ISSUE 13   FALL 2002
page 2 of 16




By Joe S. Harrington

Marianne Nowottny can eat. Unlike those other anorexic twigs posing as chanteuses, she ain’t afraid to snap on the old feedbag once and a while. They don’t call her “DJ Giblets and Gravy” for nothing!  I once witnessed her devour a sampling of Japanese delicacies—sushi and the like—and then send out for the whoopie pies immediately thereafter. For those unfamiliar with these confectionaries (which are completely different from “moon pies,” believe me), they consist of two moist cakes with a dollop o’ tasty cream in the center (of varying consistency and volume depending on the baker). Whoopie pies are apparently a New England regional specialty and we have some good ones up here in Portland, Maine where I live—Sarah’s make the best, but they’re only available at Joe’s Smoke Shop and by the time Ms. Nowottny needed dessert Joe’s was closed so she had to settle for another lousy brand (cake’s too dry, with a way-too-shrimpy portion of synthetic-tasting cream).  Speakin’ of Joe’s, the brilliant singer-keyboardist actually accompanied yours truly to that very place the same afternoon to buy liquid supplies—I believe at the time, Ms. Nowottny took note of Sarah’s whoopie pies but made no instant decisions because we had some DRINKING to do and Ms. Nowottny also does that well. She even got to sample our excellent SHIPYARD beer which we pride ourselves so much on up here in the great state of Maine along with lobsters and potatoes. But of course the whole point is, Marianne Nowottny is also a big fan of lobster and potato—and beer.  Doesn’t smoke the butts (they’re bad for the pipes), but she’s run through her share of anything and everything in the course of her 19 very wise years…

       Which is kind of the whole point—she can eat, she can drink, and she can even cook! Being of Germanic distinction, Marianne’s mum is also a great chef who heartily recommends steaming buckets of broth filled with aromatic sausages and the like—infact Marianne’s even helping her out at the family restaurant this summer during her break from college. So some lucky guy is getting his weinerschnitzel handcooked by the greatest fucking American female artist since Billie Holiday. And the comparisons to Lady Day are not unfounded—the whole point of running down a virtual checklist of everything Ms. Nowottny consumed in the course of one seven-hour period is to acknowledge her immense appetite, not just for beer or whoopie pies, but also for life itself. What else could make her sound like, even at the tender age of nineteen, she’s lived a thousand lifetimes? They say Lady Day herself was a fried chicken fancier and my favorite Billie story is the one about how, one day, she hand-swiped a bunch of “college boys.” Marianne comes from the same spirit and you can hear it in her music, which is what makes it so spine-tinglingly intense as opposed to just more mawkish folk music in “feminist” garb.  In all seriousness, Marianne Nowottny’s the most important female artist in any category—that is, she’s doing more to expand the whole concept of modern womanhood—than anyone since Lisa “Suckdog” Carver.  Infact it’s pretty evident they’re cut from the same cloth. 

       To wit: upon once proffering Ms. Suckdog with a whole shopping bag full of my famous handcooked popcorn as a party favor for one of her soirees (clothing optional) she instinctively dove her hand in and grabbed a big handful without the normal trepidation displayed by uptight alt-rock ladies worried about their figures. At that moment, it kind of dawned on me—this was emblematic of her whole APPROACH to life, which was a zestful popcorn-dive of almost Nietzschean proportions!  The first time I heard the Shell is Swell album—which was Marianne’s fab collaboration with Donna Bailey in the form of the short-lived and ill-fated Shell duo—I was immediately reminded of Lisa Suckdog. Not even the recorded stuff like Drugs are Nice or the compilation Onward Suckdog Soldiers but the background “incidental” music in the Lost Kittens video, the strangely disorienting stuff that actually sounds like an offshoot of Yoko Ono.  You know, there’s weird and then there’s weird and I’ve always gone for the latter, and somethin’ about the fact that in both the case of Suckdog and Shell it was literally teenage semen-sprouts yawkin’ up the abysmal meow made it all the more appetizing. Shell is Swell to me seemed like a record every teenage girl of Prozac Nation should be listening to religiously—no Prozac for the “pasty princess” however: just bring on the goddamn fried clams before she gets writer’s block!

