Neither Is the Mission Close to Over
253 · 2 December 99
Veda Hille: You Do Not Live in This World Alone
Some records take many songs and many repetitions to finish making the impressions they're going to make on me. You Do Not Live in This World Alone provokes three revelations, but the first one took only one track, played three times. It is track one, a thirty-eight-second intro with no words and no proper musical notes. The first time through, I thought something was wrong. The second time through, the volume turned up as a diagnostic aid, I couldn't tell if the muted, vaguely rhythmic thuds were supposed to be faint heartbeats or the sound of an LP with no music on it, revolving quietly to itself. The third time through, I still couldn't tell, but with a vertiginous jolt akin to the moment the concept of abstract painting sunk in, or the first time I wandered down a primitive Gopher trail and found myself in the library system of the University of Nairobi, I was seized by the conviction that I had just heard the most profound forty seconds of sound the year has produced. Five formulations of the insight promptly began a war for my affection: 1) Until death, silence is a Platonic ideal, never literally observed. This was Cage's point too, of course, but he made the audience assemble the insight for itself, and I harbor a stubborn fondness for authors. 2) Heartbeats and empty records are the same, therefore life is a blank surface awaiting songs, and we deserve no acclaim for merely existing. I think this is the flaw in "First, do no harm": Harm is often the equilibrium culture settles towards. 3) Humans are so much better at music than anything else because our environment, from the skies to our own skins, is intrinsically (and ardently) polyrhythmic. I find myself performing elaborate air-drum solos to these songs, the movements feeling completely in character despite the absence of corresponding percussion sounds. We harmonize much better than we negotiate. 4) All honest records ought to start like this, because how can you possibly understand the noises a person makes, intentionally, if you don't know how they sound to themselves when they aren't making them? Test tones calibrate equipment, but we rarely take the time to calibrate each other. A fashion show should begin with the models naked, a road should begin with dirt. 5) The precious element we have lost, going from CDs to LPs, and from digital to analog elsewhere in our lives, isn't continuity or warmth, the things usually cited, it's that the meta-music of mechanism and error is constructed from the same grammar as the art it supports, which is constructed from the same grammar as the parts of our lives we don't think of as art. A blank canvas is a painting, as is a cement wall; a blank stage is a play, as is traffic. In an analog world, the curtain behind the giant glowing head falls aside (eagerly, it sometimes seems) to reveal the same head, just smaller and not as iridescent; in a digital world, if the curtain falls the universe freezes. Although we stand on a fundament that tolerates the unexpected with nearly infinite patience and grace, we are rapidly choosing to experience it through the mediation of technology that demands inhumane precision, through devices we have not built with our own variability in mind. Give the planet an errant, uncorrected impulse, and you get the Grand Canyon; but type one character of a URL wrong, and confront the void (or, almost as likely, discover a porn site). How many of these epiphanies did Veda have in mind? It's reasonable to wonder. "The Devil's Sooty Brother", she called the intro, an evocative idea, but one not explicated anywhere. Did she mean to conflate turntables and heart valves? It's reasonable to wonder, and every bit as reasonable not to care.
The second revelation is more mundane (and thus inevitably more sensible), but I have to listen to the rest of the album before I think of it. I start the process with anticipation, but without a clear idea of where Veda fits into my world. Spine, my introduction to her, was interesting but inconclusive, and going back and buying her other albums didn't seem to help me. Path of a Body and her Women in (E)Motion live album sent me off on a dead-end digression towards Ani DiFranco, and the ballet score Here is a picture (Songs for E Carr) I could only process by likening it to Rheostatics' Music Inspired by the Group of 7 and Rachel's' Music for Egon Schiele, which are unproductive associations since I understand those two records as tangents, which is probably another way of saying that I don't understand them. But then the muffled drums and three-three-two cadence of "The Boy in the Woods" reminds me of Rachel's The Sea and the Bells, except Veda and Barry Mirochnick's gruff duet transforms the piece from landscape to portrait. "3xthin" opens with an insistent guitar hook like a woodcut version of Gino Vannelli's "Black Cars", but then gives way to slow, expansive piano and strings instead of nervous synth-pop energy. The macabre backwards guitar and twittery incidental noises around the edges of "Ponybride" beg for a Brothers Quay video, but they bracket a languid, understated folk-pop meditation like Dar Williams in a pensive mode. The first minute-and-a-half of "Veterans of Foreign Wars" sounds like the Little Drummer Boy limping home from a rout with a bullet in one leg, the rest of it like his mother, thinking him dead, failing so completely to muster the requisite enthusiasm to breathe speed into a lullaby she used to sing him that it wilts into a drinking song. The brief, squalling "Killzone!" is something like a shrill acid-rock "Alice's Restaurant", and the staticky noises that open the next track suggest no reprieve, but "Clumbsy" turns out to be a desperately melancholy relationship hymn, like a Michael Nyman elegy adapted with Sarah McLachlan in mind. The shy, swelling "Born Lucky" and the spare, raspy "Batterie" could both have come straight from The Sea and the Bells, but Veda's dry recitation of their lyrics falls somewhere between Dar Williams and Polly Jean Harvey. The interplay of crescendos and tranquility, which for Rachel's was the subject itself, here is background, and the difference between an ocean and an ocean with a person adrift on it is only incremental to the ocean. The rattling "The Williamsburg Bridge" sounds like an attempt to restructure Kate Bush's "Running Up That Hill" so it can fit into the scheme of Neutral Milk Hotel's In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. "Little Thin", a fragmentary collage of unintelligible vocal snippets and directionless drumming, leads to the poised string-quartet and guitar of "All Fur". "Wrong" is a staggering, if clandestine, ragged-guitar anthem on the order of Mecca Normal's "The Revival of Cruelty" or Maria McKee's Life Is Sweet, but "A Peculiar Value" is pretty and calm again, piano and trombone flirting stolidly, like the extrapolation from early Joni Mitchell through the Story that Jonatha Brooke opted not to pursue. And "A Fine End", the Lisa Germano-ish concluding litany, is listed at four minutes, but is really less than a minute of farewell, followed by three minutes of tiny watery noises, like the rest of the album was carved out of ice, and we're paying for the presumption of admiring it by being forced to watch it melt.
