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Diamanda Galás - Guilty Guilty Guilty

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Artist: Diamanda Galás

Album: Guilty Guilty Guilty

Label: Mute

Review date: Mar. 24, 2008

Let's face it: the blues have been poorly treated by what has become the music industry. From early exploitation to appropriation and the resultant defanged "blues rock," it's been a long trail from the progenitors to today's watered-down mud. On the bright side, recent times have seen a resurgence of interest in the originals and those hewing to more than commercial concerns. In any case, it's rare to encounter anyone attacking the blues head-on with a unique sound that still possesses the emotional punch of the music's roots.

Diamanda Galás has been an artist without a category for her entire career. 1982's Baudelairian Litanies of Satan introduced her multi-microphone, densely-layered vocal style, and from there her work was routinely called "confrontational" – a label which seemed to be shorthand for describing challenging, uncategorizable, and (God forbid) political works by women. Confounding expectations set by The Masque of the Red Death, her massive AIDS-themed trilogy, The Singer saw her delving into gospel while The Sporting Life – a collaboration with Led Zeppelin's John Paul Jones – was clearly a fun diversion. The last 10 years, however, have seen the singer-pianist primarily focused on interpretations of blues and gospel songs, from Billie Holliday and Willie Dixon, John Lee Hooker and Screamin' Jay Hawkins.

Songs of despair, hurt, turmoil and loss with touches of redemption and even hope: to a great extent these define the blues and gospel. The fact that Galás has evolved from cacophonous avant-garde to these styles may be surprising in retrospect, but makes perfect sense. Most importantly, her themes, statements and emotions have always been consistent. Whether singing multi-layered, delay-drenched shrieks on Saint of the Pit or invoking the demons of Ralph Stanley's "O Death" on this album, she communicates with a unique mixture of rawness and theatrical flair, telling stories and plumbing the depths of emotion.

The songs on Guilty Guilty Guilty were recorded live, all but two taken from a "Valentines Day Massacre" performance in 2006. Aside from a few effects and additional sounds added by longtime sound engineer Blaise Dupuy, this is just Galás and her piano, but she easily fills the spectrum, from rumbling low notes to her trademark vocal high marks. She often employs hammering, percussive piano, as in the opening bars of O.V. Wright's "8 Men and 4 Women,” as Dupuy mixes in additional voices. As the piece escalates, Galás breaks into moments of concentrated, layered wails during the chorus (also the source of the album’s title). The audience can't help but applaud mid-song.

One of the surprises here for those less familiar with Galás will be "Time (Interlude),” originally sung by Timi Yuro. The gentle and calmly regal delivery is a less-heard side of Galás, carried by slow piano notes falling like raindrops. Likewise, Edith Piaf's "Heaven Have Mercy" here gets a gorgeous rendering, far more heaven than hell. These two pieces are useful reminders that when she cares to, Galás can invoke beauty just as easily as horror.

Speaking of which, the album's centerpiece is the aforementioned "O Death,” a harrowing work filled with overwhelming vocals and rumbling piano, nine minutes of ferocious, raw spirit carved into sound. It's rare that a nine-minute song can feel short, but it's a journey filled with memorable moments that pass all too quickly. There will be those for whom the trip is too much to take, but such is the nature of honest expression: it's not for everyone.

Not every song, of course, strikes as accurately. Tracy Nelson's "Down So Low" hits heights of ornamentation that at times threaten to subsume the song itself, while the guttural melismatics of "Autumn Leaves" grow overly fierce as the song progresses. But these minor quirks, while awkward here, are all part of the theatrics that make live shows by Galás such an experience.

When the last notes of "Heaven Have Mercy" finish the album, you'll have heard the blues, and more, delivered in a way that nobody else can imagine, much less muster. After 17 albums and more than 25 years, Galás continues to hone her sound and approach while staying remarkably consistent: communicating on behalf of the broken, the sick, the sad, the destitute, and never forgetting the occasional chance for redemption and grace.

By Mason Jones

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