There’s nothing like starting a review with a non-sequitur, so here’s one for you: ‘guilty’ is one of those words that rapidly loses its meaning when you repeat it, don’t you think? Go on, try it: guilty-guilty-guilty-guilty… by the fourth or fifth repetition you may as well be singing Pleiadian backwards for all the sense it makes.
This particular tripartite rendering of the word represents Diamanda Galás’s seventeenth album and her first since 2004. It continues a mini-vogue for covers albums that seems to have established itself in 2008: think of Scarlett Johansson’s plundering of the Tom Waits songbook, Vetiver’s chasing of their ’60s/’70s breeze-rock muse on Thing Of The Past, Cat Power’s second covers record that wasn’t called Covers Record like her first covers record but was only slightly less prosaically named Jukebox, or Coldplay’s recent covers album of limp U2 retreads. (Oh, wait…) The list is not literally endless. But Diamanda Galás being Diamanda Galás, her covers record occupies a similar hinterland to Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds’ Murder Ballads, in that it’s a bunch of songs about death, grief, horror, tribulation and trials both emotional and legal.
The album was recorded live, mostly at a jolly knees-up called ‘Diamanda Galás’s Valentine’s Day Massacre’, held at New York’s Knitting Factory in February 2006; tragically, the support slot by The Wurzels was not recorded for posterity. Presumably, such a strategy avoids any unfavourable comparisons with studio interpretations of the same material, while simultaneously adding extra edge and immediacy to the performances. Not that Galás really needs any extra edge to make an impression. Really, these songs could only have been performed in this manner by her; at times pummelling, maudlin, morbid, touching and reflective, they span a remarkable range of styles and emotions, none of them comfortable.
The opening ‘Eight Men & Four Women’ by Southern Gospel singer OV Wright opens the set, Galás punishing her piano with a series of crashing chords before launching into a twisted blues holler, evoking Tom Waits reincarnated as a jilted diva with toothache. All the instrumentation throughout the album is provided by Galás’s voice and piano alone, apart from the occasional embellishment from her sound engineer, Blaise Dupuy; and believe me, this is more than enough. The overdubbed, full-throated screaming on this first song alone comes closest to sheet-metal noise this side of Maja Ratke’s lo-fi avant-gardisms on Voice, and is astonishingly effective in a distinctly unsettling way.
Johnny Cash’s ‘Long Black Veil’ is next onto the sacrificial altar and is despatched in a more straightforward manner, at times reminiscent of PJ Harvey circa To Bring You My Love. At nearly nine minutes long, Ralph Stanley’s ‘O Death’ is surely meant as the album’s centrepiece, and while it is certainly the harrowing experience intended by both author (“Well I am death, none can excel / I’ll open the door to heaven or hell”) and interpreter, Galás overcooks the vocal histrionics and lessens the overall impact. A fatuous comparison maybe, but here and on songs like Tracy Jackson’s ‘Down So Low’, the needless cooing and trilling she employs reaches a similar level of pointlessness to Mariah Carey or Céline Dion: empty show and bluster, signifying nothing.
But any album containing such a great version of Edith Piaf’s ‘Heaven Have Mercy’, or that breaks up the funeral procession with a starkly beautiful rendition of something called ‘Time / Interlude’ by Timi Yuro, must be called a success. Occasional lapses into excessive theatricality prevent Guilty Guilty Guilty‘s success from being completely unqualified, but such over-the-topness is an integral part of Galas’s schtick. She must put on quite a show.
[Mute; March 31, 2008]