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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

battles, "Tras" & "EP C"
Cold Sweat & Monitor (respectively)
For more than a year, Battles have been making a name for themselves for their live shows, by both supporting major players (like Isis, Lightning Bolt, and Fant?as) and headlining tiny sweatholes. The fourseome hasn't had much trouble packing tight audiences in without having a full-length album out nor having hipster critics gush over them. It's easily the buzz from feverish fans as Battles could be considered the newest supergroup to emerge out of a nameless scene that really doesn't exist. Tyondai Braxton is probably the least known of the crew, but his brilliant 2002 album, History That Has No Effect is embarassingly underlooked, David Konopka has played with Lynx, Ian Williams with Don Caballero and Storm and Stress, and John Stanier has drummed for Tomahawk and Helmet. Together, the sound is diverse, forceful, unavoidable, and their first two EPs are short but strong and soon to become legendary.

"Tras" opens the two-song single. At under four minutes, it's a perfect introduction to the band as it's both rhythmically challenging and catchy as all hell. The precise guitar riffs combined with a TV theme-like keyboard ditty are a perfect fit for drums that are aggressive enough for a metal record, but, as the drums come equipped with a super slick sound and an occasional shuffle, are way too cool to be wasted on brainless hair tossing. "Fantasy" is almost a throwback to the sampled staccato sounds of Ty Braxton's album with echoes reverberating in time with the rhythm. It's boldly almost completely absent of melody yet rich in beats, provided by drum machines, punchy samples, and live percussion. At the eight-minute mark when that 808 kick comes in, any speaker in its path is in trouble.

Together with Tras, EP C could easily form a complete album. The repetition on the opener "B + T" is deceptively simple: it's pretty and layered with different motives, occasional breaks and samples, all which keep the song in perpetual motion. After the short drumless "UW" that could make Kraftwerk blush by its atmospheric twittering, the band comes back in full swing with "Hi/Lo," substituting a low end synth where a bass should be. "Hi/Lo" may be slower than some of their other loud numbers but it's no less grand, building in intensity gradually over the nearly eight minutes, from a small pile of rubble to a mountainous beast. Finishing off the disc are the short "IPT-2" and "Tras 2," each incorporating what seems like a bit of digital fuckery at first, with the second one ending with the drummer trailing off on his own. It's hard to not admit that Battles are flirting with traditionally nerdy instrumental alt-rock/post-whatever styles, and, as a number of groups that each member was in before Battles, they are admittedly crafty. The trick to the craft is making something interesting enough for the band to play and attractive enough for the audiences to enjoy it, and with that, mark my words, Battles are something to watch.

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