28
Feb 01

Americana In Pieces

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We have at various points in the album, quotes of songs already performed, or songs yet to come, vocal samples appearing in different forms in various songs, and the less direct cross song linkages between those with distorted guitar, those most trad-folk, those most pentatonic, etc. Which calls to mind Black Foliage by Olivia Tremor Control, both seeking to cement some sort of thematic unity through recombining elements of the album between one another and unifying the diverse stylistic influences by throwing them together in various points.

But these aren’t seamless edits — instead we get various sounds and moods pressing against one another, often in the same song, and occasional jarring transitions. Which is nothing new for folk music, the right dissonant chord out of nowhere often used for dramatic punctuation. This makes perfect sense for a genre filled with drama and whose songs are soaked in bloody stories — to have abrupt and angry noises, for the snarl of a steel guitar to accompany the entrance of a Stagger Lee. What we’re talking about here is Neil Young’s soundtrack to Dead Man, that sort of thing — and Hannah Marcus uses it in just the right doses.

MARCUS IN STREAM OF CONSCIOUSNESS Lot 305. Theremin or something looping in the background. Guitar in minor key, chords. Drums high in mix, fairly complex pattern one AND TWO and THREE and FOUR AND and so on. Or something. And clattering eighth notes below. Mrs. Marcus sings in something like a fake german accent, “ze landlahrdz zon is a dvunken bom and he wheed waks wheed waks all ze time” and so on — dystopic story of living in a trailer “behind lot 309” — As the song cuts out “he’z on fahre” and vocal overdubs harmonize, keyboards cut in with synth blips, and it slows down to a ballad tempo, with chimes, and fades out.

Jay. Now just pretty folkish fingerpicking. Voice is now sweet and high. After first couplet, reverby guitar wash, and same after second couplet. Story about how Jay gave her some drug which was not ecstasy and she’s on a strange trip. Lots of synth washes, drums cut into eight note chimes, and then into slow funk loop, then violins (!) kick in with orchestral sweeping descent, and then horns come calling, “Feel it starting to change” and vocals go reverb and “feel it..feelit. feel it.” and melody is dreamy, high vocal lines coincide with accompaniment shifts. Cuts to horn melody, pentatonic? and ascending synth arpeggios, like phil glass or something, until drums cut back in, trip-hop. Guitar, scratchy, chimes run up and down, all climaxes and fades, buzzsawing guitar loop and what sounds like a piano soundboard being raked, dissonant, but sort of random as well. Cut into…

Black Hole Heaven. Lovely song, “waltzing matilda” type bar singalong waltz, with piano on the beat in 3/4 time, but not stronger on the downbeat, and then vocal overdubs for the last chorus, “and I fell through the/cracks at the backs/of the stars. and into the black/hole heaven of my/blue baby’s arms.” which is lovely internal rhyming, and has a bluesy bent quality in the last line. the s of “arms” gets looped, and fades, sustained note on guitar leads into

Osiris in Pieces. Narrative of song is about blowing off a druggie boyfriend, perhaps? one two THREE four one two-an THREE four go the drums, off kilter. Drums cut out, and and minor backing howl vocal, cresch. the lines “Go off speed off in a snit. Go off and suck your crystal tit. You can’t fire me cuz I… I. aaahhhahahhh” and then it kicks back in, sustained organ note behind, vocals carry the day, and the mythic refs come back “I’d like to rip your throat out and plant a tree inside your neck” and the half/spoken singing changes into ching dramatic sustained stuff again, and then all cuts out but voice, then

Morning Glory. Carter Family sounding, backing barlong chords on piano, guitar, drum hits on just one. last line “CUT! you down.” and then

Los Alamos. Vocal sample from Hamlet “And count myself the king of innnfinite space. Were it not that I had bad dreams” and fingerpicked minor melody, slow, relatively fast drums below, but mainly tapped eighths, with occasional bass hits. In middle of singing, samples repeat “Innfinite space” and then all cuts, and minor sonic youthy guitar wash, sung in normal register, then all up high “los alamos” song feels on verge of breakdown, slowing, losing drums, then picks up again as almost pop, with record scratching providing missing beats between same slow drums. Pan pipes for two notes, high in the mix, off whatever key there is, atmospheric? Theme of song is something about the dark center of los alamos. Getting very pop and very dance, with the pipes more frequent, and tempo picking up, and chimes, then cutting out, long falling siren, and

