Every Key Works Differently
121 · 22 May 97
Steve McDonald: Sons of Somerled
One of the side effects of spending as much time in serious record stores as I do is that you develop a healthy elitist's disdain for anywhere that dares to cast itself as a CD source without having the energy to stock the entire Mecca Normal back catalog, both parts of the new Kenickie single, and an aisle's worth of $3.99 classical masterworks recorded by the Bratislavanian Merchant Marine Pensioners' Orchestra. Mall chains and department stores, to whom "depth" usually means having a few copies left of some things that dropped out of the top forty weeks ago, are obviously beneath contempt, as are all mail-order record clubs. Stores that carefully select a handful of CDs to sell amongst other material, however, are an odd case. On the one hand, I instinctively respect any entity, corporeal or corporate, that consciously employs musical taste. On the other, though, real music buyers buy music in real music stores, so the teak racks of assorted ethnic compilations in the corner of the Nature Company can only be aimed at ill-informed tourists and impulse buyers mesmerized by whatever they happen to be playing on the loudspeakers.
Frankly, why The Nature Company sells music, at all, I can't figure. Whale songs, meditation tapes of the tumbling surf, discs of the sound of infant timberwolves urinating on ice floes -- these are clearly more nature than they are music, and so fit into the store's charter comfortably. The Gipsy Kings, though? We have "nature" in New Jersey, too, but that doesn't mean a pile of Slippery When Wets belongs between the refracting-telescope case and the bin of miscellaneous geodes. I fear that the explanation somehow revolves around America's myopic inability to distinguish between any two unfamiliar things, which results in magnified carpenter ants and the throat singers of Tuva seeming like a perfectly coherent genre. The consumerist world cleaves cleanly into staples (cup-a-soups, Twinkies, plastic lawn furniture, The Bodyguard soundtrack) and "gifts" (bread machines, anything involving a foreign language, any book for which no movie has yet been made, anything not sold with a flavor-pack or toy inside or not subject to coupon doubling), thus The Nature Company is a store of gifts, and the fact that you can purchase astronaut ice cream and Swiss Army watches from it need not be at all ironic. But that certainly doesn't mean the place isn't fun or useful. And my sister manages one, so a steady caravan of Nature Company artifacts makes its way into my life. The staples/gifts dichotomy is plainly evident at holidays, where boxes of billowingly oversized sweatshirts from the Gap (her previous employer) have given way to levitrons and pens that write upside down; if I don't get out and do some clothes shopping of my own soon it's going to be a faded, tattered summer. Giving me CDs tends to be an exercise in futility, so most of the Celtic Twilights end up at my parents' house, but occasionally something obscure and intriguing makes its way into Nature Company stock, and this is how I finally ended up with a copy of Steve McDonald's Sons of Somerled.
Ostensible missions aside, The Nature Company and contemporary Celtic music are an apt match. If much of what the store sells can be classified as toys (sundials, hurricane lamps, hiking sticks...) for people who no longer find SuperSoakers at all amusing, then Riverdance and Enya are eminently well-positioned as pop music for adults who outgrew the desire to be shaken all night long some while back. Celtic crossover music tends to be catchy, melodic and succinct, like all good pop, but free from distortion, sneering, vulgarity or clatter, which every generation seems to hear in the soundtracks of the next. It can be exciting and enthralling, but it rarely provokes seizures of thrashing ecstasy, and this opens it to legions of people afraid of throwing their backs out again who would otherwise be consigned to watching This Old House reruns on public television. The Celtic element is not generally significant in itself, it's merely a spice that allows people to retain their self-respect ("I'm listening to strong, vibrant music steeped in centuries of folk tradition; I'm nothing like my parents slumped on a calico divan watching Lawrence Welk."). In fact, as the number of Riverdance returns my sister gets from people who didn't realize there are also slow bagpipe solos in it attests, the masses' tolerance for ethnic authenticity is extremely low, and you allow it to poke through the synthesizer washes and reverb strata at your peril.
