Let X Not Equal X

Amy X. Neuburg: Vocals from Renaissance to noise band

Like Loudon Wainwright III, Amy X. Neuburg is tired of having her name misspelled. "I've been thinking," she mused at her March 7 CD release party, "of dropping the last name altogether and just going by Amy X. But then, even more people would ask me whether I . . . " A sampler snapped up her next two words and looped them, "practice Islam, practice Islam, practice Islam, practice Islam," signaling the end of a Renaissance song and the abrupt segue into a raucous noise collage.

Neuburg, with two u's please, is a San Francisco songstress surrounded by electronics, and she's going major with a new disc called Residue on the Other Minds label. She sings, she cracks jokes, she triggers her own voice samples by rapping on pads with drumsticks, she loops her voice and sings over her alter egos until she's a whole chorus, an opera, a circus act. That raspy sound at the beginning of "Every Little Stain"? Live performance reveals that it's her brushing her teeth close to the microphone. And somewhere along the way, she's been mightily impressed by Laurie Anderson, her homage apparent even in her thoughtfully drawn-out vocal inflections.

But I hope Neuburg realizes that her strengths lie elsewhere. Her lyrics and one-liners don't have the enigmatic zing of Anderson's, so that you're still getting the joke 30 seconds or maybe even a week later. What she's got instead is that she's far more musical, with a voice that can be lovely-sultry or operatic as well as deranged-performance-art, along with a flair for playing her electronic equipment choreographically and a talent for rock-electronic textures and DJ-like intercutting. That "practice Islam" song starts with her building up a Renaissance song, "O Lord Turne Not Away Thy Face," in a four-part vocal texture, but at the repeated flick of a switch it gets interrupted by her own heavily amplified bitter observations about God. The ideas are nice, but it's the interface between such strong textures that's stunning.

Her voice can be lovely-sultry or deranged-performance-art.
photo: Rob Thomas
Her voice can be lovely-sultry or deranged-performance-art.

That's not to say she doesn't also have a handle on the tropes of modern life. "Life Stepped In" is a phone conversation with herself made up of excuses for why she can't talk right now: "I'm directing 32 plays simultaneously." "I'm redecorating the insides of my eyelids." "I'm getting a divorce." "I have forgotten who you are." And when this last forces the question, "What went wrong?" she responds calmly: "Nothing. It's perfect now." More compositional than Laurie Anderson and a hell of a lot cheerier than Diamanda Galas, Neuburg has scoped out her own territory in the gulf between pop and classical.

Electronic violinist Todd Reynolds played warm-up for Neuburg's release party; he's long been known for playing in other people's music (the Bang on a Can All-Stars, the string quartet Ethel), but his new solo career shows that he has tricks of his own. Playing violin into a computer and flicking the occasional foot switch, he set ethereal textures in motion, each line added to the last by digital looping. A lot of people use such loops these days, but Reynolds avoided the clichés and drew only the subtlest gestures to create a seamless ambient texture that was perfectly gauged to the venue. He had only to pluck a note or slide through a glissando occasionally to keep the sonic fabric lively.

And as an encore, Reynolds had boomboxes passed out to audience members for a performance of Phil Kline's Grande Etude Symphonique. Everyone clicked Play on the count of four, and as Reynolds fiddled, the house burned with the simmering chant of bells slowly crescendoing from dozens of tape players all around us. His subtle violin line provided an edge to the ecstatic noise growing around us: a true violin concerto for the post-classical age.


Other Minds, 333 Valencia Street #303, San Francisco, CA 94103-3552, otherminds.org

 
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