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Our Little Moment in Forty-Whatever Minutes
Marry Me Jane: Tick
There are very few moments in my life I wish I had a chance to do over again. I don't mean that I'm so good at moments that they couldn't stand, in objective retrospect, some sort of improvement, I just mean that I'm at enough of a peace with how I am and behave that the tragic flaws my actions demonstrate are indistinguishable, to me, from the idiosyncrasies that form my personality. Between near-paralyzing self-analysis, beforehand, and resourceful rationalization afterwards (a balancing act that resembles an emotional version of that old wooden labyrinth game I used to play with at my grandparents', where you maneuver a small steel ball along a winding, hole-lined path by alternately tilting the whole maze's surface along one or another of its axes), I'm usually able to navigate through my days without routine regret. There are twinges, certainly, like when I read a Feynman biography and wonder if I should have been a scientist, after all, or when it occurs to me that if I'd stuck with piano lessons when I was nine I would probably be able, today, to play keyboard parts that require both hands to participate at once, but these are less regrets than acknowledgments of other choices I might have made, and any interesting life, no matter how wisely led, will have those.
But there are, even so, occasional instants that I replay, morbidly, as if hoping to find that the past has rewritten itself since the last time I checked, and somehow they now transpired differently. Like, when my first true love broke up with me, when I was eighteen, I shouldn't have asked for the queen of hearts I'd given her from that monogrammed card deck I had back. In the exhausted 4am state I was in as we finished editing our group documentary about Scruffy the Cat my sophomore year in college, I shouldn't have tried to swing across the lighting grid on the fifteen-foot ceiling like a set of monkey bars in the first place, much less the second time, when I fell and broke both my wrists. I should have insisted on more money for every job I've ever taken, and all the ones I'll take in the future without bothering to really negotiate.
Even rarer and more mysterious that this sort of moment, though, where I now know what I think I should have done, are the ones that I replay without any clear idea of how they could have been different, just a nagging sense that they ended up wrong. One of these occurred on a warm spring night, last year, in a small club around the corner from where I now live, as I introduced myself to Marry Me Jane singer Amanda Kravat after her acoustic set, and handed her a copy of the review I'd written of her band's first album. I hardly know where to start reconstructing this exchange. First, even though she was the most incapacitatingly beautiful woman I've ever met in person, I should have been a little more articulate; "Wow, that acoustic set was really mesmerizing" and "Here's a review I wrote of your album that I thought you might be interested in" are more coherent sentences if you say all the words in one of them before starting on the other. Second, I should have turned the piece of paper over, as I handed it to her, so that the side she looked at first was the one with her review, not the one with the much nicer and more sympathetic review of the Nields that appeared in the same issue. And third, I should have somehow arranged things so that the bulk of our encounter didn't consist of me standing there looking sheepish and incongruously awe-struck while she read, in the dim after-show light, the opening paragraph of the review, in which I insulted the rest of her band and accused them of having been fabricated by cynical major-label demography weasels.
How, exactly, I would improve this scene, I'm not sure. There is a limited range of facial expressions applicable to the reviewer-meets-musician tableaux, and sheepish and awe-struck, for all their flaws, are at least honest, and vastly preferable to most of the others, like condescending, confrontational, judgmental, journalistic or conspiratorial. I wouldn't rewrite the review any other way, either. This column is a journal of my own experience of music, not an oblique epic pick-up line (even if it's not always clear what the difference between these two is). I can't even isolate why it is that this scene is so important to me. I barely knew the woman, and she didn't know me at all, so what great potential is it that I think has been thwarted? Long, curly red hair and pale lips are not the phenotype of a soul-mate, no matter how I instinctively react to them. If I hadn't gone to the show at all, or hadn't remembered to bring a copy of the review, or she hadn't stayed to talk to people, or I'd passed out from the heat in the room, or any of a hundred other quirks of unfolding time prevented the scene from even taking place, I know I wouldn't feel like I missed a thing.
The other catch is that I'm sure I wouldn't still dwell on that moment if I hadn't come to love Marry Me Jane so dearly. The review was written early in my life with the album, and while it accurately represents our relationship dynamic in those first days, it necessarily leaves out the months that followed. I said it was a resolutely conventional record, an album so squarely centered in the mainstream that the banks were barely even visible from it, and I still feel that, but I long ago stopped minding. I admitted to liking it a lot, but I did so almost resentfully, as if its hooks constituted deceit. Deceit does trick me into buying lots of records, but it takes a much stronger force to pull a CD I've already reviewed and filed back out of my shelves, against the current of constant new purchases, and into my player. There have been weeks on end, in the past year and a half, when I couldn't go to sleep without hearing Amanda sing "You didn't kiss me; how could I go to sleep?" There have been days when I've had to turn other records off because they interfered with my ability to walk, distractedly, around my old apartment, singing "I don't want to be in your fantasy. / I wish you'd move to China, or the moon." There was nothing in my own life these lines paralleled, but there didn't have to be; I could hear in Amanda's voice that they were someone's reality, perhaps not even hers, and they captured intense emotions so simply and effortlessly that I wished the emotions were mine. I sang along to examine the empty spots in my life where these pains could have throbbed, and to reach out a hand, in spirit, to whoever suffered them. Marry Me Jane has worked its way much deeper into my life than I could ever, realistically, have anticipated, and I don't castigate myself for not knowing then that it would, but it still hurts that I had thirty seconds to tell Amanda what her record meant to me, and squandered them on an exchange that expressed no fraction of it. I had an opportunity to make some sort of amends, at least to myself, when I drew up my top-ten lists at the end of 1996, but at the last moment I let self-consciousness convince me that a record that conventional merited no more than a song mention, no matter how many times it had played me into dreams.
