The Poisoner, the World Karaoke Champion and the King of the World
166 · 2 April 98
Emma Townshend: Winterland
I would have bought Emma Townshend's album, I'm almost sure, even if I'd known nothing about it, just because she's Pete Townshend's daughter. It's a bizarre milestone, to me, at once unsettling and delightful, that there's now a musician I like who has a child old enough to make an album of her own. Buckley, Dylan and Lennon fans, among others, will have already had variants of this odd experience, but this is my first personal encounter with it. I'm not sure what I expected from the association, as it's reasonably difficult to imagine what a female Pete Townshend would sound like, even if there were any reason to believe the inheritance would be that literal. As best I can tell, actually, my interest had no particular agenda. I didn't buy the album because I thought I'd enjoy it, I bought it just to find out what it was. A part of me, I suspect, thinks that I will learn something from witnessing the relationship between a parent and a child in music that I would not from a book or a movie, or even my own life. Another part is probably indulging in nothing more than my own version of prying tabloid voyeurism, wondering what the family lives of the famous are like. And a third part, knowing how hard young musicians often struggle to transcend even the influences they consciously make manifest in their music, wanted to see how Emma would cope with having her "influences" imposed on her a priori.
As it turns out, this album teaches me absolutely nothing about any of those things. Were it not for the name, and a slight twist of the upper lip enough like Pete's that maybe a pseudonym was never really a viable option, it would never have occurred to me to make the connection. Pete's only appearances in the credits are a couple thank-yous (one to "Pa", another to "my dad"), and that's a pretty accurate representation of the degree to which his personality is evident in this music. There are no windmill guitars (not many guitars of any sort), no rock-opera flourishes, no cagey defiance or paeans to eternal youth. There is none of the Who's manic goofiness or proud arena bombast, no sly innuendo, no rippling synthesizer arpeggios, no clattering percussion fusillades. If you want records that sound like Pete's children, you are better advised to try Paul Weller or Cast.
If Emma sounds like she's related to anybody, in fact, it's probably Tori Amos and the young Kate Bush. Her voice is high, breathy and intimately recorded, her songs quiet, and centered around shimmering synthesizers, swirling tempo-shift piano and restrained studio production touches. The most Tori-like song, to me, is "Walk at Night", whose tightrope dynamics, icy treble carillons and insistent retracing of the vocal melody could well be a conscious homage to "Winter". The most Kate-like moments, on the other hand, are the short pair "My Angel of Vertigo" (which dances through fleeting impressions of Kate's "The Saxophone Song", "The Man With the Child in His Eyes" and "In Search of Peter Pan") and "The Ambition of My Heart" (which reminds me vividly of "The Kick Inside"); the long, haunting "Groundswell", which begins to inch towards the more experimental territory of Kate's Never for Ever; and "Wish Finger", which is more than a little like Kate's "Wuthering Heights", albeit without the crystal-shattering falsetto. Although Kate and Tori have influenced a lot of musicians (and Kate influenced Tori, obviously), few have followed either of them as studiously as this, and while the uncanny resemblance between Happy Rhodes' voice and Kate's is probably striking enough that Happy still comes before Emma in the taxonomy, on musical grounds I think Emma is actually closer to their core aesthetic.
