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Thursday, June 22, 2006 01:42 am

No pain, no gain

Evangelista is not an easy listen, but itÂ’s cathartic

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Carla Bozulich Evangelista (Constellation)
Listening to Evangelista, Carla Bozulich’s latest album, is like watching someone carve off strips of her own skin, fold them into dainty origami shapes, and present them on a cloisonné tray. The effect is at once horrifying and soothing, visceral and delicate, like Memoirs of a Geisha rewritten by Yukio Mishima. At times, the former singer of Scarnella, the Geraldine Fibbers, and Ethyl Meatplow is almost too intense to bear, her heart not so much worn on her sleeve as branded into her flesh. And then, right when you start wondering whether she’s finally lost it, she reins herself in, reminds you that this is a performance, not a tantrum. The emotions might be real, but they’re subject to her will. Like Patti Smith, Edith Piaf, Maria Callas, and other larger-than-life exorcist/divas, Bozulich isn’t some helpless conduit for overpowering passions; she’s a shaman, communing with her demons so that she can wrestle them to the ground and strangle them one by one before her awestruck disciples. Bozulich describes Evangelista as “a sound that you can open your chest with, pull out what’s inside and make it change shapes.” In other words, Evangelista is not an easy listen. The polite term for a record such as this is "cathartic," but there's no polite way around the fact that most listeners don't cotton to purgative forms of entertainment. Getting a high colonic is one thing; listening to someone howl, screech, bawl, and roar against a backdrop of squalling strings, squealing feedback, and squelching synths is quite another, especially if you’re just trying to make it through your 45 minutes of cardio or weave your way through rush-hour traffic without killing yourself or anyone else. The self-titled opening cut gives fair warning. The band, composed of sundry Montreal improv/art-rock heavies (including multiinstrumentalist Shahzad Ismaily, who also co-produced the album, and members of Godspeed! You Black Emperor and A Silver Mt. Zion), creates a gorgeous fracas of dark strings, tolling bells, corroded loops, random knocking sounds, and a barely intelligible field recording of a Pentecostal preacher. Over the next nine minutes, Bozulich trembles and rages as she intones lines such as “Squeeze me till the sound comes out of me/Break me if you have to/As long as I can hear the sound inside the sound inside the sound.” Toward the end, she lets loose with a bloodcurdling Bon Scott-worthy cry, and it’s not entirely clear whether she’s screaming “Love!” or some wordless curse. After this harrowing overture, the next song, “Steal Away,” a cover of a traditional hymn, comes as a reprieve. A stately contrabass-and-organ combo, punctuated by heavy silences, radiates mystery and a kind of inchoate, secularized redemption. Her voice is double-tracked, each track an octave apart — one froggy and earthbound, the other trilling and ethereal — and the result, a stripped-down avant-gospel choir, is both disarming and familiar. From the controlled tumult of “How to Survive Being Hit By Lightning” to the subdued despair of “Pissing” (a Low cover) to the blissful suspension of “Prince of the World,” the album’s nine tracks are almost excruciatingly expressive; they not only jump from one emotional extreme to the next but also contain these extremes within one another, like nesting Russian dolls. Maybe that’s what Bozulich means, in part, when she refers to “the sound inside the sound inside the sound.” Under the force of her scared and scary, tender, and brutal voice, dichotomies melt away. Here is a voice that cauterizes, purifies the wound and seals it so that the scar can form. It harms to heal.
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