And it's as You Do Not Live in This World Alone melts (although in retrospect, naturally, I think it could have come to me in the first measure of track two) that I finally spot the new arrangement of all these influences that Veda's presence allows. I'd been trying to make Veda into a new Kate Bush or Jane Siberry, who I love, and keep from deciding she was actually Lida Husik or Kristin Hersh, whom I respect but never ache to hear, but both the desire and the fear are misplaced. I think what she now actually embodies, to me, is an inspired truce between the fractal poetry of nature, as variously celebrated by Rachel's, Michael Nyman and Mark Hollis, and the bracing terror we huddle in, as people, most intensely articulated by Lisa Germano, Stina Nordenstam and Mecca Normal (the terror inward-facing in the first two cases and outward in the last, but rotating terror doesn't change it much). Rachel's songs are organic, but unpopulated, as if the musicians have climbed a ring of barrows and are letting their parts seep down the inclines and disperse over the ground as much according to its own contours as their impetuses; Nyman adds the geometry of power lines and water towers; Hollis makes the leaves move. Lisa and Stina's songs, in their quietest periods, distrust any outside influence that might perturb their courses, as if they've decided that the way words echo off hillsides, when you set them free, is a horrible counterfeit of life, and it's more merciful to whisper them, explicitly acknowledging that they barely outlive your lips; Jean and David observe the same gruesome spectacle, but opt to use the dancing skeletons in puppet satires. Veda's reconciliation of these two approaches, or the one I've resolved to impose upon her, at any rate, is that neither nature nor fear have values of their own. The world around us isn't beautiful, it simply is, and likewise our fright isn't debilitating, it's how we know our nerves are still carrying signals. Her mixture of ambient noise, shards of other songwriting forms and wounded phrases isn't supposed to be inventive, it's the way will and environment have to intertwine. Veda isn't a storyteller or a painter, she's a moral philosopher, and it accomplishes nothing to ascribe values to conditions. Without the swimmer, the ocean has no standing. We don't live in this world alone, but neither is the world lived in without us.
And this produces, although I really doubt Veda intended the album as an analogical treatise on the dangers of mis-engineered technology, my third revelation, a useful bookend injunction to the cautions I extracted from the opening. If our environment is value-neutral, and we introduce beauty by entering into it, then we can outflank technology by recognizing that it can appear on either side of the equation. It can be part of the world we inhabit, in which case it can't hurt us without our consent, or it can be our art, life-affirming because it's a facet of our extended dominion over the way things would be without us. These ideas won't reduce the number of digital mistakes and systematic design errors we need to correct, but they might let us stop worrying that our machines have evil spirits, and concentrate on helping them more accurately express their natures, which are necessarily our natures, and thus insidiously flawed but invariably eager to improve.
