September 17, 2003

Brazelton/Naphtali "What Is It like To Be a Bat?"

I want to begin this review with a confession. Until this point, I’ve never listened to a single record with John Zorn’s name on it. Yes, I know that he’s a very big name in experimental music, and that he’s been involved in many ensembles (Naked City, Masada) that I should have checked out a long time ago. I also know that he is the figurehead of Tzadik, one of the most prominent labels for music of a similar bent. There are many people on this planet who shell out their hard-earned money for anything with this man’s name on it, and I give him the benefit of the doubt by assuming that he deserves this kind of loyalty. I make this confession so that all of the art snobs reading this won’t absolutely despise me after this review is finished. They can merely shrug their shoulders, mumble to themselves that I simply don’t get it, and move on to the next piece of pricey pretension in their record collection. For the rest of you, I humbly admonish even adventurous listeners not to buy this CD unless you can find it used. John Zorn’s name might be worth its weight in gold, but most of this record is barely worth the paper and plastic that was used to press it.

The spine of the CD is adorned with a piece of paper promoting Tzadik’s Oracle series, which is designed to celebrate “the diversity and creativity of women in experimental music making, bringing to the foreground the ongoing accomplishments of some of the most forward looking musicians working today.” It also describes this collaboration between Kitty Brazelton and Dafna Naphtali as “complex, visionary weirdness from two of the strangest minds in contemporary music.” Whoever wrote the previous sentence is LYING and seriously needs to be ashamed of him/herself. I refuse to call any album “forward-looking” when even its best songs were already done better by Yoko Ono more than twenty years ago. (I use the term “best songs” lightly because the eighteen-track album doesn’t even begin to show promise until track fourteen.) Neither would I call this album “creative” or “complex” simply because it sounds as if the process used to make it was quite simple, almost to the point of laziness. Brazelton, Naphtali, and two other musicians simply jammed around for a couple of days, and ran everything through the thickest possible cloud of ProTools manipulation. Granted, both of these women are technically skilled musicians with a powerful four-octave vocal range. You’d think, though, that people this talented would come up with something that wasn’t such a chore to listen to.

“Batch 1-2” begins with a snippet of studio chatter that gives way to
banshee wailing and blast beats almost drowned out in reverb. Only a minute long, it would serve as a great introduction to the album if most of the record didn’t sound EXACTLY like it. “Batch 3 (Madrigal)” is a humorous choral piece about eating spaghetti, but only ninety seconds pass before it is interrupted by “Batch 4 (Ha!),” which consists of even more shouting and effects pedal abuse. “Batch 5” gives us forty seconds of jazz drumming, wordless harmonies before “Batch 6” drags the album right back into pointless sonic cutups. “Batch 7-8” is four more minutes of banshee wailing and blast beats. The sixteen-minute “Trance” goes through the same tug of war between music and noise, and therefore could’ve been divided into smaller tracks just like the previous six. When the two women actually sing, the band sounds as if it’s about to launch into a something killer, but every single time the momentum is squashed by more DSP wank and irritating breathing exercises. The few good ideas aren’t allowed to develop for longer than a minute or two before being steam-rolled by digital noise, and the bad ideas are allowed to last for up to three times as long as the good ones. These seven tracks comprise the first suite of the record, which is called “She Said---She Said, ‘Can You Sing Sermonette With Me?’” I have no idea what the title has to do with the music, or what any of the individual tracks have to do with each other. I don’t think that Brazelton or Naphtali has an idea either.

The second suite, “5 Dreams; Marriage,” has even more spectacular lows, but manages to gain some coherence toward the end. The first half of the eleven-track suite alternates between more banshee wailing and cutup studio chatter. Was the jam session THAT boring that we all needed to hear about the shows that Brazelton and Naphtali attended the night before? Track fourteen, “Aria 4,” is where the band actually starts playing SONGS…you know, the kind that I could put on a mix tape and say “Hey, check this out” without feeling like a moron. “We work, we sleep, we argue about everything,” the women sing, finally making SOME sort of capitulation toward the title’s stated theme. The music rocks, the lyrics are good, and the ideas are allowed to develop for longer than two minutes. It segues into “Answer 4,” a harpsichord-driven lamentation that further expounds on marital drama. “We work, we sleep, we watch the TV,” they sing, “with no desire, no eye to eye; we don’t wish to agree.” This gives way to “Aria 5,” in which the guitars start screeching, the drumming gets more shambolic, and the banshee wailing returns. However, by this point the band has gained enough momentum that the cacophony actually makes the music STRONGER instead of weaker. “Answer 5” finally gives us the killer heavy-metal breakdown that the better parts of ‘Trance” hinted at, and the appropriately named “Glory Chorale” finally showcases the women’s beautiful voices in a flattering light, with a gala of harpsichords droning on behind them.

Unfortunately, the fact remains that I’ve just informed you of about sixteen minutes’ worth of good music on a fifty-five-minute CD. Brazelton and Naphtali refuse to adhere to any structure that would actually engage listeners for very long, and the back-loaded sequencing ensures that most listeners won’t have the patience to sort through the chaff to get to the wheat. Even from “Aria 4” onward, all of the ingredients that make the music work can be found on Yoko Ono’s first couple of solo albums. The jazzy drumming, the guitar noise, the strangled vocals, the plainspoken lyrics, and the disjointed structures are combined in a much more accessible fashion on Plastic Ono Band and Fly. I’m pretty sure that the other entries in the Oracle series by people I’ve actually heard of (for instance, Yuka Honda and Susie Ibarra) piss on What Is It Like to Be a Bat? from a GREAT height.

---Sean Padilla

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