Wake Me Up When We Hit 1995
45 · 7 December 95
Melissa Etheridge: Your Little Secret
Once, the rock mainstream belonged to gruff working-class heroes who sang songs about losing their women, losing their jobs, and trying to get their women back (though oddly, I can't think of a single song about trying to get their jobs back). They wore jeans, they played their guitars like they were tennis rackets, they got in fights often enough to impress the men, and they apologized sheepishly enough afterwards to charm the women. They played to stadiums in the afternoons, and then jammed into the night at anonymous New Jersey taverns. Their music made good car commercials. It sounded good in convertibles. They made songs to play while you wipe the sweat from your forehead with a red bandanna.
The only problem with this incarnation of rock and roll was that it didn't make very good television. Bruce Springsteen moves like a poorly fitted action figure of himself in the video to "Dancing in the Dark", and there's a limit to the number of times you can pull Courteney Cox out of a crowd to enliven a finale. Songs that make it seem noble to be unable to afford to repair one's truck don't send ad agencies scrambling for the phone to call their video departments. And so there began a long procession of more videogenic styles, and MTV became Western culture's dominant aesthetic, and we bombed a swath of the Middle East that most people couldn't point to on a map back into the stone age, and we stared at Kurt's hightops sticking out from behind the door frame in that picture, and it seemed like something important was going on, but it hurt.
And in the middle of all of this, somebody at VH1 realized that there was an enormous cultural lacuna available for the colonizing. As rock and roll's early generations grew older, they no longer wanted to identify with scruffy youths, no longer wanted to be immersed in their anxieties. They didn't want to feel like they were old, mind you, they just wanted to feel like they were adult. And so the Norns rearranged some threads and a new rock and roll for adults started to take shape. For its heart they needed somebody very specific. The person had to appeal to women as well as men. They had to offer connections to the glamorous and TV-essential worlds of celebrity and fashion while still clearly being of the viewers' world themselves. They had to rock hard enough that the watchers could feel like they hadn't grown soft, but not so hard or strangely that you wouldn't want to play them to a minivan full of first-graders. And while the person needed to avoid actively attracting controversy, they also needed to somehow help the audience feel tolerant and politically correct.
The scouts looked around. It was 1992 or so. There were Eric Clapton and Bonnie Raitt, of course, but both were a little too old and too sedate to be ideal. Then somebody came across Melissa Etheridge. She was on her third album by that point, new enough to be molded, but experienced enough to assess. Her self-titled 1988 debut was solid. It has simple songs sung passionately, and finds Melissa comfortable both with rousing anthems and aching quiet. 1989's Brave and Crazy further established her competence, and added two standout songs, the electric "No Souvenirs and the elegiac "You Can Sleep While I Drive". It was Never Enough, the next one, that got the stylists really excited, though. The liner photographs are a plaintive cry for direction. On the cover, wearing jeans and holding a guitar and facing away from us wearing no shirt, Melissa looked like the world's friendliest sex-symbol. In the performance picture beside the lyrics to "Must Be Crazy For Me" she looks like an exuberant folk-rocker. In the centerfold picture she looks like she's auditioning to be in a bad Heart video. In the one by "It's For You", with a frilly blouse and feathered hair, she looks like a lost Judd. And in the one across from the first page of credits, perhaps, the grainy picture of her pointing to her endearing smile, the wrist of the hand holding the microphone covered with bracelets, and a ring on the other thumb -- perhaps it was this picture that made some backstage string-pullers spot the nascent pan-sexual and trans-class potential. Perhaps this is where they decided that Melissa Etheridge would be the new soul of VH1 and its segment of the cultural spectrum. Or perhaps it just happened on its own.
Either way, some important things changed. Never Enough found Melissa, musically, starting to experiment with dangerous ingredients. "2001", with its pounding industrial percussion, was a radical digression for her, and traces of its exploratory energy infused even the most normal of the other songs. While this was an interesting development musically (in fact, "2001" remains my favorite of her songs, and Never Enough my favorite of her albums), it wouldn't suit VH1's needs at all. The profusion of visual personae was no good, either. Madonna provided all the chimera-appeal that the channel could handle; they needed something constant and firmly grounded.
And so there came Yes I Am. I'm making all this sound calculated, and I have no idea whether there was really any calculation involved at all, but it couldn't have been plotted any better with an army of image consultants. Yes I Am introduced two important resolutions. First, starting with the title, it declared Melissa's homosexuality. This couldn't have been more perfect. Her lesbianism raised her political-correctness quotient enormously, but she carried it off without any disturbing sexual ambiguity or intimidating aggressiveness (two things that, given the prevalence of male homophobia, would have been much more difficult for a gay man). Her obvious shyness was winning and sympathetic. The combination of her media exposure and her coming out lead naturally to some association with fashion and fame, but her stubborn unwillingness to downplay her un-fashion-model-like physique made her seem like one of us admitted into their world.
