New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: Marianne Dissard review

More Radically Intuitive Reinventions From Marianne Dissard

We’ve reached the most disturbing time in the history of music. Musicians are being forced onto the dole, forced to take jobs in unfamiliar and often undesirable fields because the lockdowners are hell-bent on destroying the arts. While innumerable online collaborations have sprung up, most of them have turned out stiff and uninspired. While you can always improvise against what somebody has already recorded, it’s impossible to replicate the chemistry of being next to someone onstage or in a studio and engaging with them unless you’re actually there.

One of the few artists to successfully overcome those limitations, and create a lot of material during the lockdown, is French-born, Tucson-based songwriter Marianne Dissard. Maybe the fact that she’s a singer, that she’s used to doing a final vocal take over music that’s already been recorded, has empowered her. Whatever the case, she seems to be about halfway through creating the last album anyone would expect from her: a covers record, sung in English, no less.

The fact that she has exquisite taste in covers helps. She’s been releasing them as singles: the first one was an practically nine-minute, dirgey reinvention of Phil Ochs’ chilling lost-submarine epic The Scorpion Departs But Never Returns.

After that she put out “his” and “hers” version of the quietly vindictive Janis Ian folk-pop classic At Seventeen. This blog is partial to hers; it’s more orchestral, with elegantly mulitracked bass and cello by Thoger Lund from Giant Sand. Dissard changes the syncopation and sings it line by line, with vastly more angst than the sullen, deadpan original. When she reaches the point where “Smalltown eyes will gaze at you in dull surprise, when payment due exceeds accounts received,” it will give you chills.

The latest single is a considerably dirtier remake of Steely Dan’s Dirty Work. Dissard tweaks the gender references and also gives the song a lot more angst than the original (remember that the record label insisted on using studio crooner David Palmer instead of the grittier-voiced Donald Fagen on the 1972 single).

All this is streaming at Bandcamp an addition to a sepulchral, previously unreleased recording of Dissard singing Kath Bloom’s It’s So Hard To Come Home, backed by Calexico‘s Joey Burns on guitars and banjo!

Marianne Dissard Commemorates Heroism and Duplicity with a Phil Ochs Classic

[Editor’s note: the underlying alarmist tone of this piece reflects the uncertainty of the time it was written, before studies confirming that at least 83% of all humans are either immune or have natural resistance to COVID-19 were readily available]

In 1968, the submarine USS Scorpion sank in the Atlantic, enroute to the Mediterranean, It was the second time in five years that the Navy had lost a sub to conditions other than wartime (the USS Thresher had sunk under similarly mysterious circumstances off the coast of Massachusetts in 1963).

Despite knowing that the Scorpion needed repairs, Navy brass decided to keep the ship in the water for an upcoming NATO exercise. Whistleblower Dan Rogers, a crew member, refused to go on the mission. He would be the only surviving member of the original crew of one hundred.

Fast forward to 2020: Captain  Brett Crozier of the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt, his crew stricken by coronavirus, sounds the alarm. The Navy’s response? Recently departed Navy Secretary Thomas Modly calls Crozier “too naive or too stupid,” relieves him of duty and admonishes the crew for their appreciation of his support for his troops.

On his classic 1968 album Rehearsals for Retirement, Phil Ochs commemorated that first tragedy with an elegant, corrosively cynical piano ballad, The Scorpion Departs But Never Returns. Now, inspired by Captain Crozier’s heroism and the top brass’ harsh response, Marianne Dissard has released a hauntingly atmospheric cover of the song, streaming at Bandcamp.

Dissard pulled a band together remotely, with all the instrumentalists – bassist Thøger Lund, violinist Vicki Brown, and flutist Marco Rosano in Tucson, and guitarist Raphael Mann in the UK – sending in their contributions over the web. The French-born Dissard rarely sings in English, but this is one of her most hauntingly evocative vocals, ever, more unselfconsciously elegaic than Ochs’ version. A smoky swirl of guitars lingers, pizzicato violin pops up, the bass drones, and it’s Dissard’s pause at the song’s cruelly climactic moment that packs the biggest wallop of all. If this is typical of Dissard’s long-awaited, forthcoming album, it’ll be the best thing she’s ever done.

A Harrowing, Inspiring, Gruesomely Exquisite Memoir from Marianne Dissard

Singer Marianne Dissard‘s memoir Not Me is just like her lyrics: witheringly insightful, harrowingly direct, disarmingly self-aware and stylistically exquisite. That her story’s scathingly funny asides and spot-on musical and social commentary are just as gripping as the grim central narrative reaffirms the argument that great songwriters are also great prose writers.

