She Must Be Worth Losing If It Is Worth Something
61 · 28 March 96
Alanis Morissette: Ironic
When I bought Jagged Little Pill, back last June, within a few days of its release, I didn't know anything at all about Alanis, and I could only spell her name correctly because I copied it off the video credits verbatim, but just listening to the album was enough to know. It sounded epochal, like it would change lives, raise armies, level minor landmarks and make Alanis an enormous star. Actually, it sounded to me like she already was an enormous star, and my never having heard of her was my own failing, but background research quickly revealed that, however implausibly, this wasn't the case (or not in this country, anyway, and not in the way I meant). Since then, of course, too many million copies of the album have been sold to keep track of, Alanis and producer Glen Ballard got four Grammies for it, and I said it was my favorite album of the year. This makes her almost certainly the first artist of personal significance to me to reach the stage of public saturation where even non-music people, people who buy records like I buy shoes (i.e., only when the old ones wear out, the weather changes drastically, or some athletic pursuit requires special ones), might well have a copy.
Which, even if it doesn't surprise me, I would expect to make me somewhat self-conscious. After all, I'm used to my favorite music being the province of cognoscenti, at best. Reeling off my picks for best album over the previous seven years I've been keeping track (They Might Be Giants' Lincoln, Marillion's Seasons End, The Connells' One Simple Word, T'Pau's The Promise, Tori Amos' Little Earthquakes, Cyndi Lauper's Hat Full of Stars and the Loud Family's The Tape of Only Linda), the combined US sales of all of them other than Little Earthquakes probably wouldn't fill a week's shipment of Jagged Little Pill to whatever chain-store Kansas City is dotted with, and even though Tori has sold quite a lot of records compared to the others, her fan base retains an atmosphere of exclusivity that belies its size. The Grammy awards, up until now, were something I tuned in to idly to see if the few people I tangentially supported, like Melissa Etheridge, Tracy Chapman, Mary Chapin Carpenter or Nanci Griffith (a tellingly thematic grouping), would have their obscure citations actually presented on TV, or just mentioned in one of those "awarded earlier, behind some anonymous industrial park" lists.
But through all of this, and against the grain of my elitist instincts, I readily admit, my feelings for Jagged Little Pill are unchanged. I'm as dumbfounded and mesmerized by it as I was the first week. I couldn't tell you how many times I've heard "You Oughta Know", "Hand in My Pocket", "All I Really Want" and "Ironic" by now, but hearing one of them start up on the radio still brings a smile to my face, my hand to the volume knob, and my left foot to somewhere away from the clutch where it can safely tap (or would, at least, if it weren't for the radioless waiting-for-the-insurance-check phase my car is going through). I have no idea what will become of Alanis, whether her next album will be a complete disaster or even more astonishing, but whatever happens, Jagged Little Pill is an era I will always cherish, and I love it so much I'm even willing to share it with whomever I have to.
Part of the era's charm, to me, is its total insularity. There are thirteen songs on Jagged Little Pill, and that's her repertoire. If she plays anything else live, she's started doing it since I saw her, and there have now been five singles from the album without the slightest sign of any other material. There are no b-sides to second-guess, no new songs to cloud appreciation of the first thirteen with thoughts of the future. There are the songs on the record, and there are the same songs live, and that's it. This single, then, the first US release since the album, backs up the album version of "Ironic" with live versions of the album tracks "Forgiven", "Not the Doctor" and "Wake Up". "Forgiven" is from a Tokyo concert in early November, and the other two are from a semi-unplugged LA radio appearance a week later.
"Forgiven" is particularly interesting, as it's the first full-fledged non-"acoustic" concert-recording b-side. I wasn't that impressed with Alanis' touring band when I saw them back in August; they seemed painfully generic to me, like random attendees at a casting call for some idiot cable movie about skate punks trying to open a hopelessly ill-conceived beach-front retail business. Then again, even the music on the album has a pronounced element of the generic to it. It is Alanis' presence which makes her songs what they are, the venom and affection and wisdom and determination in her voice, and that is as true live as it is in the studio. The band sounds fine on "Forgiven"; Drummer Taylor Hawkins ushers the song in quietly with some nice chimes, guitarists Nick Lashley and Jessie Tobias counter Alanis' menacing intro with careful arpeggios, and support her wailing chorus with churning rhythm chords and lithe ascending scales. Hearing a rawer musical accompaniment than the original one is intriguing, but you could probably replace all the music on this song with the sound of a testy moose being vacuumed and I'd still love it. The real value of this version, to me, is that as willing as I am to listen to the studio performances over and over again, a new one, with its own nuances to immerse myself in, and Alanis singing at full power, is always welcome.