Emily Bezar: Four Walls Bending
And if we need encouragement to begin the arduous task of taking apart everything we've built and figuring out what we screwed up, there are few more buoyant celebrations of the powers of precision and intricate artifice than Emily Bezar's third album, Four Walls Bending. I tried to make Emily into Kate Bush, too (I generally start by trying to make everybody into somebody, and usually, to my disappointment, succeed), and there are enough isolated moments here to sustain the comparisons, enough reminiscent of Tori as well, but the subtle-yet-important distinctions between the three women are even more clearly in evidence in Four Walls Bending and Tori's from the choirgirl hotel and to venus and back than they were in Emily's Moon in Grenadine and Tori's Boys for Pele. Emily and Tori have both chosen to work with bands for these new records, but Tori's band plays like an extension of her own confrontational energy, surging and seething, most of their identity expressed in dynamics and fervor. Emily's band, conversely, is steeped in her penchants for expressing abstraction in vivid melting-clock detail and disguising supporting columns as ornamental latticework. If Kate was the master of arrangement, and Tori of performing nuance, then Emily may be the purest composer of the three, her songs both the most difficult to replicate, technically, and yet also the only ones for which sheet music wouldn't be a gross oversimplification. The most disconcerting or inspiring truth, depending on whether you think gender stereotypes are comforting or unfortunate, is that much of this album sounds rather a lot like progressive rock. Spiraling synth arpeggios, sinuous guitar and limber bass drive the seven-and-a-half-minute opening track, "Velvet Eye", Emily's disciplined soprano slithering through daunting melodic twists without apparent effort. Much of the guitar/bass/drums substrate of "Kingdom Come" could be exchanged with that of any Dream Theater song, although Emily's diffident piano circles the epic urges with a warning glint in its eye. The intro piano in "Four Walls Bending" twinkles like Kate's in "Wuthering Heights", and the opening verse has some of the paced elegance of Tori's "Cloud on My Tongue", but the chorus, with its incendiary guitar roar, is the kind of catharsis Kate only essayed when David Gilmour was around, and Tori hasn't tried since Y Kant Tori Read, if ever. The guitar, piano and bass in "Lead" wind around each other in three independent coils, Emily's chirpy vocal making the song sound a bit like Marillion doing "This Is My Box", from Amahl & the Night Visitors. "Filigree of Noon" is measured and atmospheric, albeit punctuated by odd squelchy noises, but "Sigh"'s guitar-fueled rushes approach the urgency and grandeur of Marillion's "King of Sunset Town". "Maybe So" is hushed jazz, its genre potential marred somewhat by burbly submarine noises, but its mood not much altered. The first minute or two of "Black Sand" reminds me a lot of Kate's "Symphony in Blue", but then the choruses kick into their comfortable gallop, and I can't decide whether I'm hearing Marillion circa Holidays in Eden or Clannad circa Sirius. "Rondo" isn't strictly a rondo, the way I was taught (although anything whose lyrics don't begin with either "Michael row the boat ashore" or "This is the voice of Mount Auburn Street" isn't a rondo the way I learned them), but the pieces do fit together in some way I wouldn't want to have to recreate. And "His Everything", the final song, finds synth-pad textures unfolding over guitar samples, robot pulses and legato piano, Emily's operatic flutter suspended above the music like a tendril of smoke snaking through an abandoned phosphorescent subterranean agora. Tori could never keep her body out of the story this way (the closest Tori comes to Emily's cool reserve, musically, is probably "Icicle", which is about a young girl masturbating while her family is at church), and Kate, even on the early albums, was reluctant to simultaneously lose and immerse herself in her accompaniment. But implicit in all of their songs, Kate's and Tori's and Emily's (and Marillion's, for that matter), is the bulletproof belief that we can coerce complexity to serve human goals, and either I have to believe that, or I have change the way I spend my days.
The difference between Emily Bezar's aesthetic and Veda Hille's, however, is even more apparent in their lyrics than their music. Veda writes in terse, disconnected, epigrammatic bursts, like the stream of consciousness of a troubled mind, or like she's sketching her subjects, rapidly and roughly, in clay. "Keep your ankles sewn to skin and vein", she warns, one of many invocations of viscera (although mercifully, this time, she doesn't feel compelled to illustrate the stitch on the album cover). Emily doesn't put in full punctuation, in her booklet, but I suspect she knows where all the marks would go, if anybody demanded them. "Worst case: / He's a chain-letter lie / With the war-room stare / Of a foreign spy / Me, the west face / Of a mountain in rain", begins "Velvet Eye", a sustained eye/relationship metaphor that ends intoning "Tell me how the retina feels". "I'll clean my place. / We can fuck in the kitchen", Veda dryly offers in "Clumbsy". "I'm young / And have tragedy / To spend on you", Emily counters. "I'll take care of you" chants Veda early in "Wrong", switching to the impersonal "I'll take care of it" later as she begins to have second thoughts. "I'll stay with you here while they / Irradiate the atmosphere", Emily promises instead. Veda's characters blunder into each other, as if familiarity is a function of body warmth; Emily's don't appear to believe a bond, or a lack of one, unless they can explain it. "But hold on, before she leaves / There is something you should know / About beautiful thieves", cautions "Maybe So", despite having begun with an insistent "Let her go, let her go". "In the loom where / My new yarn is tied / I weave us old and reading / He prettier than I", she muses in "Rondo", hoping to salvage a fraying relationship using nothing but imagination. And I think "I have nothing / For his everything", the refrain of the finale, is meant in earnest, the narrator willing to empty out her own life to make room for her lover's ambitions.
But my two favorite words in the booklet of Four Walls Bending aren't lyrics. The last thing, after the credits, is a paragraph of thanks, and there in the middle, one of eighty and capitalized but there, is my name. It is, to the best of my knowledge, the first time I've ever appeared in an album's thank-you list. I didn't expect it, and perhaps I'm not supposed to care, and I've never met Emily, and I like this album even better than the one before because it seems to me to know itself more intimately, not because I imagine I had any measurable part in inspiring it. I don't know how Jayson Curry, the next person on the list, got on it, and I'm sure he doesn't know what I did, but there we are, thanked. Emily could so easily have forgotten us. I've written more effusive reviews than the one I did of Moon in Grenadine, and heard nothing. But that's fine. Thank-you lists are diligence, not art, and we'll always sing better than we engineer. But we sing incredibly well, and we'll learn to build.