21 Feb 2013
Review | Marla Mase
Marla Mase, Speak Deluxe, True Groove
This is one of those rare albums that truly defy categorisation, ignoring the limitations of genre and playing by its own rules. New Yorker, Marla Mase is a multi-media performer and author who has written plays, poetry, monologues, erotica and short stories. Elements of those other art forms can be found in Speak Deluxe, an expanded edition of the original Speak album, released in 2011.
Speak Deluxe sometimes feels like a radio play with outstandingly exciting atmospheric music. It begins, a little confusingly, with ‘Scream (Reprise)’, an alternative version of one of the original album’s key tracks. Over punkish guitar and galloping percussion, Mase declaims a harrowing story that establishes the album’s recurring theme of confinement and restriction. In this first song the confinement is literal and horrific: “She’s all chained up, her arms bloody/Her face is scratched, her eyes insane/WHY?”
But Mase is also concerned with the less tangible bonds that limit the lives of women and girls. The slow, sinister ‘Open Up My Heart’ is like a feminist fairy tale, telling the story of a princess in fragile health, frustrated by the smothering love of her over-protective parents. Mase deploys her vocal versatility to great effect here, gravely narrating in solemn speech and then switching into her sweetest singing voice to play the part of the lonely princess.
She alternates between speech and singing throughout the album but nothing here is rap in the conventional sense. The meaning of Mase’s words takes precedence over their rhythmic flow. She tackles challenging subject matter in inventive ways: ‘AnnaRexia’ is a bouncy pop-reggae number about eating disorders, while the uptempo ‘Dance The Tango’ is a life-affirming story about a suicide, emphasising the joy that the deceased found in life before the darkness overwhelmed her.
There are plenty more positive, celebratory moments on Speak Deluxe. ‘She Hooked Him Up’ is a happy, funky tale of love and lust. ‘Queen of Imperfection’ rejects media ideals of womanhood in favour of accepting yourself, flaws and all. ’Smithereens’ is charmingly romantic, a cooling stream of gentle beats and flowing acoustic guitar.
Throughout Speak Deluxe Mase is wonderfully well served by Tomás Doncke, who writes the music and leads the band that supplies a spectacular variety of tunes, tones and textures to complement the rich verbal content. Marta Mase speaks and sings wise words with passion and precision, and demands to be heard.