Sophie Mayer reviews Evangelista’s In Animal Tongue and is enraptured by the lyrics, vocals and productions of charismatic frontwoman Carla Bozulich
“Tonight I rode her broken back.” A single-note throb of electric guitar over bass drone . It’s an arresting opening, a route straight into Evangelista territory. Steeped in the landscape and language of murder ballads and gospel blues (that broken back belongs to the lamb of a dark god), In Animal Tongue takes up the vocal power of evangelism, the speaking in tongues and charismatic preaching that Christianity claims as its own and sticks that feminine ‘a’ on the end, not preaching but playing. As the title of the final track, ‘Hatching,’ suggests, this album wants you to be reborn to the throb and screech and groan of your animal nature.
The band list their genre as gothic on their MySpace page, although this is gothic like the wildness of the Brontë sisters’ novels, rather than like The Cure. When female musicians enter what could be called PJ Harvey territory – sex, death, God, blood – music journalists are all too tempted to wrap them up in clichés of witch hunts and hysteria, evoking images of the possessed girls in Salem speaking in tongues.
Animal tongue here is a sophisticated rawness that sings of the body while extending it through technology, as Bozulich’s voice loops, echoes, yearns and calls out through a drone-driven soundscape (provided by bassist Tara Barnes, co-Evangelista) that will resonate with fans of Godspeed You! Black Emperor (labelmates with whom Evangelista have toured), Swans and the intelligent, passionate noise highlighted at this summer’s ATP I’ll Be Your Mirror curated by Portishead and headlined by PJ Harvey.
Titling a record In Animal Tongue underscores the long association of women with nature and the animal, but both the music and lyrics challenge the negative associations while exploring its power. As lead singer Bozulich murmurs close to the mike on ‘Black Jesus’: “don’t leave me down here.” And the album, which is not so much a concept or narrative as a constellation of repeated phrases and themes, doesn’t.
“You’ll see planets,” she promises, four minutes into opener ‘Artificial Lamb,’ “I’m going with you.” Shimmering guitar cascades and ghostly bleeps start to appear like alien communications; like Björk’s Biophilia , Evangelista’s In Animal Tongue is an album that yokes the interstellar and technological to the earthy and biological.
Bozulich’s command of both composition and production is notable: she wrote, arranged and recorded the album herself (the fourth Evangelista album in three years), with assistance from co-Evangelista Dominic Cramp. The fusion of traditional themes with electronic experimentation is more audible on Evangelista’s eponymous 2008 debut, which made the cover of The Wire magazine, an increasingly rare accolade for a female artist.
I picked that album up on the most superficial of rationales: I loved the cover art and the song titles made me laugh with recognition, ‘Baby, That’s the Creeps’ being the stand-out. The songs stood up to my visceral reaction, becoming my perfect soundtrack to night bus journeys, all jitter and howl and bitter desire.
The passionate and perceptive exploration of intimate relationships is still audible here, as (as on PJ Harvey’s To Bring You My Love), God and the human lover (and the listener) are addressed interchangeably. There’s a steely determination to show a vulnerability that Bozulich shares with Portishead’s Beth Gibbon, the crooning nakedness of a singer turning herself inside out for the audience.
‘Tunnel to the Stars’ may open with a dizzying discordance of strings (two contrabasses!) and Bozulich’s voice may be sequenced over the out-of-sync repeated violin phrases, but the song is a Portishead-like balance of heart-pounding anxiety and emotional beauty. It captures perfectly the anxious/beautiful experience of waking in the middle of the night next to a sleeping lover. “Clutch your hand like a bird to my heart,” urges Bozulich, exemplifying the way her songs – at once terrifying and tremulous – simultaneously hold the sleepless listener close and make her want to take flight.
Images courtesy of CST records