Not a Real Green Dress
187 · 27 August 98
various: Live From the River Music Hall, Vol. 1
I'm sure the 1994 KCRW collection Rare on Air wasn't the first album it ever occurred to a radio station to cull out of their performance archives, but it was the first one I encountered in what quickly became a long series of them with similar structures and similar constituents. I bought Rare on Air for Tori Amos' performance of "Silent All These Years", and I subsequently accumulated quite a pile of discs from around the country for Tori's appearances on them, before finally realizing that since Tori spent most of her daylight hours circling the world playing in radio stations, trying to follow every step of her trail was probably a mission best reserved for another life, preferably one in which I'm fonder of driving and less fond of owning anything else. The specific causal sequence I have in mind is probably a result of projecting too much of my own experience onto the rest of you, but it seems to me like Tori's success, the wave of these albums, and the entire Adult Alternative radio movement are at least interrelated. The generation raised on punk was finally beginning to outgrow noise, but it wasn't necessarily outgrowing its passion for intense, challenging music in the process, and there's more than enough musical space between The Prodigy and Celine Dion to hold a radio station. Tori not only gave them records to play that the skate-thrash and office-background stations were both afraid of, but her traveling experiment in emotional intensity was uniquely portable: if you could provide a microphone, a piano and five minutes, Tori would sit down and change the air. When folk performers played acoustic sets, it was routine, and when rock performers played them it was novel, but Tori, by pitting the idioms against each other, was able to treat her radio performances as variants of her concerts, opportunities to clear every obstacle out of the path from her to the audience. It didn't sound like she was in the studio, it sounded like she was in your head. At least, it did to me, and it can't be coincidence that "Silent All These Years" is the first song on Rare on Air, and that the title says Rare, although this is a technically questionable use of the word. If it had been me, standing by some control board, deciding to start this movement, it would have happened just as Tori finished a song, as the last note died away and she turned, on the bench, to look back at me, with a smile that said "And how will you live the rest of your life?" as much as it said "Don't you want to hit a switch now, or something?" Ah, this is too much life energy for the life-spans of piano strings and radio waves to suffice, too precious not to be preserved and shared. Or, perhaps, another me, less moved and more calculating, simply observed that Tori fanatics would buy anything with her name on it.
It seems profoundly fitting, then, four years later, that Live From the River Music Hall, Vol. 1, the entry from the Haverhill, Massachusetts station WXRV (which many days sounds to me like Tori's roundabout gift to Boston radio), not only opens with another of Tori's performances, but is a benefit for Tori's charity, the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network. I don't really know how widely this album is being distributed, but if you don't have a station like this where you live, you probably will soon (or you might move), and if the station like this in your city hasn't made one of these yet, this one may as well serve as a blueprint, as it seems to me to have refined the format to its archetype.
These albums need both age and gender balances, so the first thing to find is a couple women from each of three approximate age groups. The young ones may be genuinely young (here Leah Andreone, although her histrionic vocal rendition of "It's Alright, It's OK" seems a little strained with just an acoustic guitar for accompaniment, so you might prefer Dayna Manning, or Tara McLean, or Emm Gryner), or just new to mainstream media (the obvious first choice being Ani DiFranco, whose sly, chatty sprint through "In or Out", here, is a bit like Billy Bragg's "Sexuality" rewritten to restore both a keener cognizance of the resistance it faces and a little more romance). For the middle group you're probably best off with people who have either crossed over from folk to pop, or vice versa. Both choices, here, started in folk: Suzanne Vega, whose acoustic performance of "Stockings" reminds me again that underneath Mitchell Froom's obtrusive production on Nine Objects of Desire lurk songs with exactly the same understated grace as "Marlene on the Wall" and "Small Blue Thing"; and Jonatha Brooke, whose solo "Crumbs" is smoky and elegant, but I still miss The Story. And then you need at least one singer or group who sound like adults. Nanci Griffith or Emmylou Harris would be ideal, but this album substitutes Margo and Michael Timmins' duo rendition of "Come Calling", from the Cowboy Junkies album Lay It Down, which fills the same niche.
