REVIEW: Tanakh: Villa Claustrophobia
Tanakh: Villa Claustrophobia [Alien8, 2002] (mp3s)
Three words? deep goth exotica
To say that Jesse Poe of Richmond, Virginia is not a happy man is an understatement; certainly, that's the impression one comes away with after listening to his music. Villa Claustrophobia, the debut album from Poe's group Tanakh, is a brooding, gloomy record, dripping with melancholy from start to finish. The album's sepita-tone cover does a fine job of suggesting the nature of the music contained - Tanakh's sound evokes thoughts of dusty temple corridors and night in the desert.
Structurally, Villa Claustrophobia is a departure for Montreal based Alien8 Recordings. Known for having put out records by such acts as noise-beast Merzbow and psych droners Shalabi Effect, Alien8's releases are generally unconventional, if not downright bizarre. By contrast, Villa Claustrophobia must seem tame to them; to quote from the label's website, "most of the recording is made up of actual songs, which for the most part is new territory for us." That being said, the album is by no means a pop record. The songs on Villa Claustrophobia are interspersed among Middle-Eastern-tinged droning instrumental pieces, fleshed out by a star-studded cast of musicians which includes Mick Turner of the Dirty Three and Nirmal Bajekal, who regularly performs with Ravi Shankar.
It's with the droning songs that this album finds success with me. The disc is opened and closed by the two part piece "In Every Villa..." "...Claustrophobia," made up of lush instrumentation swaying around a four chord progression. A plucked upright and, later, a cello hold down the bass line, and a sitar jangles and twangs peacefully somewhere in the background. Bajekal sings a wordless melody, harmonizing with herself. A guitar quietly meanders through, horn flourishes add colour, and kettle drums rumble in the distance. Eventually, the drums make their way to the fore, and are joined by a synth, a mellotron, and thick bass. All in all, a lovely, relaxing piece, and the careful orchestration only helps things. "Mashant" treads in similar territory, with strings, guitar, percussion, and thickly delayed vocals building around a drone, gradually finding a rhythm and swelling up around it.
Where Villa Claustrophobia falls short of the mark is in the lyric pieces. "Pharaoh's Lonely Daughter" opens up nicely with a strummed acoustic guitar and a tremoloed electric that brings to mind ghost towns, and is particularly effective given its juxtaposition with the exotic sound of the opening track. However, the lyrics feel overwrought, and the imagery isn't that exciting - lines like "And in my dream / I died in your unscathed arms" set my Gothicke Poetrye radar off. The lyrics continue to disappoint: the unfortunately titled "Stereognosis" is just one goofy love song cliche after another, which sadly mars the otherwise good-sounding song. And Poe's interpretation of "Gently Johnny," a bawdy old English ballad, just doesn't do it for me. Perhaps it's that the performance isn't ribald enough for my liking; Poe angles for a moody delivery on lines like "I put my hand on her belly / She says, 'Do you want to fill me?'" but ends up sounding more silly than sultry to my ears. Perhaps it's that I've developed an aversion to ethereal lyricism since selling my This Mortal Coil records, but I just can't take Poe's brooding seriously. That said, fans of gloomy music should love this album: at times, Poe's timbre is reminiscent of that of Brendan Perry of Dead Can Dance, and the female glossolalia and Middle-Eastern elements which permeate the disc further suggest that any fan of DCD should check this out. Frankly, I'm surprised that Alien8 managed to sign these guys before Sam Rosenthal's Projekt Records, purveyors of all things dark, brooding, and ethereal, snatched them up. Makes you wonder what might happen if Black Tape For A Blue Girl bought themselves fuzzboxes.
The whole of Villa Claustrophobia has a pleasantly grainy cinematic tone to it, and for the most part, the quality of the music is such that one can overlook the ham-fisted lyricism. The instrumental tracks sound very good, and warm, exotic songs of this sort should make for excellent listening material come long nights and the dead of winter. If you want to get all the way into this one, though, you'd better haul out the candles and incense, and for God's sake, wear some black.