Dissard’s musical career was on many levels a very unlikely success story. A filmmaker by training, living in Tucson with her musician husband, the French expatriate didn’t get her start as a performer until the zeros, in the wake of a bitter divorce. By then, she was already in her thirties. Yet she hit the ground running, hard, possibly out of revenge. From the beginning, her tunesmithing had a stunning level of craft: part cabaret, part desert rock and, as you would expect from a French girl who grew up in the 80s, part new wave. And her lyrics were top-tier, packed with puns, clever wordplay, historical and literary references. Although most of them are in French, she also writes competently in German. And her command of English surpasses 99% of Americans writing in their native tongue.

In a decade where the music industry lost 90% of its income and sales of digital music plummeted to zero, Dissard did what every musician needed to do to maintain a career: she toured, relentlessly. And recorded a consistently brilliant series of albums, a handful of them made on the fly in cities around the world on the rare off-day. She got great press and has an adoring fan base, neither of which she mentions in this humble and humbling story. In 2012, in many ways, she looked like she was on top of the world.

Then she crashed.

Looking back, she reflects, bandmates knew something was wrong, but they chalked it up to the wear and tear of the road. The truth is that Dissard, a lithely muscular, pixieish woman, had been a bulimic for twenty years, and it had finally caught up with her.

In context, many of her lyrics ought to be a dead giveaway. The most obvious one, which she quotes in the book, is from the song Mouton Bercail, with its images of “drooling blood.” Considering what she’d been going through at the time, one of her most shattering songs, Am Letzen, makes more sense than ever. Dissard’s muted, half-whispered portrait of complete emotional depletion on the New Years Eve from hell reaches even greater depths of despondency.

She acknowledges how lucky she was to survive – and also how unlikely it was that she managed to keep a career going, as a singer, of all things. Her teeth suffered, but somehow her vocal cords escaped any permanent damage, although she alludes to the occasional problematic show: “Ah, but my voice? Glazed by juices more acrid than turned wine, what sounds would this throat make, words boiled unintelligible from raspy syllables, a wheezing flow of tepid weakness disguised as demure coquetry. It doesn’t fucking matter. You sing in French. They’re Americans. Make sounds, any sounds. It all sounds the same, exotic and sexy, Parisian. Still, wouldn’t someone notice you’d gone awry? They know you, some of them, and some of it. And the photos? You sure don’t look like your press shots anymore. You look simply ravaged.”

This is a typical passage. Dissard has an extraordinary eye for detail and a laserlike sense of the mot juste, whether recounting the gory blow-by-blow of a night of purging where she thought she’d gone blind, or more hopeful days after she’d put the touring on hold to pursue….a degree in teaching yoga.

Which ultimately saved her. She may have tormented her digestive tract for a couple of decades, but she’d also maintained a rigorous, daily yoga practice. And when not bingeing on forbidden treats (the list will shock you), she ate well, drank little if at all, didn’t smoke or do drugs, enjoyed a close relationship with a beloved cat and remained active, perhaps hyperactive. The impetuosity and steely self-determination that drove her career may have confounded some of the people who knew her, but those qualities also kept her alive in every sense of the word.

Tellingly, Dissard’s first encounter with eating disorders came after her parents moved her to America Discovering the calorific, processed American diet – and no doubt wanting to fit in with the other kids – the svelte, petite teenager suddenly had weight issues. Then became anorexic, and after that summer was over – with only a pointed, mostly wordless encounter with her mother about it – the forty pounds she’d lost from not eating returned with a vengeance. She would discover bulimia and the thrill of guilt-free food indulgence a little later.

Ultimately, bulimia is all about control, mind over matter: giving in to the most basic desire for nourishment, then pulling the plug right at the moment where it could be metabolized. Dissard had it down to a science and doesn’t spare any ugly bits. Through sheer force of will, finally having hit rock bottom, she was able to sublimate the need for control and channel that resolve in life-affirming directions.

There are innumerable messages implicit in this story. That a French woman – you know the cliche, they’re all beautiful because they never eat between meals – could practically kill herself with bulimia speaks to how prevalent, and underreported, it is. That such a strong-willed, seemingly fearless artist could be leveled by the perception that others might find her unattractive is another genuine shock, and a cautionary tale. As usual, Dissard lets the details fill in the blanks: there’s no self-help instruction manual here.

And those details offer a delicious contrast against a haunted backdrop. Dissard’s powers of perception are formidable, whether offhandedly commenting on how an audience perceives an artist, to her contempt (a recurrent emotion in her songwriting, less so here) for digital audio: “I can’t stand these joints with tiny, lousy ceiling speakers that filter out prefab songs to their crash cymbals and hi-hat hits, a glass-fiber sort of sound, deathbed-gasping mp3s.”

Her account of yoga training, and what she seems to have considered surprising success at it, is just as vivid, particularly for non-yoginis. Most poignantly, it’s a weight gain after putting an end to the binge-and-purge cycle that brings her closer to her students, where a loss of flexibility suddenly helps her relate to their muscle fatigue and resistance to difficult poses. Just like her songs, the story’s changing milieux – from Tucson, to Paris, to Italy and back – are ablaze with color, sparkling with imagery.

