I first met Leila Adu at this year’s URB Alt Festival and was immediately struck by her bold approach to song structure. It’s not that she throws out pop song structure, but that she’s not neccesarily constrained by it. In the course of my thinking about this album, I came across this review that URB Alt’s Boston Fielder wrote, and, in the case of Leila’s album, it’s better, more thorough than anything I’d have come up with. Read on and check out her song “Wolfmen” at the end of the review.
Hel. Daughter of Loki. Queen of the Underworld. Under the
headphones you can feel her seductively walking towards you.
Leila Adu’s ambitious solo album “Dark Joan” opens with “Helfire” an a cappella
song showcasing the multi-octave artist bellowing like an angry town crier
warning listeners away from a life of apathy and greed. It is a very dramatic
entre to the London born and New Zealand bred Adu’s powerful third album.
Produced with analog warmth by Steve Albini, the legendarily principled
producer of PJ Harvey, Nirvana and Helmet et. al, “Dark Joan” exists
in some dark yet playful purgatory between jazz, rock, classical and pop. Armed
simply throughout the rest of the album with a supple voice, sharpened lyrical
sword and various pianos/organs, Adu’s “Helfire” serves as a fascinating
harbinger of the many musical challenges to come.
“Ode to the Unknown Factory Worker” storms in with piercing organ stabs
alluding to the rhythms of industrial machines cranking away. The sound of the
organ dangerously distorting while Adu sings “Still got my teeth and my 9 pairs
of shoes” adds just enough edge to let one know that despite the minimalist
instrumentation this will not be a Yanni experience. The song is
anti-materialist but Adu is no rosey idealist as she questions her connection
to the common man by punctuating each passage with a sarcastic “Oh, am I
“Moment of Peace” is a quirky meditation on surrendering to technology. A gently
unfolding chord progression allows Adu to reflect on the greener pastures of
her birth while whispering “ego is causing me pain/allow me one moment to
forget my name.” Before the silence can be claimed the piano explodes into
a paranoid loop where she mutters in a detached monotone voice “Please press
one” multiple times. “Moment of Peace” is somewhat cynical, yes, but really is
there anyone out there who disagrees with Adu’s belief that automated answering
“Dark Joan” appropriates the heroic persona of
Joan of Arc as divine inspiration to fight for the rights of the innocent and
abandoned among us. A frantically repetitive harpsichord figure opens the song
navigated by Adu casually chanting “I’ll go by myself if I have to.” The
social commentary becomes more pronounced as she pounds blocks of dissonant
chords in counterpoint to the established pattern. This section of the song is
accented by the provocative lyrics “I can fight with needle and a thread/Words
and voices impaling your head/All the King’s horses and all the King’s
men/without love in your heart/your finery won’t defend your soul.” Shortly
after declaring that there is “no time to waste your potential at the mall” Adu
chooses to multi-track her vocals until they are a wailing army of mythological
Sirens luring the greedy haplessly to their death at sea. Yeah, I’m reaching
for imagery but I dug the title track a lot, dadgummit.
“Wolfmen” is by far the most aggressively rhythmic song on the album. The way
Adu attacks the keyboard would make Little Richard scream “Shut Up!” with a
gleeful smile on his face. Indeed, “Wolfmen” fairly catches the spirit in its
connection to the primordial origins of rock n roll. Yet the song is not a pop
throwaway at all as evidenced by the lyrics “Houses burning/my feet are not/My
skirts are burning/my feet are not/My world is churning/My butter is not.” The
lyrics impart that the advances of Western Civilization have so unraveled the
fabric of our lives with construction, technology and big media that we are due
for a purging of sorts. The purging officially begins at the 1:54 mark when Adu
opens the music up into an ambient piano wash. Her resplendent soprano delivery
of the line “A love that never dies” during this passage of “Wolfmen” ties her
to the wonderful vocal legacies of Josephine Baker, Arooh Lemeen, Rosemary
Clooney, Ella Fitzgerald and Roy Orbison. Adu’s phrasing here is THE MOMENT
that makes “Dark Joan” as a collection of songs magical for me.
“Stop Me Now” feels like a steady climb up the side of a mountain covered in
sheets of glass. It doesn’t so much move forward as it slides through the
changes until it climaxes with the solemn words “doesn’t seem fair to
leave/when I can still remember.”
The sublime ballad “Naïve” closes the album elegantly by
declaring that no matter our circumstances we are never truly alone or damned
to our current status. The words delicately capture the tenuous dance between
love and forgiveness by stating “We are naïve to believe/we can love only one./How
can creation be captured/in only one hand?” “Naive” is a beautifully
melodic and soulful showcase for Adu’s command of subtle operatic vocal
techniques and emotive piano playing. It is also easily my favorite song on the
album due to it’s enduring simplicity.
My musical tastes have always inclined towards compositions
that start one way and evolve into an entirely different vibration by songs
end. Leila Adu has filled “Dark Joan” with several dark gems that will reward
the expectations of the patient listener. It tickles me to imagine Steve
Albini’s reactions to her penchant for tossing aside formulaic pop music rules.
No matter how far afield Adu goes, however, there is an internal logic and
sense of humor in place that errs on the side of hummable melodies. Her work
practically begs to be engaged in a live hall setting with Pilobolus movement
artists, Takayuki Fujimoto theatrical lighting, Shirin Neshat video imagery and
a banging libretto.
Helfire on Broadway or at The Met anyone?
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