Tag Archives: Atlanta (USA)

October 2012 – EP reviews – Leah Banks’s ‘Sincerely’ (“devotion makes us vulnerable”)

18 Oct

Leah Banks: 'Sincerely'

Leah Banks: ‘Sincerely’

Someone you love. Just the thought of them gives you a little catch, right there, under the chest; like a hard kiss or a light blow, reminding you that even when it’s going right, love is never entirely safe.

Devotion makes us vulnerable. You’re never more than a moment from the topple or the stumble, from the interrupted step to the full-force sprawl. That’s what Leah Banks’ songs are like. They don’t need much amplification beyond their feather-soft country-folk shapes and the superb, subtle brush-drum work that stokes them (more like the breath and sinews of a jazz master than the shed-whack of honky-tonk). They’ve got their own transporting power, their own risk, wrapped up in the hush.

Riverside, the first song on Leah’s ’Sincerely’ EP, has the panting pitch of the Song of Solomon. A coil of eroticism rises up like a sacrament via a thudflutter rush of muted acoustic guitar, heartbeat bass and swimming cello. The words are breathless and obsessive – “I can’t wait to see you, to look upon your face / I’ll dive into your adoring eyes and hang on every word you say. / And I can’t wait to feel you, to be held in your arms – / one hand resting on the small of my back, and the other round my neck.”

Leah’s delivery is a tense urgent moan, stretching and bending phrases, pushing against the metre as if it were clothes that suddenly felt too hot and too tight. There’s a touch of Sinead O’Connor in her fervour as she rides the buried complexities of female desire, poised between a caress and a snap, between devotion and greedy hunger. “Lover, please hurry, / I’m not sure how long I’ll last, / waiting here by the riverside, / my breath is wasted on the wind and waves, / when it should be dwelling in a kiss… / I’ll press into your chest as the wind blows my dress / and steal warmth from your presence.” Towards the end, there’s a little lacuna of drop-away. The song vanishes for a second, then gusts back into place. “The water is rushing, and without you here / I think I might fall in,” Leah warns. There’s been a change in the climate. Ignore it at your own risk.

That hint of the Song of Solomon lingers in the mind: while Leah’s own spiritual beliefs are never stated, all three of the songs on ‘Sincerely’ could have a religious cast. The grit and carnality in them don’t have to be a barrier. If we’re following this line of thought, consider the steamy metaphor in the ecstacy of Saint Theresa, or, closer to now, Al Green singing “Belle – oh, it’s you I want, but it’s Him I need.” The blend of the holy and the earthbound-but-urgent is no new thing – it’s what lets gospel tug at the hearts of secular people, and what lends that numinous shiver to country, to blues and indeed to anything which reaches out of the mess in the hope of finding something higher. Leah herself is telling without telling, although ambiguous clues flicker through the songs.

In contrast to the feverish pulse of longing in Riverside, The Only One is a confessional. “I wish I could stop my eyes from wandering / and keep my mind from its hungering,” Leah sings, in a regretful insomniac sigh. “Listen, the struggle makes me weak – / now I can hardly stand on my feet.” A tattoo of snare and acoustic guitar sets the reflective pace, while a mandolin (and an occasional brush of banjo) draws slow, colourful paper hoops around the chorus. At the kernel, the song might be about keeping faith, and the sometime bitterness of submitting to it: “How long will I drink from this cup? / Maybe I should just give up, / give up trying to fight it out, / give up trying to live without doubt.”

At one point Leah craves to return to a time “before our hearts were involved”, suggesting a lovers wrangle; yet throughout the song’s soft bourbon haze she leaves the surface meaning blurred. It could be about straying from religious devotion; it could just be a lonely kitchen-table song as Leah tries to scrape herself up off the floor one wretched and heart-sore night. There’s reproach in here, and somewhere there’s a reckoning to be had; but it’s never quite clear who’s to blame, or even if she’s blaming anyone. “And how does it feel to be the only one standing? / and how does it feel to be the only one left?” she sings, with a touch of asperity, before settling on a conclusion which weaves not through what’s happened, but through what’s going to happen next. “Lets go back to the beginning, / bring it back to the start. / I won’t do it again now – / this time I’ll do it right.”

