Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Enomania, or 23 Years in Six Songs

Part Four: The Fat Lady of Limbourg

In late 2004, I went to see Kill Bill, Vol. 2 (which I liked much better than Vol. 1). Playing over the end credits was a song called "Goodnight Moon" by Shivaree. I hated the band's name--it's a variation on charivari, but sounds more like the ick-inducing "shivery"--but was enchanted by the track, which fits the film's bittersweet ending to a T, and was curious to hear more. That "little girl" thing doesn't usually do it for me, but Ambrosia Parsley (!) sexes the formula up without getting all sleazy about it. A few months later, I offered to review their CD, Who's Got Trouble, for Amazon. It's a winner. Turns out they are able to sustain that unlikely Betty Boop-meets-Tom Waits one-two punch for the course of an entire record, but what really seals the deal is their cover of "The Fat Lady of Limbourg." It's an unusual Eno song to take on and yet it sounds so right with a sweet female voice relating the surrealistic story. Shivaree's version isn't as creepy as Eno's, but it's strange enough and quite pretty as well.

The Fat Lady of Limbourg

Well, I rang up Pantucci,
Spoke to Lu-chi,
I gave them all
They needed to know.
If affairs are proceeding
As we're expecting,
Soon enough
the weak spots will show.
I assume you understand that we have options on your time,
And will ditch you in the harbour if we must:
But if it all works out nicely,
You'll get the bonus you deserve
From doctors we trust.

The Fat Lady of Limbourg
Looked at the samples that we sent
And furrowed her brow.
You would never believe that
She'd tasted royalty and fame
If you saw her now.
But her sense of taste is such that she'll distinguish with her tongue
The subtleties a spectrograph would miss,
And announce her decision,
While demanding her reward:
The jellyfish kiss.

Now we checked out this duck quack
Who laid a big egg, oh so black
It shone just like gold.
And the kids from the city,
Finding it pretty, took it home,
And there it was sold.
It was changing hands for weeks till someone left it by their fire
And it melted to a puddle on the floor:
For it was only a candle, a Roman scandal oh oh oh,
Now it's a pool.
That's what we're paid for
That's what we're paid for
That's what we're paid for here.

A year later, I went to a SIFF screening of Olivier Assayas' Clean. It isn't his best film (for my money, that would be Irma Vep), nor is it his worst (that would be demonlover, which still has its merits), but there was something about it that made me feel right at home. Of course: The soundtrack consists almost entirely of Eno songs from the 1970s, like "The Spider and I" (Before and After Science) and the title track from Taking Tiger Mountain. Assayas has always used music well in his films, like the Ali Farka Toure guitar work that permeates Late August, Early September. Clean is no exception. Here's Kent Jones on the use of Eno's music in the film ("Our Music: Clean," Cinema Scope #19):

I would say that if one knows the music of Brian Eno, and the particular place he’s occupied within the world of rock for almost 40 years (everyone’s favourite behind-the-scenes demiurge), then the abundance of his music in Clean and its integral presence within the action carries a special resonance. Eno is deep inside the world of recorded sound, and yet out on the “fringe” of rock, on the meeting ground with the avant-garde. Which is perfect for a film about a recovering drug addict. Yet if you have no prior knowledge of Eno’s music or his persona, the use of his music here still carries a very special force. Where his soundscapes have traditionally been utilized as a shortcut to mystery in the work of countless film students and more than a few professionals (they literally open up the world beyond the frame), here they provide the characters with a protective aura, a redemptive warmth. And when Emily’s walk through the Chinese restaurant kitchen is accompanied by Eno’s “Spider and I,” followed by Jay’s walk accompanied by “Taking Tiger Mountain,” Assayas is establishing a subtle linkage between mother and son, both in need of protection, before they’ve been reunited.

And that's the last time I had an unplanned encounter with Eno, although I'm sure to have many more in the future. At this point, covering an Eno song or throwing one on a soundtrack is no longer an original move. It hasn't been for awhile. Then again, I hope the trend continues, simply because I want to keep hearing his music, but I also hope more bands opt to cover different songs and that filmmakers, in turn, will do their version of the same (which is to say, they might want to retire "By This River" for the time being). In the end, I think Eno's vocal recordings, circa 1974-77, have turned out to be some of the most resonant--if not the most resonant--to emerge from the 1970s. They've been following me around for at least 23 years now. And in whatever context, they always make me feel welcome, no matter where I am or what I'm doing. It's like the music in my head--the music I can't make, because I don't have the means to do so and also because, well, Eno beat me to it. And he did it best. Brian Eno hasn't changed my life, but in small, incremental ways, he's made it better. And every time I listen to his music, I'm exactly where I want to be.

Thanks to the long-forgotten sorority sister, Brian Sullivan, Brian's mixtape-making friend, KCMU/KEXP, Mick Collins, Quentin Tarantino, Nanni Moretti, Alfonso CuarĂ³n, Shivaree, and Olivier Assayas: For encouraging the cause of Enomania.

Note: Part four of four. Lyrics from enoweb, image from AMG.

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