Someone Else to Catch This Drift
27 · 3 August 95
Alanis Morissette: Jagged Little Pill
I hate the slow usurpation of MTV by bad game shows as much as anybody, but in those rare slots where they still play music videos, I catch interesting things just often enough that flipping to the channel keeps being a worthwhile gesture. My list of inspiring women whom I discovered by catching the last half of their videos, which already had Tori Amos and Sarah McLachlan on it, recently saw the addition of Alanis Morissette. Three things immediately caught my attention about her now-Buzz-Clip video for "You Oughta Know": first, parts of the song reminded me nostalgically of the Bee Gees (something about the parallel downward scales of "'Cause the love that you gave that we made wasn't able..." and "Feel the city breaking and everybody's shaking..."); second, the confidence and power of Alanis' vocal delivery stopped my channel-changing finger in mid-punch; and third, the pain and vitriol evident in the lines "Does she know how you told me you'd hold me / Until you died, 'til you died / But you're still alive" caused me to toss the remote control aside in sudden enraptured fascination, a laudably enthusiastic response that I nonetheless came to partially regret later, when I discovered the remote suspended in a half-full glass of water unaccountably abandoned in a corner of the living room that I guess I need to scan for stray dishes more often.
Since then I've learned a few more things about Alanis Morissette, some of it pertinent and much of it not. On the not-pertinent list are the facts that she's Canadian, that she spent some time as a child on Nickelodeon's kids' show You Can't Do That on Television, that she had a couple of albums of Tiffany-like mall-dance-pop under just the name "Alanis" in Canada in the earlier Nineties (I haven't heard any of this for myself yet, but a Canadian colleague has been dispatched to round some up for me; I traded him a copy of Scott Walker's Tilt for it, an exchange I won't bother trying to defend on artistic grounds), and that Flea and Dave Navarro both played on "You Oughta Know". Possibly pertinent, mostly for how implausible it comes to seem after listening to this album, is that she recently turned 21.
All the definitely pertinent information you need to know, however, is on the album. I've seen a couple of people on the net complain that the album doesn't live up to the single, but I couldn't disagree more strongly (not within legal constraints, anyway). "You Oughta Know" does remain one of my favorite songs, but every time I listen to the album I'm a little more amazed how impressive the whole thing is. Stylistically, Alanis' singing reminds me of an uncanny cross between Janis Joplin, Joni Mitchell, Sinéad O'Connor and Carol Decker (of T'Pau), or perhaps like Edie Brickell's evil twin, sliding electrifyingly from light breathiness to wailing metallic doubled harmonies. Lyrically, she has clearly learned from the confrontational trails recently blazed by people like Tori and PJ Harvey, and a little too from Liz Phair (though this really only applies to "You Oughta Know", and even there a couple edits to gloss over "would she go down on you in a theater?" and "are you thinking of me when you fuck her?" were all that was needed to clean the song up sufficiently for MTV), but she applies this insight and candor much less elliptically than Tori or Polly, which puts her comfortably into the company, in my mind, of such current esteemed (by me at least) hybrid folk-rock storytellers as Jewel and Melissa Ferrick.
The music on Jagged Little Pill, composed by Alanis and producer Glen Ballard, and performed by Glen and a revolving cast of studio players (including ever-present organist Benmont Tench), is a thoroughly modern melange of programmed machine grooves that verge on dance without quite ever turning wholly disco, warmly overdriven guitar that reminds me pleasantly of School of Fish, and a tasteful assortment of acoustic guitars, keyboards, bass and the occasional bit of harmonica from Alanis herself. I can easily imagine, years hence, looking back on this first Alanis Morissette album and feeling that the music is studio-player predictable compared to her later work, similar to the way the arrangements on Kate Bush's first two albums now sound bizarrely time-locked to me. On the other hand, I think the task of the music here is to support Alanis' presence, not to inspire awe for its own virtues, and in that regard I consider it largely irreproachable.
The album opens with the churning lope of "All I Really Want", Glen's slightly retro-Seventies-ish guitar dancing choppily in and out of the deliberate drum-machine pattern, as Alanis punctuates a set of pretty ambitious demands (including peace, comfort, patience, justice, a soulmate and the opportunity to meet God) with some withering self-awareness. "You Oughta Know" is next, and is one of the most brutal examples of obsessive scorned anger I can recall, sort of like a minorly reordered Fatal Attraction recast as internal monologue. The edge of mania in Alanis' voice is awesome. The mood then changes abruptly for the much mellower "Perfect", a subtle portrait of the oppressiveness of parental expectations. "We'll love you just the way you are if you're perfect" may not be this year's most original line, but the point is worth making again, and nicely made at that.
