New York's singer/songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Hannah Marcus developed
a unique style that was both emotional and hypnotic.
Relocating to San Francisco, she debuted with the EP Demerol (1993)
and the full-length
Weeds And Lilies (Return to Sender, 1994), partially reprised on
River of Darkness (Normal, 1995).
The album contains three seven-minute songs (Nightmare,
where she sounds like a fragile version of Joni Mitchell until the oneiric instrumental break and the mantra-like ending jam,
Devil Inside Me and
Coconut Cream Pie) besides
the soaring angelic ode of Demerol and
the plaintive piano ballad Weeds And Lilies.
These songs lean towards the confessional vein of
Nick Drake's and
Laura Nyro's ominous elegies,
Her voice, however, is a powerful and versatile instrument.
Her trance-like style became even more otherworldly on
Faith Burns (Normal, 1998), recorded with help from
Swans' bassist Joe Goldrig,
American Music Club's drummer Tim Mooney
and Ralph Carney.
Her psalms evoked
Tim Buckley's folk-jazz fusion,
Lisa Germano's painfully childish introspection,
Jane Siberry's abstract self-reflections,
Nico's glacial soliloquy,
as well as Patti Smith's delirious stream of consciousness.
Her songs scavenged gloomy psycho-scapes.
Black Hole Heaven (2000) marked a step backwards as it adopted a more
conventional song format and even toyed with dance beats.
Between mediocre ditties like Lot 309 and orchestral torch ballads like
Under the Void
a bit of creativity surfaces in
the dreamy, acid-rock tinged Crimson Bird,
the exotic shuffle Indra's Palace,
the Appalachian folk music of Black Hole Heaven,
the raga-jazz-psychedelic evanescence of Darling How Are You.
On the much better Desert Farmers (Bar None, 2004), backed by members of
Godspeed You Black Emperor
(guitarist Efrim Manuck and bassist Thierry Amar),
she found an eerie balance between metaphysical speculation and
manic introspection, culminating with the
nine-minute kammerspiels of Hairdresser in Taos
(that begins with pounding, Warren Zevon-esque cinematic tension, plunges into an anemic depression and then rises in a
coda of evil madness)
Fake And Pretty (that begins like a
slow piano lullabye, whose refrain is a stately crescendo, and with a
rambling coda of percussive piano and domestic sounds).
The shorter songs oscillate between a
and a sort of hypnosis.
The former mode lands
halfway between melancholy and ecstasy in Beloved and
between a sermon and a prayer in Laos.
The latter mode is mainly displayed in the
transcendent hymn Canon, sung by multiple slightly asynchronous voices in a crescendo of complexity.
But the album explores a broad spectrum of other modes, from
the interlude Desert Farmers of manically distorted drones
nocturnal country-jazz ballad Purple Mother
via Strip Darts, that is a hybrid of
Renaissance music and John Fahey-esque guitar folk.
She then formed the Wingdale Community Singers with David Grubbs
of Gastr Del Sol
and novelist Rick Moody, a mostly acoustic trio that released
the 15-song The Wingdale Community Singers (Plain, 2005).
The songs mostly adopt a pre-rock format, looking back at the
folk singalong (Bike Shop Boy),
to Pete Seeger-era hootenannies (Fishnet Stockings)
Carter Family's guitar elegies with multi-part harmonies (Pawn Shop Fire)
via the sleepy country ballad Blue Daisy and the
piano gospel Holy Virgin Star.
By comparison, the exception, Sugar and Salt is a garage rave-up.
They strike the right balance
in the anthemic Rat on the Tracks (with upright bass, violin and banjo),
somewhere between bluegrass music and Warren Zevon.
The piano lullabye Bitter Angels, the
anemic, almost a-cappella, Bigger Ocean
whispered stately piano ballad Indira's Lost and Found (closed with mournful saxophone and harmonium) are the most vivid testaments to their
agonizing emotional quest.
They then released simpler folk albums such as
Spirit Duplicator (Scarlet Shame, 2009)
Night Sleep Death (BC23, 2013).
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