That rare delight, an unabashedly arty record that avoids the stiflingly academic pitfalls that so often sink such things.
“I’m not a Christian”, Vancouver singer-songwriter Veda Hille explained in a Podcast detailing the making of her thirteenth album This Riot Life [linked below], “but, particularly at this point in my life, I just found that the 1700s/1800s hymns had such an incredibly visceral kind of language, and really a very passionate form of worship and attempt to communicate ecstatic feelings.”
Veda Hille based much of This Riot Life on readings from her late grandmother’s copy of the United Church of Canada’s The Hymnary, with six of the album’s thirteen songs reinterpreting a handful of hymns with varying degrees of modification. “Oh Come On” pulls off the neat trick of constructing an entire song solely out of the first lines of selected hymns from the book, while “Ace of the Nazarene” is very nearly a straight up cover of Frederick William Henry Myers’ 1867 hymn “Hark What a Sound”, marrying the original’s verses to a witty chorus hook of Hille’s own (“the kid of God stays up all night long”) that stops just short of irreverence. Not even content to be confined to a premise of her own design, Hille elsewhere re-imagines German composer Paul Hindemith’s setting of Percy Shelley’s “The Moon” as a baroque rock song in the deranged vein of the Dresden Dolls or Rasputina, while dropping a verse from the Tommy Wolf and Fran Landesman standard “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most” (popularized by Ella Fitzgerald) into her own sentimental ode to “The Spring.”
Such exotic referents might suggest an especially heavy-going affair, or at least a crushingly intellectual one, all the more so considering that the album was made in the wake of an extended period of death and rebirth within the musician’s family. Furthermore, any passing familiarity with the occasional dementia of Hille’s earlier work -- album’s like 1996’s Spine and 1999’s You Do Not Life in This World Alone oscillated a little too easily between lush alterna-folk and frightening abrasion -- would seem to have This Riot Life (even the title suggests an inherent instability) poised as a scarred confessional in the Tori Amos mode, a secular artist’s profane appropriation of religious imagery as a means of battling inner turmoil.
What ends up being most surprising about This Riot Life, then, is just how lighthearted it is. For a record steeped in spiritual reverence and personal loss, the element most prominently on display here is Hille’s delightfully quirky Canadian-ness. She shares with fellow compatriots Jane Siberry, Christine Fellows, and Owen Pallett (of Final Fantasy) a knack for blending folk storytelling and pop melody with neo-classical eclecticism and a kind of playfulness that could easily nudge much of this record into the realm of musical theater, all while dodging the forced eccentricity of the “freak folk” movement. The result is a record that is simultaneously offbeat and wholly accessible, consistently inventive without losing itself within the thicket of its own design.
True to the spirit of the hymns that inspired it, Hille successfully infuses the range of material here with the same passionate reverence that she found in The Hymnary. While the six re-interpreted hymns provide the album with its thematic center -- and are, for the most part, with the lovely piano settings of “Cowper’s Folly” and the Arthur Sullivan-scored “Constance”, beautifully executed -- the most intriguing material here tends to be Hille’s originals. “Lucklucky” is an oddly inspiring ode to the musician’s hometown, suggesting a kind of emotional geography (“It took thirty years to draw this map”, she concludes, wondering “and now what do you see, your city or your life in the city?”) that recalls the Weakerthans’ own similarly conflicted songs about Winnipeg. The lullaby waltz “Sleepers” is a rather straightforward and sweet love song to her husband, enlivened by her especially odd attention to detail (“I never cared for metal hair / Until the boy you were / Slayer”). The winding “Book of Saints”, halfway between an elliptical Tori Amos rant and the rough sketch of a Sarah Brightman epic, splays in several lyrical directions at once, but remains most resonant for the plaintive “Hey looky here the book of saints / What they are is what you ain’t”, a poignant admission of human frailty in the face Greatness.
Impressive for her sheer resourceful ingenuity, Hille is largely carried through by her inventive sonic palette, enlivening her piano-based arrangements with the occasional orchestral swell or full rock band accompaniment. Still, there is a tendency for a few of these songs to eventually become a bit musically indistinguishable, particularly in the album’s muted second half. Only once, though, does the album notably stumble: “Soapland Serenade”, commissioned for the bathhouse-set musical The Sexual Practices of the Japanese, becomes an all-too-obvious parable for loneliness and anonymous beauty, its traditional Japanese arrangement only solidifying it as the album’s sore thumb.
On the whole, though, This Riot Life is that rare delight, an unabashedly arty record that avoids the stiflingly academic pitfalls that so often sink such things. For all of her lofty ambitions, the key to Hille’s success here lays in the impulse that drove her to create this project in the first place: the desire communicate the ecstasies of her own life and experiences with a passion once primarily reserved for worship. It is a premise she executes with remarkable humanity, tunefulness, and grace.