Penny Rimbaud's approach was to weave a ragged punk collage of dirty musique concrete and industrial noise to match Annie's apocalyptic beat poetry. Adrian Sherwood took the On-U-Sound approach to a new level for Ms. Anxiety, placing her brutal and pithy hysterics amidst a baffling, complex network of techno and dub mutations, bursts of noise and unexpected audio collisions. Guest spots on other artists' work produced varied results, but Annie often still sounded lost in hostile surroundings, with the notable exception of her hilariously disturbing monologue on Coil's "Things Happen" from Love's Secret Domain.
Starting in the mid-'90s, Annie's new team of collaborators and producers put the singer on more solid, less experimental footing. Can "Khan" Oral and Kid Congo Powers of Gun Club sexed it up and camped it up for their Legally Jammin' releases. Larry "Electroclash" Tee and Joseph Budenholzer used traditional instruments to cushion Annie's increasingly more understated vocals, lending the singer a sophisticated, downtown NYC jazz-room feel. This new album, Songs From the Coal Mine Canary travels down this same path, with sophisticated jazz ensemble arrangements for every track, placing Annie's voice front and center, with all of its wounded imperfections and evocativeness intact.
A sticker proudly proclaims "Produced by Antony," perhaps trying to catch the eye to Mr. Hegarty's newfound legion of rabid fans for album sales, as Little Annie herself remains unjustly obscure. To be fair, this isn't just a cynical sales tactic, as Antony's presence is felt throughout the album, which features his piano playing, backup vocals, and songwriting skills on several tracks. The tracks that Antony co-wrote with Annie, especially "Absynthtee-ism" and "If I Were a Man," have very much the same quiet torch song vibe familiar from Antony and the Johnsons material, but the spotlight here belongs to Annie. This is simultaneously the album's biggest weakness and its greatest strength. Those who don't connect with Annie's subtly disarming lyrics or her savvy, time-ravaged vocals might find the album a bit slight. It's probably true that songwriting has never been Annie's strength, and though she is bolstered here by very talented collaborators, there aren't really any showstoppers on the album. Attentive fans will even notice some repetition, a couple of songs that are reworked from past releases.
But that's not the whole story, as Songs From the Coal Mine Canary is much more than just the sum of its parts. There is something about the way in which the introspective love ballad "Diamonds Made of Glassine" merges with the dark, Angelo Badalementi-style jazz backing that makes it sound like liquid city moonlight poured into a cocktail glass. The upbeat but devastatingly apocalyptic "End Is Near" explodes into being and careens towards a thrilling Nine Simone-style conclusion, with Annie giving an impassioned vocal performance, tough for a singer who can't help but sound languorous and tossed-off. There are moments that hint at the scathing punk screeds of her past, but mostly this is a mature, sophisticated Annie, an impossibly cool character, a lady of the evening haunting an out-of-the-way gay bar in NYC, filling everyone's ears with stories of past exploits and bitter regrets.