Grace Notes: Dead Can Dance, The Mary Onettes, Saint Etienne
Grace Notes is a weekly exploration by Jason Morehead of signs of common grace in the music world. We hope to alert you to wonderful music, some of which will be spiritual in nature but all of which will be unique and worthy of your attention. Each week we will share brief reviews of albums worthy of your attention and maybe a video or two.
Dead Can Dance
The duo of Lisa Gerrard and Brendan Perry has often been lumped in with the “goth” scene, but their music transcends such easy classification. Though they began as a Joy Division-esque post-punk outfit in the early 80s, their discography saw them weaving medieval, renaissance, and neo-classical sounds together with sounds and instrumentation from Asia, Africa, and South America. And at the core of their enigmatic music, there were the voices: Gerrard’s heavenly, operatic vocals and Perry’s earthy baritone. The duo parted ways after 1996’s Spiritchaser: both members went on to solo careers, and Gerrard gained further attention thanks to her numerous soundtrack contributions, including The Insider, Gladiator, The Passion of the Christ (though it was later withdrawn), and Deus Ex: Human Revolution. The duo announced last year that they’d be releasing a new album in 2012, as well as embarking on a world tour. In preparation for that, they’ve been releasing EPs of material culled from various concerts over the years. The third EP is now available on Dead Can Dance’s website, and features an especially gorgeous rendition of the traditional Irish ballad “The Wind That Shakes the Barley”.
If you want to hear more of the duo’s music, numerous compilations have been released. I’m partial to Dead Can Dance (1981–1998), which features four discs (three CDs and one concert DVD) of material from throughout their career. If that’s a bit too daunting, then Wake provides a nice two-disc overview of the band’s career.
The Mary Onettes
I’ve mentioned The Mary Onettes in passing in some previous “Grace Notes” entries, but never written about them specifically. Given that they’re set to release a new EP later this month, I thought now would be a good time to correct that oversight. The Mary Onettes rose to acclaim a couple of years ago with a slew of EPs and albums that found the quartet harnessing every good and golden sound from 80’s new wave, synth-pop, and post-punk (e.g., yearning vocals, orchestral synths, chiming guitars, mopey melodies). Sure, The Mary Onettes’ influences were pretty obvious — e.g., The Cure, New Order, The Jesus & Mary Chain, A-Ha, Echo & The Bunneymen — but the quartet so fully embodied their influences that their decades-old aesthetic ended up sounding new and exciting all over again. Their newest single, “Love’s Taking Strange Ways”, finds the band muting the 80’s influence somewhat, and one can hear some slight influences from producer Dan Lissvik (formerly of the acclaimed “Balearic House” outfit Studio).
If this piques your curiosity, then be sure to check out some of their older material, such as this Soundcloud set.
The term “guilty pleasure” is often used to explain away those CDs, movies, books, etc., that would normally bring us shame and derision if we ever claimed to enjoy them outright. And at first blush, Saint Etienne would seem to be prime “guilty pleasure” material with their dance club-friendly tunes. But with Saint Etienne, the whole is so much greater than the sum of its parts. From their exquisite melodies and retro arrangements to the avant-garde flourishes that pop up throughout their albums, from Sarah Cracknell’s lovely voice (my friends and I had a term for her kind of voice: “phone book voice”, as in, “I’d buy an album of her just singing through the phone book”) to their lyrics touching on middle-class malaise and existential ennui, Saint Etienne’s music is pure pop music on a whole ‘nother level. They have a new album, their first in seven years, coming out later this year, and the first single (“Tonight”), can be heard below.
For a good introduction to Saint Etienne, track down a copy of Smash the System: Singles and More. The compilation highlights the group’s numerous singles, including their break-out hit, a dance-house cover of Neil Young’s “Only Love Can Break Your Heart”.