And this is why, Nature Company exposure or not, Sons of Somerled is probably not destined to rival Watermark. It is not casually Celtic. Although the music is supplied with plenty of breathy synthesizers and Gabriel-esque drum-program cascades, great for catching people's attentions as they try on safari hats and peer through the wrong end of collapsible field binoculars, no amount of cheerful world-beat syncopation can disguise for long the fact that this a sixty-nine minute concept album about the fates, fortitudes, history and destiny of Scotland and the Clan Donald. Choruses turn on gazetteers of Hebridean geography and timelines of battles in the eternal struggle for freedom. For every airy harmony there's a lyrical anachronism or a liner-note ode to Highlander pride. Although many of these songs can be absorbed as general anthems of courage and dedication, I know just enough of my family history to recognize several details, left unexplained in the booklet, that transform songs significantly. If you don't know that Flora MacDonald gave sanctuary on Skye to Prince Charles after his defeat at Culloden in 1746, and helped him escape to France, then "Come to the Isle of Skye", with its promise that "Flora will make your identity safe", sounds like a generic song of invitation from people with an odd notion of what constitutes rustic charm. "Per Mare, Per Terras" is an inexplicable Latin affectation if you don't know that it's the clan's motto. The sad litany of battle sites in "The Celtic Warrior" could be a roster of suburban incorporation dates if you don't happen to know the stories behind them. And without at least a little grounding in the lingering Scottish belief that Scotland will someday rule itself again, some of the songs of soaring faith and eternal patience here may leave you feeling like a perplexed Belgian watching Confederate flags wave over a Ku Klux Klan rally, thinking "Isn't that the flag of Australia?"
But really, even without the scholarly lyrics, Steve McDonald's songs were never going to end up, like Enya's, as the love themes to every third movie produced thereafter. "Soldier's Lament", with its glassy synth-leads and swelling background choruses, has some of the direct insistence of "Orinoco Flow", and the rumbling "Sons of Somerled" and "Per Mare, Per Terras" and the simmering, graceful "All You Can Know", with its faintly Mike Scott-like vocal and chirpy Flying Pickets-ish backing parts, are all cloaked in some "Biko"-esque drama, but too many of these songs have more specific goals in mind than comforting atmosphere. "Introduction" is dense and choral, and "Live On My Warrior Son" reminds me of Luka Bloom. Steve's precise, plaintive rendition of the Scottish standard "Loch Lomond" brings out the details of the song's love stories (for the woman and for the country) in a way that the galloping whirl of Runrig's and the extended jam of Marillion's do not. Long pipe and harp solos weave around the unhurried verses of "Come to the Isle of Skye". "Scotland the Brave" is played on such a shamelessly synthetic array of mock-instruments that it comes out sounding more than a little like Mannheim Steamroller. "Celtic Warrior"'s vocal counterpoints have faint African overtones that momentarily give way in the middle to a noise that can't decide whether it's a violin or a theremin, and the bouncy half-marimba patter in "I Will Return" is halfway between a Simple Minds b-side and the Magnetic Fields. "Wild Mountain Thyme", a mainstay of my own personal branch of the McDonald family, seems oddly unstable and weighty compared to the Judy Collins version I grew up with. "Lordship of the Isles", with harp glissandos and a yearning melody, and "Journey of the Warrior Soul", with more harp, questing synthesizer runs and growling bass pads, both seem to me to be perpetually on the verge of launching into one neo-progressive flourish or another. Steve McDonald's peers here are not Enya, Capercaillie or the hordes of dinner-music compilations with Celtic in the title, they are people like Dougie Maclean, Runrig, Iona, Avalon, Ian Drever and Struan Eaglesham, Lief Sorbye and Tonight at Noon, artists who understand their musical traditions, and want to see not how they can be exploited, but how they can be advanced.
