16 January 2011

Clara Engel

This should have been posted months ago!

I will admit first that I discovered Clara Engel late in the game and am still wrapping my head around many of her poetic metaphors. But that is the rub: this is poetry set to music. Let me be more specific: these are not poetic lyrics; these are powerful poems set to music. Combining elements of folk, jazz, blues, and standard pop, her music flutters (at times) and rushes (at other times) from one cathartic experience to another. The main instrument is always her voice. Actually, there are songs that her voice many not sonically drown out the other instruments, but in your reception of the song will only be haunted by her voice. It is one of those powerful, distinct female voices – like Bush, Lang, Lennox, MacNarland – that carry so much visceral power and lyrical curiosity.

An independent artist, free from the shackles of corporate intervention in the direction of her music; this freedom is paid for my not having the promotional capital that labels are able to offer. So below is a mini-review / description of each release in her discography; if curiosity gets the best of you, you should head to the bandcamp site (link below) and preview and buy her music.

Jump the Flame (February 2004)

Four tracks, twenty-seven minutes, these are gorgeously poetic lyrics: “All the cherries bleed for you / my mouth is full of sores / a sick sweetness hangs / on my breath / like a drunken lizard panting fire” (“All The Cherries”). As you may gather, this is not a collection of upbeat, mindless, throwaway pop. Highly introspective, using music to accent the visceral power of the lyrics, this is a collection of beautifully haunting songs. What makes these songs so contemplative is their air of ambivalence. Though set to a consistent emotional range musically, the four songs do not dwell on specifics. Lyrically avoiding all clichés, the metaphors are new and fresh, open to a world of interpretive possibilities: “I wish I was the absinthe drinking man, in a lethal blue” (“Absinthe Drinking Man”).

Track Listing:
1. Charcoal Morning
2. All The Cherries
3. Black Licorice
4. Absinthe Drinking Man

“Clara Engel” (April 2006)

“Landscapes fly away, I stare at my fingers and sleep is far away, father than Portugal when I am far away” (“Farther Than Portugal”) – Engel brings brooding to all whole new level with this collection of seven tracks. Increasing her range of musical references; for instance, “Whip Dance” harkens away from the acoustic feel of her previous music, introducing a dark twist to 90s rock. “Turkish Love Song” revolves around a haunting arpeggio and a metaphor of a metal flower: “I fell asleep and a strange metal flower cut me; I woke up crying, I have nothing left for bleeding…” No drums, keyboard and vox effects in the background, the song truly carries on the tradition of the dream poppers and shoegazers who infused the gothic atmospherics to their music.

Track Listing:
1. Black Garlands
2. Farther Than Portugal
3. Whip Dance
4. Turkish Love Song
5. Tabu
6. From Berlin to Broadway
7. Circus Horses

“Cousin Mary EP” (September 2006)

Starting with some French, “Le Passage d’une Vie A l’Autre Vie” demonstrates the sheer dramatic power of Engel’s voice – this is a continued motif throughout the EP. This is most wonderfully done during “A Place in the Sun.” Near a cappella in the beginning, then a gentle piano joining the arrangements for ambience, the drama of longing and desire echoes clearly through her voice: “So hold me in your arms, break a spell that’s held so long; this time I want to be inside, not looking on.”

Track Listing
1. Le Passage d’une Vie A l’Autre Vie [The Passage of One Life to Another]
2. One Wave
3. A Place in the Sun
4. Cousin Mary

“Tender” (March 2008)

Opening with “O My Love Is a Hurricane” – a slow, dark, folky song – the title may imply a harsh song, but instead the song wallows in visceral ambience as Engel sings, “O my love is a hurricane, can’t be collared or chained; o my life is a valley raped by a storming rain.” “Appetite For Pain” follows, and though the minimalist musical arrangements will definitely hook you, it is Engel’s voice that is center stage. There is something about the way she sings this song that is infectious and haunting. Another track that is haunting is the apocalyptic “Illuminate Me.” Minimalist in every sense, Engel’s voice this time borders on being detached and yet captivating in the pain it is orchestrating: “Curly haired cupid you can rest your head, the lovers lie together, dead.”

