Hiding Your Heart From the Roaring Giant
202 · 10 December 98
I only subscribe to two music magazines. One, the newsletter ICE, is little more than a CD release-date bulletin, and my interaction with each issue consists almost solely of transferring the few dates I might conceivably care about, personally, onto smaller paper. The other, the thick British review journal Q, I used to actually read, but its level of insufferable we-are-the-law smugness has risen to the point where I enjoy it more, too, if I just flip through and write down the UK releases I wasn't previously aware of, and try to ignore any sentences that are not purely descriptive. In the case of the October issue's glib, one-star dismissal of Red, the new T'Pau album, the sole scrap of music-related information is "like Bonnie Tyler without the laryngitis", the reviewer's description of T'Pau's sound circa 1987. The rest of the review consists of an officious declaration that nobody still likes T'Pau, the claim that singer Carol Decker looked like a barmaid (presumably all good rock singers look like Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany's), a pedantic assessment of Red as "embarrassingly shallow", a snide pot-shot at a song called "Giving Up the Ghost" predicting that Decker will soon be doing just that, and a picture caption that suggests Decker reformed T'Pau because her solo career failed. Even by Q's declining standards, this seemed to me like an especially lazy, petty review, from which it was obvious that the writer didn't read the album credits (else he would have learned that personnel-wise, this basically is Decker's solo album), didn't pay attention to even the one song he mentioned by name (which is a courageous lover's farewell, nothing to do with quitting), and certainly didn't bother to go back and listen to any of the earlier T'Pau albums to find out how Red differs from them or doesn't. Were I composing a judicial code from scratch, I would defend Q's right to print reviews like this, but I would include a codicil that gives Decker the legal privilege to break the reviewer's nose in return. Given the taboo against artists replying to reviews, I was surprised and pleased to find that the November issue's letters page opened with a response from Will Ashurst, T'Pau's manager, complaining about pretty much the same set of journalistic cheats that bothered me. My suspicion that Q had only printed the letter with the patronizing expectation that all right-thinking readers would laugh at it, however, was confirmed by the December issue's inclusion of one letter that thought the very idea of T'Pau having a manager was hilarious; a second from someone who admitted to hating the album without having heard any of it, which was supposed to make Q seem less closed-minded by comparison; and a third defending "looked like a barmaid" by asserting, in a dense reiteration of the original slight, that the comment was "merely fact". The four letters did not, between them, add any musical information to the initial review.
In their first incarnation, T'Pau were a six-piece arena-pop band best known, depending on where you live, for either the spoken-verse semi-novelty dance hit "Heart and Soul", or the surging power-ballad "China in Your Hand" (which Carol was invited to sing at Princess Diana's funeral, suggesting that somebody remembers it fondly), both from the band's 1987 debut album called, again depending on where you live, either Bridge of Spies or simply T'Pau. I actually detested "Heart and Soul" during its chart run, regarding its muttering/wailing dynamic flip-flop as an epitome, of sorts, of the period's cheap dance-music gimmickry. My annoyance was compounded by the queasy realization that the song's sung choruses touched the same arousal-related nerve in me that is responsible for the presence, in my collection, of the complete catalogs of Fiona and Lita Ford. I finally bought a twelve-inch single of "Heart and Soul" remixes, under the lame pretense of needing them for a dance tape, but the remainder of my capitulation followed swiftly enough that the tape ended up with the somewhat bouncier T'Pau album track "Sex Talk" on it, instead. By the time I converted to CDs, a couple years later, T'Pau was out of print in the US, so I bought the 1991 album The Promise, when it came out, as much as a