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Yorkston/Thorne/Khan – Little Black Buzzer (2015)
One of the past year’s most successful, left field collaborations is an album called Everything Sacred, uniting (1) the Scottish singer-songwriter James Yorkston; (2) Jon Thorne, long-time bassist for the English trip-hop outfit Lamb; and (3) New Delhi’s Suhail Yusuf Khan, who plays the stringed, short-necked sarangi and sings in a classical Indian style. The result is a beguiling mash-up of British folk and Eastern mysticism, with droney Sufi jams and frilled, intertwining voices.
Little Black Buzzer is the most endearing of the album’s songs, and probably its oddest. The song is a cover, first recorded by Ivor Cutler, and it bears the ink-smudged hallmarks of Cutler’s work: a perfect cadence, irreverent wit, simple wisdom. It’s the story of Morse code operator nursing a chilly rear-end, “sitting…on top of the world,” repeating and repeating the same transmitted message: “Di-di-di-di-di-di-da-di-di-di-di-di-da-da-da.” Or, in English, “Here I am.”
For this version, Yorkston sings his Morse in harmony with Lisa O’Neill, an Irish singer with a bit of that Billie Holiday creak. The two of them are just preposterous enough, their silliness undercut by wonderful, briny strings: cello-like sarangi and nyckelharpa, plus Thorne’s plucked double-bass. Just as you feel you’ve figured the song out, Yorkston and O’Neill pass the microphone to Khan. He closes the number with supple, percussive Hindi, singing the dit-dash code as if he was born with a finger on the telegraph key.
Heimat – Pompei (2016)
While we’re on the topic of strange agglomerations, all hail the queerness of Heimat. Based in France, with songs in German, the duo known as Heimat sound to me like a combination of industrial pop, post-punk cabaret and Chinese opera. I don’t blame you if this this description leaves you wanting; the band themselves tag their music as follows: “Death experimental garage lo-fi punk weird chrome pop sharp weird Paris.” How about this? M.I.A. as re-imagined by Richard Wagner.
Pompei is a lurching fanfare – staggering drums, backward woodwinds, wheezing brass. Armelle Oberle is like a Valkyrie facing a mosh-pit, shouting and groaning, cheerleading a collapse. Heimat use noise the same way as Micachu & The Shapes: as a way of orienting sentiment, bringing you back to the moment. A blast of dissonance is like a rivet driven into today, right now, this minute. It’s meaningless; now pay attention.
Kanye West – 30 Hours (2016)
A last-minute addition to West’s manic-depressive new album, The Life of Pablo, 30 Hours feels immediately beloved. Not because of the rapping – West’s as inconsistent as ever, the most successful second-rate comedian in the biz – but because 30 Hours is built atop a sample from Arthur Russell. Russell, who died in 1992, was a classical composer, experimental songwriter, disco beat-maker, cellist, singer. Like West, he was a generational talent; unlike West, he has become a symbol of something subtle, specific and hard to describe. By borrowing from Russell’s Answers Me, 30 Hours gains a flicker of what’s noumenal, just beyond understanding. What’s basic and crass becomes profound, or at least confounding.
Sean Michaels received the 2014 Scotiabank Giller Prize for his novel Us Conductors. He is the editor of the music blog Said the Gramophone.