Neil Gaiman, with various artists,
Where's Neil When You Need Him?
(Dancing Ferret, 2006)

Neil Gaiman's vision comes to us in many forms. Sometimes, it's words in a book. In other instances, his imagination is expressed through the hand of an artist or, less often, the eye of a film director. Now, it's coming to us as music.

Believe me, there's just something really cool about an entire album's worth of music inspired by and dedicated to the written works of Neil Gaiman.

Anyone who's read more than a handful of pages here at Rambles.NET knows my fondness for Gaiman, who easily numbers among my top few writers of all time. Much of his work has already been interpreted by a variety of artists for his many comics, graphic novels and illustrated stories. Some of his work has been interpreted for the big or small screen. But Where's Neil When You Need Him? is the first time, to my knowledge, that a host of musicians have put Gaiman's work through their mill and come up with a collection of songs.

Gaiman doesn't sing or play on the album, nor did he write any of the lyrics. (It's listed under his name, rather than the ubiquitous "various artists" label, because Dancing Ferret label exec Patrick Rodgers wisely believes fans will be quicker to find it that way in music stores.)

So, inspiration aside, how's the music?

It's good. It's fun. It's moody. It's diverse. I don't love all of the music, but every track honors the source material, and that's saying a lot.

It begins with Rasputina's haunting, grating "Coraline," based on the truly disturbing story of the same name. The lyrics are unusual, to say the least, and only Gaiman readers will appreciate lines like this: "Well, this old man / He put on his hat and the last real rat was gone. / You were victorious against evaporation. You fought a horrifying wet, large larva thing, / Inside a theater of dogs who couldn't sing."

The album progresses through a stream of Gaiman's ideas and visions, some direct, some oblique. "When Everyone Forgets" by ThouShaltNot expresses the anguish of a lonely god (from the novel American Gods, which is in a way about forgetting) through late-'80s alt.pop. Again, the lyrics are finely tuned to the story: "I promise that I'll be there / Even when I haven't got a prayer / Just a lonely stranger in America / But I'm still here, oh God I'm here I swear."

Tapping the Vein's "Trader Boy" gives voice to the remorse felt by a lad on The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish, while Belgian band Lunascape uses a lighter, more mystical approach on "Raven Star," which owes its roots to the popular novel and graphic novel Stardust. German recording artist Deine Lakaien sings a reverence to "The Goldfish Pool," a short story, in his song "A Fish Called Prince." British singer/songwriter Thea Gilmore revisits American Gods with "Even Gods Do," a folk ballad that sits neatly among the album's harder-edged material.

There's a story with track 7, which was originally written for the British band Curve to perform. However, Rodgers explains in the liner, the band found itself without a lead singer, so songwriter Dean Garcia brought his teenage daughter Rose Berlin into the studio -- and made magic. Not only are the lyrics a perfect peek into Coraline -- "Other Mother / see me cry / Have pity / All I want is to be at home" -- but Rose's vocals are just right for the job. The sinister undercurrent helps the song soar.

There's a desperate edge to Schandmaul's "Magda Treadgolds Marchen," which comes from a tale told in Sandman's "The Kindly Ones" and is sung here in German. The edge is gentler and subtler in Hungry Lucy's nightmarish "We Won't Go," making this lyrical take on The Wolves in the Walls all the more dangerous in tone.

Voltaire & the Oddz makes free with the Endless in "Come Sweet Death" thusly: "You're like a dream / dipped in delirium. / You're my destiny / and my destruction. / I desire you, / I despair of you. / And all endlessly." Any of us who are just a little in love with Gaiman's Death will exult in this stylish and upbeat song. Next up is another favorite from this remarkable album, "Mr. Punch" by Future Bible Heroes. Sung with a demented twist on carnival revelry, the song sparks with morbid imagery: "That Mr. Punch, he's a rum one, ain't he? / Strapping as his yapping little wife is a dainty. / Hit her with a big stick, give her what for / And she's dead, dead, dead / On the crimson floor."

Razed in Black, a Hawaiian trance artist, resummons "The Endless." The Cruxshadows, from Florida, visit the world of Gaiman and Dave McKean's MirrorMask with the urgent club-hop "Wake the White Queen." Ego Likeness revisits Stardust with a cautionary song, "You Better Leave the Stars Alone." Coraline, a popular source of inspiration, gets another look in "The Cold Black Key," a song by Azam Ali that creeps and crawls behind your eyes.

I don't understand the German lyrics in "Vandemar," but the vocals and arrangement by Joachim Witt seeps evil and menace -- which is just how the Neverwhere villain would like it. The CD concludes with the remastered Tori Amos song "Sister Named Desire." Speaking as a longtime fan of Tori's who's always appreciated her little nods to Gaiman in her songs, I have to say this song leaves me wanting something more. The song meanders without ever seeming to make a point, and it fails to showcase her real vocal strengths.

There are many musical styles represented here, from goth/metal and medieval rock to folk, electronica and trip-hip. Given the variety of Gaiman's work, it's fitting; as he notes in his introduction to the liner notes, "music was always part of the writing process -- different music for different stories. ... Music as a key, as a way in. Music as a way to set the mood." (As a bonus, he'll tell you what he was listening to while writing some of his well-known pieces.) Frankly, I'm not sure there's variety enough; most of the music here fits into a similar vein of modern/alternative/industrial/pop themes, and I can't help but think Gaiman's stories would inspire a bit of old-world folk here, a baroque riff there, perhaps a touch of jazz or blues. But, considering what the album has rather than what it hasn't, I like the package it makes. It's not necessarily a soundtrack to a little light Gaiman reading, but it's a fair homage to an amazing body of work.

by Tom Knapp
30 September 2006

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