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As the World Twists
Del Amitri: Twisted
Usually when you're looking forward excitedly to a new album's release, there's an element of apprehension. In the case of a new, fourth, Del Amitri album, though, I felt about as serenely confident as anybody who hadn't yet heard a note of it could be. This calm derives from two observations: first, the third Del Amitri album, Change Everything, was a flawless extension of their second album, Waking Hours, and numerous b-sides along the way also attest to the band's firm understanding of its own idiom; second, I read a review of the album that said it wasn't much different from its predecessors, and while I often don't trust reviews (whether this is because I write them, or vice versa, I leave as an exercise for the reader), if Del Amitri made an album that wasn't like their usual style, anybody would be able to tell. And, sure enough, as I listen to Twisted for what feels like the 912th time, while writing this, my explanation of my feelings about it to myself is simply "Yep!"
For you, who can't (thankfully for both of us, I suspect) actually peer into my mind to examine the implications of that "Yep!", I'll try to elaborate. Del Amitri is, in my opinion, one of the three greatest bands in the history of Scotland. (My other two picks, Big Country and Runrig, even sound Scottish...) Their second album, Waking Hours, is on my Desert Island Disk top-ten. In the private little version of the rock and roll hall of fame I operate in my own head, the new album's arrival finds them hobnobbing with the Manic Street Preachers and Tori Amos in the wings, waiting only for enough material to accumulate to fulfill some technical eligibility requirements. I consider lead singer Justin Currie to be one of the best living songwriters, and a relationship poet challenged by almost nobody (and only David Steinhart, of Pop Art and now Smart Brown Handbag, really keeps that "almost" in there). And this album makes me feel all the more confident in all these judgments.
Twisted begins with what might as well, whether it was meant this way or not, be Currie's statement of songwriting philosophy. "There's people hauling people / Out from under their homes, / There's people hauling people / Out through the groaning stones. / You can see me tonight, / I'll be shell-shocked and white in the cold light of dawn, / But I ain't gonna cry just to give some new guy / Food for songs." Art, this seems to say to me, should be more than just journalism. In a world where half the movies are "based on true stories" and the other half are remakes; where half the artists are activists and the other half are getting into advertising; where the last Grammy for best song was given to a musical sleepwalk that wouldn't have been worth a b-side if it hadn't been on the soundtrack of a movie about AIDS--in a world where so few people seem to be capable of recognizing either originality or subtlety, and instead make artistic judgments based on executive content summaries, I think Justin has a particularly telling point. What has become of art that is its own justification, art that exists to be appreciated itself, not synopsized as cultural referents in stodgy Time articles about "popular sympathies", art that isn't designed as context for the somber, sincere interviews the participants will do afterwards about how glad they were to be able to help educate the public to this dangerous menace (or tragic injustice, or ray of hope, or criminal conspiracy, or whatever)?
Well, whatever has become of it in general, Del Amitri haven't forgotten. The preamble of "Food for Songs" out of the way, Twisted presents eleven striking, poignant songs about relationships and loneliness, frequently at once. This is Justin Currie's personal lyrical territory, and though you wouldn't be crazy to think that the subject ought to have been mined out years ago for all the prospector traffic it's seen, Currie has either found a heretofore neglected vein somewhere, or else (and this is my suspicion, frankly) he's figured out how to transmute wood or dirt or linoleum or something into intricate original insight just by rubbing it on his otherwise inexplicable sideburns. Perhaps part of the secret is that he tends to focus on the complicated emotions in between consuming passion and consuming grief, ones that are harder to capture and thus less often pursued. Where you'd look for "Baby I Love You", here you find "It Might As Well Be You". Where most relationship songs are conversations between the lovers (ex-, current or potential), here you find "Tell Her This". Where others linger self-indulgently on heartbreak, Justin offers a sober mixture of hope and despair in "It's Never Too Late To Be Alone". In fact, "a sober mixture of hope and despair" is probably as good an encapsulation of Del Amitri's emotional center as anything I'm likely to think of. Introspective, ambivalent, melancholy, hopeful, sad, wistful, muted, careful-- No, "a sober mixture of hope an despair" is still better.
