Strange Angels

Crotchety Man has been on holiday – one week in Devon with the missus and a tottery old man I call Dad. The weekly blog for 3rd September was written in advance, the draft was called up on the phone as we sat in the holiday cottage watching the rain stream down the windows and the Publish button was clicked there. It must have worked because something on Hotel California appeared in these pages that very day.

Returning home, the usual schedule was resumed for a San Francisco Drive last Sunday. And then, as I welcomed the start of a new working week on Monday, my thoughts turned to the Album of the Month for September. It’s good to know there are people out there tapping frantically on computer keyboards, manufacturing consumer goods and transporting things from one side of the globe to the other, thus keeping the economy going so that I can spend my state-provided pension being frivolous and enjoying myself.

But, I digress. The self-appointed Crotchety Boss wanted an Album of the Month blog on his desk by close of business Thursday. What was I going to write? That stifling black cloud of blogger’s block descended ominously for a moment and then, suddenly, it evaporated. I had already decided on the album; I had made a note of it before going away. Sure enough, my list of candidate albums had an entry for this month, but reading it just filled me with dismay. “Laurie Anderson, Strange Angels”, it said. And a thoroughly confused inner voice replied, “Huh?, Who? What?”.

portrait

Laurie Anderson

The Crotchety mind felt as though it had fallen into a swollen, swirling river but, after a few seconds of intense effort, it found an overhead branch and grabbed it with both hands. Before going away I had been reading an article in The Telegraph newspaper entitled “50 amazing albums you’ve probably never heard“; the album on my list must have been one of those. Sure enough, album number 19 in that newspaper article was Strange Angels by Laurie Anderson.

So I had the album but I still had no idea who Laurie Anderson is/was or what Strange Angels sounds like. I had pulled myself out of the River of Confusion but I was not yet out of the Woods of Ignorance.

Sitting on the river bank the ignoramus made a plan: step 1, listen again to the music, for it must have had some remarkable quality to be on the list; step 2, search for Laurie Anderson online and see what comes up; step 3, write down a few pertinent facts and try to describe what it is that makes Strange Angels worthy of the Crotchety Readers’ time. It was a good plan. Following it my Mind and I would force a path through the Woods to the scrubland of Superficial Knowledge and there the travellers would erect a marker, a post that will show others the way.

album cover

So I listened. At first there seemed to be nothing at all remarkable about the music. The album opens with the title track, which is a fairly ordinary pop song – pleasant enough but certainly not something that warrants The Telegraph‘s ‘amazing’ tag. Then again, there’s an unusual selection of instruments – you don’t hear castanets very often in pop songs – and there’s an intriguing quality to Laurie Anderson’s voice that makes you wonder what the rest of the album has in store.

Track 2 is anything but ordinary. Called Monkey’s Paw it sounds as though it has been excised from Paul Simon’s Graceland and given a growling, half-spoken commentary warning that no good will come from our attempts to bend Mother Nature to our will.

Nature’s got rules and Nature’s got laws
And if you cross her look out!
It’s the monkey’s paw.

The instruments swing like a monkey in the trees; the words carry a profound and disturbing message. There is a depth to this album that shouldn’t go unnoticed.

As each song passes you become aware of ever more variety. Sometimes the singer’s voice swoops and trills, sometimes it grumbles. One song has Andean pipes, another features a harmonium; there are bongos, horns, drum machines and synthesisers. And the songs grow on you. By track 6, the funky Beautiful Red Dress, Crotchety Man’s ignorance was flowing away faster than the River of Confusion. There really is something precious glinting just beyond the thinning Wood.

As I listened I kept hearing echoes of other musicians: Liz Fraser’s passionate voice, the ominous atmosphere of a Nick Cave composition, words from a Sally Barker song. It struck me that Strange Angels is a collage of musical fragments, fragments assembled so artfully that they create a wholly different work in which the individual pieces lose their identity. It is, I think, as much a tribute to the session musicians and producers as it is to the songwriting and the headline artist.

The album ends with the hypnotic Hiawatha which ambles through the Old West, accompanied by Native Americans and the occasional howling wolf, for nearly seven minutes. It is a timeless, wandering piece that fades into the sunset much too soon leaving this old timer hankering for more. Here it is on YouTube where an early fade reduces it to 5:24:

The enlightened Crotchety Mind had left behind the Woods of Ignorance and it was time to take step 2, an expedition into the scrub of Superficial Knowledge.

