Lady Lazarus
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Lady Lazarus

Savannah, Georgia, United States | INDIE

Savannah, Georgia, United States | INDIE
Band Alternative Singer/Songwriter

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May
29
Lady Lazarus @ New World Brewery

Tampa, Florida, USA

Tampa, Florida, USA

May
06
Lady Lazarus @ The Studio @ Webster Hall

New York, New York, USA

New York, New York, USA

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A few weeks ago I came across a strange little album that set my mind racing. That album was Mantic by Lady Lazarus from Savannah, Georgia. Intimate and dust-covered, quiet and trembling, Mantic is charming in spite of its frailties. It is a set of overdriven, reverb-heavy and high-gain analogue recordings of a dusty and somewhat out-of-tune piano, and a frail voice playing tumbledown songs that drift in and out of time. There is a deliberate lack of sonic and textural clarity to the music, but I felt my ears re-calibrating to its distinctive timbres and rhythms as I listened. It made me ask: why is lo-fi music such as this so appealing to modern ears, ears that apparently have come to expect production finesse and sonic fidelity of the highest order?

I should define what I mean by ‘lo-fi’. Recordings made in the early decades of the last century couldn’t help but record sound with low fidelity. And, though there is a strange affinity in the power that grainy old recordings hold, we would only call them lo-fi in a purely technical sense. The lo-fi I’m talking about features low fidelity sounds by choice. Mantic sounds as spectral and as dreamlike as it does very much because of Lady Lazarus’s deliberate use of a piano that has seen better days, as well as the way in which she uses anachronistic analogue recording equipment. And her spindly pianistic style and the halting, conversational writing and singing are as important as the recording method.

Lo-fi, as a label, is generally seen as being useful to describe a genre dominated by music that originated in 1980s America. This lo-fi genre eventually involved such commercially and artistically assorted bands and artists as Beat Happening, Beck, Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, Guided By Voices, Elliot Smith and Neutral Milk Hotel, to name only a small selection. Yet lo-fi music, broadly understood, would have also to include such diverse genres as grime, black metal, hauntology and hypnagogic pop, again only a selection from a wide field. In all of these genres, the low fidelity of the recordings is key to the music’s expressive character.

Dominant markers of lo-fi in these genres include apparently chaotic levels of distortion, phasing, reverb, and echo, as well as a certain ramshackle approach to performance and composition. The processes used may take in ‘authentic’ older analogue recording processes or aged, low-end digital technology, or it might simply involve canny exploitation of digital equipment to create the illusion of low fidelity.

Within a DIY culture
There is also a political edge to lo-fi music, an edge that is manifest in the explicit rejection of mainstream market standards of production finesse and musical politesse. This is the element of lo-fi music that aligns it most explicitly with Noise music, and that situates it well within the musical underground. More commercially successful bands sometimes use these trappings of the lo-fi genre to imitate underground practice: in these instances, noise – resistance, counterculture, opposition – is easily captured and resold. But at the distant commercial extremes of the underground – a DIY culture that enshrines lo-fi intimacy and unruliness as governing principals – the lo-fi aesthetic offers a genuine chance to reject market demands in favour of more esoteric personal and artistic motivations.

But why does lo-fi music have such a strong emotional pull on an audience in the digital age? I think we can look back to Lady Lazarus for a way in to the subject. Two of the tracks on Mantic, ‘Sick Child’ and ‘Immortal Youth’, exemplify the expressive currency of lo-fi music.

‘Sick Child’ features a speeding-slowing arpeggio in the right hand and a simple rising figure in the bass of the piano, both repeating. The vocal is characteristically light, conversationally vernacular, thin when sustained or when at its melodic apex. In its intimacy, looseness and unlearned idiom, the style is already echt lo-fi in a way similar to the music of more mainstream acts, but there are other things at play here. Two notes collide – in among overdriven tones – producing a ringing harmonic. Buried, almost sub-auditory layers of sound gleam off this curious audio picture. As one listens, these sparks take on a life of their own, a life at least as vivid and as affective as any of the other elements of the music.

