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Everything could’ve gone wrong for singer/guitarist Carol Bui, who decided to follow up 2007’s well-received Everyone Wore White with an album of sex-worker lyrics and belly-dancer beats. But Red Ship smokes, and it leaves the impression that Bui—who ditched D.C. last year for Washington state—could get famous very quickly.
Bui’s singing—always articulate and sturdy—is even stronger, her guitar playing is more dramatic without adding any bullshit, and she’s now a drummer, too. Rhythms are the core of Red Ship: Nearly every song throbs with some sort of Afro/Arabian/Asian inflection, but none of the album has the hokey world-music vibe that can plague rockers when they commit to such things. It’s all very physical—one part “D.C. post-punk” and one part “awesome ethnic wedding.”
Marriages are built to be threatened on Red Ship, however, because Bui’s general mission is probing the culture of cheaters, escorts, and other-women. It’s a tired and potentially pretentious topic, right? Not here, because the exuberant rhythms—given perfect breadth and depth by producer T.J. Lipple—hold everything together. “Tell me ’bout your wife/Tell me ‘bout your baby/Don’t forget to tell me how tired you’ve been lately,” Bui hollers during album opener “Mira: You’re Free With Me.” As Bui’s percussion clatters and her guitar riffs chime, it becomes clear the song is about a thrill-provider’s decision to embrace power over shame.
The narrator of “Baladi” is in a relationship that’s less mercantile, but still based on convenience: “New York to Chicago/Back in the morning/Back to your sleeping children/Lay with me,” Bui coos. She realizes later that the affair needs to be over, and the dum-dum-thwack-dum beat and minor-key riffs give the decision an unsettling air. It’s followed by the full-throttle “‘Geisha’ Means ‘Open Minded’”—which may or may not be from the perspective of a man. Whatever the case, the narrator comes looking for a girlfriend experience and leaves raving about it. Throughout, Bui inserts creepy abbreviations that appear in escort ads: LFK, DFK, DATY…look ‘em up. At the end, she sings “love me,” almost clinically.
The less-visceral songs are still successful, including “xoxo,” about a woman who’s got a man but secretly loves a married guy. The music is mildly Celtic and totally earnest—and it works. Similarly, the showy “Before We’re Vaporized” has a high-drama Mideast melody, but what could have been an overblown end-of-the-world story is a series of pointed questions and half-answers: “Do you love your God?/Don’t cry out, you’ll lose your voice.”
Bui indulges herself a bit more, musically, on the back half of the album: “Hafla/Joy” has an ecstatic, twirling rhythm and a relatively optimistic outlook; “Hayati Inti,” a Natacha Atlas cover, boasts a huge, seductive bassline and powerful Arabic vocals; and the guitarless final track, “Highlights,” is a girly, not-quite-hippie-ish South Asian workout. “Everyone had sex for free,” Bui repeats a few times at the end, as if she needs to remind herself that it’s still possible. Writing Red Ship certainly immersed her in a world of transactions. She can handle it.