Children, Lovers and Artists, You Have to Leave St. Louis
226 · 27 May 99
Anja Garbarek: Balloon Mood
An accountant might be surprised, I suppose, that there aren't more singers aspiring to sound something like Björk, a small example of the same bafflement one feels trying to comprehend why, in the last five hundred years, it hasn't occurred to more portrait painters to depict the beginnings of sly smiles on the faces of their subjects. Conversely, it's hard to construct a material justification for the career of Stina Nordenstam at all, as the central tension in her music seems, as often as not, to arise (surely the wrong word) from a mortal fear that somebody might overhear it. Artistically, though, I've come to regard the apparent stylistic gulf between the two women as illusory, or at least misleading, an exaggerated function of a much more subtle difference in mental states. Björk's demented Aretha-Franklin-in-Tinker-Bell's-body wail and Stina's diaphanous whisper are both, to me, reactions to the storm of confusion and fear that lurks never far under the composed veneer of any aware soul, one an attempt to harness the chaos and the other to stand so still that it ceases to register your presence, extrovert/introvert versions of the same stubborn unwillingness to condone entropy. I vacillate on which response I consider more heroic. If they were just standing in front of me, I expect Björk's brash charisma would be comparatively overpowering, but the fact that Stina commits her timidity to records transforms it profoundly, and perhaps in ways I empathize with, personally, more strongly. Some weeks shrieking sounds like a less imaginative and less effective defense against insanity, capitulation tenuously recharacterized as resistance by a narrow triumph of will.
There is probably no better vantage point from which to survey these two shrouded realms than the faerie bridge that connects them, but although I claim we could have deduced the bridge's existence, Anja Garbarek is the first person I've encountered who appears to know exactly where it is, and how to negotiate it safely. There's a certain geo-cultural logic to this, as Garbarek is Norwegian (the daughter of ECM saxophonist Jan Garbarek), and Norway lies, if we don't get too pedantic about proportions, right between Stina Nordenstam's Sweden and Björk's Iceland. Her synthesis of their styles (for which I imagine producer Marius de Vries should share some credit) consists primarily, it seems to me, of deploying Stina's reserve to reign in Björk's tendency to get carried away with her own costuming, and harnessing Björk's self-confidence to drag these songs out of what might otherwise be ethereal stasis. Thus parts of "Beyond My Control" are stark and intimate, but the choruses turn obliquely seductive, like an ice sculpture of Kylie Minogue's "Jump". Thus "I.C.U." opens with eerie, creaking noises and a brittle, swirling drum loop, but then kicks into a decisive and progressively less stark dance-groove over which Anja's muttered narration sounds more menacing than haunted. "Just One of Those Days" is spectral, but soothing, like a cross between Jean Michel Jarre's "Zoolook" and Kate Bush's "Army Dreamers" reincarnated as one of the slower songs on Madonna's Ray of Light. "Picking Up the Pieces" may be a minor millennial masterpiece, grafting robotic, "Pop Muzik"-esque vocals, Lene Lovich squeaks, slinky snake-charmer whir and sinister ambient noises onto a relentless bass-and-drum crunch that wouldn't be too out-of-place on an old Public Enemy record. "The Cabinet" is blurry and distracted, like an Expressionist carousel dream, and the fractured, ominous "Something Written" coalesces into distressed scat with evident reluctance, but "Strange Noises", despite a percussion track that sounds like it's being performed on the neighbor's plumbing and Laurie Anderson-like interstitial monologues, crashes into concussive, careening, industrial choruses that underscore, for me, Nine Inch Nails' essential harmlessness. "The Telescope Man Says", abstract, undulating and unhurried, sounds like Stina Nordenstam being coached (goaded?) by Lida Husik, but "She Collects (Stuff Like That)" (how much better the title would have been without the parenthetical clarification) is impish, post-apocalyptic Marilyn Monroe, like a cabaret theme for Nude Descending a Staircase. And "Balloon Mood" itself, the finale, with its quiet, rustling strings and fragile lullaby vocals, sounds to me like a soliloquy for a derelict alternate-history Titanic that somehow resurfaced, after ridding itself of passengers, to continue on a voyage in which only hulls and icebergs would have interest. Lined up, Balloon Mood, Björk's Post (I never managed to embrace Homogenic, I admit) and Stina's Dynamite (after which People Are Strange, despite qualities of its own, seemed anticlimactic to me) seem to trace an Orion's belt, of sorts, in the constellation of human responses to manic internal cacophony. Björk tries to inhabit it, and so possess it; Stina tries to phase-cancel it, in order to hear the signals it usually drowns out. Anja, in between, offers what to me is an appealing compromise: the elements of dementia in each of our personalities are neither the secret language of truth or the enemy of it, they're a harmony part in a scale whose temperament we badly need to learn.
