’ve heard in some time.
The same applies to “Sharkish Sea” and “Shame.” These are ostensibly simple songs, but they’re transformed into something more complex, slightly unnerving, but ultimately satisfying by the band’s tasteful predilection to stretch and enhance. Aside from “Captan,” the heavy, almost overbearing organ of “Sharkish Sea” is an accurate indication of the unexpected nature of the album. It’s not always approachable, but once you’re in, there’s a million mirrors, and you won’t want to get out, anyway.
For an album still well in the range of emotionally confessional indie-rock, Every Joke suffers on “Go to Hell,” “New Hampshire,” when the vocals alone are forced to carry the weight. Hayes’s voice, though it has a naked, vulnerable appeal, works best as a functioning part of a haunting musical whole. Comfort is a tough word to apply to vocals like hers, but what I can say is she sounds comfortable when her cracked, shaky, pleading whisper floats amid the band’s creaky, spacious, and haunting mood.
On their own, the more stripped-down, conventional “singer-songwriter” tracks contain not even half the subtle power Hayes and the band are capable of. It’s an unusual position for a band to be in — to need to make more noise to more clearly make their point — but Scary Mansion is an unusual band. This music sounds immediately like something you’ve heard a million times, but after a few hours, it’ll sound like nothing you’ve ever heard before.