167 · 9 April 98
Chantal Kreviazuk: Under These Rocks and Stones
It's all too easy to imagine the script of the meeting in which Columbia decided to sign Chantal Kreviazuk:
"'Chantal'. That's a great name. 'Chantal'. Perfect, simple, exotic. Sounds like a perfume."
"It's 'Chantal Kreviazuk', sir."
"I can't understand you."
"'Kreviazuk'. It's her last name."
"Christ, that's the worst last name I've ever heard. From now on, she's just 'Chantal'. Like 'Jewel'. I mean, who the hell knows Jewel's last name? Does she even have one?"
"Yes, sir. Kilcher."
"Well, that's my point, isn't it? Anyway, let's see that picture. Ah, cute. She looks like, um, you know the one I'm thinking of, from Canada?"
"No, no, not her. Ugh. She looks like her head got wedged in something. I mean the cute one, with the short hair. Ran that whole Lily Fair thing?"
"Lilith Fair? Sarah McLachlan."
"Right, right. Whatever."
"Shall I play you a song, sir?"
"Eh? Oh, yes, go ahead. A short one, if possible."
And then, halfway through it:
"Perfect. The rest of them sound like this?"
"Well, they show various sides of her musical personality, sir, I wouldn't--"
"Yes, yes, whatever. Listen, I tell you quite frankly, we've been getting our asses kicked. Every damn label in the country has one of these Canadians, and it's about time we got one of our own."
"How did you know she's Canadian?"
"Aren't they all?"
"The short-haired one, Jewel, Alanis Mor-- whatever, and now the one with the armpits. All of them."
"Jewel isn't from Canada, she grew up in Alaska."
"Alaska's just the part of Canada we already own."
"Paula Cole is from Massachusetts!"
"Listen, Mr. Map, to a sixteen-year-old in a K-Mart in St. Louis, Massachusetts is as Canadian as Greenland."
"Greenland isn't Canadian!"
"Exactly. Now, call legal and have one of those 'emerging artist' contracts drawn up; we'll cut the wholesale to cost, get stores to sell her for $7.99 each, and make up eight points of market share by Christmas."
I expect things proceeded quickly from there. Somehow, in the ensuing negotiations, Chantal Kreviazuk managed to extract a concession that she could keep her last name, but that's the most exotic detail of the album's meticulous packaging. The front-cover photo could be a rotation of the picture of Sarah on the cover of Surfacing, and I suspect that if you panned down from the grainy black-and-white picture on the back you'd find the boots from the back cover of Paula Cole's Harbinger. The lettering, of course, is done by hand, as on Surfacing and This Fire. The lead single, "God Made Me", seems carefully selected to echo Joan Osborne's "What if God was one of us?", Tori Amos' "God", Jewel's "Who Will Save Your Soul" and a host of similar spiritual invocations. The album opens with jagged guitars, a scratchy drum loop, smooth fretless-bass pulses and Chantal's emotive singing and eerie piano, like a lab hybrid of Paula and Alanis, defiant enough to be part of the fashionable search for self-awareness and self-esteem, but safely encased in enough production gloss to not disrupt the workplace, if played quietly, in between Shawn Colvin and Lisa Loeb. And what you thought of Paula Cole is probably a pretty reliable predictor of what you'll think of Chantal, at least initially. Theirs aren't the only two albums like this, and there will be plenty more before their eddy is swallowed back up in the mainstream current -- music made by earnest young women with enough lyrical barbs to talk about but a friendly studio shimmer like an aural gelcap, to insure that the ingredients don't reach your bloodstream until long after you've swallowed the pill -- but they would be a set even if they had no other company.
