A Series of Waveforms as Perfectly Corrupt as Life Itself
274 · 27 April 00
Kym Brown: Pygmalion
Towards the head of my list of inexplicable but undeniable phenomena, back circa 1994, was the uncanny correlation between people who liked Tori Amos and people who liked Nine Inch Nails. Tori herself worked "Nine-inch nails" into the lyrics of "Precious Things", on Little Earthquakes, and then recruited Trent to sing backup (albeit rather unidentifiably) on "Past the Mission", from Under the Pink. The mailing list Ecto, which usually greets mentions of any male other than Peter Gabriel with a belligerent silence, proved strangely tolerant of Reznor, given what seemed to me to be his generally boorish and unethereal persona and musical style, as of the then-current The Downward Spiral. I could see shards of an explanation (clearly Tori and Trent had a certain degree of emotional candor in common, plus Trent dressed like a character from Neil Gaiman's comic Death, which Tori alluded to in "Tear in Your Hand", and for a volume of which she later served as cover-model and wrote an introduction), but I couldn't figure out, to anything approaching my satisfaction, how they were supposed to fit together. The sonic part of the equation got clearer as Tori's Boys for Pele and from the choirgirl hotel pushed further into studio manipulation and oblique processing, but then came NIN's The Fragile, which sounded to me like a remake of Music for Airports for countries in which extended layovers are common and the government hopes to use them to turn ordinary travelers into paranoid terrorists, and I was as confused as ever.
I doubt sympathy for my confusion was actually part of Vancouver songwriter Kym Brown's motivation for her heavily-Ecto-endorsed 1999 debut album, Pygmalion, but "Milk and Plenty", the first real song after the breathy intro, combines a distinctly Tori-like vocal, a methodical, looping accompaniment that approximates a compromise between "Cornflake Girl" and "Hurt", and the overt lyrical reference "Maybe I'm too emotional / When you f--- me from behind like an animal", whose trenchant replication of the quarter-censored "fuck" from the "clean" version of "Closer" strikes me as a simultaneous rejoinder to Trent (or to the character in his song, at any rate), for his hollow, leering chauvinism, and to anybody who thought snipping the "uck" off would render "Closer" less sinister, for being myopic, provincial morons. More than that, in fact, I take this line to be a concise explanation of what Tori's version of frank catharsis has that Trent's lacks. Tori scrutinizes her passions, which sometimes involves eviscerating them, but always in the spirit of inquiry; Trent, however, mostly just vents. And as my ninth-grade biology teacher sternly enjoined us, hacking the head off of a dead frog with a protractor omits the instructive quality that dissection is meant to possess.
If you don't read as much into that one line as I do, no matter, as most of the rest of the album, I think, amounts to an extended exposition of how Trent's fondness for aural mangling can be harnessed to Tori's songwriting discipline. The brief, whirring, textural "Hologram" sounds like a 4AD remix of a Loreena McKennitt aside, but "Milk and Plenty" is lumbering and ominous, with Rick Brummer's groaning bass, Dion Cillier's sample loops and Vitamin F's seared sound effects circling warily behind Kym's lithe lead vocal and bell-like chorus harmonies. Russell Picard supplies booming synthetic drums, and I. Sommers humming cello, for the elegiac "Hollowmen", which comes off like Sarah McLachlan recast in a hybrid mold of Hex and early Sinéad O'Connor. "ETA" starts out with just Kym and an acoustic guitar, sounding a lot like Kate Bush's "Mother Stands for Comfort", but quickly turns anxious and pulsing, pulling off an impression of Kate as dance-club fodder at least as convincing as Utah Saints' "Something Good", and quite a bit cleverer. "Blue Box" sounds like an early sketch for Tori's "She's Your Cocaine", before the rhythm and melody crystallized, and "Pygmalion" itself could be a transcript of Björk's fourth day locked in a bell-tower without food, but a squalling guitar on the more coherent "Zoomfly" pushes it towards Emily Bezar, and "D&H", with its wordless intro and hushed, building verses, sounds to me like Sarah McLachlan's "Good Enough" redone by Emm Gryner in a suppressed Pat Benatar mood.
