Carla Bozulich


(Constellation; 2006)

By Christopher Alexander | 8 December 2006

Notes from a performance: "Carla Bozulich sings like a person possessed." Well, yeah, but that's like calling Ulysses an ambitious novel. Bozulich on stage resembles little of the archetypal rock front-person: she's barely five foot nothing, first of all, and is devoid of any sweeping, Dionysian body gestures. All of her movements are inward, contained; she clutches her microphone close to her body, eyes closed, withdrawn. And yet somehow she still comes across as your spirit animal from a twelve-hour mushroom trip, all sweat and pulsing blood. It can best described as falling between Patti Smith and some Hawthornian preacher. Like Smith, she's more poet than songwriter; but the sheer force of her writing and of what she's delivering feels like a body blow. It's less an exorcism -- whatever it is, it sure as hell is no rock and roll catharsis -- than it is a verdict, a rendering of guilt.

It's fitting, because contrary to my notes, she isn't possessed. Rather, she's condemned; she is someone who has been shown the nameless terrors lying at the heart of life and has been forced to relive them, to futilely shout them down in guttural and nonsensical syllables, having been robbed of the ability to properly name them. Or rather, that the existing language doesn't even convey what it used to, and so her performance consists of fighting a vocabulary that has come to mean the opposite of what it connotes. "Love!" she cries during "Evangelista I," a nine minute tone poem that opens her most recent record. The thunderclap that follows is so violent you can't believe her -- whatever love is it's something terrible, a leveling wind that no one has the stomach for. "Love!" she shouts and the band sounds like they're ripping her apart -- and she in turn is ripping us apart, embodying that wind, except she's not moving at all.

Goddamn, Evangelista is a monster. Hard to believe that the official record preceding this is well received rereading of Willie Nelson's Red Headed Stranger (2003; Willie Nelson's version, 1975). Some have suggested that the experience of covering a whole album encaged Bozulich, and that this is as much a musical jailbreak as it is a psychological one. Certainly, the music here is as prickly and modular as it is beautiful: "How to Survive Being Hit by Lightning" is untethered by meter and rhythm, and her musical accompaniment is a lone guitar hitting one chord, bow scratches, and guitar feedback. But she uses these techniques the way a jazz musician would, as points of emphasis: she frees up enough space to let the song's emotions breathes. Besides, the melody is dynamite, smothered as it is by what sounds like a string of every broken amplifier she's ever destroyed.

Evangelista is being distributed by Constellation records, a famously regional label from Montreal. Though Bozulich is from Los Angeles, she's backed by members of A Silver Mt. Zion and Godspeed You! Black Emperor, and recorded at Hotel2Tango. The result is that much of the record has a funeral-like feel typical of those bands, but the musicians she assembles don't merely back her, at least not in the sense that they are accompanying her. Much of the record is improvisational, but one gets the feeling that Bozulich is playing them, as if they were any other tape loop or instrument that she happens to have by. Check "Baby, That's the Creeps," where she's accompanied solely by Nadia Moss' organ. Much of the song's propulsion come from Moss' genuinely creepy chords, but Bozulich gradually becomes unglued -- at one point confessing she killed her brother -- and it becomes clear that the organ is merely mapping out her organs, it's there for sheer underlining effect. When she sings the line "If I could cry, I'd be swimming" -- ridiculous for implying the overused imagery of drowning in ones own tears, but delicious for inverting it to imply emotional detachment, and again the thing not spelled out is, "I couldn't really swim in the first place" -- the organ swells, and it's clear who's leading who here.

Freed from strict time, meter, and often song structure altogether, the result of Evangelista is by simultaneously liberating and terrifying, emotionally charged and distant, beautiful and cacophonous. One would think, then, that lashing this to the "shackles" of melody and western rhythm would be much more jarring than the often dissonant music contained herein. One would be wrong, because the album's centerpiece is a relatively faithful and totally superior reading of Low's "Pissing." Bozulich and co. take Low's blueprint and proceed to, if I may speak professionally, blow the roof off the motherfucker. It's a masterpiece of tension and release, and, like its parent album, must be heard to be believed.