Weyes Blood: The Innocents

Natalie Mering, the brains behind the indie-folk outfit Weyes Blood, has seen a great deal of the country in the past few years. She has toured as a member of noise-rock outfit Jackie-O Motherfucker and alongside Nautical Almanac, although most listeners will recognize her robustly forlorn voice from Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti’s Mature Themes. After the release of her 2011 label debut, The Outside Room, she has wandered America like a Steinbeck character (anyone who adapts her stage name from a Flannery O’Connor novel will certainly be familiar with literary references). Mering tapped maple trees for syrup in rural Kentucky and studied herbs in the New Mexico desert. After a brief layover in Baltimore, she settled into the New York music scene and signed with Mexican Summer.

All of those experiences—from harsh drone to hallucinogenic herbology—come to play on her second album, The Innocents (which is presumably a reference to the 1961 film adaptation of Henry James’ “The Turn of the Screw”). The album plays like a picaresque of the Lower 48, as Mering collects sounds and ideas along her journey and pieces them together into an album that has considerable scope yet is rooted in the personal. Drawing from Donovan and Joan Baez as well as Mark Linkous and Sonic Youth, Mering blends the idylls of folk ballads and madrigals with the sonic abrasiveness of noise rock. Most of the songs feature just guitar and Mering’s rich soprano, but on several tracks she manipulates the instruments to suggest music that is curdling, fading, transforming, evolving right before our ears. Even the simplest and loveliest tunes, such as “Requiem for Forgiveness” or closer “Bound to Earth”, sound like they might be interrupted at any moment by waves of distortion.

To indulge another literary reference, the center will not hold. Things fall apart. There is no solid ground on The Innocents. The album opens with explosions in the distance, a rhythm of destruction that portends something darkly ominous. Borrowing not just the music but also the topicality of ’60s folk, “Land of Broken Dreams” conveys a sense of immense dread as Mering sings about an America in fantastical disrepair—in particular, the growing rift between what the country should be and what it actually is. “Stand by to believe in the land of the free, whatever you want it to be,” she sings, and it’s impossible to determine just how much irony is packed into that line. Are those explosions an echo of atomic testing in the 1950s, or perhaps of the bombs planted by radical activists in the 1970s?

The aftershocks of those opening explosions reverberate throughout the album. “Bad Magic” sets its delicate acoustic guitar theme against an ambient tape hiss, as though Mering were self-consciously creating a new field recording. “Some Winters” opens with a warped piano, its glissandos garbled and mutating, as though Mering found the tapes buried deep in the snow—memories of an old affair made new. “I’m as broken as a woman can be,” she sings, with a peculiar quiver in her voice. That vibrato, it becomes clear, is not part of the performance itself, but a subtle distortion of the notes in the studio. It’s applied so sparingly that it’s impossible to determine where her voice ends and the manipulation takes over, and the effect is thematically powerful and musically jarring. There’s no small thrill in hearing Mering both uphold and upend the conventions and even the pieties of folk music, which means that while The Innocents may be her second album, it plays like a debut. These finely wrought songs introduce a fascinating and confidently subversive artist and offers a glimpse of the road she’s traveling.

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Grouper: Ruins

What happens in the margins of the music Liz Harris makes as Grouper is often as important as the music itself. In a performance at Krakow’s Unsound Festival earlier this month, the rattle of a film projector added a layer of instant nostalgia to her murky swirls of voice and guitar. Much of the time, Grouper’s music is so diffuse that there’s no longer any distinction between center and margin anyway, no difference between foreground and background.

That is not the case on Ruins, the first album from the Portland, Oregon, musician since last year’s The Man Who Died in His Boat. Here, the incidental noises—crickets, croaking frogs, thunder and rain, and, at one point, the unmistakable beep of a microwave oven that fired up after a blackout in the house where she was recording—serve primarily to underscore how stark the music is, unadorned and pocked with vast silences. Ruins is Grouper’s “unplugged” record, essentially, as much as that might sound odd for a musician who has always put acoustic guitar and piano and voice at the core of her work. Here, however, she foreswears the looping pedals and the innumerable layers of fuzz that are just as essential to her aesthetic. What we’re left with is achingly beautiful and, given the intensely private nature of most of Grouper’s work—on stage, she often plays sitting down, crouched over in order to manipulate her effects pedals, her face hidden in shadow—almost unnervingly direct.

