Recording of August 2009: Dark Night of the Soul
With: Frank Black, Julian Casablancas, Vic Chesnutt, Wayne Coyne, Flaming Lips, David Lynch, Jason Lytle, James Mercer, Iggy Pop, Gruff Rhys, Suzanne Vega.
CD/download. 2009. Danger Mouse, Sparklehorse, prods., engs. AAD? TT: 43:16
It's an old story. Long before its current downturn, the music business was always the land of the grand unrealized project sabotaged at the last minute by unseen forces. The path from idea to finished product has always been a perilous one. Many are the supergroups, crossover blockbusters, or multimedia projects, hyped nearly to death at their announcements, that still lie half-finished on a shelf somewhere, or molder away in someone's imagination.
That last category, multimedia experiments, is at the center of the latest music-business-wrestles-itself controversy. In 2004, producer-songwriters Mark Linkous (aka Sparklehorse) and Brian Burton (aka Danger Mouse) were introduced to each other and began working together. In 2006 they approached film director David Lynch about his providing a visual dimension for a record of vocalists that the pair had composed songs for and assembled from electronics, keyboards, samples, and some acoustic instruments. Unlike most projects of this ilk, the photos were taken to accompany the finished music instead of the other way around. Lynch was charmed by the short collection, which includes a stellar cast of vocalists: the Flaming Lips, Gruff Rhys of Super Furry Animals, Julian Casablancas of the Strokes, Frank Black of the Pixies, Iggy Pop, James Mercer of The Shins, Suzanne Vega, and others. After much wrangling, the Lynchian title Dark Night of the Soul, or DNOTS for short, was settled on.
The culmination of the entire project was an exhibition of Lynch's photos, opening in June 2009 and running through July, at the Michael Kohn Gallery in Los Angeles. If you've seen the film Blue Velvet or the television show Twin Peaks, you have a pretty good idea of what Lynch's photos are about: mildly weird, not terribly interesting, more a cult happening than anything elseas evidenced by the opening-night crowd at the gallery, which included Heather Graham, Flea, Laura Dern, and other glitterati cooing over the images, each of which had a blue light bulb over it that illuminated when the corresponding song was played. The L.A. Times called the photos "giddy enactments out of some weird hyper-realm," and NME's website quoted the world's most unfunny man, Ben Stiller, in full intellectual plumage: "'[Lynch] is an amazing visual artist. It's fascinating how the images go with the music,' Stiller gushed."
The fly in this electronica is Danger Mouse's label, EMI, to which he owes four records. EMI threatened to sue Burton if the album was released, either alone or as part of a limited-edition deluxe package that includes a bound volume of the photos. In a cryptic interview with NPR, Danger Mouse's spokesman said, "It's a long standing dispute between Danger Mouse and EMI. It has nothing to do with samples. It has nothing to do with anyone else on the album...It would be nice if Danger Mouse owned it since he created it, he paid 100% of the costs to make it and he was happy to self-release. EMI dragged their heels endlessly and showed no interest in putting it out. There's no reason why a 3rd party would need to own it."
Again, all of this is nothing new in the record business. There's also been the suggestion that the entire affair is a savvy promotional scheme to stir up interest and, ultimately after an "official" release, sell more records. That remains to be seen. At the moment, Burton plans to print and sell 5000 books that he will pay for, each to include a blank CDR and be stickered with a not-so-vague invitation to illegally download the music (see above image). NPR is also streaming the record, and certainly many copies of the full project are already out there, sure to be uploaded.
Almost forgotten among all the legal saber rattling and artistic puffery are the soundscapes that inspired Lynch's photographs. Easily enjoyable without the photos, the music is clearly the product of much hard work, which may be the real problem EMI has with the project: that Burton has spent more good energy on this than he did on his work for them.
Opening with the very Genesis-sounding "Revenge," which features Wayne Coyne sounding for all the world like a cross between Phil Collins and Peter Gabriel, DNOTS moves on to a delightful anti-war number, "Just War," which blends descending keyboard changes, crisp blinging guitars, and Gruff Rhys singing a big, string-backed chorus hook. His pronunciation of dust in the last chorus line, "Crawling through the duuuhhhhsssst," is a wonderful bit of guttural UK English. Pop sunniness, this time with much quavering organ and overdubbed vocal choruses, continues in "Jaykub," sung by Grandaddy's Jason Lytle. "Little Girl," sung by Julian Casablancas, is the track Strokes fans have been waiting to hear since 2003's Room On Fire, and shines a light on this album's greatest revelation: that Burton and Linkous are masters at writing songs to match the talents of a specific performer, and/or matching singers to songs that play to their existing strengths or, as in the case of Frank Black in "Angel's Heart," challenge them to stretch and explore.
Deeper down the track list, Iggy Pop falls into his usual voice from the tomb in the dance hit "Pain," while strummed guitar-pop bubbliness foams around The Shins' James Mercer in "Insane Lullaby." Suzanne Vega breathily floats through "The Man Who Played God," before the album closes with a pair of Lynchian numbers: "Grim Augury," which opens with a tolling bell and features Vic Chesnutt singing about "Catfish wriggling in blood and gore," before Lynch himself takes over the title track, singing with heavy echo and effects behind a steady 78rpm-like scratch and funereal piano comping. Given that it was created by a pair of very talented studio geeks, the sound of DNOTS varies very deliberately from track to track, ranging from experimental lo-fi to nearly pristine.
Will EMI get out of its own way and release Dark Night of the Soul? And even if it does, is the album too highbrow to sell in big or even medium numbers? Stay tuned. Meanwhile, keep streaming.Robert Baird