Another Side of Music


The Five Albums You CAN’T Live Without are:

* Lambchop “Is A Woman” (2002)

* Laura Veirs “Carbon Glacier” (2004)

* The Walkabout “Trails of Stars” (1999)

* Antony and the Johnsons “The Crying Light” (2009)

* Lhasa “La Llorona” (1997)

AND THE REASONS WHY…

 

Lambchop “Is A Woman” (2002)

This is probably my finest finding to this day and it had to be my first review. Prior to the release of “Is A Woman”, I did not know Lambchop and as often with my CD/DVD purchases, I was initially attracted by the sleeve I saw in the store. I believe sleeves tell you more about the quality and ideas inside of an album than most critics do, and are better at driving you to discover new content. 

With “Is A Woman”, the music composition along with the classy recording quality struck me even on the rather mediocre headphone quality of the store I was in, and perfectly matched the refined sleeve.  Kurt Wagner’s deep and suave voice was fuelled with reassuring experience and weirdness at the same time – a contrast I always found very appealing – although I was initially too much under the charm of the perfectly crafted songs to notice the complexity, strangeness and even darkness of the lyrics. What sounded promising in the store sounded amazing at home. 

The recording quality of the voice, the piano, the drum and bass are just staggering – everything from the writing of the album to the production and mastering is a pure example of what a recording should be… definitely the best you can get in modern music.  I played the record to my Dad who is an acoustician and a speaker manufacturer for recording studios (I have to admit that helps to have a good sound at home)  and who is highly critical towards modern music recording.  He asked me to take the CD to the next Hi Fi show so we could use it to show the quality of his speakers to people coming to our booth.  “Is A Woman” was played there between top classical and jazz music recordings and didn’t feel out of place at all. 

Interestingly, Lambchop’s next album “No, You C’mon” is not as well recorded although the songs are very good as well. I remember listening to “No, you C’mon” and thinking that it was odd that the guy had put his finger on the perfect equilibrium in his first album but failed to match it in his new release showing it might have been more luck than total control.  

Later I discovered the rest of Lambchop and found that “Nixon”, an earlier release, had been the band’s most acclaimed. I disagree. To me none of the other albums have struck the same balance between absolute beauty and dirt, nor the constant quality all the way through the album (there is not a single bad song on that album) nor had the same perfection in recording. 

“Is A Woman” is one of the albums that incited me to do this blog as each time I recommended it, people asked me for more music like this. I found “Damaged” (released in 2006) rather samey and flavourless . “OH (Ohio)” is perfectly recorded but as with “Damaged”, Lambchop seems to be using the recipes that were created with “Is A Woman” but without having the genius of the initial inspiration.

Laura Veirs “Carbon Glacier” (2004)

And what does not spoil the incredible poetic charm  of “Carbon Glacier” is that from the writing, mixing of the songs to the pressing of the album, the recording quality is enlightened, which is unfortunately not the case with the two geniuses I have used as a comparison. 

Her website mentions the soon to be released new album called “July Flame”.   

     

The Walkabout “Trails of Stars” (1999)

The production is just brilliant and although it is not as refined as Lambchop (notably the post production is slightly below) there is something to it that creates an atmosphere  that is not as poetic as “Carbon Glacier” but with enduring qualities that still puzzle me as I can never really point my finger on what they really are. And that is what you need to make sure you will love an album all your life, you need this mystic. Although I spend my time trying to explain the greatness in music I also believe you stop loving a piece of art once you totally understand why you love it.

 

Antony and the Johnsons “The Crying Light” (2009)

When starting to think about this blog I had already decided that Antony and the Johnsons would be in my top five after I discovered Antony Hegarty and his band with “I Am A Bird Now”. Although I am still undecided about which album of the last two contains the strongest song, I am now totally convinced that “The Crying Light” is even a stronger album overall than “I Am A Bird Now”. I still recommend paying attention to them both. 

Antony’s voice is just like his persona – so different from anything else. His voice and way of singing are painfully beautiful but unexpectedly warm considering the darkness of his songs’ themes (epilepsy, self mutilation…). But that should not put you off as the extreme musicality of the songs wraps up the weird lyrics in a very clever way that gives you the choice to get or not to get their meaning in full. 

Also Antony and the Johnsons’s albums are not in the same vein as Lambchop’s “Is A Woman” although there are a couple of characteristics they share in common. They are extremely classy and rich in their musicality but the words can be deeply disturbing and this contrast that should have all the reasons to clash actually resolves itself amazingly. 

This is really what songs are about: using music to create a new dimension to lyrics and at best the other way around, so both lyrics and music keep reinforcing each other, creating unique meaning and experience that stay with you forever (See note) .

Now why picking “The Crying Light” rather than “I Am A Bird Now” (despite the fact that the second rose higher in the charts)?  Well, not only the production and recording is better and perfectly balanced, but also overall the album is stronger. As I said I am not sure which of the two albums contained the strongest song, but there is not a single bad song and/or bad moment in “The Crying Light”, I can listen to the full album without touching my remote control, which is not the case with “I Am A Bird Now”.

Lhasa “La Llorona” (1997)

Although I greatly respect Latino music as a genre I have to admit most of it does not move me at all. And if I say most of it that is because albums like “La Llorona” are great exceptions.  Again the uniqueness of the voice, the rich choice of instrumentations & rhythms, the originality of the songs and the quality of recording are outstanding, especially for a first album (my language skills do not allow me to comment on the lyrics for this album). 

What is so great about this album is that Lhasa manages to deliver passionate songs without falling into the cliché of Hispanic excesses and mannerisms. In that respect Lhasa is to Hispanic music what Dylan is (or was) to folk, but unlike him whose singing divides the crowd, one can only love her voice. Unfortunately I was not such a huge fan of her second album released in 2005 and called “Con toda palabra”.

 

(note) I totally disagree with Serge Gainsbourg’s idea that music is a minor form of art notably compared to painting, which seems to echo a common idea we can observe in the fact that by Art we refer to painting and never to music.  The merger of those two forms of arts (music and poetry) creates a unique and penetrating dimension of experience. It is a marriage in heaven when it works and making it work is to me the supreme instant of creation. 

Writing good enduring words is an art, writing a strong and original melody with nice arrangements is an art, but welding this poetry with this good piece of music without sacrificing one or the other but on the contrary managing to give a new dimension to the ensemble is one of the most difficult and subtle artistic operation. A good song to me is a synergy, it is when 1+1 gives you more than 2.  

Although I have the greatest admiration for Serge Gainsbourg and am amazed by some of his songs, I also believe most of them actually fail to weld words and lyrics at the highest level of what we can expect from song writing. Often he just brilliantly lays great words on great arrangements, rather than writes songs. He juxtaposes words and music but leaves “unworked” the fundamental magic at the heart of their merger, songs like Manon, La chanson de Prévert, Black Trombone being exceptions in his repertoire.  So it is interesting that the person who said music was a minor form of art, actually often did not meet the top exigency of it.    

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