LAURIE ANDERSON WEAVES TALES OF THE CANINE AND HUMAN EXPERIENCE WITH HER AWARD WINNING SOUNDTRACK “HEART OF A DOG”.

The album of the film about life, death and philosophy. An easy day
for Laurie Anderson. Photo courtesy of Nonesuch Records

Laurie Anderson has been around a while. Pioneering Avant Garde music and video with tracks like ‘Sharkey’s Day’ and her breakthrough underground hit ‘O Superman’, Anderson found a way to breakthrough to the mainstream while not shedding her true vision about what kind of artist she would become. She further sought to assume and maintain her place in the outer reaches of the pop culture by becoming more prolific with her vocals and vocal melodies. Her album Strange Angels was proof of that.

But you know me, I want the weird stuff. My favorite albums to date are the four disc, audio version of her live show United States Parts 1-4, and even her later work Homeland, which was reviewed in my column previously, that I likened to US Part 5, if you will.

But this album is a special one. Special in that it accompanied a movie, Heart Of A Dog which was about her dog Lolabelle (the sweetest rat terrier I had ever had the pleasure to meet!), and losing Lolabelle, and coming to grips with that tragedy.

Tragedy would not wander too far from Anderson as shortly thereafter, the love of her life (in human form), Lou Reed, left us suddenly. Toss in the death of her mother, and nothing else seems to have any point at that stage.

Most people would be devastated at this point. But rather than take that road, with a clear understanding of mortality, Anderson kept creating. As of publication of this review, Anderson has an album out with the Kronos Quartet, Landfall, as well as a book Things I Lost In The Flood, both detail her dealing with Super Storm Sandy from a few years back, as well as the aforementioned family members passing. Again, Anderson turns shitty life into art!

Having been flooded out twice in my life, I am anxious to hear and digest these pieces… I come from similar cloth. The New Jersey suburb of New York City which was not only the river basin to the Raritan river, but also a collection basin for several streams that ran down from the north. The first storm in 1969 collapsed a reservoir wall from the nearby mountain top. It filled up the first floor to just below the ceiling by about a foot. We lost everything. In 1973, it crept up from the Raritan river and we had to be evacuated by boat.

It was so stressful on my family, that it became the beginning of the implosion of our family unit once and for all.

Now that I have set the mood for unimaginable loss, we should check in with Laurie. This disc is a soundtrack and as such, there may not be lengthy paragraphs about the pieces as some of those pieces are under two minutes. I will relay the best info I can.

Anderson on stage performing her album “Homeland” which was co-produced, arranged and contributed to by her late husband Lou Reed. Photo by Lynn Vala

A familiar melody starts off the disc in “The Lake” (Instrumental Version) from Homeland 2010. A version also made it onto Anderson’s full length album Homeland. A lot of segments on this and throughout the disc are from Anderson’s past work. There are also intermittent excerpts from 1994’s Bright Red and 2001’s Life On A String as well as sectors of the previously referenced Landfall. All interwoven into the disc. I have admittedly spent too much time with this disc, but devoid of the overlying context of death, I find it for the most part soothing.

That melody is being played by a flute type synth, distorted, with a string section over-layed. More synths and strings build to a helicopter sound effect. They continue to build after that, with an accordion sound leading to a synth drone only, to highlight Anderson’s voice.

The majority of the vocals are spoken word. Which, from Anderson anyway, I enjoy tremendously! In my favorite almost United States Parts 1-4 spoken word style. But now that word is of Anderson’s dream body, the body she walks around with in her dreams.

OK, from that first small part and what I have heard, there are twenty-seven (27) titles on this disc. Some are VERY short. So if you get a short description of these tracks, well, you know…

The voice is introducing us to Anderson’s current dream. But Anderson has given birth to a dog. More precisely, it brings us seamlessly into the next track, “Birth Of Lola”. After the birth scene, the track is hilarious, so I won’t delve into many more lines, just some context.

The instruments change into a drum machine-like heart beat, with all types of dissonant instruments peeking and poking their heads in and out, all to match the bizarre events describes previously. But yet again, when the strings come to the front, we are now in “Tell All The Animals” which is a track I can SO identify with. You need to have this disc, so I will also edit myself as far as spoilers go. You must hear it from Laurie (because you won’t believe it from me). But the long and the short of this track is, Anderson is in the room with her mother who is dying. I’ll let your imagination and philosophical bent guide you as to which way this story may go.

