We, by indirection, find directions out ..." ~ Polonius, Hamlet, II, 1, 16
Untitled (released, 1996)
1. Christmas (California) - 3:40
2. Berlin, 1945 - 2:39
3. Lion Becomes Dragon - 3:14
4. Holland - 5:08
5. Bright Night - 3:32
6. For Tiara - 2:02
7. Grey and Castles - 4:46
8. Aaron Matthew - 4:06
Tom Mallon - Drums, Producer, Engineer
Jim O'Rourke - Piano, Drums, Guitar (Electric), Producer, Engineer
Cynthia Dall - Guitar (Acoustic), Piano, Guitar (Electric)
Rian Murphy - Drums
Not an easy record to track down in most record shops, this anonymous debut, which Dall et al. didn’t even title or attribute, can be identified by the DC73 scrawled on its side (it’s catalogue number on the Drag City label). This level of obscurantism is a bit odd, given than in 1996, guys from Gastr Del Sol and Smog went out of their way to help out several tracks; one wonders who made the decision or whether it was an accident. A colorful Japanese print appears on the cover art, while the record sleeve is adorned with a Czarist Russian imperial seal (Dall seems to have an affinity for Russian and Soviet military motifs). The artist herself is pictured in black and white on the inside cover half nude on a bare floor sprinkled with flowers and draped in a prom dress. That, of course, would be your first clue she’ll be pulling spooky moves in the moments to follow.
From the sparse tinkling piano strains of “Christmas (California),” the opening track – and the line ‘what are you buying me for Christmas? / it better be good’ sung in a creepy childlike monotone – you very early on get the sense your listening maybe about to get unsettling. The next song, “Berlin, 1945” might have been timorously banged out by Marlene Dietrich on a dusty, bombed-out bar piano in some alternate universe WWII flick where the Germans kept fighting. The lyrics are morose but detached, bleak but medicated – a bit as if Tori Amos drank more, or Lisa Germano less. Track three “Lion Becomes Dragon,” slips into a droning, repetition and the guitar playing is unrepentantly, eight-year old sister awful, which I suspect is counter-poise to the next track, a duet between Dall and Bill Callahan (of Smog). The track, “Holland” is utterly riveting – a slow undertone played by cello and distorted bagpipes while disjointed: ‘We lie on the bed / I check to see if you’re dead’ or ‘the sun still shines / it doesn’t know you’re dying’ – and seems also to be about a wounded man and his wife waiting for a doctor who, for whatever reason, never comes. You eventually hear only Callahan’s labored breathing and Dall singing her ‘husband’ slowly to sleep. It’s melodramatic, silly and absolutely hypnotizing – if you’re a Smog fan, its also a bit staggering she got Callahan to go for it (she contributed "Renee Died" to Smog's Burning Kingdom EP though).1
Next track, “Bright Night” is an eerie little dirge, complete with violins, cellos, pianos and minor-chord electric guitar. Again, the lyrics are more lamenting than loud: PJ Harvey has done a track or two like this. Ominous by its obliquity, while the echoing, lethargic busted-up pianos strains remind me more of Amp than anything else. “Gray and Castles,” the next track and another duet with Callahan, sounds like a maniacal glee club jam at some Gifted Childrens' School of the Damned: all off-key, banging and with lines like “in your little boy room, 40 Tylenols and speed / while your sister sits with glass, sipping an inch of chocolate milk for hours.” Utterly, irrevocably screwed-up. Then, “Aaron Matthew” comes out and saturates the listener with almost angelic sincerity while the album wraps up with a Dall doing a mournful, wounded ballad, accompanied only by her piano, in Russian. In 1996, this sort of record, given its minuscule circulation on a small-fry label at the time, and the fact it had neither a title nor artist, meant Ms. Dall vanished again back into the shadows.
Cynthia Dall, Sound Restores Young Men (released, 2002)
1. Be Safe With Me - 2:06
2. God Made You - 3:21
3. Extreme Cold - 3:14
4. Zero - 2:55
5. I Played With Boys - 3:44
6. The Party - 3:54
7. Not One - 5:50
8. Wastebasket Kid II - 6:18
9. Nest of Dead Children - 3:17
10. Boys and Girls (Ferry) - 5:26
11. I'm Not Tempted - 2:34
12. Snakeblood and Vodka - 7:47
Phil Bonnet - Engineer, Supervisor
Cindy - Guitar, Voices
Tim Green - Guitar, Producer, Engineer, DJ, Vocal Coach
Jim O'Rourke - Producer, Engineer
…six years pass, now it’s September, 2002, and the young lady returns with a concept album about witnessing her mother’s murder. The artist appears, in profile, on the back cover in a Soviet commissar’s uniform. All the liner notes are typed by hand on torn paper or cut and paste, ransom note style. The same Russian emblems from the first album are here. In other words, this appears to be a new battle in what's clearly turning out to be a very long war. One writer summarizes Dall’s place in the constellation of female lyricists as “not as chaotic as Cat Power, not as theatrical as Mary Timony, and not as self-deprecating as Lisa Germano.” All true but Dall is a little more 'outsider' than these (though I don’t see how Cat Power’s new record could be more polished, I mean “Good Woman” has a string quartet, backing vocals by a children’s choir and Eddie Vedder, which I suppose qualifies as chaotic; sure sold me though). Anyway, six years of practice and polish have not brightened up Dall’s disposition. The mesmerizing guitars and pianos still abound, all framing her crystalline, whispering voice, have only been carefully attuned.
