Much as Marianne Dissard has established herself as one of the most distinctive voices in southwestern gothic rock – she even made a film about Giant Sand – she’s always had an art-rock side. Her latest album, due out in a couple of weeks – titled The Cat. Not Me – has a mighty, majestic, orchestral grandeur. A lot of is up at her Soundcloud page. Her world-weary, breathy, often whispery vocals are more nuanced and yet more powerful than ever. Although there’s guitar on this album, and it’s excellent, piano is the central instrument out in front of towering strings, woodwinds and brass, with an explosive rhythm section. Can you say grand guignol? Yet despite the prevalent menace, there’s incredible subtlety and often grim, surreal humor here. Dissard sings in her native French, moving from a purr to a wail with split-second grace. Although her lyrics sometimes get subsumed by the orchestration, that’s part of the allure: her dark imagery draws you in and won’t let you go. That seems to be the point of the album – but you don’t have to speak French to enjoy it [you can blame this blog for any errors in translation].
The opening track, Heureusement sans Heurt (rough translation: Happily without Accident) sets the tone, Dissard entering with a breathy whoosh along with the drums over insistent, dramatic piano chords anchored by low, resonant hass clarinet. Dissard’s litarny of surreal imagery ends with someone “melting in the road.” Her tender, elegaic vocals mingle with a gorgeously wounded, flamenco-tinged backdrop on Am Letzen: “The sun rises so it can set, I go out so I can can come back, I have no time left in my heart,” she whispers: the “last morning of the year” refrain carries a ton of weight. The song’s poignancy reminds a lot of Rachelle Garniez.
Dissard shifts gears abruptly with Mouton Bercail (Domestic Sheep), a twisted, noisily guitar-fueled minor-key new wave surf-rock number, sardonically beating herself up for not putting an end to something that’s obviously not working out. Then she goes into gospel-tinged art-rock – with some absolutely gorgeous piano – with Pomme (Apple), a disturbing tableau that seems to be a 21st century update on William Tell, its anxious prisoner awaiting some sign from a nameless commandant.
Je Ne Le Savais Pas (I Didn’t Know) is the loudest song on the album, a wrathful, anvil-of-the-gods anthem that winds out with the whole orchestra blasting at full steam. Oiseau (Bird) brings back that gorgeous gospel piano over an altered trip-hop beat, with a vividly gliding harmonica solo, Dissard working the doomed avian imagery for an understatedly imploring intensity.
Tortue (Turtle) builds a phantasmagorical, Kafkaesque tableau, Dissard’s torrential, hip-hop inflected lyrics against blustery orchestration and stately but slashing block chords from the piano. By now, if you’re paying attention, all this animal imagery makes perfect sense if you consider the album title. Election, which might well have the political subtext the title implies, is the poppiest number here, capped by a dirty, wickedly noisy guitar solo midway through. The most sweeping, angst-fueled and cinematic song is Salamandre, rising and falling, hushed and whispering before it picks up with a regret-laden blast from the orchestra. The season of the salamander may be summer, but this isn’t exactly a summery song.
Doll Circa (Terra) is the creepiest: the “little girl on the carpet, all alone” with the screams in the background as the last verse opens will give you goosebumps. As usual, Dissard unveils her images rather than expressly stating what’s happening, adding to the suspense. The album ends with La Partie De Puzzle Du Jardin A la Francaise (c’mon, that’s an easy translation), a strange, beautiful, brooding anthem that sounds like a cross between Botanica and something from Pink Floyd’s The Wall, complete with sardonic samples from old movies in the background. Meticulous arrangements, wrenchingly emotional musicianship, and Dissard at the top of her uneasy game: an early contender for best album of 2014.