Throw the Pieces Up to the Sky
66 · 2 May 96
Maria McKee: Life Is Sweet
I liked the first Lone Justice album. "Ways to Be Wicked" and "Sweet, Sweet Baby" were enjoyable hits, but the songs I really adored were "After the Flood", "Pass It On" and "Soap, Soup and Salvation", strained and passionate gospel/country/rock anthems that Maria's voice turned into desperate encapsulations of longing and redemption. Lone Justice made another album, Shelter, which I never got interested in, and then split up. Maria made two solo albums, Maria McKee and You Gotta Sin to Get Saved, but the few tracks I heard from these sounded overproduced and kind of lifeless to me. The title of You Gotta Sin to Get Saved also seemed like a blatant attempt to remind people of "Ways to Be Wicked", which wasn't much to Maria's credit, especially since "Ways to Be Wicked" wasn't even one of her compositions.
But then, about a month or so ago, I started reading advance press for this new album. The first intriguing detail was that the prevailing critical opinion seemed to be that Maria McKee had had one good album in her, that the first Lone Justice one was it, and that that was where she should have quit. I generally regard "prevailing critical opinion" with a wariness I otherwise try to reserve in case I'm ever trapped in Jurassic Park with the guard fences down, and so any time I read more than two articles agreeing with me about some subject on which I'm clearly underinformed, my automatic assumption is that the critics in question are also underinformed, and I'm missing something. This is not always so, of course, as a pile of thoroughly mediocre Belinda Carlisle solo albums I bought recently were a grim reminder, but I cheerfully buy lots of things that have the potential to be terrible because, hey, what if they aren't?
The second intriguing detail was that people were claiming this album sounded nothing like Maria's previous work, and they kept comparing it to Hole. I'm a connoisseur of radical style shifts, and while I don't particularly enjoy Hole, I had a feeling that this album probably didn't really sound like Hole. So I bought it, just in case, because I'd hate to find out twenty years from now that it was brilliant and I ignored it.
And now you must do the same, because this album is brilliant, and if you don't buy it now, you'll find out twenty years from now that I was right, and then you'll feel silly and it might be out of print or something, and that would be very bad. The first time through I couldn't decide whether this was a masterpiece or a total disaster, and in my worldview, any album that manages to intertwine these potentials tightly enough that you need special tools to untangle them is a masterpiece for at least that reason. After several dozen more playings, I now believe that this is also a masterpiece through not being a disaster at all. It combines abrasive guitar clamor with soaring strings, metric freefall with driving rhythms, Maria's best ethereal sophistication with hoarse croaking, and rural reverence with caustic vitriol. It is an album of contrasts like biting into a slice of honeydew melon impregnated with two ounces of invisible Tabasco sauce. Compared to this, the over-produced, formulaic, roots-flaunting days of Lone Justice are Maria's Y Kant Tori Read or Alanis, a past that you can like or not as you wish, but which has no real bearing on the new life. We'll see at the end of the year whether this album ends up winding itself into my nervous system the way Little Earthquakes and Jagged Little Pill have, and it's possible it won't, but it has the potential to be that important to me, and that spectacular.
Everything I can think to compare it to is misleading in some significant way, but perhaps in explaining what it's not like, I'll get at what it is. The most obvious thing it occurs to me to say is that this is Mecca Normal inside out. Unfortunately, unless you're me, that comment probably might as well be in Esperanto. What I mean, I think, is that Life Is Sweet manages to present contours and an overall structure that remind me of, say, Flood Plain, without using any of the same surface patterns. Where Jean Smith's voice is raw by default, and only pretty in surprising moments, Maria's is pretty unless she presses it hard against one of its limits. David Lester's guitar playing wrests beauty and power out of sheer cliff-faces of noise with bare hands like some sort of ancient creation myth, while Maria's (she plays almost all of the the guitars here herself) sounds more like something coming out of your neighbor's garage that would lead you to go have a stern word with the parents. Mecca Normal's arrangements are seminally stark, while this album is thick with strings, piano, synthesizers, bass and drums, in addition to the guitar. And yet, despite coming from nearly opposite directions, Maria and Mecca Normal seem to me to arrive at almost the same place, an intersection between punk and pop and rock that the residents of none of those nations recognize as their own.
