Sunday, October 14, 2007

Music of Mass Destruction

By Tony Buchsbaum

During the past couple of years, I’ve sometimes thought about those people who decide at the last minute not to get on a certain airplane, only to see that very flight crash. I’m from New Orleans, and I wasn’t in the city when Katrina struck on that late-August day in 2005. Though I grew up there, my family had already dispersed, to New Jersey and New Mexico. Still, when Katrina was bearing down, when that colorful, animated swirl on TV veered closer and closer to my home, I felt a strange sense of relief, mixed with an even stranger sense of wanting to be there, right in the middle of it. I wanted to share it. I wanted to be back with brothers and sisters whose name I did not know. I wanted to hold their hands and get through it together. My family watched in horror as the city’s seams seemed to burst, letting the water rush in. As it rose, people I knew fled to the Superdome, only to see acts of violence that would never make it to the evening news. In the end, a few people I know lost everything, and everyone I know lost something. Even, I suppose, me.

Now, these two years on, a CD has appeared from Terence Blanchard, a trumpeter who has come to symbolize New Orleans music as much as Wynton Marsalis. I don’t know these men, but we grew up in the city at the same moment, coming of age at the same time, watching the city shift beneath our feet in a tide of cultural change as the children of the sixties awoke to our own adult turmoil, one that seemed so much more immediate than our parents’.

Blanchard has become a prolific film score composer, notably for director Spike Lee. One of Blanchard’s most engrossing scores is for Inside Man, the heist film starring Clive Owen, Denzel Washington, and Jodie Foster. The music was composed in the period just after Katrina, and you can hear the deep melancholy in the music. A year later, when Lee did an HBO documentary about the flood, When the Levees Broke, Blanchard’s music held the film’s disparate stories together. One of them, in fact, was his own. In a strangely appropriate, yet also deeply sad, episode, Blanchard accompanies his mother to her home, which has been destroyed. They see it for the first time on film, as we do. Watching it, I felt emptied, as if this were the moment, victim and artist now one.

Another year later, and Blanchard’s ode to Katrina has appeared in the form of A Tale of God’s Will, a collection of thirteen musical pieces—tone poems that attempt to put melody to still-unresolved tragedy of Katrina. Much of the new CD is built on themes from When the Levees Broke, although they’ve been fully orchestrated and expanded from their original versions used in the film.

All the music here manages to evoke despair and hope, frustration and desperation. There’s exposition and introspection, both a story and what it means. Many tracks have the flavor of New Orleans, of late French Quarter nights, but some don’t. Mostly, this is music of gentle melody and soaring theme, glorious musical colors that paint a vast and personal landscape of memory.

If a disaster can have a soundtrack, this brilliant set is certainly the one for Katrina.

On the same emotional shelf—and I’m not sure why I feel this way—is Annie Lennox’s new CD, Songs of Mass Destruction. A new Lennox set is something to celebrate. Late of Eurythmics, her solo career has been an astounding display of serious songs, each one built on something personal. Or so it seems.

This CD starts off with the brilliant and solemn “Dark Road,” about a break-up, and it’s followed by “Love is Blind,” much more of a rock song, about a relationship that’s not yet ever. “Smithereens” brings the set back to introspection; this time, it seems to be all about a child. A divorce. But is it about the singer herself? A memory?

From here, the album moves into a harder edge, with “Ghosts in My Machine.” Lennox is having fun with lyrics here, as she did with “Love is Blind,” using a single phrase and milking it every which way to make her point. The former had variations on “tired of…” and the latter has “too much.” Both riffs make living seem like so much repetition, so much accretion of stuff that can just bug the shit out of you, if not drive you completely out of your mind.

Later on the CD, “Lost” comes across like a lullaby, but one about our collective emotional loss, our inability to right the ship we’re in. Lennox’s throaty wail is in full form—as it is on “Big Sky” and so many tracks here—and it’s like a breath of fresh air compared with the high-pitched caterwauling of so many of today’s younger, whiny songstresses.

“Sing” is a choral wonder, featuring backup singers as diverse as Madonna Celine Dion. It’s a terrific song with a memorable groove that’s infectious, dedicated to the plight of infants to whom HIV/AIDS is passed via breastfeeding.

Songs of Mass Destruction is about stuff that’s been destroyed (well, obviously). But it’s more than that: You get the feeling Lennox is just fed up with things as they are, when things as they were could have (should have) been preserved.

I suppose that’s connection I made with A Tale of God’s Will. Taken together, both albums are about the decisions that shatter us, one way or another. Physical, social, emotional—however it happens, however it touches us or those we love, we’re never quite the same again.

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