Laurie Anderson - United States Live Music Album Reviews

Laurie Anderson - United States Live Music Album Reviews
Each Sunday, Pitchfork takes an in-depth look at a significant album from the past, and any record not in our archives is eligible. Today we revisit Laurie Anderson’s grand theatrical treatise, an avant-garde piece comprised of sound sculpture and rock music, gender and social studies, philosophy and linguistics.

On January 25, 1983, Reagan delivered a rousing State of the Union to a country reeling from a recession. He bid for inspiration. “As surely as America’s pioneer spirit made us the industrial giant of the 20th century,” he said, “the same pioneer spirit today is opening up on another vast front of opportunity, the frontier of high technology.” He had, he said, “a vision not only of what the world around us is today, but what we as a free people can make it be tomorrow.” Six weeks later, in the premiere of his blockbuster “Evil Empire Speech,” he told an audience of the newly-ascendant Christian Right, “Any objective observer must hold a positive view of American history.” It was, he said, “a history that has been the story of hopes fulfilled and dreams made into reality.” Much of the country loved his shiny hair and avuncular brand of authoritarianism. They believed what he said.

In-between these two speeches, on February 7th, 1983, the performance artist Laurie Anderson had an opening night of a new show at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. She spiked her hair with Vaseline and pulled on a suit like she was ready for business. The overall effect was somewhere between Albert Einstein and Grace Jones. She gathered her trusty violin—various states of violins, really, some with neon inside them and others strung with prerecorded cassette tape the bow could activate—and a vocoder and other mechanical wonders, many made by her own hands. She had thousands of slides and videos and a crew to run them. A small band of fixtures of the Downtown scene, including the Love of Life Orchestra’s Peter Gordon and David Van Tieghem, was ready to accompany her. An audience primed by recent theatrical epics like Philip Glass’ Einstein on the Beach sat ready to be wowed. They believed in her. In the darkened auditorium, Anderson took the stage. She pointed to a map of America projected behind her. She asked: “Can you tell me where I am?” Then she turned to a mic plugged into a Harmonizer that dragged her voice way down into what she named her “voice of authority.” Her male voice said: “Do you want to go home?”

And so began Laurie Anderson’s own state of the union. The record of this eight-hour, two-night show—1984’s four-and-a-half-hour box set, United States Live—is a gesamtkunstwerk, a bold federation of hobbyist tinkering and scientific wizardry, sound sculpture and rock music, gender and social studies, philosophy and linguistics. With performance chops equal to the Gipper’s, Anderson untangled Reagan’s knot of tech and hope and power and wove together an alternative form of patriotism, one that centers disorientation and finds authenticity in imagination. Along the way, she created an American masterpiece.

“I grew up in the Bible Belt and spent a lot of my childhood listening to these stories, at Bible school,” Anderson once said. “Adults who mainly just did the most mundane things imaginable (mowing their lawns, throwing potluck parties). They all believed in these wild stories. And they would sit around and discuss them in the most matter-of-fact way.” Born in 1947 in the suburbs of Chicago, she angled for attention as one of eight kids and wore red blazers to talk about life in America on a European tour with Talented Teen USA. She studied biology for a year at Mills College, then ran away to New York to study art at Barnard College and then Columbia University. She taught for a while, often fabulating art history, and made work of her own: 1973’s Institutional Dream Series, in which she’d fall asleep in night courts and library bathrooms and then document the effect of public places on her dreams. For the following year’s Duets on Ice, she strapped on skates embedded into a block of ice and played along with her “self-playing violin” which held a speaker inside it, until the ice was a puddle.

She found success in the minimalist and conceptual art circles downtown, rubbing elbows with Philip Glass and Arthur Russell, and toured the country. But in the late 1970s, even the highest-profile performance art was still a low-paying gig. In the American artistic tradition, she decamped to Europe. “I was basically an expat,” she recently said. “[There were] more opportunities to work, particularly in Germany and Italy. Those were the places we went, and we’d be sitting around after a concert, usually in an art gallery…and people would go: How could you live in a country like the United States? How do you manage?”

One answer was to get famous. The NYC indie label 110 Records used an NEA grant to press up 5,000 7"s of a track Anderson had made with her friend and collaborator Roma Baran, in which she sang into a vocoder a song about the future. “O Superman” is a doo-wop-inspired robo-bummer, its peppy harmonizing more nuclear winter than the Beach Boys’ endless summer. With lyrics like, “So hold me Mom, in your long arms/Your petrochemical arms/Your military arms/Your electronic arms,” the track was a perfect foil of Reagan’s Father Knows Best strongman schtick.

To Anderson’s surprise, it became a hit, eventually making it to No. 2 on the UK charts after play by John Peel, and would go on to be sampled or covered by everyone from El-P to Booka Shade to Moses Sumney. On its strength, Warner Bros. offered her an eight-record deal. Venues offered stages. Anderson returned to New York and dug through the work she’d amassed over the previous decade. A few pieces, including “O Superman,” appeared on her first solo album, 1982’s Big Science. Hundreds more had circulated within her performances for years. The borders of United States Live were broad enough to welcome in all of them. How could she live in America? “It turned out to be an eight-hour answer,” she later laughed.

