Carla Bozulich: Evangelista

Though Carla Bozulich resides in L.A., a number of things characterize her brutally raw song cycle Evangelista as a Constellation release, most conspicuously the instrumental contributions of label mainstays: string players Beckie Foon, Thierry Amar, Gen Heistek, Sophie Trudeau, organist Nadia Moss, and guitarist Efrim (who also recorded the album at—where else?—the Hotel2Tango in Montreal). If there's a Constellation spirit closest to Bozulich's, however, it's Elizabeth Anka Vajagic, the label's other fearless gothic vocalist. Beyond that, Bozulich's style also recalls P.J. Harvey and Patti Smith, kindred artists equally comfortable inhabiting vocal extremes. Bozulich is hardly a neophyte, incidentally. She's been singing in various configurations for over twenty years, from Ethyl Meatplow and The Geraldine Fibbers to The Red-Headed Stranger (with Willie Nelson).

Grimy string drone and sampled clatter set a portentous mood at the outset of “Evangelista I” but it's Bozulich's echoing wail that drenches the song with despair. A sample of Elder Otis Jones's 1936 preaching haunts the background, adding to the nightmarish country-blues vibe, but one hardly notices it alongside Bozulich's possessed scream (“Please don't squeeze too hard”); calling it dramatic hardly conveys the force of its impact. Thankfully the sparse invocation that follows (“Steal Away”) provides a hymnal respite after the song's almost unbearably intense anguish. Elsewhere, “Pissing” grows from a chant into a tumultuous roar while “Prince of the World” allows dreamy sunlight to briefly pierce the darkness. Most of the settings are sparsely arranged, all the better for allowing her voice room to maneuver (e.g., its emotive crawl over Nadia Moss's organ in the blues meditation “Baby, That's the Creeps” and its elegiac musing over Efrim's tremolo guitar in “Evangelista II”). A few instrumental tracks indulge a more experimental, sample-oriented side (“Inside Sleeps”) with “Nels' Box” an especially satisfying spotlight for Ezra Buchla's viola playing. Still, the vocal pieces are clearly the primary focus. When she opens her mouth, Bozulich bares her soul so nakedly you become a voyeur. Yes, there are moments when her performance verges on over the top yet, when it's delivered with such honesty and conviction, one is compelled to excuse her for it.

May 2006