motor hums. The sun climbs, breaking a new day out of the shell of the night. Sparks flicker along a taut wire. A woman groans and rubs the crack in her head in empathy for the death-pains of the night and the birth-pains of the day to come. Grey shades like the ghosts of ghosts ride along the electrical currents. Her head begins to tingle... their voices come... first one then more and more... whispering, stammering, shouting across the wire...
"Angie, the performer (as a result of accidental electrocution) becomes, literally, the mouthpiece for a range of disembodied souls who have hitherto been unable to expose themselves to an audience." Like her first album, The Best of Barbara Brockhaus, Angie escapes the normal artist-audience dialogue by writing from another's point of view. Rather than a concept album about one individual, however, we have one about a series of unconnected persons who use Angie as their voice. The connection between them is the mouthpiece herself—with her playful twists of language and pip-squeaky tone, there can be no mistake about who's really speaking through each of these characters. Which is exactly what makes XYZ Frequency an album that can be listened to, not just dissected in psych class: In another pair of hands, this unwieldy concept would most likely become heavy and pretentious, but Angie finds for us the humor in everything from excommunication to attempted wedding executions.
Despite the bravura of its central conceit, XYZ Frequency is a constantly bracing listen, not necessarily for the depth of musical ideas brought to each song, but their astonishing variety and quantity. Using a plethora of styles, textures, and instruments, Angie (who writes and plays nearly everything here) and her cohorts fashion soundscapes to backdrop the (literal) voices in her head, riding an often-blurry line between structure and disorder, high art and camp, style and substance. Which is precisely the point—waves of images and personalities crash on the shore of the listener's consciousness, eventually leaving one with the realization that articulating the difference between performer, subject matter, and audience is secondary to the experience itself.
Musically, the album carries out the promise of such a premise: A chaotic soup of grooves and melodies embedded with excursions into prickly analog noise-and-rhythm loops, nearly-perfect pop songs, genre-bending studio experiments, and moments of sheer giddy genius. The connection between the “voice” of each song and the sonics employed is sometimes obvious, often tenuous, and occasionally nonsensical. "Bend the Truth in the Confession Booth," for instance, is a psychosexual, acoustic-synthpop-swamp-blues number narrated by a lesbian ex-nun, turned loose in Weimar-era Berlin, where she poses nude for "those who want to life draw," drinks absinthe, and finally flees the Nazis for France ("where my life took another twist / I became a Situationist! / and every night I got pissed!") Meanwhile, "Gold Chained Leopard of the Ghetto" is squelchy hip-hop viewed through a distinctly feminine prism (more concerned with bap than boom, shall we say) with a distinctly masculine narrator ("I'm a tax free P-I-M-P and the NYPD is after me"). Where most artists seem content to parcel the same handful of creative notions across an entire career, the problem with XYZ Frequncy is not paucity but overabundance. In 72 minutes Angie draws on everything from folk to free jazz, house to motorik rock, Europop to cabaret in a nearly exhausting (to both artist and listener) free-association of wildly disconnected motifs.
Does this make for a satisfying album? Well, if a satisfying album provides a continuous atmosphere or tells a linear story, then no. If listening to a "classic" album is the aural equivalent of immersing oneself in a masterpiece by Caravaggio, Renoir, or Bosch, then listening to XYZ Frequency is like running full-speed down a hallway at MoMA with your pants on fire. Shapes, colors, and ideas flash at the corners of your eyes—endlessly engaging but never enrapturing (there's no TIME!), constantly giving way to the next series of fragmented images. As an album in the traditional sense, it is a beautiful failure. You almost can't listen to it all at once, and you certainly can't take it all in with two, five, or ten listens.
Ratings, rankings, critical summations and the like aside, XYZ Frequency is a powerful monument to the unexplored possibilities of the human creative process. 2005 was a year in which the past and the present were consciously woven together by artists to determine the pulse of the future. As the night falls on ought-five and ought-six emerges from the egg, let us loosen our consciousness, drift, and turn our ears to the murmurs traveling along the wire: The forgotten lives of the past, the unspeaking lives of the present, the unknown voiceless given voice for the first time.
Do you hear it?
It sounds like... the future.