The instruments are all strings, so perhaps by Kronos Quartet. There are some synths added to pad the track. As Anderson details her mother’s passing, sound effects punctuate her story points.

But once the synth beat joins in, the track counter changes (as I have little other way to know when she is changing track to track) And we are in “From The Air”. A title that harkens back the true Anderson fan. Look it up! It starts out about Anderson being a sky worshipper. For those non-hardcore fans, her first album Big Science starts off with a track called “From The Air”. Lemme just quote one of the ending lines for context as to where this version may end up (again, no spoilers); “We’re all going down, we’re all going down, together”.

Deduce from that what you will…

A convincing bagpipe effect has a unique sound to it, half organic half voice. More sound effects, planes and helicopters. Then comes an eerie backing part, while Anderson discusses her reaction to living through 9/11. Her retreat to Southern California where she attempts to Jane Goodall with her dog.

A familiar melody plays with animal and insect sound effects while Anderson describes her adventures hiking with Lolabelle. As the subject rejoins the theme ‘from the air’, a very Twin Peaks sounding synth plays behind the diatribe.

An angry sounding drone note opens up something most of us know about, yet Anderson has (as usual) a skewed point of view on it. Pseudointellectuals need not apply. But most of us have those (what Optometrists label as floaters) “Phosphenes”. Anderson describes them best.

At one point the track is another of Anderson’s early works reversed and that cues up “Lola Goes Blind”, about when her dog lost her sight. More sound effects with droning backing instruments. Then somewhere she finds some quasi-ethnic music, sounding like an outtake from the music that proved the soundtrack for her promotional video Laurie Anderson Collected Videos. If you don’t have that it is a MUST! It showcases Anderson’s wacky sense of humor, and the clones are awesome!! The genesis of Fenway Bergamot (again, look it up).

Another seamless transition into “Iron Mountain”, a topic that I am all too familiar with, so this is my third encounter with the storage facility located in my home state. If you watched the Ozzy And Jack’s World Detour on A&E, or whatever network cable deal it’s on, they visited Iron Mountain. In my previous life (pre-blog) I was a medical records processor for a company that distributed oxygen supplies in the area. Our records were shipped to Iron Mountain. And now Anderson.

This track includes Anderson’s view of post 9/11 in Ground Zero. Including her view of ‘See Something, Say Something’. Just a hollow sounding backing track with the appropriate sound effect (look, my reviews have been called too long, so if I went into every burp and giggle on this disc, this thing would make Moby Dick look like a Reader’s Digest condensation (you young types keep looking this shit up). She brings us round to the rejoinder of the topic with a description of her neighborhood (along the West Side highway somewhere) and historicized Iron Mountain from it’s beginnings as a mushroom farm to it’s current state as an official U.S. Government sanctioned storage facility. Right next to Ozzy Osbourne’s wedding photo to SHARON!, lie historic, strategic, corporate and other high level documents.

This flows right into “How To Feel Sad Without Being Sad”. A churning organ backs the story of puppy mills and how Lola came to be Laurie’s. The looping organ-ish sound gives way to strings as she recants her meditation teacher’s titular quote. Strings take over with some synth additive as we go, until what sounds like a transition between songs is not. We get to a live traffic backdrop from the West Village to start off “The West Village” which is a day in the life of Lolabelle! Car horns and dog barks make this track up.

Until you hear the sea tide and a faint beat and some synths build a different track called “Life Lived Backwards”, which is more about digital information storage and transport and the tails they maintain. Some mutated voices join the faint synth. The gist is Kierkegaard, once again, knowledgeable only…

Some more Twin Peaks style keyboards have a section of their own. They build into “The Cloud” which starts off about the new HQ of the NSA. Strings transition us into some Start Trek sounding keyboards as Anderson goes on about data collection and storage. ‘The U.S. is the first to collect data on all of it’s citizens en masse’, happy little but very true factoids about the good ol’ US of A.