Musically, Del Amitri treads an appropriate middle ground between several forces. On one hand, there is virtually nothing explicitly Celtic about the band. A computer, given a large database of stylistic indicia, would undoubtably identify this music as American. A human, listening, though, might wonder. For all the blues elements that inevitably permeate music with these textual fascinations, Del Amitri never sound like a blues band. Even as the harmonica wails through "Food for Songs", there's something restrained and clean about the sound that comes more from the 3:00am walk home from a club, along a river, in a fog, than from the sweaty, bottle-lined stage two hours before. And perhaps the reason for this has something in common, after all, with Runrig's square drum stomp and ethereal Highlands rapture, or Big Country's syncopated gallop and steeltown determination.
So, too, are there folk influences here that never quite congeal into actual folk songs. You could do most of these songs with just an acoustic guitar and a voice, but where folk music revolves around storytelling and eliminating the division between audience and performer, these songs are mostly not narratives but still-lifes, and far too introspective for an audience sing-along to be anything but surreal. Conversely, despite guitar flourishes, steady kick-snare rhythms and soaring harmonies, this is rarely rock, exactly. The songs are too carefully constructed, too little dependent on their sounds, too calm. Instead, and perhaps this helps explains Del Amitri's relative obscurity, their music seems to me to inhabit an oft-overlooked niche somewhere between the critical no-man's-lands of pop and soft-rock. Provided you could sand off some excess guitar distortion and get corporate office drones not to listen to the lyrics too closely (probably not a big hurdle), Del Amitri could easily be staples of those "rock without the hard edge" radio stations that seem to be called "Magic" in every American city. This might sound like a bad thing, but I don't consider it a judgment on the music any more than the observation that Monet's more pastel paintings make good conglomerate-headquarters lobby art reflects poorly on Monet, or recommends the decorators' tastes in art particularly.
The only other hope I think Del Amitri has for large scale commercial success is to somehow attract some of the people who grew up on REM back when nobody could make out what Michael Stipe was singing, some of the people who've been idly buying Counting Crows and Gin Blossoms albums and wondering whether the fact that they sometimes flip from MTV to VH1 and stay there means that they're growing old, and show them what "college" music can become when played by adult musicians. There is a middle ground between Rancid and Celine Dion, between Green Day and Meat Loaf, between PJ Harvey and Whitney Houston. But as long as enough people visit to keep Del Amitri in guitar strings and studio time, I guess I don't really care what the rest of you settle for.
Jewel: Pieces of You
Music reviewers have, I feel, an important obligation to make absurdly unsupported, sweepingly grandiose, self-importantly perverse predictions now and again, just so that they can later be proven wrong often enough to instill a certain amount of reluctant humility. Never one to shrink from opportunities to do things I might later regret, I will essay one such prediction now, that we may revisit it wistfully in the years to come: Jewel Kilcher's debut album, Pieces of You, will come to be considered one of the finest albums of the nineties, one of the finest folk albums ever, and one of the most charming debuts.
Will this pan out? Beats me. I can't even be completely sure that I won't tire of the album myself, eventually, but I've had it on uncharacteristically heavy rotation for nearly two weeks solid, now, and to say I'm impressed understates the situation pitifully.
I was favorably disposed toward Jewel even before I heard the first song. Ecto, the Internet mailing list nominally devoted to the singer Happy Rhodes, but really an oddly appealing collective with a much broader fascination for highly autonomous female musicians, had somehow latched onto Jewel in the course of her pre-release touring, and I was thus flooded with pro-Jewel accolades well in advance of the album's release. Ecto has, in my experience, exhibited some unfortunate spots of underdiscrimination around the fringes of its demesne, but when it coalesces in force around an artist, I can be pretty confident I'm going to share its collective fervor. Notable previous points of firm agreement include Tori Amos, Kate Bush, Jane Siberry, Sarah McLachlan, Paula Cole and Happy herself. So while I didn't really have a clear idea of what kind of music Jewel was up to, I expected to like it.
