Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Voice of a Wolf

Josephine Foster eschews weird Americana for European avant-garde

Amidst the landscape of the “new weird America” Josephine Foster is a stranger in a strange land. Not only does the graceful and baroque range of her latest release, A Wolf In Sheep’s Clothing eschew any folk leanings to embrace a European avant-garde sensibility, but the recording is sung entirely in German. This approach is an extraordinary change of pace for the normally autumnal, bittersweet tones of Foster’s previous offerings. Prior recordings, such as Born Heller and Hazel Eyes, I will Lead You paint a picture of Foster as a singer / songwriter who’s prone to fits of lovelorn balladry driven by a folk-song siren voice. Many a critic has compared her powerful, female vocal mantras and strident personality to Jefferson Airplane frontwoman Grace Slick. “The whole alchemy of rock/folk and the earthy/transcendental in some of Jefferson Airplane's best songs did have a strong effect on me, like “White Rabbit,” she offers as one example. “But at the same time I was getting into Debussy.”

With A Wolf In Sheep’s Clothing (Locust Music), Foster explores her interests in the fringe areas surrounding classical music of the late 19th and early 20th century. Her enduring voice evokes the spirits of female singers spanning artists from the 1920’s to present, touching on everyone from Lotte Lenya to Coco Rosie.

Go ask Barbara
Deflecting comparisons to avant-garde folkies, Vashti Bunyan and Devendra Banhart, Foster points out Barbara Streisand’s album, Classical Barbara – a record she heard at the age of 15 – that introduced her to classical music. Streisand’s record offers a version of composer Hugo Wolf’s “Verschweigene Liebe,” a song which Foster offers her own take on A Wolf In Sheep’s Clothing as an homage to Streisand.

On paper, an affair such as this can come off as seeming somewhat pretentious, but Foster gingerly admits that she approached the project seeking out nothing more than fun, exuberance and to take a chance on doing something a little differently.

The Chicago-based Colorado native first began writing songs at the age of 15, and began making her own bedroom recordings with a 4-Track around 2000.

The seven songs that make up A Wolf In Sheep’s Clothing are what Foster calls “kuntslieder,” or art songs. Each number was originally written by highbrow European composers of the 19th century who set music to poems by equally highbrow poets of their day. “Some are pretty familiar to classical musicians, some less so,” she continues. “I think there is an untapped wealth of incredible songs that are just going stale in the ivory tower. Some of them are my favorites, and it was by chance in other choices.”

What big teeth you have…
With a voice that draws to mind the passion of Marlena Dietrich and the fairy tale glow of Snow White, Foster exudes timelessness. Weaving through Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s dialogue in his original German language, set to a twinkling and nocturnal arrangement of Franz Schubert’s composition in “Der König in Thule,” the drifting pace of Foster’s words is enchanting. A slowly plucked electric guitar wraps around various stringed instruments that could have been present at the time of the original composition with captivating ease. Through a pair of headphones a low rumble of what sounds like large trucks passing by on the street below are barely audible, suggesting something of a low fidelity feel. But never do any makeshift imperfections impede upon the sound quality. Rather, the spaciousness and angelic ring of “Verschwiegne Liebe” and “Die Schwestern” swell with multilayered clarity.
As the latter piece unfolds the once celestial qualities of the music take a turn toward the dark side as the shadow of fuzz, distortion and echoes envelope Foster’s crooning. The drone of traffic that once seemed to have been caught by accident now bulges to reveal something sinister stirring inside the music.

Without warning a sound that was once beautiful and benign explodes into a dark and cluttered storm of noise in “Auf einer Burg.” Foster’s voice carry’s on with the same alluring qualities she has possessed from the beginning. But as the scope of the music unfolds a previously unseen meaning in the album’s title, A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing comes into view. Most Westerners can’t follow any coherent dialogue in these songs simply because of the language barrier. But an intuitive range of beauty and dreaminess lulls listeners into a false sense of safety before Foster reveals the wolf’s teeth.

It also serves as no small metaphor that the recording opens with a rendition of the composer Hugo Wolf’s “An die Musik” dressed in a more relaxed presentation than how classical music is usually performed. The exactitude and note-to-note, consonant-to-consonant obsessions of the typical classical music singer are made deceptively sweet and inviting. “The songs are so beautiful,” says Foster. “I had an intuitive sense of them and I just wanted to present them simply and take inspiration from the moment in terms of arrangements, which were largely improvised right on the spot.”

In light of this she maintains that there is no overall theme to the songs. “They all have a time-transcendent quality to me. Most of these songs I learned between ages of 16-18. No research, they’re just some of my favorite chestnuts.”

--Chad Radford (Published by Flagpole Magazine, May 2006.)