The two radio sessions are somewhere between a full electric set and the guitar-only recordings from the Hand in My Pocket singles. The whole band is present, but Hawkins sounds like he's playing a kit chosen for its portability, not its sound quality, and both guitarists are playing acoustics. As with the earlier acoustic recordings, this setting seems to me to show off the strength of the songs' writing, and demonstrate that the of-the-moment production on the album wasn't the extent of its musical appeal.
Alanis Morissette: You Learn
The roughly contemporaneous European single chooses a different lead song. I don't know why; perhaps irony isn't as popular there. The b-sides are the album version of "Hand in My Pocket", the same version of "Wake Up" as above, and an accompanied Tokyo recording of the album's a cappella bonus track, "Your House". I'm not sure what I think of this one. The a cappella version is so firmly embedded in my mind by now that the guitar here sounds bizarre to me, like somebody has snuck into my home and painted the walls a subtly different color. I wonder how this came about. Did the song have this accompaniment all along, and Glen and Alanis just decided to take it off for the album, or was it unaccompanied to begin with, and the band added the guitar part because they were bored at having nothing to do during it? The liner notes do not say.
A note to frugal compulsives: if you buy this single, you can avoid song duplication and save a couple dollars by getting the version of the Ironic single that comes in a flat cardboard sleeve, instead of the goofy latched thing, since it leaves off only "Wake Up", which you get here.
Alanis Morissette: You Oughta Know
This is actually the first European single, from some time ago, but I haven't discussed it yet, so I might as well complete the set. It contains the "clean" album version of "You Oughta Know" (which appears as a dubious bonus on later pressings of the album, and differs from the regular version only in the omission of the word "fuck"), a Jimmy Boyelle remix of "You Oughta Know" (more bass, that's all I can detect), the album version of "Wake Up", and an acoustic rendition of "Perfect" (origin unspecified, but I'm guessing that it's from the same Dutch radio sessions as the other acoustic b-sides). "Perfect" is nice this way, but you'll have to decide for yourself if that's worth whatever European singles go for where you live.
The five singles so far include live versions of "Perfect", "Head Over Feet", "Not the Doctor" (two different versions), "Right Through You", "Forgiven" (two versions), "Your House" and "Wake Up", which is more than half of the album. If Maverick do a European two-part single with live versions of "All I Really Want", "Hand in My Pocket" and "Mary Jane" on one disc, and "You Oughta Know", "Ironic" and "You Learn" on the other, they will have released possibly the world's most expensive and cumbersome virtual live album.
Tori Amos: Caught a Lite Sneeze US
Tori Amos is at the other end of the b-side spectrum. The singles from both Little Earthquakes and Under the Pink produced almost as many original songs as the albums, and many more if you count live versions, remixes and covers. East West, her British label, has also shown a disconcerting tendency to take the term "limited edition" seriously, with the result that I now routinely seek out multiple sources for her singles, just to make sure I don't miss one.
This one, however, is a US release, adding four new songs to the album version of the title track. These are labeled, as a group, "Silly Songs", which is of uneven appropriateness. "This Old Man" is the nursery rhyme, which is rather silly by nature, but Tori's version, with intricate piano and hushed vocals, fading out abruptly as Tori whispers the trailing lines to herself almost inaudibly, threatens to turn the song's original whimsy into something altogether more sinister. The only thing remotely silly about "Graveyard", a beautifully lyrical elegy, is the fact that it's less than a minute long. "Toodles Mr. Jim" does feature the word "toodles" several times, and a little narrative epilogue in which Tori speaks in a funny voice, but underneath that thin veneer it's actually another song to a dead person, an emotionally complex farewell that mixes memories of the man with a sort of half-apology for once hitting his daughter in the nose. Which doesn't sound as silly in the song as it does when I describe it.
The one song here that actually feels silly is "That's What I Like Mick (The Sandwich Song)", a cover of a music-hall-ish tune originally written by Chas Hodges and Dave Peacock, whomever they are. It's got far too many words, and a jaunty bounce, and so even though almost everything Tori does ends up sounding a little harrowing somehow, this one retains about as much silliness as can be expected.
