This Riot Life
Douglas Heselgrave's #7 album for 2008
First Appeared in The Music Box, June 2008, Volume 15, #6
Written by Douglas Heselgrave
Fri June 20, 2008, 06:30 AM CDT
A week has passed, and I have done nothing but listen to This Riot Life, the latest effort from Vancouver-based songwriter Veda Hille. The grass is growing, the sink is full of dishes, and my daughter’s bicycle tire has gone flat. Really, though, I don’t have a problem. I can stop listening to her record any time I want and take care of all of the other things in my life that matter. I just don’t want to.
Music writers love making lists of records they’d take to a desert island. Journals are full of such hypothetical compilations, and I make them myself at least twice a year. This Riot Life has put me in a dither. While listening to the effort, I often wonder if there are any other records a person would need to take with them if they were instantly transported to such a remote locale. With This Riot Life, Veda Hille has created a collection of songs that really encapsulates just about everything that is good about words set to music. This is quite a claim to make, I know. However, the more that I listen to This Riot Life, the more convinced I become that it is an album with very few peers.
Since releasing her first independent cassette of tuneful and witty observations about urban life in 1992, Veda Hille quietly has built a reputation in Canada and Europe as a performer of quirky music with interesting melodies. Not content simply to toil away around the fringes of the folk music scene, Hille has spent her career diving right into every interesting, creative opportunity that has presented itself. From orchestral pop to odes to plant life to hymns about the vastness of the Yukon skyline, Hille’s body of recorded work embraces a whole range of concerns and aesthetic experiences. Fearless and funny, Hille is a true artist who appears completely unfettered by form and convention, and her courageousness has allowed her to evolve into one of the most interesting singers and performers in the world today. Recent commissions from prestigious patrons such as the CBC Orchestra, Push Theatre, and the acclaimed Leaky Heaven Circus have pushed her into a variety of situations — all of which have deepened her art and allowed her to continue developing her music.
Lyrically speaking, the themes that Veda Hille explores on This Riot Life are rather intense. Her delicate health as well as a brush with her own mortality have inspired her to create music that manages to be deep, entertaining, and humorous, all at the same time. Drawing upon everything from The Song of Songs to a poem by William Cowper to lines from her grandmother’s old hymnal, This Riot Life is an unconventional exploration of the many faces of spirituality. If, however, the idea of another singer-songwriter sharing her personal epiphanies is too much to bear, don’t despair. The material on This Riot Life is anything but depressing. Hille’s lyrics often embrace the playfulness of e.e. cummings’ poetry, though they also are tempered by an uneasiness that is inspired by Laurie Anderson. Sometimes, it is difficult to grapple with these opposing textures, but it always is exciting to hear how Hille brings them together.
Shifting narrative voices in songs populated by sleepless children, misguided saints, Nazarene Aces, and workers in a Japanese bath house all come together within Hille’s work to create a universe that is inhabited by the most quirky characters this side of Bob Dylan’s Desolation Row. Addressing topics that range from birth and death to the trickiness of love and the mysteries of sex, Hille leaves no stone unturned as she and the characters in her songs explore what it is we’re meant to do and what we are meant to take with us after our brief time on Earth has ended.
There are both an academic sensibility and a Brecht-ian theatricality informing some of the music that Hille conjures, but her compositions are too joyous and creative to become puffed up by their own importance. Her ideas are too searching and hopeful to be weighed down by cliché. If William Blake had written music after having visions of Job in the belly of the whale, it might have sounded something like what Hille concocted for This Riot Life. Throughout the disc, the songs are imbued with playful, magical qualities that elevate her heavy but intriguing subject matter.
Reminiscent of everything from The Beatles dressed in its Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band-era regalia to harpist Joanna Newsom’s progressive rock-inspired, mini symphonies, This Riot Life is an aural delight, from beginning to end. Some of the tunes embrace the kind of chamber pop that is favored by artists such as Rufus Wainwright and Antony and the Johnsons. In the swirling cadences of Hille’s music, one can also hear shades of Kate Bush while other arrangements contain the hypnotic quality of Phillip Glass’ best work. In the end, however, as it is with all good art, comparisons are fruitless. They suggest a direction, and they provide an idea of what to expect. Truthfully, Hille’s music is so focused and individual in its intent that it doesn’t really sound like anyone else’s at all.
One of the most compelling aspects of the instrumentation on This Riot Life is how perfectly it supports the subject matter of the songs, thereby mirroring the arc of Hille’s voice as she sings. The buoyancy of her melodies often disguises the obvious care that she took to create music that complements her lyrics. In a fashion that is similar to Paul Simon and Brian Eno’s stellar collaboration on Surprise, it often appears that each musical phrase on This Riot Life was painstakingly constructed to reflect and elevate individual words or stanzas inside of the material. Throughout the album, the melding of lyrics and music that Hille achieves is truly something at which to marvel.
From the gently plucked strings that introduce the opening track lucklucky to the crashing, romantic opus The Trees that draws the set to its conclusion, This Riot Life is a very special listening experience. Because of her reputation for composing challenging music, Hille was able to enlist the help of some of the best country, jazz, and classical musicians on the West Coast for help in illuminating the project. Jesse Zubot’s beautiful violin solo on Oh Come On and Sal Ferreras’ vibes, marimba, and percussion accents on Book of Saints and Soapland Serenade are just a few of the instrumental highlights on the record. Yet, as good as her backing band is, each of the songs finds its voice through Hille’s piano playing. Because of her unusual phrasing and time signatures, the quirkiness of Hille’s accompaniment on tracks like The Book of Saints recalls Thelonious Monk. On other selections, such as Cowper’s Folly and Sleepers, her deliberate notes are rich and vibrant, blessed with a grounding tonal quality that seems to resonate from somewhere deep within the Earth’s core, thereby making the incorporation of a bass completely unnecessary.
With its embedded mini, chamber suite lead by a clarinet that is reminiscent of Benny Goodman’s challenging collaborations with Bela Bartok, Shining Forth is, perhaps, the most compelling song on This Riot Life. From there, Hille goes deeply into lush-life territory with Oh Come On, where she devises arrangements that would make Rufus Wainwright and Brian Wilson scream with envy. It is no exaggeration to suggest that Hille is poised at the forefront of songwriters who write in a pop-orchestral vein.
Like many other ambitious projects, there are so many ideas contained within This Riot Life that one risks the danger of becoming exhausted by it. Yet, this never happens because Hille’s latest effort is a model of arrangement and pacing. Like a Grateful Dead concert when the band has taken the audience deep into the primal soup only to pull them out of their psychedelic overload by covering a tune by Chuck Berry, Hille knows just when to throw her listeners a musical life raft. Just as things are in danger of blurring into a delightful cacophony, a piercing clarinet sound will clear the air, and a tango beat will come along to carry the audience back to dry land.
In today’s market-driven music industry, artists with Hille’s scope are becoming so rare that one almost never encounters them. Perhaps she should have been born in Vienna or Florence hundreds of years ago when the old system of patronage would have allowed her art to blossom, flower, and bear fruit. Lucky for us she is alive now, and with any luck, there will be plenty of chances to hear more of her music in the future. Bold, witty, and articulate, Hille should be protected, nurtured, and declared a national treasure. Her work is important and beautiful, and the world is a better place because of her art.
Of Further Interest...
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2008 The Music Box