That would be enough for me, since Kate and Tori, between them, only produced three albums like this (or four, if you count Under the Pink, or five if you count Never for Ever), and I could probably absorb another dozen without risk. The most remarkable thing about Winterland, though, to me, is that Emma is able, in the course an eleven-song first album, to both ally herself with her spiritual ancestors and advance their cause a bit herself. "How Gardens Grow" is probably the most concise summary of her Kate/Tori synthesis, marrying Tori's emotive piano runs to Kate's analytical distance. "Groundswell"'s slowly-building catharsis is on Tori's scale, but exhibits Kate's reserve. "Better Than Music", the preface, is arranged like Patty Larkin's "Red Accordion", but trades Patty's rural twang for a spectral hush, and the guitar sounds like it's made of glass, not steel. "The Last Time I Saw Sadie", with its clipped vocal delivery and metallic, thumping drum loop, seems to me like how Joan Osborne's Relish might have turned out if it had been a collaboration with the Pet Shop Boys instead of the Hooters, or like Fiona Apple might sound with more Tracey Thorn and less Polly Harvey. "Ghost Kitchen", eerie and measured, is like Ryuichi Sakamoto exacting vengeance on behalf of every chill and brittle soul by remixing so much of the aggression out of a Nine Inch Nails song that it ends up sounding like Kate's "Kashka From Bagdad". "Five-a-Side Football", despite some Joni Mitchell-ish vocal mannerisms near the beginning, seethes with nervous energy, at several points completely losing track of the metronomic kick pulse that runs impassively through the background of the song. The understated finale, "The Ladder", is languid and jazzy, prodded by a jittery accordion, but refusing to give in to its carnival abandon.
The lyrics, too, find a middle ground between Kate's narrative composure and Tori's private-language impenetrability. Several lines of "The Last Time I Saw Sadie" could be scanned right into The Hounds of Love, but the song is actually about virulent jealousy, which Kate wouldn't have let herself come so close to, and Emma is able, like Tori, to completely immerse herself in the emotion, as a way not of surrendering to it but of disemboweling it, killing it by finding out what it is like inside. "Ghost Kitchen", after reminding me of "Kashka From Bagdad" musically, slips lyrically to the following Lionheart track, "Coffee Homeground", and retells the poisoner's tale as an internal monologue, like a miniature replica of the inversion from Jane Eyre to Wide Sargasso Sea. "Groundswell", like a lost chapter from Rachel's' The Sea and the Bells, searches for peace and hope in isolation and the unknown, recapitulating a theme both Tori and Kate touched on ("Flying Dutchman", "In Search of Peter Pan"). The simple explanation, in "How Gardens Grow", of how new growth arises from neglect, both in soil and in life, might not seem as profound to me if these weird mutant fronds hadn't just appeared in front of my house over the warm weekend, and if spring weren't reminding me to worry what equivalent of mutant fronds are germinating in my similarly neglected romantic life. "The Ladder", an acrobat's reverie, starts off in much the same storytelling mode as "There Goes a Tenner", Kate's burglar memoir, but where Kate's song twists, at the end, into distracted nostalgia, Emma's skids into a deft pirouette that transforms the whole detailed narrative into metaphor. The one confrontational piece, "Five-a-Side Football", simultaneously an infuriated first-person rejoinder to critics who would dismiss the narrator for her privileged upbringing, and a withering denunciation of the self-congratulatory pageantry of the media nobility (the title refers, I believe, to the sort of small-field celebrity soccer charity matches that seem, if you read the front pages of Q, to be the purgatory to which the members of Blur have been consigned ever since Oasis' success in America made Blur v. Oasis articles seem provincial), is so starkly at odds with the rest of the album's balanced grace (it is, in a sense, the flip side of "The Last Time I Saw Sadie") that I find it hard to believe it's really autobiographical. "I got to where I wanted to be / And the place went past like lightning", Emma sings. I don't think this album is incendiary enough, or so overreaches itself, that it will lead Emma to that fate, but then I didn't expect to see Jewel singing the national anthem at the Super Bowl, either.
But while Winterland has a lineage I can derive, and merits I can calculate, what I feel, already wound around my heart before I've fully registered its presence, is its unmistakable attention and intensity. What I respond to, in Emma's songs, is the same essential quality I respond to in Tori's and Kate's, but also in Jewel's and Alanis Morissette's, and Mark Eitzel's and Whipping Boy's, and in Tim Cahill's travel essays and Raymond Carver's short stories, and Kevin Smith's movies, and My So-Called Life. They are all aware, products of a conviction that lives both can and should be steered, excerpts from obsessively examined lives. Sometimes their scrutiny reveals, whether intentionally or not, things about my life, and sometimes it doesn't, but even when it doesn't, I'm immensely cheered by the knowledge that other people are searching for the same kinds of clues. Pete's gift to Emma, perhaps, is the idea that music is a perfectly plausible place to find them.
