Amy X Neuburg – The Secret Language of Subways – MinMax

by | Nov 18, 2009 | Classical CD Reviews | 0 comments

Amy X Neuburg – The Secret Language of Subways – MinMax MM 017, 61:18 ****:

(Amy X Neuburg – vocals, electronics, drums, co-producer; The Cello ChiXtet: Elizabeth Vandervennet, Elaine Kreston and Jessica Ivry)

There is something fascinating about subways that affect artists who have written poems, sung songs and made films concerning aboveground and underground mass transit systems. Maybe it is the sense of intimacy crossed with the dissociation between fellow passengers: the understanding that we rub elbows as we ride packed like sardines, but rarely engage or communicate with each other. Or perhaps there is the awareness of people’s lives and self-stories briefly converging, a loose narrative that changes every time the doors open and close.

Oakland-based composer/singer Amy X Neuburg’s newest song cycle, The Secret Language of Subways, uses rapid transit trains and the journey from destination A to station B as a stepping-off point to examine larger issues such as commitment and conflict. The thirteen tracks teeter and admirably balance between avantgarde, performance art, pop sensibilities and contemporary classical. For want of a better simile, its like Laurie Anderson joining up with Philip Glass or Annie Sofie Von Otter collaborating with Steve Reich, who is another musician who has created a memorable undertaking focused on the rails.

While Neuburg’s four-octave voice and the stylistically diversified Cello ChiXtet trio of Elizabeth Vandervennet, Elaine Kreston and Jessica Ivry provide a stable classical bedrock, its Neuburg’s application of electronics and multi-layered lyrics that capture the imagination and captivate the listener.

The hour-long program starts with "One Lie," a meditative tone-poem, set in Neuburg’s bathroom, that is laminated by a cappella singing, ambient effects and strings. As Neuburg reflects on how a single deception can cause uncontrollable personal destruction, her exposition converts from confidential to discordant. From there, Neuburg moves from apartment to subway, train and airplane with the subtly paranoiac "The Closing Doors," fronted by a minimalist cello cadenza/ostinato that echoes or plays in unison with Neuburg’s voice. By the time the record ends, Neuburg sketches a pathway from tenement bedroom (the urban nightmares that infuse "Someone Else’s Sleep") to fast-paced city street (the mocking "Difficult") and to displaced relationships (the kiss-off disclosure "Hey," where a pet replaces a rejected boyfriend). Each separate track is three-dimensional and singular and yet comfortably rests within the overriding song cycle.

Throughout the album, Neuburg takes full advantage of the cello’s myriad tonal qualities, and it is easy to hear why the instrument’s expressive characteristic, ample pitch range and dramatic attributes became the fulcrum for Neuburg’s two-years-in-the-making project. During the rock-oriented "Body Parts" Neuburg molds digital noises with violins distorted by effects pedals so the instrumental elements add a visceral rhythmic seasoning that matches Neuberg’s  verbal cadence. On the flip side, the cello trio performs with sympathetic accessibility as a pop-tinted threesome on "Back in NYC," a post-modern translation of the Peter Gabriel-era Genesis track found on the art-rockers’ 1974 conceptual endeavor The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. The disturbing tale that touches on arson, rape, and drug abuse is juxtaposed by the song’s stately grace.

Neuburg often overdubs her voice or otherwise creates multiple or overlaid vocals, which is best experienced on the most effective piece, the subdued pop cut "Shrapnel," an emotionally affecting examination on the ineffectual attempts to sweep away tenacious doubts and regrets.

The Secret Language of Subways
is an ambitious enterprise heightened by the seemingly disconnected but linked twists and turns of Neuburg’s thoughts and ideas, the tragedy and comedy of personal events both autobiographical and fictitious, and an overflow of auditory input that parallels what New York itself is like. Complexity abounds but Neuburg manages to make each intricate and enigmatic moment approachable.

The production is exactingly recorded. The voices and strings are rich and resonant and Neuburg’s vocals have articulate vibrancy while the cellos lose none of their natural timbres. Despite instances of dissonance and friction, listeners can increase the volume without any reservations related to distortion or sudden acoustic surprises.


1. One Lie
2. Closing Doors
3. Difficult
4. Tongues
5. Someone Else’s Sleep
6. The Gooseneck
7. This Loud
8. Be Careful
9. Body Parts
10. Dada Exhibit
11. Hey
12. Shrapnel
13. Back in NYC

— Doug Simpson