It's not any of the things I expected. The first thing I expected was someone like Happy Rhodes, who is particularly fond of five-part auto-harmonies and spare, almost druidic, synthesizer accompaniments, and who draws scary monsters on her album covers. Jewel is nothing like that. The next thing I expected, from reading the title, was something like Tori Amos (the phrase "pieces of me" features prominently in Tori's song "Tear in Your Hand", after all). Another red herring. Next, observing the oddly sunny cover, I began to worry that the record would turn out to be sickeningly sweet pop. Peering closer to read the inscription at the bottom of the cover, though, and finding it to be the unprovoked comment "what we call human nature in actuality is human habit", my spirits perked up again. Opening the booklet and finding some playful pictures of the artist in jeans and bare feet, along with a short poem titled "Upon Moving Into My Van", I began to expect some low-fi Mary Lou Lord-ish ex-busking music.
Eventually, you'll be relieved to discover, I actually took the investigative step of inserting the disc in my player and finding the answer, rather than trying to deduce it from external clues. Jewel, I can now report with some faint hope of not being blithely contradicted, is a brilliantly charming new folk singer in no particular tradition (or, rather, no one existing tradition). Take a lot of Joni Mitchell, stir in a little bit of Christine Lavin's "new folk" underground (but strain out the neo-rusticisms and insider self-consciousness first), some indie-rock irreverence and naïveté, some of Melissa Ferrick's vocal intensity (especially that part of Melissa's songs where her voice seems to get caught in her throat for just a moment), a bit of Beth Nielsen Chapman's emotional storytelling, some of Happy's lyrical earnestness and just a touch of Tori's dynamic control. Sometimes it's as if a muse has taken over her body for a time, and is using it to deliver some eternal tune, and at others there's suddenly a nervous young girl on stage wondering whether she should really change the verse she's about to sing somehow.
The results are, in my opinion, astonishingly successful, and impressively varied. "Pieces of You", "Little Sister" and "Daddy" are harrowing and uncomfortable. "Adrian" is touching. "Who Will Save Your Soul" and "I'm Sensitive" are seditious, "Painters" is poetic, "Near You Always" is sweet, "Morning Song" is charming and silly, and "Angel Standing By" is beautiful. Most of the songs are just Jewel and a guitar, with a couple adding a band and a couple others adding piano (provided on one track by Go-Go's guitarist Charlotte Caffey, who also co-arranged a few songs). Jewel's voice is smooth and assured at times, at other times fragile and waifish, and at other times yet breaks into a country twang.
The thing I find most impressive about the album, though, is its simultaneous scope and consistency. I've shelved the disc beside Joni Mitchell's Blue (I won't try to explain my CD-collection's organizational schema here, other than to say that it's largely based on what I perceive to be stylistic connections, and that nobody but me can ever find anything in it), and Pieces of You doesn't cower in the presence of that venerated classic. Last year both Tori and Sarah McLachlan covered songs from Blue, and I can easily imagine another generation covering songs from Pieces of You when it gets to be Blue's age. That'll be, let's see, 2018. I think somebody is going to have to remind me about this prediction...
echolyn: As the World
echolyn also arrive in my life due to anticipatory hype on the net. In this case the accolades came from the progressive rock cabal, an even more exclusive and siege-minded enclave than Ecto. As with Ecto, though, this aggregate is fond of a run of bands I ardently approve of, like Marillion, IQ, Jadis, Dream Theater, Queensryche, Fates Warning, and such predictable forefathers as Yes and Rush. And they seemed to really be into echolyn, who are making their major label debut with this album but who have put out three earlier ones on their own and built up something of a following at home in Philadelphia, evidently.
