Perfect Sound Forever

Dear Enemies?

By Kurt Wildermuth (November 2001)

Sometimes I feel like the only person in the world (apart from the musicians' friends and family, I guess) who listens regularly to Dana and Karen Kletter's Dear Enemy, (1998, Rykodisk). The CD seems to have made virtually no impact on the world, but I'm always eager to hear it and pleased when I do. In my home and in my head, it's a classic.

Dana and Karen Kletter are identical twins, and they harmonize in the entwined way only siblings can. Think of the Louvin Brothers, the Everly Brothers, the Roches, and especially Kate and Anna McGarrigle, whose recordings on Hannibal were produced by the label's owner and operator, Joe Boyd. From late '60's production work with Pink Floyd, Soft Machine, and the Incredible String Band, Boyd had gone on to produce major recordings by Fairport Convention, Richard Thompson (with Linda Thompson and solo), Nick Drake, and Maria Muldaur. In the '80's, he'd worked with such "alternative" artists as R.E.M. (on Fables of the Reconstruction), Billy Bragg (Workers Playtime), 10,000 Maniacs (Wishing Chair), and a very-little-known folk-punk trio from North Carolina called Blackgirls--three white women, one of them Dana Kletter. Blackgirls' two releases, Procedure (1989) and Happy (1991), foreshadowed the Kletters' sound, wrapping similar female harmonies in similarly sharp acoustic instrumentation, and seven years later Boyd coaxed Dana and Karen into recording as a duo. In the intervening years, Dana had led Dish, a four-member band from Raleigh, North Carolina, and sung back-up vocals on Hole's Live Through This (1994); Karen had been doing graduate work in medieval history at the University of North Carolina.

A few months after Dear Enemy, was released, the Kletters performed at an intimate room in the basement of New York's Knitting Factory (to an audience of mainly friends and family), and I came away from the show very impressed but not knowing any more about them than those few facts, most of which I culled from the Rykodisk Web site and the All-music Guide. While the comma in the title makes the Kletters' CD an address, an open letter from the sisters to other people or even to each other, I wouldn't presume to read any part of this music biographically--not even with titles like "Father Song" and "Sister Song," and not even when "Sister Song" contains lines like "She's never embraced me and I've never kissed her / affection seems bland when you hate your sister." Because then what to make of the song "Maria Marie," about "the Virgin [Mary] and the Physicist [Curie]," or "Anna O.," about one of Freud's patients, or "Blue Glass," about a "blue glass bottle rising up to the surface"? As the opening song, "We Died in August," makes clear, the Kletters play with metaphors.

The song opens with a mellow piano intro, a few rolling bars that sound familiar, maybe from a coffeehouse somewhere or lite FM. The lyrics, however, are new and strange: "Karen died, she died, she lay down and died / then she stood up and walked into the next room." At first I feel tricked by the surrealism. Is this just a cheesy dream sequence? Or do these events make sense on a metaphorical level, as an illustration of the woman's psychological state? Karen willed herself to die. She was as good as dead:

She complained, maintained the heat undid her brain
but that she meant herself no harm
but Karen lied, she lied, she lay down and died
all day every day she died
And, really, who hasn't been there, done that? A verse later, the territory shifts again, from the depiction of an extreme state to a portrait of the artist at work:
One August Dana was writing
darkness intact, filtered through fans
and the heat rolls on by all night
down one fading vision
But what's Dana working on? This song? The narrative twists are self-consciously writerly, even poetic. In fact, according to the liner notes, portions of this song are "based on the poem Dana in August by Peter Wade Hickman," whoever he is. When the Kletters sing, "It is the past to which revelation goes first / and it is that first passing which is visionary," I have no idea what they mean, but they sing the lines--all their lines--with such purpose and conviction that I forgive the obscurity. When they later sing, in "Beach Song," "we come as summoned / at the end of August," linking this memory of childhood play with the adult dilemmas of "We Died in August," I feel challenged, as though if I listened attentively enough, read between the lines, made the right connections, I might figure out what really happened, however many times, in August. If the words are a puzzle, in other words, they're the kind meant to keep teasing the brain. If they're a confessional outpouring, they're the kind that welcomes in other people, an invitation to vicarious adventure. If they're a private language, they're the kind invented by twins and thus a partial self-portrait. If the portrait is interesting, it's because the twins' voices command attention.

"Oh, the gesture's a device, it makes everything seem nice," they sing in the CD's second track, "Meteor Mom," in which Mom, "as she is bending down to kiss you in her dressing gown," sounds both tender and sinister, inviting and calculating. Where does the truth lie in any of these portraits? Several tracks later, when they cover "Your Mother Wants to Know" by Scrawl (an indie-rock trio led by singer/guitarist Marcy Mays), is this part two of "Meteor Mom"? Or take two? Or has Mom, like Karen, died and left the room, then been replaced by someone else's Mother?

She wants you to like her
So try to forget it
And she's sorry for all the years
What happened to you when you were a kid
While Scrawl's version (on 1994's Velvet Hammer, produced by Steve Albini with pretty much the same attack he brought to Nirvana's In Utero the previous year) puts the pain up front, undisguised and even highlighted by guitar, bass, and drums, the Kletters' recording puts the pain in a bed of piano, guitars, cello, drums, banjo, and lute. In addition to bass, violin, and mandolin, that's the CD's basic instrumentation, which varies from song to song and at times, as at the start, gets stripped to just piano. Throughout, Boyd's production is a model of clarity and simplicity; the sound is both spare and rich. Appalachian folk music crosses the border into art song, as the playing gathers in waves that flow, swirl, part, rise up, and fall, shaped by the lyrics and melody they're accompanying. It could all--the sister act, the crypticism, the cross-references that suggest "song cycle," the sophisticated plucking and strumming--have ended up precious, even pretentious, but the Kletters' willingness to take that risk makes their work all the more valuable. It's a high-wire act performed on sure feet, a perfectly satisfying artistic statement that keeps raising questions: Who are these people? Where did this music come from? What does it mean? And will they ever make more of it? On the one hand, I'd love to hear the follow-up; on the other, I'm happy to have this one beautiful, isolated artifact.

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