Photos by Austin Young (top)
and Kate Garner
I was thinking the other day that, like most of us, I feel I’m somewhat misinterpreted, generally speaking. What I meant was that if anyone wanted to pick a fight with me, a mere man, why then they had to understand that there isn’t enough what we think of as male inside me to bother doing battle with. And that’s because I come from a distant place seen only through a microscope, where all the genderization of mind and body and heart and soul long ago was determined to be best graded strictly on a continuum basis — and people like me recognize each other when we see ourselves. You approve? Or, as Lee Michaels’ 1969 No. 6 chart-topper had it, “Do you know what I mean?”
Let’s just say that gender issues are far and away the most relevant and interesting issues we’ve got in this world, and will continue to be. And this fact gave me the skanky idea that for this column I’d take a wee look at the current state of “women’s music,” knowing full well that at this point in time, on this particular planet, such a construct is a hairy old contrivance and that for one reason or another (mostly stupid ones, if I may), I’d get my huevos poached for even attempting such crude, bronzy hubris.
As I say, though, who am I but a mere man, an objective observer wishing musicians good luck and hoping for the best? I’m a watcher, one who listens — and perhaps learns. And in fact women’s music is often marketed as such, or at least made an issue of, often it’d seem to the dismay or disillusionment of its makers. And that’s because, especially to endure in the coarse and brutal reality that is the contemporary record industry, you’ve got to have a gimmick — a hook, an angle (two big ones, frankly) — even if it is the very ordinary fact of your sex, and even if you only wish to sell eight records. I remember having a little spat (I mean discussion) here at the Weekly years ago when the subject of L7 came up, whether it was sexist to refer to them as a “girl band” or “those heavily rockin’ banshees” or whatever somesuch and etc. Backed into a corner, sweating, fiddling with my codpiece, I coughed and simpered that L7 themselves were self-identified as an all-female band, that they themselves made it an issue; indeed, I myself asked Donita Sparks if I could try out when they were looking for a new drummer, but she just got this sort of vague look on her face . . .
Digging my own grave here. I will now take my castor oil and withdraw, but not before quoting Annette Peacock: “Hey, man, my destiny is not to serve. I’m a woman. My destiny is to create.”
PJ HARVEY, Uh Huh Her (Island, with its oh-so-vicious anti-piracy threats on the cover) The chameleonic PJ Harvey’s seventh album divulges a few of her numerous colors in largely bare-bones tracks notable for her unfailingly natural ear (as if she has no choice, which is the best thing) for incredibly interesting music as music, her little-woman-with-a-big-ax yoke notwithstanding. She leaps dramatically through wild modulations and arcane chordings on rough-sawed electric guitars, these guitars as informed by Delta blues as they are three-steps-removed from the plains of Ghana or golden Chinese pavilions. Harvey’s outlines for songs seem tight but capable of entertaining notched stabs of subtly askew tone-scrap ornamentation that flies in from strange heights, in a jumble of depths and distances. She gets a sound that is literally head-turning, and that gift has not diminished a speck.
Harvey recorded the disc mostly by herself in her home studio, augmenting with spare tambourine, kalimba samples, rudimentary-fingered organ, piano or the odd loop, and I like the purity of intention and purpose coming through as a result — one can at least imagine her saying, “This is what I want it to sound like.” Harvey’s lyrics — melancholy/petulant/shy, and I don’t think I’m projecting — might mention washing that man outta her mouth (she won’t be tied down, basically, though she’s apparently not into breaking hearts, either), how the rain just keeps comin’ down and it’s promises, promises no one could possibly keep, and when she really sings those words it sounds a bit like Siouxsie and it’s very nice; but when her tuff-girl voice is thin and English you find yourself admiring her pluck more than her plucking. PJ Harvey’s music, though: burning intelligence, smoking chops, smoldering ardor.
DIAMANDA GALÁS, Defixiones, Will and Testament and La Serpenta Canta (both Mute) Galás is the supercolossal vocal virtuoso who has received both acclaim and infamy as the creator of AIDS-related music/performance pieces such as Plague Mass, Litanies of Satan and The Masque of the Red Death trilogy. La Serpenta Canta is the CD debut of her 2001 song cycle interpreting works by Ornette Coleman, Hank Williams, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and an unimaginably scorched version of Holland-Dozier-Holland’s “My World Is Empty Without You.” Defixiones, Will and Testament is a nerve-rackingly beautiful piece based on texts related to the Armenian and Anatolian Greek massacres of 1915 and 1922, with an arcing, relevant theme of genocide in its various guises, and its cowardly denial.
The uncowardly Galás takes themes of death, degradation and demoralization to heroic extremes, and is an authoritative (to say the least) spokesperson for the unspeakable. Defixiones addresses, among other things, the devastation on entire cultures as inflicted by the Turks (among others), a scenario that has been played out in Armenia and Greece, in Assyria and with the Kurds for hundreds of years. With Galás, the music is always accompanied by some kind of threat; she’s one woman you don’t mind calling a bitch, ’cause she’s like a mother dog whose coat you can admire but who will slash if you bring harm to her young. It’s fascinating to me that she has the onstage
charisma of a drag diva to the 20th power, as if it takes a woman to know what a woman really wants.
Defixiones has Galás really flexing, and the effect (a trivializing word) is goose bumps. Over electronic drones, whipping wind and her most fugging awesome left-hand piano rudeness snarking out like a tarantula, she intones, incants, rails, pleads, commands and testifies in distressed epiglottal paroxysms, agonized tongues. Listening to Defixiones, I’m reminded again of an unsettling realization that comes about when musicians or filmmakers or writers address horrific subjects, and that is, in order to persuade, on some level the art itself requires a pleasurable effect, akin to katharsis. Galás exhilarates above all because she is that very rare performer who deals articulately with horrific topicality but doesn’t skimp on the progressive requirements of new, important music.
Diamanda Galás is a very heartening presence in music and art, a bad, bad bitch who speaks for the horrors of those who can’t speak for themselves, then says, “What is truly horrible is to create work that very few people understand, or people think you’re fuckin’ nuts doing, and then feel the prescience of it.” Right on. I like this even better: “I never, never do work because I feel that people are going to relate to it. I do it because I feel that I need to do it. I have . . . the truth of my own convictions . . . I’m willing to search my soul. I expect everyone else to do the same.”