I don't think, however, that it's any fault of Chantal's that her music happens to fit a current stereotype. Nothing about it strikes me as cynically calculated, and I'm willing to believe that this record would not sound materially different if Paula's albums were still languishing in a vault at Imago, Sarah were playing coffeehouses in Halifax, and Alanis were studying anthropology at Carleton. The sad truth is that behind every unexpected breakthrough there are probably thirty complete unknowns who've been writing songs just like that in their studio apartments for years. (Actually, the sadder truth is that there are probably thirty deserving unknowns for every failed breakthrough, as well.) I don't resent Chantal for the ways she sounds like Paula or Alanis any more than I resent Everclear for the ways they remind me of Nirvana, or Jolene for how they remind me of Grant Lee Buffalo. I like the sense that artists are connected, that the universe of styles and personalities lends itself better to fabric analogies than to those interminable blinking-screen programs that my friend Keith would type into my tenth-grade geometry teacher's Commodore PET at the beginning of every class (though, in Keith's defense, it should be noted that the PET did not have any form of permanent storage attached to it, and there aren't very many better PET programs simple enough to type in from scratch during the last two minutes of passing period). It's easy to be nauseated by the inevitable binges major labels go through in response to every perceived twitch of public tastes, but if you adjust the scale, that's more or less how I react to finding a new thing I like, too. Yes, this means that there are plenty of CDs on my shelves that I bought as the fourth and fifth examples of something that I no longer feel merits more than two or three, but if letting four and five drift out of my awareness is the price of finding two and three, then I will happily be a machine for forgetting.
The similarities between Chantal and the others are substantive, as well as superficial, but easily itemized. Her voice is strong and clear, touching Alanis and Abra Moore's galvanizing wails as she turns sharp corners, and Sarah and Paula's prettier sopranos when she switches registers. She plays piano and keyboards herself, fluently and fluidly, and although the one song where the piano is left alone, "Imaginary Friend", sounds more like Everything but the Girl to me than Tori Amos, several of the others have short piano intros that do remind me of Tori, particularly the wintery opening phrase of "Co-Dependent". Writing collaborator Christopher Burke-Gaffney provides the warm, Glen Ballard-like guitars, and bassist Davey Faragher and drummer Michael Urbano supply lithe rhythm parts that with only minor changes in production idiom could have come from one of Joan Armatrading or Julia Fordham's shinier albums. Ed Stasium plays organ on one song, and three others have dramatic, swelling string sections. Chantal hurries through words like she's struggling to understand the subject even while the song is going on, and the lyrics are an alternately rousing and collapsing swirl of resilience and self-doubt, and prone to only a few token forced phrases like "When I go swimming / In your intellect / The water's so shallow / And the dialect / Is so phony / But I eat it up / Like bologna" to be regretted later (especially putting "bologna" in the booklet where she sings "baloney"). If it were possible to distill production out of an album as a coherent substance, I'm convinced that what you'd get from Under These Rocks and Stones and the first Marry Me Jane album would be microscopically identical; "Surrounded" even has some of Amanda Kravat's rueful melancholy. "Believer" and "Co-Dependent" ride on twangy bluster, "Grace" is smoky and elegant, "Hands" and "Boat" dense and surging, the gospel, "People Get Ready"-like "Green Apples" glassy and worn. And "Disagree" is close enough to some of Cyndi Lauper's ballads that I keep waiting for Chantal's voice to squeak like Cyndi's.
But there are also more than enough details that either strike me as singular, or pull me in no matter how many times I've heard them before: the dozen syllables over which the word "lose" is stretched, in the chorus of "Surrounded", and the insistent chant of "I still hear/fight/fear/hate the bomb" that leads into it, fighting against the song's meter; the moment when the diffident, springy bass slides of "Don't Be Good" give way to a heartbreakingly simple propulsive quarter-note run; the way "Believer" slams to a halt and then leaps into motion again, enthusiasm overcoming deliberation, the line "It's hard to believe that God made you and me with the same hands" running brokenly over the transition; the gorgeous, soaring choruses of "Wayne", which I thought were just a charming lover's plea ("Wait, wait for me, / And take me up in your hot air balloon / And feed me cotton candy") until I realized that the first word is "Wayne", not "Wait", and seems to be addressed to an older brother, although I can't decide whether he has died or simply gone off to college; the circling guitar arpeggios and rumbling bass and metallic snare drum of "Hands", and the half-swallowed bits at the ends of the verse lines; the prayerful phrasing of "Green Apples", which renders the words indistinct but leaves the devotion unmistakable; and the unhurried, graceful "Imaginary Friend", which you couldn't calculate from anything.