Cheri Knight: The Northeast Kingdom
I haven't learned to love Patsy Cline, yet, but I've started to understand, I think, why people might. There is a long tradition of female voices in country music, and to lesser extents in folk and rock as well, from Judy Collins down to Celine Dion, that Patsy Cline was not part of. Women have traditionally been separated from the band, set aside (and "in front" is still aside) in a spotlight. They are accompanied, in very much the old half-chivalric, half-patronizing sense of the word, where men are usually more apt to be included in the band, given compatriots instead of chaperones. The five performances at this year's Oscars were a telling demonstration of the endurance of this dichotomy, however anachronistic it should be by now: the four women (I'm going to consider Michael Bolton female for the purposes of this argument) looked completely at home at the center of an empty stage, in an evening gown, with a microphone in their hands, singing over an anonymous orchestra concealed discretely behind them. They were there as performers, not musicians (Celine Dion, in particular, might as well be the World Karaoke Champion), and the music served them only as a pedestal does a statue, to ensure that the audience had to gaze up at them, in a posture of obeisance. (Which, even if it's bad for music, is often good for soundtracks, and in Titanic's case, for example, seems to me like exactly what the film called for.) Elliott Smith, on the other hand, looked like he was experiencing a combination of his own private Titanic and that dream where you get to school and realize you're dressed like the seventh Village Person. I don't think I've ever seen a more instructive depiction of "surreal"; I kept expecting John Cleese to emerge from the wings to explain that the only reason Smith was still standing on the stage was that he'd been nailed there, or else Alice to coming running in after him waving a sheaf of sheet music labeled "Sing Me". His hopelessly incongruous guitar looked like a paste-board Elvis-impersonator's prop left over from the mindless dance medley earlier in the evening. "Miss Misery" is an intimate, involving song, designed for small rooms, where avoiding eye-contact is more notable than making it (and thus arguably miscast, even in Ben and Matt's affectionate, endearing film). Every time the orchestra swelled up behind him, it felt to me like the sadistic freak-show proprietor jabbing the emaciated Lizard Boy in the back to get him to writhe reptilianishly, so the marks would feel like they'd seen a quarter's worth of exotic deformity. Even if the song had needed more instruments, they should have been there with Elliott, crowded around him on a too-small stage, the tight space of the stage an extension of the tight space of the audience, emphasizing the community that exists between the player and the listeners. This (at least outside of Hollywood and Las Vegas) is the male performing tradition: gather around the storyteller, the telling cannot exist without us. The corresponding female tradition: stand back from the goddess, she is exempt from our laws and limitations. The wall between the two has been breached countless times during the last few decades, of course, but the populations on either side continue to display a stubborn and disheartening homogeneity. The magic of Patsy Cline's voice and presence, I think, and so too Cheri Knight's, is that they will not keep to the confines of their spotlight. They are part of the music, not objects of its regard. Belonging to the male tradition is less of a distinction for Cheri than it was for Patsy in her day, but it still frames a listening experience that is much closer to Richard Thompson than Dolly Parton.