This builds and rejoins that ethnic music from a few tracks ago, wait, the disc didn’t revert, just a one-off reference that leads to some West Village Electronica go a drone synth sound and when the violin starts in, it is truly “A Different World”. In one of her worlds, Moses was a lineman for a phone company… They compliment Moses (calling him ‘Mo’ in highly-gated voices) for a job well done.

Thunderous swirls of keyboard loops and a drone voice build  into “What If The Sky Froze?”. Anderson describes her childhood fascination of colonial publications and making up logically improbable situations. You gotta hear it to believe it. Synths and backwards tones and bells frame yet another 180 for Anderson, leading right into the adorable “Piano Lessons” about the relationship with Lolabelle and her trainer.

Some piano lingers in the background until you hear Lola Live!! Nope, not gonna describe it, you gotta hear it. Lola’s progression is somewhat like mine as a musician. I started out with shitty Casio’s and thanks to Laurie herself, I have a nice keyboard set up. Back to the track, it gets dicey when you get to the Christmas record…

We get back to human tracks, now with Anderson mixing harmonies and drones on keys and we are at the point where Lola’s age finally catches up to her. There is a discussion over the drones and notes of a beeping and some other vet sounds. Distressed over how to let Lola exit gracefully, she seeks out the Buddhist teacher’s advice. The teacher tells her that “Animals Are Like People”.

We treat our cats like people. We’ve seen the look of an animal that has been in pain too long, but their love for you is so strong, they stay silent about their pain and remain available for YOU! Because they love YOU! You have to be an animal receptive person to get it.

Some guitar sounds transition us to Lola’s death. At home surrounded by loved ones.

Synth sounds accompany some Buddhist ramblings. Those ramblings make Anderson comprehend that when you accept the loss of someone, you accept “The Release Of Love”. Violin and hold notes support the vocal hypothesis.

Anderson details the death and life of her good friend Gordon. “Three Ghosts” kicked off with ominous synth we’ve heard before playing dissonant chords. These synth parts are swelling pads that fade away quickly. You hear more about the Tibetan death ritual than you hear the backing part.

The next verse HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA, oh, I’m crying, that cracked me up! Anderson, verses, yeah, hee hee hee hee, hey, if you don’t know what dance Anderson is doing, you don’t know what time, never mind VERSE! Oh man, that was rich.

Anderson buzzkills a dower mood by regaling about the three ghosts, Gordon being the first. Gotta lay back on the spoilers.

Faint hold notes, a background male voice that drifts right into “The Bardo”, the soundtrack’s longest title on the disc, clocking in at over eight minutes. The concept is the Tibetan theory of being in a nonplace for 49 days.

The phrase ‘Recognize this?’ is delivered over and over with increasing menacing. Mild synths and sound effects throughout, the elements, the stages of grief are all interwoven in here at some point, if not here, other tracks. Minor percussion, bass thumps and more keyboard and sound effects.

An interesting descriptive of the state of mind  during the period of silence is fascinating. With a lot of call backs to earlier works, she further details the life flashing before the semi-conscious mind. The repetition of ‘wake up’ and some reversed vocals, usher in more memories, fading, rising, fore fronting in your mind.

A calm descends on the piece, a repeat bass key line and some echo piano notes turn to a plea for kindness and compassion. Violin and swirling bells (encapsulate the room on surround systems) fade to radio noise music and the surf roar. Familiar cellos build and build with the rushing water sounds but quickly back off for lone cello and some synth pads that give Anderson time to explain and transition, about how she would keep a journal for the next 49 days, one of which would pertain to (the next song, if you haven’t noticed by now, we’re going with the flow on this one, so song title reveals are not as formally listed as in past reviews) “The Real World”.

Thunder, swirling rushing water pad synth are all there as Anderson details real life events during this period which include the killing of Osama Bin Laden, the dates, the events, so on, even including one religion’s call for the end of the world!!!

Nope.

Chiming guitar notes join the fray as tremoloed keyboards interplay us right into “Dreaming Of Life Before Birth” before we even know it’s happening! The subject matter is about dreams in utero. No spoilers… But I have to talk about one point: Many years ago, I wrote a song (styled after Anderson I will not lie) about replacement parts for human beings. It was called “Parts Dept” (get it?). The subject matter finds its way to an area similar to my thoughts… Baby teeth drop out and adult teeth drop in to replace, wouldn’t it be cool to have a replacement heart, and so on?

