15.7.09

he loved me

Though we admit it or not, all of us have unexamined assumptions when it comes to listening to popular music, and many of these often meet at that effervescent point of the singing voice which, since the advent of mechanical sound media, has been the treasured 'sign of life' of a recording, that which we listen for to remind us that what we hear has human origins, indeed, that it comes from the recesses of a specific, individual human body - of which, again, the voice is the mark of. Save for this voice, recordings - and people - are liable to dematerialise into ghostly apparitions, gravestones of an absent presence, for though it devils us to confront the fact, every recorded voice is really an inhuman event, the trace of trauma, of giving oneself over to the apparatus which, in turn, tears the lifeforce from the performer to be magnetised or digitised, edited, mixed, pressed or burnt, then finally distributed into that great ocean of ears. It's a fundamentally inhuman process, but comfort always comes from that thin though crucial membrane stretching through it all, the sonorous human voice.

The singing voice of Azeda Booth is lush with life. It's always the easiest cliché, but this voice is angelic, it is a golden shaft of light piercing the stained glass windows and coming to rest upon the altar. It's impassioned yet ethereal, on the brink of evanescence, and it breathes through the wings of a thousand butterflies. And, above all, on lines like this:

How can you bring yourself to love me
when a hope can die like a body can?
Does it make you weak
when you hear me speak?

From the opener, 'Ran', the voice is ultimately elegaic, mournful, pierced by an unidentifiable sadness. It is this admixture of insistence, purity and melancholy that makes her voice a wholly beautiful one, one that absorbed me from the first line.

***

Though the details are incidental, a note on how I came to Azeda Booth. It was through the meeting of two things: first, I absolutely loved Women's eponymous debut from 2008 and was hungry for more. Second, a friend had recommended anti-folk trio Little Teeth to me, so I hopped on the Absolutely Kosher site to order their album. Whilst there I noticed In Flesh Tones, the debut from Azeda Booth, a band, the little blurb informed me, that featured two members of Women! With that nugget I was sold. I didn't even head to the band's Myspace or download the sample track, I just chucked it straight into my order. Weeks later, the albums arrived, and whilst Little Teeth was good, it was grating and patchy in parts; I found it was In Flesh Tones that I would return to almost daily as time went on, seduced by the strangely sensual nature of its science, the hazy and distant atmospherics juxtaposed with Feels-esque percussion and experiential glitches, but most of all, that voice. Oh (last line, 'Ran').

The hypnotic quality of the album, its gauzy emotional landscapes, were only heightened for me not knowing anything at all about this band, save for the fact two of Women played in it - but the sounds here were so divergent that I could barely draw a line between the two acts. I was without anchor, and I confess, all the more blissful in my ignorance. The songs had weird titles like 'John Cleese' and 'Numberguts', that seemed to suit a punk band more than this detailed, intimate electronica. It was all a happy anamoly, but I knew one thing, and that was enough: I was in love with her voice.

***

Nearly a year had passed with In Flesh Tones, and I hit up webzine cokemachineglow, as I often do, to find about the latest leftfield releases and read the kind of brilliant, insightful commentary the writers offer on the music. I see that Azeda Booth has released a new EP, Tubtrek. Since I had long formed my own special relationship with the band and was safe in the knowledge that whatever the reviewer said about them would do little to dent or divert this affair, I decided to read the review before listening to the EP (which is freely available, it turns out) - something I almost always never do. The reviewer was a little worried that the cluttered quality of this recording was a sign of faltering from the band, whom he also admires. I continue on, and get to this:

"the band’s two primary strengths, which were on ample display throughout Tones, were its use of traditional rhythm instrumentation in non-traditional arrangements and Jordon Hossack’s voice twinged androgynous."

Jordon Hassack? Jordon? 'Androgynous'? I 'twinge' myself - it couldn't be? Hang on, there are women with that name; one particularly plastic specimen, but I suppose many others beautiful and waifish and everything like the 'flesh tones' of the body whose voice I had found so pretty listening to Azeda Booth. A slightly panicked trawl through blog posts and other reviews ensued, but the seed had already been planted.

***

Of course, it would emerge in the course of my research that indeed, the luscious voice I had been hearing on In Flesh Tones was that of a man, Jordon Hassock, who has an uncanny ability to hit those kind of high, 'head voice' notes in soft and fragile tones that we so often associate with female singers.

Certainly, I could have just made all of this some kind of knowing account of how Azeda Booth cleverly subvert expectations we have when it comes to the gendering of vocal style in pop music whilst still managing to articulate an authentic and attractive voice - placing the band in the history of popular androgynous stylings the likes of Antony Hegarty, David Bowie, etc. And this is certainly true.

Or I could get really aesthetic on the whole thing and just return to my initial musings on the ghost of the recorded voice, and conclude with something like, 'Azeda Booth shows that the voice still has an emotional after-life even beyond the recording, even beyond the particular identity markers (in particular, here, gender) of a voice'. And this, in the end, I think is probably true.

