AMN Reviews: Aidan Baker – Already Drowning (Gizeh Records)

a3154857344_2Aidan Baker´s Already Drowning is “a song-cycle inspired by various myths & folktales about female water spirits” and the fiction of a handful of writers, including Angela Carter, A. S. Byatt and Hubert Aquin. It presents the Aidan Baker project – experimental guitar, ambient drone, doom jazz on a good hundred solo albums plus all his collaborative and group work (most significantly as Nadja with his wife, Leah Buckareff), some poetry – in a new light: as an atmospheric contribution to the Great American Songbook with an arch sensibility and orchestral sweep. Though it sounds far-fetched, it bears a certain family resemblance to Frank Sinatra´s cult classic album Watertown, about an abandoned husband´s big time, small town heartbreak.

Like Watertown, Already Drowning is great melodrama, cinema disguised as an album of music. Despite its ostensible conjuring of stasis, drone, especially in Baker´s hands, can cast between still gloom and tempestuousness, delicate nuance and overwrought emotion. Playing guitar, bass, flute, trombone, piano, drums and unspooling field recordings (and joined by a handful of guest instrumentalists), Baker incorporates drone but also goes beyond it, and foregoes the lone male voice in favour of a different female vocalist on each track. Each adds not only her interpretive gift but in some instances, her own translation of Baker´s lyrics.

Opening at a gritty train station (just like Watertown), Clara Engel delivers the title track to a spare accompaniment that contrasts with the richly orchestrated strings of “30 Days / 30 Nights”, sung by Jessica Bailiff. “Mélusine” – a Medieval mermaid, perhaps not unlike the one in stone being ravished on the cover – is a duet sung almost to abstraction by Valérie Niederoest and Maude Oswald of Swiss indie band Toboggan, while “Mein Zwilling, Mein Verlorener” is articulated in crystal clear German by Joanna Kupnicka to an acoustic, folksy accompaniment.

On “Tout Juste Sous La surface, Je Guette”, the inimitable Geneviève Castrée (aka Ô Paon) and Baker turn her wintry submersion into a grim Icelandic saga. On the eleven-minute “Ice”, a truly mesmerizing piece, Liz Hysen (Picastro) whispers as Baker ebbs and flows. The honour of closing goes to arguably the most-well known of the assembled vocalists, Carla Bozulich (of Evangelista, The Geraldine Fibbers). “Lorelai / Common Tongue” arcs all the way back to the beginning, and the mood has absolutely cratered; lover gone (again, inevitably), train station now a death trap, Salvation Army brass band drunk and a swirl of demons trying to drown her story out.

Under Baker´s direction, a complex web of emotions is solid as latticed steel and victims become heroines.

Stephen Fruitman