Thursday, September 25, 2008

Theresa Andersson

Preparing for an upcoming television show appearance (WLAE Wednesday 7 and 9:30 p.m. in New Orleans)reminded me that I never got around to writing about a recent Theresa Andersson show at the Republic. Andersson's new Hummingbird, Go! is her most idiosyncratic album, speaking in a more personal, less genre-oriented voice than she has in the past, and it's more interesting for it. The songs are small, in some cases fragments, and they're firmly rooted in indie rock though, as her show made clearer, they embraced where she's been as well. She opened with "Mary Don't You Weep," a song consistent with her self-titled roots rock EP, and her version stands solidly beside Springsteen's Seeger Session recording. For the album and tour, she developed a circle of instruments and pedals to allow her to loop parts so she can accompany herself, the version of "Mary" grew in power and richness, while Springsteen's is unquestionably powerful, but is the case of so much Springsteen, his recordings hit one level of intensity and stay there.

One measure of success of the show is how quickly people stopped pointing at the pedals and whispering about them - how quickly the method of production became secondary to the music - and how effectively she used the looping technology. Too often, the live process of building and layering parts is inefficient, and good three minute ideas become slack five minute songs as the first minute or so is spent laying down parts. In Andersson's case, she builds the layers as quickly as possible, and the parts she adds were almost always musically interesting at the moment she added them. They felt like more of the performance, not the capturing of a part.

In fact, the show became a form of performance art, a sort of dance she performed as she moved from drums to guitar to pedals to pedals to microphone to her violin, and so on. It became hard to see which movements were expressions of the joy of playing and which were purpose-driven. It all came together for the set's most ecstatic moment, "Birds Fly Away," the album's highlight. She reminded us she's a New Orleans musician when she snapped on a sample of a drum loop of Smokey Johnson playing a portion of "It Ain't My Fault," but like Stereolab, she immediately adds parts that recontextualize the beat, in this case making it sound more Motown than New Orleans. Like Stereolab, there's a cool, mechanical precision to the sound, but her vocal in the chorus is anything but remote. The natural vision obviously reassures her ("Birds fly away / they seek shelter. / Trees stand tall / they don't falter."), so much so that she extends the song to repeat the chorus a few more times, singing it like a spiritual revelation. She returned to the song for an encore, but the magic was spent the first time around.

I gather the process of recording and looping was designed to make traveling cost-efficient; what's impressive is how successfully she took a challenge and made something personal and rewarding out of it.

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