Weeping Tile: Valentino
Weeping Tile are what happens when the convenient wave of stylistically coincident popularity fails to arrive. Under These Rocks and Stones ended up on impulse-buy display-racks, while Weeping Tile's second album, Valentino, despite being released on Warner in Canada, has yet to appear in the US at all. I only discovered their first, 1995's Cold Snap, two years belatedly, but it ended up as the third slot in a rotation with Slingbacks' All Pop, No Star and fellow Canadians the Leslie Spit Treeo's Chocolate Chip Cookies, and held its own remarkably well, considering that those were my first and fourth favorite albums of last year. The genre these three bands belong to is harder to define, having not been illuminated by any particular commercial success. I keep thinking of it as country-rock, but none of the three bands have very much overt country flavor to them. What I believe I'm responding to is less a musical style than a personal, plain-spoken intimacy that I identify most strongly with a few bands like Lone Justice, American Music Club, Grant Lee Buffalo and Son Volt, who do have country leanings. Or perhaps this is what country turns into, after a few winters in a quiet, snow-locked, Canadian small town, its chaps and denim buried under thermal underwear and parkas, wolves traded for owls, the crackle of a fire moved off of the prairie inside thick cabin walls.
The thing that caught my attention about Cold Snap, originally, was a single line. The song it occurs in, "Westray", is about a coal-mining disaster and the cover-ups and denial that encircle it, and something about the tired, grim way the narrator sings the chorus, "You'll know in a little while / If this was meant to be", makes it sound, to me, like one of those messages the character who knows the hideous secret leaves behind in an envelope, or on an answering machine, "in case I don't return", when they go off to either bring the evildoers to justice or get their skull staved in. As I listened, striking peculiarities emerged from many of the other songs, as well. Songwriter Sarah Harmer has a folk-singer's ear for regional identity and rural detail; you will have a hard time finding another album that uses the words "arable" and "moil". Valentino grabs me the same way, with just one line at first. This time it's in "Chicken", a song about a village party that aspires to more glamour than it achieves, when Harmer, on the way to it, sings, matter-of-factly, "Checking your toes for leeches / Checking your hair for lice", revealing how much artifice there is to the glamour, but also how desperately the attendees need the illusion.
And it's later in the same song that I suddenly discover how Valentino fits into the gigantic jigsaw puzzle that all of art and film and literature and music sometimes (especially when a piece snaps into place like this) seems to me to constitute. "Playing under the tent at the point", goes part of the chorus, and it hits me that this album is the musical translation, for me, of the movie The Sweet Hereafter, which opens with Nicole's band rehearsing under a tent at exactly the sort of faded fairground where the party in the song would take place. It cannot be the film's actual soundtrack, the music that Nicole's band would have played, for precisely the same reason that All Pop, No Star could not be the music that Alyssa sings in Chasing Amy; these albums speak with the author's voice, and their lines would be as thuddingly inappropriate coming out of an individual character's mouth as it would if Meryl Streep sang Billy Bragg's "There Is Power in a Union" at the end of Silkwood, instead of "Amazing Grace", or Renée Zellweger launched into "So You Want to Be a Rock and Roll Star" on the roof of Empire Records. Nicole's songs come before the bus-wreck, before guilt and shock wear through her denial; the claustrophobia, ambiguity and directionless, paralyzing urgency that Weeping Tile capture become clear to her only afterwards. Even Cold Snap wouldn't have been quite right: the silence of the townspeople who know the truth in "Westray" is too simple, as if truth were a single thing you could hide; the point of The Sweet Hereafter (as best I can tell, but I only saw it once and haven't read Russell Banks' novel) is that in a town so small, truth is not an independent force, it's a product of the interconnections of the affected lives. Valentino seems more cognizant of the gracelessness of jumping to conclusions, and more willing to let its stories tell themselves. Nothing here comes as close, literally, to the plot of The Sweet Hereafter as "Westray", but these stories have their own ways of circling back to the same themes. "What's a few days of denial for me?", asks the narrator of "South of Me", as if after a few days she'll have forgotten that she doesn't really love the man. "We fought for an hour on the phone. / I wish I was there with you", starts "Through Yr Radio", and there's menace in her voice, as well as longing. "Judy G." turns on a plaintive "He mailed a postcard / Sent from the same city / To her only permanent place", like a Del Amitri lament that's found a way to unravel a little further still. "Take a picture on this miracle mile, / You could be anywhere in the country", goes the disgusted anti-road-anthem "I'm Late". "Our art titillates the scene, / But it's shy of what it's seeing", contends "I Repeat". "She watches the clock like a sickness", says "Can't Get Off". The darkest moment, lyrically, is the imbalanced-relationship evisceration "Tom's Shoe Repair", set in an apartment "where you live and I stay". The final song, "Goin' Out", extends only a small consolation, "There's a bed made upstairs if you get tired", but at least it's an honest, earnest offer.
