Finding light at the end of a subway tunnel

AMY X

My first exposure to Amy X Neuburg (please no period after the X!), the San Francisco-based avant-cabaret singer-percussionist, came at NYC’s Symphony Space during the 2003 Bang on a Can Marathon. She did a riveting set of live-looped, manipulated vocals and percussion that left a strong impression on me. Unlike so many singers who emphasize such vocal manipulation, Amy demonstrated from the first note that she had a strong voice. She wasn’t using her electronics as a crutch for a weak vocal instrument, but as a way to express her art and enhance a beautiful natural instrument.

In a chat after her performance, I talked to Amy about her voice, and she explained that she had operatic vocal training, but her art led her in a different direction.

Amy has always gone her own way. In the Nineties she mined a pop vein with her Amy X Neuburg and Men ensemble, then stuck mostly with solo cabaret-style performance in subsequent years, turning out beautiful recordings like Six Little Stains in 2003 and Residue the following year.

Her wonderfully inventive mind and obvious love of all sort of musical styles makes her a delight to hear and see, but a bit of a marketing challenge. Is her act cabaret, musical theater, performance art, contemporary classical? The labels don’t really matter. She’s a massive talent whose work is always fresh and entertaining.

Amy, who rocks a vintage Lisa Loeb-ish look, is back with an ensemble on The Secret Language of Subways. This time it’s Amy X Neuburg & The Cello ChiXtet, a trio of female cellists. With its blending of her voice, electronics and the full range of the cellos — which may well be the most expressive string instruments around — TSLOS is Amy’s best work yet. The 13-song cycle works well as a story arc —  a sort of unstaged musical — but the indivdual songs are so finely crafted and tuneful that they can  stand on their own quite well.

Amy says the project grew out of her love for the “expressive voice-like quality, enormous pitch range and dramatic look of the cello — I felt I had found a sort of instrumental kindred spirit to my own voice.”

Amy X Neuburg

Amy X Neuburg

Many of the numbers, like the fevered dream examination Someone Else’s Sleep and Body Parts, would be perfectly at home on a Broadway stage, while others of it sounds like the results of a workshop with Laurie Anderson (The Gooseneck) or a jam session with Czech avant garde violinist-singer Iva Bittová (Tongues, which features spiky strings and vocal yelping so identifiable with Iva).

While the ostensible theme here is the subway — Closing Doors pays direct tribute to the idea, while her encore, the Genesis classic Back In NYC, starts with recorded sounds of the subway — relationship troubles infuse a number of the songs. In Shrapnel, the catchiest and most memorable track, Amy layers her vocal loops against a subtle cello backdrop in a tale of the lies in a relationship: “The last lie was effortless, different from the first, she had arranged to have her feelings never take her by surprise.” Hey sounds like a breakup song set to a remarkably jolly tune.

“I conceived most of these songs while sitting on the subway during a three-year period when I lived part time in New York,” says Amy. She was “inspired by the rhythmic lull of the train, the fragmented meanderings of my thoughts, the dramas of recent world and personal events, and the deluge of sensory input that is New York itself.”

While her new recording may have been inspired by NYC, it doesn’t look like she’s going to be playing them live in NYC anytime soon. Amy’s schedule is keeping her out west for the rest of this year, with a performance in Nevada later this month, Berkeley, Calif., next month, and in Los Angeles with the LA Philharmonic in November.

Schedules do have a way of changing, though, so be sure to check out Amy’s MySpace page for updates and samples of her music.

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