United States Live is operatic in scale but most of its 78 songs are three minutes or less. In some of them, Anderson shows off a bit of tech she’s fabricated: for “Small Voice,” a violin recorded onto a cassette is modulated via a speaker tucked inside her mouth. In “Reverb,” she turns her skull into a drum, amped by a microphone strung across a pair of Joe Cool sunglasses. As with much of the album, Anderson’s sight gags are missing, but the sounds stand on their own. She’s in charge, both carnival barker and star of the freak show. She’s Reagan promising ingenuity will save us, but she’s also Cassandra: In “New York Social Life,” she portrays a series of alienated hipsters with only their answering machines as shoulders to cry on. “Closed Circuits”, a love song to oil, stretches out and stays a little longer as the Voice of Authority longs for “long black streams of that dark electric light” pumping from the ground. The track ends with a brag and a threat: “We can change the dark into the light,” he purrs, “and vice versa.” The apocalypse is never far away, and it is manmade. In the terrifying “Finnish Farmers,” she recounts a confusion between grain and missile silos in a clipped, bureaucratic voice above a nauseating clatter worthy of Throbbing Gristle. And a harrowing, 11+ minute version of “O Superman” slowly melts down into wintry flute and birdsong.

Anderson keeps things moving, as if doomsday was just a bad dream in a road-trip hotel room. In hushed but confident tones, she offers travel stories with a postcard’s economy: going to France and wondering if the babies judge her fluency; going to China and watching another artist mistakenly tell locals that Americans regularly commute to Heaven. But she can’t outrun fate. In “The Language of the Future,” the Voice of Authority gets on a plane that almost crashes and meets a teenager who speaks in “a kind of high-tech lingo” he barely understands. It’s the “language of the on-again/off-again/future,” he realizes, “and it is digital.” In a moment that feels like, among other things, hope, the girl doesn’t even notice that he doesn’t understand.

United States Live charts this uncertain digital future with analog tools. Even the sole digital instrument, the Synclavier Sampler Ann DeMarinis uses to chop Anderson’s voice into soft pads of percussion, is used rather like a hand drum. Vocal samples ripple across “Blue Lagoon” as if the radioactive waves of “O Superman” have been washed clean by cool seas; an opera singer offers human reflections of them while Anderson and her band build a bed to dream in. Big Science highlight “Born, Never Asked” is an amniotic ooze of synth and strings that seems to ricochet off hand claps; live, it’s a freak-out so groovy you can understand why Spiritualized covered it over a decade later.

Even her most traditional pop songs follow strange rules. “Language Is a Virus from Outer Space,” for example, begins with a chance observation—“I saw this guy on the train, and he seemed to have gotten stuck in one of those abstract trances”—which swells into alienation: “I wanted you…and I was looking for you…but I couldn’t find you.” Paranoia strikes: “Are you talking to me,” someone asks her, “…or are you just practicing for one of those performances of yours?” She escapes into pure sound, her band rising and falling through drum rolls and sax squalls at a clip that feels out-of-sync but stays in the pocket. It’s difficult music that’s easy on the ears. Throughout, Anderson’s razor-sharp editing keeps the solos from overstaying their welcome. It also affords jokes about a Stonehenge made of wood called Woodhenge grins instead of groans.

United States Live peaks with a definitive version of “Big Science.” Arriving like a stranger into town with a song in her heart and a clippity-clop beat, Anderson sketches what she sees. Like Reagan, she’s a virtuoso with her voice, telling wild stories in matter-of-fact ways. She sees a society and its reflection. “And they all say: Hallelujah. Yodelayheehoo.” The thrill of technology. The thrall of faith. And the frontier spirit, civilizer and colonizer. For Anderson, America is awe-inspiring. It prompts wonder and dread in equal measure—which, perhaps, is the only equality to be found. Reagan’s awe was a weapon; for Anderson, it’s fuel.

You can hear the awe ignite BAM in 1983. You can hear it powering the kind of techno genderfuck that Prince harnessed in his Camille phase and which traveled over the waters to Fever Ray and SOPHIE and Planningtorock. You can hear it in Anderson’s resolve to simply, wryly, speak her mind, a practice revived today by Cassandra Jenkins and Dry Cleaning. You can hear it in the ambivalent epics of Owen Pallett and the sci-fi self-mythologizing of Janelle Monáe. Anderson’s American awe is world-building, an atlas and instruction manual, a book of fables and a songbook of new American standards. It’s a saga that begins with the patriarchy asking a female artist if she wants to go home and ends with her saying that she already knows the way. It’s an album almost five hours long that leaves you wanting more. And it offers an answer to how to live in America: feel the awe. And with it, make something of use.
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About Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera

Hey, I'm Perera! I will try to give you technology reviews(mobile,gadgets,smart watch & other technology things), Automobiles, News and entertainment for built up your knowledge.
Laurie Anderson - United States Live Music Album Reviews Laurie Anderson - United States Live Music Album Reviews Reviewed by Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera on July 11, 2021 Rating: 5


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