Upon opening Laurie Anderson’s Wikipedia page it is immediately obvious that she is a complex and interesting character. She is described there as “an American avant-garde artist, composer, musician and film director whose work spans performance art, pop music, and multimedia projects”. The key word, here, is ‘artist’. Strange Angels is a work of art; that it is delivered through the medium of music is incidental. And music is only one string to Anderson’s bow¹. She has also worked as an illustrator, art critic, film maker and performance artist.

Our increasingly confident explorer made two surprising discoveries on this particular expedition. The first was that Laurie Anderson had a number two hit in the UK charts in 1981. Was the Crotchety Mind asleep that year? Or had it just forgotten the name of a one-hit wonder? Listening to O Superman, the track in question, quickly eliminated the latter possibility. It is one of the most distinctive, surprising and unforgettable songs ever to have graced the charts. Borrowing words from Le Cid, an opera by Jules Massenet, it is over eight minutes of multi-tracked, half-spoken, heavily processed chanting and electronic organ, reminiscent of Ivor Cutler’s idiosyncratic warblings. Here’s the official video:

The popularity of that single is inexplicable. I have seen reports that it was used as the introductory music for a program on Capital Radio and that many listeners contacted the radio station to ask what it was. I have also heard that John Peel promoted it on his radio show. That may all be true but the support of a local radio station and an off-piste show on national radio isn’t enough to explain its success to my satisfaction. Still, it provides a welcome stimulation for the ears and the intellect and it brought Laurie Anderson to the attention of those of us well outside the orbit of performance art.

The second surprise my exploring Mind discovered was that Laurie Anderson hooked up with Lou Reed in 1992 and they were married from 2008 until his death in 2013. Now that makes sense. Those two strong, creative characters would either clash violently or build an unbreakable bond. In an article in The Guardian newspaper, when the interviewer asked what it was like to be a widow, Anderson replied that she thought of Lou Reed as more of a partner than a husband (although he was that, too) and that he is always with her.

We paused then as we contemplated step 3 of the plan. Slowly we began to gather stones from the River of Confusion, building a cairn to mark the path. A fallen tree was dragged from the Woods of Ignorance and from it we fashioned a sturdy post, painted with arrows pointing to Laurie Anderson and her Strange Angels. And we have now committed these words to the blogosphere, providing another pointer to a road less travelled and music heard unjustifiably rarely.

Note

  1. Laurie Anderson was, initially, trained in violin and sculpture. She invented the tape-bow violin in which recorded magnetic tape replaces the horsehair of a violin bow and sound is produced as the bow is drawn across a tape head in the bridge.

4 Degrees

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Ten days ago Crotchety Man watched the awards ceremony for the 2016 Mercury Prize on the TV. The scheduling was confusing. At 7 o’clock there was a one-hour program on ‘the red button’ (a channel up in the six hundreds most easily found by clicking the red button on the TV remote) and this was followed by another one-hour slot on the primary BBC TV channel. As far as I could make out all twelve of the artists on the Mercury Prize shortlist would perform in the first hour and the awards ceremony itself would be covered in the second.

I have considerable respect for the Mercurys. Unlike the Brits, which are restricted to pop music, the Mercury Prize accepts nominations from a wide range of genres including pop, rock, folk, urban, dance, jazz, blues, electronica and classical. In practice, there have been no classical nominations since 2002 and there has only ever been one nomination for a heavy metal album. In spite of those omissions the Mercury Prize judges usually manage to pick an album by an artist that deserves greater recognition than they have so far received. Following that award is usually a good way for Crotchety Man to broaden his sonic horizons.

So, eager to hear a broad range of songs and hoping to stumble on something new and exciting, I sat down at 7 pm to be informed and entertained. This wasn’t completely new territory – I had already heard a few of the songs from the nominated albums – and I was soon building up a mental scoresheet. There were a couple of songs that weren’t to my taste but, with one exception, they all seemed worthy of the shortlist.

I am now going to break two rules of the Crotchety Man blog: I am going to mention what I would classify as a hip-hop song and I’m going to condemn it as worthless. (Don’t worry. This will be a small diversion. I shall be much more positive again shortly.)

The one track that should never have made the Mercury Prize TV show was something called Shutdown by a rapper called Spekta. When I heard it in that first hour I took an instant dislike to it. According to the TV presenter Shutdown is an example of Grime music which, I discovered recently, is not the same as hip-hop. Apparently, Grime is very popular in the clubs at the moment so, grudgingly, I reset the Crotchety Music Appreciation Meter and applied it to every detail of the song. Although I calibrated and re-calibrated my instruments I could not find any sign of quality music. It seemed to be nothing more than a strong beat and endless repetitions of the word ‘shutdown’.