Picking the men is a little easier. The core can basically be folk-singers. This album has Peter Mulvey, whose "Grace" is hushed and breathy, like a less-wordy Ellis Paul; Willy Porter, whose contribution is a half-picked, half-slide guitar improvisation that reminds me of the intro to Richard Thompson's "1952 Vincent Black Lightning"; Francis Dunnery, who sounds like a bizarre cross between Dan Bern, Peter Gabriel and Harry Belafonte, and whose "Too Much Saturn" wanders off into a long, wiry guitar solo in the middle; and an elder-statesman appearance by Bruce Cockburn, whose edgy, poetic "Night Train" sounds like it was never intended to be played any other way. You also need at least one minor pop icon who's willing to perform without a drummer; we get Matthew Sweet, whose bass/guitar/synth version of "Where You Get Love" here would be better, I think, if the bass were in tune. You need one HORDE-type blues band whose song I will skip: Blues Traveler, if you can get them, otherwise Big Head Todd & the Monsters, who do "Please Don't Tell Her" here, which depresses me if I forget to skip it. And for a finale, to balance Tori's opening, you need one band with a noticeably warped sense of humor. This turns out to be Live From the River Music Hall's tour de force, Bare Naked Ladies' rambling breakdown of "If I Had $1,000,000", augmented by an introductory Kenny Rogers parody, a long Dungeons & Dragons ad lib in the middle, excited narrations of the things going on in the studio that the radio audience can't see, and a short digression about the relationship between macaroni and cheese and the tobacco industry.
The most critical element, however, is your Tori performance. The one here is a 1996 recording of "Marianne", the cryptic eulogy to a dead friend from Boys for Pele. You may pick a different song, if you wish. Actually, Tori may pick a different song, if she wishes, when she visits your radio station, and you may simply record it. It will probably be one that was just a little more ornate, in its original incarnation, not one of the newer band songs, so that only when you go back and play the album version will you remember the drums, or the orchestra, or the other vocal parts. She will play it slower than you're used to hearing it, as if it is only by seeing the environment you live in that she comes to understand which parts of the song will speak to you most directly, and thus should be lingered over. And if you are me, you will suddenly know, when you hear it, that she has figured out something previously inexpressible about your city that will now remind you of her so powerfully that you will never want to leave.
Emmylou Harris: Spyboy
Daniel Lanois' lush production on Wrecking Ball was so much a part of the album, to me, that if I were Emmylou Harris I'd probably have supported it with as simple an acoustic tour as possible, on the grounds that reproducing the texture of the album in concert would be too impossible to bother attempting. But she was less intimidated by the album than I am, apparently, and set out not with a massive ensemble, nor a guitar and a duffel bag, but a four-piece band consisting of herself, drummer Brady Blade, bassist Daryl Johnson and guitarist Buddy Miller (all four of whom also figure into several of the songs on Miller's 1997 album Poison Love). I don't know how much of Wrecking Ball they played in concert, but this document of their tour contains only three songs from it: Lanois' apocalyptic "Where Will I Be" is suitably unearthly, the gasps of the crowd filling in the atmosphere in Lanois' absence; "All My Tears", written by Buddy's wife Julie, features one of the men doing a falsetto harmony worthy of the Gibbs; and the menacing "Deeper Well" seems like the least likely choice from the album, to me, especially for this configuration, but Johnson stomps on his bass pedals, Miller whirs through some processed guitar solos the Edge would be proud of, Emmylou tests the limits of her vocal composure, and they stretch the song into a seething seven-minute demon-invocation that the demons are too scared to answer. And the album ends, perhaps even more impressively, with nearly nine minutes of Lanois' "The Maker", alternately a plaintive country vocal duet and a pulsing rock anthem, with all players taking solo turns, including a drum solo, which I think all live albums were required to have at least one of, when I was a kid, a policy that still seems perfectly reasonable to me.
