Karen Mantler: Farewell (XtraWATT/8)


Karen Mantler

Karen Mantler vocals, harmonica, piano, organ, synthesizer, harmonium, glockenspiel
Michael Evans drums, frying pan, oven rack, whisk, refrigerator pan, ankle bells, bean pod, vocal (on “Arnold’s Dead”), glasses, chains, sheet metal, alto saxophone, vibraphone, tabla, Indian bell, snake charmer, whistling, “electrical” sounds
Special guests:
Carla Bley C melody saxophone (on “The Bill” and “Con Edison”)
Scott Williams vocal (on “The Bill”)
Recorded and mixed December 1995 by Tom Mark, Grog Kill Studio, Willow, New York
General co-ordination: Ilene Mark
Produced by Karen Mantler
Release date: June 1, 1996

Karen Mantler (insofar as we can know her through a musical persona) is a soul struggling to stay upright in a world that has lost its balance, yet who always returns to center no matter how many times she is led astray. Given the fact that she loved her cat Arnold so dearly, as attested by the two albums preceding this one, and because her songs so often deal with the inevitable sting of hardship, it was only a matter of time before the death of that beloved feline would break her in two. The glue holding her together, it seems, is the music pouring from within, and which finds its way into the duo session recorded in this, her most insightful and musically rich creation to date. Emoting via keyboards (and her ever-cathartic harmonica), she is joined by Michael Evans on an array of percussive objects, spanning the gamut from drums and bells to frying pan, oven rack, whisk, and refrigerator pan. That so many of these involve the kitchen, where we imagine many cans of cat food for Arnold were surely opened, speaks to the breakdown of Mantler’s domestic space in the wake of a gaping absence.

This time around, we may divide the songs into three tiers. First are those dealing with broken relationships and emotional detachment. Sitting on the throne of this category is the emotionally raw title track. Balancing the sardonic and the sincere, Mantler forges a mood that extends to kindred spirits of affliction in “Brain Dead” and “Arnold’s Dead.” Evans speaks in the latter, feigning an empathy that is impossible to sustain against the depth of Mantler’s grief. As “the only cat I ever truly loved,” Arnold is a martyr for the lost. Second are Mantler’s paeans to survival, which tend to deal with money (or lack thereof). In “The Bill,” guest vocalist Scott Williams plays the role of bill collector, while “Con Edison” is offered as a prayer for the eponymous company to turn her electricity back on. (Her mother, Carla Bley, plays C melody saxophone on both.) These sentiments culminate in “I Hate Money,” which lines up romance and fame alongside this most material of woes. A third ilk of songcraft deals with fear and uncertainty, as epitomized in “Mister E” (a stalkerish nightmare), “Help Me” (icily arranged for harmonica, harmonium, tabla, and resonating water-filled glasses), and “Beware” (a ritual of organ and drums). Even the droll outlier, “I’m His Boss,” is swiftly undermined by the gloom of “My Life Is Hell,” over which the unpaid rent looms like a specter of modernism.

Anyone wanting to know the crystal-clear atmospheres Mantler is capable of creating may wish to start here, but how much more fascinating to trace the journey back to the beginning, when Arnold still shined his light into Plato’s allegorical cave.

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