A Heart Bent on Confusion
116 · 17 April 97
Nanci Griffith: Blue Roses From the Moon
I spent last weekend in bed with the flu, which gave me ample opportunity for introspection. Actually, flu-less weekends give me arguably excessive opportunity for introspection already, and the flu did absolutely nothing to improve the character of thought. My pensive meanderings in the best of times have something of the consistency of an expectant primordial soup that the lightning has stood up, and in the increased-velocity, decreased-control mode that headaches and fever encourage they careen off into pointless mania without much further ado. In my particular case, possibly because I spend my days constructing logical and aesthetic systems of varying coherence, the form pointless mania tends to take is the vivid delusion that areas of my life which normally operate themselves without my conscious intervention, like my legs when I'm lying down, or my alarm clock, suddenly require explicit redefinition in a poorly-specified high-level programming language whose precise syntax no one is quite willing to divulge. Lying in my bed, trying only to evade consciousness until the next dose of Tylenol and Nyquil is due, I become convinced that my own body is a programming construct, and that if I just think hard enough, I can devise a representation of it, possibly using a hybrid of HTML, relational database schema and several armfuls of Turing-machine punch-tape, that will be capable of sleep. As those of you not also running fevers as you read this will readily perceive, this is bound to be a counterproductive effort. And though recognizing the theoretical flaw is generally beyond my addled, semi-conscious self, the empirical evidence of my failure is usually, eventually, plain enough that I abandon the effort, and seek some external mitigation. Hot showers help alleviate congestion-induced headaches and associated dementia, but it is rarely possible, and even more rarely advisable, to fall asleep during them. So I turn, then, as I do sooner or later in the face of all problems, to music.
Which led to my discovering, to my exacerbated irritation, that there doesn't seem to be any music left that relaxes me. I have plenty of music that reinforces pre-existing calm, that channels anger into resolve, that illuminates black angst with hope, that twists melancholy into rapture, but nothing, I was displeased to find, that can bleed enough of the flywheel inertia out of a runaway spinning mind that rolling over to switch the pressure to the other sinus cavity doesn't produce enough gyroscopic torque to flip my feet into the headboard or, in my case, the wall at the end of my futon where a headboard would be if I'd ever had the initiative to purchase a real bed. I have music that bores me, of course, and boredom is related to calm, but after two days of the flu my boredom level had already reached such an advanced marker that I even watched some golf on television (picking the single best day in history to watch golf, it turns out), so if I got any more bored I was liable to set myself on fire. And all the other likely musical candidates I tried -- droning ambient, effervescent string quartets, snappy pop, Caledonian bombast -- just increased my agitation, and gave me new parameters that had to be incorporated in the virtual Rube Goldberg apparatus I was assembling to safeguard my own slumber. I had the greatest hopes for some particularly pastoral symphonies, since classical music is an obvious antidote to the feeling of vertigo that plummeting into an infinite future instills, but ever since I've started to care about classical music, too, I've found that looking up while falling is at least as scary as looking down.
Which gets at, I think, the source of my problem, and suggests, albeit too late for the insight to be of use during this flu just past, a possible remedy. I suffer, I've decided, from a sort of agoraphobia of possibilities. It's most obvious in music, perhaps, where I madly attempt to track more intriguing vectors than I have fingers or brain cortexes, a bit like a civil defense system on ecstasy, mesmerized by the pretty glittering lights of its targets, but the pattern recurs elsewhere in my life, too. I just bought a book today, Data Smog, by David Shenk, that appears to be about precisely this information-age internet-fueled malady, and perhaps Shenk has answers, but of course I would buy any book about information overload. I have several, in fact, that I haven't had time to read yet. The Ouroborosian irony is biting enough to draw blood, but yet I keep at it, hoping that if I just cycle a little more viciously, I'll finally catch up to myself after all. But if the key engine in this loop is my own frantic inquisitiveness, then perhaps there lies the secret of breaking out of it. I shouldn't be looking for music that will resist or restrain me, like orderlies and straight-jacket straps, I should just be looking for something that shuts me up for a little while, that says whatever it says clearly enough, and with enough self-reliance and self-awareness, that I don't feel the need to get involved. No blaring rock music, then, not because it blares, but because rock lyrics tend to evoke, not explicate, and I'm too evoked as it is. No abstract instrumentals, because abstraction is an invitation to elaborate and invent. No fractal intricacies sucking me in, no ethereal reserve pushing me away. Something straightforward, forthright and self-evidently true. Something simple, in the noblest sense, but preferably not involving super-blue-green algae, the soothing sensual sounds of the blood-warm sea lapping the supportive shores of loving Mother Earth, or anything else sold through television.