The rest of the material is nothing if not varied. At the quiet end, Jessie Winchester's "My Songbird" is heartbreaking, and could easily have been the song This Mortal Coil covered, instead of "'Til I Gain Control Again"; "Love Hurts", with Miller taking Gram Parsons' half of the duet, is devout, tender and courageous, the original meaning of the song irreversibly subverted by the tangible presence of Parsons' ghost; and Emmylou's own "Prayer in Open D" is simple and timeless, the kind of song you don't have to write very many of, if you can write them at all. The soaring choir vocals on "Green Pastures" turn it into a carol for some holiday less corrupt than Christmas, and the quartet actually does "Calling My Children Home" a cappella, as glorious an explication of Southern Gospel as you're likely to get without filling an Alabama church. Emmylou and Bill Banoff's "Boulder to Birmingham" is a lullaby for orphans and strikers. The Rodney Crowell co-written "Tulsa Queen" is a twangy slow dance, and Parson's "Wheels" is a quick waltz. And lest anybody forget Emmylou's country roots, or accuse her of trying to forget them, there are two full-throttle country boogies, Crowell's snarling "I Ain't Living Long Like This" and Paul Kennerley's reeling "Born to Run", either of which are enough to counter any petulant country-purist's contention that Emmylou is starting to sound like Enya.
What this album does, for me, which the self-contained Wrecking Ball, no matter how much I loved it, could not, and which Emmylou's box set, Portraits, perhaps ought to have, but seemed too scattered and sprawling to, is secure Emmylou's place in my pantheon. Wrecking Ball could have been Lanois' triumph, and most of the individual segments of my jump-cut tour of her back catalog could be marginalized by some minor destructive cleverness, but when I hear her sing to this audience, all the distance disappears. I realize, as I say it, that putting Emmylou in the same set as Tori, Kate Bush, Sarah McLachlan, Jane Siberry and Happy Rhodes glosses over a number of important distinctions about musical style and the prominence of original songwriting in the process, but the common quality that draws me to all six singers is, it turns out, not principally a function of synthesizer ambience or auteurial independence. Or, more precisely, it used to be, and now I find that it isn't any more. Emmylou's voice affects my metabolism, relocates my points of emotional equilibrium, supplies nutrients I'd forgotten I needed. I suspect the intensity of my reaction has some biological root, even, otherwise it's very suspicious that all the singers I think of as "angelic" are women. I wouldn't describe myself as a full country convert, as I don't think I've bought anything from the country bins yet that wasn't directly connected to Emmylou, but I've let my opposition registration lapse, at least. Not very many individual artists have single-handedly altered the boundaries of my musical tastes. And while my first impulse might not be to thank the one responsible for the fact that I no longer automatically laugh at Dolly Parton, I'm at a Zen stage where everything I learn not to dismiss seems like progress.
The Waterboys: The Live Adventures of the Waterboys
The week's concert-hall odyssey detours back in time, next, for this eighteen-song, nearly-two-hour, double-live album assembled from various stops on the Waterboys' 1986 tour. The snapshot finds the Waterboys in incarnation transition, between 1985's This Is the Sea, the end of Mike Scott's Big Music period, and 1988's Fisherman's Blues, the beginning of his Celtic neo-traditionalist era. Liner photographs in which he looks like Slash notwithstanding, these recordings find him already philosophically committed to the transformation, even though a few of the logistical details remain to be worked out. "Fisherman's Blues" itself makes an appearance, most notably, but fiddler Steve Wickham's spirit infuses even the older songs. The impatient enthusiasm of "Medicine Bow" more than compensates for the missing horns from the album version. "This Is the Sea" sounds more at peace with itself, "A Girl Called Johnny" is punctuated with delighted whoops that would have been thoroughly incongruous on The Waterboys, and "Be My Enemy" has mutated into a torrid saxophone jam like the Psychedelic Furs on speed. "Old England" sounds sadder than angry, and the desolation of "The Thrill Is Gone" gives way without subtlety to the newly appended coda "And the Healing Has Begun". "Spirit" warbles like hand-cranked synth-pop, and then launches into gospel transport. And "Savage Earth Heart", which in retrospect is obviously the opening of a long plea for a different relationship to nature that Fisherman's Blues would eventually grant (musically, which meant, oddly, that Mike could stop writing lyrics about it), is stretched on the rack until it's a nine-minute anatomy of deliverance.
