Diamanda Galás Guilty Guilty Guilty

[Mute; 2008]

Styles: look to her selection of artists’ works interpreted on the release
Others: no one else but herself

Artists possessing extreme vocal profiles and/or compositional skills coupled with an instinctive sense of performative projection are unlikely to draw large followings. This isn't a complaint; it is a statement of fact. Consider it the musical equivalent of haute couture: wait ten years for the trickle-down effect of the visionaries to infiltrate the ready-to-wear set. Diamanda Galás is one such artist who remains damned by her vision and musicianship. While endless mythology has been applied to her body of work, the essence of her persona as a musician first and foremost is often missed by a large mark. And while this mythology may make great copy, it betrays the strength and diminishes the intent of her work to those for whom it remains unfamiliar.

With the release of Guilty Guilty Guilty, the fourth installment in Galás' ongoing series of the conventional (by measure to her main body of work), she offers once again a far more accessible entry point to her oeuvre for the uninitiated. Predominantly composed of blues and jazz standards, these piano and voice documents have served as a showcase of a far more subtle dimension of her formidable talent since the initial release of the studio recordings presented on The Singer in 1991. Subsequent releases in the series have since been culled from live performances, which is a benefit in the case of Galás, as her strength lies firmly in live improvisation and performance. Guilty Guilty Guilty continues in this tradition, drawn from a series of live performances recorded in New York and Australia.

Galás' voice remains in remarkable form on these recordings. Paired with the strength of her interpretive and virtuosic piano work, matching perfectly the timbre and projection of her vocals, she remains a powerful and dedicated interpreter of the blues, and perhaps its strongest. The blues is more than a series of chord structures and posturing, though it has suffered the fate of inexperienced musicians dragging it down to that base denomination for years upon end. Galás has pulled it from that mire, bringing despair back to the words, approaching the text and placing herself within the very curl of the script. She brings her own expression to the works without fearing the consequences of the direction. And as any proper interpreter of another's music will tell you, it truly is the only way to effectively succeed; leave the politics of politeness for the coffee shop and the shopping arena.

Leading off with O.V. Wright's "Eight Men and Four Women," Galás addresses the piano with all the troubled sentiment woven within the lyric. She conveys such a sense of pity within the lines, "But a tear rolled down my cheek/ I felt so sorry for you/ You know why?/ Because in my heart I knew/ Oh yes, baby I knew/ That they would find you guilty too," that there remains no question that love is indeed a destructive force. While her vocalizations may lean to a more straightforward presentation than on a record such as Vena Cava, for instance, she is still quite capable of reaching into the darkest corners of her vocabulary and letting loose with a run of raspy shrieks that identify her almost immediately at this point in her history. And for those who still question her ability to present the blues -- or any other musical practice that she addresses, for that matter -- it's unfortunate you are incapable of processing a rendition of this magnitude.

She explores suffering and longing with such eloquence throughout the record, restoring dignity to the two emotions that have long been mined for trite effect. "Long Black Veil," a country standard about a man suspected of murder who refuses to provide his alibi due to having an affair with his best friend's wife, may seem a strange choice for Galás at first. However, when considering the chorus reference to a woman in mourning veil, it seems less out of place. "Down So Low" finds Galás reaching further into the depths of lamenting, tearing the longing out by the roots. "And it's not losing you that's got me down so low/ I just can't find another man to take your place," she sings. Her voice shifts from wail to guttural moan to a shoulder-raised expressiveness with such perfection and sweep that it suggests multiple personalities at duel within her.

"Time/Interlude," perhaps the most inspired reading on the album, will be surprising to some in that her subtlety suggests another artist performing the track. It is a testament to the true musical range of which she is capable, hopefully finally quieting naysayers who had her pegged as a musician only able to present extremes. Her rounded vibrato hangs like a halo above delicately beautiful strokes of piano keys, haunting rather than harrowing. "Time" overshadows, by sheer impact, a still gorgeous rendition of jazz standard "Autumn Leaves." While the song is a favorite for artists of all backgrounds due to its rather simple progression, Galás channels the lyrics through her distinct vocalizations, implementing the improvised lamenting of the Amanes and transforming the piece into something quite her own.

"O Death" is a staggering presentation of the Ralph Stanley classic, featuring one of the most severe vocal extensions drawn from a series of ululations I have heard from Galás, her voice ascending and tightening into what can only be described as a shrill death rattle. The following progression finds her lyric engaging in vicious exchange with piano chords and runs, her tone increasing with fury and rancor, circling the piano to conclusion like predator to prey. Concluding the disc with "Heaven Have Mercy," Galás once again retreats into a somber and rounded tone, understated and respectful of the lyrics and ultimately the performer who granted the verse its first astonishing presentation. A more fitting end to the recording would be hard to achieve.

As a work, Guilty Guilty Guilty maintains the critical observation that Galás' voice has altered through the years, but it is certainly without detriment to her art. The tone and range that she now predominantly navigates beautifully suits the historical approach of her selections of standards and texts, even when considering the previously released Defexiones. And while she is still capable of drawing sounds from her diaphragm that most artists wouldn't dare, let alone succeed in, they have become accents rather than the main focus. This is not to suggest that she will be shifting pop product anytime soon; her rage and fierceness is certainly no less profound than it was 20 years ago -- it's merely refined. Her commitment to her voice and her politics remains without compromise, even with a work of standards. And for a visionary such as Galás, anything less would be treason.

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