Till They Ring Inside My Head
85 · 12 September 96
Kate & Anna McGarrigle: Matapedia
One thing, I think, that distinguishes pure storytelling from history, allegory, fable, moral lectures and other associated uses of narrative as a means, is that where the lecturer aspires to simplification by way of merciless focus and the subdivision of reality into autonomous pieces, the storyteller craves the expressive complexity of serendipity and inexplicable detail. History gravitates toward "World War I started because the Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated", allegory toward "K never reaches the Castle", fable toward tortoises and hares, moral lectures toward Nine Months. Stories, on the other hand, live for Holden's luggage, a hobbit's hairy toes, Harmony's convoluted name diminutives and Rob Fleming's obsessive lists. When a story is an end in itself, its characters operate according to their own logics, not that of the author, and so they do things because those are the things those people would do, not because it is expedient to the author for them to have done so. That's not to say that there cannot be good storytelling that is also good allegory, history, fable or lecture, in which the characters are true to themselves and yet their actions are still illustrative of some auteurial point. Indeed, I suspect most good storytelling is also one of the other things, because there is usually something to be learned from a life, and thus also from the accurate portrayal of one. But, because creating a character to embody what you want to say is many times harder than just saying it, plenty of didacticism is essayed without the grace of a good story to carry it.
Rock lyric writing, as a genre, is hardly a font of good storytelling. For every detail like the packet of chips in Tori Amos' "Me and a Gun" there are a hundred of Aerosmith's anonymous "Janie's Got a Gun" revenges; for every twist like the stolen car keys in David Steinhart's "Unholy Union" there are a hundred Bryan Adamses' featureless "Summer of '69" porches. What sort of people are Bobby Sue and Billy Mack? Jeremy, Luka, Biko? From their songs, we really don't know. That doesn't mean those songs are bad songs, just that if they have virtues, they are other things than the stories they tell. Folk music, on the other hand, tends to flip rock's balance of effort towards words and music, and so generally does a lot more storytelling. I feel like I know Cecilia when Paul Simon gets back to find her in bed with somebody else; I know Richard Thompson's James Adie as he hands Red Molly the keys to his Black Vincent; I know Beth Nielsen Chapman's Emily as she sits by her friend's hospital bed. I know the woman adjusting her hose in the window of Tom's Diner, even, in a way that U2 will never show you MLK, that Billy Joel could never show us Christie Brinkley, and that stadia full of synchronized Macarena dancers can never infuse into their surreally unironic and cheerily uncomprehending choreography.
And yet, it takes so little to tell a story: a boat, where you might expect a plane; "I'm the daughter of Kate", instead of "Kate's my mother"; the exhilaration from a frantic chase not ending when the race finishes. In no more words than there are in "We Are the Champions", "Matapedia" sketches the intersections of three lives, spinning futures out of pasts, pasts out of presents, presences out of absences, and both freedom and restlessness out of fearlessness. Anna McGarrigle knows that the name of the boat is important, but that what the girl is picking up off the ground is not; that Kate and Martha must be named, but that the man to them is only a symbol for his experiences; that it is not important to resolve what has become of Kate, or whether the man is Martha's father, or what they do next. But then again, a story can be complicated, too. Kate's "Jacques et Gilles", later on the album, is an epic of family unity, Canadian nationalism, American opportunity, labor exploitation, union agitators, the effect of ethnic perspective, the nature of exiles temporary and permanent, a child's incomprehension and a triumphant retreat, practically a Mills of Wrath for the opposite corner of the continent. Yet here, too, there are no wasted words. The schism between the Quebecois and the Irish is traced in a mother's tired explanation to her daughter, not a historical treatise, and the commonality of their circumstances is as expressive as her dismissive words. The grim labor scenes are redeemed with simple, childlike joy at the collage of smells and new clothes that they leave with. A song does not need to contain a story, merely to release it. A good story rings afterward, like a struck bell.
