By Darran Anderson
Nothing sinks the heart as sure as the latest list of best albums ever. The dead weight of expectation and predictability, the same wretched roll-call of names and titles drained of any surprise and vitality they once possessed. “Best Of” lists are where albums go to die, the graveyards of once great songs, your solemn remembrance soiled by the sound of leering music journalists masturbating at the cemetery gates. So instead, we turn to the curios and the cults, the ones that were saved by slipping through the cracks.
Through accident or design, Thomas Truax has so far successfully avoided absorption into the colonic tract that is the mainstream, amassing a considerable following in the process. It’s a folly to attempt to pigeonhole such singular and changeable a style though some do (Anti-folk? Steampunk? Truaxian?). His is music constructed from clockwork and junkyard cast-offs, instruments seemingly fashioned from bits of bicycles, gramophones and washing machines. He takes the stage half-crackpot inventor – half bedlam escapee, armed with a briefcase filled with instruments with names like the Hornicator and Mary Poppins (built from “spoons, aerodynamics, centrifugal force, a motorcycle headlamp and a playing card”). He sings songs about being inside the internet, hunted butterflies and the doomed space-music producer Joe Meek. To his fans, he issues The Wowtown News in which he reports local happenings, from dark tales of spider families and groundhogs baptised Al Camus to ominous headlines such as “Continued Meteor Rain, Roach Exodus” and “The Bee Bonnet Plague.” By admission, his primary influences are “toxins in the water supply.”
His latest venture is to take on Songs from the Films of David Lynch, an unenviable task given how wedded to Lynch’s visions the songs now are (is it possible to hear ‘Blue Velvet’ or ‘In Dreams’ as innocently as the world once did?). Truax’s real achievement with the collection is not only retaining the atmosphere of Lynch and (the prodigiously gifted composer) Angelo Badalamenti‘s soundtracks but how he manages to avoid performing a pastiche or being trapped in Lynch’s ethereal world-view. Instead, Truax somehow lures the songs into his own territory. They may still conjure visions of haunted homecoming queens, the red room, lesbian dalliances, cherry pie and lonesome desert highways but they unmistakably bear the musician’s stamp.
Opening with a tumbling rag and bone beat from his ingenuous invention Sister Spinster, Trax’s version of Chris Isaak’s ‘Wicked Game’ (from Wild at Heart) retains the sublime echoing Tex-Mex sound and sensuality of the original but instead of heartbroken abandon it chooses a more brooding and sinister tone, as if plotting revenge rather than pining away.
Similarly for his adaptation of ‘Baby Please Don’t Go,’ he takes Van Morrison and Them’s rollicking garage-punk blast and menacingly stretches it out, delivering the song with the wolfish growl of a lapsed and lecherous backwoods preacher.
Despite a bold start, there are some relative misfires; Beck’s ‘Black Tambourine’ (from Inland Empire), whilst making strange sense live, sticks too close to the blueprint to capture the kind of voodoo menace that for example Dr John had on ‘Walk on Gilded Splinters’, while the charming gypsy polka of ‘I Put a Spell on You’ lacks the extravagant lunacy of Screamin’ Jay Hawkin’s version.
There are strong renditions of ‘Blue Velvet’ and ‘In Dreams,’ mirroring that one step-removed 1950’s otherworld, Lynch has dreamt up (the image of Dean Stockwell miming the latter springs to mind) but they’re played perhaps too relatively straight to challenge the originals (in fairness, who could hope to outdo the Big O?).
The album is at its best when Truax hijacks the songs completely. The further off the map they go the better; the bigger the risk, the bigger the return. The demonically possessed music box of ‘In Heaven’ and the creeping ‘Audrey’s Dance’ gives room for welcome experimentation.
His version of ‘Falling’ from Twin Peaks is initially hilarious and disconcerting, so much does it subvert the original, but on repeated listening it reveals a certain beauty and charm. De-synthed, he strips it down to its bones, speeds it up into a kind of bluegrass version with its own jaunty power, substituting the mesmerising quality for something more fun.
Reminding us that for all the horror or sensuality or general fucked up-ness in Lynch’s films, there’s also a lot of humour; the Log Lady, Agent Cooper dispatches, even Frank bawling “Baby wants to fuck” to Isabella Rosselini’s character Dorothy Vallens is pretty funny, isn’t it guys? … Guys?
The highlight of the album is an extraordinarily beautiful cover of David Bowie’s ‘I’m Deranged’ from Lost Highway, in which the racing skeletal techno of Bowies undanceable dance track is pared down to an acoustic lament with remarkable effect. It’s one of those cover versions that justifies the often-questionable existence of cover versions, so successfully does it reveal a hither-to unseen side to the original.
All in all, the album is neither a masterpiece nor a palatable piece of commercial product, mercifully so in both cases. Instead, fittingly for a Lynch tribute, it is like a blissful secret, something mysterious and not entirely benevolent, half hidden away and cherished/lamented as one half of a locket, a blue key or a missing ear.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Darran Anderson once slept through an earthquake.