My pick for the album's definitive Tori/Trent synthesis, though, "Never Fade Away", seems to be its centerpiece in Kym's mind as well, as she includes it in two versions. The first one has murmuring keyboards, a dry, diffident drum track, pinging keyboards, sighing guitars and Kym pushing against the clip lights as if the room is just a little too small, but it hasn't occurred to her to try a bigger one. The second version, "Mince Mix", is a much more conventional, if slightly archaic, dance treatment, the drums exaggerated and the guitars sculpted to the beat à la "Hippychick". The fact that the first version of "Never Fade Away" does, in fact, end with a fade-out seems like a missed opportunity to me, somehow. I don't know what great thing I think Kym could have done with it, but I'm pretty sure that adding her actually singing "Never fade away" over the fade-out, as Mince does for the second version, isn't it. The moral of the Tori/Trent fable, for me, unsurprisingly given the opposite directions in which my affections for Tori and Trent have gone in the last six years, is that Trent has misunderstood his relationship with his technology. I think he tries to cope with the encroaching studio walls, on The Fragile, by expanding his aural space and removing his own presence from it. The big empty room thus constructed is certainly impressive, and I'm glad I now know what its echoes sound like, but it's nowhere I feel impelled to spend time. Tori's answer to the small-room problem is to just ignore it, as if it should be obvious to anybody that souls cannot be contained by walls. The walls, having seen what Tori can do to pianos, prudently offer no objection. Kym, without any comparable virtuosity to rely on, arrives at essentially the same anthropocentricity via a more ingenious and, encouragingly, more practical solution: she reduces her arrangements to the room's scale, but leaves herself her own size, so that the walls have no alternative but to frame her. You don't need to transcend walls if they can't transcend you.
Kathleen Yearwood: Book of Hate
My other recent Ecto revelation, after a string of list recommendations that turned out to have a bit too much trip-hop for my tastes, is another elusive Canadian named Kathleen Yearwood. Neither of her records are especially new (according to the notes the material here was recorded in 1992, and the songs on Little Misery Birds in 1995, although in both cases the finished albums seem to have followed some time later), but I maintain a rolling-eligibility policy for records that resist reasonable acquisition attempts. These two sat on my list, waiting for rumored distribution deals to materialize, for more than a year before I finally came across a responsive mail-order source (Jack Sutton's obsessive Harmony Ridge Music). By the time the discs arrived, I'd totally forgotten what it was somebody had said about them that got them onto the list in the first place. Putting Book of Hate on didn't immediately remind me, either. "Peggy Gordon", the opening track, is an old traditional tune performed in a straightforwardly baroque manner, with bowed bass, cello, bassoon, pennywhistle and an acoustic guitar doing its best to impersonate a harpsichord. Kathleen's vocal delivery is deft, bordering on the operatic, a controlled flutter not quite as scholarly as Loreena McKennitt's, but of a similar ilk. An album of songs like this would be impressive, but I don't often play the June Tabor records I already have. "Tam Lin", the second song, is Kathleen's, but based on a Norwegian folk melody, and although it's a fraying dirge, in places, I can easily imagine June doing it with only a little more restraint.
But then we reach song three, and any misapprehension that this is going to be a restrained British folk record dies a swift, messy death. Now I remember how Kathleen's name got on my list. Somebody compared her, for induction of sheer bracing terror, with Kristeen Young, and I refused to believe, without investigating for myself, that two unrelated people with such similar names could have similar styles, especially not ones anything like Kristeen Young's particular assaultive dementia. Sure enough, though, "Who Killed Phillip?" begins and I feel like I've blundered into another universe. Except for a stray unidentified moan in the middle that could easily be an accident, and a few isolated maraca rattles, the only accompaniment in the song is a persistent clicking that sounds to me like the least creative tap-dancing in history. Over this distracted rattle Kathleen begins reading a courtroom scene. As the story moves into the guards' uneasiness as she visits with Phillip, the prisoner, she begins half-singing the words. By the time she starts pondering the differences in her and Phillip's upbringings (her in a gentrified suburb, him on a reservation; I assume this is non-fiction, as the album is dedicated to a Phillip Bearshirt, 1958-1990, but I haven't had any luck finding corroborative information) she's singing without restraint, despite the fact that the text appears to have been written as prose, not verse, with the result that lines frequently careen out of the meter, such as it is. Phillip, imprisoned for many years on flimsy pretexts, is eventually released, and dies soon after, leaving the second half of the song (which is nearly six minutes long, perhaps the longest recording of inept tap-dancing extant) to a meandering, venomous search for guilt. The political diatribe makes absolutely no concessions to the format: "In this great racist colony / I watched as the full force of common law / Came crashing down on Phillip like a tidal wave. " "And the war on drugs / Is just a war on the poor." "And a man of fifty who knows nothing / Could easily govern this country / And condemn to living death the powerless / And all of his intellectual superiors / With the magic wand of colonialism / That is blind to any justice / And destroys the hope of generations." The racist regime in question is, lest you forget, Canada. By the end, as Kathleen's strident repetitions of the title question twitch into her upper registers, like a cross between Jean Smith and Diamanda Galás, she sounds positively unhinged, and my only question is whether this is due to righteous socio-political fury, or manic instability, or possibly both.