But I would also have loved both Cold Snap and Valentino even if the lyrics had been gibberish. Harmer writes small, tight, timeless rock songs that lever up my spirit far more effectively than their mass would seem to permit. "South of Me"'s guitars buzz as choppily as Linoleum's, but the song breaks into a ringing refrain over spare, galloping drums. "Through Yr Radio"'s verses have some Throwing Muses-ish hesitation, but the choruses haul out power chords and tense harmony vocals. The surging "Unshaven" bristles with feedback and jagged lead hooks. "Judy G." is a mournful waltz, with the band's normally-subliminal country influences making a rare appearance in the form of some muted volume-pedal guitar. Drums rumble and pound stolidly through "2"". "I'm Late" is frisky and elastic, with a careening hook that reminds me oddly of Tribe. The guitar-and-voice intermission "Old Perfume" is a little like Stina Nordenstam singing Cole Porter. "I Repeat" modulates between Throwing Muses obliquity and a Sleater-Kinney-ish caterwaul. "Can't Get Off" is delirious and chiming, like Tommy Keene backed by Magnapop. "Every Good Story", conversely, is reedy and sedate, with a whirring Farfisa and a shuffling drum gait, like Lone Justice (or, for the more obscurely minded, Rubber Rodeo or Map of the World) in one of their quiet moods. "Chicken" crashes back into gear, Harmer and second guitarist Luther Wright slashing at each other across the stereo spectrum. "Tom's Shoe Repair" is as close to a Slingbacks song as you'll get without tracking down an import copy of their album (and, appropriately, swings into motion with the line "I was across the street in the record shop / When I heard I had to go", which I could imagine Shireen Liane writing). And "Goin' Out", the second acoustic waltz, makes a halting entrance, but eventually drifts into a pretty duet between Harmer and Wright, with a gentle flute fluttering around the voices like the air shimmering above their heads as their thoughts escape, despite their best attempts to keep them in.
Mystery Machine: Headfirst Into Everything
I don't know what your mental model is for how this column operates. I don't know why you would even have a mental model of it. I always assumed (and still do, frankly), that real record reviewers, the ones who write for periodicals that somehow entail money being made, are at the receiving end of an endless barrage of small brown boxes from large record companies full of coyly stickered Janet Jackson and Marc Cohn CDs, which, since they are overwhelmingly likely to be sold, serve as an inefficient, but narrowly legal, form of graft. When I was fifteen, getting records for free sounded like an excerpt from a taxonomy of heaven. Sixteen years later, I'm surprised to find that it's lost its appeal. I've come to feel that accepting a CD into my home incurs an obligation, and I want to do it consciously. Moreover, I really do want to spend my own money on music. I'm keenly aware that this attitude is a luxury of a relatively well-paying day job (and, the other way, that the day job exacts prices in return), but the fact is that I spend more money on music than I can afford, and always have, and I regard anybody who doesn't with a profound suspicion. The use to which you put your sacrifices tells the world how you want it to be different. Do you want there to be more music in the world, or more low-octane gasoline and menthol cigarettes? Spending money is one of the few clear ways of expressing moral and aesthetic principles that our culture actually facilitates and respects. The $27 I spent on a "limited edition" tin-box import copy of the Simple Minds' new album, Néapolis, on Tuesday, is a message to the record store, their import buyer, Chrysalis, the band, several tax agencies and probably, if I had one, my accountant. My music purchases, in toto, are a dialogue with the industry that I could never carry on in any other medium. One could contend that the music industry is greedy and corrupt, that contamination is the most interactive thing they're interested in inflicting, and that buying CDs is speaking with a voice so tiny that it never rises above the noise floor, but it's my belief that the human race is better off if some fraction of it, however small, is allowed to devote their lives to making music, and for this to happen without a large, messy revolution (not that I'm necessarily against large, messy revolutions), somebody is going to have to be willing to feed coins into the retail end of the machine. So that's why I buy CDs new, not used, and why I continue buying them myself, instead of trying to weasel my way onto promo lists.