Folk music fits enough of these criteria that you'll suspect, sensibly, that I reverse-engineered them just to lead my argument (to dignify it somewhat) to this point. Its stories are usually told, not implied, so there's no industrious dot-connecting to be done. Its imagery is concrete (or, more properly, earthen), not conceptual. It is generally plainspoken and direct. At its traditionalist core it even shares with country music a rural vision of home that is made for porches, lemonade, long afternoons and a state of mental equilibrium so profoundly stable that even whittling the heads of ex-presidents into the porch railings can seem like an agreeable way to pass the time until something momentous transpires, like the tractor needing a look-over, or one of the dogs bringing home most of a rabbit. And while this tranquillity is not, currently, the way I've chosen to live my life, there is a moment when my body temperature crests at around 101 when I wish, desperately, for the ability to simulate it, to let the steady drones of cicadas, gravel rustling in the sun and semis over on the interstate drown out the incessant babble of my brain unable to quit grinding long enough to let the fumes clear out. The problem, of course (and if you're reading this because it claimed Nanci Griffith would eventually be somehow involved, not despite that, this may have occurred to you already), is that most good folk music these days is rather more interesting than the genre's blueprint requires. No matter how you adjust your EQ, Jewel or Ani DiFranco or Dar Williams albums will not bring out a satisfied southern drawl or make you want to lower your hat brim over your eyes and tilt the creaky old rocker back until you feel the left strut hit that chip it got when Old Alucius' shotgun fell over and went off back in ought-eight. No permutation of Richard Shindell, Ellis Paul, Vance Gilbert and David Gray will send you off on a slow twilight stroll to make sure your half-crumbled fence that isn't protecting anything from anything else is still not-protecting it with the same weathered aplomb. The horrors have reached folk music, fittingly, I guess, since the horrors have reached the folk.
But, then again, Nanci Griffith is something of a last defender of the old ways. Her 1993 best-of, The MCA Years, opens with a song called "Trouble in the Fields", and meanders past such proximate signposts as "Deadwood, South Dakota", "Love at the Five and Dime", "Gulf Coast Highway", "Ford Econoline", "Drive-In Movies and Dashboard Lights", "There's a Light Beyond These Woods" and "It's a Hard Life Wherever You Go", coming up little more than a "This Land Is Your Land" or two short of perfect small-town, open-country perfection. There is Texas dust in her tiny voice, and you can hear in it the belief, exactly contrary to urban modernity's, that the land is awesome and extends forever, but people are of human scale, and you can know the names of all the ones you need to care about. Her 1993 studio album of folk covers, Other Voices, Other Rooms, has enough reverence to compensate for every smug tribute album recorded in the last decade, and enough humble charm to make you wish Sinéad O'Connor had grown up in Austin instead of Ireland. But there were signs, recently, that urban sprawl was catching up to even Nanci. Peter Van-Hooke and Rod Argent's lush production on 1991's Late Night Grande Hotel started to nudge her out of her country shell, and 1994's alternately bouncy and ethereal Flyer, crowded with such out-from-the-city guests as Peter Buck, Tony Levin, Adam Duritz, Jerry Marotta, Amy Ray, Emily Saliers, Adam Clayton, Larry Mullen Jr., Mark Knopfler and Jennifer Kimball, appeared to be a conscious leap for the mainstream.