At the end of the 7 o’clock programme, presented by Shaun Keveney (I think), we had only seen six of the twelve shortlisted artists. Switching over to BBC 1 I hoped we would now get to hear the other six. Disappointingly, the second hour featured exactly the same performances, only this time presented by Lauren Laverne. As the second show was supposed to be live I am at a loss to explain how they did that. Once again the Spekta song failed to register on the Appreciation Meter; the needle didn’t even tremble.

Finally, we came to the award itself. The Mercury Prize is given for the best album from the UK and Ireland released in the previous 12 months. There is only one award and the presentation is mercifully short. Jarvis Cocker teased the audience by saying that, in the end, the choice was between two ‘black stars’. This was obviously a reference to David Bowie’s Black Star and Michael Kiwanuka’s Love and Hate. Black Star was the bookies favourite and Love and Hate was also regarded as a strong contender. A sense of relief washed over Crotchety Man. The Mercury Prize this year would be at least moderately well deserved.

In his award presentation speech Jarvis Cocker went on to say that, if David Bowie was looking down on the venue he would be delighted that the Mercury Prize for 2016 goes to … Spekta‘s Konnichiwa. And at that Crotchety Man became very crotchety indeed. “No, mate, David Bowie would not be at all pleased with that”, he spat at the TV. Dumbfounded and immobilised by the shock Crotchety Man sat through the cheers and the congratulations, half listened to the acceptance speech and suffered Shutdown for a third time in two hours as the credits rolled.

The judging panel clearly took leave of their senses this year. If they had chosen Bowie’s Black Star no-one would have been surprised and few would have been disappointed. If they wanted to show their appreciation for black artists they could have gone for Michael Kiwanuka or Laura Mvula. If they were looking for something a little out of the ordinary they could have chosen something by Bat for Lashes or The Comet Is Coming. There were some genuinely good albums on the shortlist. But Crotchety Man is not bitter. If you have been slighted, they say, “don’t get mad, get even”. In that spirit I shall do what I can to redress the balance by bringing to your attention another album on the shortlist, Hopelessness by Anohni.

4 Degrees - Anohni

Although I had heard the name Anohni a couple of times on the radio and filed it away in the mental rolodex under “sounds like Nina Simone or Benjamin Clementine” I knew nothing about the artist. As you can tell from my comment I wasn’t even sure if the voice was male or female. A little Googling soon cleared that up. Anohni was born a boy and called Antony Hegarty (the Antony in Antony and the Johnsons) but from the age of 5 Antony knew she was a girl inside. Anohni is the name of the woman that little Antony grew up to be. There’s a wonderfully insightful article on Anohni in the Guardian that’s well worth reading if you have a few minutes to spare.

Anohni has described Hopelessness as “an electronic record with some sharp teeth”. The teeth come in the form of protest songs. But it’s not the protest of Bob Dylan who stood aloof from the decaying society that he sang about so eloquently. It’s an altogether more anguished recognition that Anohni is herself part of the problems, complicit in the politics that allow wars to be waged and ecosystems to be destroyed.

All the songs rage and rail against the injustice and destruction that the human race is inflicting on itself. 4 Degrees is specifically about climate change. If we do nothing to prevent it the experts predict that the world will be 4° C warmer by the end of the century than it was in 2000. That’s a critical temperature rise. It may even be enough to tip the climate into a runaway greenhouse effect that will wipe most species off the face of the Earth. Most of us are doing little or nothing about it and for Anohni that’s as bad as deliberately setting fire to our precious planet.

It’s only four degrees, it’s only four degrees.
. . .
I wanna see this world, I wanna see it boil.
. . .
I wanna see the fish go belly up in the seas.
. . .
I wanna burn the sky, I wanna burn the breeze
I wanna see the animals die in the trees.

The music is equally apocalyptic. Drum machines crash and thunder; fire and brimstone blare out from synthesisers. The rocks are melting and the seas are roiling as if the Earth is being born again. And yet, some beauty survives. A celestial brass band blows huskily; orchestral strings float down from every corner of heaven. And the voice of God rumbles through the singer’s throat, neither male nor female, transcendent, breath-taking, enthralling.

4 Degrees - world water droplet

When Crotchety Man sat down to watch the Mercury Prize shows on TV he was hoping to be introduced to an album like Hopelessness. Something that doesn’t quite make the charts because it’s not the flavour of the month. Something with genuine musical merit. Anohni’s first solo album fits the bill perfectly. It would have been a worthy winner of the Mercury Prize. Ah, well, there’s always next year. If we haven’t fried the planet by then.