digital surrogate for the first album as because I expected anything remarkable from it. As it turned out, I adored it. Although T'Pau's three albums (the middle one, Rage, doesn't appear to have been released in the US at all) suffered declining commercial fortunes, to me the band improved steadily over the course of them, and by The Promise had mastered a shiny, irrepressible version of dramatic, big-production, big-ensemble pop that married Fiona's gleefully histrionic rock passion (perhaps best summarized on the gloriously trashy Heart Like a Gun, the execrable Kip Winger duet notwithstanding) to the layered, glittering arrangements of the Adventures (who I love best for the anthemic The Sea of Love). I might have conceded, if pressed, that it was a minor art form of which T'Pau were masters, but when I sat down, at the end of 1991, to make my best-of-the-year lists, I discovered that there were four separate T'Pau songs I couldn't imagine leaving off the song list (the sweeping ballad "Whenever You Need Me", the propulsive, slashing "Made of Money", the methodical "Only a Heartbeat" and the soaring "The Promise"), and in the course of skipping around the album trying to decide between them I remembered how much I liked the rest of it, too, so much that it finally occurred to me, the only time I've ever surprised myself in the course of assembling a list, that although there were other albums I thought were more significant, that year, The Promise was the one I'd actually enjoyed listening to the most. It still seems like the anomaly, when I look back through my number-ones, over the years, but every time I listen to it I remember how it got there. T'Pau bent stadium-rock's drama to serve the ends of pure, sugary, unapologetic pop, and not until many years later, when I surrendered in turn, after an even longer fight, to Roxette, would I be tempted to retire The Promise from this form's position of honor. Of course, by then T'Pau were long gone. They disbanded after The Promise, and a 1993 best-of, which included six of the ten songs from the first album, four of the eleven from the second, and two of the twelve from the third, wrote a familiarly-structured short-major-label-attention-span epilogue to their brief story. Decker's announced solo career seemed, since she had half the writing credit for almost all of T'Pau's songs, including the hits, like a more plausible idea than, say, Terri Nunn's or Dale Bozzio's, but years went by without any sign of it.
Red, when it finally arrives, is a reunion album only in name. Although rhythm guitarist Ron Rogers, Decker's long-time writing partner, has a co-writing credit on three of these ten songs, none of the five musicians from the original band play on the record. Decker sings and produces, Jez Ashurst supplies the guitars, Dave Hattee drums, Dan McKinna plays bass, and Spencer Cozens adds some keyboards. Guitarist Scott Taylor, formerly of arena-pop kindred spirits Then Jerico, plays on three songs and co-wrote two of them. The arrangements, almost perforce, tend to be sparer than T'Pau's intricate sextet-synergy raptures, and there are enough contemporary touches to prove that Decker hasn't spent the last seven years cocooned. Decker's voice, though, somewhere between Marie Fredriksson and Maria McKee, is still capable of airy melancholy and anthemic howl, and her instinct for sentimental magnificence is undimmed. "With a Little Luck" rides on simmering, "Like a Prayer"-ish synthesizers and a chattering drum loop, but by the chorus has abandoned all reticence, and glides into spotlight strut that might make Belinda Carlisle's "Heaven Is a Place on Earth" jealous. "Now That You're Gone", the first of the Taylor songs, builds from slow drum march and bass rumble into choruses that swirl with guitar buzz and angelic backing-vocal sighs. Kat Evans' fiddle lends the serene "Do the Right Dance" some of the rustic village-square composure of Runrig or Spirit of the West. The straightforward "Wing and a Prayer" could be a forgotten vintage Scandal song that needed only a little remastering to bring it up to date. The haunting reluctant-break-up ballad "Giving Up the Ghost", with a cheesy drum-machine rattle, wispy keyboard fills and some pretty acoustic guitar, could probably be shipped to Celine Dion or Whitney Houston as is, but Decker's