Places Gold Cannot Navigate
99 · 19 December 96
Emily Bezar: Moon in Grenadine
Long after I've forgotten what the Lion and the Witch had to do with anything, or whether the Dawn Treader was a person or a ship, the image of the Wardrobe remains vivid in my mind, C.S. Lewis' archetypal symbol for the discovery of unimagined worlds lurking just out of sight of the ordinary. I'm sure this is another of those two-kinds-of-people dividing lines, cordoning off those of you who seek adventure over horizons from those of us who hope (and, stubbornly, expect) to find revelation hidden behind out-of-favor trenchcoats and the boxes that our stereo gear came in. In the great quest for answers, as in typographic affectation, I side with cummings, who summarized the credo of introspection thus: "seeker of truth / follow no path / all paths lead where / truth is here". And so, too, in music, where, though I do spend some time wandering afield to reassure myself that I'm not missing my true love in some other sector of the store entirely, most of my time is spent on the endless vigil that watches for the sudden subtle shift of light that reveals new shapes in the most familiar terraces and squares. Statistically speaking, far too much music is made for any one human to keep up with, even me, but between the amount of Sisyphusian energy I put into the effort and the helpful fact that obscurity and mediocrity go a long way towards canceling each other out, in the end I'm drawn towards the admittedly complacent conclusion that while plenty of music escapes my notice, word of most things I would really like will eventually reach me. Between the times when I buy CDs essentially at random (whether intentionally or not) and the occasional disc that arrives in my mailbox because the band's bass player read my review of somebody else, I have regular occasion to test this theory, and usually it holds up pretty well, most of the control-group samples falling firmly into the wide expanse between accomplished and promising. "Good band", I think to myself. "Earnest, hard-working, every bit as worthy as the Gin Blossoms. Good enough to listen to a second time." So I do. And then I cross it off my list of things worth reviewing, put the disc into the vault, and do not think about it again until the vocalist somehow ends up in a band with Butch Vig. But I keep at this routine for a very simple reason: the records that defy it, that refuse to sink meekly into any of my worn and crowded pigeonholes, the ones that cause sharp involuntary intakes of breath, distracted neglect of the book in my hands, the rush back to the CD player to pick up the jewel case and hold it in my hands, so that they too can be involved in the experience -- these records and moments are large parts of why being alive seems so vastly preferable to me to being dead.
The last such moment for me, when a sound froze time and for a fleeting eternity banished everything mean from the surface of the earth, came as I heard the end of the first verse of Emily Bezar's "White Cedar" for the first time. The song is slow and reserved, a lone piano carefully, hesitatingly, picking its way around the contours of an unseen edifice, not so much tracing its outline as considering it, quiet ticks leaking into the microphone like thoughts half-formed on lips. A wedding scene unfolds, and as the narrator backs away from it, letting go of the bride's train, she muses "My parachute, your starter gun", and suddenly in these five words I am with her, spinning other stories out of the incidental details of the one before us, investing other people's icons with significances of our own that their owners will never guess at. In another's celebration there is escape, in their triumph initiation. "Some leverage for the rising sun", she breathes, later, and I am there on the lever with her, hoping the morning will bear us aloft, hoping to harness inevitability to a cause. Simple materials, complex bargains. By the end of the song I'm left aching for airy desserts, pale furniture and intricate architecture, for dreams brave enough to spawn stars to fill them, and for villagers who stop me with unbidden advice and unqualified presence, who make wisdom out of everything we both already know. There are novels this song only hints at, circumscribed by each tiny nuance; passages from them seem to flash by me like subliminal previews while I listen. Emily sounds like Joni Mitchell for an instant, brushing up against a floral print dress, and then before you can feel the air move she's disappeared behind her character like Kate Bush putting on her burglar's mask. For just a phrase, pinned against a chord, she could be Tori, but then the piano turns studied and she's Loreena McKennitt, meticulously wise. I hear things I like all the time, but there is another set of feelings, entirely, that swells up when I hear something great, and though perhaps this second reaction in the end is no more universal than the first, it feels that way, like there is an aura that marks all True Art, that if we're quiet, and attentive, we can all sense, whatever our personal biases. I sense it here. Only death can take this from me.
The album, once I can pry myself out of the reverie of discovery, is as impressive through sheer variety as it is unerring in any of its directions. The most obvious point of comparison is clearly Kate Bush, but this is less a matter of derivation than of unmistakable parities of scope and ambition. If there is half of Kate in Tori, actually, then perhaps Emily has begun with the other half. Where Tori is confrontational and visceral, Emily is guarded and literary; where Tori speaks (thinks, perhaps) in a private code, Emily's stories are couched in allusion and the dramatis personae of legend. Where Kate is dancing with Hitler and Douglas Fairbanks, emerging from her open pages, Emily casts herself among Guineveres and Cleopatras, drawing you in and on like a glimpse of a figure vanishing into a topiary maze.