I suspect that the writers I read, in starting their comparisons with Hole, rather than Mecca Normal, did so less because of sonic and philosophical resemblances than because if you're trying to conjure up female aggression to a general audience (something I'm under no illusion that I have), you've basically got Hole, Tori Amos and Alanis Morissette to choose from, and Hole is the only one of those three whose music is as directly aggressive as their lyrics. It's a bad comparison, I think, because the things that Maria and Hole have in common have very different purposes in their musics. Hole is, stylistically, thoroughly ugly. Ugliness isn't a bad musical trait, but the bracing noisiness of Life Is Sweet has virtually nothing to do with Courtney Love's confrontational "Fuck you, I'll wear as much lipstick as I damn well want to" aesthetic. If Hole is a reminder that even a girl could beat the shit out of you if she has a baseball bat and you don't see her coming, then Life Is Sweet is more like an orchestra rehearsing amidst mortar fire. Both styles involve cracks in what you might expect to be polished facades, but Maria tends to turn the cracks into functional and sculptural elements that you want to admire and study closely, while Hole tends pry out the most splintered boards and wave them menacingly in your face.
In a way the Tori and Alanis comparisons are just as illuminating. You might plausibly compare Tori and Maria on at least two grounds, but neither trail leads very far. Little Earthquakes and Life Is Sweet have similarly striking dynamic ranges, with Maria making up at the loud end for the slight edge Tori has in harrowing whispers, but Tori uses her quiet moments to draw the listener into a base state of emotional vulnerability that can then be exploited with spikes to the temple, while Maria uses dense sonic torrents to goad the listener into an agitated frenzy, which she then manipulates by abruptly converting blows into caresses every once in a while. The fact that Maria plays her own lead instrument also gives her a common bond of self-reliance with Tori, but she's a guitarist through insistence more than anything else, and certainly has nothing like Tori's level of technical mastery over her instrument.
You'd be less likely to compare Maria and Alanis, I think, but then again I already have. What Life Is Sweet and Jagged Little Pill share, to me, is a sense of overpowering presence. Maria and Alanis dominate their albums for me, whereas, for example, Joan Osborne and her band on Relish sound to me like they never really learned each other's first names, and I have to take the credits' word for it that Tracy Chapman is really in there somewhere on her last album. They do it in very different ways, though, as Alanis' vocals command Jagged Little Pill despite (and partially because of) there being little trace of her involvement in the musical arrangement, while Maria's musical presence is as tangible as her singing. Maria's vivid, image-heavy and poetic lyrics also exhibit neither Alanis' occasional prurience nor her more characteristic uncluttered insight.
Perhaps the referent that comes closest is actually PJ Harvey, but I'm not sure if this isn't even more misleading than the others precisely because it seems like it ought to fit so well. Both Maria and Polly start from frameworks that could be standard rock songs, but Maria alters them by running around loosening bolts in interesting places, so that the whole structure starts to rattle and flex ominously, without ever losing its basic shape. Polly, on the other hand, generally picks some critical piece of the apparatus and bends it so far out of position that the core of the mechanism shuts down completely, and the thing is left limping along on the slow grind of some exposed gear that was never intended to be a wheel. (Which is cool in its own way, I admit.)
But I don't know how much all this tells you. Does it lead you to hear in your mind the way the staticky guitar intro to "Scarlover" mutates into the hushed bass-and-synth chorus? Does it imply the echoey Thin White Rope-esque Western tension of "This Perfect Dress"? The way the timeless melodic grace of "Absolutely Barking Stars" spans the folky verses, the distended chorus and the braying guitar-solo bridge? The uncanny juxtaposition of wavery saloon piano, obsessive title repetition, operatic vocal flourishes and breathless disintegration in "I'm Not Listening"? The crisp snap and slithery hi-hats of "Everybody"? The warped self-esteem lesson and zombie family-dysfunction of "Smarter"? The dramatic swells of "What Else You Wanna Know" and the Neil Young-like restraint (and Neil Young-like feedback, come to think of it) of "I'm Awake"? The dark guitar drone of "Human" and the delicate descending vocal hook of "Carried"? The spare percussion and careful harmony that joins Maria's guitar on the mesmerizing and uplifting title track, or the lush instrumental coda that finds you there and carries you into the fade-out sunset like a Valkyrie? Have I given you enough to hint at any of these things? I can't tell. I really only hope I've made you curious enough to discover them for yourself.
