Review Summary: A few years back, a friend of mine asked me if I’d ever experienced a miracle. I burned her a copy of this CD. Hours later, she called me and said only “I understand.”
The thing I like best about discussing music is when you can tell you’re getting someone interested in something they’d ordinarily never hear. In my mind, there’s no greater compliment than “That actually sounds really cool, I’ll have to check them out!” and there’s no one I can use to elicit that reaction from my friends more than Poe. Maybe it’s the obvious love of her songs in my voice, or maybe it’s the way I drop people into the middle of the complex story surrounding “Haunted” and deftly guide them out again, but there’s something about this CD that seems to capture people’s imaginations just before it captures their hearts.
Let’s back up a bit, back to the late 90s. Poe (Born Anne Danielewski) had released her first album, “Hello”, which had garnered praise for the innovative way it blended natural instruments with R&B samples. With lyrics such as “This is Jezebel in Hell/I wanna kill you, I wanna blow you...away,” Poe found herself lumped in with the angry girl rockers during the mid-90’s boon of female singer-songwriters. Feeling creatively tapped out after this first effort, she found the inspiration for her next record in a story seemingly ripped from Hollywood: She had a dream in which her dead father, Polish-born film director Tad Danielewski, urged her to ‘find his voice’.
Poe had an often-rocky relationship with her father (As evidenced by the lyric “Fathers are black holes that suck up the light” from her earlier disc), who died in 1993, two years prior to Poe’s first album. As a difficult task, Poe and her brother, author Mark Z. Danielewski (This will be important later), went through their father’s belongings, finding cassettes of their late father’s voice. The cassettes contained everything from old lectures he had recorded to audio letters to the two of them, stretching as far back as their births, which he had never shared with them. The cassettes took their emotional toll, and the siblings retreated to their own separate worlds to deal with them in the only ways they knew how: Mark set to work on a novel, and Poe locked herself away in a studio to begin work on her second CD, the aptly-titled “Haunted”. She emerged two years later with 15 filled hard drives and this completed tribute to her father.
And oh, what a tribute it is! At first unable to even face the recordings of her father, Poe gathered the strength necessary to go through them, dissect them, and weave them in and out throughout “Haunted”. The songs are immensely personal right off the bat, with opener “Exploration B” serving as a soundscape of a woman calling her family, finding only the answering machine, and singing a short song to inform them of the death of her father before breaking down and pleading for someone to answer her call. This lonely opening leads directly into the chillingly beautiful “Haunted”, a song about the loneliness of losing someone with words still unsaid. I guarantee that by the end of this song, you’ll feel a tingle on your forearms and look down to find goose bumps. The song ends, as many of them do, with recordings of Danielewski Sr., seemingly critiquing the musical offerings placed before it.
There is a very palpable sense of unease throughout this disc, generally spurred by the collages of sound placed between every few songs. Take “House Of Leaves”, which drops the listener in amongst ringing phones, crying children, melodies that float through like ghosts and what can only be described as a monster stalking the listener throughout the track. It’s unsettling, but it has a point in that it furthers that atmosphere that drives this album. This is a CD that inhabits a very specific world, and once you’ve started it, there is literally nothing that will extract you from that world until the disc is at an end seventy-five minutes later.
It is a happy journey, however. While opening tracks such as the superb “Control”, radio-ready “Walk The Walk” and probably the most unique actual song on offer, “Wild”, seem only to justify Poe’s ‘angry girl rocker’ label, this disc takes a turn around “Could’ve Gone Mad”. Suddenly, the songs become happier, gentler, more pensive and forgiving. By the time “If You Were Here” meekly tiptoes up and taps you on the shoulder to present a conversation between Poe and recordings of her father, the bitterness has melted away, and you realize that on one level, “Haunted” is the story of how Poe learned to accept her father for what he was and cherish the memories they had. However, the complex beauty of “Haunted” is that this isn’t the only concept at work here.
Remember that brother of hers that I mentioned, and the novel he set to work on? He completed his tribute around the same time, called “House Of Leaves,” about a documentary filmmaker leaving behind his career to save his marriage and his family, moving into a house that grows on its own and produces a door that leads to an endless cavern. The filmmaker takes a few quick films of the phenomenon, called “Exploration B” and “5 ½ Minute Hallway” (Did you notice the track list, by the way?) before exploring the cavern in depth, placing a great strain on his wife, children, and ultimately himself. Add to this that the novel is narrated by a character named Johnny, and you can begin to put the pieces together and realize that “Haunted” serves as a soundtrack and reference point for this novel. I honestly don’t know if there’s ever been another double-concept album created, but I would be mightily surprised if it works as well as “Haunted”.
Ironically, this novel may be the reason why you’ve never heard of this CD. The two products were promoted jointly at Borders bookstores across the country, but a greater focus was paid to “House Of Leaves”, leaving “Haunted” on its own. Lead single “Hey Pretty” was all but ignored and a new version was created, dubbed “Hey Pretty (Drive-By 2001 Mix)”, replacing the verses with Mark Z. Danielewski reading a portion of his book in a move that actually works surprisingly well and can be found on the end of the disc. “Walk The Walk” was chosen as a second single since it was set to be the theme song for a television drama called “Girls Club” which was canceled after two episodes. The title track was also set as the theme song for the film “Blair Witch 2: Book Of Shadows”, which tanked at the box office. Finally, with low commercial success, Poe was dropped from Atlantic Records.
It’s a shame, as this is an incredibly rewarding album. Make no mistake, it needs to be listened to as a whole to appreciate the sonic landscape. It might be a little difficult to track this album down, but any effort involved will pay off in spades. Poe’s vocals are distinct and astounding and the tracks frolic through at least a half-dozen genres, lending this album a large dose of variety. If there were any justice in this world, this CD would be a prominent feature in everyone’s collection.