The music is as much these ways as the lyrics. Operatic, quietly spectacular and utterly self-possessed, this may well be the album that Sarah Brightman's tragically misguided Dive is anti-matter to. "40 Mansions", the opening track, is swirling and progressive, trading Kate's kinetic dance urges for edgy indirection that reminds me of October Project, the Other Side and the Love Club, or of the album Clannad might have made if Sirius hadn't been an anomaly and they hadn't watched Enya get rich from exquisite water-treading. "Mosquito in the Shade" is languid, stylish and jazzy, smoke mingling with Emily's breath to weave lattice illusions in the shadowed air between the stage and our table. "Dream Gasoline" accelerates into simmering, half-muted big-band swing, cymbal trills and horn flares splashing expansively around the meandering, involuted piano line, alternately carrying Emily's frail, stratospheric warble away and stranding it completely. "Opiate Cheer" flutters and muses like a pencil sketch for an aria, trading Tori's fuzzbox harpsichord for synthesizer noises that sound like a suspension bridge's skepticism. "Rain in Calgary", the eight-minute epic around which the other songs revolve both in principle and in fact, swells from near speechlessness to melodic-bass strut and subsides back to what would be the sound of breath feedback if people had amplifiers. "Gingerbread" bucks and pitches with sawing lead guitar, rising bass, stabbing piano, evasive drums. "Chevalier Lune" twists fitfully, like the skeleton of something willowy and long dead put back together through more faith and conjecture than anatomical discipline. "In This House" is like a brittle, refracted "Moments of Pleasure", acknowledging the implications of the strings with a nod, not a flight; "Dancing Past Elysium", thick with throbbing bass and sliding trumpet, is like Jane Siberry's Maria tour-band briefly indulging somebody's King Crimson fascination. And "Ever Mine", the extended piano-and-voice finale, for me recalls Kate's "And Dream of Sheep", but hangs forever suspended on the cusp of "like poppies, heavy with seed".
But if Moon in Grenadine never quite wakes from the dream, then perhaps this fate is not like imprisonment under ice after all. If there is nothing here as cathartic as "Love and Anger" or "Silent All These Years", then perhaps the point is that not all art must lead to catharsis. If none of this exhumes history as diligently as Loreena's reverent archeology, then history must extend forward, as well as back. And if nothing else in the universe exists, then for a time, at least, I will be content within its walls, and let past disappointments bleed into cool marble surfaces that show no stain of their passage.
Rose Chronicles: Happily Ever After
If, for some reason, your mood requires a little more violence, albeit still carefully controlled, with your acrobatic soprano, then the arrival of Rose Chronicles' second album, Happily Ever After, is singularly provident. Rose Chronicles are on Nettwerk, home of Skinny Puppy and Sarah McLachlan, and they represent something of an inspired, if slightly uneasy, compromise between the two. Singer Kristy Thirsk's voice is a little more ethereal than operatic, like a slightly harder-edged Elizabeth Fraser not singing in tongues, and her breathy, beepy delivery has more than a little in common with Sarah's, but where Pierre Marchand moves Sarah up so close to the microphones that you can hear whether her eyes are open or not, Kevin Hamilton pulls Thirsk back from them, so that her voice always seems to be drifting in from a distance, rather than emanating from the back of your own skull. The band, a solid guitar/bass/drums trio behind her, plays something like an airy, unprocessed, keyboardless version of Killing Joke or Curve, surging guitar textures wrapping around pounding drums and pulsing bass, but without chattering samples, blasts of white noise, macabre gongs or constant noises like a small dirtbike being single-mindedly revved to shreds. The naturalistic production, particularly of the drums, can make the record sound at times a little like a Chainsuck unplugged session, but if I turn it up loud enough, the lack of cartoon jack-hammer snare-processing quickly stops seeming to me like an omission. Happily Ever After is actually significantly sparer than the band's own 1993 debut, Shiver, on which the atmospheric fog was thick enough that at times it threatened to obscure the songs, and while I kind of enjoyed Shiver's bizarre aural tempest for its own sake, I think the band's skills are done rather more justice here. None of these songs will be mistaken for club grooves, but the music is propulsive, not zephyrious, and even when the songs decline to accelerate, their delicate roar easily fills the room.
The Curtain Society: Life Is Long, Still
If the lingering presence of "delicate" in my description continues to worry you, another step along the continuum toward more familiar territory brings us to the reverb-drunk Boston trio The Curtain Society, who exist perched precariously on the border between Boston's fanatically cohesive neo-gothic underground (definitively represented on the Castle Von Bulow AIDS-benefit compilations Soon and Anon) and its loud-guitars rock-club "alternative" mainstream. Life Is Long, Still, the follow-up to their 1995 debut Inertia, falls somewhere between Curious Ritual's God Hilliard and the album the Chameleons might have made after Strange Times, if only they hadn't self-destructed before they got around to it. The Curtain Society haven't quite the wall of guitar noise that characterized the Chameleons circa Script of the Bridge, but if you imagine a Chameleons extrapolation through the increasingly moody acousticity of Strange Times, Mark Burgess' roaring vocals replaced with some vaguely Luna-esque singing that is more earnest and dreamlike than overpowering and possessed, then ending here wouldn't be at all out of the question. Mind you, I don't necessarily think that the Chameleons next album wouldn't have been their least exciting, but given the current dearth of people making Chameleons-like music, Burgess himself included, I'll take what I can get.