Dissard considers herself a recovering addict, and that the pain had come in many ways to define her (just listen to a couple of her songs and you’ll figure that out fast). Ultimately, this is a story of transcendence, with what appears to be a happy ending. It will keep you up all night and then make you dream about it. That could be a nightmare, but it could also be immensely inspirational. Dissard, as usual, doesn’t come out and say that explicitly, testament to her prowess as a wordsmith. This book is reason to look forward to whatever narrative might be her next: a film, a novel, or if we’re lucky, maybe even a 2020 concert tour.

Marianne Dissard’s Cibola Gold Distills Some of Her Most Shattering Songs

More than anything else, French singer Marianne Dissard’s new greatest-hits collection, Cibola Gold – streaming at Bandcamp – is all about solace. Betrayal, disappointment and fullscale heartbreak are frequent themes, and for anyone who’s suffered any of that (hasn’t everyone?), Dissard feels your pain. It’s a potently plaintive playlist for cold nights at 3 AM when there’s only a single glass left in the magnum and the ghosts on the perimeter are closing in.

It opens with a funny song and closes with a harrowing one. In between, it documents the career of one of the world’s most consistently compelling songwriters since 2008. She started out looking back toward new wave, then went deep into desert rock. Since then, Dissard has been just as eclectic, ranging from the towering, angst-driven art-rock of her 2014 masterpiece The Cat. Not Me, to the stripped-down noir of last year’s live-in-the-studio release, Cologne-Vier Takes. Beyond the thirteen newly remastered tracks, the album comes with a lavish, full-color booklet documenting Dissard’s well-documented travels, from her native country to the Arizona desert  – where she famously collaborated with Giant Sand and Sergio Mendoza – and eventually full circle.

Like Balkan singer Eva Salina, recently covered here, Dissard’s vocals transcend the limits of language. While her lyrics, mostly in French, are full of double entendres and clever wordplay, her powers of expression are such that anyone can get the gist if not the complete picture of where she’s coming from, emotionally speaking. For example, her coyly deadpan delivery on the scampering Django jazz-flavored Les Draps Sourds. In French, “sourd” means “deaf,” but it also means “hammered,” as in having had too much bordeaux. So the tale of the two lovers beneath the sheets, interrupted, takes on new dimensions, whether or not you speak French.

The One and Only, with its insistent, echoey Rhodes piano and purist blend of soul and blues, sends a joyously breathy shout-out to Dissard’s old Tucson stomping ground. She takes an animatedly anguished approach to the ache and abandonment of Election over an insistently pulsing piano-pop arrangement. Cayenne refers not to the quasi-narcotic qualities of capsicum but to its lingering burn, and all that it represents, Dissard’s mutedly wounded contralto mingling with a gently pointillistic, Chelsea Girl-style acoustic backdrop. The metaphorically-loaded images of the swaying folk-rock of Les Confettis are much the same.

With La Tortue (The Turtle), the door opens wide and the darkness, always hinted at, pours in, with more than a hint of hip-hop in Dissard’s half-spoken nightmare imagery over waves of strings and incisive neoromantic piano. The whisperingly conspiratorial ranchera art-rock of Almas Perversas (Perverse Souls) is more allusively troubled. Then Dissard offers a mysteriously seductive groove with the sunbaked Booker T psych-soul groove of Trop Expres (rough translation: Too Obvious).

Pomme (The Apple) expands on the William Tell fable, chamber-pop gospel as Roger Waters might do it, with an irresistible woodwind chart and similarly tasty piano. La Peau Du Lait (Porcelain Skin) blends new wave bounce and dancing echoes of vintage vaudevillian chanson, with one of Dissard’s trademark clever rhyme schemes. Likewise, It’s Love, a mashup of new wave and angst-tinged artsy pop: Botanica in a rare, lighter moment comes to mind.

Un Gros Chat (Fat Cat), more or less the centerpiece of The Cat. Not Me is a chilling art-rock anthem, again bringing to mind Botanica as well as Aladdin Sane-era Bowie, with a rare verse or two in English from Dissard. The album ends with the whispery, elegaic Am Letzen, a shatteringly wintry depiction of wee-hours emotional destitution on the final morning of the year. Everybody else is probably getting stoked for the evening’s festivities: Dissard’s drained, despondent narrator only leaves the apartment so she can come back to it.

This album fits with Dissard’s current retrospective mode: when she isn’t touring, she’s back in France, with a memoir in the works. From an oldschool media perspective, albums of previously released material aren’t typically included among critics’ picks of the year’s best releases, but if there’s any one that deserves to be an exception, this is it. Pour that last glass, stare down the demons and let Dissard’s wise, knowing murmur pull you off the ledge.

Another Haunting Knockout From Marianne Dissard

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.

Marianne Dissard Makes a Stormy, Brilliantly Twisted Art-Rock Album

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.