Apparently unfamiliar with the rule that proclaims all young rock musicians lazy, Warren Defever has managed to find more than a little bit of truth in the adage “music is my life.” Although His Name Is Alive is ostensibly his main project, this resident of Livonia, Michigan (a suburb of Detroit), has made quite a reputation for himself as both a producer and a collaborator, creating or helping to create an astonishing amount of quality music.
Upon its first appearance, Livonia was justifiably regarded as yet another sojourn into 4AD atmospherics: in its moody, ethereal translucence, coupled with femme vox and a seeming lack of direction, the album seemed doomed to exist in the label’s pretty-but-insubstantial ghetto. That it was recorded by Defever, then sent off in pieces to be mixed and reconstructed by 4AD head Ivo Watts-Russell added fuel to that suspicion. However, the sweeping dissonance of tracks like “Some and I” and “Reincarnation” and the sparse instrumentation of something like the title track (a bonus cut added to the Rykodisc reissue) point towards Defever’s non-pretty tendencies and decidedly unique take on composition, which would later be revealed more fully.
The 23-track Home Is in Your Head shattered any notions that HNIA was simply another pleasant blip on the 4AD radar. Neither abrasive nor halcyon, the album paints quick song-portraits wrapped around Defever’s stop-start guitar, mysterious drone loops and Karin Oliver’s throaty, beatific voice. Momentary blasts of haunting chaos (“Put Your Finger in Your Eye,” “Chances Are We Are Mad”) rest neatly next to sections of pastoral bliss (“Why People Disappear,” “Mescalina”), resulting in a work that, though spotty when considered track by track, makes a collective masterpiece. The five-track Dirt Eaters EP (appended to the Rykodisc version of Home Is in Your Head) contains a different version of the album’s “Are We Still Married?,” a cover of Rainbow’s (yes, Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow) “Man on the Silver Mountain” and three previously unreleased originals.
Mouth by Mouth marks an abrupt shift in Defever’s compositional process. Gone are the bits of songs couched in spacious sound, replaced by more fully thought-out songs that, if not always successful, are always interesting. Defever’s guitar playing is considerably more up-front this time; from the opening percussive blast of “Baby Fish Mouth,” an excellent cover of Big Star’s “Blue Moon” and the stunningly distorted “Drink, Dress, and Ink” — through the ethereal psychobilly of “Jack Rabbits” and the simplistic, poignant “Ear” — Mouth by Mouth comes very close to being a “normal” rock record. Defever’s scattered attention span continually keeps things from becoming mundane; though Mouth by Mouth isn’t perfect, it’s certainly far from average.
After Mouth by Mouth, Defever found himself increasingly engaged in extracurricular activities and plunged into a number of projects that would probably scare the facepaint off your average 4AD trainspotter. Although His Name Is Alive was conceived while Defever was still involved in Elvis Hitler (and Snake-Out, and the more stylistically reasonable late-’80s dreampop of Bone Machine — whose lone album contains a very early version of Home Is in Your Head‘s “There’s Something Between Us and He’s Changing My Words”), the rash of activity that has followed Mouth by Mouth is truly staggering. In addition to making all this music, Defever releases most of it through his own Time Stereo cassette label.
If neither is a necessary addition to the oeuvre, His Name Is Alive’s first two post-Mouth by Mouth records have their own pointedly individual charms. King of Sweet reveals the large, expansive instrumental pieces that were severely pared down on Home Is in Your Head in their full form (although “Are You Comin’ Down This Weekend?” appears no less than five times). Seamlessly mixed, they provide an hour of sleepy background music — but don’t doze through Defever’s stomping “Out of the Blue, Into the Black” riff rippage near the end. Sound of Mexico is culled from two HNIA Mexican appearances and has collaborations with Jorge Reyes, as well as soundcheck noises, lengthy improvisational pieces and snippets of Mexican TV. Entertaining, but only once.
Princess Dragonmom (like the scantily recorded live antics of, um, His Name Is Arrive) is Defever’s answer to the Japanese noise explosion. The group’s three releases are true endurance tests; the creepy noise/tape-loop mischief of ESP-Beetles follows a similar tack.
ESP-Summer, a collaboration with ex-Pale Saints bassist/vocalist Ian Masters, is a surprisingly forthright adventure in which Defever provides acoustic accompaniment to Masters’ lilting falsetto. The Farrago 10-inch contains remixed versions of the originals found on the Time Stereo/Perdition Plastics edition. ESP-Family is, in Defever’s words, “Communist folk songs,” but the stunning music contained on the band’s lone release sounds like a surprisingly accomplished field recording. Mystic Moog Orchestra documents Defever and fifteen friends all playing Moog synthesizers at their most obnoxious settings; with its gurgling, spacious keyboard sounds, the Control Panel release seems to be his nod to the ambient movement.