Left in This Grown-Up World
230 · 24 June 99
Geri Halliwell: Schizophonic
Beside the cash register at Newbury Comics, the music store where most of my so-far-tiny share of the internet fortune ends up, there sits a small, aging cardboard display-box of Spice Girls Bubblegum. What exact relationship is meant to be implied between the Spice Girls, whose name and group picture adorn the box, and the bubblegum contained therein, I've never been exactly sure, and judging by the facility with which the contents resist being purchased, I'm guessing nobody else has any good theories, either. Once, when I was very young, I took briefly to buying bubblegum into order to acquire Star Trek: The Motion Picture trading cards (a hobby that died a prompt and ignominious death once my friends and I realized that all the pictures on the trading cards could also be found in the substantially cheaper photonovel), but I don't think, even then, it ever occurred to me to put the stuff in my mouth. As far as I can tell, when you buy a bite-size piece of Spice Girls Bubblegum, you get only bubblegum and a small amount of litter. If it is really the litter you're after, asking for a receipt will double your haul. Whatever the gum's purpose, ambitions or fate, however, the box has a garish, low-res picture of the Girls, and I spend a considerable amount of time standing at the Newbury Comics cash register, so I have grown involuntarily familiar with this particular tableaux from the Spice Girls adventure. The only thing vaguely notable about it is that Victoria is wearing a skirt slit literally (and I note here that I reserve a special corner of Hell for people who use the word "literally" metaphorically) up to her waist. Between the poor quality of reproduction, the context-less pink background upon which the group is set and the image's unclear mission, though, it seems to me that the Girls look even more surreally archetypal than usual. I slip into an idiotic, but also obscurely charming, reverie in which they represent somebody's idea of the spectrum of feminine possibility. And this leads, in turn, since the picture is old enough to have five of them in it, to a short meditation on the meaning of Ginger's departure. Actually it leads towards a meditation on the meaning of Ginger's departure, but my progress down that path is interrupted when I recall that I never, even after seeing Spice World twice, actually understood Ginger's role while she still had one, which ought to be a necessary grounding for understanding what it means that she left. In most of the videos she just seems like the one with the clothes sense of a transsexual wrestler, which is striking, but not very iconic; the movie experiments with the disconcerting notion that she's the "smart" one, although the inanity of there being a Smart Spice, like there being a Cuddly Dalek or a Teletubby with a black belt, is tempered by the fact that "smart", Spice Girls style, consists primarily of interjecting chirpy encyclopedia quotations about manta rays. The other four girls got nicknames with substance (albeit, in Scary's case, an uneasy undercurrent of racism), while Ginger had to subsist on her hair color. Add the burden of the nude pictures taken when she was younger, press carping about how much older she was than the rest of them, and the nagging fear that once the Pepsi turned flat we'd be left with the one who can sing, the one who can rap, the glamorous one with the trophy husband, the new Goldie Hawn and the other one, and it's pretty unsurprising that Geri was the one to break ranks.
The phrase "solo career" was seldom uttered through anything but a hysterical, condescending smirk, and a lifetime of low-grade infomercials seemed to stretch out in front of Geri, on the bearskin rug of her future, beckoning lasciviously. Instead of vanishing, though, she checked herself into whatever cousin of the Betty Ford clinic it is that treats makeup over-application, and after emerging landed a job that ought now to feature in the OED's explication of the nuances of "sinecure", but which is way cooler than how you or I spend our days. And now, to complete her defiance of the expected trajectory, and fill a rather yawning post-Spice World void otherwise occupied only by Victoria's sonograms, there's this solo record. The Spice Girls' commercial power would be difficult to challenge, of course, but pop history has constructed few more enticing artistic scenarios than this one. Clean, poised and dignified, Geri could play off her history in at least three compelling directions, taking the music itself more seriously, appealing to the largely unexploited demographic for whom the Spice Girls were always too brash and infantile, or exploring the contrast between graceful, self-contained individuality and a blaring five-headed cartoon. Even a standard-issue, middle-of-the-road pop record, like Natalie Imbruglia's, would have been a resounding triumph, given the odds, and if Geri could come through with something on the order of Alanis Morissette or Jewel or Tori Amos, even if only for a song or two, something in which a decisive, distinctive musical personality could be discerned, something that touched the darker fears lurking under everybody's sparkly resilience, this could have ended up on my short list of popular culture's most astonishing media crossovers. I was poised to accept Geri into my heart, asking for only the slimmest excuse.
