Reviewed by Henry Cherry
In the year of the pandemic, at-home bread baking was king. There’s no denying that. Why would you want to? A nice sour dough loaf can go a long way to knocking down the depression of living in lockdown. But as the endless binge of streaming media went on and on and on, people also returned to poetry, those most tenacious and misunderstood mountains of the written arts range. And so poetry, now, is ready to redeem its seat atop of the great Mount Writing, thriving as theaters and music halls and museums and ballet companies all have been shuttered by the pandemic rampaging across planet. Sometimes a cool couplet of Anne Sexton, Ted Berrigan or Percy Bysshe Shelley is just what the doctor ordered.
Following along that thread, the young African American poet Amanda Gorman saw her popularity soar after her poetry recitation at President Biden’s inauguration, celebrating a new humanistic political era. Marianne Faithfull’s forthcoming spoken word album, She Walks in Beauty, is a commemoration of the Romantic poets and utilizes Nick Cave’s not-so-secret musical weapon, Warren Ellis, to provide much of the aural backdrop. The LA Times even corralled Courtney Love to help hype Faithfull’s newest issue. Rolling Stone devoted frontpage space on its website to the once whispery London chanteuse’s poetic recitations. Poetry is once again king. Long live the king! But also, don’t forget the sour dough!
It should come as no real surprise to discover that poetry lays at the heart of XI’s debut release, XI EP. XI is a multimedia onslaught of poetry, videos and music, with the visuals and lyrical work handled by Reid Wilkie and the music handled by Eddie Hultén. With Hultén based in Stockholm and Wilkie stationed in Los Angeles, and an international health crisis closing borders and minds, that this piece sounds so defiantly united is perhaps its greatest charm, though all of the actual music was recorded together in Hultén’s studio in Stockholm. “I travelled to Stockholm a number of times during 2019,” Wilkie says in a short email interview. “We recorded nine tracks in Eddie’s recording studio, in person, together. Then we selected what to move forward with.” Wilkie explained that for two of those tracks, “Seven Sisters” and “Contradiction of Self,” Hultén had most of the music in place and played it back while Wilkie recorded her vocals.
For his side of the process, Hultén went at it with agility and instinct. “Woman,” he says, was created in one take, “just pure improvisation.” While Hultén cites Desert Sessions, Björk and DJ Shadow as influences, there is the unmistakable trace of bass-hardened soul in XI’s music. It is Hultén’s Hagström bass that drives that sound.
These songs live in a distinctive but not identical space. They gather together like relatives in matching holiday sweaters at a party. And like any worthwhile holiday soirée, there’s going to be a couple of dark moments, Hultén’s music fends off any disfunction by stranding their shared musical DNA throughout the mix. In different hands, the sound might be too varied, or even too self-involved. Because XI’s unique collaborative element is separated by space and more space (Stockholm to Los Angeles, figuratively and literally) there’s less of a push to explore a separate galaxy with each track.
But because of this rising movement of poetical returns, it’s an interesting gesture, to fix Wilkie’s spoken word to this highly danceable slab of sound. Historically, poetry recordings backed with music have fast fallen out of favor. So here’s a quick refresher on some of the artier poetry/musical mashups of the last 40 years.
The poet John Giorno died the last October before the pandemic at 82. Across his broad career in the arts, Giorno chartered a poetic tributary of Andy Warhol’s artistic river. Giorno was a deft convivial marker of great moments in poetry that wouldn’t have happened had he not loved the idiom. Responsible for Giorno Poetry Systems, a label that released poetry and music, often combined together, it also became a collective of artists, writers and musicians from the mid 60s onward, each primordially dedicated to the poetry/music mashup Giorno’s platform sought to deliver.
“Seven Sisters,” by XI
Two recordings made an impact on the indie scene, and these recordings still remain important to this day. First up is the William S. Burroughs/ Giorno/ Laurie Anderson collaboration, You’re the Guy I Want to Share My Money With, a dizzying affair of words and musical skronk that’s as disjointed as it is impactful. Next is the label’s 1987 compilation of poets and alternative acts, Smack My Crack, featuring The Butthole Surfers, Nick Cave, Tom Waits and Blondie’s Chris Stein among its acts. Each one captured an unexpected fanbase, delivering musical scores created to embellish the written word, rather than vice versa. Woven into XI’s heritage are the threads of Giorno and his merry band of poetic instigators.
