Peter Holslin was born in Transylvania
In a recent interview with Pitchfork, Natasha Khan explained how she settled on the tongue-in-cheek name, Sexwitch: “There’s something very magical and dark and feminine archetypal force” about the name….Also when I was singing—and this sounds ridiculous—it did feel like I was channeling some sort of ancestral feelings about witches.”
Sexwitch is Natasha Khan, the English multi-instrumentalist and songwriter who also performs as Bat for Lashes, joined by the producer Dan Carey and the British band Toy. Their self-titled debut album came out last month on Echo/BMG. It’s basically a covers record. The project originated when Khan and Carey bought some intriguing world-music-y reissue compilations at a record store and picked out a handful of Thai, Persian and Moroccan folk and pop tunes to record. They sent out the lyrics to friends to get translations/English reinterpretations, and then spent a day in the studio with Toy to re-imagine the songs as primal psychedelic jams.
The six tracks — which were each captured in one take — also include a cover of “War in Peace” by Jefferson Airplane veteran Skip Spence. But interestingly enough, that’s the most awkward track on the whole thing. Spence’s jam already sounds like a warped surrealist smear, and they don’t quite have the weirdness to match it. The band sounds most comfortable playing the non-Western, non- outwardly “psych” material, putting their own spin on foreign sounds and poetic forms.
Khan has long had a mystical songwriting sensibility, but Sexwitch lets her break away from the relative structure of her latest Bat for Lashes album, 2012’s The Haunted Man. Though she’s singing lyrics, the actual lyrics are just as important as the way she delivers them, in free-flowing moans and cries and murmurs. Meanwhile her collaborators in Toy lay down a funky foundation.
In “Helelyos” — a song by 1970s Iranian pop star Zia Atabi — they wind up into a tightly coiled, minor-key groove. Even steamier is their take on Ramesh’s Persian pop anthem “Ghoroobaa Ghashangan”; over a melodic bass-line and dense thicket of synths and guitars, Khan takes the heartfelt vocal melodies of the original and reworks them into mystical howls from the great beyond.
Sexwitch really hits on something special when they jump into the Moroccan folk song “Kassidat El Hakka.” As you can hear on the Dust-to-Digital compilation Kassidat: Raw 45s from Morocco, Abdellah el Magana’s original is a rustic call-and-response recitation featuring poetic verses and Berber shepherd’s flute. In the hands of Sexwitch, however, it becomes a true witch’s incantation. “When I die I’ll go back to where I was,” Khan repeats over and over as the band sets a trance-like atmosphere with a tom-tom groove and two-note guitar line. The intensity gradually builds over nearly eight minutes, and by the end — with Khan letting out a primeval scream — it sounds like they’ve opened up a vortex to a new dimension.
Granted, not every song is mind blowing. Sexwitch’s version of Chanpen Sirithep’s Thai song “Lam Plearn Kiew Bao” — as soulful as Sexwitch’s is, with its slow-simmering intro and thick bass-line groove — just doesn’t match the original’s majestic sway. But their take on all these songs is still potent and transformative in its own special way. And as far as cover records go, if I had to choose between this and Ryan Adams’ 1989, I’d go Sexwitch every time.