Two Pages or Less
14 · 2 May 95
Pete and Maura Kennedy: River of Fallen Stars
The most obvious thing to say about Pete and Maura Kennedy is that they would like to be Richard and Linda Thompson. And, as with most really obvious things, this one has an element of truth, and an element of pointlessly annoying stupidity. Yes, on the one hand, they appear to be a married folk-music couple, and they do sing "Wall of Death", which for your average Cypress Hill fan may well make them and the Thompsons virtually indistinguishable. Even at this superficial level, though, the differences aren't very hard to spot. The Kennedys' is a much more even collaboration, with both of them playing guitar and singing, and sharing writing credits on nine of these thirteen songs. They also don't really have any of the Thompsons' unnerving brink-of-self-annihilation edge; their rendition of "Wall of Death" is a nice study in vocal harmony, but the original, from Richard and Linda's harrowingly classic album Shoot Out the Lights, is a claustrophobic exercise in frustrated powerlessness. Still, if there weren't a Thompson cover on this album, it wouldn't have fit in with the theme of the CDs my parents got me for my birthday last month, and so I would almost certainly never have heard it.
Because that was my introduction to this album, though, it took me a couple trips through it to realize that the Thompson-esque straight folk parts aren't, in my opinion, the Kennedys' strength. They're both competent singers and guitarists, but the individual elements aren't the foundation of their style the way Richard's guitar and Linda's voice were. In place of those virtues, the Kennedys here offer three distinct things that you might not want to overlook even if you don't frequent the "Folk" aisles.
First, they, bassist Stu Voorman and drummer Stumpy Joe Jr. make a quite plausible country/folk rock band. Maura's voice has a clean twang to it, the guitars chime cheerily, and Stumpy's drumming has a square, well, stumpiness to it, eminently suited to dances you can do in cowboy boots. "Wall of Death" is basically done this way, as is the Tom Kimmel/Stan Lynch composition "House on Fire" (on which the imprint of Lynch's day job with the Heartbreakers is clearly evident). Of the duo's own songs, the solid "Same Old Way", the mournful ballad "Day In and Day Out", the jangly "Winterheart", and Maura's requiem for her mother, "Life Goes On Without You" (which reminds me strongly, as things frequently seem to, of Beth Nielsen Chapman), all fit into this oeuvre. They do a good job with the style, and if this were all River of Fallen Stars had to offer, I'd still hang on to the CD, but as a clinically-certified completist I basically hang on to everything; remember: it's not trash if you don't throw it away. (Actually, the "clinically-certified" part was an improvisation, but if anybody does know of such a certification program, I'd be interested to hear the details. I think with the right medical affidavit I could get a healthy discount on the purchase of anything totally redundant or otherwise pathetically inessential for normal human existence, which for me would probably amount to a substantial savings before very long.)
The second thing Pete and Maura do well is a sort of modern day variant of the thin, elegant harmonies of those equally noble folk progenitors, Simon and Garfunkel, in their occasional serious moments (i.e., not the songs with lines like "I get up to wash my face, and when I come back to bed someone's taken my place", or "I've lost my harmonica, Albert"). "Month of Hours" sounds to me like a very young Paul and Art inexplicably given a mid-period REM backing track to sing something akin to "So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright" over, which would be especially confusing for them since that song was from their final album. "Chelsea Embankment", whose spare lyrics are entirely composed of London street names, reminds me a little of "April Come She Will". "Spirit Compass" doesn't remind me of any specific S&G song, but it's very much of a set with the other two. And in a way "Fortune Teller Road" reminds me of the Story (the guitars, mostly, not the singing), who I was set to champion as this decade's answer to Paul and Art before Jennifer Kimball decided (not unreasonably) that touring was a big pain in the ass. And, again, if this thread was all that this album was woven out of, it'd be a pretty interesting album, worth investigating.
But honestly, the reason I keep being inextricably drawn to the disc is the presence of just two songs, on which Pete and Maura transcend their usual perfectly admirable competence and achieve something thoroughly remarkable. If I were to make a single out of them, "River of Fallen Stars" would clearly be the title track. The cycling guitar parts are pure and breathtakingly free of anything even vaguely disharmonic. Bass and some subtle drums give the song some additional body, and over it Maura's achingly guileless voice soars, singing lines whose deliberate near-nonsensicality in print somehow seems appropriate in song ("And from down in the valley / Where the gospel horses run, / All the way to the midnight bridge / Where the flags of victory are hung..."). In place of Pete's usual vocal harmony is a tasteful resonating wisp of electric guitar feedback that licks at the edges of the melody like the tongue of a curious dragon (I'm really sorry about that overwrought simile, though obviously not quite sorry enough to remove it). The liner notes explain that this song was inspired by Giant's Causeway, in Ireland somewhere. I have no idea what kind of a place that really is, but this song makes me envision a sort of cross between a windswept world's-end coastline (the one in my mind, I realize, also comes from vicarious experience: it is the one off of which Frank Churchill throws the shreds of spiral-notebook paper from his abandoned first draft at the end of Kim Stanley Robinson's short story "'A History of the Twentieth Century, With Illustrations'") and Rivendell.