Also influenced by the Giorno Poetry Systems releases, Baltimore’s Daniel Higgs shifted from his first band into the poetic refinement of the Dischord band, Lungfish. Higgs has bona fide poetic credentials, too. His writing is collected in The Outlaw Bible of American Poetry. While he’s a more defined yelper of song, there is a relative writerly strand that collects Wilkie’s poetic commands to Higgs’s outré erudition. That is not to say XI sounds like Lungfish or Laurie Anderson or John Giorno or William S. Burroughs. What connection there may be lays entrenched in the concept.
Hultén’s music bangs a different hammer than Lungfish’s alternapoetremo, and Wilkie attaches her universal concord to more demanding postulations. And then there’s this: you simply cannot deny the regiment of dance XI brings to their music. Because of that, some unfamiliar stones are overturned. I never found myself dancing to Laurie Anderson, but I could see that someone might. There’s no might-dance-to-it found on XI EP. You play these songs and they make you move. That’s the policy and it is a successful one.
Sometimes, in poetic deliveries, there’s something I refer to as ‘the language of dog whines.’ That’s the space where the poet becomes trapped in a portal of inscrutability. Whatever they’re attempting to say essentially becomes the sound of a whining dog. You know the emotion, but the words are lost in the pile up. Too inscrutable, you become a whining dog.
Wilkie has none of the dog whine here. The writing is crisp, the delivery compelling. She doesn’t overstep her skill, and that leaves the listener wanting more of it. If the emotional cortex isn’t as widely beamed by vocal gymnastics, it’s important to note two things.
- The history of poetry/music mashups relies on the mastery of the word rather than the raw emotionalism of La Bohème. With Hultén’s thumping cadence rumbling throughout, an undercurrent of emotion is tacked onto Wilkie’s delivery, even as it draws the listener to the well at the dark end of her cascade.
- Madonna’s vocal range isn’t very wide. But we all know the words to “Holiday.”
While Madonna’s dance music lives in a universe of starry pop, Wilkie’s lyrical poems are often times starless. Still, they arrive sounding equally as luxuriant as Madge’s (likely that Hagström bass sound).
We are no longer prisoners
We are no longer tortured
By the wealth
Mistook for comfort
Disguised as respect.
We are no longer angry
At the forced wind of change
Taken as a command over top of Hultén’s insistent tide of cow bells, bass and sinewy guitars in the lead-off song, “Contradiction of Self,” Wilkie’s lyrical psyche resolves in a conceptual array that fashions anarcho-dance-funk into this deceptively hopeful idea — you get what you pay for, so stop paying for shit.
“Oil,” by XI
On “Oil” – a song originally released on Earth Day 2020 when, incredibly, the price of oil plunged to a negative $40 dollars a barrel on the global market – Wilkie’s autocratic optimism stretches most unmistakably into a full philosophical identity of its own.
In this time of instability
Let us not feed on stocks and shares
Let us not feed on dollars and Dow
Let us not feed on the decline of trade,
From the debt we owe
Call it gnomic elaboration. These thousand cuts of Wilkie’s tongue fit Hultén’s bullish groove in an unanticipated way. They offer a structurally euphoric ultimatum that wholly embraces the rebel spirit found in the English Punk scene of late 70s. The corporal but cosmopolitan funk behind it offers something sinister and something chic. It’s class, but it’s also art. And you can boogie down to it.
XI’s dual creative team may best be represented by “Woman,” the EPs closing track. It is a fitting choice because of its connective lyrical identity with the first two songs. Hultén flexes a slightly different muscle, and because of that it produces a heady dose of Wilkie’s sentiment. Remember, this one was an impromptu in-studio performance between the duo. Near the end of the song (and the EP for that matter), Wilkie spells out the mysticism that overtakes the heart of her darkness.
Suspended under the light
Of the diamond encrusted
Thought, an engraved
Impression laces reality
Unto a sonic ground
This is not Laurie Anderson. This is not Björk. This is not Giorno’s Poetry Systems. This isn’t Lou Reed penning poetic odes to his beloved teacher, Delmore Schwartz. XI is a true hydra. You cut it into pieces and it grows whole again. Because of that, the collection tugs each member into a place they might not have gotten to without the other. So then, what exactly is this XI EP? It’s the sound that explains how true pleasure comes only with a clear conscience. To weave that kind of sentiment into excessively danceable jams is an art form all its own. That’s what this is.
Henry Cherry is Jazz Critic at Riot Material Magazine. Mr. Cherry is a photographer, writer and documentary filmmaker who lives in Hollywood. His work has appeared in Huck, PBS, OC Weekly, Los Angeles Review of Books, Artillery, and LA Weekly. A documentary film on master jazz musician Henry Grimes is in the works. For contact information go to his website: henrycherry.com