LAURIE ANDERSON RETURNS BY BRINGING SOMETHING FANS HAVE LONG WANTED; “UNITED STATES PART FIVE” WITH HER NEW ALBUM HOMELAND

An important album from an important artist. Cover reprinted with permission of Nonesuch records.

$21.99

You’re reading a review.

About someone you’ve never heard of.

But…

You should know her.

You should know her work.

You should know her work is.

You should know her work is for… YOU!

She is a performance artist, music, dance, theater, comedy, drama, love, hate, technology…  She is a political activist.  But I don’t go near politics and I don’t go near music artists when they sit between their wives and ex-wives.

I owe a minor debt of gratitude, in my quest for synthesizer knowledge I ambushed Ms. Anderson behind the Prince Theater in Philadelphia after her “Happiness” show there.  I inquired as to what keyboards she had been fancying at that time, and the keyboard I purchased on Ms. Anderson’s advice has yet to exhaust its usefulness.

She KNOWS technology.

Well if you folks follow this blog, you’re gonna get to know her.  We are giving her the 1-2 punch treatment.  That treatment being first we will cover the album Homeland with our usual surgical dissection, then we are privileged to have first row seats to her performance of Homeland which is called “Another Day In America”.

I think we need to go home.

Have you lost your dog?

We initiate Homeland with the anticipatory track “Transitory Life”.  The title alone evokes contemplation.  We are all transitory in this life.  Some will want for a better life, some will fear a lesser life.  There are those who feel the body separates from the soul and the soul of the individual travels on.  There are those who feel the entire being is brought back in a different form, perhaps even a different space, world, a different universe.

Anderson is notorious for making you think.  If you can’t comprehend surrealism, avant-garde high brow art, RUN AWAY!

She almost drew me into a conversation about religion, something else I don’t go near.

“Transitory Life” starts off with very exotic instrumentation.  Perhaps not so exotic in the Middle East, but for a Laurie Anderson album, it’s appropriate.  A mighty bass sample is joined with a sampled throat singer who proffers a hauntingly beautiful line, filled with a mix of emotions.  Celebrating that transition? Mourning it?  This is never-revealed-before-more-indigenous-to-Middle-Eastern-culture instruments and some keyboards building the dynamic.

This is another one of those CDs mastered so hot it taxes my 7.1 system.  It’s bad enough that Anderson’s music is so absorbing, it is leveled out very high to make sure you get lost in the music.  If I don’t return, send a St. Bernard…

After SEVERAL listens to the album, the most striking observation I can make is how much Anderson’s singing voice has vastly improved.  Her performance on the first vocal is nearly angelic.  Of course, Anderson includes spoken word portions in the new songs, on the new album.  But when in contrast to the new and improved singing voice, background vocals and Vocoder-effected vocals, the stark nature of the spoken word carries more impact.

The depressing aspect of this track is, she has summed up everything in her chorus: “We’re sailing through, this transitory life, we’re moving through, this transitory life.”  It is true.

Overall, this track is eerie, haunting, ethereal, and much of Anderson’s work could be described that way.  Somehow, “Transitory Life” says those things, but so starkly, frankly, like the long lost friend who gets to tell you “Hello, I haven’t seen you in a while, you’re dying.”

For me to get into the specifics of the instrumentation would involve a minor geography lesson, some musical history 102, 103, musical theory 302, 303, 304, just picture large Mongolians playing instruments made of dead horses…

“My Right Eye” starts off innocuously enough, bass drum and vocal, but don’t get comfortable.  Anderson is self-acknowledged when she states she likes to move around.  Because right in come the faint keys that build, build only to a meditative state.  Then at first, what little dynamic that builds before the first chorus is gone, because the chorus is stark, like the start of Anderson’s first “hit” (let’s be real, an artist of Anderson’s stature is beyond “hits”) “O Superman” from her Big Science album.

$15.98

Now the instrument of choice to pull off the dynamic ascend is viola, performed beautifully throughout the album by Eyvind Kang.  Some other notable names are Roma Baran who along with Anderson and Anderson’s husband Lou Reed co-produced the album and Reed contributed various instruments throughout the album.  But this time, Anderson’s right hand man is keyboardist Rob Burger, who appears on many of the tracks alongside additional keyboardists such as Peter Scherer, Kieran Hebden, and cameos by Omar Hakim, and Anderson long-time cohort Skuli Sverrisson on bass and guitar, and many others contributing to Anderson’s report about life in these United States in 2010.

Back to “My Right Eye”, the lyrics detail of torn inner emotions, crying with tears of love from the right eye, tears of contempt with the left.  It could even be about the surmounting duality we feel within the confines of an ever-constricting society, a distorted judicial system, and ever-vanishing constitutional rights.

Freud said “sometimes a cigar is just a cigar” too.