Track Listing:
1. O My Love Is a Hurricane
2. Appetite For Pain
3. White Elephants
4. How Many Horses
5. O Sailor
6. Margarita’s Got Limousines
7. Illuminate Me
8. The Opium Song
9. Forsake You
10. Narcissus Mad For Power
11. Hard To Get To Heaven
12. Why For An Hour
13. I Wear Your Coat
14. Do You Know How It Is?

“Secret Beasts” (December 2009)

The albums name made me scratch my head. It hadn’t seemed that there were any secrets in her music, and the music is definitely not “beastly.” So exactly what was the angle here? I think it hit me when I listened to the fourth track, “To Be Without,” which reminded me of the Stockholm syndrome – “I don’t want mercy to be sweet, I want the sting of your deceit, the one that drags my pride on its knees is the one that I’m loving.” The secrets here are those obvious things in life that we either take for granted or are ashamed to admit, and, therefore, don’t bother to articulate. For instance, wanting to “feel you up” (“Old Fashioned Love”) or “faithful lies keep love alive” (“Ghost Opera”) or even “my words are stones cast into the sea” till “I have no words” (“I Have No Words”). Closing with a haunting, near post-punk, acoustic epic, “Chorus of Murderous Bells” is Engel’s most harrowing and haunting song till date. Full of paradoxical, poetic musing (“So let flesh dress my bones till I’m only bones”) and post-punk stream of consciousness (“We smash our bliss with hammers, godhead swells, my love is a chorus of murderous bells”), it is all the distinct fragments of experiences conjoined together that create the visceral power of the lyrics / vocal arrangements, that are accented by the instrumental arrangements, especially the drums.

Track Listing:
1. Break in the Sun
2. Ghost Opera
3. The Beauty of Your Design
4. To Be Without
5. Old Fashioned Love
6. Madagascar
7. I Have No Words
8. Not My Child
9. Like My Fins
10. Angelus Bells
11. Blind Me
12. Chorus of Murderous Bells

“The Bethlehem Tapes” (April 2010)

As per Engel, she was in Bethlehem, PA USA guitarless. She borrowed an old acoustic guitar (from Sarah Shown) and these seven songs started to take form. She states that some of the songs she had carried with her “for a few years,” and there was never the intention of recording an album, but one afternoon it all came together. The music is at its most minimalist, the lyrics at their most poetic, but the maturity and continual mastery of her craft is more than obvious. Musically relying on the interplay of guitar with cello that do not work in tandem, but somehow still create a single visceral effect. Lyrically, the poetry has a stronger narrative quality and a mastered free verse. Whatever clicked that afternoon in Bethlehem was spot on.

Track Listing:
1. Accompanied By Dreams
2. Trembling Dust
3. I Only Bet on the Rain
4. Hole in the Sun
5. Heaven of Leaves
6. Light Years
7. Skywalk to Crescent Town

Here is a clip for “Accompanied by Dreams” from her YouTube Channel: tremblingdust.

"Raphael" (November 2010)

Though released in November of 2010, the music was recorded live at Toronto’s Tapestry New Opera Works on 14 March 2008. The opening piano notes on “Raphael” are chilling, which sets you up for the following lyrics, “O Raphael, I want to drown you in the wishing well, I want to set you free.” Not only does the chilling piano continue to play throughout the song, again the poetical paradox, this time of drowning and being free – without all the doom and gloom, she engages that old poetic tradition of freedom in death. The song that will get your attention is “Love Is Egyptian in Her Bones.” The piano arrangements are playful, with a jazzy-pop to them. The song muses about what is love, and at one point Engel sings, “go ask Jezebel, ask Joan of Arc” – two of the strangest allusions to make. On the surface, a Phoenician princess and a Catholic saint, but dig a bit deeper and I get it: love can be a false prophet or the cause of martyrdom.

Track Listing:
1. Raphael
2. Poplar Tree
3. Bloodthirsty Doves
4. Love Is Egyptian In Her Bones
5. Chorus of Murderous Bells
6. Travailler C’est Trop Dur [Work Is Too Hard]

Here is a clip of “Raphael” from her YouTube Channel: tremblingdust.

Keep up with Clara Engel at MySpace and Bandcamp, where you can preview and purchase her music.

1 comment:

  1. Clara appears also on the album "A Day In The Life Of Brian Wilson" by Phallus Dei.