Dirty Pretty Thing

Shivaree's Ambrosia Parsley is anything but the torch singer next door

It makes perfect sense to conduct a phone interview with Ambrosia Parsley, who fronts the cabaret-pop band Shivaree, as she gleefully maneuvers the streets of Amsterdam's red-light district, searching for a café to get bombed in. She dodges angry bicyclists. She cracks a joke about absinthe. She admires the naked dancing girls illuminated in the windows of the sex clubs.

"They're like chocolates in a box," says Parsley, who's a vision of beauty in her own right. "If you're just a voyeur, though, they don't seem to appreciate it much. They're giving me mean looks."

The reason all of this makes sense, given her presence in decadent Amsterdam: Parsley's new album on Zoe/Rounder, Who's Got Trouble?, is an 11-song masterpiece of sexual intrigue, spiritual damnation and political horror. Oh, and Casablanca references.

The latter comes across beautifully in the opening track, "New Casablanca," in which a hamstrung Satan whispers in the president's ear, spurring the leader of the free world toward sweet oblivion with promises like, "Please get me out of here, my handsome buckaroo / Just wait until I get my hands all over you."

"The devil always gets to say the best lines," Parsley points out, getting serious for a moment. "I was watching the film, and it all struck a chord again--the fear, paranoia and fascism. And, of course, 'Casablanca' is Spanish for 'white house,' and then there's that great scene where Dooley Wilson performs (the song) 'Knock on Wood.'"

Parsley put all of these images together and grafted a melody on top of a jazzy piece of music Shivaree keyboardist Danny McGough sent her. "Normally, I write a cappella, and then Danny and (guitarist) Duke (McVinnie) play dress-up-the-dollie. When they write something, though, I sort of have to diet or gain weight in order to fit into what they give me." In the case of "New Casablanca," Parsley gorged on a Bogart film, and the result is heavenly.

Another divine ditty is "Little Black Mess," which boasts lines like "A little cheat while you turn away / Things we repeat one more time / Day after day" that glide over a sinister Latin groove percolating with spy-movie guitarwork. Dark stuff, really. So from what emotional place does Parsley parse out these petty treacheries?

"That song is about doing something naughty, getting caught and learning from the experience," she reveals. "It's based on personal stuff." Then she laughs that gorgeous laugh of hers and says, "I'm a dirty girl."

Christ, is this cell phone getting hot, or is it just me?

This leads me to ask her why today's torch songs are so neutered. Is it what causes slick men's magazines like Maxim to characterize her as "Norah Jones with a sex drive"? Who took the sex out of sexy music?

"People like pretty things," she says, "not dirty things. Maybe artists are catering to the Christian right?"

Speaking of which, Ambrosia plagued the Christian right for an entire year with her Air America segment, "Ambrosia Sings the News," where she arranged headlines into couplets and sang them in a manner befitting a Tin Pan Alley confection. As you can guess, the songs were anything but flattering toward Dubya. Even better, the radio gig enabled her to get health insurance.

"Great jokes can't live forever," she says. "We felt it was a good time to bring it to an end. But it was a lot of fun, writing a song and finding the nearest Pro Tools studio every week, and we only missed (the segment) one time. Making fun of the president is the best job, really. I'm surprised they let me back into the country. Now I'll have to pay through the nose for my insurance like everyone else."

Parsley's band will be a tad different for its upcoming appearance at the Hotel Congress. Guitarist McVinnie is under the weather, and filling his spot will be the incendiary Scott Bondy, singer/guitarist for the deadliest blues-punk trio in rock history (outside of Cream), Verbena. Here's a solitary man who lives in the woods of upstate New York and who, very recently, openly fantasized about setting a leopard on fire in his next music video.

"Ah, my friend Scotty," says Parsley, laughing. "That's what happens when you're left alone in the woods for too long. 'Scotty, what's with the hood and dark sunglasses? And what are you building in there?'"

In any case, the only conflagration Shivaree ignites is the simmering, shimmering sound and vision of Parsley and her music. So I wish her good luck in Amsterdam and tell her I'll see her next week in Tucson.

"Thanks," she says. "Hope that cell phone doesn't burn you."

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