This track builds with gorgeous backing vocals near the end, the dynamic building on those backing vocals and then, just, ends.  Considering the vocals were at first, just vocoded.  But one thing Reed brought to the production, and with Anderson concentrating on her vocal abilities it was probably only available latently, but after things deplete during the two-note viola line break, after that right eye/left eye description, things begin that build.  Once the hoof-clap starts, the backing vocals are the order.

Another Middle-Eastern instrument open for “Thinking Of You”, which yields to Anderson’s voice and strings.  Once the full “orchestration” kicks in, I am brought to mind of England in the winter.  She likes to move around and take us with us, because we are now at the circus.  And the vocals are stacked until the bass note double-beat break.  Then back to the circus orchestra in her little hometown.

Do I get frequent flyer miles?

“Strange Perfumes” is not one of my favorites on the album.  The demure track starts off with a lone male vocal and is joined by Anderson’s layered harmonies.  I am guessing the place Anderson wants to take us to now is France.  The backing track puts you in the mind of Paris.  Romantic.  But the topic is more about the time spent as opposed to the fragrance.

Judging from the tone of the lyrics, it is a tale of love lost.  Remorseful, opening vocals and some ad libs toward the end are done by someone named Antony.  There is also a vocal heard in the distant background, faintly heard, something about walking.

Once you are lulled by the previous track, all of the sudden it hits you; Lou Reed’s manic guitar intro to the dance bass and drum beat of “Only An Expert”.  This highly intelligent, danceable track is my favorite from the album and would have been a standard on the Doctor Demento Show.

After a few really interesting verses, Reed wails his best Fripp/Belew/Byrne noise-maker guitar line that keeps exploding, with either dive bomb harmonics or speedy note lines.  The verses are spot-on about today’s global economic, political and social problems.

There are something like six verses and they are verbose.  But with its trance-club keyboards, bouncing rhythm track and crazed guitar parts, you don’t notice this song is over seven minutes long!  There’s even a dig at Al Gore!  Get him…

Omar Hakim plays drums on this, mostly bass drum with some tasty fills and rolls strategically placed throughout the piece.  Still, the keyboards and the subject matters are the focus.  Until Reed breaks your concentration with another crazed guitar line.

You will be singing “Only an expert can deal with the problem” for at least two days after you hear it.  We tortured all of our friends with this song.  Some of them got upset about it.  So we decided to keep the songs and get rid of the friends…

The track just pumps until the end when the final two lines of the one-line chorus are punctuated with full note chord hits by all instruments, with a synth beep and a tidy bass triplet to end it.

Once again I quote Ron Reagan, “Is it over all ready?”

“Falling” has words built around a work by George W.S. Trow.  It seems to be a simplistic song about having a crisis of conscience over the increasing number of of jobless, homeless, health-benefitless Americans forced to become those Nomadic creatures she references, due to one of the afore-mentioned reasons.

Her tried and true Vocoder patch does not fail her as it seems to assume the voice of that troubled conscience.  The two line verse staying the same, the chorus with the Vocoder having the more melodious lines.  Again, Anderson’s singing voice has come a long way since her vocal chords first flexed on her 1989 release Strange Angels.

$11.98

The second-shortest track on the disc says little.  At three minutes, nineteen seconds, it only has a commercial length in common with the rest of today’s commercial music.  I can’t see this as being a hit single.  But Anderson isn’t a hit maker.

“O Superman”, “Mister Heartbreak”. “Beautiful Red Dress”…

The bass sequence is catchy, and backwards wood flutes are cool, and I love the delayed bell.  But I don’t see this as an adult contemporary smash either.  I am grateful that she stands no chance next to Lionel Richie and Mandy Moore.  You can compare her (at least on this track) to Angelo Badalamenti.

I miss Twin Peaks…

For the next portion of the review, you’d like to change back into your work clothes (if you have a job) and find the hardest seat in your home, preferably backless requiring you to exert more muscles to, as Anderson once described “…so sit bolt upright, in that (backless) chair, button that top button, and get ready for some difficult music…”

One of the things I love about Homeland is while it is a different approach for her to construct songs live in a “band” setting, and even with the new technology, she is giving shout out after reference upon nod back to her previous catalog with a great deal of the same instrument sounds, settings and arrangements.

“Another Day In America” is the longest track, at eleven minutes and twenty-four seconds, it is something that, as an American, you really ought to hear.  Someone I used to know called himself a patriot because he served in the Navy.  Because he didn’t get seasick, they made him a hero.  Claims to like music, but has no use for art in general.

Anderson would politically and intellectually make this guy cry.

You have to remember, Anderson is an “in-the-trenches” political activist.  Not in the way like Osama Bin Laden, more like Jimmy Carter, only effectual.

