|California singer-songwriter Hannah Marcus absolutely jam-packs her songs with idiosyncracy, wry humor, suffering, and gorgeous lyricism. That description refers to both the words and the music Marcus makes. Listening to her is a truly revelatory experience, because it makes you realize how much a song can do. Her relatively simple piano- and guitar-based compositions twist like flags in the wind, getting tangled up in themselves, then straightening out and flying with uncommon grace. |
Marcus was born in a New York to a cellist and a painter, and was bred on a diet of Leonard Cohen, Phil Ochs, The Supremes, Bob Dylan, and Judy Collins, all of whose influences are evident in her music today. Later she discovered Lou Reed, who has clearly also had a profound effect on her songwriting. In her twenties, she migrated westward, where she discovered the American Music Club and was inspired to begin recording and performing her own material. The Red House Painters' Mark Kozelek -- also deeply influenced by the American Music Club -- produced and played on Marcus's 1993 debut EP, Demerol and on her 1996 full-length, River of Dreams. Marcus has also released Weeds and Lilies (1995), Faith Burns (1998), and Black Hole Heaven (2000), which she recorded with American Music Club alum Tim Mooney. That last album includes the featured "Lot 309," a surreal song that marvelously evokes the strange damaged beauty of life in Los Angeles.
Marcus's work is clearly marked by the brooding, ultra-reflective imprimatur of Kozelek and AMC's Mark Eitzel, but there are a host of other influences at play in her songs, including Cohen, Nico-era Velvet Underground, and alluring female cabaret singers like Marlene Dietrich. And there's a whole bunch more that's simply Hannah Marcus: moments that feel like the twisted remnants of strange dreams or childhood memories. Marcus truly has a unique voice and it's well worth listening to.
review for www.epitonic.com
Considering that Black Hole Heaven has, to put it delicately, flown below most media's radar, it's unlikely to become saturated with big-hit radio airplay. Nor shall any wayward record store denizen happen upon it via images from glossy magazine spreads or puffy, confessional interviews. All Joe or Jane Musicbuyer has to go on are bilious screeds by crit jocks such as the one before your eyes at this moment and, of course, that great equalizer and marketing godsend-- the album cover.
Black Hole Heaven, to one degree or another, has the cover it deserves: Hannah Marcus waxes wan before the observer, wearing what looks like pajamas, and sits in the middle of a dilapidated room. On the back cover, she wanders through a desert-y expanse, still in nightie, holding what appears to be a golf club. Her name is printed several times in the high-tech-font equivalent of peeling paint, and the record's title is scrawled below it in ragged handwriting. What you might expect from such an offering is sensitive, female singer/songwriter sensitivizing, full of yearning and pain and sorrow and emotion. As it turns out, Black Hole Heaven is chock-a-block with sensitive, female singer/songwriter sensitivizing, full of yearning and pain and sorrow and emotion.
Marcus strums and picks guitars, lays down beds of keyboard ambiance and sings at length-- and oh, what length it is!-- about depressing matters of the heart. Representative lines include: "I am a spider in my lacy bed/ Frozen open/ Waiting for your beak to spread," and, "Your heart's not made of stone/ It's made of shit/ And, man, it stinks." Anyone on the "irony rules our age" bandwagon is encouraged to pick this record up and be introduced to the quote-unquote benefits of complete sincerity.
Of course, there are some deviations from Marcus' demographic norm here. Black Hole Heaven's strongest moments are odd, noiry character sketches like "Jay," in which the narrator keens, "Jay, I took the stuff you sold me/ Turns out it was not ecstasy," amid scratchy, ambient guitar washes and staticky, affected vocals. Such musical oddity ("Stars from the Side" coasts on its cool, carnival-organ intro) and occasional, novelistic lyrical details elevate bits of the record to surprisingly clever heights. Just as often-- such as the post-carnival-organ portion of "Stars from the Side"-- soar to mock-heroic heights, like a budget Annie Lennox ballad.
In short, the thing that sinks Black Hole Heaven is Marcus' mistrust of her innate gift as a writer. Whenever she edges up on a strong musical or lyrical idea, she ends up backing away into whiny familiarity. Though her knack for a noisy hook and cruelly telling line could push her towards interesting work, Marcus ends up giving out with a set of intermittently interesting but largely tired-sounding pop songs. It's as if commercial hopes keep mucking with an inherently idiosyncratic, fringy talent. Black Hole Heaven wants to be a big, populist record, but its chances are ruined by its best qualities.
