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.