raw, unguarded voice keeps it grounded, for me, and it joins the long line of T'Pau love songs whose words don't seem that sophisticated on paper, but swell with genuine emotion when Carol sings them. The guitars and drums on the springy "Make Love to Me" are too prominent for it to be a country crossover in this exact guise, but it has plenty of rhinestone swagger and goofy twang. The sturdy, timeless "Say You Will" (the other Taylor co-composition) is ready-made for a Rod Stewart/Tina Turner duet, although Decker does a credible job approximating a hybrid of their styles all by herself. The gentle, lilting "Love Song", like the prequel to "Giving Up the Ghost", the song of completely helpless devotion ("These arms wait for you", "This breath of love is sweet for you") that explains why letting go is so nearly impossible, needs only a real title (even "These Arms" would have been better). The only brushes with stridency come in "Let It All Fall", which leaps from spare, elegant, piano-laced verses into gale-force guitar-cacophony choruses on par with Alanis Morissette's "Baba". And the album dances out to the vivid, dizzy, stomping "Sweet Dreams", which sweeps up Roxette, the Go-Go's, Bonnie Raitt, Lone Justice and the Leslie Spit Treeo into a whirlwind of guitar flares, choir harmonies, and Carol spinning like her boot heels are punching holes into the stage. T'Pau have come to seem unfashionable mainly, I think, because they always sounded like they were having uncomplicated fun, and uncomplicated fun, of course, is currently the province of the Spice Girls, and those similarly unworthy of critical tolerance. But fun and seriousness weren't always in opposition, and dance music wasn't always machine-gun bursts of random sensation. Those were two of the great lessons of New Wave, I thought, lessons that didn't stop being true when A Flock of Seagulls got their hair cut. I doubt very many Ani DiFranco or Marilyn Manson fans are going to jettison their respective lifestyles, tomorrow, to help me fuel this T'Pau revival, but Carol Decker remembers, as I suspect some of them will want to when they're older (and perhaps only a little older), where the paths are that take you from grassroots to glam, and how it is that the people at both ends, however much their kingdoms look like islands, still speak the same language.
Cowboy Junkies: Miles From Our Home
It's a pretty convincing demonstration of the malleability of rock and roll that you can make T'Pau and the Cowboy Junkies out of basically the same ingredients. Strings and processed guitars take the place of keyboards, here, acoustic instruments replace some electric ones, and Margo Timmins taps into the haunted soul of country music, rather than its square-dance grin, but all it would take is a little speed and a little volume to turn "Miles From Our Home" into "Wing and a Prayer". John Leckie, who produced this record, shows up elsewhere in my collection producing the Lucy Show, Magazine, the Posies, Radiohead, Simple Minds and the Skids. Tastes can be so compartmentalized; liking T'Pau doesn't mean you'll like the Cowboy Junkies, or vice versa, but I'm certain aliens would be baffled that we act like the two belong to entirely different cultural traditions. The chords are the same, the rhythms are often isometric. Only the moods are dramatically different. Instead of sounding like they're having fun, the Cowboy Junkies sound like they are hovering at the brink of expiring from ennui. If Margo has Carol's capacity for dervish overdrive, she is careful to never reveal even a hint of it, and her stubborn restraint keeps the band on an even keel that makes 10,000 Maniacs sound like Aqua by comparison. After a while (and this is only my second whole Cowboy Junkies record, so a while can transpire pretty quickly), the pervasive dejection can verge on self-parody; the hypothetical phrasing of "If I lost you now / I would feel as hollow as a bone" seems like a formality, "No Birds Today" is so reflexively morbid I want to mail the band a case of empty honey jars and deflated balloons, and the presence of a song called "The Summer of Discontent" seems to me reek of trenchant inevitability. The music is graceful, measured, and beautifully proportioned, and depending on how patient you are, at this stage in your life, that may be enough. I get restless.
