2009: Gowns - “Marked”

While their sole full-length Red State garnered all the love, Gowns’ Broken Bones EP might be my favorite release by the all-too-shortly-lived collaboration that brought Erika M. Anderson to the world’s attention. Recorded as part of Southern Records’s Latitudes series, the five-song set was an attempt to capture the live sound of the recently expanded four-piece lineup, resulting in a more forceful and shambolic record than its better-known forerunner. In addition to chaotic re-envisionings of two of Red State’s best tracks (“White Like Heaven” and “Mercy Springs”), the EP boasted a queasy spoken-word piece by Anderson and the hymn-like “Griefer,” one of Ezra Buchla’s most gut-wrenching offerings. And, of course, it also featured an early version of “Marked.”

We are long past the point of looking for “the next Kurt Cobain,” but if you divorce that impulse from the erroneous notion that rock mu$ic can still be some kind of grand, unifying cultural force (if it ever truly was), I think Anderson is about as close as we’ve come to a suitable candidate. Like Cobain, she is adept at weaving surreal, free-associative imagery, and confessional disclosures into a dense personal mythology. There’s no finer example of this in her discography than “Marked.” The song begins with a vision of the speaker’s arms as “bloodless, skinless plastic” and slips from this haunting non-sequitur into heavy meditations on a relationship. “Don’t you know that I would never hurt you/You are such a pretty thing,” Anderson mutters, and we can’t be totally certain who is speaking or why, but when, a few moments later, she begins chanting with increasing fervor, “I wish that every time he touched me left a mark,” it’s hard not to interpret the situation we’re glimpsing as abusive or view her devotion as a kind of Stockhom Syndrome, though no less affecting or keenly felt for that fact. There is a canny artlessness to some of her lines in the song’s back-half (“These drugs are making me so sad/but I can’t stop taking them in”) that, when contrasted with the gruesomely crafted opening imagery, helps render the speaker’s desolation in terms both immediate and genuine.

Most of us received our introduction to the song, along with its companion piece, the a capella “Coda,” as the centerpiece of EMA’s solo debut Past-Life Martyred Saints. We know it as a bruised and vulnerable thing. Anderson’s voice is a husky whisper that cracks when she raises it, like she laid down vocals at the end of a long day when her throat was worn raw from overuse. She sounds exhausted on a spiritual level. Beaten down. Wrung dry. You can hear her fingers screeching up and down the fretboard, striking dead notes that reverberate through the stillness.

By contrast, the Broken Bones rendition is a much more strident affair. The tempo is quicker, the guitar tones less hushed. Jacob Heule’s drums lend a propulsive quality to the rhythm that’s lacking in its more fragile descendant. While the back half of the PNM version dissolves into a cloud of ethereal synth, the Broken Bones version doubles down, with Anderson belting out lyrics that would later make up the “Coda” and then looping back around to the opening lines. If the later iteration of the song is the one you’d hear on MTV Unplugged, then this is the one that would resound across the muddy banks of the Wishkah.

There are other interesting aspects of the arrangement, like the heavily distorted, barely audible voice (Buchla’s I assume? But it could just as easily be Anderson’s own, fed back into the mix) that burbles along just beneath the surface of the main vocals or the soaring backing harmony the band adds to the song’s big finish. Overall, though, it’s not the song’s most appropriate incarnation. The PLMA arrangement gels more organically with the soul-bearing lyrical content, and the many rich textures Anderson assembles bring it to life in a way that feels definitive. Still, “Marked’s” older, harder rocking ancestor offers a delicious alternate take on one of the finest songs written in the past decade.

DeLorean

There’s a lot of good music out there, and it’s not all being released this year. With DeLorean, we aim to rediscover overlooked artists and genres, to listen to music historically and contextually, to underscore the fluidity of music. While we will cover reissues here, our focus will be on music that’s not being pushed by a PR firm.

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