Things Are More Beautiful When They're Obscure
174 · 28 May 98
Sara Hickman: Two Kinds of Laughter
Don't think, because I've managed to resist the strong temptation to write about Tori Amos' from the choirgirl hotel again this week, that I've gotten over it. Listening to it at least once a day still feels like it's necessary to keep my limbic system from unraveling, like my car will grind to a petulant halt if I don't sing "Don't judge me so harsh, little girl", from "Playboy Mommy", to it (the gender implications of which lead me to wonder what the poor, dented thing makes of my always calling it "Zeb"), like a daily moment of my time spent pondering the implications of "Jackie's Strength" is all, through some series of ethereal chaos effects, that stands between Indonesia and the sea. Did the world really survive all those centuries without these echoes? It suppose it must have; I can only figure that we were desperately lucky to hang on long enough. But if you do anything for 174 weeks in a row, you're bound to develop a few obscure talents, and one of mine is that I can pry myself at least partially out of the spell of anything. I'm hard-pressed to think of a more pointless skill (and that includes all the things I learned to do with boomerangs and air hockey back in high school): if I didn't live my musical life in such a manic thrash, there'd be no need to get over Tori's album. Why shouldn't I just sit in my living room playing it over and over again? Eventually I'd run out of food, but I could stand to lose a few pounds. Eventually I'd get fired from my job, but with the World Cup coming up and a good ceiling fan suspended over my couch, taking the summer off has never seemed more appropriate. And if words were allowed to register their own displeasures at their abuse, I'm sure "talent" would demand an apology from me, because there's not much you could construe as effort in the simple act of picking up one of the fifty or so other CDs loitering restlessly around my player, and letting it remind me of another of the world's profusion of wonders. So many songs. There will be plenty of time, once I get old and the kids' music stops making sense, to buy a pipe and a recliner and let the air grow musty in these rooms. And if there isn't, I'll sleep when I'm dead.
It might be harder if all music was single-minded, and everybody else's albums but Tori's were dimmer renditions of the same landscape, but of course this isn't the case. In the overall scheme of art, I suppose it takes only a subtle tweak of the Great Style Knob to get from from the choirgirl hotel to Sara Hickman's fourth studio album (fifth overall, including last year's oddities compilation Misfits), Two Kinds of Laughter, but it's enough to leave the two records with almost no emotional characteristics in common. Sara's is as lucid and effortless as Tori's is cryptic and immersive. If from the choirgirl hotel, for me, has some of the feel of hurtling, in a roller-coaster car, through a labyrinth I otherwise might never successfully negotiate, Sara's album is more like an isometric map of my own block. But those are cool, too, and the lines for them are shorter. I expected, actually, the two albums to be more similar. Misfits seemed like a palette-cleansing, to me, and although there's nothing menacing or experimental about the title of Two Kinds of Laughter, or Sara's cartoon-pugilist pose on the back cover, there are the little words "Produced by Adrian Belew" in the corner, and if Nick Salomon could turn Mary Lou Lord into an indie rock star, then surely Adrian Belew, who also plays all the instruments on the album other than Sara's half of the guitars, could turn an impish Texas folk-pop singer into Laurie Anderson.
And maybe he could, but that doesn't turn out to be what anybody has in mind. Far from imposing technological artifice and "Elephant Talk" flexi-guitar wailing, in fact, Adrian helps Sara make what seems to me to be her first studio album that synthesizes, in controlled conditions, the disarming combination of goofiness and clarity that the unselfconsciously scattered Misfits captured almost in passing (miscellanies lend themselves to this; even Anthrax sounded cheerful and clear-headed on Attack of the Killer B's), which seemed to me to be forever hovering just out of the reach of her other three albums. I could never decide, before, whether she was a folk singer flirting with pop, or a pop singer dreaming of the Fifties, or Carly Simon conducting a children's story-hour, and I realize now that there was some truth in all of these ideas. If Tori's songs entail nurturing neuroses to see what they'll turn into when they're grown, Sara's go to the opposite extreme, and attempt to channel editions of ourselves that, for most of us, don't outlive childhood, to whom Neuroses would be a twelve-year-old Egyptian princess who torments her father by repeatedly inventing charmingly common-sense solutions to the complicated hydro-engineering problems that perplex his cadre of stodgy (but ultimately warm-hearted) adult advisors.
