She Can't Be Serious

Yes, she can, actually. The enigmatic Diamanda Galás returns with four sweeping discs of new material.

Take "Dead Cat on the Line," a blues chestnut about adultery. You can hear the 12-bar original that's buried underneath what Galás has done to it, but all that's really left is the skeleton. Galás dresses up the bones in gruesome flesh; a menacing piano jaunt stands in for the guitar, attempting and perhaps achieving complete transformation of its source, and asserting that this must have been what the song has been meaning to say all this time. While the original's lyrics were spicy, Galás' revisions are gleefully unprintable. Her vocals, naturally, include a hair-raisingly accurate impersonation of a terrified cat. It's burlesque of a sort. Dirty old men, of course, don't need burlesque halls to indulge themselves anymore. Seen in this light, "Dead Cat on the Line" seems a foreboding look at old attitudes toward infidelity, and casts a pall over a now-extinct cultural phenomenon often seen as racy but harmless fun.

What La Serpenta Canta does, then, besides establishing Galás as one of the most underappreciated and greatest divas of her day -- Celine couldn't do what Galás does, but on "At the Dark End of the Street," Galás proves that she could pull off the Celine routine with one hand tied behind her back -- is point toward what's fun and liberating in Galás' craft. The album asks where the darkness is in things that seem light and harmless.

She does a mean Ornette Coleman: Diamanda Galás reinterprets  history -- darkly -- on her new albums.
She does a mean Ornette Coleman: Diamanda Galás reinterprets history -- darkly -- on her new albums.

Defixiones is probably the more important work, but La Serpenta Canta, with its self-absorbed delight in the perverse, may be the better one. It's a contradiction that should please Diamanda Galás, a "serious artist" who's at her best when she's having fun.

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