Blue Roses From the Moons, though, finds her taking a step, if not backwards exactly, then at least sideways. Her taste in melodies still runs to the sentimental and grand, the sort of song that Bette Midler could win a Grammy with (except that Nanci's elfin treatments have a perverse tendency to deflate them), and she continues to keep collaborative company that worries me (a duet here with Darius Rucker of Hootie and the Blowfish), but gone are the hordes of celebrities and the banks of processors, and in their place are just Nanci, her Blue Moon Orchestra, and a bunch of good, sturdy microphones. The resulting record is, for the most part, a renewal of faith in what the simplest tools can accomplish in earnest and worn hands. "Everything's Comin' Up Roses" booms with rubber-band fretless bass and syncopated backing vocals that suddenly make me credit any Pangea theory that puts the Texas Hill Country and the African savanna closer together. "Two for the Road" is a travel song for a journey that leaves you wide-eyed, not world-weary. "Wouldn't That Be Fine" turns on a Celtic stab that on Flyer the Chieftains would have flogged with zeal fit for a VH1 gala campaigning for rerun slots, but here Nanci takes it on acoustic guitar almost by herself, letting the notes state their own case. "Saint Teresa of Avila" reveals a bit of the quiet, glitzless, gospel piety that is never far from the heart of the country. The remake of "Gulf Coast Highway", with a string quintet, James Hooker's stately piano and Rucker's affectionate bellow, and the similarly arranged (but Rucker-less) "Is This All There Is?", are probably the most overblown moments, but even they lack the production gloss to face down Celine Dion in a cocktail dress. "Not My Way Home" is a classic Griffith ballad, but done in an even more understated arrangement. And Guy Clark's "She Ain't Goin' Nowhere" needs only a little more slide guitar and a bigger hat to be a country standard.
In between these, however, things start getting strange. Joining the Blue Moon Orchestra on about half of the songs are Buddy Holly's old backing band the Crickets, which I know sounds like a metaphor you can't follow, but is actually literally the case. Nanci did a track with them for a Buddy Holly tribute album a couple years ago, and I guess everybody got along, or else she just hasn't had the heart to kick them out. Their tracks on this album veer off the folk path entirely, and head out toward some forgotten outpost of rock and roll built back when Buddy Holly was young and hardly disturbed since, where the music still rings with the artless thrill of something too new to have crusted over with glamour or swagger, rock and roll before the Beatles and the Stones and Shudder to Think and Bikini Kill ever got their hands on it, a breathless swirl of ragtime, bluegrass and musicals, stripped and electrified. The first such song, a galloping cover of Nick Lowe and Paul Carrack's "Battlefield", will probably appall fans of the original in the same way, turned about, that a hundred remakes going the other direction have disgusted their parents. It is a rare blow struck back, actually. Songs get updated constantly, but they rarely get backdated like this; even Tori slowing down "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and Aztec Camera deconstructing "Jump" were progressive reinterpretations. More striking still is the goofy hoe-down translation of "I Fought the Law", written by Cricket's guitarist Sonny Curtis, but long since appropriated for punk's cause by The Clash's hoarse rendition. Nanci and Sonny, singing a twangy duet (and when Nanci, whose voice at its most refined can resemble a petulant twelve-year-old imitating Annie Potts, affects additional twang, you'll either laugh or panic), take the song back, and somehow this seems more subversive to me than any punk demolition ever was. It is so much easier to tear down than it is to rebuild.
Mary Black: Shine
But I was trying to relax, and subversion is heartening, but not relaxing. But surely Mary Black, staunch Irish traditionalist of Black Family, De Dannan and solo fame, would oblige. I bought this album, actually, out of morbid curiosity. I'd written Black off some time ago as a midpoint between June Tabor and Enya that I didn't need to visit in person, but my mother claimed to have heard that this new album had six songs by David Gray, who we both like, and while this seemed unlikely, it also turned out to be true. I wasn't sure I wanted to hear what Black would make of Gray's tense, bristly, angular songs, as Muzak makes me want to throw bricks through display windows (why they play it in shopping malls I'll never understand), but I couldn't not know. There's an Aesop's fable about this, I'm sure. The Goat, the Bit of Shiny Something and the Big Sharp Gnashing Steel Trap Teeth, or something like that. I've still got the scars from Cher's desecration of Patty Larkin's "Angels Running", which never hurt a creature in its life to deserve this.
But the more horrible a thing has the potential to be, the more astonishing it is when it manages not to. I could have sketched out several scenarios in which I'd end up liking this album -- it isn't self-hatred that keeps me following these leads -- but none of them would have included the two things that I end up saying about it. Which are, first, that this is one of those albums on which the production is so phenomenal that I could just sit and listen to the timbre of the snare drum, and not care what else the songs did. Luka Bloom's Turf is like that (except it didn't have a snare drum), and Emmylou Harris' Wrecking Ball, and parts of Suzanne Vega's 99.9F (Jerry Marotta plays the snare on both 99.9F and Shine, I just realized, looking at the credits; there's a geeky party trick lurking in there if I can perfect it). Larry Klein's small-room intimacy here hasn't the epic organic depth of Lanois' or Froom's cinematic treatments, but what it gives up in obtrusive manipulation, it takes back in preternatural clarity. I find myself turning this album up repeatedly, as if each increase in volume will reveal a little more detail in the way the sticks bounce off the drum heads, the way the accordions and organs alter the air flow in the room, the buzz of a loosely-attached metal logo on the face of an amplifier. I don't actually find quite that level of obsessive detail (this isn't Spirit of Eden), but I do end up playing this album a whole lot louder than I expected to want to.
