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Oracle Hysterical: Hecuba 

CD Button Connery; B. Balliett, D. Balliett, Cole, Treuting. National Sawdust Tracks NS-021

Recordings Oracle Hysterical Cover 1018
Critics Choice Button 1015

ORACLE HYSTERICAL—“part band, part book club,” according to its website—produces pop with a pronounced literary bent. Their 2017 debut album, Passionate Pilgrim, drew its lyrics from a sonnet collection falsely attributed to Shakespeare. This follow-up is inspired by Euripides’s play Hecuba, which follows the downfallen Trojan queen’s pitiful existence as a captive of the Achaeans. Greek tragedy might seem too scholarly a subject for popular music, but there’s nothing pretentious about this project, composed jointly by the band’s four members. If I hadn’t heard the references to Paris and Helen in the opening track, I would have pegged Oracle Hysterical as a typical indie-rock outfit—laid-back, skipping guitar line; dreamy electronic flourishes with heavy reverb; driving, punk-like percussion outbursts. Frontwoman Majel Connery sings excerpts from the Euripides set to gently meandering melodies that suit her airy vocal timbre and vibratoless, Regina Spektor-like delivery. But for “One hundred tongues,” in which Hecuba mourns the murder of her youngest son Polydorus, Connery’s expansive phrasing is digitally broken into individual phonemes that are reassembled into stuttering electronica beats. It’s a creative bit of editing that cleverly engages with Euripides’s text, musically depicting the queen’s desire for tongues to sprout across her body so that she may “beg in every voice and cry out with every kind of tear.”

Though the group is firmly anchored in contemporary pop styles enhanced by the latest studio mixing, occasionally some retro instrumental colors emerge that sound charmingly antique. Brad Balliett’s overdubbed bassoon breaks have a rustic quality reminiscent of a Renaissance shawm troupe. His twin brother, Doug, when not on guitar, doubles on viola da gamba and Baroque bass; the latter produces a fantastically resonant purring that, combined with Elliot Cole’s harmonium on the final track, recalls Monteverdi’s underworld accompaniment in L’Orfeo. These early-music touches are ideal for a vaguely operatic concept album on a mythical subject. But for the most part, electric-guitar riffs and Jason Treuting’s drum kit dominate. The period instruments merely provide some exotic color, like the strains of harpsichord and cello on ’60s chamber-rock recordings. Oracle Hysterical even makes an ironic reference to the Beatles’ brand of Baroque pop on “Where Did You Go?,” a pastiche of hits such as “Yesterday” and “Hey Jude” that incorporates the Fab Four’s favorite delayed double-tracking technique to get that psychedelic echo effect. 

It’s an oddly upbeat arrangement, considering that the lyrics convey Hecuba’s agony after her daughter Polyxena is led away as a sacrifice to Achilles. Connery’s sweet crooning is more befitting of a quirky breakup song than a threnody. In fact, for a record filled with breast-beating texts, there’s little in the way of music that suggests sorrow. The band takes a subtler approach to tragedy, ensuring that the album doesn’t end up being a depressing sobfest. Connery’s somewhat unimpassioned delivery, for instance, replicates the stylized expressions of grief in Greek tragedy, as if she were wearing a weeping prosopon mask of Hecuba rather than fully embodying the character. And in another nod to the Baroque, Oracle Hysterical constructs a circling melodic formula on “Bolero” that resembles a passacaglia or the conventional lamento ground bass heard in Purcell’s “When I am laid in earth.” Connery, backed by her bandmate’s unusual subdivision of the beat into five instead of four, spins out a Dowland-esque refrain that endlessly repeats, moving up a minor third for each iteration until she’s soaring high in her crystalline upper register. While Euripides’s heroine reaps revenge in the final scene of the original play, Oracle Hysterical deprives Hecuba of this triumph, dooming the ruined queen to relive her fate in a perpetual cycle of woe.  —Joe Cadagin

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