Dead Can Dance

Mix Tape #23 (Modern Troubadours)

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Creatively, my thoughts have been heavily focussed on song in the last couple of months, so i’ve made that the focus of the new 5:4 Mix Tape. Songs as we think of them today more or less conform to a generic, prefabricated mould that’s often at odds with their lyric content. Not all artists are prepared to compromise so readily, though, and the sixteen songs on this Mix Tape represent a rather more rare breed of song. i think of these artists as modern troubadours, for whom the the content of their song is such that it demands a break from convention, and the opportunity for a more experimental type of expression.

These songs, which range in duration between 7 and 17 minutes, encompass a wide variety of approaches to the art of song. Some, such as those by Deerhoof and maudlin of the Well, take experimental and progressive rock as their starting point, while Frankie Goes To Hollywood and Transvision Vamp opt for episodic epics, betraying the legacy of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’. Janelle Monáe‘s approach is to create what amounts to a 9-minute musical, while Kevin Barnes’ of Montreal beg, borrow and steal from a plethora of pop, dance and rock idioms to convey his typically bizarre narrative. By contrast, Dead Can Dance tell their tale via a hypnotic, circling music that pushes the words firmly into the foreground; despite the complexity of their electronic backdrop, Ulver achieve the same result by speaking their lyrics. Julia Holter makes her words count, summarising them in the first three minutes and allowing them to radiate for another ten; Fovea Hex do something similar in their rethinking of folk music. Others have more to say and take longer to do it; Jenny Hval puts herself on a kind of musical knife-edge, fragile before a pale, sparse backdrop, while David Sylvian surrounds himself with a network of improvised lines and motes that would be impenetrable if they weren’t so scattered. Tori Amos turns to her trusty Bösendorfer in what is still her longest song to date, whereas Joanna Newsom (in her longest song) has her complex harp epicentre heavily enriched by lush orchestrations provided by Van Dyke Parks. Beginning and ending the mix are songs by perhaps the great troubadour of our age, Scott Walker, a pair of songs from his last two albums that explore a depth of lyrical expression that’s pretty much unique in the history of song. Read more

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Mix Tape #10 : Melancholia

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Lent—’tis the season to be dolorous, and so the tenth 5:4 mix tape has melancholia as its theme. Both songs and instrumental music are included, taken from a diverse selection of artists and composers.

It begins with the opening of one of the best of William Basinski‘s Disintegration Loops, “d|p 3”. While as a whole these albums constitute a thoroughly over-egged pudding, this track conjures up a rather wistful sort of atmosphere, like a sad sunset. The Kilimanjaro Darkjazz Ensemble create fabulous nocturnal music, stylishly flecked with jazz mannerisms. All of Burial‘s work is shaded by melancholy; “Night Bus” is one of his shortest tracks, bereft of beats, its melody etching out the contours of a furrowed brow. Biosphere seems to capture remoteness in his work better than most, and “Poa Alpina” (from the remarkable Substrata album) is infused with this, underpinned by a deep bass that makes the music sound, literally, heavy. Fellow Norwegian Deathprod ploughs even darker troughs, and “Dead People’s Things” is like music from the end of time, postdiluvian, exhausted, its haunting melody falteringly singing surrounded by ruins. Perennial favourite of mine, Andrew Liles, has produced nothing so strikingly unusual as his “Concerto for Piano and Reverberation”; i included part of the opening in my Piano mix tape, but felt compelled to include it here as it creates such a black, velvety atmosphere, laden with gravitas. Franz Liszt‘s large-scale sacred work Via Crucis is modelled on the Stations of the Cross; two excerpts from the twelfth are featured here. It explores the moment of Christ’s death, beginning with his desperate cry, “Eli, Eli, lama sabacthani” and concluding with a gorgeous setting of the chorale, “O Traurigkeit, O Herzeleid” (which inspired my own setting). Thomas Adès‘ early string quartet, Arcadiana, has “O Albion” as its penultimate movement, and is a poignant comment on a lost world; Adès once described this movement to me as having two “chest pains”, the moments where the harmony shifts so painfully. Read more

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