Kristeen Young: Enemy
Of course, some people's dementia is more disciplined than others', and so while Kristeen Young and Björk seem to me to embrace their mania with the same open-heartened courage, Kristeen Young's music ends up with little of Björk's kaleidoscope sparkle, instead sounding uncannily like a Kate Bush/Fugazi hybrid I doubt I would otherwise have been able to imagine. I thought Kristeen's previous album, 1997's Meet Miss Young and Her All Boy Band, was striking, and promising enough to anticipate the next one (and mail-order it, which is necessary, as it's self-released and not, as far as I can discern, distributed in any other way), but it didn't really resonate with me, in the way that albums I adore differentiate themselves from albums I respect. Enemy seemed on course for the same fate, the first couple times I played it, but its role in my life was altered by two external factors. The first was the postcard that arrived in my mailbox, some time in early March, announcing Kristeen's two upcoming Boston and Providence shows. (One advantage of selling only by direct mail-order, I guess, is that you know the address of every one of your fans.) The address on the front is computer-printed, but on a charmingly inexact parallelogram of plain paper, which has been scotch-taped to the front of a postcard pre-printed with a small picture of some inanely Romanesque building at the University of Mississippi. The return address is handwritten in ball-point, and the content-bearing back side, providing dates and times, is also handwritten, in three different pens, and adorned with half-a-dozen assorted Barbie stickers. I've only rarely received birthday cards that entailed more attention or labor. The more mass-produced a communication, the less we assume the sender cares about us, which is why inventive junk-mailers perpetrate such evil as mailing labels printed in fake handwriting fonts, with the identical crossed-out smudge at the start of every zip code (a touch that has the opposite of the effect it's intended to if for some reason yours and your nearest thirty neighbors' are delivered in a bundle). I don't believe, however, that we yet have the technology to fake Magic Marker and Barbie stickers, and thus Kristeen's postcard left me with the impression that if she has more than a dozen fans, half of them must have been recruited to help make the postcards to send to the rest of us. I like feeling needed.
The second thing that informed Enemy, then, was the show itself. The Boston date was a Wednesday, and Kristeen appeared in the middle of a three- or four-band bill with whose other participants she shared absolutely nothing. I think I was the only person who was there to see her, although a few other people seemed to be paying attention by the end, and perhaps they were just shy, not new converts. Most of the tracks on the album reprise the keyboards/bass/drums arrangement of Meet Miss Young (and one even includes guitars, which the credits to Meet Miss Young decry with some vehemence), but her streamlined touring ensemble consisted of her, one keyboard (mounted off-center on its stand, which worried me throughout the performance), and drummer Jeff White. On a couple songs she simplified the equation further by setting the keyboard into an unattended sampler loop, leaving her free to wrestle her microphone stand back and forth across the stage, while singing, in what I imagine seizures become with enough classical ballet training. Her songs seem angular enough on disc, but I assumed some of the angularity was a studio artifact; her performances suggest that this may not have been the case, blasting through labyrinthine vocals parts that most people would record, at least, in several passes, as if their contortions were as inevitable as the curve of the Venus de Milo's thigh. I forget exactly what she was wearing, but the only explanation I could think of for it was a conflation of Rizzo from Grease, Pippi Longstocking and Kathleen Hanna, whose political significance, I'll concede, eludes me. She had on a sweat jacket at the beginning, which she took off two songs in to reveal the words "Obligatory" and "Tattoo" written boldly, in the aforementioned Magic Marker, down her arms. This could easily have been a throw-away rock joke, except the words were written much larger than they ever would have been as tattoos, and she played the remainder of her set without making any reference to them, which gave the gesture a bizarre confrontational intensity I was intrigued to not quite understand. She was on stage for no more than half an hour, if that (six songs? seven?), and made no attempt to interact with the audience (such as I was) before, during or after.