Once again, the art direction gives an indication of this problem. A few words in most of the songs are highlighted through their reproduction in larger, handwritten print. Taken in song order, they produce the following, unconscious singer-songwriter hit: "Crumbling hill/ Jay/ Two damn days/ Fell/ Crystal tit/ Cut you/ Down/ Dissolve/ Nothing/ Nothing/ Spit/ Something's changed/ Eyes." A set of disembodied clichés like these are bound to make big noise on the pop scene. Somebody set it to music and press it up-- it'll be a massive hit.
review for www.pitchforkmedia.com
Hannah Marcus explores her conflicting emotions with her haunted voice on Black Hole Heaven. Guiding listeners through the fearful territory of the dark underworld of her psyche, Marcus swings between the fragility of acoustic guitars and the strength of big beats with exquisite results.
Marcus takes a delicate approach to her music, letting her voice carry most of the material. Heartfelt and passionate, Marcus' voice is able to communicate pain and anger on the bitter "Osiris in Pieces" as well as a yearning for beauty on the metaphorical "Morning Glory." Marcus does not shy away from dealing with her own torment on Black Hole Heaven, creating a beautifully somber environment for her listeners.
Hannah Marcus' lyrics are introspective and wistful, twisting along the same lines as her vocals and music. "Hey Jay why won't you answer my page...been calling for two days" she sings plaintively on "Jay" and the sorrowful "Darling How Are You" ends effectively unfulfilled with the line "But you hung up before I said." Marcus also creates startling images on songs such as "Crimson Bird" and "Under the Void." While the abundance of guitars and piano on Black Hole Heaven would otherwise declare Hannah Marcus to be just another female folk-rock singer/songwriter, the experimental approach she takes to her music makes her stand out. Peppering her songs with strange spoken-word samples, she has added a new dimension to this genre of music. Unfortunately, these samples are sometimes distracting, and don't contribute much to the overall effect of the songs.
Although Black Hole Heaven is impressive when taken as whole, the oppressive nature of both subject matter and music does become tiring. The cohesiveness of is admirable, but Hannah Marcus comes across as a bit too tortured to remain entertaining for the length of the album. Fortunately, there is enough of a catharsis in the final track of "Tired Swan" to make the journey fulfilling.
Still, Black Hole Heaven is an elegant exploration of the hidden emotions in everyone's lives, and Hannah Marcus has no problem with exposing them. For its flaws, Black Hole Heaven is a fascinating set of songs.
by Eden Miller
PopMatters Music Critic
Here in the land of the baby, we are on a neverending search for something...anything...that sounds different or unique in some way. Because our senses are inundated with hundreds of new releases each month, everything often tends to sound the same. Hannah Marcus caught our attention instantly...because she doesn't sound like any other artist in particular. Unlike most female singer/songerwriters, Hannah does not go for easy slick pop music. Nor does she do what so many "alternative" ladies do...which is to ape their idol, Kath Bush. Instead, Ms. Marcus simply breathes wonderful new life into the medium in which she functions. Her tunes are stream-of-consciousness pieces that float by like the clouds above...and her emotions run all over the place. Instead of conventional arrangements, all kinds of odd, unexpected sounds and instruments enter the musical landscape...all at precisely the right moment and at exactly the right volume. This is a very tightly produced disc that sounds neither slick nor corporate. We really dig this one...can you tell? The pieces are lengthy, obtuse...and just slightly lush. Great tunes like "Jay" (WOW!), "Los Alamos," "Stars From the Side," and "Tired Swan" make this one an absolutely wonderful listen. You ain't heard NUTHIN' until you hear Ms. Marcus coo lines like "...motherf*cker, whatever..." in her soothing and gentle vocal style. Very highly recommended...!
"The landlord’s son is a drunken bum and he weed whacks weed whacks all the time. Once he got so bombed that he took out his scythe and he chopped down all the Birds Of Paradise behind Lot 309 He went wild... "
- Lot 309 (track 1)
So begins the beautiful bittersweet Black Hole Heaven. For her forth album Hannah Marcus takes us on a Kafka-esque cook's tour of the new western front, from the psychotropical artist haunts of San Francisco and Los Angeles to the fluorescent sunsets of Los Alamos. It is an epic tale of love and chemicals.
