As much fun as I’m having being an indie-rock fan in 2002, I still
occasionally wish that I was born a decade or two earlier so that I could observe firsthand the musical movements that inspired so many of the bands that I listen to today. Instead of having my skull metaphorically cracked open watching US Maple open for Pavement at Stubb’s in 1999, I could’ve watched No Wave pioneers DNA in some seedy Soho art gallery back in 1979. From what little I’ve heard from this criminally undocumented band, I could visualize front man Arto Lindsay yelping and strangling his guitar like a two-fingered banshee while Thurston Moore takes notes from the audience. Yes, Lindsay really does cast that large a shadow over the outer fringes of rock; even Blonde Redhead, who has only recently shaken off its reputation as a Sonic Youth tribute act, is named after a DNA song. Nostalgia for things that I was born too late to witness is quite futile, though, especially when elder statesmen like Lindsay continue to make challenging music to this day. If you compare A Taste of DNA with the solo material he’s made twenty years later, you’d be surprised how far his artistic restlessness has taken him, as well as how little of his past he’s actually left behind.
An undercurrent of dissonance runs through nearly every song on Invoke: the string scraping and pitch-shifted vocals of “Predigo,” the shortwave squeaks and insect noises on “You Decide,” the reversed junkyard percussion that overtakes “Clemency,” and the ring-modulated fret noises that close “Uma” are just a few examples that reveal themselves upon close listening. Although Arto’s noise fetish hasn’t completely disappeared, it is obvious that he’s an older, calmer guy now. His abrasive textures don’t slap you in the face; instead, they creep behind your back and tap you on your shoulder when you least expect it. With each album, Lindsay gets better and better at fusing Brazilian pop, contemporary R&B, and outré rock into an indescribable whole. This makes Invoke an easier listen than his previous (and equally brilliant) solo album, 1999’s Prize. It also helps that there’s not an off-key yelp to be found on these songs, for Arto’s current singing voice is soothing and stately enough to make David Grubbs sound like Tim Kinsella in comparison.
The first song, “Illuminated,” is a portrait of man with a one-track mind in which Arto sings in English over a neo-soul backdrop of muted keyboards, choppy guitar, and spare drum programming. A Brazilian-born man who moved to America as a teenager, Arto remains a gifted and concise lyricist whether he writes in English or in his native tongue. The lyrics of “Predigo” are the famous last words of a prophet who awaits an untimely death; they’re sung entirely in Portuguese, and it’s telling that the lyrics lose a bit of their impact when translated into English. “Ultra Privileged” is a kiss-off to a flamboyant, shallow woman. The clarinet interjections and jazzy drumming suggest what the Red Krayola would sound like if it wasn’t so hell-bent on self-sabotage. The album’s title track is as close to a pop song comes to becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. Its lyrics could be used as a manifesto by any artist worth his or her salt:“I list your numerable and innumerable parts/All your limbs/Together in a simple motion.” When Arto sighs “I invoke” in the song’s chorus, a swooping, dramatic violin part enters, summoning the grandeur of an artist’s creation coming to life instantaneously.
The album’s one-two punch of “In the City That Reads” and “Delegada” outline the extremes of Lindsay’s sound. To be blunt, “City” is a complete mess; the percussion sounds like power tools drilling into the concrete, the guitars and keyboards play Morse code with each other, and weary chain-gang moans jump in and out of the mix. All of the instruments seem to operate independently of each other, occasionally exploding into some kind of marching-band fanfare. Needless to say, I LOVE THIS SONG! “Delegada,” on the other hand, is an acoustic ballad with Portuguese lyrics about a beautiful girl who’s far from a morning person. “Uma,” like “Illuminated,” exalts a unique person with an unshakable purpose. Two songs later, the protagonist of “Unseen” pleas for the return of a friend who has abandoned him as woozy violins weep and wander from one speaker to the other. That song’s despairing mood is instantly broken when album closer “Beija-me” begins. Listening to Arto sing about the sweetness and power of his lover’s kiss will make any red-blooded male want to grab the nearest pretty girl and start doing a tango…at least until the song takes an abrupt twenty-second funk detour.
Despite, or maybe because of, Arto’s refusal to stick to any one genre, mood, or language, Invoke remains a coherent and compelling listen from start to finish. It’s a shame that his Ani Difranco connection hasn’t resulted in wider exposure. It would be haughty to assume that a good review on a minuscule Web site would tip the scales that heavily in his favor, but somebody’s got to sing his praises. As unconventional as Invoke may be, I honestly feel that it would make a snug fit for any Adult Contemporary radio station’s play list. That’s wishful thinking at best, but you should take my advice and buy this CD anyway!