The flip side of the single would be, appropriately enough, the Dublin ode "Stephen's Green". In parts this is the most Simon-and-Garfunkel-like song of all of the ones here, with Pete and Maura's duet veering alarmingly close to the timbres of "Scarborough Fair", but the insistent guitar part gives it a rhythmic gait that carries it for me, and turns it from a languid choral exercise into an auspiciously hummable pop song. The reference to Grafton Street also serves as a nod to Nanci Griffith's song of that name on her last album, which I would expect is intentional, given that she receives the liner notes' concluding thank-you.
Green Linnet, the staunch folkie label on which this CD appears, seems to realize that the album has crossover aspirations, as they've optimistically inscribed "File Under Folk/Rock/Pop" in a corner of the back cover, but this gesture fails to acknowledge three important truths: 1) Anything arriving at a major record chain with "Green Linnet" on the return address is going to go straight into the folk/Celtic annex, even if it's plastered with Cannibal Corpse decals; 2) Anything whose back cover mentions "folk" has got ten seconds to also cough up Lou Barlow's name, or it's into the annex as well; and 3) even if the label name was edited to "Green Lantern", and the injunction thereon altered to "File under: Erratic Blowtorch Opera", the best a CD with this one's back cover photo of two patently goofy individuals holding acoustic guitars can hope for is that it's mistaken for a Timbuk 3 side project (ironically, the Kennedys do live in Austin), and liberated from the folk ghetto only to be placed with the rest of the Timbuk 3 records, usually right beside the collected works of Saigon Kick in a bin labeled "Special Offers -- $2.99-$5.99".
Jason and Alison: Woodshed
While I'm on the subject of musical couples, here's another one that I'm coming to a little belatedly. Woodshed came out in 1994, it says here, but I didn't hear of Jason and Alison until they opened up for Bob Mould here in Boston a couple weeks ago. I didn't go to the show, mind you, but just knowing that they were opening for Mould's solo tour got me interested (which says a lot about how little it takes to get me to buy a CD I know nothing about). Actually, somewhere I'd read a one-sentence description of them, so I also knew that he played guitar and she played cello, and that that was it, which had an undeniable minimalistic appeal to me, especially with all the Mecca Normal I've been listening to recently.
First listen, I didn't even get all the way through it. The singing wasn't bad, but the guitar playing seemed totally lacking in subtlety, nuance-less strumming without much rhythmic distinction or other excuse (a guitar failing I'm particularly sensitive too, as I tend to suffer from it myself). I stopped it after a few songs, in order to listen to something else I'd just bought (possibly some old 7" Sleeper singles).
But according to house rules, any CD I buy myself is entitled to at least two complete playings with me in speaker range, so the next evening I put it on again. This time I let it get to the fifth track, and suddenly things changed. "Hey wait", said I (I might have actually said this aloud, though why I would speak to fish like this I'm not sure), "I just realized that this album sounds just like the Posies. This isn't bad at all."
Perhaps because the middle of the album is where this revelation hit me, the two middle songs remain the center of my experience of it, even a couple weeks of obsessive playing later (luckily, last week was a complete wash for new releases). "Hollow", the fifth song, with the melancholy chorus "How does this all sit with you? / And how does your head hit your pillow? / Seated in jury are two, / But this vote leaves both of us hollow", is slow and pained, but strikingly beautiful. "Letter from Florence" isn't much faster or more cheerful, but the chorus melody is a little more buoyant, and I'm charmed by the irony of the line "But how I can express myself / In two pages or less?" occurring in the middle of an evocative song whose text would fit well within that length. Each time I play the album, though, another phrase jumps out at me, to the point where I'm now excited to hear just about any of these songs beginning.
Musically, I've already given you enough information to construct Jason and Alison's sound. For the novice at thought-experiment genetic synthesis of rock bands, here are detailed instructions: Start with the Posies, circa Failure, their first album. (If you don't know this album, then not only will you have a hard time following this recipe, but you're missing one of the most exuberantly appealing and astonishingly polished sets of music ever recorded in a living room by two guys who aren't afraid to be heard operating instruments that they don't actually play that well.) Take off the drums, and remove the gleeful sense of humor, so that you're left with a more serious, slower band, but one that still has an uncanny knack for glorious harmonies and some skill for simple but effective song structures in which to mount them. Now take some of Bob Mould's bleak poetic style, and a few shots of his penchant for guitar noise. Hold the pan of bubbling results in your left hand, the CD in your right hand, and carefully pour the contents of the former over the latter. As the suspicious, and painfully hot, liquid scalds your right arm and splatters all over expensive audio equipment and white carpet, try to fight through your anger at me for my over-literal use of metaphors, and concentrate on the way the mixture of ingredients seeps through those strange little slits along the edge of jewel cases, and into the crude woodcut portrait of the duo on stage that graces the cover of the CD booklet.