The other idea I'm struck with, listening to Shine again days past when I thought I would have filed it away as history, is that this is the album that Melissa Etheridge might have made, if she'd gone out to see the world instead of retreating into the heartland to become the next Bryan Adams. In Ireland maybe she'd have picked up a few stray pipes and fiddles, which dance around the fringes of this album like lingering traces of daydreams. In New Zealand, maybe Shona Laing would have taught her that catch in the throat, to use in moments when neither rasp nor howl would do. And on a slow train, somewhere where neither of them spoke the native tongue, she and David Gray would run into each other, and he'd write her half an album before his stop arrived. I'm not sure why I have fixed on this notion, and it dissipates whenever I try to reach in and touch it to find out what it's made of, but when I pull my hand away it re-forms. Something in the urgency of "Shine" that reminds me of "You Can Sleep While I Drive", perhaps. Something in the giddy fiddle and whistles on the chorus of "One and Only" that seems to do more justice to Melissa's acoustic roots than the garish churn of "Your Little Secret". Something U2-grand in "I Will Be There" that would have filled arenas without "All American Girl"'s surrender to anthemic cliche. It doesn't matter, I guess. As long as somebody made this.
Chris Whitley: Terra Incognita
I normally avoid emaciated, chain-smoking, hat-wearing guitar prodigies with about the same wariness I apply to the dumpsters outside of seafood restaurants and to shopping-mall luggage stores (long story; some other time), and this album's relation to folk is even more tenuous than Shine's, but while I'm on the subject of albums that strike me as how I wish somebody else had turned out, Terra Incognita is a pretty good impression of the album I've been hoping Richard Thompson would make ever since Amnesia. For just two songs, "Turning of the Tide" and "Yankee, Go Home", Thompson mixed his trademark elliptical guitar and withering scorn with a little mainstream rock charge, and made a hybrid that subordinated willful perversity to rave-up energy for just long enough to make me really excited. But Rumour and Sigh, no matter how much I love "1952 Vincent Black Lightening", had nothing to follow up on those two songs' potential, and Mirror Blue and you? me? us?, to me, have chronicled Thompson's slow disappearance into his own disgust, as if he's bitten his own tongue so often to remind himself of his pain that he can hardly sing any more.
Chris Whitley isn't quite Richard Thompson, either as a player or a songwriter, and lines like "Jet planes leave a trail of smoke, yes" and "Tell me darling, why you wanna / Drive my gasket down" aren't going to run anybody out of the lyrical misanthropy business, but a certain amount of credit must be given to anybody who sings sentiments like "Got no blood to waste on foreplay" and "Sheets of golden velvet rain / Lubricate my naked steel again" with conviction, and this album manages to work in an astonishing amount of guitar noise without ever turning into one of those records that I suspect only guitar students really love. The short intro, "As Flat as the Earth", spins an curlicue acoustic figure around a clipped, Thompson-esque vocal. "Automatic", the fiery single, which sounds to me a little like Del Amitri (in their live mood) covering an unusually cocksure John Gorka song, has Big Country-like E-bow that drifts through layers of chiming acoustics and squealing electrics. The fitful "Clear Blue Sky" could be Adrian Belew in a Robert Cray-ish mood. The guitars on "Weightless" are played for texture and atmosphere, and Whitley sounds a bit like a pre-catharsis Adam Duritz. "Power Down" spits, thrashes and seethes. "On Cue" is like the blues after Picasso and a very long night, while the acoustic jam "Immortal Blues" moans along on a single cycling acoustic guitar riff. "Cool Wooden Crosses", with its pitch-bent chords and gruff vocals, could nearly be "Calvary Cross", if it weren't for the spasms of noise that usher in the choruses. The feedback-drenched "Still Point" could be a Talking Heads song transcribed for banjo and then flayed to within an inch of its life. "Gasket" is roaring noise-blues, and "One Long Day" flirts with Hendrix funk. "Aerial" alternates between reminding me of the Red Hot Chili Peppers and making me think it's about to break into a Stevie Wonder falsetto. And "Alien", the finale, simmers like a lost link between Tom Petty and early-solo Bob Mould. And if in the end the album's persistent adult-contemporary warmth makes it Buckethead for Gin Blossoms fans, there are far worse things.
