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Two songs you need to hear: Sean Michaels’s playlist of the week

The Wainwright Sisters – Lullaby (2015)

For Songs in the Dark, Martha Wainwright and her half-sister Lucy Wainwright Roche assembled a collection of grim, pointed lullabies. Forget sleepy-time’s standard, fluffy soporifics: these are grim ballads, cowboy songs, mordant serenades to infants who just won’t settle down. Some are originals, some are covers; there’s material by Simon & Garfunkel, Townes Van Zandt, Kate McGarrigle (Martha’s mom) and the Roches’ Terre Roche (Lucy’s aunt). But as Martha put it at this week’s Montreal album launch, “I know very little about these songs.” The sisters chose the material not for greater context but because they liked the songs, because the tunes felt right together, because there is a certain integrity to lullabies as dark as drowsy.

On Tuesday, Lucy and Martha closed their set by playing Loudon Wainwright III’s Lullaby, and their father was in-house to hear it. It’s my favourite track on the album; the Wainwright women improve upon the original by slowing it down, emphasizing the contrast between comely chords and bone-tired exasperation. “Shut up and go to bed,” they sing. “Shut up and shut your eyes …Shut up and count some sheep / do me a favour, don’t bitch in your sleep.” Whereas Loudon was an insomniac who had exhausted himself, Lucy and Martha sound like aunts and mothers at the ends of their ropes, singing gently through gritted teeth. The effect is bleakly hilarious, all the more because it is so beautifully performed. Lucy’s voice, lilting and soft; Martha’s, in close harmony, with a magnificently sharp edge. One’s a sheriff, the other’s a shepherdess; both just want some peace and quiet.

ANOHNI – 4 Degrees (2015)

Somewhere in Paris, Earth’s leaders are sitting down at big, gorgeous tables hewn from centuries-old trees. The planet’s careening toward climate disaster and the UN’s serving catered lunches, trying to cajole bureaucrats into compromise. I wonder if they feel that they are standing at a precipice. I wonder if they dream at night of the end of the world. I wonder: do they? And: should I?

4 Degrees is a song of apocalypse and complicity. ANOHNI is Antony Hegarty, whose incredible, fluttering voice is at the forefront of the group Antony and the Johnsons. As ANOHNI she works with the electronic/dance producers Hudson Mohawke and Oneohtrix Point Never, building a soundscape of terrifying scale: smashing drums, boiling synths, tidal waves of brass. The title is an allusion to the temperature rise that experts say would doom us, and Hegarty’s refrain – “It’s only four degrees” – is both the activist’s rallying cry and the polluter’s excuse. On 4 Degrees, ANOHNI never lets herself off the hook. “I want to burn the sky, I want to burn the breeze,” she sings. “I want to see the animals die in the trees.” Angry, mournful, awake to the fact that if we are not saving the world, we are damning it.

Sean Michaels received the 2014 Scotiabank Giller Prize for his novel Us Conductors. He is the editor of the music blog Said the Gramophone.

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