Is This Music?
Los Angeles-based songwriter Carla Bozulich has had a mighty long career, spanning roughly 30 years in the alternative country and experimental music scenes. She might be best known as the lead singer and lyricist for the mid-‘90s cowpunk band the Geraldine Fibbers, which boasted the talents of current Wilco guitarist Nels Cline. She was also a founding member of the industrial band Ethyl Meatplow. She has worked with a wide range of artists in collaborations in a variety of genres as well: Mike Watt, Willie Nelson, Thurston Moore, Marianne Faithfull and Marc Ribot. The past few years, however, Bozulich has turned her sights to a more experimental outfit known as Evangelista, which has released five albums now on the small Montreal indie label Constellation – making her the first act that the label signed which wasn’t based in Canada. While Bozulich isn’t exactly a household name, she has clearly made the rounds and has etched out a mark that is indelible on alternative music.
With the kind of accolades and peer support that Bozulich has earned over her career, perhaps she feels that under her Evangelista moniker she has earned the right to branch out and push the envelope on what constitutes the boundaries of music. That’s exactly what she’s done with her latest release, In Animal Tongue, which is the sort of thing you don’t put on and listen to after a hard day’s work at the office. The disc is a challenging affair, one rife with all sorts of metaphysical and sexual imagery, and is utterly brutal and punishing in its approach. Think of the most nightmarish carnival ride you’ve been on at a country fair, and that’ll give you some hint of the territory that In Animal Tongue seeks to conquer. You may even ask yourself over the course of this nine-song record the old question that Teenage Fanclub raised on the final track of their 1991 album Bandwagonesque: “Is This Music?” Clearly, In Animal Tongue is an acquired taste, one for those who like their buttons pushed while listening to and enjoying what amounts to, well, “music” – and even that might be stretching it. Most of us will likely find In Animal Tongue to be an album that is super-enthralled with its own redrawing of the lines of what constitutes palpable sonic composition, and parse it to be mere hand-wringing that is utterly self-conscious with its over-baked themes of damnation and sin.
The album actually starts out strongly, with the cascading blues guitar swirl of “Artificial Lamb”, where Bozulich’s voice swoops and dives and becomes an instrument in and of itself – a kind of cross between the hardcore and well-worn voice of Johnny Cash and the straining and soaring vocal style of Patti Smith. The song fuses art-gallery experimentation with pure poetry, and has an overall vibe of bleak, desolate longing. What’s more, it’s the one place on In Animal Tongue where Bozulich seems eager to craft what could be construed as an actual song. For it is after “Artificial Lamb” that things take a nose-dive and devolve. The nearly six-minute title track, which follows, starts out with cymbals crashing softly against the backdrop of Bozulich’s voice, which is here reciting a kind of poem, against a soundscape of a one-note squeezebox. The song is mere musical wallpaper, meant to be evocative of a mood, but one gets the sense that Bozulich is trying too hard to create something artistic and meaningful with its portending, almost Biblical imagery: “She sprung / in animal tongue / no bell was rung / no church was raised / no Lord was praised / no cage could keep her in.” That line is something of a chorus, which repeats itself, but that’s the only guidepost that listeners will have that they’re listening to an actual song. “In Animal Tongue” is something you might overhear at a swank and hip art gallery, but I’d venture to guess you’d be more apt to hear it in some grotesque hall of mirrors. The cut partially succeeds in evoking a black mood, but Bozulich is really trying too hard to emulate her idol Patti Smith on this track. Note to Bozulich: there can be only one Patti Smith.
The follow-up, the controversially-titled “Black Jesus”, is just a garish wall of vaguely discernible vocals and sorrowful blue guitars that ramble and pluck singular notes to create an abrasive, Brillo-pad sound meant to, perhaps, clear one’s room at a party where some stragglers are over-welcome in their stay. “Get onto your knees,” Bozulich intones at points in this five-minute noise epic, but it’s unclear if the image is one that is meant to be sexual in nature or religious, simply because her vocals are a massive incomprehensible smudge mark, as though she was performing the song drunk. “Bells Ring Fire” similarly has Bozulich cooing over ragged, randomly plucked notes on a guitar until some low strings leak in after the one-minute mark on this overlong five-and-a-half minute composition. Again, this is somehow less an attempt to craft music as it is one to create high art and meaning in an almost cabaret setting. The song, if you can call it that, is listless and stutters around all over the place, and it’s hard to make heads or tails out of Bozulich’s lyrics: “To open the chest up to the light / not invisible / not invisible / to fly like a diamond black wing in the smoke / see me light the sky like day / standing tall with no disgrace.” There’s a certain level of opaqueness at work here, and it seems that Bozulich is more interested in making a mood piece that loosely fits over the canvass of her own shifting dynamics. Then, the song just stops, as though it had been travelling at 55 miles an hour and needed to break to avoid some kid chasing a ball on the road.
That’s just the first four songs of this haphazard LP, which more or less continues along with its experiment for experiment’s sake tendencies. One walks away from In Animal Tongue with the feeling that Bozulich just had her backup musicians loosely craft material as a background wash for her demented art-school poetry. I would, in fact, venture that In Animal Tongue is an album that was largely created on the fly, as it has a strung-together quality. There is only a lax sonic inter-connectivity to the material. Very rarely does it work. That’s the most damnable thing about this album, for “Artificial Lamb” shows that Bozulich has a way of making stirring melodies as a backdrop to her cut-and-paste word collages – something that she willfully abandons after that interesting entry point. All in all, In Animal Tongue is not for everyone, and will likely only find its audience among those who are willing to join the artist on her journey of cobbling disparate sounds and images together. Unless you’re a die-hard fan of Bozulich’s impressive and vast body of work, or like your “music” to be as willfully oblique as possible, In Animal Tongue is the type of record where you can save some precious coin by taking a pass on it.
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// Notes from the Road
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