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Review: Diane Marie Kloba - I Am An Unknown Artist (avant pop)
Review: Diane Marie Kloba - I Am An Unknown Artist (avant pop)
Striped Shirt Records STS105, 2011, CD album, 42m 51s, $10
(also available as DD, $name your price)
‘Avant pop’ is a term that has been bandied about at various times, in various contexts, and it is one that Diane Marie Kloba has applied to her own work, although there is no consensus as to what it describes. Regardless of whether her work has similar stylistic features to other artists who have been similarly labelled (and it has often been applied to electronic music), it is a good description of what she does. This is pretty avant-garde stuff, which, despite the prominence of electric guitar in its instrumental textures doesn’t sound like rock; and despite its experimentalism, there is a sense that it’s all about the songs, which are short and self-contained in the manner of pop songs.
The arrangements are built up from the core elements of Kloba’s voice and guitar with various articles of hand percussion, most manufactured, but some of it found. Sometimes there are some drums, bass, synthesiser, organ, another guitarist, but the texture feels very consistent: although it is quite varied, it’s stylistically coherent. This is Kloba’s fourth album, and although I’m not familiar with her earlier work, it’s clear that she’s arrived at an effective creative method and a mature artistic practice: the impression I get is that she knows exactly how to say what she wants to say, if only because her various meanings are conveyed in a similar manner across these thirteen songs.
There’s a very strong relationship between the way Kloba sings and the way she plays guitar. If singing is to speaking as running is to walking, then she walks fast, sometimes skipping or jogging, but never sprinting: at times this sort of melodic speech reminds me somewhat of Laurie Anderson, particularly on ‘It Rained’. She also reminds me of Anderson in her lyrics: not in the specific tenor of her language, but in the way she uses thoughts and ideas as big compositional blocks, like giant bricks of conceptual lego. I don’t believe that Kloba is in any way tentative, but the wavering character of her voice, and the power of her delivery, just short of full voiced, give the impression that she is feeling her way forward carefully, and there is a similar feel to her guitar work.
I’ve rarely heard a distorted electric guitar riff, like the one on ‘Diane Has Words’, delivered with so much rhythm and conviction, and yet so little of rock’s clichéd swagger. There is no posing in the playing, no milking of received gestures, but a back-to-first-principles approach that seems to find the instrument’s capacities afresh, as though it had shed its history and associations.
There is sometimes a roughness in the overall approach, which I read as a desire to avoid the automatic responses to received notions of musical competence: in a way it’s punky, inasmuch as the music is always in time and in tune, but it’s a different kind of rawness, one not deriving from an excess of energy like punk’s emotional overdrive. If there’s one thing that drives and saturates this music it’s sincerity.
Much avant-garde music shares with this album a cultivated naïveté in the way it presents its materials, thrust directly at the listener like the gifts of a child: the crucial difference is that in most cases this is a mediated and ironic strategy, a knowing and fundamentally defensive measure. In Kloba’s case her approach represents a committed and heartfelt search for the best expression of her endearingly positive meanings. The fact that her music doesn’t pander to our well developed conditioned expectations of what a nice pop song should sound like is a consequence of her desire to express precisely her own meanings, not the generic ones that are contained by the conventional vocabulary of pop and rock.
It may take some listeners a while to hear past the somewhat challenging surface of this music. Once they do they will find a probing, enquiring creativity that is intellectually and emotionally stimulating, but also sweet natured, and motivated by a generosity of spirit. Kloba puts it better than I can in the lyric to ‘Ace The Place’: ‘I come from humble mumbling to bring you what I worked to find.’
The Little Unsaid - Into The Faceless Night (folk/ alternative rock)
self released, 2011, DD EP, 13m 23s, £free
Original songs in the style of folksong aren’t ‘folk’ in the sense of ‘traditional music’, and nor in fact do they actually sound like any traditional music ever did: this is really a modern style that grew out of the 1950s folk club movement, where I imagine singer-songwriters wanted to find a sound that fit with their own enthusiasms, and was palatable to the notably purist (well, frankly bigoted) folk club audiences.