Plus, as I've admitted before, any album with a love song to Amelia Earhart on it gets my vote automatically.
Bruce Cockburn: The Charity of Night
If there was to ever be calm derived from music that left no openings for misconstrual, then maybe the key was less musical than lyrical. On the axis from DIY schematic to shut-up-and-listen-to-how-it-was-man, Bruce Cockburn's poetic style is far enough up that I'd run out of oxygen and lost sight of him completely, and so stopped buying his records. I adore "Lovers in a Dangerous Time" passionately, but by 1986's World of Wonders I'd grown weary of his self-congratulatory world-spanning bylines, my patience with precious semi-observations like "red/gold ripple of the sun going down" had run out, and there didn't seem to me to be enough going on in the music to compensate for these lyrical sticking points. So 1989's Big Circumstance came and went, and then Nothing But a Burning Light in 1991, and Dart to the Heart in 1994, and a compilation and a live album and a bunch of reissues along the way. And still my heart was shut to it. But I am weak, my imaginary virtual friends, and everybody who doesn't die will eventually get me to buy another one of their albums, if they just keep making them, and Bruce Cockburn's turn came around again with The Charity of Night. Somebody said it was better than the others, maybe, or maybe it was a slow week, I don't remember. But here it is, waiting patiently to be reviewed, and it's clung to my active rotation while lots of discs I had higher hopes for skittered by unremarked upon on their way to the vault.
My apprehension about this album and the dispelling of it are captured perfectly, together, right at the beginning of "Get Up Jonah", the album's second track. "I woke up thinking about Turkish drummers", Bruce intones, stolidly, and I shudder and reach for Eject, but then he snorts and admits "Didn't take long; I don't know much about Turkish drummers", and the song caroms off through Germany, Afghan, Quebec and Vietnam before coming to rest on the realization that all this geography is an attempt to elude oneself, after all. And then I'm with him, and once I know that he knows this, I can take the rest. I can see that the place names that flash by in "Night Train" are only details, that the dinner with a native family in "The Coming Rains" is not cultural tokenism or condescension but just a short stop on a much longer trip, that "Birmingham Shadows" uses the city as shorthand for context, and that "The Mines of Mozambique" creeps in because sometimes the things you see really are their own stories. And the album's most complex, ambiguous song for me, the title track, traces cruelty and mercy from one sea to another, but was written in Schenectady.
The twinge of guilt I feel for betraying the ranks of the literate notwithstanding, though, what makes this the album that finally quiets the clamor for me is precisely that I don't feel the need to listen too closely. I know Cockburn has been to many idyllic and tormented places, and I know I'm getting my USRDA of global-political awareness, but once I'm confident of this, I just lie back and listen to the sound of it. The core trio, Cockburn, bassist Rob Wasserman and drummer Gary Craig, play with a fluid familiarity that suggest that many of these songs, if not these performances, arose from improvisation. The songs, in turn, linger unhurriedly, as if no deadline approaches but the setting sun, and the darkness only makes it easier to hear each other. Vibraphonist Gary Burton plays on several of them ("Mistress of Storms" is a long instrumental duet between just vibes and Bruce's acoustic guitar), and there is no more languorous and soothing instrument than vibes, unless you count Spock's rhetorical ermine violin. Janice Powers adds keyboards to one song, and on another plays a "Mongolian Keyboard Thing", which sounds to me like an epileptic bowing a sitar, and how a keyboard participates in the noise I can't imagine. Co-producer Colin Linden supplies mandolin on a couple, Bonnie Raitt plays slide guitar on one. Jonatha Brooke, Patty Larkin, Ani DiFranco and Maria Muldaur split up the backing-vocal chores, including one song on which Jonatha and Ani appear together, which frightens me in theory, but sounds fine. The tracks are long, the album is long, and there are days between stations in a few places, at least, but if there's anything all this travel has earned Cockburn, it's the right to move through spaces according to their own tempos, and the authority to carry you along. When the teleport booths come, and there is no longer a country to be crossed between there and where you are, we will trade the ability to go anywhere for most of the point of ever leaving here.