Indra’s Palace. guitar figure, then synth takes the melody, long, sweet, which along with drums could be a goth take on calypso, both harmonic and rhythmically. Accented vocals are back, less pronounced, sort of of hollywoodized middle-eastern. Song concept — you have it all, but you just want to sleep. All cuts, and high overtracked vocals, sweet, “Can’t you seeee indra’s palace in the sun” like celestial sounding, I guess. With chimes, major key, then chimes go off key, strange slowed tape loops kick in, bells chime, organ grinder tune, and applause with announcer all fade.

Crimson Bird. Spare beat, but off kilter, tom hits come in bursts of 1, 3, 2, with snares between. Lyrics are sort of metaphorically mixed “I am a spider… waiting for your beak to spread… crimson bird, you were once a worm… taste your salty pores.. feel time dissolve into your palm…” and so on, which is confusing, because birds don’t have pores, or palms, and, so on. electric guitar, distorting abstractions, never taking off. Vocal delivery feels like a poetry reading, spoken as much as sung, but with long drawn syllables. Sample kicks in — “whirling around, held in each others arms.” pay attention because that sample will come again. And it does. Then a computer/steven hawkings voice saying “coming together again and annihilating each other”

Now comes the whole vocal sample, spoken over a piano rendition of Black Hole Heaven — taken from A Brief History of Time, it’s Hawking’s explanation of detecting black holes by analogy to a ballroom, with men dressed in black and girls in white “whirling around, held in each others arms” — the voice is not Hawking’s box, but a nice, real one.

Stars From The Side. A standout track, tango, with vicious vocal delivery, lines spit. Theme is watching stars, in the moviestar sense, which we then take as analogy to the “cool kids” of whatever breed, watching them from the side, from backstage. Production touches are as powerful as always — the offbeat zip of fingers down a guitar string. Then the tango cuts and changes to some sort of crooning ballad, almost operatic in tenor, sort of a Berlin-era Lou Reed talk/sing which is aching by the time the strings sweep in and then a big fuzzy guitar comes in and takes over, rusty jagged distortion, and back out into the ballad, and everything continues to cresch. And then everything is howling at once. “Everything is coming up roses”

Under The Void comes in with heavy reverb on the vocals, soon joined by beatnik drumming and then what the production notes describe as “Mysterious and wonderful guitar” which rumbles, squawks, humms, screams, and generally goes wild. We’re on the scary part of the boat ride in Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory, the part where funny things swirl around us, and the lights keep shining in different colors.

And then we get Darling How Are You which is Marcus and solo guitar, trad-folk except for the odd ending, “you hung up the receiver before I said.” and then the piano sweeps away in coda and we get

Tired Swan which rests on a guitar figure which noodles around joined by a floating seesawing piano chord, and everything is sort of ambient and indeterminate except that there is a vocal line on top, which has a bluesy hook “come on/you can lay your/heavy crown/down on me” and is otherwise major key. The music continues to open up, slow down, reduce in density, and then the backup vocals come in with classic indie-girl “da doo da da” sort of improvisatory shambling and the piano trails off like the end of an Elton John number and END

SO, MOVING INTO GREIL MARCUS TERRITORY

Marcus’ latest provides a might have been, along with Madonna’s “Music” album laying out some sort of expansive ameritronica, fusing not into the pop mainstream but as a bold new underground direction — Madonna from one end hinting, Marcus from the other full speed ahead. Similarly Buckner’s tinges of post-rock on Since. But now Bush is elected and the underground will naturally backlash against all things ten gallon and leather. Every pair of cowboy boots in the world might as well have GWB on the left foot and the presidential seal on the right. Some critics are rubbing their hands for four years of protest music, but I’m just bowing my head and listening to Black Hole Heaven, one of the precious few omens I can grasp of a promising cultural history that will now never be.

Otis Wheeler

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