Larsen - Cool Cruel Mouth [Important Records - 2011]According to the Important Records website, this is Larsen’s first album with the addition of Annie Anxiety Bandez as a permanent lyricist and vocalist; and, not content with that, Larsen also enlist Baby Dee to play piano on a couple of tracks. I’m not au fait with Baby Dee, but I saw Little Annie play a festival in Boston some years back; and despite some of the heavyweights on the bill, she was my pick of the weekend. She’s had a chequered career, releasing a single on Crass Records in 1981 and now performing songs in a very theatrical, cabaret style. She has a beautiful voice, full of character and life; so Larsen should consider themselves honoured.
Alas, there are very clear and obvious lines to be drawn between the vocals and the surrounding instruments; and these lines do not create any interesting tension. Little Annie’s vocals are, as previously stated, rich with character; at times bedraggled, weary, confiding - always full of colour. They’re full of escapist movement. By contrast, her bandmates (using mainly guitars, drums, synths/electronics) sound very clean, very shiny and bright; very confident. At worst, they ultimately sound rather transparent and “vanilla”; they carry little weight compared to the quiet, often whispering, voice. This comparison is also true of the sound qualities of each side of the divide: Little Annie’s voice is presented in a close-up quality which shows off every grain and texture of her vocal; whereas the instrumentation appears flat, too perfect.
The album starts with a version of “It Was A Very Good Year” - made famous by Frank Sinatra (and Homer Simpson!) - with Larsen changing the lyrics and removing the “very” from the title. It’s a brave move to open with a cover, and possibly an unfortunate one. Whilst it doesn’t reach the heights of Sinatra (or, for that matter, Simpson!), it remains the only memorable track on the album for me and serves to highlight another aspect of the “divide”: too often, “Cool Cruel Mouth” sounds like an instrumental band backing a vocalist. Songs needn’t be “conventional” or follow verse-bridge-chorus, but Larsen don’t sound convincing in their meshing with Annie Anxiety. Interestingly, the only other piece that catches my ear at all, is a spoken word track. When I saw the title, “Annie’s Rap”, I cringed and straight away thought “spoken word”; but in many senses thats why this track works. Little Annie’s intoxicating voice narrates a story about intoxication, whilst the rest of Larsen drone away (in the best sense) behind her. Spoken word songs are often difficult for me, but here there’s definite momentum and the words and vocal performance pulling you in. Its somewhat telling that the only two tracks that charm my ear remotely are a cover and a spoken word piece.
I can’t help but think, that the vocals and instruments get in each other’s way on “Cool Cruel Mouth”. Devoid of Little Annie’s contribution, Larsen might find they have the more minimal, spacious environment they appear to need. Though, saying that, this might leave them sounding like a very polished, uninspiring band with post-rock leanings. It is, however, Little Annie’s vocals that truly shine on this album; dulled and dirty as they are - and its a shame to see them essentially wastedMartin P