Composure momentarily returns for the muted opening of "Night Falls", an atmospheric bass growl under detuned guitar arpeggios and Kathleen's pensive voice. There are a few bars of elegant harmony, like we're going to get a refined folk-ballad after all, but it keeps failing to get underway, and then at about the midway point the song abruptly collapses into cacophonous feedback and somebody barking out the syllables of a furious voice-over like they've never been too clear on the difference between language and log-splitting. The nine-minute "Pastorale" begins with a calm guitar figure and some methodical cymbal splashes, but sanity lasts only a couple minutes, after which the players begin tearing at their instruments (including Kathleen's throat) with the frantic energy of lab hamsters hooked to live car batteries. A slow, pretty section in the middle, with Kathleen singing in some mellifluous romance tongue, is punctuated by the sound of her tossing bits of broken glass into a metal trashcan (which I don't mean metaphorically; the glass and the trashcan are both listed in the credits), after which there's another long, violent freak-out and a very large number of things get broken (maybe metaphorically, maybe not), but evidently not the bass or guitar, which return for a quiet coda as if nothing unusual has transpired. "By Any Other Name" is a seething noise-rock thrash, on the order of Bailter Space or Sea Scouts, Kathleen's relatively self-contained auto-harmonies buried under relentless waves of guitar distortion and pummeling drums. "Lost My Way" seems to want to be a lilting folk-song, but in between the rushed triplets and the overall 4/4 structure beats keep disappearing, and singing along becomes a disconcertingly complicated exercise. The mournful, horn-laced "Panik in the Cattle-Pen" is easier to follow, and in places reminds me of Hunters & Collectors. Just when it seems like Book of Hate might turn into a Mecca Normal album, though, albeit one preoccupied with vivisection, along comes "Louis Riels' Farewell", and suddenly it's violin-buoyed Francophone folk worthy of the McGarrigle sisters. Only the moment that regression sinks in, we're on to the harp-and-field-recording collage "Amsterdam Street", and then back to the sinuous, earnest, uncluttered, harmony-drenched folk-elegy "For Jesse Bernstein", finally collapsing, drained, into the spare, Jane Siberry-as-spectral-wraith finale, "Fiery Heart", which sounds like the nighttime prayer of a shipwreck survivor who has long since forgotten the concept of rescue. And I'm not sure whether, overhearing her, we might not decide to creep back to our boat and head wordlessly out to sea, leaving her behind. Rescue is not always merciful. Or wise.
Kathleen Yearwood: Little Misery Birds
Kathleen's second album distinguishes itself, initially, by having the worst packaging I have ever encountered. The lyrics and credits are printed on an 11x17 sheet of stiff paper, which is then awkwardly folded into a makeshift pouch not especially close to CD dimensions, and after the CD is inserted the pouch is closed with an elaborate hand-made seal executed in tissue-thin gilt paper. There is no way to extract the CD without tearing the beautiful seal, nothing to hold the CD while you examine the detailed notes, no way to re-close the package once you have it open, no way to store the package on conventional CD shelves even if you could close it again, and, for perverse completeness, no distinguishing marks on the CD to make it easy to identify in the unmarked jewel-case you will, like I, probably be forced to relocate it to.
