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Little Annie, "Songs From the Coal Mine Canary"

Looking back on her fascinating but uneven back catalog, it struck me that the pixie-ish, world-weary chanteuse known as Little Annie "Anxiety" Bandez has pretty much always been at the mercy of her producers. Throughout her career, the one constant has been Annie's voice—that smoky, Marianne Faithful drawl and sardonic, campy delivery—but the sound settings in which her vocals have been placed have been wildly variable, depending upon the producer.


Durtro Jnana

Penny Rimbaud's approach was to weave a ragged punk collage of dirty musique concrete and industrial noise to match Annie's apocalyptic beat poetry. Adrian Sherwood took the On-U-Sound approach to a new level for Ms. Anxiety, placing her brutal and pithy hysterics amidst a baffling, complex network of techno and dub mutations, bursts of noise and unexpected audio collisions. Guest spots on other artists' work produced varied results, but Annie often still sounded lost in hostile surroundings, with the notable exception of her hilariously disturbing monologue on Coil's "Things Happen" from Love's Secret Domain.

Starting in the mid-'90s, Annie's new team of collaborators and producers put the singer on more solid, less experimental footing. Can "Khan" Oral and Kid Congo Powers of Gun Club sexed it up and camped it up for their Legally Jammin' releases. Larry "Electroclash" Tee and Joseph Budenholzer used traditional instruments to cushion Annie's increasingly more understated vocals, lending the singer a sophisticated, downtown NYC jazz-room feel. This new album, Songs From the Coal Mine Canary travels down this same path, with sophisticated jazz ensemble arrangements for every track, placing Annie's voice front and center, with all of its wounded imperfections and evocativeness intact.

A sticker proudly proclaims "Produced by Antony," perhaps trying to catch the eye to Mr. Hegarty's newfound legion of rabid fans for album sales, as Little Annie herself remains unjustly obscure. To be fair, this isn't just a cynical sales tactic, as Antony's presence is felt throughout the album, which features his piano playing, backup vocals, and songwriting skills on several tracks. The tracks that Antony co-wrote with Annie, especially "Absynthtee-ism" and "If I Were a Man," have very much the same quiet torch song vibe familiar from Antony and the Johnsons material, but the spotlight here belongs to Annie. This is simultaneously the album's biggest weakness and its greatest strength. Those who don't connect with Annie's subtly disarming lyrics or her savvy, time-ravaged vocals might find the album a bit slight. It's probably true that songwriting has never been Annie's strength, and though she is bolstered here by very talented collaborators, there aren't really any showstoppers on the album.  Attentive fans will even notice some repetition, a couple of songs that are reworked from past releases.

But that's not the whole story, as Songs From the Coal Mine Canary is much more than just the sum of its parts. There is something about the way in which the introspective love ballad "Diamonds Made of Glassine" merges with the dark, Angelo Badalementi-style jazz backing that makes it sound like liquid city moonlight poured into a cocktail glass. The upbeat but devastatingly apocalyptic "End Is Near" explodes into being and careens towards a thrilling Nine Simone-style conclusion, with Annie giving an impassioned vocal performance, tough for a singer who can't help but sound languorous and tossed-off. There are moments that hint at the scathing punk screeds of her past, but mostly this is a mature, sophisticated Annie, an impossibly cool character, a lady of the evening haunting an out-of-the-way gay bar in NYC, filling everyone's ears with stories of past exploits and bitter regrets.

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Review of the Day

THROBBING GRISTLE, "THE TASTE OF TG"
Mute
The subtitle of this new collection from Mute, A Beginner's Guide to the Music of Throbbing Gristle, is a fairly accurate description of what the disc provides. The problem with a group as culturally significant and influential as Throbbing Gristle is that the music is only half the story, and that other half is what this disc can't provide. Released to coincide with the glut of Throbbing Gristle reissues and reformations surrounding the cancelled RE~TG event, this disc showed up in bins at the same time as Mutant TG, Mute's pointless collection of tepid remixes. I suppose this disc was created for the legions of curious who have read the enthusiastic, worshipful praise heaped on TG in various publications, but have no obvious entry point into the daunting discography of the so-called "wreckers of civilization." To that end, the compiler of this disc (the suspiciously named Olivier Cormier Ota?o), has done a fairly decent job of putting together a wide cross-section of TG's recorded output. All of the major phases of the TG sound are present; the ominous industrial soundscapes of "Industrial Introduction" and "Cabaret Voltaire;" the agitated, screamed provocations of "We Hate You (Little Girls)" and "Zyklon B Zombie;" the jagged psychedelic mutations of "Dead on Arrival" and "Hamburger Lady;" and the proto-techno experimentation of "Distant Dreams, Pt. 2" and "Hot on the Heels of Love." There is a decided emphasis on more-or-less "accessible" material, although with a band as abrasive and uncommercial as TG, accessible is truly a relative term. Taken together, the tracks present a good argument for TG as musical innovators, with a few well-chosen live recordings that evidences their legendary talent for provocative live performance. My main complaint with the CD lies with the packaging. The total lack of any historical notes or perspectives on TG is strange, especially for a release purporting to be a Beginner's Guide. It is impossible to separate TG from their historical and social context; to do so is to misunderstand the scope of their significance. Further, the band's visual presentation—in costuming, symbolism, record sleeves and the various "reports" and missives—is at least as important as their sound on record. I suppose beginners could seek out this material elsewhere, but would it have killed Mute to reproduce some of it along with the disc? Adding to the problem is the cover art by Peter Christopherson. While I appreciate its powerfully grotesque, Salo-esque brutality, it doesn't mesh with the visual strategies of early TG artwork, with its clinical style relating the activities of the band like some classified document from the KGB, slyly satirizing and attacking the status quo of music and culture. I can guardedly recommend The Taste of TG for its musical content, but for beginners, further study will be required. 

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