This album's music lingers, too, I find. It is quiet, for the most part, and determinedly anachronistic; it doesn't defy current production and arrangement styles so much as it just doesn't seem to be aware of them. Drums patter softly through "Matapedia", austere piano edges through "Jacque et Gilles" and "I Don't Know" (with the unnerving line "Should you stay and work it out? / I say I don't think so", which says as much about the advisor as the advised), an almost October Project-ish surge propels "Hang Out Your Heart", mournful violin underscores the dolor of "Arbre" (which might be about dying, or could be merely about the changing of the seasons; my French is too transliterative for me to ascertain), banjo defies the dismal "Why Must We Die?" (which manages to sound like a waltz to me, though every time I count off there are four beats after all), reigns in the otherwise almost ABBA-esque "Talk About It", and restores the solidity of Celtic/bluegrass hills to "Goin' Back to Harlan", the Anna McGarrigle song that Emmylou Harris and Daniel Lanois rendered ethereal and mysterious last year on Emmylou's album Wrecking Ball. "The Bike Song" seems to take the same ingredients you could have made an Enya soundtrack out of, and recombines them to make something that sounds to me more like the Von Trapps. And over all this glide Kate and Anna's voices, dense on harmonies, elegant and restrained as leads, but with a scratchy waver to them that makes all these songs sound to me like archival recordings, left over from a time when the air didn't transmit bass as well as it does today. Nor impatience and immaturity. If Loreena McKennitt had been born three hundred years from now, these would be her archaic canon. Though perhaps time now moves so quickly, and these have lagged just enough behind, that they are ancient enough already.
Iain Matthews: God Looked Down
Iain Matthews is as old as the McGarrigles (all three will have turned 50 by the time this year is up, I believe), but where the sisters sound like another time, Matthews could easily pass for this year's twenty-year-old folk-rock songwriting prodigy, if it weren't for the fact that he's been making records for longer than most of what would be his competition have been alive. Matthews was a founding member of late-Sixties English folk mainstays Fairport Convention, departing after two albums for a solo career punctuated, at odd intervals, by various ensemble digressions. After a quiet Eighties, and a relocation to Austin, he reemerged in a whirl with 1990's Pure and Crooked (reissued by his new label Watermelon in 1994), 1992's Skeleton Keys and 1994's The Dark Ride, as well as reassembling his old group Plainsong for the 1992 reunion album The Dark Side of the Room and its 1994 sequel Voices Electric, and forming the side-trio Hamilton Pool with producer Mark Hallman and fellow Austinian Michael Fracasso.
God Looked Down will come, I'm pretty sure, as no particular surprise to anybody who has heard one of those six albums (or two, maybe, if one is Hamilton Pool's). Iain's fortes, to me, are his clear singing voice, his cogent and frequently clever lyrics, his ability to translate his own personality into whatever idiom seems most appropriate at the time, and his long roster of helpful friends. Imagine Jules Shear with Jackson Browne's presence, or Browne with Shear's songwriting acumen, or perhaps a less-deadpan version of John Gorka or Richard Shindell designed for larger arenas, or a more-deadpan Don Henley designed for smaller ones, or maybe even Nanci Griffith crossed with Bob Seger, Nanci's cheerful delivery undermining Seger's bluster and his strength counteracting her frailty. The years in Austin are evident in the music, but as an influence, not an origin, so that country-ballad twang and bar-blues stomp become filters through which his inherently timeless songwriting is poured. Musically, this album is only a remix away from being rock and roll; give it more reverb and industrial drums, and replace all the harmonica and violin with lead guitar, and you'd have this year's Michael Penn. But part of the point of Iain's writing is that there's no need to. These songs have such classic virtues that tasteful simplicity suits them perfectly. The low, wiry guitar hooks in "The Beat I Walk" wind gracefully around gently pulsing bass, swelling organ and washes of breezy acoustic guitar. The finger-picking and hand-drums of "God Looked Down" ground the electric guitar's moaning bottleneck riffs and sonar pings. "Southern Wind" could be Warren Zevon after a very large dose of Prozac and a good nap. The slow acoustic guitar and dry kettle drums of "Alone Again Blues" sound a bit like a music box, but one that has somehow gotten Benmont Tench inside of it along with the usual cylinder and tines. The brush drumming on the bouncy "This Train" emulate the puffs of smoke from the train itself, the organ its whistle. The audible snare hiss in "Power of Blue" instantly shrinks the aural space, in keeping with the song's smoky change in mood. "Eye of the Needle" sounds to me like it's just about to break into Steely Dan's "Do It Again", but despite the muted trumpet, the choruses are square and solid. "Trigger Man" sounds like Dire Straits leading a line dance. And "If It's Not One Thing It's Another", most simply, requires no instrumentation at all, just a little wordless chorus as a spacer between verses.
