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Experimental Sounds From Hannah Marcus

Sparse and minimalist, literary, even at times downright unsettling — all these are apt ways to describe Hannah Marcus' sixth and newest album, Desert Farmers (Bar None). In the realm of stark, cryptic and lonely atmospherics, the album is in a class with Nico's disturbing late-'60s masterpiece, The Marble Index, sounding like the remains of nuclear fallout.

But, with Godspeed You! Black Emperor as her backing band, what else should we expect?

After the boys of GSY!BE came across one of Marcus' earlier recordings, they invited her to open some of the nine-piece collective's European dates in 2002. Soon the band offered Marcus not only the use of their recording studio, but their musical talent as well.

"In talking to them on tour, I talked about the next record and thought it [the GSY!BE studio] sounded like a good place to record," Marcus said during a recent interview with Neumu.

So as she recorded Desert Farmers at the band's Montreal Hotel2Tango studio, the atmospheric sounds GSY!BE have been known for since the mid-'90s were added to her own musical minimalism.

This isn't the first time that Marcus has collaborated with critically-acclaimed musician friends. In the early '90s, she moved to San Francisco, where she currently lives; there she met the members of American Music Club and a young friend of theirs named Mark Kozelek (at the time fronting the Red House Painters; currently the man behind Sun Kil Moon). Kozelek produced her early-'90s Demerol EP and 1996's River of Darkness full-length; AMC's Tim Mooney co-produced 2000's Black Hole Heaven.

For Marcus, her music's unique qualities come from one of her habits as a songwriter — transcending the simple communication of a feeling in song, and instead telling an entire story. "My tic has been that I tend to write songs that are a short story in my mind, that have the structure of a short story," she explained.

Many of these "short stories" are based on her own experiences growing up in Manhattan's Upper West Side, between Spanish Harlem and the Columbia University campus, drawing on not only what was going on inside her, but also what was going on around her in the city. Her father played the cello, and chamber music rehearsals and recitals took place in their apartment. Her mother, a painter, listened to '60s artists such as Leonard Cohen, Phil Ochs, The Supremes, Bob Dylan and Judy Collins while she worked.

Marcus has said that she was deeply affected by her older sister Melissa, who was born with severe autism. "She allowed me to empathize with states of mind and sensory perspectives that defy generalization — that challenge one's sense of who one is, of what intelligence and morality are, of what love is," Marcus is quoted as saying in her record-company bio.

While her music recalls the work of those to whom Marcus inevitably draws comparisons (PJ Harvey, Patti Smith) and those she says she's currently listening to (Elephant 6 legends Neutral Milk Hotel), her lyrics are firmly rooted in the work of such contemporary novelists as Raymond Carver.

One song on the new album, "Beloved," features the words from a poem, also titled "Beloved," written by a nursing-home resident named William Ross. The eerie lyrics are might remind one of Nico's "Frozen Warning," discussing things trapped in time to preserve their beauty.

The sights of the city also appear in songs such as "Laos." She discusses "things she should never see" in photos from a pretty boy who stayed with her. Here, she mentions meeting him in pharmacies and motel rooms, and remembering him through photographs, concluding that though you should never see some things, "you see them anyway."

"Hairdresser in Taos" specifically mentions landmarks by name, referencing San Gabriel Mountains and the New Mexico border. Religion, also present in her work, is especially apparent in "Purple Mother."

These stories would seem to say much about who Marcus is; they sound like the way she talks, slightly nervous, sometimes cryptic, but with an underlying kindness.

The outlook on Desert Farmers, as compared to her previous album, Black Hole Heaven, is bit sunnier, like the daybreak of the morning after. "It just seemed like the mood of [Black Hole Heaven] was much less approachable," Marcus told Neumu, "I just let things occur on Desert Farmers. I didn't try to change my songwriting, but it's a lot looser."

Marcus is ready to record again, and believes her next album may have a different sound from Desert Farmers. "I've reintroduced the piano into my life," she said.

This has led to yet another songwriting turn for Marcus, whose recent writing has tended to be split between her more traditional, experimental work, and some newer, simpler, "country ballad" style songs. "I was thinking they should be on separate records, but I think it would be nice to have them on the same record," she said. — John Wenz [Friday, March 19, 2004]

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