The thinking person’s Marilyn Manson, Diamanda Galás‘ music makes the bleakest mid-’90s work of PJ Harvey sound sunny and optimistic. In the past Galás has performed requiems for the victims of AIDS, while stripped to the waist and covered in blood, so this double album of reinvented blues numbers is comparatively mild, especially when compared with the dense, Defixiones Will And Testament, released simultaneously with this set.
These sessions were recorded live, with just Galás’ remarkable multi-octave voice and forceful piano work, described by one critic as being “like driving rain slapping on concrete”. Galás perfectly captures the spirit of traditional numbers such as See That My Grave Is Kept Clean and Ain’t No Grave Can Hold My Body Down, while adding a whole new dimension to John Lee Hooker‘s Burning Hell and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins‘ I Put A Spell On You.
There are flashes of humour too, Galás describing her own Baby’s Insane, as “a sweet little song”. It’s hardly that, although it’s hard to know whether Galás’ rendition here, a sort of cross between Dylan-esque snarl and Gospel declamation, is to be taken seriously. The song, incidentally, is taken from This Sporting Life, Galás’ collaboration with former Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones, a compromised work that once threatened to propel Galás into the mainstream. Thankfully, perhaps, it didn’t happen.
Which leaves us with such compelling reinventions as I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry, Galás’ banshee wailing adding layers of emotional resonance barely glimpsed in the Hank Williams original. It’s tracks like these that make you long to hear Galás’ promised reinterpretation of the old Petula Clark hit Downtown as a suicide song.
Galás probably won’t welcome the comparison, but the version of Ornette Coleman‘s Lonely Woman, an exhilarating moment of free jazz improvisation, suggests Yoko Ono in those early experimental years with John Lennon. But while you could never escape the feeling that Yoko was something of a dilettante, Galás is, most definitely, the real thing.
In Galás’ hands the old Motown song, My World Is Empty Without You, becomes a heart-wrenching expression of desolation, and the soul standard At The Dark End Of The Street (another refugee from the John Paul Jones collaboration) a song of grieving. It’s this ability to transform and reinvent songs that may have become over-familiar through repetition that is the mark of Galás’ genius on this set.
You may find 90 minutes of this unrelenting, emotionally wrenching music just a little to hard on the psyche, at least in one sitting, but there is no denying the sheer raw power of this performance. A quite remarkable album.