Tanya Tagaq – Animism: Round 76, Nick’s choice

tanya-tagaq-animismThe ‘album of the year’ concept always troubles me. I’ve already played the two records (Owen Pallett and Wild Beasts) that would probably occupy the slot of my ‘favourite’ from 2014, and didn’t want to repeat, so I decided to play something that I like a lot and think deserves wider exposure. It’s not my favourite from the year, or probably even in my top five favourites, but I do admire it massively.

Although I already own an album featuring Tanya Tagaq (she guests on Björk’s Medulla), I wasn’t aware of her as an individual musician in any conscious way until September 22 this year, when Animism, her fourth solo album, won the Canadian Polaris Prize – an award that, to be reductive, is roughly equivalent to our Mercury Music Prize.

The Polaris is considerably more esoteric and generally rewards more creative music than the Mercury, though; although past winners include stadium-indie behemoths Arcade Fire and Apple-ad star Feist, they’ve also included scatological Dungeons & Dragons chamber pop star Owen Pallett, jazz & psyche tinged electronica darling Caribou, and anti-establishment post-rockers Godspeed You! Black Emperor. No M People or Alt-J in sight. It’s tempting to use this as evidence that Canada is some kind of cultural nirvana, but Bryan Adams and Celine Dion prove this isn’t quite the case.

So it’s not that much of a surprise that an album of orchestral and electronically enhanced Inuk throat singing should have won in 2014. It was Tagaq’s triumphant performance at the Polaris gala that caught my attention, and that of plenty of other people, judging by the way a YouTube clip of it feverishly seeded around social media in the days afterwards; an 11-minute improvisation wherein she led an orchestra, someone doing something with electronics, and a choir of throat singers through ecstatic and anguished guttural howls, percussive interludes, and an absolute gamut of emotions and vocal approaches. The performance was in front of a projected list of the names of hundreds of missing and murdered Inuit women. It was genuinely unlike anything I’d ever seen or heard. The presenter guy, astonished, could only manage to blurt out: “I mean HOLY SHIT! Was that something else or what? That was fucking… My God! Amazing! That was amazing!”

I ordered Animism pretty much on the spot.

And it didn’t disappoint, although it pretends it might; the opening track, “Caribou” (which Rob and Tom identified as a cover of the Pixies tune, which I hadn’t realised), is a bait-and-switch, offering the listener an almost by-the-numbers orchestral pop song, albeit beautifully recorded, wherein Tanya sounds a little like Lauren Laverne. There are hints in the closing moments that things might not be as you’d expect, but it doesn’t prepare you what happens across the rest of the album, as orchestral flourishes, percussive climaxes, semi-ambient vocal passages, and Tanya’s extraordinary throat singing explore a huge range of musical territory and texture. The strings, drums, and breathy yowls of “Fight” perhaps get closest to the Polaris performance, while “Uja” starts like a piece of minimal, reverberant electronica.

The album is dedicated to those missing and murdered Inuit women, and also contains a song called “Fracking”; despite having very few lyrics, it’s a pretty explicitly political work, about the literal rape of women and the figurative rape of nature. Combined with the varied and experimental sonic palette it makes for quite an experience. And that’s without really describing Tanya’s voice…

Tanya’s voice is an incredible thing. I’m not at all familiar with Inuit throat singing, but to Western pop-familiar ears what she does sits somewhere between Mercedes McCambridge in The Exorcist, the ‘Cookie Monster’ growl of some death/black/doom [delete as appropriate] metal, and the performative, ecstatic moans and cries of pornography. I’m pretty sure these three analogues aren’t in any way influences on what Tagaq is doing here, but when confronted with something so absolutely different to what you’ve heard before there’s little you can do but scrabble for comparisons.

The sleevenotes suggest that Animism‘s recording was at least partly paid for via crowdfunding, making it feel emblematic of 2014 even as it stands apart from almost every other piece of music I’ve heard this year. It’s not the record I’ve listened to or thought about most often this year, but there’s something about its strangeness (to me), about Tagaq’s deeply personal motivations, that I find really compelling.