Alanis and Glen then kick out the rest of the players for a song, and simmer easily through the classic-sounding mid-tempo "Hand in My Pocket", whose hippie tendencies seem to leak out of the line "I've got one hand in my pocket / And the other one is giving the peace sign" and infuse the whole song with a relaxed good nature. Anger returns quickly, though, in the defiant "Right Through You", in which Alanis tears into either a real media slime from her past, or possibly just a representative simulacrum. "You took me for a child" is a presumptuous attack-line for a 20-year-old, most especially for one with a child-star resume, but if she had anything like a demo version of this album with her at the time, I'd have been inclined to give her the benefit of the doubt.
The most Tori-like moment occurs at the beginning of "Forgiven", as Alanis curls her mouth around the opening lines, "You know how us Catholic girls can be: / We make up for so much time a little too late." The song switches almost immediately into a surging electric storm, though, and Alanis' take on religion in the end seems much more understanding than Tori's, with the song concluding merely "We had to believe in something / So we did". This serenity persists in the anthemic "You Learn", in which Alanis endorses foolishness in myriad forms, disarming them all by proclaiming them learning experiences. Unfashionable good cheer continues in "Head Over Feet", a gracefully understated song about falling in love with a close friend. In this victim culture, when's the last time you heard a song with a line like "I've never felt this healthy before"?
The album's most conventional moment, I think, comes next, in the sentimental, if encouraging, ballad "Mary Jane", but the blades come back out almost instantly, with the barbed "Ironic", in which quiet verses launch into wailing choruses, and Alanis' auto-harmonies bend notes into chords like a good slide-guitar player. Things get a little confusing for a bit, in "Not the Doctor". I follow all the ways in which the narrator doesn't want her independence impinged on, but I can't figure out why she keeps showing up after visiting hours all the same. The album then concludes with another pulsing dance groove, this one underlying "Wake Up", which starts out as a relatively generic denunciation of apathy, and then takes an odd gender twist in the lines "There's an apprehensive naked little trembling boy / With his head in his hands, / There's an underestimated and impatient little girl / Raising her hand."
Of course, no self-respecting CD ends with the last listed track any more, and so after the obligatory minute of silence designed to make you think you forgot to put something into the next slot in the changer, one more song appears, here an interesting a cappella lesson about why snooping around in your lover's home may not be the wisest use of an afternoon. I like the song a lot, but the novelty of "unlisted bonus tracks" would really have been better left to "Train in Vain" and "Endless Nameless". Pretty soon they'll be as obligatory as concert encores, and as meaningless.
The Geraldine Fibbers: Lost Somewhere Between the Earth and My Home
I would have taken the flimsiest excuse to buy any album with a name as phenomenally cool as this one's, so a review I read somewhere that compared the Geraldine Fibbers to Thin White Rope was more than enough to lure a copy into my acquisition pile. The comparison is pretty apt. If you can imagine combining the darkly warped kind of rock mutation that TWR or Grant Lee Buffalo induce in country-western music (or vice versa) with a Hole-like abrasive fondness for discord, you've got a pretty good idea of the difficult (both to play and to listen to) music the Geraldine Fibbers fill this album with.
The band is a five-piece, lead by Carla Bozulich's berserk singing. Double bass replaces the usual bass guitar, there's another guitarist and a drummer, and a full-time violin player. Guests contribute piano, lap steel and banjo on a few songs, giving the whole affair an intriguingly naturalistic flavor. The balance between melody and noise is about what you'd expect for a cross between Grant Lee Buffalo and Hole, with virtually every song bursting into a cacophonous clamor at one point or another, but by the same token nearly every song having at least one twangy groove into which it slips at times. The closest approach to pure punk is probably the frenetic "Dusted", and at the other end the most straightforward country lament may be "Richard", a long story-song about the devil going out for the night whose sophistication makes "The Devil Went Down to Georgia", by comparison, sound like, well, like something Charlie Daniels could have written. The strangest piece may be the last song, "Get Thee Gone", which manages to establish the dubious new genre of bluegrass-art-noise. In between these extremes are stories of fevered insanity (the album's apropos opening lines are "In the dark she is rocking, / Not to records but to voices in her head"), alienation ("As I disappeared behind the clouds, / You thought you saw my head explode... / You're not dreaming."), drugs and nostalgia, anti-apathetic extremism ("Dragon Lady", a song filled with quotably disturbing passages, like "I got some satisfaction from lifting up your dress, / A slap in the face is worth a hundred words", "There's a story of a girl so sleepy / She could not be roused. / She was kissed by pigs and doctors / All over the land.", and the whole deranged last verse: "We'll take hostages, make demands, / Set fire to all our best laid plans. / We'll assemble volatile explosive devices, / Sell them for exorbitant prices. Purchase an aircraft, learn to fly, / Run out of gas while we're in the sky. / Automatic pilot and x-ray spex, / We were kissing in the cockpit when the airplane wrecked."), more drugs (the harrowing "A Song About Walls", a sort of gender-reversed answer song to Everclear's "Heroin Girl"), the hopelessness of pretending that romantic idylls can hold off the world, hatred and revenge, nonsense (if "That's a little lamb, that's a big black bug, got your 50 cent fortune tucked under your rug" is supposed to be anything more than a rhyming cadence, I need footnotes), and one song I can't understand in the slightest ("The French Song", whose title is only the first of many things about it that I can't fathom).