Big Country: King Biscuit Presents
For those who'd rather the Celtic/rock balance reversed, just a thread of Highlands reel wrapped around driving, post-punk, stadium-shaking rock drama, the King Biscuit Flower Hour archivists have exhumed a seminal document from the dawn of Celtic crossover. The 1983/4 New Years Eve show at the Barrowlands in Glasgow, which this disc captures, is well-known to Big Country historians (me and the other two) already, having been the source of several b-sides, but hearing half of "Lost Patrol" then flipping the bonus 45 over to hear the other half is a very different experience from hearing this concert all the way through. The band had been in existence for barely more than a year at the time, and filling a concert still required them to perform essentially their entire repertoire, so this recording contains all ten songs from The Crossing, two b-sides, and the between-albums single "Wonderland". It is my personal opinion that no band has ever put their first year to better use, and this album is a vivid portrait of a band still trying to figure out what life after punk was going to be like, and how British guitar music might sound if it didn't have to pretend to be from London or Liverpool. But Big Country is my favorite band, live albums have never been central to my experience of music, and all these songs are readily available elsewhere, so it would be hard to object if you refused to take my word for it.
Which would be fine, honestly, because the real reasons this album is so instantly dear to me are even less transferable. The Crossing came out in 1983, the year I turned sixteen. This is, as those of you well past it should recall, a particularly volatile time of life, and at least for me, one often looked back upon, and the album is inextricably woven into the fabric of my memory of it. The memory of an album doesn't fade the way memories of everything else do, though, at least not if you keep playing it, and so a somewhat circular irony develops: hearing these songs prompts memories of my youth, but the songs themselves are part of my youth, an important part, and yet I can't remember them through a filter of how they were to me then, the way I remember everything else, I can only hear how they are to me now. Listening to the album has thus become eerie and unsettling to me. It sounds wrong. I hear it through fourteen years of experience, and then I can't understand how any album could have elicited that complex a reaction from me when I was sixteen. I liked it then, but I liked lots of records then, so how could I have known that I would turn thirty believing that this one grows greater every day neither of us dies? I didn't, of course, but there is no way to split an artwork in time, freezing the one that you first encountered, and letting the one you went on to live with evolve with you, so the one album has to bear the concurrent burden of everything I've ever felt about it. Little wonder it begins to suffocate.
This concert recording, then, is the escape. I didn't see this show, but I saw them on the same tour (in Texas, another place that, like Scotland, romanticizes its history and harbors delusions of future independence). Played this way, live, these songs are just different enough from the album versions, in microcosmically unfamiliar but macrocosmically familiar ways, that they could be my memories of them. Listening to The Crossing, I feel like it is carrying me away from my past, or perhaps like my past is receding, and I'm unable to catch up to it (in "Inwards": "I wouldn't want to go home on a night like this, / When I find out that some of the past / Has been missed"). Listening to this concert album, I feel the past rushing back. I will play it sparingly, dreading the day when I come to know it, too, so well that it is pulled with me into now.
Ani DiFranco: Living in Clip
No such struggle with the nature of memory troubles me as I listen to Ani DiFranco's double-live magnum opus, Living in Clip. Her songs haven't had the chance to burrow deep enough into my memory to matter, first because I've only bought her last three albums, and second because I haven't really liked them that much. I could sense from them that Ani was a figure I wanted to support, fiercely self-reliant and able to span the chasm between punk and folk, and I could surrender momentarily to the occasional song, but the overall experience was slightly grim and unpleasant in a hard-to-isolate way. Too often I found myself unable to find songs behind the stridency, imagination behind the politics, or inventiveness behind the adroit playing. I knew Ani was saying important things, but I knew, also, that I wasn't having very much fun listening to them. So I read the lyrics, and put the albums on the shelf.
The press for this one, though, claimed that it revealed Ani's playful side. It was news to me that she had a playful side, and I was prepared to discover another proof that all things are relative, and that "playful", to Ani, consisted of little more than an unexpectedly whimsical epithet for another woman's diaphragm. In fact, it's more and less than that. Less, because that "playful" really only refers to the bits of between-song banter Ani saw fit to keep in, and there aren't that many of them (and you'll probably program some of those out, once you realize they're both long and indexed); more, because she doesn't just sound playful on them, she sounds breathlessly giddy, on the verge of complete hysterical collapse from an overload of incredulous glee, something like Rayanne on nitrous and a pop-rocks IV. When Jewel thanks audiences for the fact that she can sing for a living, you can hear her humble, reverent, awed gratitude. When Ani plays, thanking them without saying it, her voice catches like she's just fallen out of a plane and is trying desperately to figure out whether what she's experiencing is euphoric thrill or the last few seconds before a gruesome death. And although these bits account for only a fraction of this album's running time, they have a radically disproportionate effect. The bleak beat-poet abortion rant of "Tiptoe", which made me wince on album, takes on a completely different identity when you've heard Ani giggling crazily just a song or two before. The sharpest political diatribes become vastly more palatable once I've heard her coy non-explanation for her later shift in songwriting themes. I not only wanted to like Ani, I needed to like her in order to like her songs, and on her studio albums I couldn't discern enough of her for affection to take root. Seeing her play live would probably have done it, but why would I go see somebody I didn't think I liked?