The opener, “Be Safe With Me,” is a strong start – forceful, rollicking and punchy. Her next song, a ballad called "God Made You" is the saddest and scariest confessional I’ve heard on a record since Amos’ “Cloud on My Tongue: “I can’t feel the tears as they fall / ‘cause your tears, there’s no water in them at all / your hands were drawn by God / when he was nervous and shaking.” In other words, we’ve moved on from the four album deal company of Amos, Phair or Harvey here, and cut straight out into a sort of deliriously nostalgic territory inhabited by ladies who don’t do concert tours, though the production on this record is ten times clearer and more consistent that the debut, which sounded held together by chewing gum in places. Third song, “Extreme Cold” sounds like it could be a Tubeway Army outtake, though as always the sheer overpowering oscillation of Dall’s vocal delivery makes the end effect incomparable. Similarly, the wall of sound, Helium-like guitar buzz of the next track, “Zero” is a study in contrasts, as Dall struggles successfully to make herself heard over the din.
Then the first show-stopper arrives, her odd girl out manifesto, “I Played With Boys,” which seems to borrow its chord-progression from every other song in New Orders’s earliest songbooks (Ceremony, maybe?) while the lyrics ruminate “I must remember / if I don’t dinner with you tonight / the race will survive.” It shouldn’t work, but it comes off like a time-warped, post-punk revision of Voices Carry. Like much on this exceedingly emotive collection, this level of fraught either float your boat or not. Then we have “The Party,” with a wistful temper and tone more akin to an wake. This is followed by a kind of angelic bleakness in the syncopated drum-beat dirge “Not One,” which sounds a bit like a musical equivalent to The Gashlycrumb Tinies, replete with a monotone church-organ drone and Dall’s lyrics echoing in empty air: “There’s boys with me, they make you scared / but sweetie, do you know anyone whose not afraid of bees / anyone who does not want to please?” It is about as naively jarring as track as I think I’ve ever heard done straight, easily outweirding the gloomiest tracks on Mazzy Star’s She Hangs Brightly, the only auditory comparison coming to mind.
Which leads us to “Nest of Dead Children,” an off-tempo, drunken gem of melodramatic triumphalism - half litany, half march – “we all died for love / every mother, or son and brother / proved it to us, proved it for us, to you.” You can almost picture the video, with all the band in Soviet regalia, working themselves into a fall-down frenzy. The next track, “Boys and Girls,” is a little more measured, but sees the protagonist again communing, “God had revealed / all the world concealed / to me then,” on all manner of secrecy and mistrust. Lyrically, this is where Dall is her strongest and someone in the production team (Jim O’Rourke most likely) has enough wisdom to foreground her vocals on the stronger pieces, while she modifies her delivery on the lines she’s not so sure about. The record then goes into its final throes, with “I’m Not Tempted” a low-key, string arranged missive, and then ends (rather unfortunately) with “Snakeblood and Vodka,” which seems to meld an early NIN drum-pattern to substandard Jesus and Mary Chain guitar caterwauling as Dall peals out with a refrain from some lost Love is Colder Than Death record, all backed up my a wall of sonorous string bass and funeral parlor organ. At eight minutes, this makes it less a song than a macabre test of will. I still can’t praise either record highly enough, as amateurish as they are in spots; the overall sound has a kind of brilliant, beat-up luster, which while a tricky listen, is completely unlike any other female artist I've heard in the last decade and I suspect what she might do with a real recording budget would as heavenly as it would be harrowing.
Update: April 2012 - R.I.P. Ms. Dall. You were one catastrophically talented musician and by all accounts a pretty brilliant lady as well.
1 If memory serves, seems to me Callahan had just busted up with Marshall from Cat Power about this time, neither of them precisely a bucket of jollity. Misery does everlove company though, so it may not have been much of stretch after all to record a track this unflinchingly morose.
Sources: AMG, http://www.allmusic.com; Drag City, http://www.dragcity.com; Neumu, http://neumu.net.