See! She almost got me into a political conversation.  If you don’t have one after “Another Day In America” CHECK YOUR PULSE, YOU’RE DEAD!

String drones and a violin solo start off “Another Day In America”.  Soon we are joined by vocalist Fenway Bergamot (Anderson with her voice pitched down to sound like a deep-voiced maie) who used to be called ‘The Voice Of Authority’.  This voice would be highly utilized on Anderson’s epic eight-hour show United States Parts I-IV, long overdue on DVD.

Bergamot describes the human condition, such as it is.

In America.

Bergamot’s Voice Of Authority immediately addresses our having to start over as an economic superpower.  As a writer, her concept of punctuation is hilarious.  This song resembles most of what goes on in the United States Parts I-IV disc (a four CD set of a shortened version of the show, video-only portions were removed).

Guest vocalist Antony woefully wails behind a verbal description of the decrepitating of life in America.

To best sum up the vocal content, I guess it is the Voice Of Authority reminiscing about better days.  And to attempt to define what days are for, to conceptualize Kierkegaard, and marketing jabs all with musical mood accents to immediately change the atmosphere of the piece to match the words so unhurriedly tossed out.

More than my puny mind can ponder.  It reminds me that we are all fighting tooth and nail, just to survive!  We are all on edge with each other and we have no patience for what is not within our own agenda or those who might interfere with said agenda.

Another Day In America.

Anderson’s dog Lolabelle snaps us out of our depressed state with one bark!  A charming little dog, (a Jack Russell terrier I THINK, I should know this, Lolabelle was with Anderson after the Prince Theater show, what a cutie!) who also plays piano on “Bodies In Motion”.  The actual star of this track is John Zorn who decorates the piece with hyper-beatnik lines and squeaks.  The bass sample taxes my speakers.  The Orchestron is the other main rhythm instrument.  The way the rhythm breaks for the line ‘the still part of the mind’ ends the flow in a good way.  When she repeats the word ecstasy, I am put in the mind of Nina Hagen sans heavy German accent.

The random keyboard attempts to rival Zorn’s uber-psycho sax lines.  Then Lolabelle’s brief solo ends the piece, as it fades, Lolabelle leaves us with a bark and a piano note.

Anderson upstaged by her dog!

Like most of us in America, we are preoccupied with the wretched state of our military involvement around the world.  This emotional condition is front and center on “Dark Time In The Revolution”.  This track features the earwig-hook of the album, the backing vocal line ‘We just keep callin’ em up, callin’ em callin’ em up…”

“Dark Time In The Revolution” starts off with wind sounds and vocals and a faint keyboard.  A bass roar introduces the Vocoded verse with random sounds in the background.  Mentions of pinpoint nukes and a heavy bass and bass synth with keyboards, even the long spoken verse didn’t indicate where this song is headed.

Before you know it, the song is huge with drums, bagpipe violin patches, radio static, all build to vocal and tremoloed keys.

Basically the song equates what we are doing in the Middle East to the atrocities in the Middle Ages.

Yeah, right?  Kinda trite for Anderson.

“The Lake” sounds like a memory Anderson had accompanied by a wavery Rhodes piano and some violin and accordion.  Accordion is all over this album, no, get your mind off of Weird Al.

A synth break introduces a lush break about sunsets, gorgeous arrangement of vocals and instruments.  Only to build it after for the next vocal section.  From the intro and exit lines about walking accompanied by ghosts, it sounds as if this were a childhood place the character had visited after the death of a loved one.

It ends as it was, simple,

A funky rhythm track gets “The Beginning Of Memory” off and building complete with more of the vocals from the first track by Aidysmaa Koshkendey.  There are lots of chirpy bird noises by Zorn and Anderson because the lyrics are based on an ancient play about birds having no place to land as there was no earth and a lark had no place to bury her freshly deceased father, but in her head.  Thus the memory was born.

At least the storyline is a tad meatier.  The track has an interesting pulse to it.  Too bad this track is only two minutes forty-five seconds as this was more interesting with the story vocals and sound effects than most of commercial music today.

Sadly we end Homeland with “Flow”.  A simple violin-only piece.  Woeful yet optimistic in chord voice and melody.  There are no lyrics, it could be compared to many other pieces by many other artists.

I hear her hope for America in some of the melodies.  It is the shortest song on the disc, and that is a shame.  I felt this track had a lot to say.

Andersons woeful chorus fade concludes Homeland.

If you think this review ends here, we now take you directly to the DVD portion of the package which includes the short films “Homeland, The Story Of The Lark” and “Laurie’s Violin”.

