The history of mankind is home to some rather dark chapters, much of which has been excellent fodder for artistic perusal and discovery. Shifting from the occultic and criminal entries of the duo’s past discography, Ellia Bisker and Jeff Morris decided to focus their attentions on this latest Charming Disaster album toward a more polarizing topic of physicist and chemist Marie Curie, whose pioneering work in radioactivity grants her the title of Our Lady of Radium. Of course, the album references without necessarily playing as a strictly biographical retelling of specific events of Curie’s life; rather, Bisker and Morris take a somewhat more literary approach with the songs acting as emotional overviews of those events, and examining the thematic single-mindedness of her work with the tumult and turmoil of her personal life.
There’s a certain theatricality to a song like “Forces of Nature,” in which the adventure of a romance parallels the excitement of scientific achievement, its almost psychedelic atmosphere of xylophones, acoustic strums, and lushly orchestrated vocal harmonies building finally to the gradual wane of an emotional high as lines like “Stay with me for the rest of our days, dear” and “Nothing will tear us apart” end up sounding less amorous and more pleading. As well, “Power of the Sun” observes chemical processes with an almost mystified allure, as if witnessing something magical and ultimately forbidden, remarking on the consequences of harnessing such power with the hubris of fallen Egyptian civilizations. Of course, this contrasts with the inherent ‘60s pop catchiness of the chorus, which can be said of much of the album, particularly in the dreamily whimsical jauntiness of the opening “Bad Luck Hard Rock.” On the other hand, the rather lovely waltz of “Eat Drink Sleep” is more direct in its laments to Curie’s marriage to fellow physicist Pierre Curie, the rather quixotic lyric of “Make life a dream, and make the dream real” only serving to accentuate the inherent melancholy of the song, Bisker’s voice reaching a falsetto crack near the end proving an unexpectedly nice touch. The last two tracks are perhaps the most harrowing as the round vocal stylings of “A Glow About Her” evoke the chatter of aimless gossip as its gunshot snare almost feels like the firing squad of societal scorn, while the closing title track is a final morose anthem in honor of Our Lady of Radium, neither applauding or admonishing, but simply stating the facts and the results of her research – the veritable pandora’s box of radioactivity.
The somewhat gothic Victorian ambience of the instrumentation, incorporating pianos, acoustic guitars, almost leisurely but always tight percussion, and most especially the vocals – Bisker and Morris harmonize so lusciously, right down to ghostly whispering in various points, that their very creative partnership even seems a mirror of Marie and Pierre Curie, albeit thankfully without the stain of public scandal. Fans of Dresden Dolls or Black Tape For a Blue Girl will likely enjoy the intimacy and vibrancy of Charming Disaster, while Our Lady of Radium presents a somewhat pained chapter of human history with a decidedly sullen affection – one could, dare I say, call it an electromagnetic force.