Laurie Anderson – Big Science (1982)
The thing about poetry is that sometimes, the reading of it is just as important as the words; when Laurie Anderson entertains the idea that storytelling is her strongest attribute (“I’m not really a professional anything … well maybe a professional storyteller”), she’s being humble (in that it isn’t just her primary talent) but some of Big Science‘s greatest triumphs are the delivery of the words, or the words themselves. Examples, and 22 of them: the way she playfully swishes around the harsh sounds, one after the other, “I met this guy – and he looked like might have been / A hat check clerk“; the way her vocoder activates to direct your attention to the key part in “Thanks for showing me your swiss army knife.” By turns, her words are funny, despairing, but always arresting. See, for example, “I think we should put some mountains here / Otherwise, what are the characters going to fall off of?” on the title track. Or, on de facto centerpiece and unlikely U.K. chart hit (at #2), “O Superman (For Massenet)”, how we find solace in a line like “And when force is gone, there’s always Mom. Hi Mom!” that’s immediately turned into “So hold me, Mom, in your long arms / In your automatic arms. Your electronic arms” that throws everything into ambiguity. But the thing is, she’s a great composer too: “O Superman” is the happy middle ground between Philip Glass and Brian Eno; “Example #22” rises into an ecstatic climax (“NANANA!”) and a peppy horn line segues “Let X=X” into “It Tango”; she manipulates her voice to blend with the bagpipes as the sharp, shrapnel drums hit around them on “Sweaters” in what may be the oddest thing ever (it shouldn’t work, but it does). The best example comes early: I could care less about the world around me or the fact that she, my captain, just announced that the plane’s going down; too busy playing Simon Says over the unstoppable groove from of “From The Air” (which should be sampled in hip-hop much more often). This is the time. And this is the record for the time. All time.
Laurie Anderson – Homeland (2010)
As expected, a ton of quotables: “And then there are those big questions always in the back of your mind / Things like […] should I get a second Prius?”, or the perfect pauses placed in “And there’s so many companies that offer solutions / Companies with names like Pet Solution / The Hair Solution, the Debt Solution, the World Solution, the Sushi … Solution” and “There’s a story in an ancient play about birds called … the Birds.”
Again, as expected, a drool-worthy list of collaborators: where else can you hear Lou Reed adding guitar to a Four Tet instrumental (on “Only an Expert”)? Elsewhere, three different drummers who worked at different points in David Bowie’s late-period career appear here: Omar Hakim (on Let’s Dance), Joey Baron (on 1.Outside), Mario J. McNulty (on Reality, in addition to engineering a handful of others, including remasters and compilations); the instantly recognizable frailty of Antony Hegarty (better used on “Another Day in America” than a lot of her own discography with the Johnsons) and saxophone scream of John Zorn (better used on “The Beginning of Memory” than a lot of his own discography). True: I wish she didn’t keep coming back to the choruses as often as she does on “Only An Expert” (the first time put a smile on my face, because of how dedicated she was to the house pastiche). Or that the keyboards didn’t have that wet sound to them (expect better from Four Tet) on that same track. Or that the album ended on “The Beginning of Memory” instead of the non-descript “Flow.” Or that “Another Day in America” didn’t do the “Those were the days and now these are the days” which is probably a conscious reference to Philip Glass’ Einstein on the Beach (what an immense opera/album that was). (Mario J. McNulty also engineered a number of Philip Glass albums.) But I cannot think of a female discography better than Laurie Anderson’s (I’ll wait for your rebuttal); even relatively weaker efforts (like Homeland) offers plenty of rewards: the falling awake from a dream vocoder-hook of “Falling”; the drum-led second-half of “Dark Time in the Revolution”, and how good the “We keep calling ‘em” hook sounds over-top; the waves of colour from the viola, accordion and percussion on “Strange Perfume.”
Her discography deserves more than the champagne glass effect.