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Culture Reviews
Laurie Anderson “Homeland”
MMDM Svetlanov Hall 
By Reiner Torheit
The doyenne of NYC avant-garde electro made a fleeting appearance in Moscow, bringing her latest project “Homeland” through Europe ahead of an album release scheduled for later this year. The project has already toured since autumn of last year. Although it’s a little unusual to tour a project long before there is anything down on disk, it could reasonably be expected that someone as anti-mercantile as Anderson wouldn’t tour for financial reasons alone. Indeed, if she was doing it for the money, then the Moscow gig will have been a drag on the budget – 60% of the seats at Dom Muzyky went empty. But in a set which decries commercialism and the woes of modern urban life, this seemed to be all part of the plan.

If Anderson’s previous albums and projects have been notable for touching on their topics through recondite references, obscure allegories and inverted references, she has thrown-open the doors of her own consciousness and latent anger in Homeland. Her mid-80s hit “O Superman” (which owes its success largely to John Peel, who championed this 8-minute track at a time when no-one else would play such extended numbers on radio) has references which were sufficiently muted that they eluded simplistic analysis that might have had the track spiked from the airwaves on political grounds. However, the timing and spacing of the text established it as a hypnotic kind of trance, in which the meaning of the text only emerged after several listenings – even though it was always there if you wanted to find it. Underneath an apparently uber-cool metropolitan mash-up of life in the modern megapolis, the bait-and-switch with which motherly love is mutated into a love for petrochemicals and warfare is waiting for the listener at the end: “So hold me, Mom, in your long arms/Your petrochemical arms/Your military arms/In your electronic arms”. It was against a crateful of this material that Laurie Anderson presented a new project in which the gloves came off very quickly.

The spiky-haired heroine of hyper-cool activism was in top form, and sailed through the entire unbroken set without taking pause for breath. We opened in expansive, almost Messianic tone, with a questing piece about where birds buried their dead before the earth’s surface was available to them. However, we were quickly into the uncompromisingly political material that is a new departure for Anderson, and has seen walkouts and screams of protest at her concerts in Boston. “Only an expert can deal with the problem” is clearly the hit number of the show, and its entrancing beat – interspersed with humorously-placed tacits to give pause for thought – bring the audience along through some ideas that will have been uncomfortable for many. "And if a country tortures people… And holds citizens without cause or trial and sets up military tribunals… This is also not a problem… Unless there's an expert who says it's the beginning of a problem." The topic of America’s lurch to the right underlies much of the show, with other songs performed in the persona of a Motivational Speaker who privately admits that everything he says is a pack of lies. The Iraq War casts its bloody pall over much of the proceedings, and in “Call ‘em up” any pretence at sophistry or allegory is cast aside. Simultaneous translations of the song-text appeared on a digital screen behind the performers, but even this couldn’t explain who the “NRA” were, the significance of Rush Limbaugh, and various other cultural references that didn’t register with all of the audience. Some of the translation didn’t work – notably the gag that a Texas State Official had commented that ordering women to carry handguns wouldn’t work, because Texas women would never find the gun in their handbags anyhow.

The on-stage persona of the lie-mongers of the New Right – the Fukuyamas and their kind – is a new departure, and seems to owe something to David Byrne’s preoccupation with fire-and-brimstone preachers, hypocrites and blowhards… exploded through their own vocabulary of deranged, vicious vitriol. They’re easy and deserving targets, of course, but I did wonder if the concert had stopped, and the stand-up had started? Unpitched and declaimed over preprepared backing material activated from her console, we appear to have crossed over into a different world of political satire. Not that there was really anything wrong with this, but it seems like an underuse of the concert form available to push the message home more ardently? The anger flows freely, but the Russian audience seemed rather nonplussed by an American delivering stinging judgement on the shortcomings of her own country… perhaps because there was nothing to connect to for them in all this?

Although “Homeland” is entirely new material, it’s not entirely a liberal denunciation of neo-con values and there are wistful lyrical moments alongside the skewball surrealism that was the keynote of early albums like “Big Science” – “The Underwear Gods” seems to have slipped through a timehole from an earlier Anderson altogether. A few more numbers like this would have leavened the texture and left the protest-song material in sharper relief as a consequence. Supported by just a trio of musicians (viola, keyboards and bass), the musical textures still succeeded in being varied and interest-catching… sampled sounds were sparingly used, along with synthesised live sound. It was a pity that the PA system was barely adequate for all this (I’d go as far as calling it shoddy), and Dom Muzyky is far from the ideal venue for this kind of gig – it would have come over much better at Ikra or B1 Club. The unfortunately-usual posse of photographers walking-around during the gig was an unwanted distraction – can’t this be done when the band does their sound-check or run-through?! The austere concert-hall setting - with an enormous concert pipe-organ as the entirely unsuitable backdrop - didn’t help in establishing the atmosphere, nor did an underpowered touring PA system or the absence of a regular crowd of fans. The dedicated few who turned-up nevertheless enjoyed an outstanding performance, which goes on from Moscow to appear in London next week at the entirely more suitable Barbican Hall.

22.05.08
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