       Getting back to whoopie pies: Iggy Pop, the famed ex-singer of the Stooges, and human specimen, is a known whoopie pie fancier. But there was no Pop or pies evident on Shell is Swell but some downright macabre mellotron sizzle combined with a disarming Nico Marble Index vocal style—Marianne is the definition of “noir-ish.” She’s a little like Diamanda, but not so much into screech as purr…but it’s a purr of a blur, like a cat caught in the downturn of a certified tuff gnarl. Cat power? Shell was so UNLIKE the previously-vaunted “women in rock” suspects that it was the most ear-opening piece o’ wax since Love Child’s immortal Witchcraft and the best expose of the modern female id since vintage Suckdog. Even tho’ the alb reeked o’ self-conscious girliness—an unavoidable facet of life in the nineties admittedly—there was apocalypse within its eternal ginchiness. Despite the purposely-garish pink and black sleeve, the handwrit inscriptions were more reminiscent of tombstone etchings than they were feckless love notes. You gotta fuckin’ respect teenagers who ain’t total ginchos in this day and age and Shell for once presented us with perfect role models.  Back in the early nineties, Spin asked Simpsons creator Matt Groening what music Bart Simpson listened to and he replied: “NWA, Dead Milkmen, Butthole Surfers, anything to drive his parents crazy.”  In this day and age, if someone asked Craig McCracken, the creator of the Powerpuff Girls, that same question per his own illustrious band o’ pre-teen public defenders (who’re actually just a derivative o’ Rocky the Flying Squirrel anyway) I have no doubt he’d say Shell as well as Marianne’s own socket-pumping solo works. 

       And what works they are, starting with the immortal Afraid of Me, which came out on the great Abaton imprint in 1999.  Marianne Nowottny records exclusively for Abaton and the artists alone decide what you will hear on their Abaton recordings!  Marianne is their flagship artist—hell, at this point, Marianne is their only artist! But that’s just an example of good old staying power.  Let’s face it, two out of three albums released by Sub Pop or Merge totally sucks and the mistake o’ most indie labels is that they spread themselves too thin. Abaton will never do that because they have a vision and that vision is a family affair with the front-line o’ the illustrious Abaton royal family consisting o’ the beautiful and talented Lauri Bortz (America’s greatest playwright) and her hubster Mark Dagley (a creator of eye-popping visual art in his own right). In the seventies, Mark actually chopped away for the Girls, Boston-area pre-Mission of Burma weird-rock, so he’s no stranger to embryonic sounds and it’s his knob-twirling that helps bring Nowottny’s unique vision to life.  Lauri’s listed as “producer” but that’s kind of like Andy Warhol being listed as “producer” of the Velvet Underground’s first album and in fact Lauri’s very Warholian: just like Warhol wouldn’t go out w/out his wig, sunglasses or black leather jacket, Lauri is seldom if ever seen outside of the Abaton compound without one of her forties dresses, a pillbox hat and her lethally-red lipstick. 

       Nowottny’s no slouch fashion-wise either—look at the cover of Afraid of Me where she looks like a combination of Lolita and Marlene Dietrich.  She got the red lips from Lauri, but the whole key is her strange juxtapositioning of old/young and even tho’ she was a mere SIXTEEN when she waxed this opus she once again sounds wise beyond her years. And speakin’ of “key,” this alb also contains the fuggin’ great “Porcelain Key,” a song rife with almost Biblical analogies in which the stunning chanteuse sings: “Worn down to an apple core/I can now honestly say I don’t need anymore.” Apples are of course edible (if not Oedipal in this case) which once again brings up the food angle! Other references to food on this album include: “lamb” is mentioned in “The Bell Ringer” (a skin-tingling opus with Diamanda overtones about a would-be Romeo-Quassimodo); she mentions “soda pop” in “Lotus” and also “glass of sherry with a cherry”; in “Deep End” she evokes “sugar cubes” (which of course could be a DRUG REFERENCE as well since smack pops up in the aforementioned “Porcelain Key” as well as “Crackerjack Necrophiliac”—how’s that for a food/death metaphor?) Jesus Christ, I just realized she also mentions “crabs” in “Deep End”—wonder if she’s ever been to Maryland, birthplace o’ not only the crab phenomenon but also Eric Youngling who, despite her Aryan lineage, was no fan of the so-called “pasty princess” (so dubbed by some critic who apparently took note of her pale complexion—but then aren’t all those “moon goddesses,” from Deitrich to Nico, always pale as a ghost? Pasty’s nothin’ if not macabre but it’s kind of touching that below it all she’s just a good old American teenager who actually drives—they call her car “the Pasty mobile”—and once even worked at Burger King…which once again brings up the FOOD angle so everything connects…)?

