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Cindy Lee, "Act of Tenderness"

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cover imageA month ago, I had absolutely no idea who Patrick Flegel was, but the buzz surrounding Superior Viaduct's Cindy Lee reissue series piqued my interest and Flegel quickly became one of my new favorite people.  In a past life, Flegel was the frontman of Canadian indie-rock band Women, who famously imploded in a Halloween-costumed, guitar-smashing onstage meltdown in 2010.  Soon afterwards, Flegel began dressing in drag and his "diva alter-ego" Cindy Lee was born.  Sometimes a full band, sometimes a solo act, Cindy Lee has a strikingly guileless, idiosyncratic, and oft-disturbing aesthetic that almost feels like outsider art.  On Act of Tenderness, Flegel's vision focuses primarily on intimately and eerily channeling '60s girl-group pop through a hissing and hallucinatory fog of melancholy.  Some songs certainly work better than others, but when Cindy hits the mark, it feels like a memory-haunted chanteuse has stepped directly out of David Lynch's imagination and become actual flesh and blood.

Superior Viaduct/W. 25th/Maple Death

I was lured into Act of Tenderness by the tender and hauntingly lovely would-be single "Power and Possession" (as well as the deliciously weird cover art), but I was truly and wonderfully unprepared for the depth and intensity of Flegel's commitment to his alternate persona.  While there are a couple of other gorgeously eerie pop confections hidden amidst these twelve songs, the album as a whole resembles a fractured and lysergic series of glimpses into a complex, lonely, and darkness-shrouded life.  As such, it is much more than an album.  Flegel has essentially created an entire life and it is quite a complex and compelling one: Act of Tenderness feels like the disjointed audio diary of a tormented pop genius in a fog of pain-killers slowly losing her mind in a series of depressing motel rooms.  Not every day is bad though, even if it seems like Cindy has been extremely unlucky in love.  In her better moods, Cindy conjures up songs like the aforementioned "Power and Possession," which is an understated and swooningly beautiful swirl of heartbreaking melodies, ghostly swathes of backing vocals, and a few simple chords.  Also: plenty of hiss and reverb.  Normally, I have a bit of a hostile attitude towards vocalists who always blur their vocals into oblivion with effects, but Flegel is a striking exception, as the hazy lo-fi aesthetic is pitch-perfect for this project: it feels like Lee is always singing her heavenly, heartfelt songs into a crappy tape deck alone in her room and all the veil of hiss and murk makes it all feel like a bleary half-dream.  That unsettling feeling of being inside a flickering and precarious dream is further heightened by some of the album's distinctly non-pop moments, like "New Romance" and "Quit Doing Me Wrong," both of which sound troublingly broken and wrong.  "New Romance" in particular is especially unnerving, as it sounds like Cindy is blissfully and obliviously recording a sweet and sincere vocal track over blown-out, gnarled chaos and squalls of feedback, far too fucked-up to ever notice that all the levels are completely wrong and that the "song" is a flaming wreck.

As disturbed-sounding as it is, however, "New Romance" still has the ghost of a pop song at its core.  The shrieking, strangled, and visceral nightmare of "Bonsai Garden," on the other hand, sounds like a full-on psychotic meltdown that would feel confrontational even by Throbbing Gristle standards.  "Miracle of the Rose" is similarly bananas, resembling a very cool and ritualistic Eastern-influenced psych-rock jam…but with all of the guitars cranked up and layered into an oceanic roar of grinding horror.  Those two incredibly striking pieces also illustrate something else quite fascinating about Act of Tenderness: Cindy seems quite fond of The East and also seems to occasionally dissociate from her persona entirely (Cindy the diva would not be particularly into menacingly noisy psychedelia, nor would she ever sing in such a low, male-sounding voice).  Some of the other notable tears in Cindy's precarious, kimono-clad reality are considerably less hostile though, as "Operation" sounds like a hypnagogic New Wave hit, while the opening title piece songs like a ravaged 78 of an anachronistic torch song that could have been recorded in 1930s Singapore or Morocco.  Even the poppiest moments can be quite bizarre, however, as "What I Need" sounds like girl-group pop played with gloopy analog synthesizers and somnambulantly sung through a malfunctioning microphone.  One of Flegel's truly inspired twists on Act of Tenderness is that almost everything is disorientingly "off" in some way or steeped in some kind of vague dread, yet he continually finds new ways for that wrongness to creep into his work.  His greatest moment is probably the deeply sensuous and sexy "The Last Train's Come and Gone," which takes a wonderfully languorous groove and a gorgeous guitar hook and marries them to a vaguely Asian melody and an increasingly haunted-sounding backdrop (it sounds a ghoulishly pitch-shifted, spectral, and distressed tape of a Phil Spector-style wall of sound).

Notably, if I had written about this album a few weeks ago, I probably would have probably written a very different review: my initial impression was that Flegel had written a handful of achingly lovely pop songs, then padded out the rest of the album with noisy, lo-fi filler.  After essentially living inside this album for the last week, however, I now grasp that the uglier and harsher moments are an absolutely integral part of a rather brilliant artistic vision.  The pop songs are certainly great, but a full album of them would be a cavalcade of pretty pastiches rather than what Act of Tenderness actually is: a wildly experimental and disturbing plunge into an absorbing and fully formed world that is half dream and half deeply phantasmagoric nightmare (Flegel's very own Mulholland Drive, if you will).  I cannot think of anyone else who is so strikingly adept at both unleashing harrowing, noise-damaged weirdness and crafting sublime pop hooks.  I think I want to write Patrick Flegel a gushing fan letter now.  This was easily one of the best albums to come out in 2015 and now it is likely to be the single best reissue of 2018.  I am properly floored.

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Last Updated on Saturday, 24 March 2018 10:17  


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