4 March 2000
We typically don’t talk about Various Artists compilations in this space largely because so (a) so few of them are available, and (b) they rarely feature any songs that can’t be found elsewhere. With No-Man, though, there are a couple of unique edits and remixes sprinkled across several compilations. There was, for example, a Donovan tribute album released in 1992 that featured a No-Man cover of Turquoise. The next year, there was a One Little Indian compilation featuring a demo of Taking It Like A Man. The Mix magazine released a compilation in 1994 featuring an alternate mix of Simple. And so on, and so on. Besides the ostensible subject of this post, the other interesting compilation here is 1999’s The Sky Goes All The Way Home, released as part of a fundraiser for Down’s Syndrome, which I mostly mention here because I did a double take upon noticing that one of the artists featured here is, in fact, the same Troy Donockley who’d go on to play Uilleann pipes for Nightwish. Funny how worlds collide. No-Man contributed a reconstructed version of Close Your Eyes.
Now, then. The source material for this compilation is a collaboration between Arlo Bigazzi, Claudio Chianura, and Lance Henson called Another Train Ride. Lance Henson is an interesting character, a Cheyenne poet from Oklahoma who typically uses naturalistic and traditional Native imagery to draw attention to the struggles facing indigenous and oppressed peoples around the world. Many of his works are sparse and freeform, with a McCarthy-esque aversion to capitals and punctuation. Although Henson’s delivery on this album is practiced, measured, and contemplative, low-key to the point of sounding like a text-to-speech program, there remains through the words themselves the potent mix of compassion, empathy, and fury that animates him to write these things in the first place.
Meanwhile, as is common for spoken word, Bigazzi and Chianura’s instrumentation are ambient, mostly-electronic pieces that keep a respectful distance from Henson’s words, attempting primarily to accentuate his points. In this they are partially successful. The music chosen for Revolutionary Song, for instance, gestures toward a pastoral melancholy, but is ultimately just a bit too upbeat and bubbly for what is honestly a rather sad poem. Some more successful examples, perhaps. Another Border, which sounds like Muslimgauze if Bryn Jones was actually Palestinian. The Abandoned Piano, in which an actual piano chimes in to offer a flicker of light and warmth in amongst the desolation. And, of course, The Raven Poems, in which the music is defined primarily by its absence, communicating less a wasteland and more the absence of a land to waste, a no thing, a surreal all-consuming almost Ligotti-esque hellscape where the few scraps of the material universe that remain suspended in the astral void are at once dead and poisoned.
Thus do we arrive at The Wolf and The Moon – Drop 6, a collection of remixes and reconstructions featuring names big and small. Roger Eno contributed to My Heart is Traveling, the English version of Na Shi Ne. Richard Barbieri contributed to a remix of Revolutionary Song. And No-Man contributed a reconstruction of The Raven Poems.
This reconstruction retains little of the all-consuming minimalism that permeated the original track, instead opting for something more trancelike, vaguely evocative of the One Little Indian days. There’s a flute that comes in toward the end, performing a swirling, soaring melody as Henson repeats “bird shadow, wolf, and moon” over a muffling effect.
Many of the other songs are similar to this one, with the backing tracks reworked so they were faster and punchier, sounding like a goulash of trip hop, drum-n-bass, what a 90s computer game would think is a new jack swing, and, in one case, plunderphonics. But that’s part of the problem with this album: the backing tracks feel like they’re trying to upstage the words…and that’s easier to do when the words themselves have been cut up and distorted and filtered, and in some cases removed entirely. The poetry becomes just another instrument, and any meaning is subsumed into an aesthetic. Henson is apparently happy enough with the album that it’s featured on his website, but treating the words in this way still feels, er, troubling. It’s well-made, yes, but the fact remains that this is a record that probably should not exist.