The thing that saves Miles From Our Home for me, and the irony is that I had to stop thinking anything was going to save it before I noticed the details that would, is that almost every song here lets one or two hairline cracks dart across its otherwise implacable facade. "New Dawn Coming" trudges through the usual litanies of disenchantment ("Are you weary? / Are you sinking? / Are you tired of holding up the walls?"), but the crashing, static drum line makes room for a quiet bongo gallop under the choruses, and the lyrics, despite the maudlin delivery, actually revolve around a refrain that is, if not precisely hopeful, at least second-order optimistic ("Soon there'll be a reason / To see it through one more day"). "Miles From Our Home" itself is a thinly disguised mid-tempo rock song, its precise hi-hat patter no different in principle from a drum-and-bass loop, its reversal of the refrain (from "People keep saying / I'm miles from my home" to "The people, we'll tell them / We're miles from our home") an artful twist of lost into searching, and conversely of rooted comfort into ignorance, and thus a hint that the apparent despair might cloak something much brighter. The understated, undulating "Good Friday", musically as close as the Timminses come to Alanis' "Hand in My Pocket", asks the useful and difficult question "What will I tell you when you ask me why I'm crying? Will I point above / At the Red Tail gracefully soaring / Or down below where its prey / Is quietly trembling?" (and if it could be either, maybe we've misunderstood what crying means), and concludes, arrestingly, with an alternate Millennial apotheosis, as Christ, tired of two thousand years of hanging, finally just says "Enough of this shit, I am going." "Darkling Days", which has the good sense not to overtax its tagline ("The Beautiful is not chosen, / The chosen becomes beautiful.") by making it the title, could easily be a Jewel song, and reminds me of my arguably circular conviction that if other people played Jewel songs, she would get lot more credit for her songwriting. Fiery organ and snapping snares drive the tense, noisy "Hollow as a Bone". The placid, string-buoyed "Someone Out There" revolves around the defiantly blunt "But what I want to know / Before you save my soul / Is who gave this power to that fucker up there?", uninterested in the long tradition of oblique, evasive "Dear God" para-heresies. "No Birds Today" isn't an endangered-species lament, it's a lonely woman's dissection of her own downfall, which seems to include (although here I'm extrapolating from some extremely obscure clues) having turned in her son for some unspecified crime. And the stately conclusion, "Those Final Feet", with piano runs that could have been plucked out of Warren Zevon songs, the storytelling cadences of "Diamonds and Rust", and the surging second wind of a "Freebird" encore that doesn't dissolve into an undisciplined sprint or a surprise Russian finale, bows out on repetitions of "You said never to grow old / But you forgot to tell me how" whose desperation betrays a deeper attachment to this life than you might otherwise deduce. The sinister, grinding bonus track, a disconsolate travelogue that sounds like a Johnny Cash cover (although as best I can tell they wrote it themselves), leaves me unbalanced enough to wonder if the traces of resilience, elsewhere, were just a prank, but in the end I've decided to assume they mean it as a cliffhanger, like their albums are installments of an old-fashioned movie serial in which the suspense derives from waiting to see if they're really going to asphyxiate themselves this time. It's less flamboyant than charging around on horses and jumping out of airplanes and so forth, but it's a harder and truer challenge, and so I'm a lot more interested to see how they escape.
Brenda Kahn: Outside the Beauty Salon
Some nights, though, when I prefer my depressing vignettes laced with more nihilism than fatalism, and don't insist that they harbor the explicit potential for redemption, the mood suits itself better to a more bracing and directly cathartic approach than Cowboy Junkies' emotional ambiguities. On Brenda Kahn's David Kahne-produced major-label debut, 1992's Epiphany in Brooklyn, her bitter, destructive lyrics and angular, gnashing voice were set to jangly folk-rock, sort of like a cross between Mary Lou Lord, Billy Bragg, Black Sheets of Rain-era Bob Mould and Sylvia Plath, a combination that I found intriguingly unnerving, but not in a way I had much desire to re-experience. By the time 1996's Destination Anywhere came out, though, which as far as I can tell was her next album, she'd switched labels to the more folk-friendly Shanachie, but discarded the folk aspects of her style almost completely, which left her sounding more like a cross between Magnapop, an angrier Belly and the electric side of Sebadoh, a style that was much better suited to the tenor of the experience I wanted from listening to her songs, which was not entirely unlike flogging myself for penance. Outside the Beauty Salon, which came out last year but I'm behind, continues the process of reducing her sound to its base elements, most of these songs built on just drums, bass, Brenda's frayed rhythm guitar, and an occasional lead hook or slide-guitar moan. My favorite parts are very much in keeping with the louder songs on Juliana Hatfield's Bed, perhaps with a little of Bob Mould's rock drone substituted for Juliana's lingering affinity for impish pop, and are probably the closest I've come, in a year of looking, to finding a worthy successor to the Slingbacks' All Pop, No Star, although Brenda tends to replace the summery pop smile that shone through the Slingbacks' power-trio arrangements with a withering snarl. "Matador" is becalmed and scary, creaky guitar noises fluttering around Brenda's clipped narration. With a slightly throatier vocal delivery, the plaintive "Wedding Ring" could be the Geraldine Fibbers. "Lincoln Hotel" is like a country band covering the Sex Pistols, "Hey Romeo" has traces of Penetration and Debbie Harry, and the jagged "The Bridge" reminds me in places of Elastica. "Smoking in the Jane Room" is straight-ahead punk thrash, the anthemic "Alice" could be Sleeper with a little added cello, and "Destination Anywhere", showing up an album too late to be the title track, comes the closest, for me, to the Slingbacks' "No Way Down". The lingering experimental urges are less satisfying for me; the three waltzes, in particular, the jittery "Heather", the chirpy "I Believe in You (Song for Thomas)", and the sultry "Guillotine", all have the gangly earnestness of blues parody, although this may be more a function of the precedents I want this album to adhere to than anything it brings upon itself.