Cowboy Junkies: Lay It Down
On paper, the Cowboy Junkies sound like precisely the sort of band I'd like. "Country on quaaludes", they're usually described as, and although I like very little that I'd call straight country music, I'm almost invariably fascinated by warped variants on it (Thin White Rope, Grant Lee Buffalo, Geraldine Fibbers, American Music Club, Wrecking Ball, The Charm of the Highway Strip, for a few examples). And I like both preternatural slow-motion and ethereal austerity, which round out the basic resume of the Cowboy Junkies. Yet for some reason I'd purchased none of their albums before this. The explanation may be as simple as lingering remnants of the instinctive averse reaction I had upon first exposure (their version of "Sweet Jane"), owing to the fact that I only like Velvet Underground songs when they're done by a pre-Document REM. Whyever, when I heard "Common Disaster" on the radio recently, I perked up for two reasons. First, though I regarded the finger-walking bass on the verses with some trepidation, the ringing guitar-hook in the chorus gave the song enough energy that Margo Timmins' subdued vocals seemed like a deliberate contrast, not a by-product of all-consuming ennui. Second, both the music and the title reminded me fondly of one of my favorite obscure bands, Map of the World, whose song "Natural Disasters" once helped me through a difficult summer.
I didn't give in instantly, though. I picked the album up out of the bin the next time I was in a record store, but I put it back, saying to myself (at least, I hope it was to myself) that I'd need to hear at least one more good song before I chanced a Cowboy Junkies record, and walked out of the store without it. Of course, when I walk out of that particular record store I'm usually on the way to the other two, and as I walked into the third one, the in-store DJ was just putting on a very nice song with a chorus that went "Hold on to me". Directly in front of the entrance was a newish-release rack, and the top row of CDs was this album. I picked one up, flipped it over, and sure enough, song four was called "Hold On to Me". Harvard Square CD stores going out of their way to sell me one more CD would be a little like poking around with your straw to make sure you've slurped up every bit of Lake Ontario, so I doubt the people at Newbury Comics had phoned HMV to tip them off to my Cowboys Junkies susceptibility, but it was suspicious.
At any rate, I haven't had slow week yet in which to buy all the back Cowboy Junkies albums (though today I did buy the rest of the Lone Justice and Maria McKee albums, in case I was wrong about them), so I can't put this in proper full-catalog context, but compared to the stray pieces of the band's prior work that I've heard over the course of the last eight years, the songs here have a new sparkle and life. The band's key trick, now as then, is the way singer Margo Timmins' lightly-husky, ethereal, nearly-asleep, ultra-legato delivery drifts in tempo counterpoint to anything that beats fast enough for human senses to spot regularity. She literally sounds to me like she experiences the flow of time differently than the rest of us do, and how she manages to stay in sync with the music without any sign of awareness of its rhythm creeping into her voice I cannot guess. The lyrics, provided by her brother, guitarist and songwriter Michael Timmins, fit the mood with almost oppressive accuracy. Some of the bleaker moments on this album include "I guess I believe that there's a point to what we do. / But I ask myself is there something more beside you?", "He sold most of what he cherished, the rest he let them steal. / Shot his dog out in the open field, the rest he let them steal.", "Tomorrow may be the day that our love betrays us.", "She says 'I'm getting that lonely sinking feeling, you know what I mean?' / With his hand on her back he's thinking 'Where does that leave me?'", "John says I look at the moon and the stars these days more often than I look into his eyes", and the fact that the bookend his-hers versions of "Come Calling" have exactly the same words, except "her" version is sung even more slowly than "his". Though, to be fair, there is also "Musical Key", which may well be the first wholly unironic song about nurturing, happy parents to be released in this country since Nevermind established an informal moratorium on the theme.
In the older songs I've heard, though, the band seems to try to join Margo and the stories in their artificial stupor, and the end-product to me sounds becalmed and very much in need of a good albatross dive-bombing to stir up some activity. The band hardly attempt turbo-pop on Lay It Down, either, but the combination of their deft touch with mid-tempo country saunter and some invigorating guitar details like the Penguin Cafe Orchestra-ish harmonics on "Something More Besides You", throttled off-center cycles on "Just Want to See" and "Speaking Confidentially", and the slight bite of the chords interspersed in the picked accompaniment of "Bea's Song", for me provides just enough groundwork that Margo can sing as slow as she wants without dragging things to a halt. There remains an sense of melancholy that is exaggerated enough to probably be unhealthy, which makes me think that liking this album is an alternate manifestation of the same basic instinct that makes people enjoy especially grim horror movies (Gaslight is the one I have in mind), but if Sacha Vierny and Peter Greenaway can make a decomposing zebra look beautiful, then it's hardly fair to begrudge the Timminses their gloom.
