The first piece, “Alone,” is presented with a nice reading by Marianne Faithfull though for some reason it is accompanied by steel drums playing softly in the background, the sound of birds, waves, then at the end an unexplained explosion. It's a happy sound placed against a poem of intense isolation and the effect is jarring, but not illuminating. She takes another whack at "Annabel Lee" on disc two, provided only with angelic synthesizer backup and the effect is far more stirring.
Christopher Walken's "The Raven" allows the indie film lunatic/oddball to strut his stuff; while this one too is encumbered by various sound effects here they are played to much better purpose. The reverberating "caw" of the bird decorously croaks, though the fuzzy electric guitar laid down behind Walken's words jars.
“The Tell-Tale Heart” is presented with a tic-tocky music in the background, though the reader, Iggy Pop, tales it out in a flat monotone barely registering any emotion for most of the story. When he does let loose, it's a bit overly dramatic and unconvincing. His deep, warm voice has an excellent timbre for reading. If only he had more skill in it.
Ken Nordine's "Conqueror Worm" is absolutely a piece of beauty. Why someone with such a deep, dark, villainous voice would only be tapped to do one little short poem is a mystery. I'd have gladly sat through several hours of his readings. I’d have gladly offered him a contract for the complete works if such clout were mine.
Diamanda Galás has a perfect voice for reading Poe as well, an organ resembling Eartha Kitt’s, which gives her “Black Cat” an amusing, almost metatextual quality. Her crypt of a throat lets a creak and whisper slither out, a haunting harp accompanying her faintly in the background. The alternating harp and violins gives the story an old movie vibe. I see the actions described as if in black and white. She does milk things a bit, dragging out the story. Then at the book's climactic turn, Galas suddenly gets loud but wooden, the obviousness of her reading blatantly apparent. She tries to pull out of this nosedive by going down to her patented throaty whisper, but the mask has slipped, the spell broken.
Gavin Friday's "For Annie" is a breathy whisper at times and a croak in his mellifluous phonation. He is accompanied by a barely audible crowd of voices in the background chanting some litany that heightens the eerieness of the poem.
Ed Sanders’ two renditions of Poe poems as songs are best simply skipped. They're goofy exhibitions of a misguided theoretical notion ("poems are just songs without music") taken to its logical, problematic, embarrassing end. My god, why the producers didn't just quickly and quietly record a couple short pieces by someone else and give Ed the gentle brush off ("There's really no room left, Ed, sorry.") I can't imagine.
I include the lyrics to "Haunted Palace" below to give you an idea. Just imagine this done with guitars and a pounding beat. It's hideous.
In the greenest of our valleys
By good angels tenanted,
Once a fair and stately palace —
Snow-white palace — reared its head.
In the monarch thought's dominion —
It stood there!
Never Seraph spread his pinion
Over fabric half so fair.
Banners yellow, glorious, golden,
On its roof did float and flow —
This — all this — was in the olden
Time long ago —
And every gentle air that dallied,
In that sweet day,
Along the rampart plumed and pallid,
A winged odour went away.
All wanderers in that happy valley,
Through two luminous windows saw
Spirits moving musically
To a lute's well tuned law,
Round about a throne where sitting
In state his glory well befitting,
The sovereign of the realm was seen.
And all with pearl and ruby glowing
Was the fair palace door ;
Through which came flowing, flowing, flowing,
And sparkling evermore,
A troop of echoes, whose sweet duty
Was but to sing
In voices of surpassing beauty,
The wit and wisdom of their king.
But evil things in robes of sorrow,
Assailed the monarch's high estate!
Ah, let us mourn — for never morrow
Shall dawn upon him desolate!
And round about his home the glory,
That blushed and bloomed,
Is but a dim-remembered story
Of the old time entombed.
And travellers now within that valley,
Through the red-litten windows, see
Vast forms that move fantastically
To a discordant melody;
While, like a rapid ghastly river,
Through the pale door;
A hideous throng rush out forever,
And laugh — but smile no more.
There are just no good ways you can rock out and shout "Porphyrogene!"
Dr. John's New Orleans accented voice mumbles its way unmovingly through "Berenice." One can only imagine they gave this piece to the southerner as it deals with a love obsession among cousins. If you wanted to convince people that Poe was boring, letting a man unable to modulate his voice appropriately to connect the clauses of long archaic sentences read a drawn-out story is one way of going about it. Dr. John rambles on and by the time he reaches a full stop, it's impossible to tell what the sentence's subject or point was. There are few breaks between sentences given long enough pausing to distinguish each full thought.
Debbie Harry fails in her track for the same reason Ed Sanders does. Modern music just can’t carry the water for Poe's antiquated phrasings — at least not on this CD. And so her singing of "City and the Sea" turns into another barely listenable exercise in wishing a two-disc set had been pared down to one. There were points while she howled the lyrics and obscured whatever words she might have been trying to impart. The backup music changes styles and tempos repeatedly, trying to complicate and intellectually improve what's just simply a truly bad idea. Having background singers chant "Death looks down, gigantically down" isn't a listening experience you want. By the track's end, I had lost whatever the words were to the piece, was this a story poem, an evocation, a reminisce? Who the fuck knew.
Had they wanted someone to make Poe's poems into haunting songs, the producers only need have gotten Tom Waits on the phone. If anyone could accomplish such a task, it would be he.
Gabriel Byrne does "The Masque of the Red Death" total justice, backed up with chamber music, as is fitting. More like this please. This would have been a perfect place to end the album. On a high note like this why ruin it? I’d eagerly seek out a whole disc of Byrne’s renditions of Poe’s work and am checking my library once this is posted to see if he’s done much audiobook work. As an actor, he can be effortlessly brilliant (see Miller’s Crossing and The Usual Suspects) or he can bring a touch of class to some real stinkers. Between him and Nordine, you could have had an album of surpassing perfection.
But, just as Paul McCartney would spoil the end of Abbey Road with his (admittedly catchy) “Her Majesty,” Closed ends with a strange, middle-of-the-reading snippet of “The Raven” being read in hipster style by Abel Ferrara. It’s a weird end to a hit and miss CD like this, the baseball equivalent of the last batter whiffing. Why bother?