So I greet Tick, after all this, breathless as much with dread as anticipation. It's another album, and thus a second chance for me to say all the things I wish I'd said the first time, but it's another album, and my shelves are lined with second albums that don't move me like their predecessors. Mainstream records are the most vulnerable, I think, to these disappointments, because my attraction to them tends to be largely intangible. If you like one keening, cacophonous Mecca Normal album, it's probably because you like keening cacophony, and the next one thus begins on a solid footing. But if some subtle quirk of a record with no obvious structural irregularities melts your heart, there's no guarantee at all that the next one will be able to reproduce it. Patty Smyth's Never Enough, Shona Laing's South, Baby Animals' "Painless", Angelfish's "Heartbreak to Hate", Darden Smith's "Little Victories", the Cavedogs' Joyrides for Shut-Ins, School of Fish, these are all magic and precious to me, but by Patty Smyth, New on Earth, Shaved and Dangerous, Garbage, Deep Fantastic Blue, Soul Martini and Inarticulate Nature Boy I have lost sight of the spark. I want to rush into this album's arms and pin it to a tree until I can stumble through an apology and make it understand what the other one did for me, but you have to expose so much of yourself to do this, and what if Marry Me Jane has changed? My glib predictions that the first album would make Amanda as ubiquitous as Sheryl Crow never panned out, so who could blame Marry Me Jane for doubting themselves and trying this time to be something different?
And, in a way, they are. Marry Me Jane had no shortage of loud guitars, but its soul, to me, inhabited Amanda's frailest threads of aching melodic rapture much more than the superficial snap and chatter around them. My favorite songs, "You Didn't Kiss Me", "Positive" and "Lousy Lullaby", are all shameless ballads, and even the brashest howled choruses of the other songs can't wholly shake their grace. Tick, on the other hand, has only one or two true ballads, the delicate, bell-like "Days", and perhaps the swelling, Aimee Mann-like "Superman", depending on how strict you are about arrangements. The next quietest songs, the simmering "Might as Well Be Mine" and the steady, swaying "So What", are a lot more like "Who's Leaving Who" than the softer songs on the first album. Moreover, even these songs do not feel like the center of Tick like the ballads felt to me like the center of Marry Me Jane. "Shaking the River" is fitful and ominous, roiling with choppy guitar and surging, buzzing bass. The charged, bluesy "I Got a $" bounces from rumbling drum cascades to wailing guitar and harmonica. "I'm That Bad", with Aerosmith's Steven Tyler making a trademark vocal cameo, sounds like exactly the kind of blaring rock song you'd think to have him sing on, and I'm surprised that he doesn't sing on "Sister" as well. The opening verse of "Faithless" is hushed and harrowing, but the song builds to a paced roar by the first chorus, and ends up in full flight. The sketchy verses of "Madly Even" are punctuated by bursts of noise guitar, and the choruses are confident mid-tempo rock strut; "Blue Light"'s verses are distant, drifting and acoustic, the choruses suddenly clear and ringing. And the bright, impish "Tommy G" is halfway between "Johnny Are You Queer?" and something by the Fabulous Thunderbirds. The production, throughout, spotlights instrumental flourishes and intensity shifts as much as the legato nuances of Amanda's voice and her songcraft's pop traditionalism, and the overall result, to me, is another unapologetically mainstream album, but an album that is rock, first, which Marry Me Jane, I think, was not.
To my great relief, I find that the conviction I hear in Amanda's voice is as evident in songs designed to wake you up as it is in ones that can rock you to sleep. It lingers over words in "Shaking the River", refusing to surrender the sense of the song to the guitar hooks; it sidles around the small world dreams of "I Got a $", seeing where the tawdry prizes' superficial sparkle catches breaths; it surrenders gracefully to its fate in "Might As Well Be Mine", lending apparent resignation deliberateness and unexpected complexity. The hesitations in her own parts of "I'm That Bad" squeeze in the essential self-doubt that Tyler's mindlessly anthemic guest blasts steamroll right over. In "Tommy G" she even manages a shrill edge that keeps that song from confusing peevish with plaintive. She sounds tired when the music needs to feel like it is supporting her, implacable when it threatens to fall apart, defenseless when it gets too cocky. There are better voices, more distinctive voices, more expressive voices, voices closer, I'm sure, to every superlative you can think of, and of course voices are the most subjective sounds in the world (like faces are the most subjective images), but Amanda's voice sounds so effortless to me, and so balanced, that it no more needs stylistic flair than a perfect green apple needs oregano or a fish sauce. Perhaps hers is no more my favorite voice than apples are my favorite food, but the simple truths that eating an apple expresses are the groundwork without which a bite of syrup-soaked caraway/sour-cherry cornbread is mute ingredient-association.
