Hannah Marcus: Desert Farmers

Christine Klunk

Hannah Marcus

Desert Farmers

Label: Bar-None
US Release Date: 2004-01-20
UK Release Date: Available as import

Hannah Marcus doesn't mess around, even when her songs pass the nine-minute mark. Every note, chord, word, and phrase fits and intertwines itself in the sinister yet lush arrangements of her new record, Desert Farmers. Having spent several years on the west coast, recording in San Francisco, Marcus returned to the east and her home town of New York City for this latest release. The listener can tell she's home. Clocking in at just under 45 minutes, Desert Farmers unfolds with stately and measured beauty. Drawing on influences Patti Smith, Godspeed You Black Emperor, and Lou Reed, Marcus creates stark folk, jazz, and torch songs. Her voice is mesmerizing, her guitar playing precise, and the overall atmosphere hypnotic. One listening certainly isn't enough.

It should come as no surprise that, before this newest record, Ms. Marcus released five albums and contributed tracks to several other compilations. Beginning her musical career in the early '90s, she brings ten years of experience to Desert Farmers as well as a wealth of knowledge imparted to her by her arts-oriented family. Growing up in Spanish Harlem, her mom painted and her father played cello. Her parents often hosted chamber music rehearsals in the living room. Influenced by this environment, as well as her autistic sister's unique perspective on the world, Marcus picked up and moved to San Francisco to try out her own composition and songwriting skills. Her full-length debut, River of Darkness, came out in 1996 with production help from Red House Painters' Mark Kozelek. In 1998, she released Faith Burns, and by 2000, was signed to Hoboken, New Jersey's Bar None Records. The critically acclaimed Black Hole Heaven chronicled the chaos of her years spent in LA, including the disintegration of her marriage due to the strain of traveling between San Francisco and LA.

That brings us to Marcus's return to the east coast and the release of Desert Farmers. She recorded the album in Montreal with members of the cult favorite, ambient indie rock band Godspeed You Black Emperor. Guitarist Efrim Manuck and bassist Thierry Amar contributed their instruments and talents as well as their studio, Hotel2Tango, for the making of the record.

The production on Desert Farmers is impressive right from the start. On "Laos", the recording is so precise that the sounds of struck piano and vibraphone keys, as well as the soft intake of breath before a lyric, come through the speakers.

"Canon" is a dark and slightly disturbing track that showcases Marcus's husky voice on every vocal track. She sings every intricate harmony, every descant. The words come from a short story, "Canon: for Fred Tomaselli", by author Rick Moody (The Ice Storm). The background noise created by short-wave radios gives the song a murky feel that ends abruptly with the next track, "Strip Darts". With the help of violinist Jessica Moss and her own intricate acoustic playing, Marcus creates an austere picture of some desert bar "where every afternoon they all play strip darts".

"Hairdresser in Taos" is an epic jazz tune, made so by drummer Will Glass's laid-back rhythms. The song lasts over nine minutes and tells the very strange story of a dye job in another barren desert landscape: "And when I sat up it ran into my eyes / And I looked in the mirror and started to cry / I ran out of the house with the red dye still on / I even left him my only copy of Blonde on Blonde".

Rick Moody also contributes the words to "Purple Mother" from his book Purple America. On this track, Marcus takes on the role of torch singer, her smoky voice inspiring images of hazy downtown jazz clubs. The melody, as well as the horn section, lend the song class and sex -- a standout track.

On the closing marathon of "Fake and Pretty", Marcus plays four instruments and sings a giant list of all the things she'll be for some mysterious, vanished lover: "I'll be solipsistic, infantile / I'll be unjustifiable, illegitimate, misguided, delusional, distracted, stubborn, shameful, and hubristic". Aside from this excellent vocabulary, the song also features a series of human- and violin-produced howls, a bizarre end to a bizarrely beautiful album.

