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Fresh, Invigorating Musical Poetry Invokes Neruda, Donne, Kerouac: Raven Songs 101 review

Raven Songs 101
Fresh, Invigorating Musical Poetry Invokes Neruda, Donne, Kerouac

Somewhere between songs and spoken word lands the Kevin Max/Adrian Belew project "Raven Songs 101". I struggled in considering how to describe this, since it hits several categories musically, stylistically and lyrically. Somehow, it ties together.

Gutsy, and not perfect, it goes to places avoiding genres, and shows that experimentation in music is a long way from dead. Not every allusion or symbol is clear, but there is a visceral challenge developed here worthy of exploration.

There is no point comparing this to dc Talk's work, as it is similar only in that Max brings the same genuine pursuit of God and art. Otherwise, there are only glimpses of hip-hop and pop rock. It does not contradict dc Talk's core message, but puts an entirely different voice and angle to it.

Listeners expecting Jack Kerouac will find something akin in the midst of something being extraordinarily different. The music written not just played behind the piece, but as an integral part. With Kerouac, jazz provided texture and tone. With Max/Belew, it is essentially unified with the lyrics. Unlike a song, the lyrics are not sung so much as they are presented as a variety of instruments.

The poetry is a cross between free verse modernism and Pablo Neruda, with a strong current of metaphysical poet John Donne in its realist-sensual-faith driven descriptions.

Like Kerouac, Max finds internal vowel rhymes, and with those, a natural cadence, as in the eponymously named cut: "I was spurned and churned, nocturnal immersions in the baptism of your love."

Spoken word poetry is often associated today with memoirists like Maya Angelou, but those listeners will be disappointed. Max's poetry deals heavily with self introspectively, as in the pulse-beat metronymic, rhythmic 'Raising Cain':

I seize the light and draw it down,
and I cover it up with a blanket of foam
I break the bond that held us.
I curse the ground and live in caves.
I speak to the dead in the silence of shame.
I break the back that made us.
I drive the nails and draw the sword.
I do this even though I know the word.

This is a confession of brokenness and willingness, as opposed to a declaration of defiance or victory.

The music itself reminds me of the Art of Noise, Bjork, and even some industrial techno and punk. Some club beats, ambient guitar, Africanesque-jazz drums line the songs in a moody, yet understated expression.

Vocal layers add to the intrigue, as does some interesting mixing of stereo (especially in 'River'). Culturally and artistically relevant, Max shows a broad knowledge of the world outside of Nashville. Max does not deny he is part of the greater musical world, referring diversely to Frank Sinatra, Gene Simmons, Elvis, Nina Simone, the Sex Pistols and others in the hypnotic 'Black Leather and a Microphone.'

In the song titled 'Untitled', Max turns on the effects and his voice comes out like a Doctor Who Dalek. It is reminiscent of the Rolling Stones 'Sympathy for the Devil,' with lines like, "I saw the Gestapo alive with desire," and "I saw old Judas hung from the gallows." Unfortunately, in the distortion, it hard to catch the full meaning of the piece. A lyric sheet would be a great tool, but, in downloading an mp3 instead of buying a CD with liner notes loses that.

'And You Tremble At His Feet' has a 1960s coffeehouse coolness to it, but with more depth and sophistication.

In the fog horn imbued 'One', he addresses cynicism as we see the frail humanity declaring Christ. "What you felt was a pinch of realism in a world of cheapened orthodox," seems to call upon on the sensibility of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He wants real faith which does not succumb to the lure of Man, but the grace of God.

"It's not the singer. It's the song... There is one valid opinion among the screeching, seething leeches," implies that beyond all the marketing, church camps, falsity found in Christianity, there is still one truth, and one true voice. The truth is still the truth.

'Whalers Tails' is the most standard reading. Unfortunately, it is the least interesting and most cliché. The first two stanzas come across weakly as he sounds like he is reading a poem, rather than performing it. Moody Blues fans might find themselves remembering the mod-psychedelic poem 'Late Lament' spoken at the end of 'Nights in White Satin'. Max redeems 'Untitled' at the end, "I lay in bones in bunched up pieces, and I see the heavens in choked-up freedom."

Expect this to grow on you.

* Time The Fever To A Boil (4:04)
* Untitled (2:26)
* Raising Cain (3:37)
* And You Tremble At His Feet (1:18)
* River (5:07)
* Swing (1:59)
* When The Dawn Comes (1:13)
* Black Leather And A Microphone (3:25)
* One (2:34)
* Raven Song 101 (1:45)
* Whalers Tails (1:58)

I fully recommend "Raven Songs 101" by Kevin Max and Adrian Belew.

Anthony Trendl
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