‘Immortal Youth’ also follows this idiom of simple conversational looseness, a similar desire to manifest the everyday in the realm of music. The use of an African thumb piano as accompaniment to the vocals on ‘Immortal Youth’ makes even more explicit the indebtedness of lo-fi music to the psychoacoustic principles of the Noise aesthetic.

These principles – such as emergent harmonic or sonic textures that appear differently in the mind of each listener – can be seen to connect to the Freudian theory of accidental audition, where Freud describes such noises as being ‘an indispensable part of t - The Journal of Music


If the opening to Lady Lazarus’s album, Mantic, sounds familiar, it might be because the piano is very close to the riff played in Perfume Genius’s “You Won’t Be Here.” In fact, I know very little about piano riffs, but I bet we could find a number of other songs that borrow the same chord changes or rhythm. But if looking at Mantic for instrumentation innovations is really the angle you want to approach it from, have fun being disappointed. The album is spare, haunting, and quite beautiful, and looking for connection, rather than innovation, is a more realistic lens and, ultimately, a quite rewarding one.

Like listening to the upcoming James Blake record, Mantic shows the magic that space can create. And Lady Lazarus, whose name likely comes from a Sylvia Plath poem, knows how to use lack of sound to accentuate the actual sounds. “The Eye In The Eye Of The Storm,” one of the record’s clear highlights, speaks volumes about the record both in its title and content. Mantic can feel like the eye of a storm, both with the current landscape of the music world and the current state of the planet. But on this song, the listener should get lost in the quiet, in the moments that are left to reflect solely on the comforting piano notes and the isolating lyrics that borderline on existential. Yeah, “who is going to sing it but me?”

Mantic passes by in an almost trance-like state, so it becomes difficult to point out particularly affecting moments or songs. It is the kind of record that sounds best as a whole, which, unfortunately, will turn off some listeners, as this characteristic has also done for like-minded artists, such as the aforementioned Perfume Genius and Joanna Newsom. But there are moments that do stand on their own. “What It’s Like” overflows with both a rawness (something that is present on every track, really) and distinct professionalism. No, not in the playing but in the emotional control. Sadness, nostalgia and ultimately redemption all can be felt simultaneously within the track, which seems carefully orchestrated like a master puppeteer commanding his marionettes. And still the song seems so precise in its plodding. “What It’s Like” also comes across like the first song Melissa Ann Sweat has ever sung or written. Almost like her piano notes are accompanied with the thought of “what comes next?”

This kind of sensation is impossible to fake or create, and so Mantic bursts with both orchestrated moves and spontaneity. Yeah, I know that doesn’t make sense, and honestly, the rewards of Lady Lazarus’ first album are still being revealed to me, weeks after first listening. To call it a “grower” would be selling it short. It is an expander, filling the space that it creates with the craving for return after return. Ask me what I think about it in a month and it may be one of my favorite albums of the year. For now, it is a strong debut that can prove difficult at times, but puts the singer on the map of future artists to watch. - One Thirty BPM


Lady Lazarus – “Sick Child” Video (Stereogum Premiere)

Lady Lazarus, aka Sylvia Plath-nodding San Jose-to-Savannah multi-instrumentalist Melissa Ann Sweat, is self-releasing her debut full-length Mantic next week. Her work’s been compared to Grouper — a general lonesome lone psych thing’s there (at times), but her approach is more along the lines of experimental free-folk Finns like Lau Nau, Kuupuu, and Islaja. Also, rather unexpectedly, the recording technique (especially in the piano) brings to mind Daniel Johnston. Her work’s hushed and homemade, ambitious, affecting, and oddly polished in its specificity. Get a sense of it via this “Sick Child” clip and a couple MP3s. - Stereogum


When you first hear a song, a part often leaps out as shorthand for the whole-- the singer's voice, the guitar tone, or a melodic phrase. As other parts come into definition over time, whatever hooked your ear first tends to stick out a little. "The Eye in the Eye of the Storm" by newcomer Lady Lazarus, a track that we reviewed last February, is a scarcer breed. From the first listen, you can take it in entirely. There's just a patiently elongated voice, a few shifting lyrics, and a C Major scale arcing up over and over. The scale begins at middle C, the eye of the keyboard, but a couple of slowly revolving chords in a lower octave create external pressure. The lyrics address the storm outside as if it were a house, "so unbearably quiet." The song's title, instrumentation, and words are all stabilized on a single conceptual base, but stability is undermined by the uneven tempo.

