United States Live by Laurie Anderson – selected by Sonic Boom

This is kind of the proverbial hot date of records. It’s smart, charming, witty and great. It’s also five LPs, making it perfect for solo listening. It definitely demands your attention, but rewards endlessly too, taking you artfully through different vibes and feelings and emotions.

The album, from 1984, is a recording of Laurie’s live show circa her hit Big Science album. All of that LP is included in this set, but is augmented by almost three hours of further songs and pieces – some arguably better than anything on Big Science. ‘The Big Top’, for example, her witty retelling of a Buckminster Fuller story, sounds reasonable in its original telling, but enters a star-gate otherworldliness in Anderson’s grip.

‘I Dreamed I Had To Take A Test…’, entrancing and psychedelic, finally ends up delivering the finale as a big joke; multi-layered media and meaning, all in one song, simultaneously and symbiotically.

There is an unusual German word, gesamtkunstwerk, meaning ‘containing all arts’, and this record might be one of the deepest in that rare multi-media category. As if the unique instrumentation, media, visuals and films weren’t enough, she would also perform the whole show in French when in France, or German in Germany, rather than its original English version. 

The LP is a tour de force of media, the original self-designed ‘instruments’ like the tape bow violin – a violin with a tape head at the bridge instead of strings, and a strip of tape on the bow instead of horse hair – allowing her to edit and play and modulate the recorded tape phrase, in bursts, in full, bouncing forwards or backwards as she sees fit. Crazy concept, brilliant content.

On ‘Small Voice’ she puts a recording of herself through a tiny speaker inside her mouth in order to re-articulate the words. In fact, most of the tracks employ some vocal trickery, with harmonizers, pitch shifters and vocoders all utilised in different ways to extend the scope of the vocal possibilities.

On ‘Reverb’ she plays percussion on her cranium via a pair of glasses with contact mics in the arms. Regardless of what might seem visual gimmicks, the songs and spoken word stand up by themselves, but it’s clear from the photos and stage plot diagrams on the sleeves that this was all round a thoroughly great show. 

There are also perfect versions of the Big Science highlights – ‘Let X=X’, ‘Walking And Falling’, ‘O Superman’ – but it’s the clusters of tracks like ‘Private Property’/‘Neon Duet’/‘Let X=X’ that really take this somewhere really special.

A very special and unique record from a lady who has been a big influence on my new record All Things Being Equal, as she was on my work with Spacemen 3. Her music has been an inspiration and a wonder and I can heartily recommend it for a nice night home alone.