Ellen Christi (vocals), Claudio Lodati (guitar), Luigi Archetti (guitar), Jan Schlegel (bass)
“Somewhere between Diamanda Galas, King Crimson, Ella Fitzgerald, opera”; living up to one’s press releases has never been so difficult (nor so unlikely) as it is for New York perennial Ellen Christi. Here, in the studio with a regular quartet, she sounds relaxed as she leads us through fifteen semi-composed universes ranging in size from five seconds to just shy of ten minutes. These are four Americans virtually unknown in the UK, a risky venture for a small London label.
As a singer, Christi is firmly in the post-jazz camp, cheek-by-jowl with Maggie Nichols, Lauren Newton and Julie Tippets, mixing a breathy blues base with the full range of experimental techniques, including extensive use of electronic processing. These latter do include a ping-pong delay which gets a little irritating on headphones, but their general use is unobtrusive. As for the Ella reference, it’s hard to see where this comes from; not here, where Christi’s deep, whispery moan sounds more like Sarah Vaughan’s, and her quick-fire scat singing is all her own.
A few of the tracks presented here have more than a couple of words which sound written in advance, and the approach does not seem to suit Christi too well. “Purpose” attempts an ill-advised Laurie Anderson take-off, but being a smart female singer from New York is really all they have in common, and “What is the purpose of mankind/ If mankind cannot live together” doesn’t cut the mustard.
This record is at its best when words are abandoned, leaving Christi with nothing but her fantastically subtle vocal chords to work with. At those times, Diamanda Galas’ name comes up as a contrast rather than a comparison. Where Galas uses her voice as a kind of emotional power tool, going for maximum violence as an inherent value, Christi has a calm delivery even in her most intense moments. Her screams, when they come (which is rarely), seem to have a more formal, a more conventionally musical role to play than Galas’ outpourings. One gets the impression that Christi might stop at any moment and change direction, where Galas builds and builds into a relentless and unstoppable avalanche.
Her accompanists are, in a word, excellent. It’s hard to pick their contributions apart, and Lodati and Archetti sound stylistically similar and certainly very compatible as they run the whole gamut from nice chords, through near-conventional, jazzy soloing to thoughtful and highly abstract work with preparations. “America” contains some conventionally very beautiful playing, but also the sound of one player using what sounds like a file on the strings.
The King Crimson comparison — which has been made more than once — comes from the composed sections, which have something of a whiff of Fripp about them, although the latter’s insistence on trying to sound like a machine, with all the harm that has done to conventional guitar technique, is abandoned in favour of a more lively approach. Occasionally the distortion pedals come into play — boys will be boys, after all — but they keep effects to a minimum most of the time, which suits the setting better. These are clearly two very good players indeed, and anyone with an interest in contemporary electric guitar is advised to check them out. Jan Schlegel makes a minimal but important contribution, and the three together sound as good as any guitar-led trio in the avant garde. Christi must recognise this because, to her credit, she gives them plenty of space to stretch out.
They have found the right metaphor with the concept of an alien language. There is something deliberately weird and wilfully curious about the sounds they make, a self-referential sense of the meanings of their music which only really seems to flourish on the other side of the Atlantic. The sound of keening theremins from 1950s b-movies is evoked on several occasions, as are the longhair textures of the lost days of space-age progressive rock. The record borrows from neither source very heavily — in the final analysis, it is a no-wave record, pure and simple — but it conjures a quite breathtaking atmosphere, neither pretentious nor kitschy, neither tuneful nor freeform. Very promising stuff from Sargasso, and from this quartet, who it would be nice to see in the UK doing something about that deplorably low profile. Richard Cochrane