Thursday, May 3, 2012
Exuma - Exuma
Getting deep into a recording project, I've found I usually go through a specific progression in my listening habits. At the beginning, I'll keep listening to my never-ending queue of new music as a sort of respite from the day's work of composing parts and worrying about small details. As the project starts to take shape and I realize I'm getting somewhere close to actually completing it, it gets harder and harder to tear myself away, and all I can do is compulsively listen and re-listen, fretting over the relative strength of the tracks, what should be done during mixing, whether I need to come up with more songs, and what track sequencing will eventually look like. During this phase my exploration of new music all but dries up--if I check out something new, I find I don't even fully pay attention and maybe won't even give the music a fair shot--not ideal! At the same time, though, when I've got a spare 40 minutes, I might pull something random out of my back collection that I haven't listened to for quite a while--because it's already familiar I don't have to pay complete attention, but the result is usually quite pleasant. Such was my recent experience with Exuma's 1970 debut--reacquaintance with an old friend, and a fresh perspective on the kind of decisions available to musicians.
This album makes great use of that most classic option available to singer/songwriters--create a ridiculous, outlandish personality for yourself and perform an entire conceptual album in that persona (cf. Comus, Captain Beefheart, and especially Dr. John circa Gris Gris, to which this album owes both a conceptual and musical debt). Whether or not Exuma is actually a practitioner of obeah is pretty much immaterial--this disc is an immersive experience of primal witchcraft and dangerously good times. In the tradition of "Seventh Son," the album opens with some classic boasting, with "Exuma, the Obeah Man" standing as a howled litany of Exuma's supernatural abilities over an appealingly filthy musical canvas of strummed acoustic guitar, hand percussion, chanting and animal sounds. Exuma's voice is awesome--thick, edgy and surprisingly nuanced as the album goes on; few people can go from tender and soft to throat-shredding roaring with such ease, and it perfectly complements the weird song program on display here.
After the first track's invitation, the album practically plays like a field recording of an obeah ritual, including an ode to "Dambala," wherein Exuma chillingly assures us that we won't be going to heaven or hell, we'll just be stuck in our graves with the stench and the smell...over one of the album's most liltingly beautiful melodies. We get explicit zombie references in "Mama loi, Papa loi," spiritual testimony in "The Vision," and an extended séance in "Séance in the Sixth Fret." The reason I wrote earlier that this album makes me think of the choices available to musicians is that Exuma makes some strange and specific ones through the course of the album--instrumentally, it's pretty simple, with nary an instrumental melody to be found (lead and background vocals bear that burden) with commitment to the album's concept sometimes overriding the call for actual songs ("Séance..." isn't so much a song as it is something more like musical performance art, while "Junkanoo" is a fantastic but structure-free percussion jam). Considering this, it's surprising when a fully-formed Caribbean folk song in "You Don't Know What's Going On" shows up to entertain us with verses, choruses, and absolutely nothing to do with the rest of the album's concept.
I really like how an album like this demonstrates it's possible to pursue alternative goals and produce music just as thrilling as an album full of "good songs;" it's as heartening as it is entertaining, though the challenge of spinning a great album out of personality and mood is probably much harder to achieve than by simply writing some great songs. As such, Exuma is an album not quite like any other and one that contains some great songs, but ultimately stands best as an album-length statement than it does when you try to pick it apart song-by-song.
Dive into this bizarre world, and get it here.