Appropriately for someone named after a poem, Lady Lazarus is all about the essential, a category that has not included a record label, a notable scene, or much of a public presence. I found out about her when her brother emailed me a brief "RIYL Beach House" message. I could hear some Beach House in her MySpace demos, though they reminded me more of early Cat Power or a folksier Grouper. I learned that her name was Melissa Ann Sweat; she lived in San Jose (though has since moved to Georgia) and was working on a proper album. The demos were mostly loose refrains played with a lot of feeling, wreathed in reverb and tape hiss. There was something very natural yet cloistered about the music.

I really liked the songs as they were, and worried that the hazy, magical feeling would be lost in "better" recordings. Melissa Ann Sweat had the same concern. She started to polish up Mantic, her debut LP, in a San Jose studio but found the results more "cold and clinical" than the home recordings, and she went back to her Fostex four-track. It was the right choice. She plays the atmosphere as much as the song, mostly with a reverb-drenched Yamaha electric keyboard on the grand-piano setting. On songs like "Took in My Diamond Heart", overtones gather and beat in elusive patterns around several alternating notes, and every part of the music feels responsive to the moment.

Had Sweat gone with a studio version of Mantic, some songs would've worked great. "Half-Life" and "Midnight Music for a Broken Heart Condition" fare gorgeously on the strength of Eluvium-like melodies, rather than textural accumulation. The same can't be said of "Immortal Youth", which seems mostly an excuse to try out the thumb-piano. But it makes sense in this context, where Sweat shrinks the gap between her everyday life and music to a sliver. The songs are full of places and things that were available to her: "Half-Life" was played on an upright piano in a backyard shed, "Twilight on a Steinway" in her employer's living room. People, though, are conspicuously absent: Sweat played every note. When she asks, "Who's gonna sing it but me?" on "Eye of the Storm", it doesn't feel like an idle question. Mantic thrives on the sense of being alone with the last voice in the world. Lots of people use music to try and escape their living rooms, but Lady Lazarus seems more interested in inviting us into hers.

— Brian Howe, January 20, 2011 - Pitchfork


Discography

Mantic - 2011 (Apartment Life Records)

"The Eye in the Eye of the Storm" (single & remix by Mickey Mickey Rourke - 2011 (Hi-Scores Recording Library)

Home Recordings EP - 2009 (Apartment Life Records)

Photos

Bio

RIYL Joanna Newsom, Bill Callahan, Cat Power, Beach House, Perfume Genius, Mount Eerie, Smog, Grouper.

Lady Lazarus (based in Savannah, GA) is the solo music project of Melissa Ann Sweat, a poet, writer, and fine artist originally from San Jose, Calif. Melissa is a self-taught musician who began her project in 2008 when she started teaching herself keyboard, and writing and recording songs for the first time in her San Francisco studio apartment. She has been an artist and writer nearly all her life and credits her fluidity in picking up songwriting to her long-time interest in writing poetry.

Despite her very new foray into music, Lady Lazarus has been receiving break-through national attention, including a 7.8 Pitchfork album review for Mantic, a feature in the prestigious Journal of Music, and much more. Criticism has been widely in praise of Mantic, and promises much more to come from Melissa.

She's greatly influenced by literature, independent, foreign, experimental film, and fine art: chiefly naive and outsider art, DIY movements, and abstract expressionism. Her favorite bands include 90s indie rockers like Pavement, Guided by Voices, and Galaxie 500. Smog/Bill Callahan, Joanna Newsom, and Phil Elvrum are among the most influential musicians to her, as well as more experimental artists like Philip Glass, Meredith Monk, and Loren Connors.

Melissa's project is entirely self-funded and run through her label, Apartment Life Records. She wrote, performed, produced, designed, and promoted Mantic, and even made the video for "Sick Child," which premiered to glowing reviews on Stereogum and beyond.

Lady Lazarus is playing shows in 2011 and plans to tour later this year. She is also currently working on new music, videos, and collaborative projects.