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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1254

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Laurie Anderson: Life on a String
by George Graham

(Nonesuch Records 79539 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 9/19/2001)

While most musicians content themselves with playing their music in fairly defined styles, there are those who have always been iconoclasts, either for what they say in their music, their style of performance, or how they devise their own genres. So by most definitions Laurie Anderson stands as one of these enduring iconoclasts. She had just released a new recording, her first of all-new material in seven years, called Life on a String.

The phrase "performance artist" is usually connected with Laurie Anderson, since what she does often goes beyond music into the visual arts. She was an early experimenter integrating video into her performances, and she has also been creating works for theater. Her first album appeared in the early 1980s, and since then, the New York based artist has been releasing a fairly infrequent series of recordings that have constantly been evolving, both in her adaptation of technology and in her own musical approach, which went from mostly spoken word performances to her doing more conventional singing.

The title of her new album Life on a String is brought about partly by her resuming playing the violin, which she had not done on record for quite a few years. But it also ties into her lyrics as well.

As Ms. Anderson explained in an interview, this CD took a very different direction from what was originally envisioned. In 1999, she created a theatrical show called Songs and Stories of Moby Dick. This CD was to be music from that multi-media production. But Ms. Anderson felt she could not adequately turn the Herman Melville classic into an album as such. She also found herself looking for something different after many months immersed in what she calls "smelly old sailors," declaring "I can't be in the 19th Century for one more second." So she decided to create something from scratch reflecting her own experience. But she also drew on some of the elements of the Moby Dick presentation, and enlisted the show's music director, bassist Skúli Sverrison to appear on most of the tracks. As the CD's co-producer, she chose Hal Hillner, known for his remarkably eclectic multi-artist tribute albums in the 1980s and early 1990s.

Ms. Anderson has always been one to incorporate technology into her music, but Life on a String underwent an interesting process. Starting with a lot of technological elements, such as drum loops and samples, Ms. Anderson found herself gradually stripping away those layers to leave some occasionally stark or surprising arrangements such as a string trio. Also almost unprecedented for Ms. Anderson is the inclusion of instrumental material.

There is also an eclectic group of people making appearances on the album, perhaps not surprising given the tendencies of both Ms. Anderson and Willner. Among the guests are Dr. John, guitarist Bill Frisell, jazz drummer Joey Baron and heard on guitar only, Lou Reed. Though there is no lyrical theme that runs through the entire CD, as had been originally envisioned, Ms. Anderson describes the quality of the album as "really dark," and indeed there is one piece she claims to be directly inspired by film noir. There is a little less of Ms. Anderson's trademark spoken-word vocal performance, and more of her sung vocals. Perhaps the most prominent instrumental difference between this CD and the predecessors by Ms. Anderson is the presence of the violin -- ranging from the addition of Ms. Anderson's electric instrument to a full string orchestra on one track.

Leading off the album is perhaps its most ethereal-sounding piece, One White Whale, which seems to have come from Ms. Anderson's Moby Dick work, at least in concept. <<>>

The following track, This Island Where I Come From, could be interpreted as a plea for preservation of the Earth's resources. Ms. Anderson said the piece was built around a fairly elaborate tape loop, to which all the musicians played. But as the CD's production progressed, Ms. Anderson started taking away some parts, and eventually removing the loop that the basis for the track, just leaving the added instruments playing the curious rhythm. The result is quite interesting. <<>>

Also inspired by her work on Moby Dick, Ms. Anderson created a composition called Pieces and Parts about the finding of a set of fossil whale bones on an Alabama plantation in the antebellum South. The album's string motif also makes itself present on the track. <<>>

In a somewhat different mood is one of the album's most striking tracks, Slip Away, a poignant piece inspired by the death of the artist's father. The Asian instrument the banhu further adds to the melancholy quality. <<>>

A really fascinating musical juxtaposition comes on the song My Compensation, whose love-song lyrics contrast with the odd-mechanical-sounding accompaniment. Even the lyrics hold a surprise, as the subject of the protagonist's love is the her companion's brain. <<>>

The string accompaniment reaches a high point on Dark Angel, whose lyrics are a kind of stream-of-consciousness exposition. In writing the piece, Ms. Anderson originally did a demo with very casual, imperfect vocals, including what she describes as "errs" and "ums." The home recording was sent to composer and arranger Van Dyke Parks, who wrote an orchestration exactly following all the quirks of the vocal performance. When it came time to do the final vocal on the track, Ms. Anderson said it took days to get the phrasing to match the original home recording. Parks' arrangement has an almost cartoon-like quality, which provides another interesting contrast to the lyrics. <<>>

The instrumental piece called Here With You is performed as a string trio, with an interesting combination of the traditional cello and bass, and Ms. Anderson's electrified violin. <<>>

The track Ms. Anderson says was inspired by the dark, urban quality of film noir is called Washington Street. The lyrics definitely capture that feeling while the musical accompaniment takes a more high-tech direction. <<>>

Ms. Anderson is very much associated with New York, and it turns out that she was asked to write an article on the city for inclusion in the Encyclopedia Britannica. Her doing that inspired her to create the contemplative song Statue of Liberty in consideration of the famous landmark. <<>>

The CD closes with its title track World on a String, another fascinating blend of contemplative mood with the high-tech elements. Ms. Anderson said the piece was inspired by her walks in New York City with her dog. <<>>

Life on a String, the first CD from the multifaceted artist Laurie Anderson in the better part of a decade, is one of her best. Always the experimenter, be it with high-tech instrumentation or her distinctive spoken vocals and of course, her impressionistic lyrics, Ms. Anderson's works have been somewhat mixed in quality. But the new CD ranks as career highlight. Co-producer Hal Willner no doubt helped to add a lot in terms of the eclectic arrangements and the tasteful use of unexpected instrumentation and high-tech touches. Ms. Anderson's songs range from impressionistic to playful, and all have a lot of interesting detail that awaits the careful listen, even after Ms. Anderson decided to strip away some of the parts that she had already recorded.

Our grade for sound quality approaches an "A." The electronic effects are clever but not overbearing, and the intentional distortion of sounds is kept to a minimum. Dynamic range is respectable by today's standards.

Since her first hit O Superman in 1981, Laurie Anderson has occupied a distinctive niche in the art world, attracting many fans along the way for both her music and her theater and performance-art pieces. Those aficianados of her music have had a long wait since her last CD, but Life on a String proves to be worth the anticipation.

(c) Copyright 2001 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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