Her brusque stage presence and the postcard's obsessive cheeriness seem nearly irreconcilable, but somehow between them they've dispelled whatever kept me from feeling connected to Meet Miss Young, and Enemy is now quickly starting to feel like an album I've been listening to for years. At its most strident extremes, like the sawing "Year of the Woman", the shrieked "Take Me" (when you realize, as you usually need the printed lyrics to, that most of these songs explore grim gender and self-image predicaments on the emotional order of the numb "Take me. / Take my hand. / Place in your pants.", the lack of concert eye-contact becomes less mysterious), the cycling "Mouth to Mouth" and the grinding "Have you ever worked with anything HI-TEK?" (with the furious rejoinder "Have you ever worked with anything LO-FI?"), Enemy seems almost self-defeatingly monolithic, like a rally speech delivered as performance art, so you can't quite tell what the cause is. Far more often than not, though, Kristeen punctures this alienating severity with either shards of unexpectedly confident rock grandeur, moments of terrifyingly direct honesty, or both. The clanging piano lines of "Year of the Woman" (a conflicted rant against, I think, formula feminism, but I'm really not sure) sound like Jerry Lee Lewis raised on the Fibonacci sequence instead of the blues, but "Night Blindness", with its surging bass line and quick, clattering drums, sounds to me like an accelerated reduction of Tori Amos' "Jackie's Strength". "I'm Sorry" seethes like a remake of the "Voices Carry" video in which Aimee Mann rips the theater apart at the end instead of just standing up and looking forlorn. Musically, "Lucia" is relatively sedate, Kristeen's closest approach to a Ray of Light reverie, but the lyrics are like Alanis Morissette's "Joining You" recalibrated for sedition instead of comfort. The graceful "Laurel", on the other hand, which reminds me musically of Kate's "Mother Stands for Comfort", is an inspiring hymn of detractor-ignoring encouragement ("Laurel, live in a sound-proof booth. / Laurel, lock out their words"). The sweeping confessional "Sacrifice" is somewhere between Sinéad O'Connor and Paula Cole, the buoyant "The Good Night" closer to Eve's Plum. The weird Toni Basil-ish joke-voices of "Incubator" conceal an anti-reproduction diatribe that would drive Right-to-Life to apoplexy ("If something's growing inside me / I call it a tumor", "I can't spare a drop of life. / I need it to live this life."), and I suspect would elicit little pro-choice support, either (recasting the nursery-rhyme couplet "I'll stick in my thumb / And pull out the plum" as a description of an auto-abortion is a disconcerting, if inspired, touch, and "There are men who will hunt me, / Hypnotize me with 'love', / So I will show less resistance to their / Life-stealing baby gun" has to be one of the least charitable rhymes on the subject of romance ever composed). The alternately elegant and possessed "Nothing" returns to this morbid subject ("We had a fetus once. / I squished it like a bug."), this time elaborating on Kristeen's disdain by weaving a detailed tapestry of the boy's side of the relationship ("Your discriminating mother says I'm like a daughter", "Your friends ... can't believe their eyes. / You're usually mummified, / With me you climb and dive and come alive"), only to shred it with the charging, repeated chorus "It means nothing to me". It's appallingly patronizing, I know, to cherish this decisive misanthropy because I don't believe it will last, but resolve this absolute is almost always woven from with the threads of its own unraveling. Maybe these songs are completely in earnest, and Kristeen Young will go to her grave believing that romance and children are cynical biological tricks, but I doubt it. Am I just imposing my own maturing weaknesses on her? Maybe. But she cares too much, about the things she cares about, for me to believe she lacks the compassion you have to lack to truly hate life this much. I insist on believing that on some level, perhaps not a conscious one (or not yet), these songs are trying to paper over doubts, which in the long run rarely works. "Fight, / With stones / And prayers / The enemy", goes the title-track's battle-cry. A real nihilist doesn't have enemies, because enemies imply that there are, or could be, friends. Be careful how you fight; sometimes the enemies, in fact, become the friends.