"I wanted to make a big 70’s rock concept album when I started" explains Hannah. "But then things went awry. I got divorced, and began staying up way too late at night." The net effect is a woman bouncing between the gods and the cockroaches, waxing turmoil with the wonder of it all. Some artists make albums that are a collection of snappy numbers to tap your toe to-- Hannah Marcus writes songs that will inhabit you.
Born and bred in New York City, Hannah spent her childhood roaming the streets of Manhattan's Upper West Side, between Spanish Harlem and the Columbia University Campus. Her father was a cellist and often held chamber music rehearsals and recitals in their apartment. Her mother was a painter who would work late into the night in her studio listening to Leonard Cohen, Phil Ochs, the Supremes, Bob Dylan and Judy Collins.
An older sister Melissa, was born with severe autism and it affected Hannah deeply. "She allowed me to empathize with states of mind and sensory perspectives that defy generalization - that challenge one's sense of who one is, of what intelligence and morality are, of what love is."
Marcus wrote her first song in a dream she had at the age of five, in which a bust of Beethoven sat up in his coffin and sang " a kiss on the lips and I die if I will." In her teen years she discovered Lou Reed and her songwriting took on the fevered angst of a New York City school girl but in college she abandoned music and only exploited her songwriting skills to whip up a quick Senior Thesis.
She spent some time in Bar-None’s home port of Hoboken but stayed on the fringes of the music scene singing Velvet Underground covers in old man bars to disinterested cops.
A move to San Francisco lead her back to writing. One night she caught Mark Eitzel with American Music Club in a Soma parking lot and knew she wanted to perform her own material (Tim Mooney from AMC would go on to co-produce "Black Hole Heaven"). Mark Kozelek of Red House Painters was an early supporter and produced her albums Demerol (199?) and River of Darkness (1996).
After getting married and moving to Los Angeles, Hannah began searching for a new musical approach. She contacted her friend Joe "Karl J." Goldring, a notorious and brilliant bay area engineer and musician (Swans, Hope Sandoval, Mark Eitzel, , Tarnation). Joe had just opened up Pig's Head studio in San Francisco, and there they collaborated with Tim Mooney (Sleepers, AMC, Toiling Midgets), Ralph Carney (Tom Waits, Waitresses) among others to create the record Faith Burns, an intoxicating brew of psychedelic torch songs and industrial folk that was called "a seductive stunner... an eternal flame of sultry, swooning artistry" by Alternative Press.
Faith Burns was barely finished when Hannah began work on a follow-up-- but there was friction at Pig's Head. Trying to commute between San Francisco and LA her marriage crumbled and the recording sessions grew chaotic. One night Joe Goldring ran out of the studio upon hearing an early version of the song "Osiris in Pieces" screaming "this is everything that is wrong with music today!" Recording came to a halt and Hannah was left to pick up the pieces.
Alone in her apartment she began recording songs on an ADAT - the basic tracks for "Los Alamos", "Crimson Bird", and the revivified "Osiris In Pieces", the humble yet hopeful "Tired Swan" and the wonderfully resigned "Darling How Are You". She gave them to Tim Mooney who was very excited about continuing with the project and encouraged her to go back in the studio. Tim co-produced the record, bringing in such musicians as guitar effects master Michael Belfer (Tuxedomoon, Black Lab), DJ Ill Media (from Most Chill Slackmob) and Joe Goldring returned to play and work on the mixes, (especially "Osiris In Pieces"). The album emerged like a lotus from the muck.
Hannah Marcus is a reporter back from the edge and Black Hole Heaven is her intra-galactic war chronicle of the heart - dark to be sure - but infused with lucid wonder and humor that transcends mere irony. Imagine that.
Please visit the official Hannah Marcus Website for discography, reviews, and audio samples.
Their is a great review of Hannah Marcus new records "Black Hole Heaven" found in Athens, G.A.'s Baby Sue/LMNOP. Hannah Marcus is also the featured artist at http://www.gurl.com/ which includes an interview and a free Mp3 download of "Lot 309"
San Francisco-based singer/songwriter Hannah Marcus has released two albums, 1996's River of Darkness and 1997's Faith Burns. Rich, sonic blends of cynical poetry and Marcus' jazz-styled vocals, River... and Faith Burns are steeped in spirituality, blending a bit of the surreal with this artist's subdued eroticism.
Joined by bassist/guitarist Joe Goldering (Swans), drummer Tim Mooney (American Music Club, Toiling Midgets) and Ralph Carney (Tom Waits session horn player), Hannah Marcus has quickly found her place in San Francisco's burgeoning "sad-core" scene.
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