The picture shows Alison playing cello, and Jason playing guitar, which explains the literal mechanics of their arrangements (Jason multi-tracks his voice for harmony, as Alison doesn't sing, many songs have doubled guitar parts (including some electric feedback, very much in Mould's vein), and a few even have doubled cello, but that's about it), but the style and details of the picture convey important elements of their approach, as well. Note the plain folding aluminum chairs they are sitting on, and the unadorned stage. Note, for that matter, that they're both sitting. There's something brave and audacious, in this age of hip-hop, grunge and anti-showman showmanship, about the idea of playing seated rock music without a big "Unplugged" sign to hide behind. The expectations it sets take a moment to absorb. Nobody intends you to dance to this. Although this music is explicitly informal, it is serious. You're supposed to sit and pay attention. The cello, Woody Allen notwithstanding, is a not an instrument that lends itself to extra-musical performance theatrics (though if you quote this observation to my mother she is sure to recount some embarrassing anecdote from my youth involving the cello I was supposed to be practicing, headphones, a Boston album, and my underestimation of the sound-retaining capacity of my bedroom door), and rather than fight this with ridiculous the-aliens-are-coming light shows and appalling afros à la ELO, Jason and Alison simply accept it, and play.
And you, even simpler, have only to listen.
Mecca Normal: Mecca Normal
Speaking of Mecca Normal, K records recently followed up the band's new album, Sitting on Snaps (reviewed in The War Against Silence #2, as those of you who are personal relatives of mine may recall), by re-releasing this, their very first album, which first came out in 1986 and was, until now, unavailable on CD. Those of you who know Mecca Normal only from their later incarnation as a duo, with David Lester playing ravaged electric guitar and Jean Smith singing in a voice a little reminiscent of a drunk Janis Joplin imitating the Martian from Bugs Bunny, will be surprised to find that they begin the band's life on this album with a full rhythm section, Jean singing in a Spanish baritone, four different guest electric autoharp players, and a fourteen-page translated libretto detailing the tragically wrongheaded mistreatment of captured loyalist veterinarians during the 1982 Prokovakian civil war.
That, of course, was a joke. As everybody knows, it was the loyalists in that war whose human-rights violations were the most egregious...
Ahem. As those of you who have heard at least two Mecca Normal albums will have already deduced, the band's style doesn't vary dramatically from album to album, and this first one is no exception to the rule. Lester plays his guitar, and Smith sings in her bizarre, constricted way. Fans will want this album because, well, it's only just now available, and it has eleven more Mecca Normal songs on it. Potential newcomers, however, would be well advised to approach this album only by way of the rest of the band's catalog. The liner notes point out, proudly, the five songs here that "were recorded as we wrote them, on the first time through". With nine years of hindsight on my side, I think I will not outrage anybody by suggesting that, after all, this degree of insouciance was probably not totally merited. Though Lester's guitar parts are merely less intricate than usual, and Smith's singing isn't that different in character from its usual mode, the improvised lyrics are pretty bad, to the point of there being a song here actually called "Sha La La La La", which I don't find particularly amusing. There are some remarkable moments among the more premeditated tracks (my favorite, I think, being "Takes all kinds to make the world, you tell me, / But you don't understand them, all those kinds. / So to hell with them", from "Tolerate Me"), but they're pretty diluted, especially when this disc is compared with any of the band's five other CDs.
The album redeems itself in my eyes, however, with one sentence on the liner: "Recorded at Sounds Fine to Me on a cassette 4 track". The idea of a studio named "Sounds Fine to Me" makes me so happy I could listen contentedly to half an hour of tape hiss (which, actually, there's very little of on this album). Dorothy Sayers would have a piece to say on this subject about artists who fail to experience their own work clearly (or in her analogical exposition of the Trinity, creation that lacks the Holy Ghost), but in the case of Mecca Normal, I'm inclined to think that while Wimsey could hardly have been expected to put up with the racket, Harriet and Jean Smith might have gotten along just fine.
(Note to myself: if anybody ever starts a Rotisserie Rock Band league, and time travel is allowed, draft Dorothy Sayers and Dorothy Parker first. Liz Phair and Courtney Love haven't a chance...)