Hello Debris


It was more or less in the mid-80s - a period when rock music, at least the way I think of it, appeared as a desolate landscape where musical ideas had dramatically shrunk - that, almost by chance, I happened to listen to a collective called Thinking Plague, from Denver, Colorado. And though their first album of the same name featured very nice things alongside a few so-so things, thanks, maybe, at least in part, to the aforementioned desolate landscape, I decided to give a chance to their second album, Moonsongs (both albums were later re-released on a single CD, titled Early Plague Years). Moonsongs almost repaid my hope: its bizarre mixture of "prog/RIO" elements and "new wave" spiky/dry elements - with a taste that to me was without a doubt American-made - was quite, if not completely, convincing. A few years later the group released what in my opinion is their most successful album ever: In This Life (1989).

It was thanks to those Thinking Plague albums that I got to know the work of Bob Drake and Susanne Lewis; the former being a bass player and drummer (and also, when needed, a percussionist, keyboard player, guitarist and violin player), also a good studio engineer; however, it had been the latter, with her personal approach to vocals (which was obviously destined to polarize opinions), the element that most attracted one's attention. I bought Turn Of The Screw (1991), the first CD released by Drake and Lewis under the name Hail (here are the coordinates: bought by subscription, my copy was #19 on a total of 75). In truth, the duo's musical relationship had had its start in 1980, and two LPs - Venus Handcuffs and Gipsy Cat And Gypsy Bird - had been released. But I didn't know.

To say that Turn Of The Screw revealed itself as an album that left me quite puzzled would be a classic case of understatement: I really hated it, in a way that for me is not quite common. Susanne Lewis had written the songs, sung them, and played guitar, keyboards and other stuff. Drake had played a lot, and had also engineered the album. The proportions between the elements, and their placement in the stereo field, were quite peculiar: so the vocals, placed in the centre, and quite at the back, had to be "discovered" inside an instrumental mix where bass and drums were very loud and well in the foreground. But once one had managed to find them, a question spontaneously arose: why bother? Melodies were of the "generic" kind, the vocal parts - which sounded as if the singer had sung them without bothering to wear any headphones - were not pleasant to listen to.

So I decided to ignore their next CD, Kirk (1993), even though I was quite tempted by the presence of Dave Kerman on drums. And now I find myself with Hello Debris - the new CD by Hail, a long time after Kirk - in my CD player.

Hello Debris presents a scenario we already know: all songs are by Lewis, all arrangements and production by Hail; as usual, engineering and mixing work are by Drake. The first thing one notices when listening to the CD is the strange way the elements are positioned: quite often the bass/drums (played by Drake) are hard-panned "full left/full right", the same often being true of the guitar and keyboards (played by Lewis); this being a feature that definitely gives the album a 60s-like aura. The second thing one notices is that Lewis has grown a lot as a writer, both in quality and variety: here we have a track that, with only a minimum of modification, would sound as a perfect "chanson Française" - or maybe as an out-take off News From Babel's Letters Home (I Don't Know); an almost-Garbage song (Street Life); a "typical guitar ballad" (Debris); melodies which have a "fractured" development (Hello 2 and Hello 1); a nice bossa (Rio Cherry); a beautiful melody, tout court (The Poets - but why it's so brief?); a martial-sounding track (City Song); a "pocket-sized" version of Thinking Plague (New Skyline); and a track that sounds "almost like After Dinner" (House In San Mateo). The melodies - a lot more interesting than in the past - show the writer's deeper acquaintance with the keyboard. And the vocal parts don't suffer from the old problems.

The fact of Hello Debris succeeding is due - at least in part - to its reduced length: eighteen tracks in less the forty minutes, whereas Turn Of The Screw's one hour left one completely exhausted (one also gets a "vinyl taste" from the long pause placed after track eight). But this is the kind of album where melodies are only a part of the story: sounds moving in space and the changing of their "ambience" are at least as important, and show a kind of "artificial" aesthetics that have quite a lot in common with musical genres that would appear to be pretty different provided one limited the comparison to the melody dept. only. Opening with the "tiny" sounds of I Don't Know, the CD closes with the "wide-sounding" triad of New Skyline, House In San Mateo and Come To Stay. And so, having listened to Hello Debris quite a lot, well beyond the call of duty, I was almost ready to end my review with a sentence like "the album is an unqualified success".

(What happened?)

What happened was that - being not terribly familiar yet with those new monitors I bought not too long ago - I put on the turntable Side Two of a vinyl LP recorded (on eight tracks) in 1971: a pleasant listening session, nothing transcendental. Then, just for the sake of it, I decided to listen to Hello Debris again. The difference of my perception between "before" and "after" was nothing short of astounding.


Coming to a simple conclusion is not easy. Considered "on its own", the aesthetic dimension of Hello Debris can be seen as technically ingenious and aesthetically satisfying. But if made "relative" by means of comparison, it may appear as an attempt to make do with the materials at hand (meaning: not much).

Beppe Colli

© Beppe Colli 2006

CloudsandClocks.net | Nov. 10, 2006