Let them wash over you

The disappointing brilliance of Bjork; pleasure, pain and exclusive free downloads from Diamanda Galas; and a great song from the most hyped band of the moment.

Published September 22, 2004 8:00PM (EDT)

A few weeks ago, I promised that I'd eventually give an opinion on Björk's "Medúlla." Now I've finally fit in enough listens that I feel able to, but you've all probably read so much about this record (mostly rapturous praise) that you're sick of hearing about it, so I'll keep this short.

I think Medúlla is brilliant, one of the best records I've heard this year. I also think it's the least successful of Björk's five studio albums. My reservations are summed up by the fact that "Desired Constellation," the track with the most nonvocal sounds on it, is by far my favorite. I think she got too caught up in the concept of an all-vocal release, to the detriment of the music.

The all-vocal concept works beautifully in places, especially in the moments when it starts to recall the ghostly, windswept choruses of a Benjamin Britten opera. But there are many moments when some electronics, some instruments or a beat made by something other than a beatboxer would have strengthened the music.

But if Björk, however slightly, disappoints, two other personal idols of mine have delivered in a major way. Tom Waits and Nick Cave are two artists who I (reluctantly) had decided had started on the downward slopes of their respective careers. Waits' "Real Gone" (due Oct. 5th) and Cave's double album, "Abattoir Blues" and "Lyre of Orpheus" (due Oct. 26th), prove me to be (jubilantly) wrong. They're two of the best records of the year. I'll no doubt write more about them as they're released.

Last week I featured a song from Madeleine Peyroux's latest, "Careless Love." This week, I've got an exclusive free download, thanks to Rounder Records, of the record's first single, "Don't Wait Too Long." It's a simple, bluesy, almost imperceptibly swinging song, written by Peyroux, her producer Larry Klein, and Norah Jones' hitmaker Jesse Harris, the man who wrote the ubiquitous and (I might as well say it) brilliant "Don't Know Why." As I said, I hope she kicks Norah Jones' ass. (This download will be available only for a month.)

"I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" and "Hastayim Yasiyorum," Diamanda Galàs, from "La Serpenta Canta" and "Defixiones: Will and Testament," respectively"
It may be hard to imagine any commonality between an operatic soprano's vocal artifice and virtuosity, the white noise scream of death metal, and a bluesman's moaning lament, but in the singing of Diamanda Galàs all three are present, often simultaneously. If that sounds a little painful, it's because it is. And it's supposed to be. Galàs' work is all about hurt, about pain and loss, and her music is unsparing in its evocation of those emotions.

Not surprisingly, it's Galàs' voice, with the four-octave range and extraordinary tonal flexibility, that gets the most attention. But her piano playing should not be ignored. It often sounds like the darkest, least syrupy part of a Keith Jarrett solo concert, and there's a strange, incantatory, frenetic energy to it. She has a deep affinity for the lowest notes on the piano and makes great use of the ominous, booming, nearly toneless sound they can produce. Sometimes Galàs takes the music so shriekingly, absurdly far overboard that it's hard not to laugh. But then -- and this is her secret -- she takes it even further, and you lose the desire, or even the ability, to laugh.

Galàs recently ended a five-year recording hiatus by releasing two double-CD sets, "Defixiones: Will and Testament" and "La Serpenta Canta," both on Mute Records. "Defixiones" is a mass of sorts, in remembrance of the Greek, Armenian and Assyrian genocides that occurred between 1914 and 1923, sung in six different languages. "La Serpenta Canta" is a collection of live recordings of Galàs doing covers of well-known songs, from John Lee Hooker's "Burning Hell" to Holland/Dozier/Holland's "My World Is Empty Without You."

This week, we have two exclusive Diamanda Galàs downloads, one from each record. From "Defixiones" comes "Hastayim Yasiyorum," composed in Turkish by the great Armenian oudist Udi Hrant. And from "La Serpenta Canta" is Galàs' harrowing version of Hank Williams' "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry." These downloads are available courtesy of Mute Records. Salon Exclusive free downloads: "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" and "Hastayim Yasiyorum"

"The River" and "Blaue Fäden," März, from "Wir Sind Hier"
I know next to nothing about März, except that they're a German duo of Ekkehard Ellers and Albrechte Kunze, and that their music mixes electronics, samples and acoustic instruments, with a good deal of ambiguity as to which is which. But this is some of the most beautiful, uncomplicatedly pleasurable, just-lie-back-and-let-it-wash-over-you music I've heard in quite a while. "The River" is a simple song that makes going swimming sound like the solution to all life's woes, while "Blaue Fäden" is music for dancing to -- specifically dancing inside your head, or in a dream. I found these tracks through the blog of Philip Sherburne, a music writer (and frequent critic of this column), who accurately pins the emotion in this music as "a simultaneous rush of melancholy and promise." Free downloads: "The River" and "Blaue Fäden"

"Be Kind," Devendra Banhart, from "Niño Rojo"
I wrote about Devendra Banhart in this column five months ago, and he's already back with another record. The 16 tracks on "Niño Rojo" are from the same session that produced his last record, "Rejoicing in the Hands," and they're every bit as good -- not B-sides or outtakes, but a proper Vol. 2. For the most part, these songs are just Banhart's hugely expressive voice, his acoustic guitar and some other minimal instrumental accompaniment, but sometimes, as on "Be Kind," the sound is thickened up further, with piano, drums, harmonica and electric guitar. Regardless of how the songs are arranged, Banhart is among the most unusual and consistently brilliant singers and songwriters I know. Free download: "Be Kind"

"Blue Rhythm," William Duckworth
William Duckworth, a composer and a tenured professor of music at Bucknell University, is considered the father of post-minimalism, a compositional movement that seems inevitable but has never really gotten off the ground. "Blue Rhythm," a nine-minute piece for violin, cello and piano that he wrote in 1990, gives a good sense of the potential of post-minimalist composition. Buckworth makes ample use of repetitive, circular textures that are clearly derived from Philip Glass, Steve Reich, et al., but also dispenses with many of the basic principles of minimalism, most notably the interest in process, in having a composition unfold and develop transparently, in full view. And while this music is solidly tonal and relatively harmonically simple, he fits in a few juicy harmonies that Reich and Glass would never touch, and that wouldn't sound out of place in compositions by Ginastera or Prokofiev. He also displays a passing interest in that least minimalist of all musical elements, melody. Free download: "Blue Rhythm"

"Wake Up," Arcade Fire, from "Funeral"
The most hyped band of the moment, and they don't play retro rock! Time to rejoice, time to breathe a collective sigh of relief. The music made by Montreal collective the Arcade Fire doesn't sound particularly revolutionary, but then again, they don't sound much like anyone else either. It's music of extremes, both ebulliently sloppy and meticulously fine-tuned, full of ecstasy and unbearable pain. What impresses me most about the Arcade Fire is that they are unafraid of making grand emotional gestures and, more important, are steadfast in their refusal to couch that emotional intensity in irony, or to qualify it with camp. There's no doubting the seriousness of their intent -- this is a heart-worn-on-sleeve type of band. A highly recommended record. Free download: "Wake Up"

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Have an opinion about this week's downloads? Check out the Wednesday Morning Download thread on Table Talk.

By Thomas Bartlett

Thomas Bartlett is a writer and musician in New York. He maintains a blog called doveman.

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