The biggest surprise for me on Tick, however, is not the music, it's the words. Amanda's lyric-writing gift, I thought, on Marry Me Jane, was mostly plain-speaking, reducing universal sentiments to the phrases that evoked them most cleanly and familiarly, not for the sake of the words as written, but to prepare them to be sung. Her songs were merely ordinary as poems, which was in part why they seemed so extraordinary to me as songs. The deftness in her treatment of timeless romantic themes was empathy, not word choice, like the key to a beautiful landscape painting is making the brush move the way human hopes reach out toward horizons, not inventing spiky alien spacecraft to show plummeting through the cloud cover. The thirteen songs on Marry Me Jane are essentially all variations on the line, in one of them, "Life's a little too intense", at once admissions of insecurities and attempts to confront them. This is true, of course, of most pop songs, or at least the ones that bother to be about anything at all. It takes an act of will to remember that there are other poetic modes in which songs can be written, and most lyricists without the mindset of a story writer to begin with generally don't develop it spontaneously in between albums. Yet here is Tick, and where the songs on Marry Me Jane were, without exception, first-person freeze-frames without any apparent narrative indirection, much of the new album reads like the work of a different writer entirely. "Shaking the River" sounds, from the title, like some sort of Gabriel-esque eco-miscellany, but it's actually a rather gruesome portrait of, I believe, an inattentive father discovering his son's suicide. "I Got a $" starts out like a romantic getaway-story ("She's got her feet on the dashboard; / He's the luckiest driver"), but ends up as a merciless evisceration of this very illusion, in which the boy's fantasy is revealed as pathetic, and the prostitute's amorality runs far deeper than her trade. "Faithless", on a cursory listen, sounds like another song about an abusive relationship, maybe not even one where the abuse is physical or deliberate, but on inspection "creepy sister" doesn't appear to be a figure of speech, and once you read the song as an incest memoir, the wild confusion of blame and loyalty ("I don't expect to be forgiven", "Can I return your little secret?", "He leaves me broken and breathless, / He leaves me his cigarettes") is terrifying. "Superman" has a chorus reminiscent of enough other pop songs ("You could've been Superman") that it's easy to let it drift by, but it's about the life a dead friend might have lived, not some routine romantic shortcoming. "Sister" is an unflinching depiction of a heroin addict nearing the breaking point, its straightforward diagnosis skewed sideways by the narrator's insistent "She's part of me", which I take less as compassion than the narrator's gripping fear that the same failings that are killing her sister lurk inside her, too. "Tommy G" is an agonized teenage crush story, but in addition to the catty "Johnny Are You Queer?" redux there are several nice details that make the picture less abstract ("I wore my new sweater / 'cuz I got my new breasts", "I saw him in Science, / He was dissecting a rat. / Why does Mr. O'Brien / Look at him like that?", "And as we float across the soccer fields / His powder blue tuxedo will catch the highlights in his eyes..."). And "So What", the last song, is about the class tension between commuters and an alcoholic vagrant on a train, but I'm intrigued by the fact that I can't tell if the narrator is a commuter suffering a pang of conscience, or the drunk half hallucinating a civilian life, and half seeing his real one through it.
And so, where I only hoped to get another chance to explain, I find that this album matches up with the receptors that currently stud my life just as well as Marry Me Jane did before it. For a while I wanted lullabies, melancholy and doubt, and now I want wakefulness, insight and ambivalence, and the transition from Marry Me Jane to Tick recapitulates this exactly. This is the wrong phase of my life for Puff Daddy records, even if I liked the music. I am lonely, confused and impatient, and while there are various ways albums can interact with this state, the ones that affect me the most strongly are the ones that seem to share my condition. The last thank-you on the list in this album's booklet is "everyone involved in Tick 'cuz it wasn't easy but it was something to do all winter", and the mixture of needing to fill time and wanting desperately to fill it with something productive is exactly how I often find myself, these days. Life is long, and life is short; if you don't believe both these things at once, I think something is wrong. If you aren't lonely, you are missing yourself; if you aren't confused, you've overlooked the most interesting variables; if you aren't impatient, you've lost contact with your will. And if you don't collect albums that sing to you about their own impatience and confusion, so you can calibrate your own, then who will keep you company while the rest of the world is asleep?
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