The emotional core of the album is the four melancholy songs for piano and voice, which are complemented by two instrumentals of a similar mood. Rarely have Harris’ lyrics been so clearly audible, and rarely, if ever, has love been so plainly the focus of her songwriting. “I hear you calling and I wanna go/ Run straight into the valleys of your arms,” she sings on “Holding”, her multitracked close harmonies reminiscent of Low circa The Curtain Hits the Cast. On the devastating “Clearing”, she sings, “Every time I see you/ I have to pretend I don’t”; on “Call Across Rooms”, she has a change of heart: “I have a present to give you/ When we finally figure it out.” (“The song is on one level very plain and literal, about a letter I wrote for someone I loved and could not get along with,” she told Vogue.)

Not everything is so explicit. In “Clearing”, she keeps her vocal range between the notes of her piano chords, as though she were seeking refuge there, and her wispy voice frequently dissolves into indecipherability, like cold breath passing through a beam of sunlight. Her phrasing is tentative and guarded; even without recourse to her trusty loops, she finds ways to muddy the atmosphere. Multitracking offers a way of hiding behind her own shadow, and her foot rarely leaves the piano’s sustain pedal, even on the instrumental numbers.

Only two songs on the album don’t quite fit the mold. The opening “Made of Metal”, essentially a means of clearing the air, is just a slow, ritualistic drumbeat wreathed in the sound of distant frogs. And the closing “Made of Air” returns us to the drifting ambient world of Grouper that we’re most familiar with. The latter dates back to 2004, and it’s of a piece with other material from that period, like her 2005 album Way Their Crept, where looping tones of uncertain provenance—Voice? Guitar? Keyboard?—swirled into a jellied haze. It doesn’t necessarily fit with what’s come before it, but it’s a welcome addendum to the album, if only for its familiarity.

Ruins has a vivid sense of place. Harris recorded the album in 2011 during an artistic residency in Aljezur, Portugal—a tiny coastal town tucked inside a nature preserve on the southwestern corner of the country. In a press release, she describes the pleasures of recording simply, hiking to the beach, and getting lost in her head, working out “a lot of political anger and emotional garbage… The album is a document. A nod to that daily walk. Failed structures. Living in the remains of love.” Even without knowing the particulars of the album’s backstory, the naked recording means that you can practically picture the room in which it was made—the worn floorboards, or maybe ceramic tiles, dusted with sand; the stucco walls, slightly damp; the steam rising from a cup of tea near the upright piano. Even the microwave that made the tea, which beeps once towards the end of “Labyrinth”, an accidental noise allowed to remain in the final cut. From the hushed mood and half-enunciated vocals of it all, you get the feeling she didn’t speak to many people during that time of focused creativity. Lucky for us.

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Marianne Faithfull: Give My Love to London

“Give my love to London,” Marianne Faithfull sings on the title track to her latest album. At first it sounds like a friendly request, but it soon becomes a threat: “The river’s runny bloody, the towers tumbling down,” she sings, not exactly horrified by the tableau. “I’m singing ‘Pirate Jenny’ as the blackship’s bearing down.” It’s a sly reference. The second most popular number form Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s Threepenny Opera (the first being “Mack the Knife”), “Pirate Jenny” is a stout song about bloody wish fulfillment: A bitter and beleaguered hotel maid imagines a marauding pirate ship destroying the city and murdering all the people who treated her so cruelly, ending with Jenny escaping with the swashbucklers and scallywags.