Discard the packaging entirely, though, and you're left with an even sneakier and more unsettling album than Book of Hate. It begins, again, simply, the reverent "Sweetgrass" more or less McGarrigle-esque folk. The hesitant "Jésus en Pauvre" starts out that way, too, but traces of menace creep into Kathleen's fitful guitar figures, and a little strain into her voice, and then the guitar distortion kicks in and she swoops into keening falsetto contortions in precisely Kristeen Young's vein. "I need a substance / To transport me into the eye of my horse", Kathleen whispers at the beginning of "Daisy Chain", and the rest of the song answers with a combination of out-of-tune classical-guitar filigree, gong-like bass, jarring polyrhythms, Munchkin-ish vocal chants, several lines sung at exactly the breaking point in Kathleen's range (a tactic which makes Jean Smith sound comparatively soothing), and some musique-concrète clamor, all of which combines to sound something like King Crimson on its death-bed, only not so succinct. "Whoever Has Hidden Anything in the City" is a poem read over grinding noises. "The Garden of Love", "The Sick Rose" and "Ah! Sunflower" are a trilogy of William Blake poems, which Kathleen sets only nominally to music, "The Garden of Love" like a half-melted "The Great Valerio", "The Sick Rose" accompanied eerily by The Glass Orchestra, and "Ah! Sunflower", with a stretch of harmony at the end that could easily be the October Project, almost a lullaby were the guitar parts not played so spasmodically. "Unit 9" is one minute of another woman reading aloud a very elementary set of translations between English and Gwitchin ("What's this?" "This is a dog.", "Is this a dog?", etc.). The Gwitchin are an aboriginal tribe indigenous to Alaska and northern Canada, among whose holdings is Old Crow, population 300, the only settlement in the Yukon that cannot be reached by road, and the only one north of the Arctic Circle (which interesting facts I learned from the village's informative and well-maintained web site; there's something strange about this, but I can't put my finger on it). What Kathleen expects us to glean from having learned how to verify the species of the tribe's domestic animals, I haven't a clear idea. "House of Skin" is an ululant four-line nihilist manifesto. "A Happy Song" is, you may by now know enough to expect, not happy in any way, a widow's disconsolate diagnosis of the impossibility of surviving her drowned lover ("Made reckless by your beauty, / I wrecked this thing I call my future") that I sincerely hope Loreena McKennitt never hears, most especially because much of it is done in her style, even though it was written years before the death of her fiancé.
You and I will survive this album or not, though, depending on what happens during track eleven. The listing, if you haven't thrown the packaging away, identifies it as "Song With Chorus", a glib assertion immediately undermined by the fact that the running time, printed to the right of the title, is 22:54. There is a little bit of singing at the beginning, followed by very large amount of squeaky, abstract guitar noise, much of it quite literally worthy of Aube. Every few minutes Kathleen inserts some truly alien and horrific screeching, some even scarier dog-like panting, and some near-ultrasonic blippy noises that sound to me like the patronizing speech you give a dolphin while torturing it for information you know perfectly well it doesn't have. The second half of the song has a long muttered text not included in the notes, which I think we would be well-advised not to transcribe. There is, near the end, a chorus in the loosest possible sense, a repeated snippet of melody, but the words to it are not repeated, and calling this track "Song With Chorus" is about as apt as referring to Gravity's Rainbow as War Story With Bananas.
After that, the four dimly sparkling minutes of "Tinderbox" with which the album ends are almost unfathomably incongruous. Aube doesn't sing morbid love songs at the end of his records of noise. People who do sing love songs at the end of their records generally don't lace them with lines like "[I've] bruised my feet in the river Lethe / And now my own shadow is looking for me." The resemblances between Kathleen Yearwood and Kristeen Young are, I've decided, real but superficial. Kristeen's traditions are punk and performance art, Kathleen's are suicide poetry and the surreal demand-lists of insane hijackers. These two albums frighten me, make me wonder what chasms of inexorable despair I've blithely ignored in my own life, in order to reach the plainly untenable conclusion that existing is tolerable, much less pleasant. I suspect they're really too much, in the same way that the Adbusters poster with the emaciated old woman and the caption "You have 83 Beanie Babies. She has no place to sleep at night." is too much. Joy and misery are not zero-sum; you can't lever one person out of misery by beating somebody else down into it. These two albums frighten me, but the antidote to fear is not flight or defiance, both of which only fuel it. The way to overcome fear, the fear of death and every distant relative thereof, is to bifurcate. You must split yourself into the piece that the fear consumes, and the piece it can't touch, and shed the one you can't save. Fears are, put more ambitiously, tools for freeing you from your worst selves. And so, although these two albums scare and depress me, I can listen to them. They are filled with songs of death, but their death, not mine. I'm not becoming less afraid of them, each time through, I'm becoming more purely the person who was never afraid of them to begin with. This is what people miss, who know the obscure reaches of no art: competent, cheerful amusement is cheap to the point of worthlessness, so smoothly disposable that we forget it without effort; what we need more of is art we can barely escape, art that haunts us, art that makes some part of us wish we'd never found it. We need art we reject, because it takes some dead part of us with it as it peels away. And when all the dead parts are gone, we are immortal.