Posts Tagged ‘Carnival’

Early Sunday morning, I strapped on my headphones so as not to disturb Diane, the cat or neighbors and clicked play on Australian singer-songwriter Indigo Sparke’s debut album, Echo. I noticed its release listed in Apple Music’s “indie folk” genre on Friday and decided to give it a go today – as background music while waking up, essentially. At first blush, it’s lo-fi, hushed and intimate, the kind of music that – in theory, at least – blends into the background while the coffee kicks in. But the nine songs don’t hang back; they circulate and percolate their way to the foreground, demand attention. They are, in a sense, fever dreams set to song, intense.

“Colourblind,” which opens the set, is a perfect example. It floats in from the horizon as if on a gentle breeze, but sidesteps gauzy sentiments while relating the stark realities of a failing relationship: “There’s a distance in our words/there’s a distance and it hurts and/all the king’s horses/all the king’s men, well, couldn’t/no, they couldn’t put it all back together again…” 

Sparke co-produced the album alongside Big Thief’s Adrianne Lenker and Andrew Sarlo, who – among other credits – helmed Courtney Marie Andrew’s Old Flowers album; she’d been slated to open for Big Thief on their planned Australia-New Zealand trek in 2020 prior to the pandemic putting everything on hold. Framed by sparse instrumentation, including herself on acoustic guitar, she whispers, speaks and sings the lyrics, a self-professed “orchestra of truth” whose word symphonies alternate between social realism and abstract expressionism.

Pretty much every review or article I’ve read about her borrows from a press release the Brooklyn-based Sacred Bones label issued in January, when it announced they’d signed her, so I thought I’d do the same, but quote it verbatim: “Indigo Sparke brings her deeply personal lived experiences to her music, highlighting the spaces between the polarity of softness and grit. Pulling from her experiences of addiction, of healing, of queerness, of heartbreak, of joy, of connection, of the softness and of the grit alchemising it all into tenderness through her music, she conjures up a myriad of feelings that is undeniably potent.”

That’s true, but verbose. I’d have phrased it differently: These are murmurs from the heart and soul, one part poetry and one part prose. It’s the powerful “Carnival” culminating in the unlikely admission that “I feel like I can’t feel…” 

…and the haunting “Everything Everything,” in which she shares an unlikely epiphany: Everything, everyone, is dying. The young, the healthy, the old, the infirm – we all, every day, are one step closer to death. The past gave way to the present and the present will soon fold into the future; what we do will not, cannot, stop us from falling into the universe’s big black void. 

In the release announcing the album, she’s quoted as saying that “[w]hen writing and recording the record, I wondered how it would all come together. I felt like I was standing back in the desert, looking up at the blue night sky, wondering how all the stars would connect. I think sometimes it’s the dark matter or void space between them, that holds it all together. This record is an ode to death and decay. And the restlessness I feel to belong to something greater.” Whether she achieved all of that, I don’t know – it’s too early to say. But I can proclaim that Echo is one of those albums you’ll play a second time if you play it once, and play it a third, fourth and fifth time after that. It’s highly recommended.

The track list:

(As noted in my first Essentials entry, this is an occasional series in which I spotlight albums that, in my estimation, everyone should experience at least once.)

Last Sunday, I tripped back to 1999 via a favorite concert; this week, I’m revisiting the same year via one of my revered albums, Natalie Merchant’s Live in Concert. Released on November 2nd, 1999, the set collects 11 songs recorded five months earlier at the Neil Simon Theatre on Broadway.

The easiest way to break it down: Five Tigerlily songs; three covers; two 10,000 Maniacs tracks; and one offering from Ophelia. But that doesn’t do it justice. In short, it’s the kind of album that pulls you into its mid-tempo (and slower) grooves. It’s low-key and atmospheric, and less a career summary and more an artistic statement. The songs rise and fall as one.

The album opens with three Tigerlily tunes: “Wonder,” “San Andreas Fault” and “Beloved Wife.”  Each is stirring in its own right, accented by gentle undertows that ebb and flow. A few songs later, on “Carnival,” the undertow grows strong and pulls the listener under.

That leads into one of the things her eyes may have seen while wandering around that street festival: poverty. “Dust Bowl Days” (from Blind Man’s Zoo) is an empathetic portrait of society’s oft-hidden underclass. It may not be the first 10,000 Maniacs song most fans think of, yet it’s here, and it’s as hypnotic and mesmerizing as “Carnival.”

The song selection is less about the hits than the feel, in other words, with further evidence provided by Ophelia’s title track in the stead of “Break My Heart,” “Kind and Generous” or “Life Is Sweet.” Back in the day, after all, it didn’t garner any airplay, so – on the surface – it’s inclusion is an oddity. As is one of her covers…

To my ears, Natalie’s reading of the David Bowie trippy classic, which was inspired by Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, is nothing short of tremendous – it takes us through the same secret doors down corridors as “Ophelia.” The same goes, to an extent, with her rendition of Neil Young’s “After the Gold Rush,” which finds her alone in a burned-out basement. At one point, the instruments drop out, leaving Natalie breathing the lyrics for a verse. It’s haunting.

As good as those covers are, however, nothing prepares one for her compelling take on Katell Keinig’s “The Gulf of Araby.”

Live in Concert was released at a time when the music marketplace was near the end of a decade-long expansion, with a slew of teen-driven pop acts topping the charts; it was a metaphoric October 23, 1929, in a sense, as the Napster-era crash was in the offing. The headwinds alone don’t explain why the album only reached No. 82 on the charts, however. I’d argue that demographics played a larger role; those who discovered Natalie during her 10K days or via Tigerlily had since become adults with adult concerns, and had less money to burn. But no matter. Twenty years on, it’s safe to say that – whether one’s a new or old fan – Live in Concert is an essential set.

The track listing:

(A live DVD culled from the same concert features a slightly different set. Unlike the CD, it’s no longer in print, but is well worth seeking out – used copies are available on both Amazon and Ebay.)

Life. It’s sweet. Every day is a gift, every moment a treasure, despite the pain and misery we sometimes endure. Those are cliches, I know, but I believe them – especially while listening to The Natalie Merchant Collection, which I’m doing as I write. The set, for the uninitiated, features her seven studio albums alongside one disc of new and old songs performed with a string quartet, and another disc of, as the press release states, “rare and previously unreleased tracks recorded between 1998 and 2017.” It’s due out on July 14th, but those of us who preordered received it early.

Much has and will be written about the collection, I’m sure, and I plan to write about it myself this weekend, after I’ve had time to digest the new material and contemplate what the set, writ large, means in the scheme of things. I will say, however, that if you had told me back in 1986, when I first heard Natalie with the 10,000 Maniacs, that I’d still be listening to her all these years later…well, I’m not sure how I would have responded. But I’m glad she’s still making music, and glad to still be a fan.

Anyway, for now, here’s today’s Top 5: Natalie Merchant. Not necessarily her greatest songs (though some are), but great songs and performances, nonetheless.

1) “Carnival.” (From Tigerlily.)

2) “Life Is Sweet.” (From Ophelia.)

3) “Break Your Heart.” (From Ophelia.)

4) “I’m Not Gonna Beg.” (From Motherland.)

5) “Space Oddity.” (From 1999’s Live in Concert, which isn’t included in the collection.)

And three bonus tracks:

6) “Maggie and Milly and Molly and May.” (From Leave Your Sleep,)

7) “Ladybird.” (From Natalie Merchant.)

8) “Frozen Charlotte.” (From Butterfly, the collection’s disc of new and old material recorded with a string quartet.)