Ivana XL is the latest subversion of one of the more familiar rock ‘n roll personas: That Weird Girl. Look at her press photo: What crazy hair! Why is she dressed like a Google employee? Is that shit under her eye? That Weird Girl isn’t the girl who stuffed rolls into her sweatpants at lunch in middle school. That Weird Girl isn’t the lady who walks around your neighborhood with a block of wood tied to her arm that she checks periodically like a watch. Those are just weird girls.
That Weird Girl, on the other hand, is beautiful but damaged (but not in any way that would leave her dysfunctionally insane), neurotic but relatable (just like you!), a hard drinker (no pussy drinks), plays the guitar (or OK, the piano). Of course, the fact that That Weird Girl scans like a grocery list of every rock nerd’s masturbation scenarios is definitely some kind of dead giveaway.
Still, the question is less one of authenticity than it is one of attachment. Why do we always, for lack of a better word, believe, in That Weird Girl? No one questions if the guys in Bon Jovi walk around Walgreens in leather pants and cowboy shirts (I mean, they probably do). But embedded within the iconography of That Weird Girl is a presupposition of truthfulness, a pact between listener and artist that says “Don’t lie to me.” From then on out, every affectation-from smoking in bed to rolling your r’s to dressing like an lumberjack-becomes an example of individual quirkiness. From Grace Slick to Betty Davis to Bikini Kill to Courtney Love to Missy Elliot to Regina Spector to Amy Winehouse to Lady Gaga…these weird girls bank their careers not just on their music, but on a carefully crafted larger-than-true-to-life-ness that both exceeds our expectations and matches them perfectly.
I know I haven’t talked much about music yet, but that’s about to change. I mentioned at the beginning of this review that Ivana XL is a subversion of the That Weird Girl, something she accomplishes both on the level of pose and product. Take the name, the Donald Trump-ian opposite of slacker wet-dreaminess, to account for the latter. Sounding like a cross between some kind of Soviet super-secret agent and a Powerpoint presentation, Ivana XL recognizes the simultaneous irony and sexiness in what amounts to overselling oneself.
On the other hand, consider the record: These arrangements, consisting mostly of piano, acoustic guitars, Ivana’s voice and a fuck-ton of reverb, sound like they were laid down in a zero-gravity chamber with all the instruments floating around, banging into one another, bunching up in the corners. The effect strikes an odd balance between intimacy and coldness, like someone telling you about her childhood over hot cocoa spiked with poison. If That Weird Girls are all about trust, then Ivana XL is about only letting you get so close before stepping back into the infinite spaciousness of her music, substituting one of her overdubbed voices for another, coolly multiplying personalities behind a beat-up saloon-style keyboard.
The first track “Happy Birthday” might be a human transcription of a music box melody, stop-starting sweet verses in order to let some terrifying overtones carry over the bar-line. It’s like the hallucinated soundtrack to a film version of Alice in Wonderland animated entirely in crayon and cutouts from strangers wedding photographs. I can’t get a handle on the creepiness here, but it’s definitely there, lurking inside the arpeggios like the older-gentleman next-door-neighbor who’s always inviting kids over to earn a couple extra bucks doing yard work or polishing his car or whatever. Suburban mythology, danger in the land of circle driveways and gazebos: this is the toxic subtext of the tune, a birthday salutation hissed by a bag lady through the tracheotomy hole in her throat.
“Ex Oh,” has a similarly shaky relationship to fact, fiction and nightmare, fitting chamber-pop hookiness, folksy guitar pulls and a big drumkit crescendo into a three-minute super-8 home movie, the film crackling, the lens flare obscuring your own face in all the family shots. The sound is intensely personal in the vaguest way possible, somehow culling up everyone and no one’s half-remembered childhood summers, kids you kind of knew drowning in creeks, years and years of life condensed into a drunken bathroom stall remembrance some twenty years down the line. How these songs were written I don’t know, but these are some of the chanciest, scariest slow jams I know.
Ivana XL, like a scholar of weird girls everywhere, has pulled the camera back on the singer-songwriter fakebook, the real that is somehow less real than the fakes it helped produce.
https://ampeater.s3.amazonaws.com/aem060/01 Happy Birthday.mp3
https://ampeater.s3.amazonaws.com/aem060/02 Ex Oh.mp3