“Two of the many diverse things that have happened over the past 6 months or so: I got a couple of hefty PPI payouts and got husband into Die Antwoord. He’s since been known to stand outside the bathroom door when I’m inside, singing ‘You’re a reech beetch’ to me.
I am currently a reech beetch. So champagne for my real friends; real pain for my sham friends.” —Suzanne Barbieri
Last time I held forth about the failure mode of the typical ex-Japan project and why it’s relatively easy to stumble into, and I feel like it needs a little expanding before we dive into the collaboration between Suzanne Barbieri and her husband Richard.
The issue with what I’d call Generic ex-Japan is ultimately that it feels unfinished, either like we’re listening to a skeleton of a song instead of an actual song, or the instrumental improvisations from which a song will eventually form. I should again stress that Generic ex-Japan is not the majority of what Jansen, Barbieri, and Karn have released at least since Rain Tree Crow (Barbieri in particular is adept at avoiding falling into this particular self-indulgence), and indeed Indigo Falls does sidestep many of the issues that a typical ex-Japan record risks having.
I’ll freely admit that I’m part of the problem here, in that I spend way too much time obsessing over when ex-Japan sucks versus when ex-Japan is good. I’m starting to think that’s because I’m putting forth unrealistic expectations for these albums, and should probably approach them a bit differently from how I have been lately. These are explorations, not statements, and treating them as the latter is going to inevitably lead to disappointment. A recalibration is in order.
But anyway, this album is great and a lot of the credit for this goes to Suzanne.
This is largely because her vocals, in addition to being characteristically excellent, give the songs a framework for Richard to wrap his soundscapes around. Quite a few times throughout the album I got the sense that the instrumental versions of these songs actually would be Generic ex-Japan, so I was often grateful that she was there. I get the sense that what she and her husband were attempting to do here is take the atmosphere of The Wilderness and give it the breadth and variety necessary to sustain an entire album, and by and large they were successful. Most of the time this means the music has a distinctly new-age twinge to it, thanks to Suzanne singing like a wood elf about the ambiguously-defined spirituality she was into at the time. But once in a while you get something like Feed the Fire or Towards the Light that gets a bit darker and more abrasive, as though to acknowledge that genuine spiritual enlightenment is not the empty-headed hippity-dippity brightness people think it is.
(Funny thing is Suzanne would eventually realize “hippity-dippity brightness” more or less was what she was being spoon-fed by the people she was paying attention to at the time and subsequently became more tempered and skeptical in her outlook. Prosperity gospel is a helluva persistent drug, even when it isn’t strictly packaged as “gospel.”)
Moving on to guest musicians. Wilson is basically a nonentity on this album. He shows up once again to strum his way through The Wilderness, and that’s about it. The much more considerable presence, and for our purposes much more important, is Theo Travis on soprano sax. Yes, that Theo Travis, the same one who delivered that blistering saxophone solo for Don’t Hate Me, and who would become integral to the Steven Wilson Band’s sound during the Jazz Era. Wilson himself would begin to directly collaborate with him when he appears on Bass Communion next year, but this is the first time he appears in this retrospective. And, well, he’s always welcome wherever he goes. He adds a lot to the atmosphere of both of the songs he’s on. (It’s cool to see Steve Jansen and Jakko Jakszyk here, too.)
This is the last we’ll see Suzanne until 2008’s Stranger Inside, and is the only time over the course of this blog that she takes center stage, so I figure we’ll talk a little about what she did after this. She continues to record and release music to this day, and a lot of it’s quite good. Her most notable work after this one is this interesting little concept album about the Betty and Barney Hill alien abduction called From Indian Head to Ashland, which listens in a lot of ways like if the Reich remix of Days in the Trees were stretched out to album length. A sampler’s available on her SoundCloud, along with a bunch of other songs. Do give them a listen.