All such conceptual musings aside, this is a collection of finely crafted songs in a style that draws heavily on that tradition, with some rock elements, in the form of some bass and percussion, and some very tasteful, and sonically imaginative electric guitar. It lacks any of his nasally hey-nonny tendencies, but I found myself wondering whether Nic Jones might have sounded like this if he’d been working today: the guitar playing sits somewhere between his intricate fingerpicking and the textural ostinatos of latter day indie and post-rock.
The arrangements are gently kinetic, and not afraid to exploit the dramatic potential of putting the brakes on from time to time, while the writing presents some beautiful melodies with a strong (and visual) feel for language: ‘and I write this down fast/ ’cause the truth’s on the move.’ I know how he feels! Writer/ singer John Elliott has a voice that moves backwards and forwards in his throat to find the right timbre, as well as the right volume, and engages the listener completely in the world of the songs. This is highly creative stuff, and realised with all the skill required by something so subtly ambitious.
Magari - A Crescent Dream (progressive rock/ post-rock)
self released, 2011, DD EP, 20m 13s, $3
Sometimes possessed of the dramatic bombast of its prog roots, and drawing its stylistic features from all over, this music mainly takes the textural approach characteristic of post-rock. It most resembles the traditional sounds of progressive rock on ‘Oceans Away’, the third movement of this three part composition, particularly in the lead keyboard parts. There are also elements of metal throughout, with some crunchy, rhythmic riff-craft, but curiously it never sounds heavy, so much as propulsive. I think that’s characteristic of this band: they employ a variety of recognisable stylistic features, but not in an obvious way, and without necessarily buying into the assumptions that come with them. This music is never about showing off, never about being a guitar hero, never in fact about anything except arranging a set of musical materials to develop an involving long form narrative.
I suspect this discipline, and the almost reticent approach to performance, is the reason for the music’s resemblance to post-rock, rather than any intention or direct influence. Prog rock is associated with noodling, and many of its fans enjoy a good, long chops-fest of a guitar solo, but there is no noodling here whatsoever. The album is introduced by what I take to be a synthesizer string sound, droning on a low note, from which emerges the first guitar texture; after the whole of its dramatic narrative, its huge range of dynamics, textures, sounds, melodies, vocals, its wide ranging journey, it returns to the same place. Some might find that circularity depressing, or indicative of a lack of creative progress, but to me this music tells a story (even without having listened closely to the lyrics), and it’s a story that like so many real stories, and so many real journeys, ends at home. This sense of cyclicity can be heard in the details of the music as well as its overarching structure.
There are some very engaging melodies and chord progressions in this recording, which frequently take unexpected turns in a way that is never jarring, but almost always moving, with a sense of warmth, if somewhat melancholy as well. In fact, that’s just the impression this record left me with: one of warmth. It has an enveloping and quite densely mixed soundstage, where nothing is unduly prominent; I take that as another token of the lack of ego that informs the EP. Much progressive rock is built, to my ear, on an empty technicalism, a creatively bankrupt obsession with musical cleverness: this is motivated by Magari’s sincere desire to share the great sounds they have found.
Echo Rain - ‘Hold On’ and ‘Bad Guys’ (alternative pop-rock)
self released, 2010, DD tracks, free
Echo Rain picked two tracks to send me, although there are several more on their Facebook page: one of the two reviewed here, ‘Hold On’, has a download button. The first thing I’ll say is that this is beautifully recorded and mixed, with some really juicy instrumental sounds: there’s a bass fill in ‘Hold On’ at around 2:20 where the tone fairly sings. The songs are very melodic with a sing-song quality, and the band texture is pretty heavy, although not brutally so; the arrangements are varied and creative, with passages of counterpoint vocal, and a dramatic use of dynamics. There’s a discipline here, with a good awareness of how to project the material to best effect. The sound is all about high energy and heartfelt emotion: to my ear it’s not hugely distinctive, but the technical standards are remarkably high, from songwriting, through instrumental and vocal performances, to production. Without something a little more controversial or quirky about their approach I think they’ll need the support of a label or brand to find an audience, but this stuff is radio ready, so they could definitely look into licensing and synchronisation. My conclusion? A bit generic, but highly accomplished.