Carla Bozulich has never been an easy listen. Over two
decades, the most accessible LP the former front-woman for 90s’ cult favorites
Ethyl Meatplow and The Geraldine Fibbers has made is a marvelously skewed
rendition of Willie Nelson’s The Red-Headed Stranger. Even the Fibbers’
most accessible work, Lost Somewhere
Between the Earth and My Home, ravaged listeners with brutal aural assaults
after lulling them in with twang-rock sections.
Her career in Evangelista – now the trio of Bozulich,
bassist Tara Barnes and keyboardist/sound manipulator Dominic Cramp –has been even
more challenging, as the singer/songwriter drags the blues-forms at the core of
her music further and further into the avant-garde. On Evangelista (2006) and Hello,
Voyager (2008), Bozulich blended quiet moments with explosions of rock-based
noise, pushing the contrasts forward like a deranged preacher. Here, the nine
tracks smolder without combusting, creating a tension-filled atmosphere of sinister
textures over which Bozulich creaks and moans tales of sexual obsession and
madness. It’s certainly creepy, but not always effective.
Guitars are mostly an afterthought here, though guests Nels
Cline, Sam Mickens and Shahzad Ismaily all play them at one point or another –
almost always in a support role, though. Instead, the songs are mostly built on
strange and skeletal contrabass melodies, with hazy synth textures or muffled
percussion adding to the tension. With little resembling traditional song
structures, the formats quickly unsettle.
But it’s Bozulich’s voice – a blend of Thalia Zedek’s
smoke-ravaged growl and PJ Harvey’s desperate whisper — that really controls
the tenor of the songs. On opener “Artificial Limb,” over Mickens’ insistent guitar
strums and some synth-bass rumbles, her cracked and quivering vocals seem on
the verge of breaking into moon-baying howls throughout. Her vocals are so
sexual on “Black Jesus” that genuflection becomes an erotic act (“get down on
your knees, baby,” she snarls), and over beautifully bowed bass lines on “Bells
Rings Fire,” Bozulich’s smoldering choruses – “I can hear the bells ring fire/I
can hear the bells ringing in my head” – read like the last semi-coherent
thoughts of a madwoman.
There’s something elemental going on here, as though
Bozulich were trying to conjure up something ancient and primal – and then kill
it. With its lumbering pace, muffled gourds-percussion and wheezing organ, the
title track finds Bozulich chanting more than singing as though in ancient ritual;
on “Die Alone,” over jazz-flavored bass and vibes whose queer melody undercut
the instrument’s charm, processed Native American-like chants contrast with
verses that equate lost-love with death, closing the record’s thematic circle.
This isn’t always a pleasant path to navigate, and there are
several moments when you wish musical fire – a grand crescendo, an explosion of
feedback, even a full-blown chorus — would ignite for catharsis of some kind.
But the only moment really resembling one is the final track, “Hatching.”
Unfortunately, its noise and chaos is built around the first appearance of any
drums; by putting them at the center of the song the contrast with what’s come
before is more jarring than cathartic. In the end, though there are sublime
moments on In Animal Tongue, the
language of these insular and dark songs does not always translate well.
Ring Fire, Hands of Leather – JOHN SCHACHT