Back in the days of Facelift magazine in the Nineties, things got to the happy stage where review CDs (which were a new medium then) started arriving through the door at the rate of around one a week. It was a golden period for releases. During one memorable period “Missing Pieces”, “Singing The Bruise”, “Somewhere in France”, “Hadouk” “Parallel”, plus the first CD reissues of “Hoppertunity Box” and “Caravan” appeared in close succession. All of those albums are classics, other releases from time to time less so, and often the task for the reviewer is to find an angle, a hook, a ‘way in’ to a collection of music that doesn’t immediately grab you.
Then occasionally a record comes along unexpectedly which completely blows your socks off within the first few bars, and the only struggle is to try and analyse quite why it moves you so much. So it is with ‘Diratz’, a remarkable collaboration between Dave Newhouse, he of American RIO band The Muffins, guitarist Bret Hart and an extraordinary French singer called Carla Diratz. This project, recorded on alternate sides of the Atlantic, proved to be such a meeting of minds that it has been quickly followed by North American gigs with an expanded line-up, and you can see why – it just ‘works’.
Carla Diratz’s remarkable voice, a deep, sonorous expression of raw emotion, would be statement enough in isolation. Indeed a cursory search of her previous work brings up evidence of a quite startling project called The Electric Suite (with Corentin Coupe), where her voice is backed only by bass guitar. But this new project, recognising her impact to the extent that the project and album title bear her surname alone, benefits from musicianship to back it up which is in its own way is just as breathtaking. In truth the music on this album falls very much into one of two categories. The first is the rambling and free compositions which allow the voice to twist down somewhat experimental avenues, backed by impressionistic soundscapes – these are the collaborations attributed to her and guitarist Hart, best of which is the album closers ‘The Old Suzanne’, accompanied by clarinet and ‘Song For Jaki’, a heartfelt tribute to Jaki Liebzeit of Can. Secondly there are the Newhouse/Diratz songs, which are much more tightly composed and melodic, whilst still maintaining that element of danger and progression. I much prefer the latter – in fact each of three of four such pieces could be described as stunning.
I’m sure I’m not alone in being immediately sold on track 6, ‘Random Nights’, the song which helped publicise the album here, where a romping off-kilter piano rhythm underpins both aching vocals and a repetitive and strident guitar call-out. The way Diratz double tracks her vocal lines early in the track in an almost primeval manner is quite Hammillesque. I was drawn next to the second track ‘A Bout De Souffle’ where Hart’s angular guitar underpins probably the most eloquent vocals on the album. Punchy drumming from Newhouse junior (son George) and the use of multi-reed chords from father Dave are also highpoints. Dave Newhouse’s keyboard work with the Muffins always had at its core trademark Softs Third-era keyboard cycles, and the best moments of this album provide these as the backdrop to vocals in a way which seems so completely made to match. In that respect the track ‘Bataclan’, based around the aftermath of the 2015 French nightclub bombing, geographically and emotionally close to home for the Paris-based Diratz, is the one that continues to eat into me on repeated listening. Starting off underpinned by a piano theme resonant of the start of the ‘Rivmic Melodies’ suite, Newhouse’s role switches to one of those memorable cyclical themes before spreading out to provide a lovely sustained organ sound. This track is exemplary in so many ways – principally from the beautiful plaintive solo lines from guest guitarist Mark Stanley, through to Newhouse’s accompanying keys and the heart-wrenching lyrics of Diratz. The anguish at the futility of the bloodshed is set in stark contrast against the simplicity of the accompaniment, with the guitar treatments by Hart providing a disquieting counterpoint. This is just one example of the evocative lyrical imagery of Diratz – the inlay accompanying the CD itself could almost be a collection of poems in its own right.
To categorise this music is difficult and probably rather missing the point. I’ve heard mention of the aforementioned Rock in Opposition movement in some quarters, and it’s fair to say that hearing poignant English lyrics delivered in a striking foreign accent, backed by fluent, innovative and somewhat obtuse accompaniment put me in mind of the Art Bears (and no criticism there). But in truth I was reminded just as much in terms of impact of the likes of Portishead and Moloko in somewhat different musical genres in that it takes a classic jazz/blues voice and places it in such a subversive musical context that the overall effect is mesmerising. At its frequent peaks, this project is a real find – let’s hope this transatlantic collaboration finds the legs and the support to produce more of its searching music…