If you plan to pay attention to Brenda's lyrics, though, and they're literate enough to warrant the effort, you have to be prepared for a rather relentless gloom. "Matador" is a confused sprawl of abuse-dependency and frightened isolation, although it seems like the narrator is as frightened of herself as she is of anybody else, which makes hiding harder. In "Smoking in the Jane Room" the narrator is so bled dry of hope that a fortune teller refuses to tell her fortune. "Heather" is like Thelma and Louise crossed with Waiting for Godot, so they don't actually go anywhere. The chorus of "Wedding Ring", "I took my wedding ring back / To the diamond store. / I didn't want it. Anymore.", sounds even bleaker than it reads, as if she has so little remaining energy that she's hoping turning the ring back in will spin the planet in reverse so the marriage never happened. "Door Locks" is a three-sentence morning-after conversation without a single human spark. "Alice" is like "Pretty in Pink" after several years on the street. "Guillotine" is like the room where the women come and go, from "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock", converted into a heroin gallery. "Hey Romeo" is a lover's promise that manages to make both people seem broken and helpless. Addictions, physical and psychological, tear these characters' lives like they're woven out of moth wings, like the idea of using a more durable fabric hasn't occurred to them, and isn't likely to. The photographs in the booklet, of Brenda sitting in an enormous tub, fully clothed, washing her dog, are the album's closest thing to levity. If I look at them while I listen, the songs hurt a little bit less. I haven't decided yet whether that's good or not.
Sally Fingerett: My Good Company
If the intensity of your joys determines how much pain you can stand, in between them, then with T'Pau's Red and Sally Fingerett's My Good Company on either side of me, I'm prepared for a lot. Outside the Beauty Salon is the dark side of eternal youth, a twilight world in which we never really learned to take care of ourselves properly, where having dreams is like having imaginary friends, cute when you were younger but more worrisome the longer you cling to them. I can't imagine the characters from Brenda's album growing up and leading productive lives; they don't seem to belong to the same species as human adults, parents, grandparents, mentors, people who have learned to make funny percussion noises with the hollow places inside themselves, instead of trying to hole up in their own empty souls. My Good Company, for stark contrast, may be the most maternal pop record I've ever heard. I can't imagine the narrators of these songs having led confused youths, either. You'll be hard pressed to find two albums with less concept of each other, which makes the fact that they share a record label either almost impossibly surreal, or breathtakingly inspiring.