Actually, the musician with whom Cheri Knight has the most in common, on The Northeast Kingdom, is Steve Earle. If Emma Townshend's album left you wanting a record that does sound like the work of someone's daughter, you can get a pretty good facsimile by convincing yourself that Earle, who produced, released (on his new label, E-Squared) and played on this record, and Emmylou Harris, who sings backup on a couple songs, are Knight's parents. Cheri's first solo album, The Knitter, was a sturdy, surging country-rock record that I persist in mis-remembering as being produced by Kevin Salem, since it sounded so much, to me, like his album Glimmer, on which Cheri sang. The Northeast Kingdom was recorded in Nashville, and from that you might guess, in a sense correctly, that its ambience would shift further away from rock, into country, but Nashville exists, for the purposes of this record, only as a symbolic compromise between New England's concept of rurality and Texas', and one could easily have drawn the curve between the two convex, instead of concave, and put the midpoint somewhere in Wisconsin, for all the effect the environs appear to have had on the recording. The most obvious sign of Earle's presence is the dark, edgy fervor of the performances. Cheri's compact, blade-like voice is recorded without affect or effects, and Earle employs a battery of mandolin, harmonium, hurdy gurdy, acoustic guitar, fiddle and bouzouki to accentuate its nasal clarity. Mark Spencer's raw, squalling guitars provide a rock urgency similar to the one the Supersuckers lent Earle's "NYC", which ex-dB Will Rigby promptly counterbalances with his bouncy pop drumming. Left in suspension between the two, these songs seem organic and timeless, to me, weary and determined in proportions that derive from the belief that no worthwhile labor is easy. Like Earle's, they search for the qualities that make us most alive, our hopes and failures and legends, with a reverence for human frailty that has fallen to country music to preserve because, apparently, dirt is the only thing in the world not yet choking on its own swollen ambitions, and country is the music with the highest dirt content.
The album opens with "Dar Glasgow", a mesmerizing Celtic lament. Earle's harmonium establishes a bagpipe-like drone, and Rigby contributes some ominous Oriental gong splashes, but the mandolin sparkle and the uneasy duet between Cheri and Emmylou (which is more, due to Cheri's singing style, like Emmylou and Gram Parsons than like Emmylou and Nanci Griffith) keep these impulses grounded, as if all cultures that retain a clear sense of their roots are effectively affiliated. It then segues without ceremony into the album's most buoyant pop song, the jangly "Rose in the Vine", ringing with Byrds-esque twelve-string twang. An octave higher, Knight's meticulous melody might sound like one of Susanna Hoffs', but the combination of her lower range and Mark Spencer's backing vocals push the combined effect back toward Carla Bozulich's end of the continuum. "If Wishes Were Horses" relaxes into an unhurried country trot, Earle's harmonies, Tammy Rogers' fiddle and the equine metaphor sufficient to weave a deceptive square-dance fable that falls apart unexpectedly, when the maudlin title refrain gives way to a jealous "Now you're the prettiest / And I'll become the other one".
After that pass through the styles, "Northeast Kingdom" itself feels like the beginning of the second act. Cheri's pulsing bass, Rigby's martial drum cadence and Spencer's wiry, meandering guitar are the same ingredients that make up Nirvana's "Lithium", but "Northeast Kingdom" never gives way to rage, opting to slide instead into a bridge reminiscent of "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald", and then into a long fadeout made of organ hum and rotary-speaker guitar warble. This turns out to be just an intermission, as "Black Eyed Susie" slams back into a throttled blues wail, Knight's implacable bass and double-tracked voices circling around each other as Spencer's resonator guitar spirals above in a series of intricate spins and stalls. "Crawling" is quiet again, Cheri, Emmylou, Jimmy Ryan's mandolin and Tommy Hannum's pedal steel sighing through a mournful gospel dirge.
Clan feuds are country's compulsory round, like punk songs about unemployment or progressive rock epics based on Scandinavian mythology, and Cheri opens the second half of the album with her sly, deadpan entry, "The Hatfield Side", in which ancient grudges and ringing professions of family pride are harnessed to nothing more than a symbolically overwrought game of tug-of-war. "Dig your Yankee heels into the bony ground / And we will not be washed away", Cheri and Siobhan Kennedy sing, like it's a Civil War fight song. They admit, at the end, "We've had every single year to bury the hatchet, / But we choose to get out the rope, / And it works like a charm", and while there's always the danger that a symbolic feud will lose its value if you confront the players with its invented nature, I would like to believe that friendly competition, in the end, is better for both sides than genuine enmity.
