[16 November 2010]
Leona Anderson’s 53-year-old magnum opus was recorded when Ms. Anderson was in her mid-70s. At the time, the liner notes of Music to Suffer By touted her as “THE WORLDS (sic) MOST HORRIBLE SINGER”, and they had a point. The story goes that she tried over and over to find glory as a classically-trained opera singer, but was repeatedly dropped by those who would classically train her. Eventually, she came to take pride in her deficiency of talent, using it on this album as a weapon satirizing the performance of the self-important opera set. We hear such standards as “Habanera” from Carmen and Cole Porter’s “I Love Paris”, and originals such as the hilarious German/English mashup that is “Hep Cat” (whose refrain goes “Ich bin ein hep cat!”). All of the songs feature extended notes that are ever so slightly and gratingly flat, passages in which Ms. Anderson takes a breath between every (gasp) single (wheeze) syllable, and phrasing as uncomfortable as the lyrical conceit of “Limburger Lover” (use your imagination). How much of the awfulness is intentional? It doesn’t matter. What matters is that it is awful, and that is its primary selling point. Music to Suffer By is both a disaster and an appealing curiosity, but in the end, it’s difficult to defend the purchase of music whose primary function is to provoke a quick smile as you look for something that’s actually worth listening to.