When I was describing singer Carol Lipnik to a friend, he asked me whether she sang any “standards.” It took me a moment, but I recalled one number from her current show at Pangea that sort of qualified: her rendition of Hank Ballard’s “The Twist.”
Lipnik describes the song as a “mad-opera alien-clown invasion.” Her cover is based on an arrangement by Kristian Hoffman for Klaus Nomi, a German-born performance artist who died in 1983. Clearly, Lipnik has at least one foot in the performance-art world in which Nomi flourished. But not all the songs she sings are quite as gleefully demented as “The Twist.” Some of them (such as “Non-Violent Man,” written by her pianist, Matt Kanelos) seem to come from the 1960s folk-troubadour tradition. Her voice has a clear, pure quality that early fans of Joan Baez might have flocked to. And she has a poet’s touch when it comes to lyric writing.
When you compare Carol Lipnik to other performers, however, your first stop should probably be Yma Sumac, the Peruvian-born singer (and alleged descendant of Incan royalty) who helped popularize “exotica” in her performances in the mid-20th-century. Like Sumac before her, Lipnik boasts a four-octave range. And she studs her songs with world-music vocal effects. Sometimes she sounds like an acolyte of a Celtic goddess, and at other times like someone who’s benefited from private vocal coaching by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.
As for subject matter, Lipnik is indisputably attracted to the grotesque, the unhinged, and the forlorn. She sings of werewolves, Coney Island mermaids, a sad Pierrot puppet chasing the moon, and a two-headed calf staring at the night sky. But she doesn’t sheathe herself in her oddness in a humorless or pretentious way, as some artists might do. For instance, in the aforementioned “The Twist”—in which she executes what might be called “cosmic scatting”—she seems to be courting laughter. And she certainly won’t kick you out of the room if you happen to giggle during Michael Hurley’s “Werewolf,” in which she strikes a pose that brings to mind dancers from over a century ago performing the Grizzly Bear. Near the end of “Werewolf,” Lipnik leads the audience in a sort of “howl-along.” She seems to be saying, “If you take all of this completely seriously—outside the spirit of fun—you’re missing the point.”
But some of what she does you can take seriously—and that’s where that “touch of the poet” comes in. Lipnik’s well-received Pierrot number, “Oh, the Tyranny,” is a sort of art song, featuring lyrics graced with both delicacy and depth. Likewise, the audience favorite “The Things That Make You Grow” (in which she might be said to “accompany herself on the microphone,” thumping and otherwise manipulating it to help create a soundscape) weaves an eerie pagan spell. The song tells of antlered beasts submitting to their killers. The final moment of the song is chilling.
Kanelos adds some welcome vocal harmonies on certain numbers, and recorded sound effects are deftly interpolated into some songs. There’s not a lot of talking on the singer’s part—just a few well-chosen remarks to introduce songs, sometimes with tongue slightly in cheek. For instance, on the night I saw her, she prefaced her song “Crow’s Nest” by saying, “This is an anthem for crows. Yes, they finally have an anthem. Someone had to write it.”
Not every song on the program is a gem. Some numbers have not so much a melodic line as simple embellishments on chord progressions. But Lipnik’s performances are consistently sure-voiced and engaging. The woman has undeniable charisma. It might be going too far to say she needs to be seen to be believed, but it’s not that far off the mark. If you’re in an adventurous mood, she might be just what the witch doctor ordered.
Pangea – Sunday evenings, through January 31 2016