Penelope Houston: Tongue
If I'm right, and Kristeen Young will one day recant some of her hatred, Penelope Houston's new album Tongue is pretty close to the sort of album I'd expect Kristeen to make. Houston plays guitar, not piano, and I don't literally expect Kristeen Young to ever make an album with Chuck Prophet playing on it, or Charlotte Caffey and Jane Wiedlin co-writing two songs, or even one quite this conventionally pretty, no matter the personnel, but Tongue is a heartening example, all that notwithstanding, of how you can transform your anger without turning into something you revile. The title track, one of the Caffey/Wiedlin collaborations (with Charlotte and Jane pitching in on backing vocals), is a telling nightclub tableau, enough denizens pinned up for inspection like dissected frogs to please any cynic (Like: "On my left's a brand new bachelor, / Who claims he's broken-hearted. / On my right Miss Belle de Jour, / So very young. / She's squirming for attention, / I would wager that she'll get it."), but the refrain is a hopeful "I'm sitting, smiling, thinking of your tongue". The chorus of "Scum", on the other hand, is the rather unornamented "You're the scum of the earth. / You're the worst mistake God has ever made.", but it's delivered along a soaring, harmony-wound arc worthy of Shona Laing. Most of "Things" is straightforward folk-pop of the Pete & Maura Kennedy ilk, but Penelope's distant punk past leaks into the edge in her voice in the chorus, and when she says "I've had you all, you never made a sound", I hear the true parts of punk's fury still echoing. "The Ballad of Happy Friday and Tiger Woods" sounds like Suzanne Vega singing a Dan Bern song, but Tiger is only a supporting character in this one, an empathetic story of a sanitarium patient's ardent wish that everybody would leave her to her daydreams. The break-up song "My Angel Lost Her Wings" is only a vocal twitch or two short of a clipped Aimee Mann lament, and the bouncy "Frankenstein Heart" is somewhere between Aimee and Sara Hickman. "Crushing" is a galloping pop anthem in the long tradition of everything from "Don't Stop" to "I Love Rock and Roll" to "Malibu". The restless "Hundertwasser 567" flips from halting, scratchy, half-spoken verses to warm, swooping choruses with much the same easy grace as Alanis' "Hand in My Pocket", but the text, unless I'm misconstruing wildly, is about a Nazi dentist extracting gold fillings from the skulls of concentration-camp corpses. "Dolly", an extended metaphorical abuse-displacement, ends on the trenchant "And even though I might beg for help, / I'm not a fool. / I'm so much braver than you.", as resolute and self-aware as any Sleater-Kinney shout. The skittering "Subway" is halfway to airy Aztec Camera / Prefab Sprout jazz-pop, but the tense bonus remix of "Scum" is the best Garbage song I've ever heard, and "New Day", with Green Day's Billie Joe Armstrong on guitar, is an irrepressible stomp in which Penelope's distant punk past suddenly seems a lot more clearly recalled.