I'm not sure whether I like this album or not. I'm not sure it's the sort of record you're meant to evaluate that way; it may be better just to listen to it for its strangeness, as if the highest compliment it aspires to is not "that's great" but "that's odd", which isn't an unreasonable approach to take, and which is a response the album has unquestionably earned.
Low: Long Division
For those of you who prefer your strange musical experiences to be a little less harrowing, here's yet another band I ran across by seeing the tail end of their video. Low is the band that those of you who always hated how busy This Mortal Coil's arrangements were have been waiting for. They are a trio, with Alan and Mimi (no last names provided) sharing ethereal vocal duties, Alan providing spare, largely single-note guitar parts, Mimi adding percussion (calling it "drumming" would give an inaccurate impression), and Zak filling in a few of the open spaces with carefully placed bass notes. The songs are slow and deliberate, phrases repeated at a near standstill with mathematical precision, but the result is surprisingly musical. You have to be patient with this album, as things take their own time about getting anywhere, but if you can shift your temporal frame of reference far enough, and not keep reaching for the non-existent speed switch on your CD player, the experience is really quite refined. Alan and Mimi's vocal harmonies are graceful, and the instrument harmonies between Zak's bass and Alan's guitar have a monastic sort of tunefulness about them. The vocal delivery doesn't seem to place much importance on the actual words, and what little close study I applied to them indicated that this is probably just as well (Here's what I was able to get out of the opening track, "Violence", less only some repetition of the final line: "Lent you my favorite dictionary, / Came back with ripped-out pages. / Stopped by so uninvited, / Wasted good silverware on you. / You can't trust violence."), but the phrases suit the moods in an impressionistic way. There isn't as much atmospheric reverb or texture as This Mortal Coil would have applied (the crack about TMC being busy by comparison was at least partially serious), and these songs are much more abstract than depressing, but It'll End in Tears is certainly the closest point of musical reference I can think of. This is a rare album of music that is relaxing without being at all cloying, a sort of musical version of a chapbook of elegant line-drawings, simple elements rendered powerful by their isolation. It's also one of the only albums of nominally "popular" music that you could play on church bells at full speed, and note-complete.
Nan Vernon: Manta Ray
This week's erratic selection concludes with an album released back in 1994 that I only came across recently, and have been meaning to slip in a brief plug for some issue. Nan Vernon is apparently a protege of ex-Eurythmic Dave Stewart, though his only appearance here is in the thank-yous. She plays guitar and assorted other things, she wrote or co-wrote all but two of these dozen songs, and she co-produced several of them as well. Other assistance is here rendered by bassist/synthesist Matthew Seligman, Pretenders drummer Martin Chambers and a whole bunch of people whose names I don't recognize.
The album is another unapologetic entrant in the ethereal dance-pop genre established a decade ago when Kate Bush put out Hounds of Love. On my shelf it sits beside Paula Cole's Harbinger, a bunch of Tasmin Archer discs and Sarah Brightman's Dive, forming a little transitional cluster bridging the gap between Sarah McLachlan (and beyond her Tori, Jane Siberry, Happy Rhodes and Kate herself) on one side, and traditionalists like Milla, Loreena McKennitt and Enya/Clannad on the other. If you don't care for this style, this won't be the conversion factor, but if you do I recommend it enthusiastically. "Motorcycle" is a pop classic (worthy of inclusion on a theme tape with the Icicle Works' "Motorcycle Rider" and the Manic Street Preachers' "Motorcycle Emptiness"), "Elvis Waits" sounds like Sarah Brightman doing a forgotten Bowie song, "No More Lullabyes" contains one of my two favorite pop implementations of lines about moving to France (the other, in the incredibly off chance that you wondered, is in the old Fischer-Z song "So Long"), "Big Picture" and "Lay Down Joe" are spooky, "Fisherman" is a stab at emulating the second half of Hounds of Love, which most people shy away from, and the banshee/calliope title track makes for a distinctive finale. The two covers, George Harrison's "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" and the martial German torch song "Johnny's Birthday", seem like rather ill-advised experiments to me, as does the short digression into dance-funk, "Treasure", but these aberrations can be easily programmed around even if you agree with me, and the rest of it is well worth the extra button-pushing.
And besides, anybody who owns Brightman's album is hardly in a position to criticize.