I can’t remember, exactly, when I first heard Picastro, but I know I was struck by Liz Hysen’s voice and delivery in a way that’s stuck with me since. Over the years, the project has continued with shifting line-ups, but Hysen is always at the center and that’s what makes Picastro one of the all-timers. Her latest offering is an EP of cover songs selected solely because of their lyrical content. Five songs from Fire on Fire, The Silt, Richard Dawson, The Velvet Underground, and Elfin Saddle but with Hysen’s magic touch, they all become pieces in the Picastro canon.
I don’t know how many people remember the great, short-lived Cerberus Shoal side-project Fire on Fire, but I’m thrilled Hysen does. I’ve got a deep affection for the whole Cerberus Shoal crew (I even released a solo album by CS/FoF stalwart Chriss Sutherland back in the day), but Hysen’s version of “Hangman” becomes wistful and enchanted. The original has a gospel bombast to it that Hysen channels inward like a soft, affirming monologue. As she sings with a determined quiver, “Even the hangman has friends,” the lyrics are quietly anthemic as arpeggios glean confidence from the sunkissed corridors.
Cover albums so often fall into the trap that leaves me asking what’s the point? I’ve Never Met a Stranger is the opposite with these songs becoming a new vehicle for Hysen to show what makes her great. The late, great Elfin Saddle’s “Chaos Hand” is, again, nearly unrecognizable. Hysen takes the oddball marching chamber pop stomp of the original and drowns it in a vat of molten stardust. Tim Condon’s Moog passages drive ghostly tremors beneath the piece with Hysen’s strings/”weird shit” (my favorite credit in the liner notes) arrangements throwing chaotic energy at stilted angles. Germaine Liu sends out shockwaves with pensive flute missives, but above it all, Hysen’s voice hovers like a bird of prey. Darkness covers every corner of the map and she’s offering a funereal send-off.
I’ve Never Met a Stranger is memorable, special. Turning The Velvet Underground’s “Pale Blue Eyes” into a basement-dwelling hymn for lives and love lost and the effects of the molasses of time is a feat on its own. Hysen sings with a steady calm as if she’s holding back the ocean, focused on making it to the end without a blip. The expansive arrangements – the incredible Karen Ng waxing lyrical on saxophone and flute and Nick Storring spins emotive yarn all the while Doc Dunn is there in the background, the downtrodden’s heavenly choir – cast a timeless glow across the heart of the song. It takes something and someone special to recreate one of the best songs by one of the best ever bands as something new and genuine, but Liz Hysen isn’t just anyone and I’ve Never Met a Stranger is a testament to her enduring greatness.