And I suspect, too, that this album might even have changed my opinion without the asides. "I've never been a studio musician", Ani admits in the notes, and while this is a risky admission for someone who started their own record label and has put out eight studio albums on it, the live songs demonstrate what she means. In the studio her songs sound finished, and she sounds unnaturally restrained, trying to match their completed reserve; on stage the songs sound alive, excitable and unnervingly unruly, and this frees Ani to dash along beside them, neither having to follow or lead, and so doing these almost in alternation, goading a song around a corner and then skidding through the turn herself to catch up. The frantic songs sound whipped to a frenzy, not racing after a metronome; the slow songs sound like they're floating on the audience's anticipation. Her minimal backing band, longtime drummer Andy Stochansky and new bassist Sara Lee, serves her much better, I think, than the arrays of tempting gadgets that have been infiltrating her recent studio albums, and they're willing to leave Ani to her own devices as often as not, which seems to be how I like her best. "Gravel" spasms through its lines in a nervous rush, and "Willing to Fight" jerks like Ani can't sing and strum simultaneously, and so has to wedge the words in before and after the downstrokes. "Shy" snarls and surges like Melissa Ferrick doing an acoustic demo of "Semi-Charmed Life". "Joyful Girl", haunted and hesitant, reminds me of Patty Larkin and Lisa Germano. The excoriating anti-industry rant "Napoleon" opens mesmerizingly bare, and then roars into the surging band section with vindictive gusto. "Amazing Grace" substitutes the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra for the sequencing and samples on the album version, and while the idea of Ani and conductor Doc Severinsen on the stage at once makes my head hurt, the result is inspiringly surreal, like a dub Vaughn Williams. "Sorry I Am" sounds like how Melissa Etheridge might have ended up, if she'd moved away from VH1 instead of towards it. "The Diner" is the jam that obviates the need for all those remixes of Suzanne Vega's "Tom's Diner". "32 Flavors" makes me think for a second that maybe Ani isn't going to let Jonatha Brooke take the title of the New Paul Simon without a struggle. And the first disc careens to a close with what seems to me like Ani's signature anthem, "Out of Range", though I'm sure I think this because it's the first song of hers I heard.
Disc two opens with "Untouchable Face", which sounds so much like Melissa Ferrick to me that I'm surprised when it gets to the end without launching into "Blue Sky Night"'s sawing catharsis. The stomping "Shameless" is Ani's version of the blues, and she also emits a convincing wail in the pained and observant "Adam and Eve", a rare relationship song that reads like it wasn't written by a moonlighting greeting-card editor. "Fire Door" is a nicely unforced pop song, while "Both Hands", with Doc's orchestra again, turns into a three-movement epic, the first an unrecognizable credits-music blur of winds and brass, the second Ani sounding cruelly stranded trying to fill the same space as the orchestra with just her guitar, the last a combination of the two that sounds like a hall-rental scheduling mix-up. "Every State Line", with mournful harmonica and tremolo guitar, is sort of Ani's slow-burn deconstruction of "Sweet Home Alabama", and "Not So Soft" jitters through a sketchy Laurie-Anderson-like collage of guitar harmonics, quick breaths, tongue drums and tiny whoops. The rattling "In or Out", from the sound of the crowd reaction, must be a signature anthem from earlier in her career. "Letter to a John" is jazzy and crumbling. And the set concludes with a subdued drift through the frail "Overlap", and a long, rambling intro to a song that never appears.
Or at least it doesn't appear on this album. After listening to it, though, I think I'm finally ready to listen to Ani's other ones. And after making it, Ani may finally be ready to make them.