There’s a song on Autumn’s Grey Solace’s new digital mini-LP (or long EP) called “aelfsciene”, which means “fairy-bright’ in Anglo-Saxon (aka Old English). ‘Fairy bright’ is an apt description for these glittering compositions. Singer Erin Welton’s sweet airy soprano and complex, ethereal melodies are indeed, otherworldly. She’s drifted to a more glossolalia (speaking-in-tongues) style favored by Elizabeth Fraser and Lisa Gerrard; the lyrics themselves might as well be in Old English, since the song titles are all in that language. The music, created by Scott Ferrell, is built up of various guitar textures that form a kind of aural trompe l’oeil. Guitars mimic drones, sighs, pianos, cellos, and harps, held together with gentle rhythms. It’s ambient music using standard rock instrumentation. “Monajjfyllen” is the brighter companion piece to their earlier, and darker post rock album, “Eifelian.”
Calling you, tears thaw my sleep
Wanting you, this hoary web is weaved
From this strange confusion
Grows a perverse communication
It enthralls me and coils me around
—“The Sweetest Chill,” by Siouxsie and the Banshees
“Liturgy of Ice,” dark, queer take on “The Snow Queen,” was partially inspired by the song “The Sweetest Chill” by Goth Ice Queen Siouxsie Sioux. It’s a beautifully unsettling ballad of romantic obsession, full of wintry images.
Music, of course, is one of my major obsessions, and my love for it spills over into my fiction. The first Variation took its title from Bat for Lashes first album, “Fur & Gold.”
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.
Suzanne Vega: Tales From the Realm of the Queen of Pentacles
The new Suzanne Vega album is built around a tarot theme. The Knight of Wands, the Fool, and, of course the titular Queen of Pentacles appear in this collection. There are also off-cycle songs, including a retelling of a Biblical story (“Jacob and the Angel“). Vega often gets accused of making the same album– steely, aloof singing and gentle folk with rock and electronic flourishes. The real star, of course, her lyrics. Vega is one of the true poets of pop music, and each song has meticulously crafted language, full of wit and beauty. Vega’s voice treats each phrase as if it were a precious jewel. Her melodies never meander; she has a healthy respect for form. TFTROTQOF, like all of Vega’s work, make me feel like I’ve finished reading a deckle-edged short story collection, set in an elegant serif font.
Marissa Nadler: July
The doom-laden folk of Nadler conjures up images of ghostly girls, garbed in diaphanous lace gowns, old Victorian houses mouldering in ruin, and faded, sepia-tinged daguerreotypes. The songs, even those set in the present day, are full of expertly culled minor keys, reverbed guitars, and her lush mezzo-soprano voice. Her lyrics are literate, but they are not the point. The point is the sultry funereal atmosphere. It’s a dark jewel of an album.
Her voice is a bruised, angry little thing, wispy and gravelly at once. It isn’t a pretty voice by a long shot, one that can’t sustain a note for a long time. Her lyrics are stream-of-conscious ramblings, perhaps written at the behest of a therapist, full of self-deprecation and caustic wit. The music is the same, vague, desultory quality, full of reverb and tremolo, with stray bits of violins colliding over simple guitar riffs. Lisa Germano’s music is an acquired taste. It’s uncomfortable and confessional. There are no real hooks per se; it reveals its charms gradually. My favorite song of hers is ‘Cry Wolf.’ It’s written from the point of view of a date-rape victim. The central theme is in a minor, eerie key and very hypnotic. Blurry background voices ooo over the rippling guitar as Germano in lays bare the rhetoric of date rape: Girl who wants it but has no clue/ She’s says she’ll give it, cry, cry wolf/A change of mind in a back seat or that dirty room /They say she got just what she wanted. It’s the center piece song on her concept album, Geek the Girl, about an awkward girl’s misadventures in love.
All days are nights to see till I see thee,
And nights bright days when dreams do show thee me.
—“Sonnet 43,” Shakespeare
Ah, the Concept Album, that hoary idea that birthed such dubious masterpieces as Evita and “Mr. Roboto.” Chloe March’s third album loosely fits in this category. But you won’t find an overarching narrative theme. Instead, you’ll find a suite of songs that use image-patterns of night, winter, light, dark with a sub-theme of Orpheus and Eurydiche running through three compositions. And I use the term ‘composition’ deliberately, for these amalgamations of synthesized programs, with delicate colorings of piano, saxophone, zither and guitar are closer to the work of Erik Satie than they are to traditional pop music. March’s work most recalls David Sylvian’s classic album, Secrets of the Beehive, with its slow burning atmospherics that borrow from folk, classical, jazz and electronic ambient music. Her smoky velvet alto also shares Sylvian’s ruminative phrasing. The use of zithers (in this case, autoharp and psaltery) at times recalls the hermetic, textural compositions of acoustic-ambient artist Colleen. Nights Bright Days is like musical incense. Recommended for fans of Sylvian, Virginia Astley, and Goldfrapp (in the vein of Felt Mountain or Tales of Us).
“Up in the Big House, they’re branding niggers!” Danielle Dax gleefully warbles in her song, “Evil Honky Stomp.” A tape-loop of a sinister trumpet plods along with a collage of strummed and plinked sound effects. “Ugly boys with pious mouths,” she coos. The matter of race and the master narrative is skewered and laid bare in this song. Though, “song,” perhaps, is not really accurate. Dax’s first two albums are free-form assemblages of found sound, performance art, and dark parody. Her voice alternates between a high, piercing Kate Bush-like soprano and deep, dark Siouxsie-like contralto. Dax addresses a variety of subjects and issues with her bizarre surrealistic imagery. “Pariah,” a stark synthesizer-driven bit of cold-wave, addresses the racism faced by West Indian immigrants in London, and subsequent work addressed sexism, animal rights, and female genital mutilation. But Dax never took the role of scold. Rather, she was a silver-tongued sibyl, using allegory and arcane allusion. Her first two albums, Pop-Eyes and Jesus Egg That Wept were all written, produced and performed by Dax by herself. They are a mash-up of various forms of music, ranging from Bollywood pop, madrigals, funk, synth pop and other hybrids. Dax plays, with varying levels of skill, saxophone, flute, sitar, banjo and toy instruments. Later work was more sophisticated, adding psychedelia and electronica to the mix. Her song about the Thatcher years, “Bad Miss M,” is a bouncy country-flavored tune.
Dax left the music scene after a bid to become more mainstream failed to take off. Marketing was probably an issue. Dax had all the makings of an alternative pop star, with her appealing voice and stunning good looks. But her vision was too wacky and uncategorizable. Was she Goth? New Wave? Pop? World Music? Would Siouxsie fans find her too pop? Would Laurie Anderson fans find her too dark? Ultimately, a long bout with illness effectively ended her music career. Today, Danielle Dax (nee, Gardner) is a landscape architect who dabbles in music.