Tori Amos: Caught a Lite Sneeze UK #1
Part one of the UK set for "Caught a Lite Sneeze" also has Silly Songs, though only three of them. "This Old Man" and "Toodles Mr. Jim" are the same songs as on the US version, the one new piece here being a martial minute called "Hungarian Wedding Song" that, unless the Hungarians regard the word "maggoty" as festive and cheerful, probably wouldn't actually be played at a wedding.
Tori Amos: Caught a Lite Sneeze UK #2
The second part, the "limited" one, contains a two-song section labeled "Tribute to Chas and Dave". One of these is "That's What I Like Mick (The Sandwich Song)", whose appearance under this heading makes its role as the silliest "Silly Song" on the US single somewhat ironic. The other is "London Girls", a song that I suspect would make a great rowdy late-night pub sing-along. Not, of course, that Tori performs it that way. Her version is slow and quiet, with a reticent drum beat counting mournful time as she slides through the appreciative lyrics as if either proving them wrong, or embodying them, I'm not sure which.
The third b-side, "Samurai", is a duet between Tori and bassist George Porter Jr., which I believe is either wholly improvised, or something close to it. Porter lays down a steady bass groove, over which Tori invents a remarkable piano part and some vocals that make up in elegance for what they lack in lyrical sense. The fact that Tori can improvise so well (this isn't the first b-side that appears to have been recorded during conception), in addition to her other gifts, makes me feel very small and inadequate. I can barely play my own songs after I've written them.
Tori Amos: Talulah UK #1
The two singles for "Talulah" ignore the album version of the song completely, substituting a dancier "Tornado Mix" by Brian Transeau. This makes some relatively predictable enhancements to the drums, bass and overall ambience, to make it sound more club-friendly, but Transeau meddles with admirable restraint, using Tori's own vocal flourishes where a less sensitive remixer might have mixed in random House-style yelps, letting the added drum loops and synthesizer fills work with Tori's pounding harpsichord rather than trying to overwhelm it (perhaps this will touch off a wave of harpsichord techno) (or perhaps not), and using a new bare Tori vocal passage about chasing tornadoes (from whence the remix's name) to open the song, so the result retains the essential spirit of the original.
Then, as if to prove that he's capable of remixing with no sensitivity at all, Transeau contributes the single's second track, an eleven-and-a-half minute "BT's Synethasia Mix" that as far as I can tell is connected to Tori's song "Talulah" only in that it samples her singing the one line about chasing tornadoes, which means that it has nothing at all in common with the album version of the song. It's not a bad electro-dance composition, mind you, but titling it "Talulah" and putting it on a disc credited to Tori Amos seems wrong to me.
The third track here is another Tori / George Porter Jr. sitting. I think this time they've actually plotted out some details of the original portion of the track, a song called "Til the Chicken", ahead of time, but the haunting version of "Amazing Grace" that they launch into by way of introduction is either totally unrehearsed, or else they have done an incredibly convincing job of faking the studio background-chatter that leads up to it. "Til the Chicken" itself is a fine, warm, rolling, expansive, bluesy song that the crowd in the studio adds communal finger-snapping to, and somebody (perhaps George) spices with a mouthed faux-horn part.
Tori Amos: Talulah UK #2
The second part repeats the Tornado Mix, but adds three b-sides that return to Tori's native dialect, just her and her piano. "Frog on My Toe" ought to have been one of the Silly Songs, both because of its ostensible silliness ("I know, there's a frog on my toe. / Maybe I'll call him Jethro"), and because in reality it is yet another touching song sung to a departed friend. "Sister Named Desire" is longer, with a clanging piano intro a little reminiscent of "Bells for Her" or "Icicle", and like "Icicle" it revolves around young girls and church. The narrative is a little hard to follow, but there's something about a vicar, parking lots and a girl who lost her swing, and later an elevator and something the narrator has to do by herself. I have trouble extracting any more detail from this suggestive collage, and I half suspect that this is another improvised piece, as Tori's lyrics when she takes time with them are often cryptic, but rarely incoherent.
Witness "Alamo", the last song, where the overall message is difficult to isolate, but nearly all the lines feel crafted and of a piece (I particularly like "Don't think I'll be going as fast as I came" and "Tears on my pillow, of course they're not mine; / Alter that oxen, make it a plane; / Somebody invent the telephone line"). There are card games, alarms interrupting afternoon naps, approaching armies, races to the border, desperation, fate and fortune. And that's really as much about Texas as you probably need to know.