Theo Bleckmann - "Running Up That Hill" (Hello Earth!: The Music of Kate Bush)
It is somewhat surprising that, having interpreted Charles Ives, Theo Bleckmann now turns his attention to the music of Kate Bush. His disc-length homage to the iconoclastic songwriter is gorgeous, there’s no denying it, but its aesthetic is both a strength and a weakness.
In the company of long-time collaborator John Hollenbeck, Bleckmann crafts a coherent and well-paced album in which Bush’s songs are reconsidered with obvious affection through the lens of his mellifluous voice and top-drawer arrangements. Bleckmann’s delicate and now ubiquitous vocal overdubs throughout “Dream of Sheep” typify the subtle way effects and voices are deployed as the disc progresses. Its instrumental transition to “Under Ice” exudes a haunting depth, even if Bleckmann and company feel it necessary to remove the bleak harmonies in “Ice”’s accompaniment. By contrast, “Violin,” which takes the place of “Waking the Witch” in “The Ninth Wave” sequence, is delivered at a faster pace than the already rowdy original, and the contrast is effective. Even more fun is the whimsical rendition of “Suspended in Gaffa,” sporting more vocal intricacies and excellent piano dialogue from Henry Hey. Hollenbeck’s playing is, as always, excellent, each stroke and sizzle perfectly placed.
In fact, everything on this disc is nearly perfect, which ends up being a major problem. Bush’s originals are carefully arranged, but there’s always a sense of danger, of imminent unhinging. Arrangements are full of rapid-fire and startling dynamic shifts, but her voice is the most flexible instrument. On the originals covered here, Bush acted as much as she sang, her temperament often changing with the register of her voice. When we found out that it was Bush trapped under the ice on Hounds, the sense of fear dawned gradually and then erupted in a near scream. Bleckmann does not scream so much as simply leap registers. “Hello Earth!” she exclaimed, enveloping the world, first full voice and then in little more than a whisper, encompassing the epic and the intimate in two beautifully contrasted gestures. It’s one of those moments that made Hounds of Love so magical. Bleckmann intones the same lyrics, and they take on an aura of tableau, frozen in a beautiful but decidedly ineffective instant.
Perhaps Bleckmann’s approach, and the album, would have been more successful if he’d cast his net wider, bringing the gentle felicities of his voice to Bush’s more recent and introspective material. As it stands, there is nothing here beyond The Sensual World, and I’m left wondering what might have been done with the best moments from Aerial. This is a disc whose many virtues are outweighed by the incongruities between style and expression.