Faithfull famously performed the tune in the mid 1990s during a Threepenny revival in Dublin, and her fascination with Weimar-era musical theater inspired her 1997 album 20th Century Blues, which includes her best version of the song. On “Give My Love to London”, Faithfull reimagines herself as Pirate Jenny returning to the scene of her greatest triumph and surveying a London still in ruins. Although the final verse resituates the song, it’s not hard to imagine Faithfull as the conquering anti-hero, especially considering how she was run out of the city in the late ‘60s for the same behavior that earned her male peers—including and especially Mick Jagger—their lucrative reputations as bad boys.

And yet, there is some affection in “Give My Love to London,” which was co-written with Steve Earle, now a Londoner himself. Faithfull navigates the bouncy melody gracefully and generously, evoking the easy bonhomie of old friends who have long put any ill will behind them. The song announces an album that will confront the past, her own and our own, as though trying to sever it from the present. This is not necessarily a memoir set to music, mainly because these songs find Faithfull playing roles other than herself. As a result, it’s her best and most daring album of this century, featuring some of her heaviest and most haunting performances.

Faithfull has spent most of the time since 20th Century Blues fashioning herself into rock’s grand dame, an avatar of European decadence redeemed into something like old-world authority. Working with Britpop survivors (Damon Albarn, Jarvis Cocker) as well as American alt-rockers (Beck, Billy Corgan), she’s made a handful of fine albums that persistently reinforce her reputation as a formidable interpreter of others’ songs, as if anyone still though otherwise. Before the Poison and Easy Come Easy Go may have put her in touch with a younger generation of artists who considered her both a hero and an influence, but Give My Love to London is something else entirely. Working with Roger Waters, Nick Cave, Anna Calvi, and a band that features Ed Harcourt, Portishead’s Adrian Utley, and members of the Bad Seeds, she has created an album that bristles with danger and even roils with anger.

But it also has moments of disarming humor. Toward the end of Give My Love to London, she gingerly covers Leonard Cohen’s “Going Home”, a late-career rumination on the nature of creativity. It’s a monologue delivered by a muse who considers Cohen “a lazy bastard living in a suit”—in other words, a tool no different than a pen or quill. Faithfull does not replace his name with hers; instead, she plays the muse herself, claiming his triumphs as her own. It becomes a melancholic hymn to age and experience, but more wittily, it’s a funny and fitting turnabout for a songwriter who has repeatedly exploited his female subjects for his own spiritual gain (see, for example, “Chelsea Hotel No. 2”).

Faithfull has always conveyed a sensual gravity with that gravelly voice of hers, but the melancholy on Give My Love to London is tinged with angst and disaffection—perhaps inspired by her recent bout with cancer, or the back injury that left her bedridden, or just by a sense of alienation from a world that makes less and less sense by the day. For most artists of her generation, such topicality can sound either haughty (Neil Young’s recent orchestral protest song, “Who’s Gonna Stand Up”) or simply cloistered from the rest of the world (David Crosby’s latest album). But the theatricality of Faithfull’s performances lend weight to a song like “True Lies”, with its pendulum guitar riff and accusing lyrics: “True lies from your twisted little mind!” she glowers, her outrage absolutely withering.  

“Mother Wolf”, which Faithfull co-wrote with Patrick Leonard, may be her finest moment on Give My Love to London. It consists primarily of a single verse and chorus, each repeated throughout the song, but Faithfull sings each iteration with new dramatic emphasis. On the first time through, she delivers the allegorical lyrics almost passively, as though looking down on humanity from some high cloud. The next time, she has descended to earth and become a human amid the earthly horror of war. Faithfull doesn’t sing so much as she spits the words, her delivery grinding against the song’s meter. “How you disgust me!” she growls, turning those syllables into something acrid and poisonous and fundamentally ugly. Her performance meets violence with more violence, and the song’s pummeling pace and dark catharsis simultaneously underscore and undermine the song. The pirates are attacking London, and Faithfull is leading them onward. 

from Album Reviews – Pitchfork http://ift.tt/1uNBxxR