Arvo Part: Litany
Then again, if you'd rather dispense with rock completely, and concentrate on haunting atmosphere in an undiluted form, I recommend to you my laughably uninformed contemporary-classical self-education strategy, which consists of walking into the classical department and buying anything with an appealing cover design whose composer is still alive. After a few weeks on this regimen I've realized that this amounts to a more methodical approach than you'd guess, because my minimalist graphic design aesthetic happens to closely coincide with that of the labels Nonesuch and ECM New Series. ECM, actually, is almost wholly responsible for my renewed interest in classical music. I took a Bach-to-Glass music-history survey in college, but somewhere in the process of converting the bulk of my music collection to CD my small accumulation of those tan CBS/Bernstein LPs of Mussorgsky, Sibelius, Copland, the Ninth, Mass in B-Minor and the like got stuck in a closet and, I presume, sits there to this day. After about five years without sparing classical music a non-Nyman-soundtrack thought, though, I was forced to mount a sortie into the department to get a copy of Officium, the ECM collaboration between the early-music choir the Hilliard Ensemble and improvisational saxophonist Jan Garbarek, which my boss at my last job had put on for mood-setting at a team-building off-site. Actually I ridiculed him for it at the time, dismissing it as "Nature-Company New-Age" (thus offending both my boss and my sister, who works for the Nature Company), but it haunted me afterwards, and I really liked the cover art, so I broke down and bought it. And once it had drawn me into HMV's well-appointed classical room, some base completist urges kicked in, and the idea that there was a whole room of music into which I had extended no tendrils at all became quickly insupportable.
Although I bought it before realizing this, Litany is actually inexorably logical as a next step for anybody who liked Officium. ECM founder Manfred Eicher produced both albums, and the Hilliard Ensemble sings on "Litany" itself. Garbarek's saxophone is missing, but the bold harmonic washes of the orchestra here have a similar effect. Much of "Litany" is closer to Bach's masses in energy than to the monastic chants of Officium, but the two works are similarly devotional. I'm reluctant to call anything "religious music", since growing up in Texas that meant a glaringly pre-VH1 Amy Grant singing mock-country hymns to the abdication of responsibility for your own moral decisions, but this is music for the sincere religious impulse, not the dissolute extortionist simulacra frequently mounted in the South under the same name. The text is a Christian prayer, but it's sung in Latin, so the meaning of the words is subordinated to the sound of the voices. Well, actually, it's sung in English, but it took me three passes reading along in the booklet to finally be certain of that, and my blithe assumption that they were singing Latin didn't trouble me in the slightest the first dozen times I listened to it, so I think the point stands.
"Psalom", the short middle piece on the disc, is a quiet, soothing orchestral composition, which for me serves as an intermission before the longer finale, "Trisagion", which is slow, measured and somber, almost like an instrumental remix of "Litany" itself, violas and some incidental rustling taking the singers' parts. Compared to the sort of Vivaldi / Eine Kleine Nachtmusik / Masterpiece Theater classical music most rock audiences are casually familiar with, the most striking thing about Part's compositions is how tightly the orchestra sticks together. Comparatively speaking, an orchestra playing Beethoven looks like an electron model on speed, solo parts wheeling around the accompanists in frenetic spirals, while an orchestra playing Part looks more like Woody Allen's gang of fugitives in Take the Money and Run, surging toward every objective en masse. Where the hooks in Bach and Handel compositions interlock dizzyingly like birds in an Escher mural, in Part's pieces the players seem to back away from each chord and examine it for traps before proceeding, and the otherwise inscrutable difference between a conductor and a metronome suddenly starts to make sense.
The Bobs: Too Many Santas
I wouldn't normally subject you to a transition this jarring, but I've run out of weeks before Christmas, and reviewing a Christmas album after Christmas would get me disbarred. There's a reason for that: all Christmas music is so inherently odious that even people who profess to love it can only stand to hear it for about a month of the year. Personally, I hate Christmas music like I hate little else in this life. Vince Guaraldi is my own private Antichrist. As a result, I try to keep a small supply of purely nominal Christmas records on hand (Loreena McKennitt's To Drive the Cold Winter Away is the only one I'd listen to in June), so that deranged seasonal intruders can be placated without my ever having to hear Merle Haggard throttling "Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer" or the Mormon Tabernacle Choir caterwauling through a terminally over-rondoed "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen". Too Many Santas is the Bobs' nominal Christmas album. The Bobs are the world's greatest a cappella pop band, and this album has twelve thematic, but original, a cappella pop songs, such as "Fifty Kilowatt Tree", "The Night Before the Night Before Christmas", "Mrs. Claus Want Some Lovin'" and "Rasta Reindeer". The first two times you listen to this, you will think to yourself, "This is the worst album the Bobs have ever done, but at least these aren't the usual hateful, nauseating, soul-defiling Christmas novelty songs." Then, about the third time through, the horrible realization hits you: these are the new hateful, nauseating, soul-defiling Christmas novelty songs.