Forgive me this one.
1. A thought I once had about Camp Lo's Uptown Saturday Night
(1997) and The Caretaker's An Empty Bliss Beyond this World
, two albums that at first would seem to have nothing in common, was that they both work like echolocation. They are albums made up of sounds that produce, or perhaps more accurately reveal
, spaces. When I listen to “Sparkle (Mr. Midnight Mix),” Uptown Saturday Night
's somnolent closer, an empty club is unearthed before me, each muted bass note boring deeper into its terrain, producing more information with every rhythmic cycle. With An Empty Bliss
, the means are the same, the end result slightly tweaked; the prewar jazz which Leyland Kirby samples brings to mind and eye the now-abandoned ballrooms in which people surely once danced to that very same music. From My Mother's House
, the brilliant new album from Belgian musicians Zahava Seewald and Michael Grebil, works in very much the same way.
2. Michael Grebil's name has been defaced by formatting limitations on this here website; there is a diaeresis over the “e” in “Michael” and an acute accent over the “e” in “Grebil”. I cannot help but think this holds some significance, especially when discussing an album that not only speaks (by someone else's count, not mine) five different languages but also interrogates the barrier these different languages construct between us. Or at least that's what I think it does; From My Mother's House
goes so far as to obfuscate even this, constructing yet another barrier. It is in this environment that the name strikes me as pertinent. “Michael Grebil” is spelled differently and pronounced differently than the man's real name; they are two separate entities. How are we to approach with any honesty a multilingual work of art like this when we can't even get the name of one of its creators right?
3. From My Mother's House
is most accurately described as a “sound collage,” I suppose. It contains excerpts of spoken poetry, ambient music, recordings of the surf, traditional Jewish music, and even at one point what seems to be dance music from the 1980s. These disparate genres are not arranged in discrete units but instead tend to overlap in revelatory ways. On “Herbst, Sagst Du,” a distant loop of piano and vocals gives way to three people's voices, now more intimate and close, heard simultaneously: a young boy speaking French, an older woman speaking in what seems to be labored, heavily accented English, and another young person humming Carly Rae Jepsen's “Call Me Maybe”. The joke here is that there is no joke, that this stripped-down rendition of “Call Me Maybe” is observed with the same solemn respect as the Moyshe-Leyb Halpern poem featured two songs later.
4. Could anyone--could you or I--make an album like this? I remember a few years ago recording a track called “Around the House” (named after a Herbert album I still have not listened to), holding up my Zoom H2 microphone to my dog's barks, the bathroom faucet running, a news story on TV about the closing of a restaurant. Listening to From My Mother's House
, I wonder how much of it was recorded and edited casually, how much of it arose simply because someone left their microphone on. I think about that disdainful assessment I've heard many a time at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City: “I could do that.”
And indeed, there's not much on this album that's out of my technical reach, no Hendrix-like displays of dexterity or formal skill. But I could not do this, and neither could you. This album is inextricably tied to the heritages and personal experiences of the artists behind it. Zahava Seewald is Jewish and was born in Antwerp. Michael Grebil's personal history is a little harder to discern from his website's cryptic biography--“moving on the edge between several sonic & poetic universes,” is he--but the album nonetheless makes manifest both their interests, Grebil's in ancient music and improvisation, Seewald's in Jewish identity and history. They are the only two people who could have made this album, and because of that, From My Mother's House
acts as an exploration not only of space but also of people. By album's end, I feel like I know these two, even if I'm not sure how to pronounce their names.
5. If you're thinking “isn't this review sort of dancing around its subject?”, I agree and here's this for consolation: From My Mother's House
is an incredibly beautiful and evocative work, my favorite album of the year thus far. “Antiphonia / Niemand (Psalm),” ostensibly Grebil's composition, is achingly beautiful, lent weight by the spoken word strewn over it and the rest of the album. “Soleis Noirs / Rentrer,” the track before it, is a masterpiece of musique concrete, gathering its dissimilar elements (French speaking, industrial noises, pinging piano, forlorn strings) into one beautiful landscape. This syncretism has been duly noted by the album's small audience, but often packaged with its apparent complement in “voyeurism”: this is their story, and we're just watching it unfold. This, I think, does the album a disservice; the real magic lies in how these two can make their story ours. We could not have made this album, but we can certainly participate and find solace in its storytelling, even when we don't explicitly “understand” what is being presented to us. Perhaps, then, the goal of this album is not to knock down linguistic and cultural barriers, but to show they were never really there in the first place. That such a lofty objective is achieved through seemingly random means--that the appeal of this album is almost democratic in “you could do this, too!” approach--makes it all the more beguiling and compulsively listenable. When all is said and done, this wonderful release's position in my year-end list may end up slumping a little (Drake and his Nothing Was the Same
will surely give it a run for its money). For now, however, it's hard to imagine the release of a more redemptive and inspiring work of art--in any medium--than this wonderful, inscrutable thing.