A few of the songs would pass, I think, if it weren't for the others, for straightforward folk music. The languid, rambling self-esteem sing-along "I Wear the Crown" (complete with a flourish of introductory brass, lest you miss the psychological import of crowns) sounds a bit like Christine Lavin without her penchant for stand-up to derail the music. The hushed, wistful "Eight" falls somewhere between Dar Williams and early Happy Rhodes. "Comets Over Costa Rica" (the one song whose lyrics don't seem to go anywhere, to me), sounds like what Michael Penn might be if he were a morning person. A few more, evincing traces of Domestic Science Club, Sara's nostalgic side-project, drift back in time a little bit. "One in Our Happiness", smoky and brittle, is a lullaby to be overheard through the open windows of an empty nightclub. Amy Tiven's sultry, peaceful ballad "Let Go" is like a happier "Diamonds and Rust" for a decade none of us have gotten to live through yet, in which the world seems to be neither in the grip nor poised on the brink of anything in particular. And "Look at It This Way" swoops, sighs and crackles like an old 78, a winding guitar solo not quite enough to drown out the ambient rustle of crinoline.
Intermingled with these, though, are the songs that, for me, animate the album's fluttering and deceptively rebellious spirit. "Two Kinds of Laughter" is crisp and bouncy, like a Jane Siberry soundtrack for Reading Rainbow. The chiming "Take Whatever I Can Get", an odd lament about falling into somebody else's version of a departed lover's spell, could almost be John Cougar Mellencamp's band playing at a sunny family picnic. Jon Brion's music for the spare, elegant "Coolness by Mistake" means Aimee Mann comparisons are probably inevitable, but to Sara coolness is better unintentional, where I feel certain Aimee would have maintained that accidental poise is worthless. The liner notes for "Secret Family" explain that Sara felt compelled to tell the story of a failed suicide she met while doing hospital volunteer work, but the ringing mid-tempo rock song it turns into seems like a counter-argument, not an oral history. The cool, spooky "Optimistic Fool", with its Morse-code guitar and simmering drum-machine pulse, reminds me of parts of Cyndi Lauper's Sisters of Avalon and Emma Townshend's Winterland. And "E Cosi Desio Me Mena" is the one song that actually does sound like Laurie Anderson, a clipped narration leaping into a delirious world-beat whirl halfway between the Parachute Club and Juluka.
And these two sets of songs, once they're woven together, inform and temper each other, so that the album, as a whole, seems to me to take on the cadence and personality of a children's book, one of those thin volumes with one sentence on each brightly-illustrated page, that an adult would skim through in thirty seconds, but a child will read over and over again, knowing, because impatience hasn't beaten it out of them yet, that the spaces on the pages that aren't filled with words are where you fill in all the details of your own, and that the reason to read these stories over and over, and the reason they grow more magical the more familiar they become, is that they are the scaffolding in which the reader constructs their own identity. Tori's songs are gifts to children, too, but gifts for when they're older, explanations stored up for questions they'll eventually need answers. Sara's are for the journey toward asking.
Jann Arden: Happy?
