Prefuse 73: The Only She Chapters

About once a year we're granted a peek into Guillermo Scott Herren's overstuffed mind and come away from the experience a tad dazed and confused. The Only She Chapters isn't different in that regard from the other installments in his ongoing Prefuse 73 story, as once again one is dizzied by the sheer density of the material on offer. I had the pleasure of interviewing Herren in Manhattan a number of years ago upon the release of 2005's Surrounded By Silence and at the time his central Prefuse 73 focus was hip-hop (albeit hip-hop refracted through the prism of his idiosyncratic sensibility), so it's interesting to hear how little explicit trace of it appears on The Only She Chapters. Of course, no one should draw any huge, overarching conclusions based on the sound of a single album, and one could certainly find some evidence of hip-hop in the material if one were so inclined (just as one could probably find traces of every conceivable type of music). But, even so, the new album's worlds away from the territory carved out on Surrounded By Silence. More than anything else, The Only She Chapters is a heady fusion of vocal-based psychedelia, warped classical chamber music, electronic experimentalism, and Musique concrète. In a project that he himself regards as “weird” and a “departure,” Herren couples the female singers' contributions with ample layers of acoustic instrument sounds (piano, guitars, woodwinds, cellos, etc.) and electronics.

Herren's move into his own fractured take on modern composition was facilitated by an August 2010 live performance in Katowice, Poland when the Polish Ausko Orchestra presented Herren's material in classical arrangement form. Some hint of that influence surfaces in the presence of classical strings in “The Only Chamber Resolve,” but The Only She Chapters is anything but a polite neo-classical exercise. Herren's overheated imagination is on full display in “The Only Direction in Concrete,” which could pass for a Times Square traffic jam on a sweltering August afternoon, and during “The Only Recollection of Where Life Stopped,” where field recordings of train clatter and doors opening and closing appear. Instrumental and vocal settings often alternate, with the female singers' oft-wordless contributions deployed as one more sonic colour rather than as lead vocals per se (to cite one example, Nico Turner's voice largely merges with the thick sound mass rolling through “The Only Way to Find”). Her voice built into an angelic choir, Faidherbe floats o'ertop a clangorous gamelan quilt in “The Only Contact She's Willing to Give” and then later does much the same during “The Only Lillies and Lilacs Pt. 2.” A serenading vocal turn by Shara Worden (My Brightest Diamond) raises the ethereal temperature during the slow-burning psychedelia of “The Only Hand to Hold,” and it's also nice to hear the late Trish Keenan (of Broadcast renown) threading her dulcet tones through “The Only Trial of 9000 Suns,” even if her voice is almost buried under the track's instrumental weight. An occasional trace of Herren's melodic signature arises too. Buried beneath the dulcimers and loping groove in “The Only Valentine's Day Failure” one detects ever so faintly a Prefuse 73-styled theme. Those who argue that describing music of this kind as “oceanic” has become a hackneyed cliched might have a point, yet it's hard to hear it as anything but when so many elements bob within Herren's ultra-dense mix.

May 2011