Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Journeys and Adventures

‘La Maison de Mon Reve’ and ‘Noah’s Ark’, the first two albums from beguiling sister duo CocoRosie have been slowly working their way into my consciousness over the last couple of years, and are albums I’ve been returning to frequently in recent months. In light of this, I’ve been keenly anticipating ‘The Adventures of Ghosthorse and Stillborn’, their latest kooky musical adventure. The press release for this album, not officially released until April, is so unutterably pretentious as to warrant quoting here in full:

“The Adventures of Ghosthorse and Stillborn is a departure from the obscured blur of stained glass reve to a more self-exploitive memoir. Parts are dreamy and parts are savage, but, as with an opera where death represents a secret heaven, the whole record feels like a black diamond in the snow. From her humble beginnings in the South of France, the saga sailed the Seven Seas all the way to that icy crack in the Earth’s crust just outside Reykjavik. Upon return to her Parisian homeland, she shared a mystical rendezvous with beautiful sailors Pierre and Gilles, the album cover being a consequence of that affair”.

Whilst this might do more to obfuscate than to explain (what kind of memoir isn’t ‘self exploitive’? What exactly is a ‘mystical rendezvous’?), it shouldn’t serve to put listeners off completely. CocoRosie have refined an unusual and original form of electronic folk music which is also theatrical and occasionally camp. The arrangements are skeletal but intoxicating, and, in this context, the Joanna Newsom-esque vocal mannerisms actually serve to bewitch and enhance the mood (and the phrasing is as much influenced by smoky jazz singers such as Billie Holiday and Dinah Washington as Newsom or Devendra Banhart).

Despite its mythical sea journey concept, ‘…Ghosthorse and Stillborn’ is neither as lyrically coherent nor as musically enthralling as its predecessors. Some of the meticulous vocal phrasings have been phased out in favour of a half-spoken style bordering on rapping for the first few songs. This also means there’s frequently a less marked contrast between the two voices (the juxtaposition between harsh and delicate was a major part of the group’s appeal). Also, whilst their previous works merged electronic programming with acoustic instruments (or at least synthesisers that closely resembled traditional folk instruments), there now seems to be a heavier reliance on piano emulators and conventional synth sounds. It’s gratifying to hear them branching away from their comfort zone, but it will require more listens before I’m convinced that this works.

When ‘Ghosthorse and Stillborn’ works, however, it still has a special magic. ‘Japan’ is a vivid, potent sea shanty that sounds something akin to Tom Waits jamming with Bjork, and the occasional interjection of operatic vocals, particularly when juxtaposed with the insular barroom jazz of ‘Houses’, is peculiarly effective. ‘Raphael’ harks back to the sound of ‘Noah’s Ark’ and ‘Sunshine’ is beautifully restrained.

The overall sense is of an album that is a little too content to meander, albeit with grace and beauty. The closing ‘Miracles’, with what sounds like Anthony Hegarty joining in on vocals (my promo cannot confirm this), is a particularly wishy-washy note on which to conclude.

Legendary guitarist Ry Cooder has devised a rather different kind of journey for ‘My Name Is Buddy’, and it’s one that enables him to pursue a determinedly traditional route through the American folk canon, joined by Pete and Mike Seeger and Van Dyke Parks, among other illustrious guests. It’s wonderful that Cooder has rediscovered his own creative drive, after years spent as a supporting musician and marketing outlet for the promotion of ‘world music’ (sorry to use the awful catch-all term). His last album, ‘Chavez Ravine’ was a brilliantly constructed and incisive concept album about the disappeared LA neighbourhood of Chavez Ravine, the source of conflict between real estate developers, government and planning activists, eventually bulldozed as a result of a corrupt deal to build a stadium to entice the Brooklyn Dodgers to LA. It’s the closest Cooder has come to a masterpiece outside his film soundtrack work, beautifully packaged, poignant, empathetic, and superbly executed.

‘My Name Is Buddy’ attempts to pick up where that album left off. ‘Chavez Ravine’ was rather modestly subtitled ‘a record by Ry Cooder’. Even more dryly, ‘..Buddy’ is presented as ‘another record by Ry Cooder. It has similarly lavish artwork and packaging, more closely resembling a children’s book with appropriate illustrations than a CD inlay. This time, though, the overall concept is decidedly more whimsical. Through the eyes of a cat forced to relocate and wander the great American terrain, Cooder takes a wryly humorous but frequently illuminating tour through depression-era 30s America. Buddy, the chief character, meets a number of other crucial figures including Lefty the Mouse (a committed Red and Union activist), The Reverend Tom Toad (who enables Cooder to address the issues of racism and the Ku Klux Klan), and a fat, greedy pig pointedly named J Edgar. Cooder introduces each song in the inlay with a short narrative passage providing the context, and all this does bring back memories of children’s tomes such as The Animals of Farthing Wood or Watership Down, the latter of which at least had broader allegorical points to make. Maybe Cooder wanted to ensure that the project wouldn’t come across as overly po-faced, but in his idealisation of a lost benevolent America, Cooder does have serious arguments which may be undercut rather than enhanced by the caricatures of his animal cast. Perhaps, though, a better reference point is George Orwell’s ‘Animal Farm’, which stated its political case boldly and clearly.

Musically, we’re very much in Woody Guthrie territory, and these 17 (17!!) songs are all authentically rootsy, although much more sedate and less boozy than Springsteen’s outstanding Seeger Sessions project from last year. It’s fascinating that the context of Bush’s squeezing domestic policies and foreign escapades have prompted America’s major musical artists to get historical, and ‘My Name Is Buddy’, however frustrating, is a major contribution to this emerging trend.

The playing is dependably excellent and faithful to its sources, although at 17 tracks, it’s certainly arguable that this is just too long. It’s very refreshing when there is a change in turn, such as on the gutsy blues of ‘Sundown Town’ (with Bobby King guesting on vocals), the Waitsian rasp of ‘Three Chords and the Truth’ (the wonderful title taken directly from Harlan Howard’s masterfully concise description of country music), or the atmospheric, lengthy ‘Green Dog’. The remaining songs are all consistently excellent, and sometimes a lot of fun, but it is something of a challenge to get through the whole album in one sitting. If there’s a problem, it might lie in Cooder’s dry and rather unexpressive singing. Never the greatest of singers, his tone is somewhat monotonous, and ‘…Buddy’ certainly lacks the unexpected passion and variety of vocal performance that Springsteen wrenched out on the Seeger Sessions.

Still, there’s plenty to admire here, and the lyrics are crisp and clever. Whilst it doesn’t quite scale the heights of ‘Chavez Ravine’, it’s still another major statement providing more evidence of just how great it is to have Cooder writing and recording regularly again.

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