But to end here, on either of these points, would amount to little more than a slight, a pitiful sidestepping of what's really the matter, because the revelation, and its consequences, is far more personal than this philosophical posturing. Because the nub of it is about what I have to come to terms with as a listener, as a man who had fallen in love with another man, or his voice, and as someone who most often wanders through his life, infinitely tolerant and compassionate in words, but securely heteronormative inside. For all my professed enlightenment about sexuality as performance, the funngibility of sexual codes, the queering of the voice, I still clung (still do?) to the principle that what hits me first is what it is, that what sounds like a woman is a woman, and moreover that her being a woman grants me a more romantic relationship to the music. It's easy to be anti-essentialist in theory, much less in reality.

I don't write this as some kind of clawing confessional or as evidence of my now enlightened state ('If my outlook is heteronormative, at least I know it is' - I find this possibly even more offensive). I certainly have not resolved whatever issues the Azeda Booth revelation dredged up for me, and I am left wondering if my attitudes have at all been changed by this, or only momentarily shaken.

It's still an intense moment in my listening life, and I guess what I was most afraid of upon learning about Jordon was that the specialness of Azeda Booth - well, to be honest, the idea of Azeda Booth, whatever Azeda Booth means to me - might be tainted, that I would constantly be left psychoanalysing my reactions to the music or trying to pick out the masculinity or just being generally disoriented whenever I played In Flesh Tones. I think it's a credit to the band, and to Hassock's vocal ability in particular, that I have since had none of these issues, because when I hear those emerging strains of 'Ran' I find myself flung back into the otherworld that is their music, where, really, everything is nebulous but at the same time beautiful.

Wet strands of hair drift into pink hills and dales, the soft skin of a lover burbles about in electric tones, the feather doona is a pillow of synth washes, the burst of a marble's bounce coming closer to the wooden desk - pick it up, it's an iris. When I'm embedded in the flesh of this world, I tend not to think about the hands or mouths that crafted and breathed life into it, let alone whether they are man or woman. If, at times, I do wonder who is behind this, it is truly an angel I see, Gabriel, that eternal androgyne, whose sex might only be revealed as in a dream.

And I'm still in love with his voice.

5 riffs:

Andrew said...

I'm as stunned as you were to find out that Azeda Booth is voiced by a male. I'm listening to them now and trying, but I can't picture anything other than a waifish summerdress. Whatever the implications for my heteronormative self-image/gender-positioning, I suspect that my brain will choose to forget this piece of information.

If it's alright with you, I think I'd like to riff for a while on the theme of Little Teeth. (**I am the one who recommended them to our illustrious blogmaster, for any stranger reading this desirous of continuity.)
I feel so attached to the trio that I feel like it's my duty to answer the articulation of the specialness you find in Azeda Booth with one in kind for Little Teeth, from (and for) me. It's almost certainly pretty foolish impulse, and I don't mean for a second to imply that it's a competition (God, even typing that felt dirty), but my guts are drawing me hither, so thither.

You talk about the human voice as a 'sign of life', as a way of assuring ourselves that, no matter how pristine and alien the sounds get, there's still an intrinsic human element guiding the ship.
To me, Little Teeth are *only* signs of life. They're so human they're spinning ~ so human they've already fallen down. That record's ferocious, daft enthusiasm overwhelms me ~ it beholdens and endears humanity to me by just... jumping in puddles.

Some music makes humanity seem transcendable, or like conduits for far greater beauties and truths than could ever be totally of our own making. "Child Bearing Man" does the exact opposite -- and it does it like a contrary child, too, with its tongue sticking out and its pants down. The grubby pawprints of human beings are toted with such pride, sticky-pressed onto the off-white flag of a new, and dumb, and totally awesome nation that's been here the whole damn time.

I fully own (and I think that Dannie & Andy & Ammo would too) that their music is indeed grating and patchy in parts. Maybe I don't mind because whose life isn't?

It's not 'raw' and it's not consciously 'lo-fi' ~ it's very clearly been laboured over (look at the ending of "Between My Ears" -- how in the fuck do you get something so counterintuitive to sound so shivery and sublime?). And there's no artist-protecting wall to that, either ~ Little Teeth are dancing naked (this is THEM, their TOTAL EFFORT), and their penises are small.

And then, of course, there's that voice. :-D

Lawson said...

Hi Andrew,

Thanks for such a great riff on Little Teeth! I do admit that my evaluation of them above was a little throwaway, and yeah I'm certainly a sucker for sweetness (a la Azeda Booth).

I guess if I had to examine it, I think the reason I have trouble coming back to Little Teeth is the very reasons you articulate - they confront you with life as unaestheticised grit, scatological and yet still somehow beautiful. Just cop that freakish pig/poo/baby thing adorning the disc art, from the MOMENT you open the cover you are confronted with it.

I love your comments on the band, esp. how they are like the opposite of transcendence and how they def. aren't lo-fi, they're compositional masters! It's just they build their building from tears, shit, nails, bones and hair. Azeda Booth use light, skin, clouds, breasts and sighs. Neither is better than the other, and the edifices are monuments to humanity either way.

Lawson said...

ps - start blogging again!

Andrew said...

I love the image of the two monuments.

I can fully understand your reasons for preferring the one built of sweet and sleek (and indeed; in most cases I think I'd tend towards that direction myself), but there's something about this particular other one -- the lopsided tumbledown made out of pigshit & horsehair, of teeth and twine, of livers & heart disease -- that just gets me right where it counts. :-)

(Also ~ start blogging again? Me? When did I ever blog?)

Lawson said...

Ah, so it was your illustrious brethren that was speed grapes? too much brilliance for one family!