Two hours is plenty of time for digressions that don't really lead anywhere, and the things that would have been cut from a single-disc version of this album, if I were editing, are several unreleased songs, most of which seem to me to have escaped release for pretty good reasons. The cover of Bob Dylan's "Death Is Not the End" exaggerates all the Dylanesque mannerisms I disliked on This Is the Sea. The goofy folk-standard "Meet Me at the Station" asks for indulgence I expended long ago putting up with "The Raggle Taggle Gypsy", on Room to Roam. "The Wayward Wind" wants, unwisely, to be the Pogues, and "Saints and Angels" sounds too much like "This Is the Sea" with blunter lyrics. The other two covers, on the other hand, seem inspired to me. A seven-minute acoustic rendition of "Purple Rain" could have been an unmitigated disaster, given the band's complete inability to fathom funk, but Scott somehow translates Prince's clipped, echoey delivery into a drinking-anthem bellow, and by the time they get done with the song, the original could just as well have been by Pink Floyd. Patti Smith and Bruce Springsteen's "Because the Night", employed as intro and outro to "The Pan Within", sounds like the Alarm in a rare moment of comparative restraint. The prize of the set, though, to me, is Mike's short solo performance of the tense Sioux farewell "The Earth Only Endures". Of course, a 1982 demo performance of this same song was the prize of the last posthumous Waterboys album, The Secret Life of the Waterboys, but that one was done with an acoustic guitar, and this one is done with an electric, and if we could think of three or four more kinds of guitars, I'd probably buy three or four more Waterboys miscellanies to hear the song done with them.
Pixies: At the BBC
The Pixies were never particularly revered for their live performances, and the bonus live album included with the 1997 best-of Death to the Pixies was of little more than archival interest to me, but I still remember running around Adams House, the week I got my first copy of Surfer Rosa, looking for people who might not yet know that the album had rendered every other record in rock obsolete. I'm glad, now, that I didn't take the logical step of disposing of all my other unnecessary records, and enough other things have come between me and Surfer Rosa in the years since that self-consciousness mars my appreciation of it, but the place it once occupied in my heart, combined with the indirect debt I owe the Pixies for all the subsequent bands whose interpretations of their lesson I enjoyed, earns them my patronage for another exhumed record. This one supplies fifteen BBC recordings, made between 1988 and 1991. Surfer Rosa, ironically, is snubbed; the selection includes five songs from Doolittle, the band's third album ("There Goes My Gun", "Dead", "Wave of Mutilation", "Monkey Gone to Heaven" and "Hey"), three from Bossanova, the fourth ("Is She Weird", "Ana" and "Down to the Well"), and two each from Come On Pilgrim, the first ("Levitate Me" and "Caribou"), and Trompe Le Monde, the fifth ("Subbacultcha" and "Letter to Memphis"). Many of these performances are significantly (and methodically) different from the album versions, which means the only plausible audience for this collection is existing Pixies devotees, but if the purpose of this album is to celebrate the Pixies once more, encore-like, this is a good trait, and in a way the album ends up seeming, to me, like a Pixies tribute record on which the bands all sound remarkably like the Pixies, even though the songs don't all sound like the originals. My favorite details are the muted "I Got You"-like murmur of "Is She Weird", Kim Deal's demented muttering on "Down to the Well", the amplified drum stomp of "Wave of Mutilation", and the growling rock swagger of "Letter to Memphis". The most fun, though, is realizing that the cover of the Beatles' "Wild Honey Pie", which opens the collection, and the cover of "(In Heaven) Lady in the Radiator Song", from Eraserhead, which closes it, are both mangled so far into unrecognizability that I can barely tell that they're not the same song. I don't get the impression that this struck the Pixies as a problem.