The way you really know this is a folk album, though, is by listening to the lyrics (which are easy to discern, your first hint). There are a few catchy rock-cadenced couplets like "I'm undecided which horse I'm riding", "You'll feel thunder, you'll hear rain", "You smother my senses, / You howl and you moan" and "But you say you're only living for the minute, / You say we'll never change it over night", and one or two places where lines get repeated to no semantic effect, but the songs betray their true selves with details like the narrator's jealous aside about the woman's close family in "The Beat I Walk", the archetypal repeated-first-line story-song structure of "God Looked Down", the way the repetition in "Blow, you southern winds, blow" is part of the thought, the narrator's amusement at the image of the woman in "You'll Know Lightening" "tromping around" in the Sierra Madres, the interweaving of the history of the real train in "This Train" with the histories of the relationships it symbolizes, and the casting of the rebel's chafing in "Eye of the Needle" as a farewell to his father. These are the tribal scars of folk music, and it would take a lot more warpaint than Matthews uses here to cover them up.
Big Country: Eclectic
Big Country aren't a folk band, and Stuart Adamson isn't really a storyteller in the folk sense either, but this album is primarily acoustic, and they do cover a song by a Canadian folksinger, and there is a tenuous connection to the American South, which is enough context that I don't feel entirely arbitrary about the juxtaposition, not that it would have deterred me if I had. Big Country is my favorite band, and I can't imagine ever complaining about whatever they decide to do, but I have to admit to being somewhat puzzled by their release strategies of late. This exuberantly informal live album of band-and-friends acoustic versions and covers follows rather closely on 1994's half-acoustic, half-electric live album Without the Aid of a Safety Net, as well as a 1995 BBC live album, albeit of a 1989 recording, and a large number of covers and acoustic versions on b-sides over the course of the last two albums (including Lou Reed's "Vicious" and an acoustic reworking of "In a Big Country" included as bonus tracks on the US edition of Why the Long Face). If this display of copiously erratic impulses is supposed to accomplish some commercial objective, I can't think what or how, and it doesn't even briefly tempt me to alter my standing recommendation that the uninitiated, but interested, go buy The Crossing, the band's 1983 debut album, which you'll need for putting "In a Big Country" and "Fields of Fire" on mix tapes for Eighties nostalgia parties, and which might also change your life. The obsessed of us, however, don't require any complicated justification for a new Big Country record. If they feel like remaking the entirety of Brigadoon using only hammer dulcimers and shattering wine carafes, I will buy it, and you will hear about here.
And however odd Eclectic is, it is hardly perverse. The Big Country songs are played pretty close to their originals in spirit, but are substantially different in form. Hossam Ramzy and Mohammed Toufiq's crazed percussion gives "River of Hope" a staccato drum-therapy ambience that the original never had. Bobby Valentino's violin and Kym Mazelle's soul-diva vocals more than compensate for the acoustic arrangement of "King of Emotion" being less sweeping than the one on Peace in Our Time. Valentino's violin takes the Ebow parts on "Where the Rose Is Sown", another storming percussion exhibition (and the first released live version of this, my second favorite Big Country song). Bruce Watson adds a delicate mandolin to the sad rendition of "Come Back to Me". "Winter Sky", which was nearly acoustic even in its original form, is more open and alive here, with Valentino and keyboardist Aaron Emerson filling in around the edges of the simple cycling guitar part, and they also combine to add what feels like a much larger orchestra to the triumphant finale of the country-elegy b-side "The Buffalo Skinners". You have to care about these songs to care about alternate versions, I grant you, but I care about them a lot, and so these versions are like phone calls from friends I have only pictures of.
The covers, though, are where the title comes from. Carol Laula takes over the lead-vocal mic for a slithering bop through Joni Mitchell's "Big Yellow Taxi", with more violin and percussion. Stuart and Kym duet on Gershwin's "Summertime", Kym's unearthly howl contrasting strikingly with Stuart's rather simpler vocal style and the occasion's jazzy acoustic arrangement. The gentle version of the standard "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" is uncluttered and heartfelt, Big Country's Celtic heritage serving the rebel requiem surprisingly well. I might, if I'd been compiling this, have discarded Bruce Springsteen's "I'm On Fire", as I'm not a Springsteen fan and the song doesn't seem substantial enough to me to support much invention, and Steve Harley's "Sling It", with Harley himself singing, is cool enough that I went out and bought a Steve Harley and Cockney Rebel compilation, but it's kind of an odd inclusion on a Big Country album. The two covers that justify the whole project to me, though, are the edgy, rumbling take of "Eleanor Rigby", and the wistful album-closing reinterpretation of "Ruby Tuesday". It's relatively easy to mangle songs in the covering, and with bands as central to rock music as the Beatles and the Stones it's equally easy to let your reverence constrain you so much that your version doesn't add anything to the original, but both of those approaches are craft, not artistry. If it is meaningful to play a song, it can only be because it matters to you. Big Country plays these two like they are their own, and if there's another honest way of expressing affection for somebody else's song, I can't think of it. I mean, other than writing these reviews.