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Here are some of the things Carol Bui got into between releasing her last album, 2007’s harrowing and cathartic Everyone Wore White, and recording her new project, which doesn’t yet have a name, and which she hopes to release in 2011: Bellydancing. Drumming. Dogs. And, academically speaking, the culture of sex work. So understandably, she approached the new recordings from a very different perch.
The singer is moving to Tacoma, Wa., next month, leaving the city where she grew up and whose post-hardcore sound—-angular, emotive, adventurous—-has figured significantly into her own. So while her show tonight at DC9 with Aloha and Pomegranates won’t be her last in D.C., it will be her last as a D.C. resident. “I started dating this guy, and we got really serious. He’s in the Air Force and he’s being transferred out. I’m following him,” she says. “Well, I’m following him and our dog. And plus, I figured I needed a change.”
The few songs from the album that she’s posted online bear that out. “‘Geisha’ Means ‘Open Minded'” is soaring and searching with a large, open lead vocal, like a stripped-down variant of P.J. Harvey‘s more polished material; her cover of “Hayati Inta,” by the Belgian-born Arabic pop singer Natacha Atlas, is gritty and elemental and ecstatic. In both songs, every aspect seems to hinge on the drums, which Bui got serious about after releasing Everyone Wore White. “I kind of went into hibernation. I got into bellydance, I picked up drums, and got into my own world,” she says. “I think of things in more rhythmic and percussive terms. It’s more physical music.”
Which may, she stresses, have more to do with D.C.’s post-hardcore narrative than is obvious. “I prefer music that is created from impact, from physical impact…I think that’s always been the case in D.C punk rock or post-hardcore or what have you. It’s more visceral or expressive in a different way,” she says. “That will always be in my music. It’s just kind of ingrained.”
She recorded the album with a large group of musicians at Inner Ear in Arlington and produced it with T.J. Lipple (who mixed the album with Chad Clark). The songs, she says, came to life slowly, often because she began writing many of them on drums. “To me, it’s a big party record,” she says. “Not in the oomph oomph oomph way. But it’s happy and celebratory.”
She’s considering self-releasing the record, probably in early 2011. And after she moves next month, she’ll continue to play with Mark Raymond and Wes Garcia, who both played on Bui’s new record and are former members of the disbanded D.C. group Len Bias. Raymond and Garcia both moved to the West Coast after Len Bias broke up last year. (Before she leaves, she also has two more bellydancing performances with the Sahara Dance school’s Raquettes Tahia group. Those take place May 1 and 2 at American University’s Harold and Sylvia Greenberg Theatre.)
Thematically, she says, the album is less self-involved than its predecessor. Sometimes that means “songs about silly little things, like how I became a dog lover,” she says. “Other songs are about things that other people consider dark but I consider joyful.”
Hence: sex workers. “A roommate and I got really into sex-work culture after we started watching Diary of a Call Girl,” Bui says. So she began researching the topic, became obsessed, and eventually worked similar stories into her songs.
But even where sex work’s the subject, she says, she explored disarmingly jubilant themes. “It can bring joy to other people—-joy and comfort and love and self-love to people.”