Strapping Young Lad: No Sleep 'Till Bedtime
It's been a long time since the Pixies represented the state of the art in howling turbulence, however. One of the current candidates, Devin Townsend, follows up his two brutal metal albums as Strapping Young Lad with a seven-song live EP recorded last year in Australia. SYL is not a subtle listening experience, so I rather doubt that anybody will notice material differences between the live and album versions of "Velvet Kevorkian", "All Hail the New Flesh", "Home Nucleonics" and "Oh My Fucking God" (all from the 1997 album City), or "S.Y.L." and "In the Rainy Season" (from the 1995 self-titled debut). Townsend's synthesis of death metal and NIN synth-goth is a one-joke premise, albeit one joke I find myself still laughing at after some repetition. The disc does have three interesting songs tacked onto the end, however. "Far Beyond Metal", the final live recording, is introduced as a tribute to the metal bands Townsend grew up on, and although it still sounds much more like Napalm Death than Iron Maiden, there are enough macabre New Wave of British Heavy Metal touches to demonstrate its sincerity. "Japan", a studio bonus track, starts out raw and blocky, like a demo that hasn't had its layer of sonic hyperbole applied yet, but the chorus rapture that eventually arrives seems fully formed, which raises the possibility that the rest of it is also intentional, and SYL has come up with some musical contrast for once. And "Centipede", the other studio bonus, is a pounding, epic, industrial march, much of which reminds me distinctly of Front Line Assembly, except at the end where it threatens to break into a bagpipe jig. I don't honestly expect the next SYL album to sound any different from the first two, but I've gone from thinking it's impossible to thinking it's merely improbable. And sometimes the smallest deviations from the straightest courses produce the most spectacular wipe-outs.
Low: One More Reason to Forget
The noise that remains, once Strapping Young Lad is done with it, less sound than the impression left behind where it slept, is the substance of Low, a band with as plausible a claim to being the world's quietest rock group as SYL's to being the loudest. An album of remixes of Low songs just came out, and the idea of remixing Low songs made me queasy, but I felt bad about passing up a Low record, even if just in name, so I was pleased to find this live album, a recording of a 1997 performance in Louisville, Kentucky, released on the Chicago label BlueSanct Musak. Seeing Low in concert was one of my most memorable live-music experiences, but listening to a recording, unfortunately, is not remotely comparable. The scariest thing about seeing Low play is seeing them play, or, really, seeing them not play. The songs don't sound any different in concert, but where the silence between notes is passive, when you're just listening to it, when the players are standing right in front of you, deliberately not playing, waiting expressionlessly for it to become time for the next note, the suspension assumes an active identity of its own. Standing in the room with Low is a trial, and one in which you can learn some things about your attention span, your preconceptions about performance and public consumption of art, and your physical tolerance for stasis. You can try to simulate this environment, perhaps by standing up and closing your eyes while you listen, and if Low never visits your town I won't begrudge you your closest approach, but you're not testing the same thing. You need people, and the rustle of air conditioners, and somebody behind you coughing, and the creak of leather-jacket sleeves as the guy in front of you reverses his arm positions, and Alan, Mimi and Zak managing to make eye contact with nothing, not even the floor. You need to know that you paid to stand in this room, and that if the show goes on too long you'll miss the last train, and that, unbelievably, the three of them have done this every night for the last three weeks. You need to know that they have performed these songs, and lived through it, even though when you look in their faces you can't always tell how. You need to sense how wrong it would be to scream. Without these things around you, a recording of the sounds made at such an event is no more edifying or sensible than the audio tape of an avalanche, or a poisoning, or a dream in which the world finally stops its odious twirl.