By Michael McCall
Of all the emotions, longing is one of the most difficult to express in music--but it's also one of the most beautiful to hear. Two of my favorite pop albums of 1997, Lori Carson's Everything I Touch Runs Wild and Lamb's self-titled debut, strike resonant chords because of how honestly and openly the performers reveal their longing for love, happiness, and deliverance. In the process, both artists create a distinctly original and personal musical language.
Everything I Touch Runs Wild concerns a restless, self-critical woman's yearning for a tranquillity that she can never quite achieve. Set to sweetly mournful acoustic arrangements, Carson's songs are unguarded and as hushed as a wounded whisper. Lamb's collection, on the other hand, finds singer Louise Rhodes losing herself in the sensual rhythms of life. She manages to add an erotic tenderness to partner Andrew Barlow's electronic arrangements by opening up the music with spare, unpredictable rhythmic changes and splashes of melodic beauty.
Different as their records may be, both Carson and Lamb long for deliverance from heartache and desperation. Carson's sensitive nature impels her to reel from every slight life deals her--no matter how familiar loss and humiliation have become to her. Rhodes, however, finds bliss in the same places that Carson finds anguish. Even in "Merge," in which a mother talks to an unborn child that she desperately wanted but lost, Rhodes manages to transcend her own remorse. Carson's songs suggest she'd never be able to let go of the guilt and grief such an experience would bring.
What ties these albums together is how artfully they represent the personalities and peculiarities of their creators. Both singers long for the same things, but because of who they are, they wind up taking entirely different routes in their journeys of desire. The two women do share a perceptive sense of themselves and a keen ability to express what they feel. And in the end, their music turns out to be as important as their words in putting their feelings across effectively.
Everything I Touch Runs Wild is Carson's third solo album. Both 1990's Shelter and 1995's Where It Goes were compelling collections, but the new album suggests that she has only recently found the best musical setting for her highly personal songwriting. On her 7-year-old debut, Carson's lyrical delicacy and vocal fragility were often overwhelmed by Hal Willner's dense production. Anton Fier, who produced the second solo album, proved more supportive but still heavy-handed at times.
Until recently, Carson's best work could be heard not on her own records, but on those by the Golden Palominos, a group featuring Fier and a revolving lineup of vocalists. On 1993's This Is How It Feels and on 1994's Pure, Carson had the freedom to indulge her eccentricities rather than trying to shape them to fit a commercial formula. Her work on the Palominos' records suggested she had a great album in her--Everything I Touch Runs Wild proves it.
Carson's confessional style comes out of the well-trampled acoustic singer-songwriter genre. To her credit, she manages to move beyond the clichs of the self-indulgent urban folkie, primarily through her unusual vocal phrasing and through the unusually textured strings, piano, and horns that underscore her acoustic guitar work. Much of the new album was recorded in a bedroom of her New York apartment; perhaps the comfortable surroundings freed her to slip into fresh territory. Her phrasing is laconic and bittersweet, as if she's seducing a lover while whispering disarming personal truths into his ear.
Revealing herself in such a breathy, bold manner only makes Carson sound more fragile; there's a sense of dangerous abandon that surrounds those who expose themselves so openly to others. "I've seen so many doctors, I don't believe in them," she confesses in her airy soprano at the start of "Whole Heart." "I've never had anybody worth a damn, and I don't know why I am the way I am. But I'm so sick of being the way I am." In print, these lines may sound dolefully cavalier and self-aggrandizing, but Carson conveys them with a sense of playful revelation, as if she were able to open up and share her feelings for the first time. Rather than wanting to slap her and tell her to straighten up, the listener wants to embrace her, to encourage her to acknowledge her most vulnerable feelings.
As despondent as it sounds, Carson's album comes across as honest. Her songs flow with revelation and wonder, and they have a way of making her longings almost palpable. In the end, hers are whispered torch songs; she's a sort of end-of-the-century Billie Holiday offering evocative music for overcast days or quiet evenings of reflection and romance.
Lamb's album may sound different from Carson's, but it has a similar effect on the listener. While most electronic music aims for the flesh rather than the heart, this English duo is far more concerned with romance than with danceability. Gliding sensually over inventive beats, Lamb's music flows with a sense of erotic longing and tender desire; it's about intimacy rather than community.
Like Carson on her latest collection, Lamb creates its own sonic palette: Barlow breaks the beats into moody tempo changes, then colors the songs with careful lines of melody and broad brushes of dissonance. String arrangements employ traditional harmonic elements, then erupt into avant-garde cacophony. Rhodes' vocals lend the music an ethereal quality, yet there's an immediacy in her phrasing that makes the songs bright and passionate.
Lamb is more than the latest rivulet in a stream of techno and ambient bands emerging out of England. Like the best in any generation of music-makers, the duo transforms a trendy idiom to fit its own needs, injecting freshness and personality into the mix. Closer in ambition to Bjork and Portishead than to Moby or the Chemical Brothers, Lamb ultimately pushes pop music in a new direction. From the sensual "Lusty" to the dark explorations of "Merge" to the unmistakable love offering of the European club hit "Gorecki," Lamb brings underground music into the sunlight without compromising its integrity.
Purists will denigrate Lamb--innovation never goes uncriticized--but the record will resonate long after our hype-driven pop culture has moved on to the next big thing. By infusing a current musical movment with new ideas and heartfelt feelings, Lamb has the potential to transcend both its time and place. Just like Lori Carson, the duo creates a language of its own. In the end, that's what most artists long for but few accomplish.
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