Blame is easier to pin down in the final song on ‘Sincerely’: its title track. Carried along on a light and rolling road-pulse of guitar (which, along with the restless jazzy jabs of vocal, echoes Joni Mitchell’s reflective road-burned floats on ‘Hejira’), Leah holds her own hands up in admission. “I know I said I would, but what if I can’t?” she asks. “Sometimes I say things without even thinking, / sometimes I jump the gun.” In flight from somewhere, in flight to something, honesty is being pressed out of her with every roll of the wheels; although she doesn’t claim to have cured her failings. In her apology, there’s a blunt statement of self-knowledge. “There’s a sinking in my heart, / I know that I have failed you. / I just didn’t see it coming / and you never warned me, / so, / well, I could say I’m sorry, and I would be sincere. / I could try harder next time, but I would still be here.”

Even with guilt admitted and delivered, and even hoping to be saved and forgiven by love, there’s still grit in Leah; enough for her to throw her own challenge out into the confession. Once again, the lines blur in the song – lover, saviour, self. “I know that you love me – so where are you now? she “Make yourself known – / no, make yourself heard.” Perhaps she’s hoping, like Jacob, to encounter her angel on the road and to wrestle some meaning out of him. I suspect that she won’t settle for less. A woman of heart and mind, by any measure.

Leah Banks: ‘Sincerely’
Inus Records (no catalogue or barcode)
Download-only EP
Released: 16th October 2012

Get it from:
Noisetrade

Leah Banks (Leah Freeman) online:
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December 2002 – album reviews – Various Artists: ‘House of Stairs Volume 1: Useless in Bed’ compilation (“happily balanced on the rougher brinks and fringes”)

4 Dec

Various Artists: 'House of Stairs Vol. 1 - Useless in Bed'

Various Artists: ‘House of Stairs Vol. 1 – Useless in Bed’

Placing yourself on faultlines, rather than easily marketable turf, brings risks but inspiration – ask a San Franciscan. That the three London art-rock bands who originally set up the House of Stairs label (The Monsoon Bassoon, Geiger Counter, and Ursa) have all now split or mutated into something else is perhaps proof of both.

Regardless, ‘Useless In Bed’ – the first House of Stairs release – is a declaration of brotherhood. Compiling the work of musicians dwelling on various faultlines (though still mostly centred on London art-rock, it also takes in music from Chicago, Atlanta and Bordeaux), it both defines the edges of prog, jazz, art-rock, hardcore, electronica, folk, improv and noise rock, or encourages people to spill across them.


 
Hard-rocking math-proggers Foe – sprung from the wreckage of Geiger Counter – offer the most urgent track. ‘Triangulator’ is full of furious refracting guitar lines over Crawford Blair’s piano-growl of bass. For six minutes it swings, chops, drops down trapdoors, executes perverse King Crimson leaps between mordantly grim chords, and savages minor keys like The 5uu’s on far too much coffee. Geiger Counter’s posthumous statement is ‘Drink Your Milk’ – less obviously wired than ‘Triangulator’, it still carves up its grunge-y math riffs with heavy enthusiasm, embracing sweeter interludes of short-lived luminous peace as it does so. Nouveau Metal is spreading…

The Monsoon Bassoon‘s own posthumous offering is a explosive and complicated song from when their mingling of Henry Cow and gamelan-Crimson art-rock ran full tilt into their love of American alt.rockers like Shudder To Think. The psychedelic squeal of guitars on ‘Stag’ marches from plateau to jagged plateau in a skirl of trippy flute and meshing riffs, held together by the band’s tight discipline.


 
These days various Bassooners have regrouped in Miss Helsinki, who deliver a sparkling piece of progressive pop called ‘I Felt Your Arms Around Me’. Less surreal than most Bassoon confections, it’s still an acid-flavoured love song whose rattling good XTC jangle and tootling clarinets don’t stop it hurtling delightedly into a complex, storm-tossed middle section in which they see just how much you can rock the train without slinging it off the rails.

 
If you’d prefer to stick with the Bassoon’s skronkier legacy, Chicago’s Sweep the Leg Johnny are still juggling that torch. With the superb ‘Only in a Rerun’, they’re obviously on a roll – it’s a rich mixture of harsh Schizoid Man tones and flamboyant jazz-metal attack from the raw husky wail of Steve Sostak’s alto sax and Chris Daly’s bloodthirsty roar of guitar, tossing Sostak’s airy vocal like a bull tossing a skinny matador. Slewing between dEUS busyness and violent post-Slint minimalism, this is a rough bareback ride to put a wicked smile on your face.


