Monday, September 17, 2012

Klaus Nomi (1982)

Meet Klaus Nomi, an eccentric, flamboyant German opera singer who got his big break touring with David Bowie and decided to put out a record of New Wave music. Not weird enough? I should mention that he was a countertenor, meaning that he could sing at an extremely high pitch, and that the highlights of the album are bizarre covers of sixties girl-group pop songs.

This is one of those records that makes everyone who hears it scratch their head in confusion and when played for friends will inevitably elicit the response "what is this?" It's not an easy question to answer. As you can see from the image above, Nomi is not helping the stereotype that Germans are weird with his outlandish costumes and makeup job that looks like it came straight out of an F. W. Murnau film.

The instrumentation baking up Nomi's heavily accented voice is rather thin, consisting of angular guitars, some eighties synths, a little piano and the occasional smattering of backing vocals to evoke the sixties atmosphere of some of the covers. These include "Lightning Strikes," "You Don't Own Me" and "The Twist" all sung with the over the top melodrama only a campy opera singer can pull off (although whether he does, in fact, pull it off is purely a matter of opinion.

There are also some original compositions, which are decent and just as zany, but lack some of the surreal fun of lines like "You don't own me, don't say I can't play with other boys!" The album ends bizarrely with an excerpt of a legitimate operatic aria, which is fine but totally out of place.

Klaus Nomi went on to record one more studio album (featuring a cover of "Ding Dong The Witch Is Dead!" How great is that?) and a live record before sadly dying of AIDS in 1983. His debut is a fun listen for fans of novelty albums and general musical oddities.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Chris Watson - El Tren Fantasma (2011)

Before television and before the internet, National Geographic made a lot of money by taking the trouble to photograph remote and exotic locales and bring those images right into people's homes. Most Americans would never have a chance to see such amazing sights in person, and so it was a real thrill to catch a glimpse of what the rest of the world looked like.

Now, that same experience can be had with such ease that it has lost much of its allure. With a click of a button, we can see pictures of any place in the whole world, but vision is only one of the senses, and people have a way of forgetting about the evocative power of sound.

That is why I love field recordings so much. Sure we know what most of the world looks like, but what does it sound like? Chris Watson, a founding member of the tremendously influential industrial group Cabaret Voltaire, wants to answer that question for us. With microphone in hand, he captures a staggaring array of ambient sounds from all variety of environments and packages them neatly for our enjoyment.

This particular release draws from recordings made of a now abandoned railway line in Mexico originally made for use in a documentary. Watson presents them here as the voyage of a "ghost train," a spooky remembrance of a trip that will never be taken again.

When it comes to editing field recordings, it can be tricky to strike the proper balance; too much and it loses its authenticity, too little and it risks being boring. Watson does a superb job of concealing his handiwork, and only on one track does he give into the temptation to craft a little rhythmic loop that actually sounds like music.

The rest of the recordings are both unified in spirit and diverse enough to hold the listener's interest. There is the repeated leitmotif of the train's rhythmic chugging along the tracks, a sound that would not be out of place on an early industrial record. There are quiet parts of serene atmospherics, and there are loud parts comprised of buzzing insects or other wildlife.

In short, Watson does everything right when it comes to taking real recordings of a real place and presenting them in a way that is coherent and digestible, not to mention entertaining. I look forward to hearing more of his work in the future.