The closest Cheri comes to actually sounding like Patsy Cline is the old-fashioned strut "White Lies", with its sultry choruses and drunken pedal-steel swoops. This gives way, fittingly, to the album's one buzzing, The Knitter-style mid-tempo rock blast, "Dead Man's Curve", Knight and Spencer firing thick unison bass/guitar riffs like they're fishing with a flare gun. "Before we know it, we'll be angels" she sings, guitars roaring as if she wants to make sure that if she has to die, at least nobody is going to sleep through it. The classic one-two hop of the chirpy "All Blue" is a little like something from Nanci Griffith's last album with the Crickets, but another nice duet from Cheri and Mark Spencer keeps the song from settling into its retro inclinations. And then it's time for the finale, "Sweetheart", this album's anthemic answer to "Freebird". Cheri dispenses with lyrical subtlety for the occasion, sticking to a quaint, plaintive "Sweetheart, do you favor another?", which she, Spencer and Ryan infuse with a desperate, epic, collective longing. The song ebbs and flows in time-honored last-dance rock fashion, Spencer, Ryan and Tammy Rogers taking turns filling in the spaces for solos with guitar, mandolin and fiddle. It lacks the last-minute accelerando that would make a surprise Russian kick-line ending possible, but such histrionics would be as out of place in the context of this introspective album as a one-hundred-piece boys choir or a guest appearance by Slash. As the reprise of "Black Eyed Susie" fades up, like the house lights coming on, and then gives way to a simple, uncredited epilogue, I find that this album has carried me a lot farther from my usual trails than I realized while it was happening. And looking around at where it's left me, a part of me wonders whether trudging back to where I began is really the right reaction.
Mary Lou Lord: Got No Shadow
The bridge between The Northeast Kingdom and Winterland for me, this week, and thus the album that prevents my desire to move to Manitoba and take up sprout farming and my desire to keep living two blocks away from MIT in a thicket of extension cords and speaker cables from declaring all out-war with each other just yet, is Boston subway busker Mary Lou Lord's major-label debut, Got No Shadow. It's taken a few weeks, much longer than I anticipated, to find this album a place in my life. I had decided, on the basis of Mary Lou's previous EPs, that her great genius was as a disassembler, stripping obscure but worthy pop songs down to their vulnerable guitar-and-voice essences. Got No Shadow, however, which features a full band almost throughout, led by mentor Nick Salomon, really has only two non-Salomon covers, Freedy Johnston's "The Lucky One" and a creaky old-style folk song called "Shake Sugaree", written by Elizabeth Cotten, neither of whose originals I've heard. As a result, my first few attempts to assimilate this record floundered pretty quickly. "Why", I asked, with rhetorical dismay, "did Mary Lou Lord, of all people, decide to make a mundane folk-pop-rock record, instead of something that took advantage of her unique gift?" I wanted an album halfway between Tori Amos and Billy Bragg, and instead got one halfway between Elliott Smith and Shawn Colvin.
As I returned, periodically, to this disappointment, though, I began noticing some things wrong with it. First of all, although Mary Lou's cover of Richard Thompson's "1952 Vincent Black Lightning" on the promotional EP early buyers got with this album is truly phenomenal, in my opinion, when I went back and got out her two other discs to listen to all those great old covers again, I suddenly remembered that the great covers I was thinking of weren't on them, either, they were things I remember hearing her play in person, back when I used to run into her busking. The songs I liked best on her EPs, the bouncy "Lights Are Changing" and the reeling "Martian Saints", were upbeat pop-rock songs with full bands. Resenting the absence of covers, instead of cherishing the new songs, was therefore my own decision, and in theory I ought to be able to reverse it; once I formulated this hypothesis, demonstrating its correctness was easy. Got No Shadow is, in fact, a folk-pop-rock record, but I like folk-pop-rock records, and this one has three unmistakable Mary Lou Lord trademarks to distinguish it.
First, I love the timbre of her voice. It is a large part of why I adored her covers, and it's no less charming on her own songs. It is almost totally uncluttered by technique, and although this could have resulted in her having to work so hard to get the notes right that the songs lose all meaning, she doesn't seem to regard her technical inadequacies as important, and so sings her songs with nothing distracting her from the words. As a result, her songs always sound to me like they aspire to make sense. The covers, in fact, don't always reward this focus as well as her own compositions.