Sounds of kids on a playground “A Story About A Story” detail how Anderson was starved for attention. She tries to show off at a pool with a fancy schmancy dive. She lands on the concrete edge of the pool. After floating in traction, achieving that almost-Bardo state, she is told she will never walk again…

Now here’s a part I can really identify with!

The short of it is, I was in an auto accident, I was hit from behind on a highway during a traffic jam and my wife was told at that time that I would never walk again.

Again, nope.

She details a story much like the experience I went through. It took two years, then I was up on crutches sliding my feet when I could. To a cane to an occasional cane when the weather is poor. Not bad for a guy who lives with pain that feels like a knife in my back 24/7/366 (leap years).

As far as Anderson’s story, I am not gonna spoil it, her acerbic humor permeates everywhere. She would tell people about this incidence from the hospital and have flashbacks to the experience. Hospitals are ugly places, filled with ugly people, I was born to a nurse.

Perhaps the most poignant part of this story is the addition of the grape vine equivalency. The more you tell a story, the more you forget it and it gets distorted as it gets passed on. Just as ugly as that fact is, the piece ends as quickly.

A VERY long static white noise bridges us to “Flow” (From Homeland 2010). I reviewed this album earlier, so you can read that about this one song or you can get this killer soundtrack and hear for yourselves. There may be mix changes, there may not. If you are a completest fan, you will buy this anyway, even if this track is a dead ringer for the album track or any other source where it may appear.

A white noise swirl and the familiar wav. sound start off “Facebook”, about an account Lolabelle had that Anderson didn’t know about. Some subdued guitar and synth sounds get blown over after the line “parts of songs that weren’t finished” by one of those songs sounding like a bad mariachi band. Interrupted by a thunderstorm that reveals some violin and takes us to “Bring Her Some Flowers”.

Strings and tones move the story to the point where, her mother is dying, and she must attend to her mother, yet, the feelings she has for her mother make that attending VERY hard. Territory I know. She speaks to a priest who says bring the flowers and tell her you care. But she did not make it in time before she went critical, and as Anderson had shown up, she was too late.

So in order to sooth her over the death of her mother, she invokes more Buddhist philosophy in the form of “The Mother Meditation” where you try to find a single moment where you knew your mother really cared about you.

As far as Anderson and me? Nope.

As Anderson asks that forsaken child’s classic question, the track ends.

Now as far as the “The Lake” (Vocal Version) goes, you can see my description of “Flow” from above, same principle.  Not sure, but this MIGHT be a remix. I’m too old and too busy to do A/B comparisons. OK I’ll give, it IS different, it has a new narrative about rescuing her sibling and being rewarded with the phrase “What a good swimmer you are, and  I didn’t know you were such a good diver”.

That was her Mother Meditation moment. She splashes back to earlier concepts. Is it a pilgrimage?

The late Lou Reed backstage at an Anderson show.
Photo by Lynn Vala

Now here’s where the album is totally different. This next song was written and performed by Anderson’s now deceased husband (as well as dedicating the album to him) Lou Reed, called “Turning Time Around”. With tremolo guitar, slippery bass and simple drums, Reed details what he calls love just in time for a synth breakdown with the titular chorus and intro to the next verse (he uses verses).

He breaks the song down to nothing, and with that trademark Reed vocal, brings the track continually up and up from that dead stop to the biggest, loudest, most action-packed song on the disc. Even when Reed wails on the drums at the end, it still isn’t as obnoxious as, oh, I don’t know, Lars Ulrich??

With that song from the dedicated party, we bring the disc to a close.

I’ve been on and on about this disc. I really like it. It makes me laugh, cry, miss Lou Reed, and reminisce about the old times listening to United States Parts 1-4 and even get a little bit of Homeland (my vote for Unites States Part 5) as well as throwbacks to Bright Red, and Life On A String.

This disc came up in my stack of CDs to review just in time. I need to get out and get Landfall with the Kronos Quartet and her book “All Things I Lost In The Flood”. There are more works in there I need to get to be completest, but that only makes that stack of CDs larger…

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