Review Summary: The ethereal musical art of Danielle Dax - and that is one DISTURBING album cover!
URGH! "What's with that gruesome cover?" you must all be thinking. Grotesque, to say the least! The answer is Danielle Dax gathered a series of images from medical journeys and was part of her "Meat Harvest" art collection. Yes, Dax was an artist too. A revolting mosaic of face with rough patches of skin, distorted eyes, grimacing teeth, and the nose represented by a pair of rotting testicles! Not pleasant by any means and Dax was intending to shock. Not surprisingly, many record stores refused to stock it because of its alarming and unsettling cover which led to it being re-issued with a far prettier picture designed by artist Holly Warburton. Recently, NME magazine listed it in their Top 20 'Most Disturbing Album Covers Of All Time' and it's easy to see why. But it's certainly, if nothing else, very creative. And Danielle Dax is a strikingly beautiful lady, so why didn't she use a shot of herself instead (see the publicity shot for the album below)? Well, the answer is never simple when it comes to Dax. She was a fiercely independent artist, individualistic, mysterious and enigmatic, all words that could be used to describe her first solo project.
Starting off in an off-the-wall, post-punk/experimental group called Lemon Kittens, the debut solo album of Danielle Dax finds her moving on from the cluttered, utterly brilliant chaos that was found on her work with them, in favour of a more minimalist approach. This is quite extraordinary as she did EVERYTHING herself here, from vocals, lyrics, producing and playing all her own instruments. She had already gathered quite a name for herself on the underground scene for her strange, eclectic art and became something of a feminist icon, being the only woman at the time to undertake all aspects in making an album; a true one-woman masterpiece in this case! She manages to combine a range of musical instruments from around the world, ranging from guitar, tenor and soprano sax, drums, keyboard, banjo, flute, bass, trumpet , all of which she uses with great inventiveness, often combining these an assortment of percussion, voices and toys! The amalgamation of styles captured on 'Pop Eyes' is impossible to pin down to one genre, even though it's often categorised as experimental art-rock, which may be a fair description, but it covers other styles here, too. It's fair to say, though, that this was not an album designed for radio or at attracting the mainstream!
Beginning with 'Bed Caves', the track begins with four pulses before bursting into urgent, tribal-pounding drums. A fuzzy guitar kicks in, and across the layered arrangement which also includes a rumbling keyboard, she sings in a high soprano in the style of an Indian pop star. The same words are repeated over again: "Today is not the same as before/Starting with a clean slate/Promises of a new reward", punctuated by a tinking xylophone. Utterly beguiling and though these lyrics sound full of optimism, there is just something under the surface that makes you think that all is not as it seems. There's a sinister air that lingers throughout the track and Dax sounds gleeful yet at the same time cynical and detached.
This steadily leads us into the more subdued 'Everyone Squeaks Gently' which compellingly evokes a soulful air, while even more etheral is the haunting 'Wheeled Wagon', with keyboards, sax and flutes remaining prominent throughout. Clattering and jarring, Dax also sings in a very high, almost ghostly, style that truly makes this intriguing and one of my personal favourites.
'The Stone Guest' is one of the most minimalist tracks on 'Pop Eyes', and an endearing one at that, driven by a persistent guitar riff. More bizarre, ethereal sounds flow through the bouncy "'Here Come The Harvest Buns', a song about abortion with lyrics such as "Here Come The Harvest Buns/A bellyful for everyone/clipped in rows like dominoes/they're sick as a pig when morning comes". In spite of its controversial element, the words are sung almost in a nursery rhyme style while the arrangement is oddly upbeat.
Things get even weirder yet even more intriguing on 'The Shamemen', a song Dax wrote in reference to all the turmoil going on in the Middle East. Arabic sounds flow throughout which add a compelling touch, while Dax sings with an air of sarcasm and disgust in her voice. 'Kernow' is oustanding, and probably my favourite of the project, Dax making exhilarating use of the saxophone during this wonderful instrumental, added with touches of Dax's unique vocal stylings. She shows her more operatic vocal style in the classical/folk-hymn-like 'Numb Companion', which is stunning in its beautifully sparse, delicate production, even in spite of whisperings of discontent by Dax.
Then things are kicked up a notch on the totally demented and chaotic yet incredibly rip-roaring 'Tower Of Lies, Dax's voice fluctuating between scathing and angry to shrill, ear-piercing screams. 'Pop Eyes' then comes to a holt following the spooky and surreal 'Cutting The Last Sheaf', Dax' voice all crackly against the light chimes and the incessant plucking of an ancient-sounding instrument. A hauntingly atmospheric ending to the album
All told, 'Pop Eyes' is a work of musical art through-and-through. Critically-acclaimed, this begs to be re-discovered and gaining wider recognition - which is what it most surely deserves! It may be a little too "out there" for some, but my musical tastes are pretty mainstream and I loved this project, as avant-garde as it is. It did take me a few listens to really start appreciating it as I wasn't quite sure what to make of it at first yet I was intrigued. Dax was highly revered by the "serious" music press but this brought her nowhere near the mainstream, nor was it intended to. Make up your own mind if you get round to listening to it and I always advise to give it a couple of spins before making any judgement. Critics were unanimous in their praise for this effort and rightly so!