So, is the record great? No, sadly, it isn't. I may not give up on Geri yet, but these songs aren't why. Artistic differences must not have had anything to do with Geri's departure, as this album delivers ten songs with precisely the same generic, studio-extruded disposability as the Spice Girls'. The title implies a wild profusion of styles, especially given Geri's faintly Björk-like expression on the cover and the title's familial resemblance to Björk's Homogenic, but Geri's production team executes every stray impulse with such clunky, unvarying, drably professional obliviousness that they all come out with the cultural authenticity of franchise fast food, and while it is technically possible to survive on a diet of cracker-crust pizza, "spicy" chicken "strips", double-decker super tacos and mayonnaise-drenched four-dollar "lobster" sandwiches, nobody who cares about food would choose to live that way. On the other hand, however, the world consumes mountains of lifeless, soul-clogging fast food with no evident reluctance, and my self-righteous conviction that the Spice Girls make music for people who don't really like music very much hasn't retarded their sales detectably. I see no reason why Geri shouldn't do just as well. The clattering lead single, "Look at Me", is glossy and insidious, like robot big-band lounge strut for a fashion show at the nearest Ramada Inn to the Jetsons. "Lift Me Up" is swooning and effervescent, like a cross between Everything but the Girl and Peaches & Herb. "Walkaway" invokes Madonna and Enya with equal reverence, and Geri's voice, frequently obscured under layers of well-intentioned backing vocals and processing, is mostly left alone for the verses, and sounds nice. "Mi Chico Latino" is frankly embarrassing, but Geri does seem to be making a sincere effort, so maybe Ricky Martin and Jennifer Lopez aren't a foregone conclusion after all. If I thought the Spice Girls wrote their own songs, I'd have assumed the sultry "Goodnight Kiss" is one of Geri's she brought with her, as the crisply-separated verses seem tailor-made for taking turns at lead, the pace is just right for one of those synchronized dance routines slow enough to do in outrageous platform shoes, and the chorus sounds like every Spice Girls ballad, but not any one in particular. "Bag It Up" is unrepentant disco. I actually quite like "Sometime", which surges from an atmospheric gospel-choir intro to bounding, Kylie Minogue-ish choruses, and again lets Geri sound like herself for a few little moments; I don't mind a couple double-decker super tacos every once in a while, for that matter. The whining sitars and mock-Eastern vocal asides in "Let Me Love You" are probably ill-advised, but the drum loops are unforced, there's some cheerful guitar bluster, and the chorus, which could easily have been overblown and blaring, doesn't seem to me like either. "Someone's Watching Over Me" is a bland Spice Girls retread, any way I look at it, and "You're in a Bubble", the edgy funk finale, makes me cringe violently, but there are a few seconds, at the beginning of the last track, of Geri just laughing and admonishing everybody, including herself, not to take anything too seriously, and if I hit Stop quickly enough, so the undistinguished music doesn't get a chance to spoil the instant, I feel warmed by a ray of hope. In the silence, I go back and read the lyrics to "Look at Me". The song is all about image, but it hints that she's finding out how to lift the image off, like a shell, and leave it sitting in the window in an elegant pose, while she goes off to do something more rewarding. "I can even do reality", she insists, like reality is just another costume, and she knows how to wear costumes. She might be right. There is a spirit hiding in here somewhere, I'm pretty certain. I don't believe this is the way it wants to express itself, but maybe Geri simply doesn't know any other ones. If she keeps at her job, though, traveling the world and smiling at people, surely one day somebody whose life she has brightened will take her aside and tell her, in whatever language they have handy, that before you can expect other people to really listen to you, you have to learn to hear yourself.
Julia Darling: figure 8
Schizophonic's missed opportunities seem especially tragic, to me, when I segue straight from the coy cacophony of "You're in a Bubble" to my favorite song on twenty-two-year-old New Zealand expatriate Julia Darling's debut album, the roaring, heartfelt "Bulletproof Belief". See, Geri, writing honest, personal songs is easier than writing glib corporate pop. Yes, of course it helps if you can get Tony Berg to make your album sound like one of Michael Penn's, and Patrick Warren to add spooky chamberlain murmurs, and Jon Brion to play guitar on it, but I bet they would if you asked them, and anyway, under the sonic glitter they decorated this song of Julia's with is a structure as basic as they come. The twangy, expansive guitar hook churns like Bowie and Queen's "Under Pressure" played to sound like Big Country's "One Great Thing", the verse/chorus oscillation abides by quiet/loud and low/high templates that gird every odd-numbered rock anthem from "Hot Blooded" to "Smells Like Teen Spirit", and an unpretentious poem about not relying on other people to chart your paths turns, at least for me, on the candid uncertainty of ending "There is no divine intervention here, / Just a girl with bulletproof belief" with "belief", not "beliefs", because half the point is that her faith holds even when she doesn't know what it's built on. Julia's voice is hardly spectacular, but she allows a little vulnerability to show through in the verses, and then lets it just start to fray in the choruses. If you overlook the clever arrangement touches, about eighty percent of the song is built on repetitions of a single simple measure of music. I can't fathom, as I take this song apart and see how few pieces it involves, why I haven't written a hundred of them myself.
