So far, the end of the millennium seems a bit of an artistic bust. Where are the feelings of sweet ennui, the opium-drenched dreams, the squandered feelings of lust and desperation that informed the writers of the previous fin de siècle, including Oscar Wilde, Ernest Dowson and Francis Thompson?
In the twentieth century, as rock musicians have by and large taken over from the poets and novelists the task of defining ourselves and our times, we've had our share of artfully decadent types your David Bowies, your Lou Reeds, your Iggy Pops but they are mostly in semiretirement now, and their most worthy aesthetic offspring Marc Almond comes to mind have a hard time getting record deals.
Well, I don't know about you, but Barenaked Ladies are not exactly my
idea of a band by which to solemnly contemplate another 1000 years of
And that's where Sam Rosenthal and his Black Tape for a Blue Girl
project come in. Now, I realize that part of the reason music like
Rosenthal's, as heard on his latest disc, As One Aflame Laid Bare
by Desire, doesn't get much attention from hip rockzines is that
it doesn't position itself within the proper hip-hoppity alterna-ironic
grooves that have taken over the media version of rock these days
(beware, middle-class rock crits: metal is outselling many of your
heroes these days).
This is mainly because the artist who's been at this since
1986 dares to take himself seriously in a Seinfeldian age
where nothing's serious. The disc's liner notes even include
academic-styled endnotes citing Baudelaire, Marcel Duchamp and Leopold
Von Sacher-Masoch (that's right, the granddaddy of S&M, baby). All
very cool millenarian influences, if you ask me.
And that's not to mention the elaborate CD sleeve, where BTFABG's
flautist Lisa Feuer plays Georgia O' Keeffe to Rosenthal's Alfred
Stieglitz, the man photographically documenting his lover
(who looks like a cross between a young Djuna Barnes and a
young O'Keeffe), in various states of undress, all tastefully done
and a thousand times more erotic than all the Net porn you could find.
After all, the best art is sexually charged, and don't let any stodgy
ol' English prof ever tell ya different.
Ahhhh, but the music, you ask? If you're going to quote Baudelaire,
you'd better deliver the artistic goods, and BTFABG do so.
As One Aflame is lush, passionate, melancholic, opiated stuff,
featuring soaring, near-operatic vocals from collaborators
Julianna Towns and Oscar Herrera on the title track (RealAudio excerpt) and the
kinky "Tell Me You've Taken Another" (RealAudio excerpt).
The music's genealogy seems to include the ambient work of David Bowie and Brian Eno, and especially the early 4AD sound (think This Mortal Coil). Rosenthal creates a sort of electronic chamber music that envelops his singers like a cloud of incense.
Appropriately, given the cover art, Rosenthal's lyrics include the Nietzschean themes of the Apollonian and Dionysian drives of control and the abandonment of control: those moments where one falls into or out of love, and all the old rules are momentarily broken, revealing the glimmer of a new world lying beyond the mundane.
On "Russia" (RealAudio excerpt), he pleads (through the voice of Herrera, sounding here a bit like a subdued Dave Gahan of Depeche Mode): "You draw me from my present state/ The candles die, the room swirls/ ... We pull so tight, needing to fulfill every dream/ To replace every nightmare, to erase every tear/ When I find you will I understand?/ When I find you, will all this drift away?/ ... Will I be who I wish to be?"
The Dionysian need for chaotic transformation lies at the heart of this millennially tuned artist: will the Y2K bug really destroy the Western world? Imagine, just for a moment, that it will, then imagine a new society emerging from the ruins of the old. Or imagine, on a microcosmic scale, your own world imploding, perhaps an unexpected love who carries you beyond the parameters of what now you call your life to a new and foreign frontier.
Fear? Sure, but also limitless possibility. It is for the contemplation of such possibilities that this album was made: It's music made for dreaming while you're wide awake.
With As One Aflame Laid Bare by Desire Black Tape for a Blue Girl have created an erotic classic for the millennium, perfect New Year's music for those who still worship at the temple of Art, not Mammon. Baudelaire woulda loved it.