Saturday, July 29, 2017
Tout Seul dans la Forêt en Plein Jour, Avez-Vous Peur?
K Records KLP 172
Woelv was the nom de disque of Geneviève Castrée who died far too young a little over a year ago of cancer. She was a French-Canadian artist, poet and author who also recorded some strikingly memorable music. This beautiful record features a 60 page album sized booklet with the lyrics of the songs (which are sung in French) along with translations in English and multiple other languages, illustrations by Castrée and some additional texts that reflect the theme of the record which is anti-war and questioning the American obsession with violence and power. There are no musician credits on the album (aside from background vocalists on "Sang jeune") so I assume it is performed solely by Castrée and her husband Phil Elverum, the percussion and drone of some of the tracks is reminiscent of Mount Eerie. The album opens with "Drapeau Blanc" ("White Flag") which poetically describes the violence of children having a snowball fight and Castrée's own desire to escape war. The song begins as a delicate folky song with a gentle double-tracked vocal from Castrée that sounds appropriately child-like. Then the percussion kicks in and Castrée belts out the lyrics driving the song to a very forceful conclusion. "La fille qui s'est enfermée dans la salle de bains" ("The Girl Who Locked Herself in the Bathroom") presents evocative images of domestic violence and more thoughts of escape. This short a cappella song uses multiple vocal tracks to create a complex vocal arrangement. "(Réconciliation)" is about reconciling all the stages of one's life from birth to old age. It is a folk-style song with a nice harmony vocal from Elverum. "Deux coqs" ("Two Cocks") chronicles a pair of sparrows who begin fighting like roosters until they blind each other. It is a short song driven by a bass guitar and an insistent and breathy vocal by Castrée. "La petite cane dans la nappe de pétrole" ("The Young Female Duck in the Puddle of Petrol") uses the metaphor of a duck stuck in oil to describe the oppression of self-destructive relationships. The song starts out like a folk song with a Spanish flavor before the percussion emerges to provide a thunderous droning backdrop to Castrée's wailing multi-tracked vocal. This powerful song is one of my favorite tracks on the record. "Au viol!" ("Rape!") begins by explaining how to tame a female wolf in the first verse and then in the second verse Castrée describes what sounds like an emotional and personal violation using the language of physical rape. The song is driven by a repetitive and compelling piano riff over which Castrée sensitively croons and hums. "(Arrogance)" is a very brief song that returns to the escape imagery of "Drapeau Blanc" but with a more optimistic conclusion. It sounds very naked compared to the previous tracks, just guitar and voice which places all the emphasis on the stark lyrics. "La mort et le chien obèse" ("Death and the Obese Dog") examines the hypocrisy of people who embrace religion yet condone military action and who lavish food on their dogs while children elsewhere starve to death. This is another bass-driven song with a multi-tracked breathy vocal, but this time Castrée adds screamed howls in the background which enhance the feeling of menace and misery within the song. "Sous mon manteau" ("Under My Coat") was derived from sentences from "The Koran" which Castrée translated from Arabic into French. The song is highly poetic and the accompaniment is gentle and folky with a childlike vocal from Castrée that complements the simplicity in the lyrics. Side two opens with "Sang jeune" ("Young Blood") which is another overtly poetic composition that laments the violence of young people. The song begins with a slow sinuous tune with an Asian feel to it, before becoming more energetic via a driving percussion track and background vocalists giving the song extra weight. This is another one of my favorite songs. "L'Homme qui vient de marcher sur une mine" ("The Man Who Has Just Stepped on a Landmine") despite its grim subject matter is a dazzling display of Castrée's poetic gifts as she describes the final moments of a victim of a landmine. It starts out sounding like a Middle Eastern dance tune before settling into a languorous drone. "Tout seul dans la forêt en plein jour" ("Alone in the Forest in Broad Daylight") combines a soundscape with a song. It begins with a tranquil folk song that compares nervous violence-prone people with the calm of being alone in the forest asking which one do you fear more. Gradually a soundscape emerges underneath the song. Castrée had been living in the woods near a military base and set up a microphone to record the transition from jets landing to frogs croaking as evening sets in. The soundscape continues after the song ends providing an atmospheric conclusion to the record. I really love this album, I consider it a masterpiece that ought to be better known. It was created with such care and authority, it is so satisfying as a work of art. The combination of the artwork in the book, the poetic lyrics, the cohesive vision and the musical sensitivity make it an intensely engaging experience in a manner more common with high art than pop music, if you will pardon me getting pretentious, something akin to a Gesamtkunstwerk. I don't mean to imply that this record is difficult or snooty. It is very enjoyable and accessible on a casual level, but unlike most pop records, if you go deeper into it you will be rewarded. Castrée's message is not particularly profound or intellectual, in truth it is not all that far removed from Melanie or Cat Stevens, just expressed in a more poetic and subtle manner. What I particularly like about the album is Castrée's willingness to open herself up and to express her concerns with emotional honesty and commitment. So many of the kids I hear in the indie rock scene nowadays seem so reserved and ironic, they are too cool to reveal themselves. I find it refreshing to experience a musical artist willing to share her feelings and fears openly without barriers, one with ambition who wants to create a meaningful work that goes far beyond having a nice beat that you can dance to. I feel bad that Castrée died so young, but I also feel bad that such a gifted and sensitive artist has been silenced. It makes me treasure this album even more knowing there will never be another like it. Recommended to fans of Joanna Newsom and Mount Eerie.