The Guile of the Insane
When I first heard Margaret Fiedler, she was the better singer of the band Moonshake, gothic experimentalists writing a love letter to Dr. Dre. When it worked (such as the barely sculpted cacophony of “Beautiful Pigeon”), the improbable results shook the room like deadly urban spells. Unfortunately, the other singer for the band, Dave Callahan, had a voice that sounded like a bullet strafed Canadian goose channeling Johnny Rotton, a pure sonic thorn. Moonshake releases, in order to be endured, had to be mercifully skipped through. My rule of thumb was to play every song written by Fiedler. Upon breaking up, Fiedler went on to form Laika with another former Moonshaker, John Frenett, along with Guy Fixsen, ace producer. Dave Callahan continued to confuse southward flocks under the old moniker.
In this greatest hits compilation, culled artfully from three albums and several rarities, Laika proves themselves to be a band operating in peerless distinction, making music simultaneously odd, infectious, and anchorlessly tight. If I’m forced to give them a genealogy, I would have to call them the unsettling progeny of krautrocker’s Can and Miles Davis, but that’s just a thumbnail obligation offered to you because all reviews are supposed to give such baggage as a substitute for description.
Margaret Fiedler’s voice is a sexily flexed burn, full of barely audible inhales that sound like Anais Nin’s commas. The cadence of her voice is both deft and dark as she negotiates backdrops just this shy of bedlam. Her deceptively soft vocals morph unpredictably from cradle rock singing on “If You Miss”, to a digging snarl on “Bedbugs”, to the poetry slam hip-hop flicker of “Go Fish”. If you see some writer mention Portishead, chalk it up to the poverty and ease of threadbare parallels. There’s little of trip-hop’s vaguery in Laika and the rhythm skeletons of many of these tracks sound like busy hives of insects devouring the insides of your ear. Seizuring seems like it’d be a wholly appropriate dance move for some of this music.
Disc one covers the material from the first three albums with the exception of the melodica madness remix of “If You Miss” which actually comes from a compilation called Macro Dub Infection Volume 1. I’ll approach this with none of the usual bitchiness that accompanies a review of a greatest hits compilation. I won’t try to impress you with obscure picks that I would have put on, just as I won’t pretend that the songs that everyone else loves are really the shittiest tracks. I couldn’t have put it together better myself. No, really, I’m so lazy. Highlights include the space funk shuffle of “Sugar Daddy”, which like many Laika songs has a fuzzy thunk of a bassline that travels its old wild path. “Breather” contains typically searing Laika lyrics, including the surreal whispering of “dead dreams dropping off the heart / Like leaves in a dry season”. The lyrics themselves are another level of wonder; many of tracks contain more than a few unnervingly poetic outbursts.
“Shut Off/Curl Up”, a ballad of uncomfortable lover-to-lover truths, lumbers over drums that sound like they’re going through alcohol withdrawal and intermittent bits of slinky flute. If compilations trace the evolution of a band (though they typically just generate some cash preceding a break-up), then Lost in Space chronicles a band that has become much more proficient in integrating the more spontaneous elements of their jazz influences with the speed and body rockin’ beat girders of an electronic outfit.
According to the amusing, anecdote-ridden liner notes, the previously unreleased b-side “Beestinger” on disc two is supposed to be about Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky. Whatever its dingy origins, this song alone is worth buying the compilation. It exemplifies the band’s ability to create a song that sounds absolutely unhinged, like firing synapses of a raving lunatic. And yet, they always manage to slip in some zig-zagging structure in under the radar that leaves you joyfully twitching and following Fiedler’s voice down the rabbit hole. “Badtimes”, which comes closest to trip-hop with a decidedly Massive Attack bassline, and contains some of the most flippant and hilarious lyrics including references to meth and bacon strewn through Fiedler’s nu-wave, spoken word delivery. Many Laika songs involve this give and take between frenetic backgrounds tamed by the reins of Fiedler’s vocals. The b-side, “Lie Low”, strips away some of that dialogue and almost sounds dangerously poppy, including a couple of moments that reminded me of “Live to Tell” and I can’t decide if that’s good or not. If band’s have signatures, then “Lyin’ Goat” would be Laika’s John Hancock.
A b-side I had already previously put in standard mixtape rotation, it maximizes the aforementioned conflict between instrumentation that sounds like a separating swarm and vocals that tempt you in. It also reminds me of why I love this band so much. At their best, they manage to capture some of that uneasy chaos from which every piece of art emerges and eventually returns. Somehow they manage to seduce noise into structure without leaving beauty kicked to curb of self-indulgence.
If you’ve never heard of this band, this is the place to begin but not end. If you’ve already bought the records like me, there’s more than enough new material to make it mandatory and sating. If you already have all of this, including the live versions and stuff that’s supposed to be previously unreleased, than you’re just too cool for school; go home and gloat already.
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