Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Crooning on Venus - The Singers

L has been kind enough to spare me a tile or two here. I am Janus, an art and music enthusiast and to say anymore about me would contribute to overstaying my welcome. From time to time, I might write a bit about music, about art, about food. Today, music.

Scratch the surface of many an avant-garde jazz musician and you’ll find a populist at heart; only a decade separated Miles Davis’ Stockhausen-draped-in-funk epic On the Corner from his anodyne covers of Michael Jackson and Cyndi Lauper hits in the 80’s. Lester Bowie went from founding the (much beloved by French underground filmmakers) Art Ensemble of Chicago whose charter declared a commitment “to nurturing, performing, and recording serious, original music” to playing Spice Girls hits before he died.

But what of those pop performers whose riches and hordes of adoring fans were secretly coveted in the farthest recesses of the art-music world. Sure David Bowie gave good Stockhausen in magazine interviews, and Joni Mitchell even recorded an album with (a sadly fading) Charles Mingus; but at the end of the day, Bowie still placed the chorus where the chorus was supposed to be and Joni just did Joni, but with more jazz.

Three pop (or should I say former pop) performers on the other hand, really did the unforeseeable and over the course of their careers jettisoned melody, fan base and bank balance alike to each pursue a dissonant muse. Scott Walker, Mark Hollis and David Sylvian each started off as a minor variation on the teen idol theme but, like the Jonas Brothers exploring Ornette Coleman, each became (despite having the voices of angels) a noisy, cantankerous and yet beautiful thing.

I start with Scott Walker, the oldest of this lot, a teen idol in the sixties, here he is with his then band of make-believe siblings, the Walker Brothers, singing their 1966 number-one hit "The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Anymore".

Within a year of this he was off to a monastery to study Gregorian Chant and began to record his own series of solo albums consisting of Jaques Brel covers and his own idiosyncratic compositions. This would have been dramatic a change enough for most, but by the 90’s he was setting Pier Paolo Pasolini to music described by one reviewer as "Samuel Beckett at La Scala". On his most recent full length recording, The Drift, he sings about Mussolini and his mistress with percussion provided by musicians beating raw meat . Here is an excerpt from the Scott Walker Documentary 30th Century Man.

You may not know Mark Hollis, but you know his songs. The voice of, songwriter and primary musician behind synthpop wonders Talk Talk. Often called the “poor man’s Duran Duran” they had massive hits with the eponymous track Talk Talk, Life’s What You Make it and of course, It’s my Life.

By 1990, the synthesizers (and most of the band) were gone. Hollis was listening to Miles Davis, Hector Berlioz and the strange voices in his head. It all peaked with the Laughing Stock album that year. Six tracks recorded with a classical ensemble that manage to be ambient, jazz with the occasional burst of well placed noise, all with Hollis’ plaintive vocals and strangely unsettling lyrics stitching it all together. This could have been the start of a good thing, but it was not to be. Hollis recorded one solo album in 1998, almost as good as Laughing Stock (but painted with watercolors where Laughing Stock used heavy acrylics) and then retired to his study to play piano and hasn’t been heard from since.

Perhaps of the three artists mentioned here, David Sylvian’s path to the esoteric was probably the most predictable. The final album released by Japan, his early glam rock band, experimented with ambient textures and tribal rhythms and his first solo album included contributions from artists outside the mainstream such as Holger Czukay, Jon Hassell and Ryuichi Sakamoto. This early arty period peaked with the moody Secrets of the Beehive, recorded in the middle of a span of albums that alternated song oriented outings with full length ambient recordings. Here’s Sylvian doing Orpheus, an unlikely hit with a brilliant Mark Isham trumpet solo.

In the 90’s, Sylvian got married, studied eastern religions, joined Robert Fripp to record a couple of surprisingly rockist albums and then seemed to disappear for a bit. When he returned, bearded, divorced and shorn of all artifice, it was with a raw album. Blemish recorded in his home studio features just three musicians, Sylvian, free-jazz guitarist Derek Bailey and synthesizer/guitar avant-electronica artist Fennesz. Songs about the dissolution of a marriage perhaps? “I fall outside of her/She doesn't notice/She doesn't notice at all/And mine is an empty bed/I think she's forgotten”

Of the three, Sylvian also remains the most prolific, collaborating with others under the name 9 Horses, working with Joan as a Police Woman and his old mate Ryuichu Sakamoto. A new album is due this year.

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