Sing Away Sorrow may be subtitled A Study in Modular Synthesis Vol. 1, but don’t be fooled; there is more here than the title indicates. The tape may start with theremin-like tones, but by the time it ends, the artist has wandered out of the airlock and fallen onto fields owned by The Haxan Cloak and The Caretaker. One can imagine them chasing him with pitchforks while he wields an unwilling laser gun.
So yes, please enjoy that first track, “Outer Space Music for Bebe-1956”, a reference to the classic movie Forbidden Planet. This is exactly what one might expect from the subtitle. Robby the Robot would be proud, waving his forklike fingers in admiration. Lights blink on and off while mechanical devices beep; the artist savors his vacuum-packed lunch. A warning tone sounds in the distance; time to pack it in.
Now that a note of foreboding has been introduced, Johnny Kember is free to enjoy darker territory, which should come as no surprise given his involvement in such projects as Brothers Pus and Beepus Christ. (Hint: these are not new age bands.) The surprise is instead the richness of timbre, first apparent at 1:42 of “Ballroom Dance”, when an orchestrated loop begins to play, accompanied by insistent tones and beeps. This is where that reference to The Caretaker comes into play, especially earlier works that referenced The Shining. But where Leyland Kirby often holds back, Kember surges forward, his drones nearly overwhelming the strings. And it doesn’t end there; a few minutes later, the song turns choral, then descends into near-silence and reemerges as an electronic thundercloud. But wait, there’s more: cue a subdued trumpet, a distant radio, a voice attempting to sing away sorrow in the midst of static: a discharge from a distant generation. And these are the short tracks.
“Golden Girl” and “Grief”, at 22 and 23 minutes, demonstrate the potential of the extended form. All too often we find artists stretching their ideas like taffy, hoping to fill a sonic void. Kember does the opposite, shoehorning ideas into spaces that seem almost too small. As each track tumbles section into section, one realizes that each could have been broken into components, but that such a decision would have shortchanged the sound. These songs draw listeners into phantasmagorical worlds, like playgrounds with no exits. The deep bass and choral inflections of “Golden Girl” balance each other out: the low and the high, the carnal and the holy. The tension honors the cover painting by asking, “Once morbidity is removed, can darkness still be a comfort?”
The fractured trumpet returns at the halfway mark, along with a forlorn voice that struggles to sing the word “baby”. This is your grandfather’s music, but it’s also not your grandfather’s music. You probably shouldn’t play it for him. While beautiful shadows surely existed back then, they weren’t celebrated as they are now. People kept their dark thoughts to themselves. This is the beauty of Sing Away Sorrow: we live in a time when we can appreciate light and dark without being afraid. Kember sings away sorrow with sorrow, two negatives multiplied to make a positive; this cassette is all the more lovely as a result. (Richard Allen)