“to be comfy with contortment”

Artist: Amy X Neuburg and the Cello ChiXtet

Album: the Secret Language of Subways

Onstage, Amy X Neuburg and the Cello ChiXtet wouldn’t look imposing. One singer, three cellists: normal-looking women, one short and the rest sitting down. Maybe you’d notice Neuburg’s sampler or her electronic drum-pad, maybe not; they’re small, and not flashy. Her speaking voice is soft and droll, amused. Then she’d start to sing, or perhaps the cellists would start to play. They’re not loud; and they’d basically play the record, full of songs built to be duplicated live. But as their performances unfolded, layers of Amys piling on as she looped her vocals to harmonize strange new words and tunes over … well, “normal” and “not imposing” would reveal themselves as misjudgments quickly. Secret Language of Subways Cover

* Amy X Neuburg is, in my opinion, the best singer in the whole world (Freddie Mercury can sadly no longer make this a fair competition). Her opera-trained voice – yes, she shows off the full training at times – is clear, pure, and able to hold notes for as long as dramatic tension requires. Opera can teach distance along with its loveliness, and she uses this: many of the lyrics are about insecurity, regret, withdrawal, or nervous observation of the people around her, all sung with a careful detachment, a deliberate if gorgeous numbness.

But then she throws herself into the harsh, commanding, unpredictably skipping chorus melody of Closing Doors. Or the adorably exaggerated defensiveness of Difficult. Or the urgency of Someone Else’s Sleep; the worried compulsiveness of Shrapnel; the transitions from bubbliness to irritated wise-assery to breathless explanation and back in the Gooseneck. Her frantic singing on This Loud (the one piano song) picks out a difficult, unlikely melody while hammering home each note in fast monotones. Dada Exhibit turns opera’s long-held notes and swooping tunes into a form of comic monologue. But Body Parts is quiet and harrowing.

Among bands who write difficult, ambitious melodies, a handful of singers (Amy Denio, Susanne Lewis, Elaine di Falco) get hired by band after band because it’s so hard to find people who can do the melodies right. Neuburg not only can, but she communicates them with an actress’s aplomb. And, when she chooses, a comedian’s timing.

* The cello chiXtet play an instrument as versatile as any guitar. As wielded by Jessica Ivry, Elaine Kreston, and Beth Vandervennet, it’s good for long slow strokes or fast percussive ones or a nice jig. It adds lovely roundedness, or plays darting melodic hooks, or skitters through difficult melodies. It can be picked like a richer-sounding acoustic guitar, or they might slide their fingers eerily along the strings. With no drums, their cellos drag or rush the tempo as the mood demands.

* The Secret Language of Subways is full of excellent lyrics, detailed and a bit surreal. Some are parodic, as on “Dada Exhibit” (“Whose disembodied kiss is this? Whose ticker-tape expression and whose old Victrola voice? Whose partly naked nakedness in the clutches of a severed hand? Left to my own devices, I might interpret these images incorrectly, so the words on the wall tell us all”).

Some are dreamlike yet conversational (“Okay, here’s a good opportunity: you’ve got your tickets, your laptop, your platform boots, and a note from God giving you special permission. Try something nasty. Smile at the camera. Thrive on disaster”).

Some are protest songs, arrestingly loopy instead of dull (“I heard about people who steal moments, and put them in their pockets. If I met one, I’d jerk him round the gooseneck and say ‘Stick that back on the dartboard where you found it! It was meant for the general public: they paid a hefty cover charge and a two-drink minimum”).

But primarily, Neuburg aces the emotional details of frayed relationships: from the insistence of attraction (“You are the tongue-tip where my vowels elide, and you are the pesky rocket in my side. And you better not exist above these lines, and you better be the rapture in my wine. And in the morning when stories begin pouring from your orifices, you are almost human”)

to how we adjust to decay (“The last lie was effortless, different from the first. She had arranged to never have her feelings take her by surprise. A moment to drop the bomb, a year or two to burst. And then she cleaned the house, took a shower and moved on”).

I know less about frayed relationships as she seems to, and she’s been with the same man, last I heard, for 15+ years. But I have little info and no insight into that: perhaps she writes what she knows. Perhaps she largely writes what she sees elsewhere and fears. To me, she sells it.

– Brian Block