Madagascar: Goodbye East, Goodbye West

[28 May 2007]

By Michael Metivier

It’s difficult to resist the temptation to review Madagascar’s second full-length album in the same manner as I did the first (2005’s Forced March), such is the fever dream-inducing mélange of woozy Parisian parlor-folk that comprises Goodbye East, Goodbye West.  But I feel I must spend a bit more time with an actual account of the Baltimore group’s music, and less on floating couches.  Oh screw it; let’s make it 50/50. 

Maybe it’s the musical saw that somehow manages to avoid sounding like haunted house movie soundtracks, or the fact that the slow, deliberate waltz tempos and droning instruments like accordions and melodicas induce visions rather than sleep.  Either way, it doesn’t feel right to give Goodbye a straightforward assessment, especially in 2007, when any mention of the words “European” and “gypsy” is only going to make people think of Beirut.  Instead, it feels more appropriate (and fun) to lie back and let Madagascar’s songs conjure what they will. So, onward with six more dream/critique hybrids (in no particular order)!

1. When we last heard of these gentlemen, they were so busy waxing their mustaches that they failed to notice society at large putting the kibosh on their well-mannered ways.  “When We Last Heard of Gentlemen” seeks to redress, with sunny accordion chords drawn out molasses slow, sprinkled with drops of xylophone.  The warm gentility of the song’s first half draws the gentlemen out of hiding, straightens their cravats, and helps them onto their velocipedes, which they ride down the cobblestone streets with the utmost concern for pedestrians. Soon, however, cool breezes of wordless vocals usher in dark clouds of minor chords just as the gentlemen come to the bridge. Will their stiff upper lips carry them safely to the sun-dappled shores at the song’s end?

2. Cheekiness aside, Madagascar’s song titles often describe their lyric-less concerns with accuracy.  “The River in Its Sunday Garb” is the best example of this, as the song (like most of the band’s tunes) meanders like a wide, slow river.  Remember the expression of the little girl in the middle distance of Seurat’s A Sunday on La Grande Jatte (the one Cameron stares at in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, ahem)? The somber tones of “The River” are reflected in her worried gaze.  Perhaps she’s forced to practice piano for two hours a day, when she’d rather be bowing the type of saw wiggling and warbling its melancholia over the Seine, or at the very least tinkling the omnipresent chimes and bells just beneath the song’s top layers.  Hers is the soul of a street musician, crushed beneath the deceptive weight of her bourgeois sun bonnet. And tomorrow is Monday.

3. “Imperium in Imperio” clocks in at a hefty nine minutes, though it starts slowly enough; the entire first third stretches its instruments like weather over the continental divide. The middle third is where the elements join forces and rush down the slopes, rallied together by martial drumming and the intermittent crash of cymbals. Finally, the storm tapers off, leaving the rainwater to soak into the soil and help fortify some mighty fine wine-makin’ grapes.  It’s a classic bit of structuring: buildup—climax—denouement, and it’s smart too—because the instrumental make-up of Madagascar contains so many dominant, striking textures, variety in all other aspects is essential. 

4. In that respect, “S’Vivon” is a welcome departure, a quick two-minute palate cleanser after the feast of “Imperium”.  Named for the Hebrew word for dreidel, the song is an adaptation of the Jewish holiday traditional, though slowed down considerably and clankified. The interpretation begs a re-evaluation of the word “festive”. Technically, you could gather a group of friends, give them each 15 or so pennies (or raisins, or whatever) to throw in the pot, and spin, spin, spin the dreidel in hopes of winning it all, as is the custom. But how would Madagascar’s version of the song change the feeling of the game? Would the galumphing bass and clattering percussion comfort you after twelve successive “shins”?  No sir. More likely that the minor key melody and rumbling atmospherics are gonna make you think long and hard about your life as it compares to games of chance, how existence is just one interminable spin for a few raisins. Or not.

5. Oh how I wish that facts were really perceived as innocent, which they are.  Perfect, round little capsules of truth, dispensed with care and received with gratitude from the trees, the soil, mouths of babes, and the pearly Warren Ellis-style string plucking on “The Innocence of Facts”. Truth like the bells climbing up and down over a chord progression, the reverberations from each strike designed to blush fierce then quickly turn away. But I fear that facts are themselves feared, and songs that draw truths from inside their listeners’ hearts and minds are viewed as morbid.  But “The Innocence of Facts” is not morbid, not with its line of single, clear notes breathed out through a melodica over stalwart acoustic guitar strums.  There are hardships in this life, to be sure, like walnut shells, but facts are the steel pincers we must use to get to the meat… where the hell am I going with this? First raisins, now walnuts.  Look, “The Innocence of Facts” is a very pretty song, prettiest on the album in fact.  There.

6. “Goodbye East, Goodbye West”.  The title reminds me of John Fahey’s “In Christ There Is No East or West”.  Where are these directions going? Which side is up, anymore?  Madagascar’s title track features the most vocals of any song I’ve heard from them yet, though of course without words.  A series of modest coos and swoons augmenting a twilit lullaby, watercolor sun setting behind watercolor trees, ushering in the time of reflection and dreaming.  Come to think of it, dreams are the one place where you say goodbye to all compass points, where you travel on whim, suggestion, memory, invention. Madagascar’s music has always been a conduit for me to that place.

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