       Her food references ain’t as blatant as the Descendents’ or Iggy’s but nods to all kinds of consumable substances pop up if y’ just know where to look. “Who’s to Blame,” for instance, starts right off with a ref to “yolks” but that may be the oxen-securing kind as opposed to eggs—then again, I might have spoken too soon since she sings in the third verse: “Hearts break like hollow eggshells.” She also sings: “maybe we can drink tonight” and who wouldn’t want to tip a few distilled spirits with the current World’s Greatest Chanteuse?

        Food reference number 434: on “Harbor” she mentions “cookies” but only in the context of “I’m still your communist cookie nazi,” which should finally satisfy Youngling’s Aryan yearnings.

        Not as much food mentioned on her latest, the epic Manmade Girl, which has got to be the most brilliant double alb since, I dunno, Brylcreem Nation? One half of it’s her new songs and they’re all brilliant and even more smoky and obscure and dense than the ones on Afraid of Me. This was the alb where she REALLY showed herself to be the heir apparent to Diamanda as well as wayward sixties songstresses like Patty Waters n’ Erika Pomeranz n’ Sandy Hurvitz as well as more recent ones like Azalia Snail. But whereas Snail conjures her blissful space-hum via the six-string ala Barbara Manning—which means it’s still ultimately FOLK MUSIC—Nowottny uses purely keyboards (altho’ Dagley as well as Nowottny herself does occasionally embellish a track or two with guit-sounds). The end result, on this album anyway, is a musical pastiche that, at various times, manages to evoke Sun Ra, Billie Holiday, Erik Satie, Nico, Yma Sumac, Richard Clayderman, Richard Grossman, Patti Smith, Patty Waters, and Anisette from Savage Rose, among others. It’s the greatest album of the new millennium without a doubt if “greatest” means the only thing offering a genuine challenge to the listener.  The whole second disk is semi-classical pianistics combined with hovering space burble worthy o’ Acid Mothers Temple.  Manmade Girl is also Nowottny’s waltz towards full-blown womanhood—if you’ve got a teenager niece and you want to indoctrinate her to the ways of Nowottny you start her out with the more teen-friendly Shell is Swell and the sometimes-giddy Afraid of Me before exposing her to this because, chances are, she won’t understand it.  It’s not as immediately “accessible” as those two albs, in other words, but twice as rewarding once you’ve bought the full-blown farm.

       Which brings us to Nobody’s Diary: A Tribute to Yazoo. Judging by the title the whole shebang sounds like a tribute to that blues label so I thought I was gonna get to hear Pasty doing things like “I Want a Hotdog for My Roll” etc.  My first thought was: “Where’s Grumpus?” But then I realized, far from being a tribute to any arcane Americana, it’s actually a tribute to some English synth-pop duo from the eighties named Yazoo who had to chop the two O’s off the end o’ their name t’ make ‘em fit for American consumption coz apparently the blues label balked. Hence: Yaz. I never heard of ‘em in the eighties since my tastes at that time ran more along the lines of, I dunno, the Angry Samoans…in that case, I have nothing to compare the blatantly “new wave” emissions here to, but let’s just say, on this effort—made up of mostly artists I’ve never heard of—the snap drums are running wild. Eighties affectations have been rampant lately, whether it’s the contrived robotics of the Faint or the new Republican politics. Marianne’s cut, “I Before E Except After C” is the only cut here that’s not self-consciously retro: through a sandblast suction cup o’ sound filters—once again wrought by Bortz and Dagley w/ some help from experimental genie Elliot Sharp—the Pasty One mouths a sultry series of echoing atmospherics complete with tonal protrusions that recall Eno during his most pastoral period. Compare this cut to the moveable disco of Electrosquad’s “Only You,” which directly succeeds it, for a prime examp of how, even in a project as self-consciously unnatural as this, the Pasty Princess never succumbs to generic mediocrity. Not that Nobody’s Diary ain’t utterly wonderful throughout—in fact, it’s by far the best snapdrum alb since the last New Order. I almost hate to admit it, but I’ve been kind of nostalgic for the eighties (yes, Reagan, MTV…those eighties) lately. Let’s face it, compared to nowadays, anything’s better.


The diva in the bunker with JSH -- 14 escargots later -- 4/7/02


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