The Avengers: Died For Your Sins
If you want to recall Penelope Houston's distant punk past really clearly, there's also now this miscellany of rehearsal takes, live performances and three re-recorded songs from her seminal 1977-79 California punk band the Avengers, whose footnote in history is that they were the opening act at the last Sex Pistols show. I'm willing to believe, on this evidence, that the Avengers were one of the good punk bands, but for me the most notable thing is how, twenty years on, most of these songs sound at once predictably time-locked, three-chord guitar sprints over breakneck drumming with Penelope yelling defiantly and unsteadily over the top, and yet also, modulo some lyrical naïveté (notably "White Nigger"), as eminently plausible as if they were new. Either we haven't made that much new progress in the last twenty years, or else punk wasn't as much of a departure as it seemed, or else punk's innovations have been incorporated into our culture so thoroughly that we hardly recognize them any more, or else the past has been cannibalized so assiduously that we've collapsed the distinction between past and present, replacing history with genre. The most telling pieces of evidence for all these ideas are the three new recordings, done in 1998 with original guitarist Greg Ingraham, but the same rhythm section (Joel Reader and Danny Sullivan) as on most of Tongue. You can spot them pretty easily by the difference in sound quality, but if you didn't know they were new, I doubt you'd suspect it from listening. The blistering, timelessly uncomplicated "The End of the World", in particular, could be one of the best rock songs of any year you think needs another one.
Harris/Ronstadt/Parton: Trio II
It's a pretty unsettling leap from all this anger and resistance to Trio II, Emmylou Harris, Linda Ronstadt and Dolly Parton's second unapologetically anachronistic album of reverent country sentiment. It's an unsettling leap from anywhere in my life, at the moment, actually, enough of a leap that I feel faintly nauseous, listening to this record, as if I can't make my mind slow down to the music's pace, and the skew in emotional tempos is being absorbed by my semicircular canals. The effect is especially severe when I play this disc at work, where we're frantically trying to finish up development of our fourth version of our software in less than two years, with the non-engineering parts of the company already crouched in next-relay-runner positions. The software industry is very good at exploring new ideas, I've found, but not so adept at realistic planning or disciplined completion, and although I never forget that my previous company spent four years and never quite got to version one, I still don't enjoy the sensation that if our software were an aircraft we'd be clinging to the fuselage trying to bolt on what we think are the wings while the plane is already accelerating down the runway. We'll probably get them on before the tarmac runs out, just like we did the other three times, but the exercise is a lot more stressful than there's any good reason for it to be. There aren't many good reasons for the rest of my life to feel stressful, either, but it does. I don't sleep enough, I take in more books and records than I can really deal with, I've now been single for almost as long as my extended last relationship lasted, I spend the weekends getting yelled at about offside calls, and there's a planter full of obtrusively dead ivy in my kitchen window that I ought to put some flowers in, except every time I have a moment and head out to contemplate it I trip over a pile of mud-encrusted soccer gear from last weekend in my front hallway that I haven't managed to find fifteen minutes to clean yet. Am I living my life correctly? I can't tell, and I worry about it.
Trio II is not an album for worrying. The songs, as old as the Carter sisters' "Lover's Return" or as new as Harley Allen's "High Sierra", Jennifer Kimball and Tom Kimmel's "The Blue Train" and Randy Newman's misapostrophed "Feel's Like Home", nominally embody various emotions, but the point of this record is hearing Emmylou's ghostly sighs, Linda's silky lilt and Dolly's twang combine, as complementary a set of human voices as any I know, and listening to it all my anxiety seems splendidly misplaced. I should find a place to sit down, a porch or a hammock or a creek bank or something, and look around me. I should stop cataloging the questions I don't know the answers to and take a moment to breathe in the answers to all the questions I never need to ask. Forget about all the indie bands I've never heard, and the singers whose torments I can't alleviate, and the forgotten geniuses I can't rescue, and just listen to some of the world's best professional makers of beauty practicing their exquisite art. If these songs are so much calmer than my life, and yet so steeped in love and awe, what is it I think they lack that my usual thrashing is supposed to supply? I don't know. But there's a stack of CDs beside my keyboard that I haven't even listened to yet, so maybe one of them will tell me.