Striped Shirt Records STS106 2013, CD & DD album, 29m 23s
$7+ DD $9+ CD
Diane Marie Kloba’s music, on this and the four albums that have preceded it over the past decade, is made out of recognisable stuff, and works in a recognisable way. Imagine a house: it’s made of bricks, timber, roof tiles, glass, all the usual stuff; it’s structurally sound and weatherproof; it has features, like doors, windows, gables and all the rest of it, that look like those features usually do. But imagine that they all meet at crazy angles; that the doors are upside-down, or leaning on their sides; that the conventional notion of visual proportion, that makes almost every domestic dwelling look like almost every other domestic dwelling, is subverted, transformed or ignored. That’s the kind of relationship that Kloba’s music bears to conventional pop-rock; she cares about aesthetics, but rather than taking them as a given around which she can fit some songs, they constitute a field for compositional activity, a site of formal invention as subject to her interventions as the words, chords or melodies of the songs. The music is tonal, consonant, cyclical and texturally accessible, but it refuses the clichéd gestures and postures of the guitar-slinging, song-singing universe; where convention dictates that certain indicators of ‘polish’ be inserted as tokens of competence, Kloba couldn’t give two hoots if anyone thinks she’s a ‘good’ musician. She just has some stuff she really wants to share, and her creative practice is driven by the important insight that the content should shape the form, and not vice versa. The measure of this music’s quality is its outstanding effectiveness as an act of communication; by conventional standards it sounds rhythmically tentative, melodically half-formed, its phrases more like conversation than the shapely rhetorical figures of mainstream songwriting. But sticking to the shapes and colours of established formula tends to restrict the meanings of the songs to those that formula was developed to convey, and although many composers have found ways to write around those tendencies, to great effect in many cases, It Is All An Illusion takes a more direct approach; Kloba confronts her meanings head on, and makes a music of her own experience, on her own terms.
The sounds of the album are pretty consistent: Kloba’s guitar has a trebly, overdriven sound that would not have been out of place in the less rackety wing of early punk, while Ted Kloba’s bass combines girth with a pokey mid-range penetration. Drums are generally positioned quite low in the mix, but very clearly recorded. The mix itself is low on theatricality, and presents a well balanced account of the music, whose dynamic and textural variations are mostly down to the orchestration. There are moments of production side creativity, such as the spatial ambience in ‘I Know, I Know’, but for the most part here the studio is an instrument at pains to avoid the limelight. ‘Midsummer Morning Rain’ is probably the dynamic high point, with its energetic walking bass and driving drums; most of the songs pull back from a full throttle articulation of classic pop-rock texture, either eschewing bass in favour of baritone guitar, or using the drums as a source of percussion textures rather than a groove engine. Even when all the elements of a rock sound are in play together, they aren’t always employed in obvious ways: ‘String Theory’ is propelled by gentle upper register guitar arpeggios, and while the bass and drums accompany them, they do so through a series of unison punctuations that contribute to the texture without dominating it. Even when these elements are joined by a melodic electric guitar melody, Kloba sticks to her guns, and the soundscape remains an open space, refusing to fuse its contents into a mechanism.
This description may give the impression that It Is All An Illusion contains some nuanced variation on hipsterese pop-rock, mainstream music dressed up in art-school jargon, too cool and clever to talk directly to its listeners, but giving away very little of what it is that’s supposed to be good about it to those too ignorant to spot the references to several hiply obscure late noughties bands with virtually identical sounds. This is not the case. You really have to listen to it to get it, but Diane Marie Kloba performs music in a way that makes it immediately clear she serves no master but her own inclinations; as soon as you hear it, you’ll know what I mean. Many people will be too hung up on their own inherited prescriptions regarding the forms that music should take, but those able to listen in the same spirit of openness that informs the music’s production are in for some genuine novelty. There is humour in this music, in spades, but it’s not satirical or comedic; themes of human experience, and the difficulties encountered in making sense thereof, are present in most or all of the songs, and there is certainly sadness, but there is joy as well, and resilience. The songs reflect the complexity and ambiguity of life, at least as I’ve experienced it, and, I suspect, as most people have; Kloba’s response to the whole painful, exciting, tedious, beautiful rush of it is as insecure and confused as anyone’s, but it is always humane, empathic and ultimately positive. The directness and courage with which she confronts her experience and offers it to her listeners is both disarming and humbling; she doesn’t beat around the bush, but writes and sings her meanings right at you.
This is not to say that it is always immediately apparent exactly what the songs mean; and let’s face it, when a song’s meaning is able to fit in its entirety on the surface of the sound, that usually indicates that there’s not much to it. These songs have meanings as nuanced and multiple as any, but when Kloba sings ‘house is quiet, thoughts are loud/ thoughts are really loud/ put them in a book’, for example, you know exactly what she intends by it; a more pretentious writer would have needed to find an ‘image’ to convey that idea. Artists invest a great deal of effort finding ways to encompass complexities of experience that are unavailable to denotational language; but while many go through bizarre convolutions to produce the necessary thoughts and feelings, Kloba simply finds them and gives them to us. She often sings about astronomical features or weather patterns, and the many wry, perceptive observations she makes regarding human beings are presented in pretty much the same way, as natural wonders, whose appreciation is multiplied in the sharing. In a sense, her use of musical material is similar; there is a feeling that she has just now discovered what a fantastic sound her guitar makes, and she is brimming over with excitement to show us. I find it hard to pin down the way this album fits into her recorded output as a whole; there is certainly a sense of progress and development, but it is not a radical departure from the sound of its predecessors. What change I can hear feels like the change that you might expect to find in a person over the course of a decade; Kloba still speaks with the same voice, still adheres to the same principles, but every day she finds new things to tell us, and new things require new language. The language of It Is All An Illusion is forged according to no-one’s agenda but her own, and that is a rare gift. This is an album of real originality and total creative integrity.