A maternal pop album is probably not a wildly commercial proposition, but Fingerett is a founding quarter of the Four Bitchin' Babes, folk empress Christine Lavin's original street gang for soccer moms, and folk music tolerates adulthood much more gracefully than pop does. Although this sounds backwards, in the past I've found Fingerett's white-picket-fence family dramas too intense to take one after another, and so I've liked her better in the round-robin setting of the Babes. It's hard to tell whether My Good Company finally provides enough emotional variety of its own, or I've simply now heard enough of Sally's songs that I'm ready to confront a whole album of them, but whichever the reason, this one carries me all the way through. Musically, it's unfailingly pleasant, a study in balance and moderation on the order of Patty Larkin or Beth Nielsen Chapman. Sally herself plays assured piano and guitar, and various friends join in with tasteful drums, percussion, more guitars, mandolin, fretless bass, organ and backing vocals. At the folk end of the spectrum, "My Good Company" is jazzy and inviting, "Ten Pound Bass" is an exquisite piano-and-bass duet with Jonathan Edwards, Janis Ian sings the second part on the hushed "Little Girl, Please Wait", the piano-ballad "My Friend Elaine" could have been dug out of one of Billy Joel's early albums, the gentle "Home" sparkles with acoustic guitar and mandolin, "I Danced With a Man" is a solo piano-and-voice live recording, and a quiet choir breathes in the background of Sally and Tom Paxton's reverent "Private Plenty". Toward the pop end, "Silent, Silent"'s piano and percussion are reminiscent of Joe Jackson's Night and Day, the twitchy "Pink Lemonade" has half a mind to turn country, and a taste of overdriven guitar pushes "This Town's Alright" into soft-rock territory. "Lorinda Lea" actually uses a scratchy drum loop, although with the flamenco guitar flourishes, fretless-bass growls, percussion clatter and communal backing vocals, you're unlikely to mistake the song's East LA barrio for a South Central war zone. "Boy on Wheels" tosses in some playful vocoder, and "Thirsty Woman" musters a bit of subtle menace.
But the music, however bewitching, is not what I'm here for. I'm here for stories. I'm 31, and starting to think having kids may not be as crazy an idea as it used to seem, and I want to know that a night of music can end with the gleam in a mother's eye, if it needs to, instead of the dull sheen across a junkie's forehead. None of these stories chokes me up quite as effectively as Sally's "Home Is Where the Heart Is", which I can cry on demand by thinking about, but there are many gradations of affecting, and these songs cover several of them for me. "Silent, Silent" is an anthem of learning to speak again after having been kept quiet for too long, combining elements of Tori Amos' "Silent All These Years", Sally's own physical convalescence from virus-induced vocal-cord paralysis, childhood-trauma recovery and learning how not to pass that trauma to the next generation. "And when I cry, you find the beauty in it, / And when I laugh, you laugh along", goes "My Good Company", inverting the Cowboy Junkies' penchant for turning beauty and laughter into tears. "Pink Lemonade" is Paula Cole's "Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?" without the gender strain and sarcastic vitriol. "Ten Pound Bass" is a sly, heart-rending portrait of a boy's internal struggle between a first summertime love and some really good fishing. "This Town's Alright" is the simple celebratory joy that is possible if you can get to the weekend without "I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight"'s pent-up weekday frustrations and toxic inability to separate escape from drinking and violence. "Little Girl, Please Wait" is a mother trying to come to emotional terms with the intellectual reality of her daughter starting to control her own life. "Lorinda Lea" is a reminder that not letting go can drag both of you down. "My Friend Elaine" is a tribute to a zephyrial old friend that wraps some of the narrator's own deferred dreams around the friend's shoulders, both to live vicariously through her and to make sure she's warm enough. "I Dance With a Man" is about a man who could never figure out how to get past courtship, which starts out as an amusing foible, but each time Sally repeats "I dance with a man who cannot sit down" it seems more tragic, until by the end of the song he's faint with exhaustion and still doesn't know how to stop, and all anybody can think to do is pass him to the next dancer, taking turns as the object of his attention until his attention finally runs out. "Boy on Wheels" is perhaps the definitive mother's fond acceptance of male impulses, a sort of Sphinx's riddle of vehicles, from a tricycle at dawn, to a bicycle in the morning, to a motorbike in the afternoon, to an expensive middle-age-crisis sports car in the evening. And "Thirsty Woman", which I breeze into fully expecting it to be an honest, but uplifting, alcoholism survivor's tale, turns out to be a cruel trick, an abnegation of Sally's usual rules of resolution that leaves me with a woman who has let her hollows consume her after all, allowed herself to follow an inexorable inertial decline into loneliness. This one exception is necessary, though, to set up the benedictory exit music, "Private Plenty". "I lay me down surrounded by the glory / Of my own private plenty", the mantra insists. We can't be thankful for what we have without some idea of what we could have lost. If we sometimes tell stories in which nobody wins, some of them true and some of them made up, it's in the hope that nobody, or at least nobody else, has to live those stories for us to learn their lessons.