Marianne Dissard is one of this era’s great cult artists. Known as a connoisseur of desert rock, she’s equally adept at new wave, but doesn’t limit herself to those two genres. Born in France, she relocated to Tucson in her teens and quickly laid the foundation for longstanding collaborations with Giant Sand and Sergio Mendoza, resulting not only in unimpeachable cred but also a deep and distinctive body of work. Perhaps ironically, for someone so tireless and endowed with so much joie de vivre, the pixieish, charismatic contralto singer’s best album to date is her most somber. Years of relentless touring eventually took their toll, and in 2013, Dissard basically crashed. The result was The Cat. Not Me, a majestically orchestrated art-rock masterpiece that, as a portrait of complete emotional depletion, ranks with anything Leonard Cohen or Ian Curtis ever wrote.
One considerably more upbeat constant throughout those years of touring has been that Dissard has always documented the various bands she’s played with. Not with live albums, but by taking whoever she had on the road with her into the studio in various cities throughout Europe, as the schedule would allow, to knock out a quick, tight snapshot of wherever her music happened to be at the moment. Her latest release in that series, available in a neat hybrid vinyl/cd format streaming at Bandcamp, is Cologne Vier Takes, an intimate, stripped-down trio set with Yan Péchin on guitars and Allyson Ezell on backing vocals, recorded in a single whirlwind afternoon between gigs earlier this year..
The opening track, Oiseau (Bird), is devastating – literally. Dissard intones her loaded images of the hapless creature hitting the window and then collapsing with a wounded understatement that permeates the quieter material from this session. Underneath, Péchin builds a richly textured web of electric and acoustic guitars, like the early Velvets if they’d been more elegant and raised on the Arizona/Mexico border. The gospel-fueled trip-hop original on The Cat. Not Me was good, but this is far more harrowing. Dissard and Péchin work the same dynamic, a little louder, on the defiant, sarcastically titled Mouton Bercail (Domestic Sheep).
Likewise, Les Confettis gets transformed from bouncy post-Blonde on Blonde Dylan into broodingly swaying, lushly echoey folk-rock, finally rising to a burning guitar crescendo after Dissard has chronicled every shard of torn paper: death by a thousand twisted little heartbreaks. The version of Les Draps Sourds (The Drunken Sheets) is Dissard at her surrealistic best, the deep-space menace of the guitar in contrast with her wry account of the kind of interruptions lovers sometimes have to deal with at the least opportune moment.
Tortured, distorted guitar underpins Dissard’s similarly tormented lyrics on the take of Election here. It has the presence of a full band, even with just the one instrument and Dissard’s typical vocal understatement – she’s as brilliant a singer as she is a lyricist, in this case in French, although she also writes fluently in English and German. The album ends with the whisperingly venomous kiss-off ballad Cayenne, another rapt blend of vocal and guitar nuance. There’s no other short album released this year that can compare with this.
Not to distract you from appreciating this album, but there’s also a free download of Dissard playing a similarly intimate trio show live on WFMU in 2009, up as a free download at the Free Music Archive, that you should grab immediately: as of today, over 3500 people have already beaten you to it. Dissard also promises a lavishly packaged best-of compilation in 2016, and hopefully a full-length memoir as well.