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Ann Margaret Hogan: 'Funeral Cargo' review

Funeral Cargo is Ann Margaret Hogan’s second piano and field recording album. It is a distinctly contrasting companion to last year’s Honeysuckle Burials. What the latter took from the inland rural hush and disquiet of the Celtic Clwydian Range, Funeral Cargo peaceably lays the smouldering tumuli out onto sea from the Merseyside coast. During the first lockdown of 2020, Hogan drew inspiration from the Norse settlor remains and reminders situated in the Wirral.

The fire of the ancient burial mound crackles and fizzes on the title track. It lurches with the might of Nick Cave’s Bad Seeds rendering a Presley classic, or stumbling in a Soho jazz bar as a Willing Sinner. Hogan has the depth of an artist that only the broad range of a conspicuous collaborator such as her can display. The elegiac two-parter ‘Returns’ twists with a Hoganesque melody that would happily turns Mamba tricks in a backstreet Barcelona bar. That melody and the rapid fade outs of several tracks on Cargo (and Burials) perhaps nod to impassioned European divas such as Elis Regina and Ornella Vanoni. These archetypes of music and voice would later be queered to such great effect by Hogan and Almond in La Magia at the close of the 1980s. But there’s no room for nostalgia in this set.

On this album, Hogan stares out at the endless ocean horizon by conversely going back even further. By reaching out to Barry, Legrand and Satie, Hogan casts out the fires of memory into the capture of chill waters, breathing in the grey mists of the Mersey docks. ‘Forgotten Prelude’ opens the fireblood red vinyl album with a Downwards cycle of dissonant optimism, harmonically recalling music scores of half-forgotten films. Hogan’s ‘Mesto’ is a film noir soundtrack in short form, gentle tonal stones suspended in the waters of chordal pools. It is perhaps the album’s centerpiece ‘Wolfswalzer’ though that most effortlessly demonstrates the understated range of Ann Margaret Hogan. Had Erik Satie written an eighth Gnossienne, ‘Wolfswalzer’ would be Hogan as Tom Waits on the piano in a near deserted Nighthawks at the Diner.

Gnossiennes reject time signature. Loose senselessness of temporalities pervades the 36-minutes of Funeral Cargo. It is Hogan’s magic of perception. The power and spell here is introvert quiet, yet the production lines are drawn to note each note as loud. Through shimmering pianissimo and sustain pedal, every hammer strikes inwardly and speaks of itself. The New York mastering of Funeral Cargo by Minimal Wave’s Veronika Vasicka posits the listener as the piano’s player. We don’t so much hear as feel the press of the keys as if we were the player in the acoustic glow of Hogan’s Studio Blue. The audio intimacy of Vasicka’s engineering is reminiscent of Philip Thomas’ exquisite 2019 5-CD box set of Morton Feldman’s piano works. Thomas notes how ‘the listener is somehow snuggled inside the body of the instrument’. In the opening half of ‘Returns’, Hogan gently plucks the insides of her baby grand. The strings resonate just above your head.

There’s an apocryphal story suited to the TED talk age. It runs along the lines of Picasso dashing off a drawing in a few minutes on a diner’s napkin, then asking for $10,000 dollars. The artist claims that the sketch took forty years to realise, not just the few minutes for him to make. In Funeral Cargo, there’s a highly deceptive simplicity in Hogan’s piano style that belies its complexity. As ‘Fragile Elements’ exemplifies, what first may appear as singular two-handed parts has a third voice. Hogan’s deft use of the piano’s pedals builds layers, implying counterpoint via harmonics.

The $10,000 dollars’ worth of this album, and its 2020 predecessor Honeysuckle Burials, is the mature assurance of this composer-performer. Ann Margaret Hogan is the arc spanning from post-punk to the meditative plaintive craft of Sarah Davachi today. While parallels here may be drawn to post-punk peer Virginia Astley, Hogan’s interlinked pastoral albums are sparse in their use of field recordings. In Astley’s seminal 1983 album From Gardens Where We Feel Secure, the Oxfordshire sounds of church bells and bird song are equal measure to acoustic instruments. But the latter-day forbearance of Hogan is sparse in approach and startling in effect, the handful of found sounds being a few blackbird songs and raven calls bookending the sublime ‘Impromptu’.

That, in essence, its maturity, is the undoubted success of this album. That what does not need to be said is there. The distillation of atmosphere summoning Vikings of the North West coast, the breezes of the Atlantic, nature’s wonder and life’s cyclical seasons. Funeral Cargo achieves equilibrium of fire and water. Stillness is its strength, and the composite album is a standalone eight-part suite evoking inner tranquillity. This is Hogan’s Peace Piece with the world.

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