For the last few days, I’ve been obsessed with the music of Noe Venable, a San Francisco artist who I first learned about through an ex-girlfriend who went to high school with her. This was way back when Noe’s only recording was the 1996 demo “You Talkin’ to Me,” an enormously compelling set of songs that still don’t sound much like anyone else’s work. The closest comparisons I can think of are Tom Waits and CocoRosie. Like them, Noe creates a hermetic universe charged with mystery (a trick also pulled off by the writer Francesca Lia Block, author of Weetzie Bat), and her waif-naif vocals certainly resemble CocoRosie (who came much later, of course), while her storytelling, demonstrated on the song Jaime Goes Home (MP3), is more like Waits. But what really did it for me was her melodic sensibility on songs like Euridyce (MP3).
Her next album, No Curses Here, had plenty of fine moments, but what really grabbed me again was the third release, Down Easy, a live recording on which Noe’s voice harmonizes with the extraordinary violin of Alan Lin. (The trio is rounded out by Todd Sickafoose on upright bass.) The songs are dense, complex, and both the lyrics and the melodies reward multiple close listens. Dear Carolyne (MP3) seems to be about a last-ditch attempt at redemption through low-grade Nevada gambling, while Six Prayers No. 1 (MP3) remakes the Hurrian Cult Hymn, the world’s oldest recorded song, into an encounter with a Gypsy fortune-teller.
For a long time, Noe’s subsequent records, Boots and The World Is Bound by Secret Knots, didn’t do it for me. I felt like she’d abandoned the complex harmonies and melodies that gave her earlier records such power. But recently they’ve begun to click for me. The two opening tracks on Boots, Boots (MP3) and Prettiness (MP3), have become favorites, and the little section of vocal harmony that bridges them gives me chills.
Secret Knots remains a more challenging record, with easy choruses few and far between, and a fair bit of vocal experimenting on songs like Black Madonna (MP3) and Feral (MP3). But a lot of the songs have been getting into my head. Here are Juniper (MP3) and Garden (MP3).