Musically, she abandoned the experimentation and settled down to make straightforward rock and roll, flavored with just enough acoustic guitar to remind you of her roots, but otherwise untroubled by innovation. Her lyrics, for maximimum appeal, are mostly love songs that work equally well for any gender-preference. The mention of HIV, in "All-American Girl", is carefully arranged to refer to a friend, not a lover, to emphasize personal sympathy toward the victim rather than the sexual nature of the disease. Even the most tentative can sing the "Something's gotta give somewhere" after the reference and feel like they are spiritually a part of the good fight.
Your Little Secret, then, comes in the Much-Awaited Follow-Up Album position. It is the first record on which Melissa has to be a star, not become one. This isn't, given the specific formula she's expected to sustain, that hard a challenge, and she proves more than up to it. The ten songs here are ten more examples of the three things Melissa is best at: songs that straddle the line between mid-tempo and up-tempo rockers ("Your Little Secret", "I Really Like You" and "I Want to Come Over"), songs that straddle the line between slow ballads and mid-tempo rockers ("Nowhere to Go", "An Unusual Kiss", "I Could Have Been You" and "Change"), and songs that straddle the line between quiet calm and slow ballad ("All the Way to Heaven", "Shiner's Park" and "This War Is Over"). If you've heard her previous albums, especially Yes I Am, there won't be anything even remotely surprising here.
On the other hand, she did earn her position as this style's patroness. If you like these sorts of songs, she's as good at writing them as anybody, and her powerful voice is ideal for singing them. Song for song I like this album better than Yes I Am, and if there's no one moment that really stands out for me, then conversely there's not a weak spot to be found here, either. If circa 1995 this is what we mean by mainstream rock music for adults, that's okay with me.
Joan Osborne: Relish
Melissa opened VH1's new Duets series two weeks ago, in the company of a revolving cast of accompanists consisting of Joan Osborne, Paula Cole, Jewel and Sophie B. Hawkins. I missed out on the Sophie B. Hawkins wave, but the other three I'm very much into. The show had what I assume was the unintended effect of proving that Melissa Etheridge can't sing harmony to save her life. The duets with Paula and Jewel, who both can sing harmony (Paula was the female vocalist on Peter Gabriel's last tour and pseudo-live album, in fact), were spectacular, and the song with Sophie, whose range is higher than Melissa's, worked okay. The two songs with Joan Osborne, however, didn't fare as well, I thought. Joan's range is much closer to Melissa's, and neither of them seemed accustomed to singing with anybody. Then again, on their own albums neither of them have to, so why care?
Too many reviews of this album cited gospel and blues influences, which aren't two of my favorite genres, so I put off buying it several times. I kept hearing "One of Us" and liking it, though. And then I found out that the supporting cast here was Hooters Eric Bazilian and Rob Hyman and the production team of Rick Chertoff and William Wittman, the same people responsible for assisting in the delivery of Cyndi Lauper's She's So Unusual and Patty Smyth's Never Enough, two albums I like a lot. I've never been sure why the Hooters are so abhorrent to me on their own, yet so excellent as a backing band, but there it is, and I'm a sucker for connections.
Joan's story, to the extent that I've gleaned it from elsewhere, involves showing up at some random open-mic night in New York, being asked to please come back the next week, and going on from there. She apparently has an album or two on a label of her own (but if your experience is like mine you won't find evidence of them anywhere obvious). Listening to Relish I hear clear signs both of her relative inexperience and of why she got this opportunity.
The album opens with "St. Teresa", which was the song she did on Duets. Eric Bazilian's reedy mandolin and a ticking drum track provide a spare backing over which Joan's twisting vocal writhes. Her voice is powerful and not given overmuch to dynamic subtlety, but she slides into and around notes with striking control and flair. It is this sliding that gives rise to the blues comparisons, I think, and perhaps it is the unrestrained force of her voice that makes people think of gospel. I certainly wouldn't call her a rock or pop singer by nature, but the effect of placing her in that context is quite interesting.
The cover of Bob Dylan's "Man in the Long Black Coat", with murkily processed organ-like piano and flares of stabbing acoustic guitar, is slow and stately. The strained "Right Hand Man", with its stomping drums, half-hoarse lead vocals and oddly-matched falsetto auto-harmonies, is electrifying. The sing-along chorus ("I've been on the floor looking for a chair; / I've been on the chair looking for a couch; / I've been on the couch looking for a bed") has a sort of timeless bar-song simplicity to it, which the roaring vocals, bouncing piano and simmering saxophone accentuate. The hissing tambourines and the rhythmic hitch in the chorus keep the song moving forward at what always seems like a breakneck pace even though it isn't technically that fast.
If there's a problem with this album, it's that the musicians often sound like they're only barely able to keep up with Joan, or that she hasn't learned yet how to reign herself in to work with them. "Pensacola" feels especially that way to me, as Joan's winding vocal and the stark narrative seem to outpace the accompaniment, and I find myself wishing that the musicians would just shut up for a moment and let Joan wail through the abandonment-and-subsequent-search tale on her own. And in the bluesy "Dracula Moon", where the two fit together better, I feel like Joan is underutilized. Why would I want to listen to squalling harmonica when I could be listening to Joan Osborne singing? And why would you consign her voice to such underwhelming parts? She gets to exercise it a bit toward the end, but I like her better when her vocal flourishes are attached to real lyrics, not arbitrary repetition of tag lines.
