ln allies(Album artwork by Christopher Lyles)

Don’t Do Anything! (This is Happening)
LN & the Allies of WWIII

Most artists yearn to create work that will last. We feel it in our bones. If I can just leave SOMETHING behind…. We marvel uncomprehendingly at those monks making sand mandalas, working in shifts for weeks while knowing their meticulous efforts will be wiped away almost as soon they are completed. That seems to us like a religious or philosophical exercise. Shakespeare, Kubrick, The Beatles, Van Gogh—that’s what the rest of us want: to make great art that will be outlive us, that will live forever. Jazz is the classic improvisational medium, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a jazzman with no interest in making a recording, in preserving even the most spontaneous of artistic expressions. You’ll note that Banksy has made a film and put out several books, not content to confine himself to the ephemerality of street art. The moment may be what matters most in the moment, but when the moment’s over, we look toward tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow, wanting to see ourselves there.

Judging by her deeds, Ellen Warkentine has shown less interest in tomorrow than any great artist I can name, though I had no hint of this when I first met her back in the aughts. At that time she was holding down keys and backing vocals in Alyssandra [Nighswonger] and the Daymakers, a regular band doing mostly regular things, such as making an album. But a hint of what the next decade would be like for Warkentine could be seen from September 2010’s “Alyssandra and the Daymakers’ Vaudeville Folk Spectacular” at the Art Theatre. With tap dancers, poetry, “amazing feats of strength by Strong Bear,” a Dr. Seuss reading, multiple video components, cross-dressed Russian absurdism, and a slew of guest musical artists, this was more of a happening than a mere album-release show.

Soon that band had run its course. But while Nighswonger (one of Warkentine’s regular collaborators) has expended prodigious energy since then on a steady diet of conventional live performance and making numerous studio recordings—along with putting together events of all shapes and sizes—Warkentine has confined her output almost exclusively to the ephemeral. The Nuthaus, her little estate in the Willmore District, will be fondly recalled by those who were there for legendary soirées of all stripes (“Remember that Halloween when they transformed the entire house and environs into an immersive theatrical experience, where each space had its own little sub-narrative?”). There have been the site-specific shows she’s done with the itinerant Four Larks (such as the much-praised The Temptation of St. Antony. There was a string of one-off musical events (Abbey Road, The Wall, The Nightmare Before Christmas) put on by the late, great RIOTstage. There’s the Balboa Amusement Company Orchestra, which live scores silent films for one-time-only performances (next up: Nosferatu on October 14 at Sunnyside Cemetery). Even when Warkentine did form her own full-fledged band—Sex! Money! Power!—and commit a few songs to (the digital equivalent of) tape, the recordings were an afterthought, only an ante toward the real payoff: events that were half 21st-century low-tech multimedia extravaganza, half Vaudeville variety hour with S!M!P! as the house band. Don’t get it? You had to be there.

There’s a common thread tying all of this together: impermanence. None of these endeavors was built to last. But there were always these songs, these wonderful songs, crude demos and loose jam sessions that were pleading to be fleshed out and fully realized, begging to be allowed to make their way out into the world. And although she certainly took her sweet time about it, with the six-song album Don’t Do Anything! (This is Happening), finally Warkentine—leading the group LN & the Allies of WWIII—has staked a claim to permanence.

Customarily, six songs lasting a grand total of 26 minutes would be considered an EP, but Don’t Do Anything! (This is Happening) comprises a grand listening experience that both flows and suspends the flow of time, leaving you unsure where and when you are once you come out the other side. It’s a trick Warkentine and company (drums and bass guitar, ukulele and harp, piano and electric piano, cello and violin, trombone, trumpet, and French horn, plus layer upon layer of backing and gang vocals) pull off by combining unadorned melody with counterpoint, whimsy with wistfulness, silliness and sublimity, manifold layers of sonic depth and breadth with space and quietude, all with a genre-defying theatricality with dashes of Björk, The Beatles, and Kate Bush that somehow got sprinkled into Roaring ‘20s café society.

