Queer Songbook Orchestra Anthems and Icons
Published Jun 18, 2018Queer aesthetics claim space through the sidelong glance, and the slightly too long stare. Often they rework a canon in order to make space. This obliqueness means, until very recently, the editor or arranger are as important as the performer.
The Queer Songbook Orchestra album Anthems and Icons understands this ethos; it's full of oblique readings, wry historical reworkings and deep fondness. It can be seen in their swooning, torch song loveliness of k.d. lang's "Constant Craving," swapping earnestness for irony and camp for po-faced rigour, reminding us of lang's capability for both. It does similar things with a reworking of jazz standard "Lush Life," making the queer composer and arranger of the song, Billy Strayhorn, come out from behind the bandstand. These are familiar tracks, though.
Sometimes the familiar becomes systematically estranged. Their arrangement of Melissa Etheridge's "Come to My Window" has an anxious, sinuous edge. It's hungrier and scarier than the source's basic blues. Like Etheridge, the claiming of a queer heritage here can be very explicit — like the version of Joe Meek's "Telstar." Meek's producing and technological interventions from the early '60s have become a touchstone for a certain kind of queer aesthetic. Knowing Meek's influence is an insider trick — similar to the foregrounding of Strayhorn.
This question of what to foreground is the album's central anxiety. Their arrangement of Anne Murray's "Snowbird" (an anthem by an icon) is cold, isolating and formal. Is it because Murray is a beloved lesbian icon (see k.d. lang introducing her at the 1993 Junos), or because of the rumours that surround her sexuality? In a similar vein is Rita MacNeil's "We'll Reach the Sky Tonight," because of MacNeil's origins as a singer of women's folk music in the '70s, or because of a question of audience? It's a gorgeous rendition, lusher and more friendly than some other formal choices on the album, but it would take herculean effort to make MacNeil seem hostile.
Every time someone makes a canon, one wonders what is included, and how it is included — queer listeners need the version of "Snowbird" here, and that we need to talk about what it means to love MacNeil, but do we need "Constant Craving" again, no matter how iconic that song is?
That said, this is an act of masterful remembering, a tightrope walk of nostalgia and a critique of the same, and an act of slippery, liquid desire — an attempt to estrange that which was familiar.
*Editor's note: An earlier version of this review misstated a connection between Billy Strayhorn and Duke Ellington. (Independent)