Creature Breath – I Am Creature Breath (avant-folk)
self released, 2011, DD album, 39m 45s
$name your price
There’s a simple poetry to this album, an economy of orchestration, of ornament and of lyrical statement. Given that the lyrical themes are of an overtly devotional nature, expressing a sense of rootedness and connection to the ‘Mother’, to the natural world conceived as a person, I find that economy something of a relief. Not that there is any particular reason why Shawn Marie Westendorf, sole author of I Am Creature Breath, should conform to my prejudices on this, but my experience of ‘neo-pagan’ art is that it tends toward the trite and sentimental, the uncritical valorization of the ‘old’, ‘natural’ and ‘traditional’, and in song lyrics towards the obvious and redundant. Which always strikes me as a shame, as I’m sympathetic to a great deal of the ideological content of such work. Fortunately, Westendorf’s writing is neither sentimental nor obvious.
Westendorf is the dominant voice throughout, both as vocalist and instrumentalist, playing guitar, glockenspiel and thumb piano (and ‘turtle’, although it’s not specified if that’s a joke, a live turtle, or a turtle shell!) Her core articulations are embellished by contributions from the ever creative Heidi Harris, who sings harmony, and plays cello, clarinet and theremin, as well as producing and mixing the release. And although Westendorf’s creative voice is front and centre, I think I can detect Harris’ sensibility throughout: the album as a whole certainly inhabits the same broad aesthetic territory as her own releases. Elizabeth Caddeo also provides some synthesizer, and shares a piano with Harris on the closer, ‘Darlin’. If the above makes it sound like the album features intricate arrangements of guitar, piano, clarinet, cello, glockenspiel and so on, I should point out that there are rarely more than two or three instrumental sounds in play simultaneously; everything is very low key, very restrained, but without seeming to hold itself back on a leash. It’s more like Westendorf and her collaborators are sitting beside a pool of silence, and are occasionally moved to drop stones into it, to watch the ripples spread.
I Am Creature Breath is suffused with the presence of the earth, with an optimistic and rooted sense of a world that nurtures and protects, but it is, as I have said, not sentimental about it. Death is as much a part of nature as life, and the Mother takes back every life she gives; to embrace the world on those terms demands an acceptance of your own death, such as Westendorf espouses when she sings ‘and I wanna die young/ I wanna go home to you mother’ in ‘Praire’. Leaving aside the double meaning, that she wants to stay young as she ages, the straightforward implication is equally important: the earth is home, and for our own wellbeing, we should be happy to return to it; our generosity should match the Mother’s, in giving our substance to sustain other lives. In ‘The Pull’ she states it with even more frightening clarity: ‘Feel the pull of the Earth/ Bringing you closer to Her/ Fall to your death/ Life awaits on your next breath.’ The last line offers a possible escape to those attached to their egos, but read carefully: it doesn’t say whose life. It’s because of this kind of insight that they burned witches… An uncomplicatedly comfortable Mother, the kind of Gaia that makes jam and quilts, would probably be best served by some comfortably consonant, lush and harmonious orchestrations. The sound of this record, with its spare and haunting arrangements, is the sound of a more ambiguous parent, gentle and beautiful as it may be.
Of course there is more variety to these songs than the above discussion may suggest, and they approach their big themes through the particular. There are more characters here than the narrator and the Mother, but that is certainly the theme that struck me with the greatest force. The stylistic shape of the melodies and instrumental gestures employed by Creature Breath come from the wellspring of Americana, a source that’s almost ideologically neutral, give the huge range of uses to which it’s been put. It’s a sound that feels rooted though; it points back at a tradition. Inventive as the use made of it here may be, a major component of its meaning as a musical practice is that its proponents are not inventing its vocabulary. They speak a widely understood language, which makes the experience of listening accessibly aesthetic, uncomplicatedly pleasurable, notwithstanding the challenge posed by this artwork as a whole.
It’s easy to over-egg the pudding when taking on material and subjects like this. There are a lot of polished but empty projects in something like this musical vein, and there are a lot of unlistenably earnest attempts to address some sort of spiritual environmentalism. There are few recordings that show this much restraint, not just in avoiding overplaying, but in refusing to over-burnish or over-stylise. I may be wrong, but it appears from the things she says on the Bandcamp page that this is Shawn Marie Westendorf’s first real musical foray into the public arena: if that’s the case, it’s an advertisement for not rushing into things, because this very beautiful, emotionally engaged, and moving album displays a good deal of creative maturity.