Friday, October 21, 2011

Exotic Medicine: The Music of Happy Clinic

The proprietor of Balkans via Bohemia has -- at various times in his life -- lived the expat life to the hilt.

One very rarely enters into that life with bad intentions. Indeed, one's good intentions are an almost necessary portal. Curiosity. Desire to help. The journalist's urge to tell a good story. These are often the first steps on a slippery slope. A road to excess that ends in a palace of wisdom.

Writer musician and philosopher Stefan Sullivan has taken a few rooms in this palace over the years -- from London to Paris to Moscow to Bangkok and on to Washington, D.C. Perhaps that's why I'm so taken with his collaboration with veteran Berlin drummer and Tiger Lillies soundman, Claus Buehler in the ensemble Happy Clinic. The duo's first record, Memory Mound, is a Baedeker to the dark underbelly of the expatriate life: the sex, the drugs, the alcohol, the hipsterish intellectual wisecracking and the deep loneliness.

That Happy Clinic transforms this familiar territory into terrain that is strange and dangerous is the magic of Memory Mound. The secret is the unflinching and uncompromising eye that Sullivan has for the ugliness and absurdities of the expat life -- married to a powerful and percussive sound built on beats and loops. It's a record that never stoops to sentimentalize. Just check out the way the derangement of the music hall player piano vibe on "Chickity Black" so perfectly aligns with the lyrics' celebration of a "joys of uncensored leisure." Or the way that the music of "Lokomotiv" lurches and grinds to Sullivan's spoken-sung scat of debauchery and a life in "liquid ruins." (And the video for "Lokomotiv" is a delirious and wonderful bit of animated naughtiness.")

There's a way in which the vision of the exile is privileged. Everything is strange and worthy of notice. Things taken for granted by natives grow outsized or even demonic. And the expat can also be a poison -- a species let loose in an ecosystem which chews up and destroys the native habitat. This double vision is the lens through which Happy Clinic sees the world -- the hideous Bangkok of "Belly x 2"(with a squonking harmonica by Scott Albert Johnson), the unspecified darkness of "Ocean Too Deep," in which sex is the spark that gives no warmth, or the punishing self-loathing of the record's title track.

In his poem "Skunk Hour," Robert Lowell wrote "I myself am hell/nobody's here..." It's a revelation that greets any exile in the mirror after a few months of the expat life. Exiles necessarily feed upon the richness or poverty of their own inner resources -- and seek sensation to distract and deny that loneliness. On Memory Mound, Sullivan and Buehler have created a rich portrait of that emotional poverty and the self-hustle that sin and stimulation can fill it up.

More about Happy Clinic and Memory Mound at the duo's website.
Buy Memory Mound here.

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