The part of the equation I couldn't quite solve, though, was what a prog-rock band would be doing on Sony. I mean, Fish, Marillion's ex-vocalist, can't even get his records released domestically any more (despite a pretty successful effort to sound like Phil Collins), Marillion loses money touring here, IQ albums must be mail-ordered, and most of what seems to be the action in progressive rock isn't even happening in English (though I'm still not totally convinced that some net denizens aren't inventing hordes of fictional prog bands from Italy and Peru, just to confuse me). Then again, Dream Theater is on a Warner label, and Queensryche is on Capitol, so perhaps this is just mindless label parity.
Judging from both my reaction and that of several other net habitues coerced into buying As the World, I think the advance hype was somewhat misleading. Anybody expecting Dream Theater-esque ultra-complex prog-metal would be sorely disappointed with this, as there's very little here to merit a "-metal" suffix. Similarly, Marillion fans on the eternal quest for more bands like Marillion (a quest that, so far, for me, has yielded IQ and a lot of blatant and unsatisfying mimicry) will probably not consider this baroque album what they were after.
People open to hybrids, though, may have substantially better luck. There is good sense to some of the comparisons if they're qualified properly. The place to start, really, is Yes, circa Relayer and Close to the Edge, and those other albums that had about three songs each. echolyn's music is as compositionally complex, ambitious, and often deliriously overblown. The songs are shorter, though, which they appear to have managed by just compressing everything in time. Imagine Tales from Topographic Oceans performed at about six times its original speed, so that 18-minute meditations become 3-minute micro-symphonies. Occasional motifs suddenly become choruses. Extended instrumental soliloquies become drive-by solos. The Dream Theater comparisons, I think, derive from echolyn's ability to play quickly (this album has about 350 times as many notes as most, and is only twice as long), and to change tempos and keys with no warning, several times a second.
The two other obvious differences between echolyn and Yes both revolve around the singing. There is no Jon Anderson here, no distinctive falsetto lead. Instead, co-leads Ray Weston and Brett Kull, and keyboard player Christopher Buzby, execute air-show vocal formations whose harmonies and dynamics are actually much like those of the band's other instruments. At times they remind me of a classical a cappella group, jumping from combined chord to combined chord in ways that I'd be hard pressed to replicate on a piano using my fingers, of which I have substantially more than they have throats. This singing style is very much out of keeping with the standard rock nonchalance, and I suspect will put many people off even before the music gets to them.
The other thing that results from not having Jon Anderson around is that echolyn's lyrics do not end up being flights of questionable mysticism and oddly translated Eastern philosophy. In fact, they're kind of normal, thoughtful, lyrics, serviceable if not especially distinctive on their own. I find it refreshing, though, to have this musical style divorced from its standard lyrical content. There are certain progressive albums I have and like a lot (Pallas' The Sentinel bounds to mind), which I can't bring myself to play when anybody else is around because the lyrics are so painfully prog-stereotypical. Give a prog-rock skeptic a single mention of Atlantis to latch onto, and you'll never hear the end of it.
The bad news, of course, is that echolyn's style is so concertedly progressive that playing the whole album for anybody not already predisposed toward the style is likely to be little more than futility practice. Indeed, even I had to listen to the album several times before I could do much more than blink through most of it, thinking that if the members of the band had been born 1000 years earlier they'd probably have been quite happy illuminating single prayer book pages in flickering candlelight for months on end. Taking a song at a time, though, until the proper tolerance is built up, might be a much more viable introduction strategy. Many of the 16 songs here ("Best Regards" and "Settled Land" are two good examples, I think) have strong melodic elements, recognizable choruses, and other friendly features, along with more adventurous bits, and so make somewhat balanced points of entry for the reluctant and uninitiated.
Just to be safe, though, if you don't have a good pair of headphones you might pick up a set while you're out buying this album. You need this music, but you also need your friends.
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