It’s tempting to write a little treatise on each song, so much do all of them (or at least five of the six) keep things not only interesting but surprising as they wend their little ways, giving you a chance to discover gem after gem in stratum after stratum. Compositionally there is nary a part that doesn’t perfectly complement all those around it, making maximum use of semi-professional production (such as nakedly lo-fi drums). Each melody line, section, riff, and fill is tasteful, and each repeats exactly as many times as it should. Each musical element is dialed in at just the right volume (okay, maybe here and there the bass is a bit loud) and finds its own little home in the mix. This is a real stereo recording, kids. Headphones highly encouraged. On the magnificent opener, “Disaster!”, Warkentine’s lead vocals are no more prominently featured than the host of back-ups (some in the background, some curling right up against your ears), the first taste of how every element on the album is bent to serve the whole. And new elements keep popping in, right through the divergence of the two separate drum sets (split L & R) as the song winds to its conclusion.

All of the fancy arrangement details—about which I’ve only scratched the surface—wouldn’t mean much without strong songs at their center. But Warkentine’s material would work with her alone at a piano. Her songwriting combines a knack for both playfulness and wistfulness (that word again)—sometimes simultaneously—with instantly memorable melodies and clever phrasing, all of which Warkentine sings with a heartfelt nuance that extends through every syllable and down to the softest surd.

That craftswomanship is why “Can’t Help Myself” works despite being the least dynamic and least imaginatively arranged/produced song on the album. It also earns its keep by giving you a breather after the adventurousness of “Disaster!” and “Dark Cloud” (imagine sitting in a speakeasy violating the Volstead Act as Portishead-like phonographic crackles and telephonic vocals open up a wormhole that tugs you toward the future). Anywhere else it might have been a bit of a momentum-killer, but here it’s an effective evocation of longing that helps you settle in for a moment before your journey continues in earnest. It’s the sort of misdirection needed for any good magic trick, fooling you into thinking that maybe the remaining tracks can’t possibly clear the high bar set by the first two. Wrong!

Moreover, the ukulele of “Can’t Help Myself” perfectly sets up the double-ukulele attack (the softest attack ever) of closer “Don’t Do Anything! (This is Happening)”—tied with “Disaster!” for my fave on an album that is nearly nothing but highlights. Floating atop the musical rippling that aurally reifies the waters of the words, Warkentine’s lovely, longing vocal resonates on that aesthetic plane where melancholy and joy meet in a metaphysical confluence where you find yourself in tears whose signification is a mystery even to you.

And I found myself in the ocean
And I found myself at your feet
Tucked so neatly in the bottle
Where your fingers folded me

Oh, I hoped you would find me there
‘Cause you showed me the way back here
I’m the message you waited for
I said 

 Do, don’t do anything
‘Cause this is happening 

In the time of Auto-Tune, Don’t Do Anything! (This is Happening) is—imperfections and all—a perfect antidote to the worst of the zeitgeist, eminently human in our oft-inhuman world, untethered to trends or marketing formulae, with a studied but authentic raggedness that only augments the music’s undeniable charm. And while this is Warkentine’s magnum opus, it is not hers alone. Don’t Do Anything! (This is Happening), released September 9th, 2017 at (what else?) an interactive multimedia spectacular of costumery, performance, and installation art that took over both floors of the Packard Long Beach, is a work that celebrates the communal, capitalizing on the possibility of what a community can co-create.

Warkentine has long been at the center of such a community in the little patch of spacetime that is Long Beach of the 2010s, choosing for most of that era to focus on the fleeting. But although all things must pass—Warkentine and a full one-third of her bandmates have moved out of Long Beach, and cellist Alex Bradley (to whom, along with RIOTstage founder Josh Fischel, the album is dedicated) has passed on—LN & the Allies of WWIII have captured a little of the magic that has been here all along. Listen to this album and you’ll see what I mean. Listen to it 30 years from now and you won’t have to remember when, because it will live on. For those who have ears to hear, this is 26 minutes of timeless music that is sure to last.

(Get it here and have it forever: https://ellenwarkentine.bandcamp.com/releases. Yeah, you can listen for free, but five bucks is a bargain for eternity, pal.)

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