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Audio Reviews
by Nadine Mooney
Tender Loving Empire (2007)
In the midst of a stand-up performance way back in February of naught-five, comedian Lewis Black began to wax poetic on music and memory. I remember the bit distinctly, as it was an oddly somber moment in an otherwise uproarious set. His voice lowered from its typically fevered pitch, beaded sweat clinging to his reddened forehead, Black quietly reminisced on how certain songs could transcend time, recalling persons, places, scents, and sensations that had lain long-dormant in the dustier corners of his attic-like cranium.

The exact wording is lost to me at this point, but I think that a joke followed shortly after; a profanity-laced rant about being reminded of something less-than-pleasant, perhaps the well-known “Candy Corn” riff. Beats me; I can’t remember. Then and now, it was Black’s idea (and my present approximation thereof) that truly stuck with me: music as a portal, a hole in time through which one can, oft unexpectedly, peer back at his or her own past.

And it does happen. You’ve doubtless experienced it the same as I: the mental drift, the flood of sensory data that kick-starts the synesthetic slideshow, minutes lost sorting through the muddled filing cabinets inside your own head as memory leads you back, back, back to places otherwise lost to time and inattentiveness.

Oddly enough, my most recent escapade with music-as-memory’s-trigger occurred with an album I had never heard before: Nadine Mooney’s debut full length, MouseHouseWormHole. Specifically, singer-songwriter Sage Fisher’s awkward, plaintive voice reminded me of an impromptu trip to Baltimore in the winter of naught-seven, and an afternoon spent sitting near an open window, sipping a hand-warmed beer and watching the snow blow down from a grey ceiling of low-lying clouds, the chilly March air a welcome respite from the apartment’s uncontrollable (and excruciatingly hot) steam radiators. In the background, Joanna Newsom’s The Milk-Eyed Mender was playing, her strange warble and deftly-fingered pizzicato filling the lulls in conversation.

This (admittedly personal) past-meets-present collision drove home, however obliquely, a comparison that I have been struggling to make ever since I first lent an ear to MouseHouseWormHole. Sage Fisher, known on both album and stage as Nadine Mooney (in homage to her late grandmother), possesses that same combination of classical strings and cloying twee-ness attributed to Newsom: evocative tones both hollow and fair, and a voice that all-too-often stretches into the cartoon end of the register. But, where Newsom affects a flat, nasal twinge akin to Springfield’s own Lisa Simpson, Fisher’s voice pops and squeaks like Minnie Mouse—an effect that is further enhanced by the inherent limitations of the dying 8-track cassette on which Fisher herself recorded MouseHouseWormHole.

Though it takes some getting used to—the vocal rounds and high-pitched intonations of introductory track “Important Things” are not the easiest approach vector, so to speak—Fisher’s voice certainly sticks with you, though it’s more haunting than abrasive.

“Poltergeist” sets the general tone for MouseHouseWormHole, a quietly moving tune of dissolution and departure, buoyed by deep guitar chords in contrast to Fisher’s wounded alto. Short and undeniably sweet, “Lovely Day” relates personal intimacy with a fantastic attention to detail, affectionately recounting all those delightfully innocuous things that nevertheless remain with you over time:

“Our hairs mingle with the grass until we can’t tell the difference / … you come home with bits of straw stuck in your hair / and you kiss my eyelashes and it tickles.”

Fourth in line, the airy “How it Feels to Blossom” expands a tiny bit on the heretofore standard approach of picked/strummed guitar and affected (here, doubled) vocals, adding light percussion in the form of a tambourine, plus an overlaid second guitar track. There are some nice gardening and growth metaphors, too, which are well in keeping with the overall natural, roots-y feel of the album. In one instance, Fisher, speaking as a tree, plainly offers perhaps the best line on the album:

“So you ask me how it feels when I blossom / when I bloom / it feels like tiny orgasms all over every single part of me.”

“Funny Box” follows up with a lackluster combination of introductory vocals trailing into a decidedly creepy case of the giggles, all high-pitched and eerily echoing.

For the decidedly low-fi approach to recording exhibited by MouseHouseWormHole (listen for the ringing telephone in the background), “Chaos” displays some subtle multi-track innovations that become all the more apparent the second time around; more on that in a bit.

Next up, “Secret Lobotomy Love Me Forever” takes a turn towards plodding, Shannon Wright-ish somberness, and eventually trails off into the ambient bathwater and ringing guitar of “When Trees Rule the World.” In a seeming response to “Chaos”, where that song spoke of death and decomposition—of “going under / to feed the soil we’ve plundered”—“When Trees Rule the World” takes a sort of return-to-nature view of mankind’s post-apocalyptic existence. It’s a dourly dreamlike tune, to be sure, but damn if Fisher doesn’t set the not-quite-nightmarish mood right-quick:

“I fell asleep / listening to the / lamp on the speaker / I use as a bedside table / he said, ‘God will come back / when trees rule the world / when trees rule the world / then God will come back.’”

“Going Away” and “Eaten” round out the first half of MouseHouseWormHole with more fantastical imagery, beasts and sleeping giants and whatall. Then things get… well, weirder.

You see, the second half of MouseHouseWormHole is simply the entire first half played in reverse. While backmasking is hardly a new idea—kids have been playing albums backwards to listen for "I buried Paul" since the 1960s—it is the first time in memory that doing so is considered required listening, insofar as it is considered necessary enough to physically occupy half of an album.

For the most part, the reverse of MouseHouseWormHole is gibberish, and sounds exactly as one would expect it to: words and notes retreating to silence instead of advancing from it. While it creates some interesting effects (and sounds eerily reminiscent of Dormin from Shadow of the Colossus), it is somewhat limited to elucidating those few segments on the first half of the album that were originally played in reverse—“Soahc” and “Yawa Gniog” in particular. Personally, I would have liked to hear more interplay between standard and reversed tracks; the opposing vocal and instrumental melodies of each version invading the other, with the final effect being that some lyrical sense can be made of them regardless of which way they play.

Maybe next time, eh?

For what it’s worth, Sage Fisher’s album debut as Nadine Mooney is an ambitious effort that makes creative use of intentionally limited resources with occasionally stunning results. Though raw and sometimes overly rough, Fisher’s alto and sparse guitar nevertheless grow on you, and may even provide you with the keys to some fond memories of your own.
Posted by: Tom Körp

Audio Reviews (September 6th, 2008)

Tags: audio, review, nadine mooney, sage fisher, mousehousewormhole, tender loving empire