Let me get this off my chest: I have an extremely hard time with modern female singers. Especially the really emotional ones. I have no beef with the likes of Beyonce or Britney; after all,they’re only selling sex. The ones with pianos and acoustic guitars, the ones who ooze “thoughtful” sentiments with their lilting voices, the ones trying to pass off their sincerity as marketable, they tend to bug me. Frankly, I haven’t really enjoyed listening to a woman sing since Kim Deal, but now here comes Hannah Marcus to turn me around all over again.
Desert Farmers is Marcus’s sixth album, and it’s an absolute shame more people don’t listen to her. This was, in fact, my introduction to her music, but the material here is so touching and well thought-out that I’m compelled to devour her back catalogue. The singer-songwriter, while having her way with a piano and acoustic guitar as so many of her kind already have done, stands high above her peers with beautiful songs, abstractly touching lyrics/poetry, a haunting voice, and sterling, eerie production.
Being backed by, among others, Efrim Menuck and Thierry Amar of Godspeed You! Black Emperor doesn’t hurt either. Godspeed’s distinct style of moving from ambient sound layers into noise-filled crescendos is readily apparent here, and it works well with Marcus’s material. She sings of loss, deception, disillusionment and paranoia (and had help writing lyrics from poet Rick Moody, who co-wrote two tracks), but she removes these themes from their cliche statuses with her wonderful prose. “Laos” evokes vivid imagery with its words: “At the last supper sits Jesus Christ / Beneath his disciples fits some device / Holding double-A batteries on the side / That make the halo circling round his head twinkle on and off in red / As he holds up a piece of bread and rolls his eyes.” It’s not too often that lyrics stand on their own as great poetry, but Marcus is a wonderful exception to the case.
Musically, what stands out most in Marcus’s songs is her sense of ambience and space. Her piano sounds as if it’s been shoved into the corner of a musty room, and even better is Menuck’s guitar work, which sounds like it’s from another galaxy but is making steady progress with a wormhole. For all the quiet (or disquiet) that almost every song begins with, the musical space slowly fills itself to become a fully textured soundscape, complete with violins, multi-multi-tracked vocals, and garbled sound samples.
Desert Farmers is full of poignant standout tracks. Along with the resolved feeling of failure found in “Laos,” Marcus paints lonely yet slightly hopeful portraits in songs like “Stripdarts” and “Beloved.” The centerpiece of the album, “Hairdresser in Taos,” is a riveting narrative illustrating Marcus’s unfortunate experience of being drugged and getting her hair dyed by a strange man. Coming in at just over nine minutes, the song reaches incredible levels of fear and intensity, climaxing in the typical Godspeed You! Black Emperor manner and being near-exhausting to listen to (but in a good way). The only minor slip-up here is the final track, “Fake and Pretty.” While a good song, it runs a little long, and its downtrodden sentiment doesn’t work quite as well as an ending compared to the previous track, “Purple Mother.” With lyrics by Rick Moody, “Mother” is Marcus’s one upbeat, truly hopeful song, with Marcus crooning like Carly Simon on “Nobody Does It Better.”
Regardless, Desert Farmers is full of interesting, innovative and touching music. All listeners should give Hannah Marcus a good thorough listening. She’s a bright talent in the otherwise drab landscape of female singer-songwriters, and she’s renewed my faith in the feminine voice (not counting Thom Yorke’s or Geddy Lee’s, which I have no beef with either).