Second, her friendship with Shawn Colvin notwithstanding, Mary Lou's heritage is as much indie rock as folk-singing. Not all her songs try to merge the two, but the ones that do produce an impishly mild noisiness that I find thoroughly charming. The slashing guitars of "She Had You", contributed by Salomon, Nels Cline and Jon Brion, seem to have had fuzz applied like you'd sprinkle glitter onto a party invitation, and what might have come off, in some other hands, as a swarm of piranhas, here seems more like a cheerful stuffed dinosaur with big felt teeth. The gritty distortion on the lilting "Some Jingle Jangle Morning" sounds like it's coming from an ancient beat-up guitar held together by alternating layers of duct tape and aching fondness. Even Salomon's charging riffs on "Supergun", which might easily have overwhelmed the song, are mixed down so low that the wispy flutters of Mary Lou's delicate voice are enough to beat them into pop submission.
And third, Lord and Salomon both have determinedly eclectic tastes, themselves, and for once I feel like maybe the litany of things their songs remind me of isn't solely my imposition. The gentle, steady pop gem "His Lamest Flame" mixes bits of the Byrds, Simon and Garfunkel and the Lemonheads, and features backing vocals by Gia Ciambotti (who was in the short-lived band The Graces with ex-Go-Go's guitarist Charlotte Caffey and a pre-"Bitch" Meredith Brooks). "Western Union Desperate" sounds in parts like an unplugged Too Much Joy temporarily run out of sarcasm, and in parts like Darden Smith's "Little Victories", and the Verlaine reference turns out to be to the poet, not the guitarist. "Lights Are Changing", re-recorded since her first EP, this time with Roger McGuinn on guitar, sounds more like a Tommy Keene song than ever. "Seven Sisters" could be pre-Big-Band Lyle Lovett. "Throng of Blowtown" sounds like a Guided by Voices title, but the song, with Brion's eerie chamberlain and whirring E-bow guitars, sounds more like an old Michael Penn b-side. "The Lucky One" could be a subdued Mary Chapin Carpenter song, and "She Had You" could easily be a Neil Young cover. The reconstruction anthem "Some Jingle Jangle Morning" is like the greatest Blake Babies/Lemonheads song ever. "Shake Sugaree" finds Elliott Smith accompanying Mary Lou on acoustic guitar, and she thanks him by having her voice processed just like his. "Two Boats", with its ticking rim-shot snare and elegant guitar figures, could be her Adult Contemporary crossover. "Supergun" sounds like Edie Brickell trying to turn a Helium song into the Gin Blossoms. And if everybody needs at least one British folk song, Mary Lou's is Salomon's Thompson-esque "Down Along the Lea", with Ruth Barrett's dulcimer and Cait Reed's twittering tin whistle.
The song that completes my rehabilitation, however, is the last one, "Subway". A tranquil lullaby in the vein of the Replacements' "Skyway", with Shawn Colvin herself finally showing up to sing a little harmony, it could be just a bit of insistent autobiography, but in what seems to me like a clever move, Mary Lou underplays the narrator's specific occupation, and concentrates on the flow of people around her. The simple plea she emerges with, "So hold my eye / While the rest of the city files by", could belong to a busker, a beggar, or just a lonely stranger, and the tips and tokens could literally be coins, or could be the routine sparks thrown off as pieces of the city scrape against each other, as if even the most impersonal, incidental social friction of people coexisting in a city produces enough energy to power the entire place. So perhaps there is as much humanity in a crowded subway tunnel as there is in a quiet forest glade, after all, and we sustain each other, statues and storytellers alike, despite our most diligent attempts at introversion. We do yearn for isolation, because without a sense of self nothing else can be calibrated, but solitude and emptiness are only starting points, and no amount of ocean spray and dizzy camera fly-bys can make you king of any world that matters.