The first show I went to at DC’s famed 9:30 Club, back when it was at 9th and F Street, was 10,000 Maniacs. They had just released their major label debut, The Wishing Chair. The front woman, Natalie Merchant, was a triple-threat, as they say in show business lingo. She had a lilting, beautiful voice; wrote intelligent lyrics about serious subjects; and was visually arresting. And by “visually arresting,” I don’t mean she was a babe. I mean her gloriously oddball stage person. The performance I saw back in 1985 featured her trademark spinning, on-stage costume changes involving numerous shawls and scarves, and using her long hair as a prop. In-between song, instead of banter, she would sing a cappella fragments of old folk songs. And in souped up jam session, she ‘sang’ impromptu lyrics from Yamyatin’s We.
She became a star on the next album, In My Tribe, with a jaunty hit single about Seasonal Affective Disorder called “Like the Weather.” Her lyrics became less poetic and more preachy, something cemented in the follow-up album Blind Man’s Zoo. At her worst, she comes across as a sanctimonious scold. Sally Soapbox became her default setting. She rivals Morrissey in her ability to annoy me with her judgmental and often hypocritical pronouncements. (Case in point: “Candy Everybody Wants” portrays TV-viewers as morons and yet 10,000 Maniacs were often musical guests on numerous TV programs; in another article, she went on a mad bromide against the Lady Gaga/Beyonce campy video “Telephone,” failing to find humor in its homage to trashy women’s prison; yet her former band’s name at best, trivializes, people with mental disabilities).
But some of her songs can make me blub like a baby. “Cherry Tree,” about illiteracy, does it every time. And “These Are Days” practically defines nostalgic euphoria. That song kicks me out of any funk I’m in. She has a new album coming out, and it appears to draw from the Poetic side of her oeuvre. The haunting video and the lyrics to the song “Giving It Up” is very promising.
The song “Meremennen” by Autumn’s Grey Solace has no known lyrics. Phrases emerge every now and then, like flotsam and jetsam, on the oceanic currents of the music. But for the most part, it is a kind of semi-coherent glossolalia: flowing and dissolving and pierce notes over a delicate arpeggio’d guitar and subterranean bass-line. The title holds the clue to the content: meremennen is an old English word for a kind of water spirit. This track, with its siren vocalizations, is a homage to an elusive, mythic creature.
Just the other day, I found some rare tracks from the Norwegian ethereal-wave band Bel Canto. Listening to them confirmed for me that Anneli Drecker has a simply amazing voice and it’s a shame that she is not as well known as she should be. She effortlessly melds the complex vocal gymnastics of Elizabeth Fraser with the pan-ethnic warbling of Lisa Gerrard— with a dash of Bjorkian whimsy.
Bel Canto started out as kind of Gothic synthpop band; imagine Depeche Mode crossed with Siouxsie and the Banshees. By the second release, Birds of Passage, they moved more into the atmospherics of Cocteau Twins or Kate Bush. Drecker expanded the range of her voice so that she could reach soprano highs that were positively operatic, and there was a definite Medieval sound to the stately synths. Lyrically, the songs borrowed from mythology, with songs about mermaids, minotaurs, and Baron Munchausen. But it is their third album, Shimmering, Warm & Bright, is a classic of mythic pop music.
Drecker’s voice is stately and beautiful. The music weaves folk instruments into the elaborate synthesized orchestrations. The lyrics, some of them in French and German, are full of images from Scandinavian myths: giants (“Shimmering, Warm and Bright”), fallen warriors (“Sleep in Deep”), and witchcraft (“Spiderdust”). The album’s centerpiece is an epic musical homage to a Hans Christian Andersen tale, “The Story of a Mother,” sung in German.
Subsequent Bel Canto albums visited mythic themes sporadically, opting instead for a sleek pop-oriented sound.
Shimmering, Warm and Bright
Check out the interview I conducted with debut novelist Kim Church (Byrd, Dzanc Books) over at the Washington Independent Review of Books. Church was my first author interview for WIRoB, and she was simply charming.
I will be covering the Speculative Fiction beat from now on.
My YA novel Bereft is finally in the DC Public Library system. Now is as good a time as any to announce that a library event is in the works for this spring/summer, to coincide with DC’s LGBT Pride Festival. More information forthcoming.
Bereft displayed in the MLK Library’s Teenspace!
I’m participating in a roundtable discussion about the work of recently crowned Grand Master of Science Fiction Samuel R. Delany, which was organized by Matthew Cheney at his blog The Mumpsimus.
I had the pleasure of taking a class with Mr. Delany back in the late 80s, and he also critiqued my early, jejune fiction. Check it out, and join in the discussion with other academics, writers and fans!
Delany Collage by Matthew Cheney
Here is me reading an excerpt from “Psychometry, or Gone with the Dust,” from my forthcoming collection Skin Deep Magic.