Rob listened: I hadn’t heard of Tanya Tagaq until Nick, who heard of her a day before me, started talking in ecstatic terms about her Polaris performance. I smiled politely but never watched it (still haven’t, really should, but my tolerance for sitting and watching things is at an all-time low these days). So I came cold to this and found it impressive. I didn’t pick up on the political or philosophical overtones (neither did Nick – he was extrapolating from what he’d read into what he was hearing, which is perfectly fine) as the only words I could make out were written by Charles Thompson almost 30 years ago, but I did get some shape-shifting sounds some of which reminded be of other things (The Knife, Bjork) and some of which seemed to come from other worlds. In all, the record sounded as packed with genuinely interesting and intriguing stuff as any I’ve head this year.

Tom listened: Little did I realise that before tonight I had heard Tanya Tagaq’s dulcet holler on our copy (technically it’s Karen’s) copy of Bjork’s, rather too challenging for me, Medulla. So whether she is singing or throat singing on that LP…I don’t know, as I would estimate that I have listened to Medulla less than five times and can only recall the impression it gave rather than the sounds and songs. I have, however, heard the fine Inuit art form of throat singing on many occasions…every time I watch The Simpson’s movie and the Boob Lady section is on!

So, Animism turned out to be exactly, and nothing, like I expected…in that it was as challenging, difficult and abrasive as I thought it would be (once Nick had introduced it to us – like Rob I had no idea it existed until now), but it was also, at times, propulsive, catchy and beautiful. I preferred the latter  sequences/songs but imagine that with repeated listens the parts of the album that were harder to take on first acquaintance would begin to make more sense and provide an intriguing, as opposed to discombobulating, contrast.

Owen Pallett – Heartland: Round 36, Nick’s choice

Heartland is another record I’ve been hankering after playing at DRC since we started, and my determination to play it is what inspired me, mischievously, to set us a theme of ‘Concept Albums’, aware of the horror which that phrase inspires in Tom and Rob.

Because that’s what Heartland is: set in a fictional land called Spectrum, it concerns a young, violent farmer called Lewis, who is plucked from the fields and anointed for some higher purpose, embarks on an adventure, realises his status as a character within a song, rebels against his god / author (who is, of course, called Owen), who he then kills, and, possibly, assumes control of his own destiny. Or something. Sonically, Heartland is like a techno-classical soundtrack to the most amazing all-night role-playing session ever, and it’s also amazingly, beautifully listenable. It’s one of my very favourite records of the last few years, and I played it for months and months almost as instrumental music, before I even started taking in the narrative conveyed in the lyrics.

I’m lucky enough to know Owen Pallett (in an online sense) from his posts on ILM and his Twitter. We talk online reasonably frequently and occasionally exchange emails too, so I thought I’d ask if he’d like to say a bit more about Heartland for the benefit of our little club. Being a gracious and amenable individual, he did just that. This is what he said.

Owen writes: When Heartland came out I tried to have my cake and eat it too. I made a concept record but then asked that people ignore that fact; all I said was “Lewis is a farmer living in the fictional world of Spectrum.” So I spent most of 2010 being asked to explain the plot…

There have been some very detailed explanations online that people have written, parsing out all the references and annotating everything. At first, I thought I might do it myself, a la Barthes’ “A Lover’s Discourse”, but then I thought that’d deny listeners the pleasure of figuring it out for themselves. And they did; check out the Alpentine website for some pretty concise breakdowns, and Nick Thornborrow, who wrote an amazingly insightful and beautifully illustrated comic that offered up his own wordless interpretation of the events.

Lewis and myself, just like Barthes and his beloved in “A Lover’s Discourse”, are the same thing. Written by the same person, so it’s a false dialogue. The final track, “What Do You Think Will Happen Now”, is meant to allude to this falseness of the narrative: Lewis is doing this Puck-style “give me your hands” monologue which is actually a critique of quantitative listening, of aggregation, the fact that numerical critique leaves no room for human shit, human dirt. It’s not a very Lewis-y monologue, but what has been? Our voices are entwined and inextricable. Then, my own voice, entering halfway through and saying “oh my god get me out of the house I’ve been working too long on this record”, becomes the more concrete statement, and the theatre disintegrates.

There’s meant to be a liminal quality to me and Lewis; the whole record could be entirely set in a fictional world, or it could be me singing about my own issues. The most liminal moments are where voices are overlaid: “What Do You Think Will Happen Now”, and also “Oh Heartland, Up Yours”; I hoped that the sentiment “My homeland / I will not sing your praises here” would echo as being about both Spectrum and Canada, which has its own issues.