I like this album best, as a matter of fact, on the next song, the single "One of Us", which is ironically the one non-cover here that Eric Bazilian wrote without Joan's participation. Perhaps in a way he knows her better than she does herself. He gives her a solid, if slightly generic, musical foundation, and a simple lyrical speculation about the possibility of God spending a life as a mortal. And she does wonders with it. Scaling back her projection a little bit lets the nuances of her voice come through, and the way she curls her mouth around the words seems to me like a perfect complement to the idea in the text that God may be living a human existence, struggling through with the same difficulties we all face. Such a life might be even harder than that of a normal person; human frailties would be all the more frustrating if you knew that you were really a deity if you could just get back to your proper environment. It's sort of a theological retelling of ET, in a way, though without the cloying little kids and the bicycles.
It's also a somewhat odd moment in the album. On the one hand, I think it's the most successful single song here, and I'm tempted to nominate it for my short honor-roll of good songs about God, along with XTC's "Dear God" and Tori Amos' "God". On the other hand, though, it's really the song that makes the least distinctive use of Joan's voice and personality. It might not be as good sung by just anybody, but in the end it's probably a more impressive resume entry for Eric than it is for Joan.
The second half of the album, though, goes back to concentrating on Joan's eccentricities. The rattling, erratic "Spider Web", a dream about Ray Charles getting his sight and giving up singing as a result, is spiky and intriguing both lyrically and musically. "Let's Just Get Naked", with its turgid guitar buzz and a deliberately plain and borderline out-of-tune vocal, is mischievous and gleeful. Sonny Boy Williamson's "Help Me" is the most trad-blues number, structurally, but Joan's laconic, half-asleep delivery is at times almost a parody of the blues.
Perhaps the best indicator here of Joan's future promise is "Crazy Baby", the one song she wrote by herself, and the only one on which she actually plays guitar. An expansive dirge, it finds her sounding very different from on most of the other songs, her usual belting-through-the-din delivery tempered to something surprisingly smooth and refined, her power-drill howl reserved as something to hint at, not rely on. The quiet and elegant "Lumina", which ends the album, sticks with this approach. I wouldn't want Joan to abandon the gale-force style of "Right Hand Man" or "Pensacola" totally, but it is pretty draining to listen to, and I don't think I could handle a whole album of it. "Crazy Baby" and "Lumina" show that she has other tools.
Joan Armatrading: What's Inside
At the end of Melissa's Duets show she had all four guests come back out together (previously they'd rotated in one at a time), and they all did a song together. Melissa's choice for it, introduced by her explaining that the singer was one of her favorites (a nice nod to Jewel's saying earlier how honored she was to be singing with Melissa), was Joan Armatrading's classic "Love and Affection" (which almost predates Jewel, a scary thought). Of course, Joan's made more than a few other albums since 1976. I have some of them, mostly recent ones, and I fare unevenly with them. The definitive one, to me, is 1983's The Key, which contains "(I Love It When You) Call Me Names", one of my favorite songs of all time (with the line "Big woman / And a short, short man, / And he loves it / When she beats his brains out", which you're unlikely to find elsewhere). 1988's The Shouting Stage was a little too restrained and jazzy for me. 1990's Hearts and Flowers seems more human in its sophistication, somehow, and I like it much better. 1992's Square the Circle seemed to lose the way again, and I feel like fifteen seconds into every song you've learned all you're going to from it.
What's Inside continues Joan's tradition of, at the very least, never making an album that's just like one she's made before. This one's new experiment is the use of big accompaniment. The London Metropolitan Orchestra plays on six of these thirteen songs, the Kronos Quartet plays on another (the superlative "Shapes and Sizes"), the Memphis Horns play on a couple of others, and some of the remaining few have synthesizer or piano playing a similar role. Most of the string parts are written and arranged by Joan herself, which further convinces me that this is the exercise this album is really dedicated to. The one song that just relies on the core band, "Back on the Road", is clearly the least interesting one here, to me.
Which is ironic, given that the core band is about as good a studio cadre as you could ask for, with Manu Katche on drums, Alex Acuna on percussion, Benmont Tench playing keyboards, Tony Levin and Daryl Jones on bass, and Joan herself on guitar. Joan and David Tickle's clean production makes the most of the players' talents, with almost no evident processing intruding on the performances. This makes for an album with some of the best playing of instruments that you'll find this year.
As for Joan's songwriting, I find it confusing. She's clearly a master of arranging musical elements to take advantage of her players and her own trademark vocal technique of bouncing from her warm normal voice into an airy falsetto. On the other hand, I know from The Key that she's capable of writing very strange and distinctive lyrics (she remains the only person I'm aware of to ever use the word "mahout" in a rock song), so I don't understand why she has to populate these songs with filler like "Can't stop it, baby, / Can't stop this love for you" or "The day that we met, / Hmm so sweet, / Like honey from the bee". I can only assume that she was so caught up in doing the music for this album that she didn't have enough attention left over to spare much on the lyrics. If you duplicate this balance in your listening, though, I suppose it needn't much matter.