But a slow trickle of thin envelopes show up in my mailbox, all the same. Around half of them, mysteriously, come from somewhere in Canada, which is either a testament to the deference of Canadian inquiries, or a reflection of how badly small Canadian labels need even the meager exposure of appearing in this column. The only one you're likely to know is the Vancouver label Nettwerk, home to Sarah McLachlan and a lot of people you haven't heard of. Due to Nettwerk's cruel penchant for putting rare Sarah McLachlan and Rose Chronicles songs on samplers full of otherwise distasteful filler (which, for some reason, they don't send me), I happen to have heard most of them by now. It's a kind gesture to include me, though, and it was a pleasant little thrill to get a copy of Sarah's Surfacing in express mail a couple days before it was released (although I still bought another copy, so she wouldn't think I didn't love her any more), so I dutifully put whatever they send me in the player, which usually chews on it for a track or two, and then spits it out again.
This was nearly the fate of the third album by the Canadian quartet Mystery Machine, too. The anime urchins holding hands on the back cover didn't bode well, nor did the typeface on the cover, which looks like leftover Letraset from Nettwerk's last Papa Brittle disc, nor did the shag carpet and sideburns in the band photo, which make them look like a four-person Lenny Kravitz raised on Badfinger instead of Hendrix. But the first song kind of sounded like Sloan, wide-eyed and pounding. And the second, torrid and swirling, was half pop and half metal, obsessive guitar blasts and gauzy vocal harmonies. And when the third sounded like the Caulfields, whose demise I've been mourning ever since I discovered them, I stopped hovering over the Stop button and let the album play.
To my intense delight, Headfirst Into Everything turns out to be, for me, another in the lengthening line of star-struck gazetteers of pop possibilities that may well turn out to be this decade's legacy. If the Caulfields' L was heir to Jellyfish and XTC's baroque intricacies, Headfirst Into Everything is the parallel tribute to the denser forms of pop awe, Sloan and Velvet Crush and Tommy Keene, cut with stray impulses from Helmet's metal whine, Gin Blossoms' arid melancholy and Weezer's geeky awkwardness. "YTV", the opener, is straight from Sloan's palette, guitars sliding in layers across engine-purr bass and buzzing, clipped vocals. "Gleam" interleaves clashing power-chords, squealing feedback, a kinetic drum clatter and a hushed, angelic refrain. "Wake Up Pill" sounds like Gin Blossoms leavened with a trace of Green Day sneer. "Doubter", with Kim Hardy's waifish harmony, sounds like a louder, sturdier Blake Babies, or Sloan again. "Doubt Is All You Know"'s chorus is pure Tommy Keene, "I'm Not Anything"'s hi-hat twitter is Sloan's, the frayed "Drone" falls between Green Day and Handsome. "Teenage Drag", if you ignore the parts about cross-dressing and fixate on the line "Turn the deadbolt -- there is no one home", could be the reverse perspective on the Caulfields' "Tomorrow Morning". "Fool" is Sloan's "Underwhelmed" all over again. "Ditch", moodier, is quick and ragged, with descending guitar riffs that splay out at the ends like river deltas. "Mad" starts out breathily, like Nick Drake or Elliott Smith, but climbs into an unwound chorus over rubbery, cello-like bass. And "Bring You Down", the conclusion, dissonant guitar splatters and lock-step tempo-shifts, pivots into and out of a brief but glorious pealing chorus. If Sloan's One Chord to Another had ridden a random soundtrack cameo into massive popularity, this would be where you start resenting their imitators. But the only motive for imitating obscurity is love.