Lewis’ execution of Owen can be taken in many different ways. Is it a rehearsal of an in-real-life suicide/murder, like Mishima’s “Patriotism”? Is it symbolic of a cutting off of one’s dishonest narrative voice, the voice that lets a rhyming dictionary shape his meaning? Is it meant to be a commentary on in-real-life atheism, the physical execution of that which is said to govern you? Or a Boulez-style patricidal version of modernism? I thought about it from all these viewpoints and in the end, I just went with what sounded coolest, onomatopoeically. That’s kind of the burden of lyric-writing, you’ve got to make it sound good!

Musically, I wanted to try and create an arrangement language for this album that didn’t sound like Glass or Bach or Shostakovich or any other typically “Classical” composer. I didn’t fully end up succeeding; The Drift attempts the same thing and gets further than I did. But I tried it out.

So I basically tried to interpret various synthesis ideas and re-imagine them as orchestral music. “Midnight Directives” and “The Great Elsewhere” feature arrangements that are transcriptions of generative music patches I’d built in Max/MSP. “Flare Gun” and “Keep The Dog Quiet” both feature heavy noise gating and unnatural panning, which I wanted to sound more like Planningtorock’s “Have It All” than Prokofiev.

When I play “Lewis Takes Action” live I run my violin through a ring modulator at the end: for the recording, I transcribed that solo with all the resultant overtones reflected in the winds and strings. “Lewis Takes Off His Shirt” has the orchestra behaving like it’s controlled by an eight-step sequencer. “E Is For Estranged” begins with an approximation of ‘white noise’ with a comb filter running through it. I hoped that listeners would be like “oh, OMD, Cluster, I get it”, instead of “sounds like Gershwin!!”

I listen to albums with the lyric sheet in my hand. I work hard on my lyrics and I don’t like listening to records where the voice is mixed louder than everything else. If it seems like arrogance to think that listeners would sit down and decode this album like a puzzle, I’d just say that this is just the way I listen to albums, repeatedly, trying to figure them out. Conversely, I hope too that people could just put it on and enjoy it!

Tom Listened: I have owned Heartland for a few years now but, as I have it on CD, I have only ‘listened’ to it whilst driving (I don’t tend to listen to CDs in the house – why settle for second best when you can indulge in some prime vinyl?). It’s not really driving music! Whilst there are some great songs on Heartland that are enjoyable enough to let wash over you whilst your mind struggles to cope with the stresses of negotiating British roads, I now know that it requires proper, close attention to get the most out of it and that is something I haven’t really given it as yet. Listening at Record Club, it made a lot more sense but I still feel some way off a proper understanding of how the songs work, in both lyrical and musical capacities, and it’s the sort of record where my lack of comprehension bothers me. I sense it just needs more time and intend to give it that if I ever remember to bring the CD in from the car!

Graham Listened: Given my selection for this round, I probably have no right in commenting on the artistic merits of any of the other selections. With Heartland I don’t feel at all qualified to comment as I haven’t begun to scratch at the surface of it all. Reading the lyrics alongside the first listen of an album was a throwback to my teens and something I haven’t done since. Like Tom said, this needs very close attention and should have just let it wash over me and then picked up the lyric sheet later, trying to immediately tie the story to the music was too much. When I put down the lyric sheets I began to enjoy the music far more and will need to approach a future listen far more carefully.

Rob listened: Nick’s not good at keeping secrets and I figured out fairly early what his choice was going to be. I listened to ‘Heartland’ a couple of times in the run-up to the DRC get-together, enough for it to start to become penetrable, for detail and texture to begin to emerge from the gently babbling brook. I enjoyed it yet more when we listened to it this evening.

It’s fascinating to read Owen’s thoughts – huge thanks to him for taking the time and to Nick for soliciting them. One of our recurrent discussion points is whether artists intend the depths and complexities that we as listeners subsequently find in their recordings. I guess the answer has to be ‘it depends’ but it’s pleasing to know that in some cases, and in this case in particular, incredible care and detailed preparation and planning has gone into the conceptual construction and lyrical execution of the finished work.