The Speakers / Kris Delmhorst
Yeats Is Greats / Strange Conversation
Self-Released / Signature Sounds
C- / B
ongs lyrics and poems are not interchangeable, and only a few artists (like John Vanderslice and Richard Buckner) successfully turn traditional poems into lyrics for their music. The gap between the two forms exists in part because lyrics aren't meant to stand alone. Simon Frith, in his book Performing Rites, draws several lines of distinction, but he keys in on one idea: Poems contain their own internal regulations on how to read, on tempo, pauses, inflection, etc; the performance of lyrics are guided instead by the music. Add music to poems and it exaggerates their musicality; take away music from lyrics, and they seem flat. When an artist takes on poetry to supply lyrics, the risk of failure runs high. Two recent releases, by The Speakers and by Kris Delmhorst, show various ways that these concerns play out.
For their album Yeats Is Greats, The Speakers turn to W.B. Yeats for about half of their tracks. To match their subdued alt-country aesthetic, the band selected the poet’s more restrained numbers, foregoing the raging energy that soils some of his Intro to Poetry texts. The duo of Peter Musselman and Brian Miller keep their delivery low-key, flattening out the emotion even further, but the result occasionally strips Yeats of too much of his musicality. Given that The Speakers are talented composers, it's disappointing to find the final numbers atmospheric but devoid of the poetic cadences of the original.
For Strange Conversation, her fourth album, Kris Delmhorst grabbed poems from anyone and anywhere, from Rumi to Herrick to Browning to cummings, and turned them into country and folk numbers. She’s carefully matched the mood of her music to the fair readings of the poems. She makes Byron's “We'll Go No More A-Roving” into a country guitar lament so fluidly that it seems as if he’d have been more at home wooing cowgirls. cummings’s “anyone lived in a pretty how town” becomes a hoe-down of the finest order, contorting his complex semantics into an absurd barn dance, which makes his meditation on the meaning of the quotidian seen through the tint of mortality that kind of spectacle it should be: silly and fun and hiding larger concerns we don't need to dwell on. Delmhorst has an unusual way of commanding her material, and she consistently drives her songs home.
It's that ability to hammer the songs home that The Speakers haven't developed. The album contains a little too much grad student detachment and its accompanying earnestness. The duo offers a certain amount of reverence to Yeats’s work, which adds a bit of heaviness to already weighty material. The playful attitude that would turn these into country songs disappears with the precision of the delivery. Even so, the group seems unwilling to acknowledge the import of either Yeats’s or their own material, opening the goofily-titled disc with a silly spoken-word set that suggests a dilettantism not present anywhere else on the disc. The ponderousness and absurdity combine to replace importance with import.
Delmhorst, on the other hand, performs fearlessly, claiming each poem as her own and making it a part of her world. When the words don't fit her aesthetic, she re-writes the poem (and if the preservation of content stumbles a bit, the artistic energy doesn't). Rather than careless co-optation, the performances come across as long-range collaborations. Delmhorst cares about the poems and does them justice, but she also knows that what they say can be as important as how they said it, and, heck, Rumi's already been translated from Persian to English, so a little stretch into country music won't hurt any. With that approach the poems turn into song lyrics, and Delmhorst makes it work.
The success of Strange Conversation hinges as much on attitude as it does on skill or talent. The Speakers' music immediately reveals its creators’ craft, but Yeats Is Great doesn't fully put the talent of either its composers or lyricists to full use. It's an enjoyable enough listen, but the content doesn't serve its ends. The gap between Delmhorst's polished album and The Speakers’ concerned one might end up not covering an aesthetic space, but a legal one. Even in art, possession is apparently nine-tenths of the law, and Delmhorst just has a little more power in her most basic statement: “Mine.”