If you push forward into the mainstream (instead of retreating from it like Sara), on the path that leads to Shawn Colvin and Beth Nielsen Chapman, you'll eventually come across Jann Arden's third album, Happy? Actually, you might go right past it, because in many ways albums like this can seem to aspire to inconspicuousness. A good studio drummer (Kenny Aronoff, here) will keep the songs at an unhurried pace that feels like no speed at all, like blood-warm water vanishes on your wrist. A sparkle of guitar will catch your eye, but understated keyboard fills will be a hand on your back, guiding you along, comfortingly. Something melancholy and elusive (here Greg Leisz's lap steel) will sing the calmness just short of crying, when it seems like the muscles below your eyes can sense the grandeur your eyes themselves can't see. The singer (almost always female; as with phone-mail instructions, we seem to be conditioned to only accept this tone from women) will be wistful and introspective, and when she raises her voice it will be like your heart swelling, not hatred ripping through drywall. This may be the most abused music in the world, at the moment, doomed to be interjected everywhere people who can't tell when to stop want to underscore a drama they shouldn't have to call your attention to. It is music to play over Dawson's Creek scenes where the characters are the only ones who can't see the most obvious implications of their actions, glosses for self-explanatory tableaux, aural MSG for reveries that only self-sufficiency could redeem. It's supposed to make you feel wise, this music, and until somebody comes up with music that makes people feel like they're having an illicit orgasm, or clubbing a baby seal, or something else more arresting than mild and illusory wisdom, it will line the cages of car commercials and movie trailers and ambiguous climaxes, and we'll either resent it, or capitulate to it, or both.
The saddest thing, perhaps, about this abuse, is that there isn't any inherent reason why music like this can't be enjoyed on its own terms. When I can keep lines like "I will not live my life like a ghost in this town" from invoking the image of Joey slouching around Capeside in her unshakable and oblivious dejection, and let these songs tell their own stories, for once, I realize quickly that the only part of Dawson's Creek that didn't reliably exasperate me was the title sequence, when everybody shuts up and lets Paula Cole sing. It's not just that the music was the best part of the show, it's that the music accomplishes, by itself, what the show, for me, completely fails to. I'm supposed to feel grand passion, as I watch, but I can't bring myself to care. Joey might be appealing if she'd ever say an entire phrase without that self-pitying twist to her lips, if only somebody would say something to her as straightforward as Jann asking "Won't you let me kiss you on the mouth?", in "I Know You". I'd feel more kinship with Dawson if the idea of a movie fanatic loving Spielberg didn't seem so much like a gourmand coveting Saltines, and people didn't keep telling him his puerile (and haphazardly rewritten) VHS monster movie reminded them of Fellini. "I've been sitting in this chair since Sunday, / In the same clothes, / With unwashed hair", goes "Holy Moses", but it's hard to imagine Dawson letting his feelings affect his hygiene. "Just close the door and leave the key / Under the plant outside", Jann sings, in "Leave Me Now", but with everybody of import climbing in and out of his window unannounced, Dawson has no door to shut, physically or metaphorically (and in Dawson's Creek metaphors always tag doggedly along behind their referents like forgotten yo-yos). Jen was buoyant and enthralling for the first episode and a half, and then did nothing but frown and equivocate for the rest of the season. Her self-loathing had no vitriol, nothing even close to "The salt inside my body ruins / Everyone I come close to", from "Hangin' by a Thread", or "I feel the sin insde my body now ... forgive my lack of will", from "Weeds", or "I have bitten off the pieces that I did not want", amidst the hollow, forced optimism of "Saved". Pacey seemed like the only one with a personality, but to get it he had to trade away all sense of moral perspective. The parents were dolts, the teachers were like rejected Our Town extras, and the dialog sounded like it was written for viewers with ADD, who couldn't be expected to retain the simplest plot dilemmas through a commercial break. The only character I felt even remotely invested in was Abby, the conniving foil in the pathetic Breakfast Club ripoff episode, who at least seemed to be both enjoying herself, and capable of picking up on emotional signals without having to commission a meteorological survey.
But if overexposure hasn't ruined this musical style for you, this album is about as confident and polished a demonstration of it as you're likely to find. "The Sound Of" is seamless and exquisite, "Leave Me Now" elegant and rueful, "I Know You" infectious and twangy. "Holy Moses" is muted and dark, "Wishing That" a bit like a version of Tom Petty's "Don't Come Around Here No More" in which he lets Stevie sing by herself, "Saved" something like Sarah McLachlan without as many harmony tracks. The cycling "Ode to a Friend" reminds me happily of Beth Nielsen Chapman, and "Shooting Horses" seems graceful and pleasant in exactly the way that the Shawn Colvin songs I like do. The lurching waltz "Weeds" has some of Abra Moore's jagged edge, and "Hangin' by a Thread" even has a trace of the catch in Emmylou Harris' throat. My favorite moment, though, and the one that goes the farthest toward establishing how conscious the rest of the album's discipline is, is the last one, a glittery, cathartic cover of "To Sir With Love". As Jann leans into the song's glamorous flourishes, Mark Goldenberg's goopy one-man-band accompaniment surging effusively around her, I can suddenly picture her perched unsteadily on high heels, in a borrowed dress, playing out a torch-song fantasy that makes the relentless restraint on the rest of the album more harrowing than it could ever be by itself.