THE DVD

In the traditions of earlier promotional videos, Devo: The Men Who Make The Music, The Tubes: The Completion Backward Principle Video and Utopia: The Utopia Sampler, and so many more I can’t begin to list them here…  Anderson’s packaging sets the album up as a book, with CD on the front inside cover, and DVD on the back inside cover with pages of lyrics, notes, commentary from Anderson, etc.  Totally worth the package without the DVD.  But here’s what else you get:

The Story Of The Lark” begins after a few artistic shots of violin playing, etc. then the fun really starts.  After a brief interview with Anderson (among many) they cut to a live performance of “The Beginning Of Memory”.  Interspersed with those countless interviews with Anderson are live performances.  The DVD acted as a wonderful primer for the live performance (catch the next blog about the live show).

But any glimpse we get of Anderson off the performance stage is equally as fascinating as her performances.

She then details some of the conceptualization of the album and it’s origins in terms of composition.  The album was theorized in bits and pieces and was homogenized on the road.

Interviews on the DVD include Roma Baran, Ron Berger, Mario McNulty and Pat Dillet.

Baran reflects on her early years with Anderson, and Baran’s amazement at the pe rspicacity of Anderson trying to program the perfect bass sound.

Burger discusses the process of communicating among Anderson and the other musicians.

Dillet discusses the art of Anderson’s reasoning of abstraction.

Then another live performance piece is briefly played that sounds unfamiliar.  It may have been one of the many rejected sound modules Anderson claims she had to choose from.

Anderson and Dillet talk about mutating international styles into her music.

McNulty discusses how the technique of record came to gether and Baran details Anderson’s process.

Several snippets of music on the DVD are NOT on the record.

Even Anderson’s husband, Lou Reed talks to her approach as not being close to his own.  Yet Reed came in towards the end of the project when Anderson realized she had become overwhelmed by the voluminous amount of music Anderson had collected to assemble Homeland.

If you are a Lou Reed fan, you have to own this now.

But the best part of the video is the segment of Lolabelle the dog playing the piano!

From there, Anderson’s lyrical content is discussed by Reed and Baran.  YIKES!

Then Anderson and Baran address The Voice Of Authority or Fenway Bergamot (as Reed titled the filter Anderson uses to sound male).  Anderson even dresses as Bergamot so he can make an appearance!  This alter ego of Anderson can afford to poke fun at Politics…

Of course Anderson touches on the album title and the newly formed Department Of Homeland Security.  Baran also chimes in about The Department.

Towards the end, her topical approach and the influence she imparted to all those around her are discussed.  Each participant saying THIS IS AN IMPORTANT RELEASE!

Reed confesses that Anderson may not make the best CEO, but her artistic value is immeasurable.

She talks about working on a video series in Japan, the topic of which is loss.  When Anderson tries to impart the feeling of unexplainable loss Anderson felt to her translator, the translator can’t get past the tangible.  When Anderson made the realization that the timeline of her increasing sense of loss coincided with the escalating of the United States military activity in the Middle East.  She finally realizes what she has lost…

Her country.

Perhaps she feels the escalating loss of civil rights in this country.  Anderson is enough of an activist to boycott Arizona over it’s immigration laws.

But ultimately it is Lou Reed who sums this whole package up brilliantly: “The smarter you are, the more you will get out of this…”

The second video is called “Laurie’s Violin” and it is an in-depth look at the technology that goes into the sounds Anderson’s violin can make.

She mentions drummer Joey Barron as one of the few who can play with Anderson’s oddly timed filters.  Anderson also confesses that she likes electronics because they help her get outside the box defining what music should sound like.

There should be a statue to Laurie Anderson.

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BouleBlog

Having survived the demise of the Princeton Record Exchange blog, and the further restrictions put upon me by the remaining sites in my syndicated blog, I choose the path less taken. That of an independent writer. No webmasters to answer to, no censorship, all my opinions/beliefs all the time. My qualifications? I play guitar, bass, drums, keyboards. I have produced in the neighborhood of 25 discs of original material (a couple were not mine). I've been playing instruments since grade school. I know what I hear and often times how it's done. I TRY not to get overly technical in my reviews (but I still do). The best suggestion I can offer is, read a few of the reviews posted. If you like them, keep on reading! If you don't, I'm pretty sure you know what to do...

2 thoughts on “LAURIE ANDERSON RETURNS BY BRINGING SOMETHING FANS HAVE LONG WANTED; “UNITED STATES PART FIVE” WITH HER NEW ALBUM HOMELAND”

  1. From your moniker, I sense you are looking for music to dance to, music to move. I agree, this ain’t it. The best way in my viewpoint, to respond to your comment is to quote Ms. Anderson; “Freedom is a scary thing…” As far as remixes, I was not aware Ms. Anderson authorized remixes of her music. If you do know of such releases, please do inform me as, while I am not a dance enthusiast, I do enjoy remixes of my preferred musicians music.

    I would also like to take advantage of this forum to advise readers that my opinions expressed in my reviews DO NOT necessarily reflect those of the proprietors of the sponsoring store and website.

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