Eugene Robinson‘s reputation precedes himself. The larger-than-life frontman of avant-garde noise-blues combo Oxbow (and recently defunct hardcore revivalists Black Face) is notorious for his love of fighting as much as his inability to keep his clothes on during shows. But that schtick does a disservice to Robinson as an artist; the man has a seriously powerful voice that can caress as well as bludgeon, as Oxbow’s many records can attest.
Last of the Dead Hot Lovers is something different, Robinson’s second of a planned trilogy of collaborations with soundscape artist and self-proclaimed “musical travel-agent” Philippe Petit (not to be confused with the tightrope walker in the documentary Man On Wire). Where first instalment The Crying of Lot 49 was a hard-boiled noir with a cinematic approach, perhaps owing more to Burroughs than Pynchon in substance, Last of the Dead Hot Lovers is a two-handed montage of a relationship’s disintegration, jumping back and forward in time as both sides pick over the pieces of their experience, from very different perspectives.
To say this record is a difficult listen is putting it mildly. ‘Chapter 1’ sets the uneasy tone right from the start, opening a door onto some sort of clockwork nightmare world, an assemblage of whirring, ticking, clicking and clinking, punctuated by unidentifiable sweeps and whoops. And of course there’s Robinson’s intense, soulful voice, though tamer than expected. In Oxbow, Robinson is all unhinged machismo and dark sexuality, and on Lot 49 he’s an arresting narrator of life’s bleaker side. But here his role is more that of the ringmaster, the freak show host beckoning you to witness the fallout.
Though his name is on the spine, Robinson’s place is diminished by the far stronger presence of the estranged partner – portrayed by Kaisa Meow – whose fractured monologue quickly takes over proceedings. Meow spouts lines with a nonchalant femme fatale pose that disarms without need for claws; her vocal fry oozes dark sex appeal a la Lydia Lunch. Yes, the performance verges on the cliched: the woman as the seductress, the calculating bitch, the hysterical harpy, the mother, the whore and all that. But ultimately she’s the one who gets to have her say, leaving Robinson’s pitiful male bravado little more than a husk in her wake.
Kicking off with a cheeky Cher-baiting quote, ‘Chapter 2’ is virtually all Meow, her disdain dripping over the atonal soundtrack of sinister swirling strings and electronic hums, Petit as a one-man orchestra tuning up, or tuning out. Robinson makes a bid to have the last word towards the end, but he’s already finished. The press release would have his and Meow’s performance as a duet, but their voices, their presences, are never entwined. Indeed that distance is what gives the work its core strength.
As art, Last of the Dead Hot Lovers is impressive as a performance piece, and strong visuals would make it even better, I suspect. As music, however, it lacks that vital connection with the senses that even the first part of the trilogy possesses. Petit’s sounds want to envelop, but the structure is too formless and random to hold for long. Put it in a gallery, play it on a stage, and I’m there; add it to my record collection and it’ll stay put on the shelf.