Critics consider the Rolling Stones’ 1966 album Aftermath as one of the most important rock records. That was the Stones’ first “real” album rather than a collection of singles. It consisted solely of original material. The band experimented with different genres other than their R&B sound of the past, including folk, country, psychedelic, Baroque, and Middle Eastern music with songs like “Lady Jane” and “Under My Thumb”. The Stones’ didn’t explain what the term “aftermath” referred to, but the music generally revolved around the dark themes concerning love and sex.
Elizabeth Cook titled her new album Aftermath as well. It’s unclear if she meant this in tribute to the Stones’ record or if this was just coincidental. However, like the British boys, Cook often looks at the more somber aspects of life. Her songs are different in one crucial respect. The Stones expressed themselves as passive observers to the world in which they lived. They were going along for the ride and offering commentary. Cook’s 12 self-penned songs take things a step further. She reflects on what has passed and continues as a protagonist who has been changed by experience. She’s not willing to accept what is. The “aftermath” will be of her own making.
The songs on Cook’s Aftermath are sonically very diverse, from the martial beat of “Bones” to the somber “Daddy (I Got Love for You)” to the lively “Perfect Girls of Pop” to the folkie talking blues of “Mary the Submissing Years”. The album was produced by Butch Walker (Green Day, Weezer, Taylor Swift) and recorded at his Ruby Red Studios in Santa Monica. Cook’s band features Steve Duerst (bass), Herschel Van Dyke (drums), Aaron Embry (keyboards), Andrew Leahey (guitar), and Whit Wright (pedal steel, dobro). Walker’s productions give the songs a tight structure from which the players and Cook can loosely deliver the goods.
For example, “Thick Georgia Woman” begins with a strong, repetitive guitar line that implies the title character’s toughness. When Cook breaks free of the instrumental limits by singing overlong lines, it sounds as if she’s breaking the rules. And that’s the point. The thick woman doesn’t bend to fit the mold. Her strength comes from a natural place. She’s got “a basket of peaches under her clothes”, and that’s not all. Cook sings the descriptive lines with a slurred Southern accent as she identifies with the title character.
Cook has a husky voice that she uses to stress the realism of what she’s singing. By realism, this does not the mundane details of actual existence as much as the psychological truths we tell ourselves. She gently mocks the pretensions of pretty girls who croon sweetly on “Perfect Girls of Pop” but doesn’t fault the singers as much as empathize with those who haven’t yet experienced pain (“they never had their heart slammed in a door”). Cook lets the listener know that she’s familiar with making “Bad Decisions”, telling fibs (“Two Chords and a Lie”), and being ashamed (“When She Comes”), but she doesn’t express regret because she has learned from her mistakes.
Cook also has a sense of humor that prevents her from taking herself too literally. The album’s funniest song works as a tribute to John Prine. He wrote an imaginative song about Jesus’ missing years. She creatively addresses Jesus’ mother and her “submissing years” with a wry panache that would make the Singing Mailman proud. The women who populate Cook’s album range from the Virgin Mary to “Half Hanged Mary”, a woman accused of witchcraft in the 1680s who was hung from a tree but survived and lived another 14 years. Many of the other tunes appear to be autobiographical, with Cook herself as the good/bad lady who lived to tell the tale.