Robin Holcomb: Little Three
After seeing I forget which review of mine, some kind reader suggested that I check out Robin Holcomb, if I hadn't already. I hadn't, and his justifications for the recommendation were compelling, so I went out and bought her 1990 self-titled debut album. It's an intriguing but strange amalgam, mixing jazzy, atmospheric pieces with some angularly geometric experiments, a few soft-rock songs that sound like the Joni Mitchell period where Lionel Ritchie would sing backup and nobody laughed, a little fractured bluegrass, and a stunning piano-and-voice concluding track called "Deliver Me" that I think could replace "Amazing Grace" in the standard repertoire if we ever needed it to. I liked it, but it felt unfocused, and I couldn't easily derive a coherent idea of what Robin's style was from it. So when I found that none of my usual record stores had a copy of her second album handy, I didn't bother putting it on my scour-the-earth-for-these list, and if this CD had been shipped just in its jewel case, a configuration in which no song titles or details are visible from the outside, I probably wouldn't have bought it, either.
The way it is shipped, though, it's in an otherwise-superfluous cardboard outer sleeve (like the one the Eagles reunion album came in, though I stress that I only know that because I was given a copy), the back of which lists seven song titles with asterisks by two of them, and a note underneath that says "Robin Holcomb, piano, *vocals". The minimalism of this appealed to me, and my credit card has learned that it does no good to protest.
The bulk of the album, timewise, is two long pieces that Robin originally composed for other purposes. "Wherein Lies the Good" purports to have been written for a solo accordionist, though its rendition here seems so idiomatically correct for the piano that I can't imagine it as an epic squeeze-box monologue. Parts of it have a minor-classical-etude sterility to them, while others seem on the brink of breaking into either "Oh, Susannah" or "The Good Ruben James". "Tiny Sisters" was written as the score for what I am guessing was a distinctly non-classical dance, as the piece is baldly devoid of any bombastic Swan Lake-ian interludes. Of the shorter instrumentals, "Processional" is fittingly stern and measured, "The Impulse" sounds like it might be a naturalistic rendition of the music they used to play on Star Trek whenever Kirk and Spock wandered unsuspectingly close to the misunderstood alien not-really-a-monster's lair, and "Little Three" itself is a series of chords that I can't really make any sense out of (and I suspect it finds me just as baffling in return). Of the two vocal pieces, "The Graveyard Song" sounds like a Nanci Griffith tune that has been raised closer to New York than Austin, Robin's fluttery quaver replacing Nanci's country twang, and "The Window" is much more oblique and reminds me a little of Dar Williams' "Mortal City", only much shorter.
This record still hasn't turned me into a rabid Robin Holcomb fan, but I asked for something more focused, and this is definitely more focused, so it feels particularly ungrateful of me to complain. I can take this album one of two ways. If I think of it as an album of, you know, "serious" music, then I have to stop and consciously remember the music class I took in college (started with Bach and proceeded forward to Conlon Nancarrow, at a Nancarrow-like pace). Unfortunately, this leads me off on a mental tangent, as I drift into a recollection of the time I was forced to purchase a large and expensive Mahler box set very late at night, due to my having failed to check the piece of his I needed for a paper out of the music library before it closed. And I find that the Mahler mindset and this album don't agree. If I could remember more clearly what the Aaron Copland mindset was like, I have a feeling that one would fare better. And for some reason Sibelius' name keeps popping into my head, but I think that's just because I would always try to sing Monty Python's "Finland" song to his "Finlandia" somehow, quickly collapsing in indecipherable hysterics that nobody but me found amusing.
If I think of it as a pop album, it gets a little sidetracked in piano digressions, and it probably could have used at least one more song and one fewer of the short instrumentals. It's still cool enough as is that listening to it the same way I listen to ambient music produces an agreeable feeling of cultured calm, but the moments when Robin's songs and I connect portend more exciting things than that. That is, they portend them for me. What they portend for Robin, we will have to wait until next time to find out.