VIDEO: His Name Is Alive, "Come to Me" (from Xmmer)
In 2006, His Name Is Alive songwriter/guitarist/recording whiz Warn (once “Warren”) Defever used a modest arts grant to hold a “peace conference” in New York City. Called “Come Out the Wilderness,” the proceedings included one “normal” HNIA show (though there’s really no such thing), an orchestral performance, a noontime meditation session in a Brooklyn park, and a come-one-come-all midnight jam. Not exactly Yalta, but the event’s mixture of pretense, play, and utopian hope sheds light on the wellsprings of Defever’s surprising recent music.
The title “Come Out the Wilderness” — shared by a James Baldwin short story and a memoir by poet Estella Conwill Majozo — resurfaces on HNIA’s Xmmer (BMG/Silver Mountain). The album isn’t a massive swerve from 2006’s Detrola, the band’s first with singer Andrea Morici, but listeners who haven’t checked in since HNIA’s gauzy ’90s records for 4AD, or the more recent trip-hop ventures, may be shocked. Much of Xmmer is a non-æthereal collocation of earthy percussion and elements of folk and pre-war blues. “Come Out the Wilderness” itself moves through a half-chanted tune, simple as a field holler, a long breakdown on the words “your light,” and a gentler out-chorus, all built on anxious martial snare and statically riffing guitars. The lyrics are less protest than plea: “Can’t you hear me calling out/Lord I think it’s time.”
This is a restless album: “Come to Me” touches on Afrobeat, whereas Apples in Stereo could have penned “Go to Hell Mountain.” The constants are Defever’s multi-instrumental gifts — he’s the meanest electric-thumb-pianist this side of Konono Nº 1 — and Morici’s pretty but chilly vocals, HNIA’s vestigial tie to indie rock. The best tracks worry the seam between her disengagement and his troubling, increasingly politicized lyrics. However it’s sung, the line “What did you see/Miss Eliza Jane?” sounds less quaint when you learn that the song (“What Color Was the Blood”) concerns a violent mass arrest in Eliza Howell Park, a perennial drug meet in Defever’s beloved Detroit.
Sweet Earth Flower (High Two), released just weeks after Xmmer, mines an even less expected source. It’s subtitled “A Tribute to Marion Brown,” and the selections originate with post-bop, pre-free altoist Brown, who’s widely known as a sideman with Archie Shepp (Fire Music) and John Coltrane (Ascension) but undersung as a bandleader/composer. Brown once wrote, “I don’t play about Religion, or the Universe, or Love. . . . I don’t play words,” but his ’60s and ’70s work has more to do with Trane’s spirituality than with Shepp’s rage. His playing has a self-reflexive reserve that helps explain his cult status — his music can be a hard sell to listeners seeking expressive catharsis.
Open-eared rockers often pay lip service to outré jazz figures, but this HNIA exploration is deeper and more selfless than the usual soundboy dabbling. Morici is absent, Defever’s guitar is mostly sidelined in favor of electric piano and congas, and the ad hoc band line-up includes most of Detroit compatriots Nomo. Elliot Bergman (tenor), Michael Herbst (alto), and Justin Walter (trumpet) ably extrapolate from Brown’s contemplative, sometimes pastoral written heads. (Herbst shines on “Bismilahi ’Rrahmani ’Rrahim,” a 1978 Harold Budd piece that featured Brown.)
Not everything works: the rhythm section falters on occasion, and several cuts (“Juba-Lee,” “November Cotton Flower”) are shorter and less exploratory than their models. Although one misses the disciplined inventiveness of dedicated jazz players, the ensemble is empathetic and respectful. Sweet Earth Flower argues for something Defever would surely like to believe: whenever people gather to play music as searching and uncynical as Brown’s, it’s always a peace conference.