Loneliness and Death (11/16/2001)
Laurie Anderson, Life On A String (Nonesuch 2001) - Laurie Anderson - the quintessential New York City avant garde multi-media artist - returns with her eighth album, Life On A String. Playing fiddle for the first time since her 1982 release debut, Big Science, Anderson draws briefly from her recent Moby Dick show before building into an austere modern collection.
The roots of Life On A String come from her 1999 show, Songs and Stories of Moby Dick. Says Anderson, "It had been quite a project turning a book into a show. But hard as I tried, I just couldn't turn the show into a record. I thought, 'I can't be in the 19th century another second!' So I started again. I wanted this record to be more about my own experience, my own life."
For Life On A String, Anderson paired with producer Hal Willner, and an unusual cast that included Cuong Vu on trumpet, Mitch Froom on keyboards, Eyvind Kang on violin, Bill Frisell on guitar, and mixer Mocean Worker. Also appearing is bass player Skuli Sverrisson, a veteran of the Moby Dick project, who also served as the album's musical director.
Anderson acknowledges the generally spare sound on Life On A String (but see the flowing, "The Island Where I Come From," complete with horns): "My exercise in this record was taking things out. I would tell myself, 'You don't need that, take that out, take this out,' until it was pretty stripped down. I really wanted to have more air in it."
You'll hear that air on tracks like "Washington Street," which float along on their own momentum. The album also includes appearances from Van Dyke Parks, who provided the arrangement for "Dark Angel," and Lou Reed on "One Beautiful Evening."
In describing "Dark Angel," Anderson explains that "Van Dyke Parks did the arrangement from a little piano and vocal version I sent him: my vocal was real casual, with lots of errs and umms. When I first heard the demo he sent back to us I thought, 'This is the most insane thing I've ever heard, like right out of a cartoon.' He orchestrated the strings so precisely around every little hesitation and quirk in my original vocal it was frightening. It took me five days to redo the vocals, to get all the umms in the right spots. And then I really grew to love what he'd done - it's so colorful and preposterous."
Like Reed, Anderson has a dark streak. She says she came to understand the album when speaking with director Julian Schnabel, who told Anderson that, "What I'm interested in is loneliness and death. Those are things that really interest me and that's why I made this." Says Anderson, "It suddenly snapped into focus for me. I thought, 'That's what this record is about.'"
By the time you get to "Statue of Liberty," you'll understand Anderson's haunted and intimate leanings. Acknowledges Anderson, "Once I did try to write a vacation record - Mister Heartbreak it was called. What a name for a vacation record! That's as cheery as I get."
Continues Anderson, "With the new album, I was actually pretty surprised by how dark it is. I hadn't thought that I was in a particularly dark mood when I made it. I discovered something about my work from a friend who was working on Moby Dick with me. He asked, 'Who are you talking to when you do these shows?' And I hadn't realized it until then, but I answered, 'I'm talking to myself. I imagine a sadder version of myself sitting in Row K, and I try to tell her jokes or something really interesting to cheer her up.'"
And Anderson is a loner at heart. Says she, "Once you try to help people, then you're making something else. You're making propaganda. You're trying to tinker. What right do you have to tinker with anybody? Just make something you like and leave it at that."
In addition to her sometimes spooky voice, Anderson loves discordant melodies and nonlinear progressions. "All of my songs are in odd time signatures, derived from loops that are made from a collection of bars of seven and five and three and a half, which means that when I work with other musicians, it's a nightmare to count them in."
Life On A String is no nightmare. But still, you'll not find yourself returning frequently to this shut-in room, which bears the malodor of the TB Sheets.
Carole King, Love Makes the World (Rockingale Records 2001) - With a career encompassing four decades and such hit songs as "Up On The Roof" and "Will You Love Me Tomorrow?", Carole King has nothing left to prove. And so Love Makes the World (her 24th solo album) has a contented feel, with Carole making music that pleases her.
The new album was released on Carole's own label - the name "Rockingale" is a combination of rocking and nightingale. Carole initially approached a major label about making this album, but turned down the deal when the record company honchos requested that she bring in big name players to bolster the visibility of the album.
In an ironic twist, Carole proved the record company right, as she enlisted guest performances from such artists as Celine Dion ("The Reason"), Kenny "Babyface" Edmonds ("You Can Do Anything"), and Wynton Marsalis ("I Wasn't Going to Fall In Love"), and k.d. lang ("An Uncommon Love"). Also helping is producer extraordinaire David Foster on "It Could Have Been Anyone," written for the film You've Got Mail.
What James Taylor said of Tapestry applies equally to Love Makes the World: "Tapestry wasn't the product of master planning or strategic marketing. The emphasis was the songs themselves, rather than which audiences they were trying to reach. The thought was, 'Let's just focus on whether the thing is sounding the way we want it to sound.' It's a much purer point of view."
My promo copy included an hour-long interview disk, which should have been part of the regular release. Carole talks about how she wrote the songs, her feelings about the media, and her long pairing with Carole Bayer Sager. The two reunite successfully on "You Can Do Anything," co-written with Babyface.
While Carole takes chances on songs like the jamming "Monday Without You" and the Pop Roxx-produced "Love Makes the World," she continues to shine on piano-based ballads such as "Oh No, Not My Baby" and "Safe Again."
While so many artists fall into the maudlin while trying to record personal albums, Carole soars above. At ease with herself, Carole King continues to reward on Love Makes the World.
Dos Coyotes (Lips Records 2001) - Usually, I don't review EPs, but the five-song release from Phoenix-based Dos Coyotes has a winning sound, sort of like Jimmy Buffett come home to roost in a Texas honky-tonk.
Dos Coyotes consists of Gene Smeed and Mark Tait. The pair coined the term "Baja Surf Music" to describe their sound, and that seems fair enough. Mixing a party atmosphere with sharp production, the Scottsdale combo show professional poise on tracks like "Mambo To Cabo" and "Tejano Cowboy." Also listen to the tears-in-my-beer weeper, "Missing You in Houston."
Bottom line - Dos Coyotes are a promising pair.
- Randy Krbechek © 2001
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