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Scattered Bodies
Talking Songs Paul Tucker , March 5th, 2014 12:01

So here's an odd thing. The founding member of a Toronto art-punk group (Andy Meyers of The Scenics) gathers deconstructed fragments of his band's late 70s material, together with looped drums and samples, and uses it to soundtrack gravelly-voiced spoken word (of Vancouver poet and author Brian Brett) and smoky female vocals (Susheela Dawne) performing Brett's poetry. The result, Talking Songs, combines modern beat poetry, proto- and post-punk, trip-hop, hip-hop, whacked-out blues, and sultry jazz – scattered bodies indeed – without ever sounding too much like any of those elements.

"I want to have the choice between a world without shape and colour, and the rich surface of the living," says Brett on 'Clothing Of My Youth'. This will do as something of a mission statement, one that Brett, Meyers and Dawne explore boundlessly. As Talking Songs progresses, the rich surface Brett talks about is explored in metaphorical sweeps along the bottom of gigantic Pacific Ocean trenches, in an encounter with a transsexual on a bridge in Cambodia, in (you assume) dimly-lit bedrooms, and in kitchens where women clutch knives "like Samurai swords".

The hint of a Jello Biafra sneer in Brett's diction evokes the former Dead Kennedys frontman's wry cynicism – although Brett is more threatening than that; backed by a creeping prowl of a bassline on 'Domestic Mysteries Of The Knife', he growls: "so much variety to choose from when you have a knife." But the menace, the occasional seediness, are elements of a wider whole, the observations of a mind more open than most to tugging at life's stray threads. "Forty years ago I would have said 'Yes. Yes'," Brett says of a proposition from the eponymous 'Ladyboy' – "just for the experience, and the joy of discovery." Meanwhile, an ex-wife is compared to a lurking, deep-sea fish that snaps its victims in half and swallows them whole, "but," Brett says, "I wouldn't wish her cruel returns for all her adventures [...] No, I offer her my good love, and good hunting too, swimming down there in her dark waters." It helps that Brett, as familiar as he is with the material, performs it with the range and conviction of a virtuoso lead actor. But then, he isn't really acting.

It is important that Meyers, the man who must bring everything together, has a rich understanding of Brett's art. His band have been compared to both The Velvet Underground and Talking Heads, so that is perhaps unsurprising, but Meyers' repurposing of the Scenics material is impressively objective. The tracks are not simply Brett's spoken-word lines laid over recordings of old Scenics outtakes; each composition is built upwards from drum loops (recorded almost four decades after much of the accompanying instrumentation), before ragged guitar, bass and keyboard samples, dismantled and isolated from their original context, are rebuilt and redeployed.

Meyers also knows when sounds and textures beyond his own band's output are required. Whether the thrumming Portishead-esque bassline and birdsong of 'Time Of The Thrush' or the scratchy, delta-blues that accompanies Brett on 'Every Woman Is Beautiful', Meyers pays heed to an instinctive sense of what might work. And then there's Dawne, whose smoky, purring renditions of Brett's misfit romanticism give the impression – completely appropriate – that she's playing to a musty, gin-soaked cocktail bar, to dancing guests in threadbare dresses and grubby tuxedos torn open at the seams.

Scattered Bodies must have been a time-consuming, difficult project, but the outcome is far more unified than the title (originally borrowed by Brett from a John Donne sonnet) would suggest. Make no mistake though, Talking Songs is a strange proposition, an often unsettling meld of orphan sounds and menacing undercurrents, and an offbeat celebration of those old staples: love, experience, sex and death.

"This is life, this is what I know," Brett says.

"This," Dawne purrs, "is the beauty of creatures like us."

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