 
Manic Glaswegian pranksters Lapsus Linguae provide ‘Olestra (There’s Only One Drinking Fountain in Heaven)’. A stab of theatrical art-metal somewhere between Faith No More and Beck (with a Resident eyeballing it from the director’s chair) it has all you need to storm the castle of pomp. There’s a man called Penelope Collegefriend singing in a rampant bellow like a punk Freddie Mercury; there’s an inexplicable strings break and a rolling piano line continually chopped off with guillotine precision; there are namechecks for Hermann Hesse and Charlton Heston, and choicely bizarre lyrics like “More I eat, the hungrier I feel – / I lick menus, ignore the meals.”


 
Holding up the genteel-er proggie end are the whimsical and witty projects of the Larcombe brothers. With ‘Sand (Blowing About)’, Stars in Battledress provide a beautiful dance of fluent piano and autoharp: but beyond the divertimento prettiness, James Larcombe leads the duo through eddies of suggestive Debussyan chords.

Richard Larcombe goes on to turn in a conceptual tease on Defeat the Young‘s wonderful ‘I’m Ruining Something’ – an absurdist essay on the corruptions of power which blends Gentle Giant with Lewis Carroll and Stravinsky. Larcombe greets his ensemble of actors, trombone, and full-blown operatic chorus as a lounge-lizard lord of misrule, sighing a manifesto of playful destruction in his arch, refined tones. “I’m recognised as your one sovereign Lord Protector / Trust me – I’ve learned of your country by tape and slide projector. / Each day I’ll go out of my way to spoil, deface and tarnish, / like he who ruins carpentry by swapping glue for varnish.” Oboe, piano and hammer dulcimer float in a dreamy arrangement like an August haze. Apparently there’s a whole album’s worth of this story in the Larcombe shed – ‘The Golden Spike’ – and it’s only one of their dastardly plans.

Both of House Of Stairs’ lo-fi electronica boffins seem to grab inspiration from bargain-bucket electrical goods. Desmotabs create an appealing Stylophone fanfare buzz on ‘Gaseous Exchange at the Alveoli’, let their drum machine go nuts and assault a heart monitor, and squiggle some demented Mini-Moog solos before the entire track melts like a Dali model. Max Tundra (the Frank Zappa of the techno world) continues his marvellous and bizarre mission to fuse hardcore dance music with prog rock. ‘Life in a Lift Shaft’ equals Desmotabs buzz-for-buzz while festooning tough and hilariously uptight Tundra beats with jittery robot piano and fat sub-bass from the tar-pits. Alarm-clocks fly past on tiny wings trying to take bites out of the zany, sunny tune.

The free-er bands – as usual – have a harder time. Gnarly bass-and-drums duo Guapo can be the missing link between ‘Red’ and Ruins when they want to be. However, their grinding ‘Pharoah’ – despite Dave Smith’s excellent Brufordian snarework – is mostly as subtle as a flying breezeblock. Dragging large chunks of pyramid across the desert and insisting that you appreciate each tortuous step, they occasionally snap, shoot off the flywheel and go ape with some fearsome tattoo riffs. Hardcore acoustic fusioneers Cheval de Frise hop up and down with impatience on ‘Chiendents’, banging their heads against their own lo-fi envelope, manically coiling up tighter and tighter acoustic guitar scrabbles against the tussling drums. Compression to destruction, breaking out in wild slashes.


 
And finally there’s the hardcore department, with the recently defunct Ursa demonstrating why they’ll be a sad loss to the British heavy scene. Avoiding hardcore’s usual fixed, deafening riffage and reductive howling, ‘The Blooding’ begins with a studied ponderousness and heaviness which gives way to an inspiring controlled demolition. Galloping punked-up Iron Maiden guitar runs charge under giant toppling riffs, the band dodging falling masonry via nifty turn-on-a-dime spins while losing none of their brute power. American Heritage, likewise, execute proggie timeswitches with rapid and brutal thrash flair, their sound a bleak, bare cliff of thick guitar noise. It’s anyone’s guess as to why they’ve called their track ‘Phil Collins’ – it’s an unlikely tribute, whether it’s aimed square at the Genesis drumstool or at the white-soul crowdpleaser.


 
Anyhow… here’s a house of many doors, happily balanced on the rougher brinks and fringes and demonstrating the breadth of personalities camped out in even one small part of today’s art-rock community. Admirable.

Various Artists: ‘House of Stairs Volume 1: Useless in Bed’
House of Stairs, HOS001 (5030094077829)
CD-only compilation album
Released: 2nd December 2002
Get it from:
(2020 update) best obtained second-hand
 

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