Desert Farmers can serve two purposes. Hannah Marcus has a gorgeous voice, gentle and hypnotic. The songs on this record blend together to create a dark and moody-but-oddly-soothing atmosphere. Listen for background music. Or pay attention to the stories Marcus tells both with her severe lyrics and her skillful guitar and piano playing. Note how Godspeed You Black Emperor members Efrim Manuck and Thierry Amar add skilled ambience to landscapes Marcus produces. Above all, pay close attention to the desert Hannah Marcus has designed on this sixth album.

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The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

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10. Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some (Third Man)

The first two songs on Lillie Mae's debut album are titled "Over the Hill and Through the Woods" and "Honky Tonks and Taverns". The music splits the difference between those settings, or rather bears the marks of both. Growing up in a musical family, playing fiddle in a sibling bluegrass act that once had a country radio hit, Lillie Mae roots her songs in musical traditions without relying on them as a gimmick or costume. The music feels both in touch with the past and very current. Her voice and perspective shine, carrying a singular sort of deep melancholy. This is sad, beautiful music that captures the points of view of people carrying weighty burdens and trying to find home. - Dave Heaton

9. Sunny Sweeney – Trophy (Aunt Daddy)

Sunny Sweeney is on her fourth album; each one has felt like it didn't get the attention it deserved. She's a careful singer and has a capacity for combining humor and likability with old-fashioned portrayal of deep sadness. Beginning in a bar and ending at a cemetery, Trophy projects deep sorrow more thoroughly than her past releases, as good as they were. In between, there are pills, bad ideas, heartbreak, and a clever, true-tearjerker ballad voicing a woman's longing to have children. -- Dave Heaton

8. Kip Moore – Slowheart (MCA Nashville)

The bro-country label never sat easy with Kip Moore. The man who gave us "Somethin' 'Bout a Truck" has spent the last few years trying to distance himself from the beer and tailgate crowd. Mission accomplished on the outstanding Slowheart, an album stuffed with perfectly produced hooks packaged in smoldering, synthy Risky Business guitars and a rugged vocal rasp that sheds most of the drawl from his delivery. Moore sounds determined to help redefine contemporary country music with hard nods toward both classic rock history and contemporary pop flavors. With its swirling guitar textures, meticulously catchy songcraft, and Moore's career-best performances (see the spare album-closing "Guitar Man"), Slowheart raises the bar for every would-be bro out there. -- Steve Leftridge

7. Chris Stapleton – From a Room: Volume 1 (Mercury Nashville)

If Chris Stapleton didn't really exist, we would have to invent him—a burly country singer with hair down to his nipples and a chainsaw of a soul-slinging voice who writes terrific throwback outlaw-indebted country songs and who wholesale rejects modern country trends. Stapleton's recent rise to festival headliner status is one of the biggest country music surprises in recent years, but his fans were relieved this year that his success didn't find him straying from his traditional wheelhouse. The first installment of From a Room once again finds Stapleton singing the hell out of his sturdy original songs. A Willie Nelson cover is not unwelcome either, as he unearths a semi-obscure one. The rest is made up of first-rate tales of commonality: Whether he's singing about hard-hurtin' breakups or resorting to smoking them stems, we've all been there. -- Steve Leftridge

6. Carly Pearce – Every Little Thing (Big Machine)

Many of the exciting young emerging artists in country music these days are women, yet the industry on the whole is still unwelcoming and unforgiving towards them. Look at who's getting the most radio play, for one. Carly Pearce had a radio hit with "Every Little Thing", a heartbreaking ballad about moments in time that in its pace itself tries to stop time. Every Little Thing the album is the sort of debut that deserves full attention. From start to finish it's a thoroughly riveting, rewarding work by a singer with presence and personality. There's a lot of humor, lust, blues, betrayal, beauty and sentimentality, in proper proportions. One of the best songs is a call for a lover to make her "feel something", even if it's anger or hatred. Indeed, the album doesn't shy away from a variety of emotions. Even when she treads into common tropes of mainstream country love songs, there's room for revelations and surprises. – Dave Heaton

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60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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