CD Review: Amy X Neuburg & the Cello ChiXtet – The Secret Life of Subways
Bay area avant chanteuse Amy X Neuburg’s new album the Secret Life of Subways (picked up by the boundary-busting Starkland label for distribution) is disjointed, it’s rhythmically pretty much impossible to follow and for that matter pretty much impossible to follow at all unless you have headphones on. It’s also funny, and it tells a story. It’s a very ambitious, dizzying ride with a distinctly 80s feel, evocative of the first years when the avant garde was trying on a punk ethos and the line between new wave and experimental got fuzzier and fuzzier. “I’m a Vaseline lens girl,” Neuburg announces, and she’s not kidding. She may sing with a dramatic, operatic delivery but it’s never clear where she’s going – which is part of the fun. Backed by the Cello ChiXtet – Jessica Ivry, Elaine Kreston and Elizabeth Vandervennet – she creates a loosely thematic series of surreal, theatrical, Bowie-esque vignettes and epics, some harsh and aggressive, others ambient and atmospheric to the point of wooziness.The music matches the lyrics, often in an extreme fashion, accentuating the weirdness or unease of the storyline – although just as frequently it can be comedic.
“I can’t spill this one because everybody would drown,” Neuburg states emphatically as the story begins, alternately ambient and insistently staccato. “Do not lean on the doors or you might lose your focus,” which more than telegraphs the plot, if you’re paying attention. “Too many brokers in here, too many deals on the line.” The cellos grow menacing, and Neuburg hits her octave pedal for a horror movie effect.
“Everyone knows that beautiful is the opposite of smart,” she rails cynically as the strings rise to meet her on the third track, the understatedly titled, Kate Bush-inflected Difficult. The story continues with the apprehensively scurrying, disassociative Someone Else’s Sleep and then follows a crescendo to a catchy, somewhat haunting circular theme on The Gooseneck, a series of cynical stream-of-consciousness observations on conspicuous consumption. She hits a stunning faux-Broadway vocal coda on This Loud, brings things down for the baroque-themed Be Careful and then carefully enunciates the menace and exasperation of Body Parts, a requiem that works on several levels. The somewhat self-explanatory Dada Exhibit is actually more coherent than it would seem, a study in sudden rhythmic shifts with a vividly cinematic string interlude and a funny pun at the end. The cd closes with its centerpiece, Shrapnel, a deliberately out-of-focus eulogy for a dead relationship floating on layers of vocals and an eerie choir of processed, disembodied voices at the end. There’s a sort of bonus track here, an imaginative, absolutely spot-on cover of Back in NYC by Genesis which while it resembles Rasputina far more than Peter Gabriel, maintains and even heightens the nonplussed, confrontational vibe of the original. It’s an apt choice, because fans of prime-era art-rock like The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway ought to go for this album as much as the Bang on a Can crowd will. Watch this space for NYC dates.
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