It can’t be easy for Karen Elson. Not only is she a former model trying to break into the (sometimes snobby) world of music, but she also happens to be the wife of a certain Jack White. Add to that the fact that her debut album (The Ghost Who Walks) is being produced by him indoors and released via the same label (XL) and you have a glut of ammunition with which to attack.
You get the feeling that Elson is very much aware of the cynics that will circle. Dressed in a long floaty peach dress and looking as if she’s just stepped out of a midwest saloon, she’s clearly incredibly nervous. Every duff note or missed chord change is met with a grimace and a pleading look at main guitarist Jackson Smith. Her desire to be taken seriously means that the short, half an hour set never feels relaxed, and this tension bleeds into the songs.
Much of what’s played tonight is heavily influenced by Elson’s new home town of Nashville, Tennessee. She speaks in her Oldham accent, but when she sings it’s with a definite American twang that lends itself to the American heritage of the music she makes. The album’s title track is a haunting murder ballad reminiscent of PJ Harvey, whilst highlight The Truth Is In The Dirt adds a bluesy kick to a spare set up of guitar and accordion.
The remainder of the set is made up of songs that conjure up words such as “haunted” or “spectral” but don’t really demand attention. Elson’s voice may be a thing of beauty – there’s a lovely tone to it that stops you in your tracks – but it’s either nerves or the stripped down setting that stops the night from really taking off.
“If you see me at the bar, then buy me a drink” she says breathlessly, before the final song The Last Laugh. Most of the small audience cheer and rummage in their pockets for some change, but she’ll need more than a devoted few if she’s to overcome her obstacles.