Veda Hille: Spine
You're not likely to hear any Veda Hille songs on WB shows, for the same reasons you won't hear Lida Husik, Polly Harvey, Lisa Germano or Stina Nordenstam. They're too obscure, their choruses don't echo pertinent clichés, and perhaps most importantly, their songs will put you in an aggressive, alert mood that advertisers correctly want nothing to do with. Jann Arden's songs resonate with resilience and hope; Veda Hille sounds like the battle with her demons is still being waged, and it's hardly clear yet which side is going to come out with the upper hand. I'd gladly watch a TV show fit for this music, but I don't expect to live to see anybody make one.
Vocally, Veda is probably closest, of those four, to Lida Husik, as her singing is rarely as willfully abrasive as Polly's, and not nearly as frail as Lisa or Stina's. It wavers and shrinks away from the ends of syllables, at times, like Kristin Hersh's, in other moments it's as sweet and gentle as Joni Mitchell's, and then it will jump, without warning, into a keening, tremulous falsetto, as if she's a lost McGarrigle sister. Once or twice, when I've been listening from elsewhere in the house, I've thought I heard a twitch or two that sounded like Natalie Merchant, but I can never find those again when I'm near the speakers. Veda plays angular piano and a tense tenor guitar, herself, and gets help as conventional as bass and drums (Ani DiFranco's drummer, Andy Stochansky, plays on several of these songs), or as odd as mandola, dumbek and davul (a mandola is a large mandolin; according to the OED the other two words don't exist, so I'm going to assume they're portmanteaus: "dumbek" would be the click you get when you snap another weight onto a plastic dumbbell, and "davul" is a jurist's mallet pounded on the arm of a small sofa). The album is split about evenly between spare songs and noisy ones. "sweet" has piano, lumbering acoustic bass and a single booming drum; "seasoned" is bass hum, a diffident drum patter and some sketchy guitar; "strange, sad" has haunting piano and subtle bass and guitar; "6 feet of silence" is fitful piano and incidental noises; "26 years" is shuffling and Penguin Cafe Orchestra-ish, punctuated with near-rock choruses; and the serene, creaky finale, "shamus and stone" is just pretty piano and a snare drum way off in the distance. At the loud end, "Slumber Queen" is clattering and harsh, like the noisy parts of Kate Bush's "Jig of Life"; "bellyfish" bristles with snare-drum cracks, elastic cello and a violin-like guitar part; loops and narration carry the Greenaway-esque "INSTRUCTIONS"; "one hot summer" has clanging close-formation piano-chords, dual drum kits and assorted distorted noises; and "song for snake" has muscular bass and a wall of guitar cacophony.
The music, lyrics and cover art of this album, unusually, all have the same effect on me, which is that they make me queasy. The cover is the worst: glance at it quickly and it seems innocuous enough, a small placard reading "spine" affixed to Veda's bare back, but look closer and you see that the label has been sewn there (the inner photos, showing other stages of its attachment, are not an improvement). The lyrics, continuing in the same vein, are filled with fluids, injuries, mouths, death, beds, paralysis and sleep (and sweaters and telephones, for some reason). Clearly Veda doesn't share my reflexive aversions to self-mutilation, viscera and squalor. The music is like that, too: I get the impression that the strange, dissonant turns these songs take sound perfectly normal to her. And this, for me, is the difference between desirable queasiness and simple nausea. If my reactions to these songs aren't a universal survival mechanism, then there's a good chance they mean something. Watching how other people react is how you tell which of your fears are worth facing.