Most of the others on figure 8 aren't that much more complicated, either, but almost every one sounds, to me, like Julia didn't let them out of her sight from the moment the first word occurred to her until they were safe on the master tape. Some of them walk well-worn terrain, perhaps, but we all grow up in other people's towns, and can't start building our own until we figure out where the ones we're born into end. The cathartic "Overloading God" sweeps from oblique acoustic-guitar strumming to dense, tangled harmonies, as close to Sarah McLachlan as Michael Penn. "My Inanimate Friend" is brittle and buoyant, somewhere between Alanis, Abra Moore and Lisa Germano, or like Natalie Imbruglia's "Torn" with more humility. The hesitant "Grace" reminds me of Jewel's first few songs, but Julia's singing is deliberately underplayed, and the overall effect is thus tenser than Jewel's, less wise but perhaps less easily satisfied. "Bury You"'s spiky melody is part Jewel, part Throwing Muses. "26/23", a macabre ode to sibling rivalry, reminds me of both Dana & Karen Kletter and Rasputina. A low digeridu moan lends a trace of Julia's heritage to the haunted march "Crinolines and Waltzing", a song that otherwise seems more like Peter Gabriel and Paula Cole. "Soak Me" careens through moods and melodic twists with Sinéad O'Connor's arresting aplomb and Alanis' knack for imposing meter on the words as she goes. "You" bears the least resemblance to what I presume were its acoustic origins, industrial drum loops crashing under slabs of synth strings. The calmer "Closer Look" leans towards Ani DiFranco one moment, towards the previous folk generation another. And "Lady Blue", the hidden twelfth track, just Julia and a guitar for once, presents an intriguing alternate-history vision of how this album might have turned out if Julia had made it without so much help. She's less Meredith Brooks in this other universe, more Dar Williams, the album less Jagged Little Pill and more Milla's The Divine Comedy. I miss Berg's intricate production, viscerally, but I suspect this alternate Julia is truer to herself, and I wonder whether we'll look back on this record as a failure of nerve, like a girl from the other side of the planet came to New York and was so taken with the place that she tried to tell us a story that only she didn't already know by heart, instead of the ones she'd brought with her, that we've never heard. If you put people in plush studios and surround them with blinking lights, the albums will tend to be plush and blinking, too. Sometimes that's craftsmanship, sometimes it's imperialism.
Rachael Sage: Smashing the Serene
Of course, one of the great lurking ironies is that you might find your true voice, only to discover that it sounds a lot like somebody else's, or like several somebody elses'. But I have room for two or three of almost anything, and no shortage of openings for interesting syntheses, so when Rachael Sage's Smashing the Serene opens with the clicking acoustic guitar, skittering and impish vocals, burbling bass, sharp drums and fluttering wordplay of "Sistersong", all of which sound uncannily like Ani DiFranco, I don't panic. True, I get through the first pass still basically thinking the two women sound exactly alike, but when I listen the second time I start noticing the things that don't remind me of Ani, as well as the ones that do, and begin to develop a more representative picture. Ani's musical world, however intimate, is also basically small, and the difference between Ani's core style and her experiments is usually explicit and clear. Rachael aspires to a wider palette, using DIY as a creed but not necessarily an aesthetic. She turns out to fill what, now that I've noticed it, seems like an important gap in my life, in between Ani and Melissa Ferrick, at the aggressive acoustic-folk end, and Paula Cole and Beth Nielsen Chapman, along the way towards, depending on the turns you take later, Tori and Alanis. In "Crack of Dawn" her voice keeps flipping from singing to speech and back, according to her fitful progress through the song's lyrics, and I'm struck by how subtle the difference is between a phrase that reminds me of Ani, clipped and bemused, and one that reminds me of Jane Siberry, aching and angelic. The sputtering guitar harmonics of "Bruises Without Blue" are an unmistakable Ani touch, but the song sinks into Lisa Germano-ish reticence, and then wheels up into wide-eyed Celtic pirouettes worthy of Spirit of the West or Clannad, both of which lie outside of Ani's customary range. "Cultivate"'s opening line, "I think I need to cultivate my anger", and the jazzy growl of the first few bars, could have been borrowed from Ani whole, but the easy folk sway of the middle of the song is more like Sara Hickman. The slow, chiming piano and percussion patter of "Ode to a Sailor", "Air We Share" and "My Eliza" strike some of Paula Cole's chords, but "Ode to a Sailor" flirts with both Cyndi Lauper squeak and Titanic soundtrack grandeur, "Air We Share" sounds, at some points, like Bruce Hornsby accompanying Kristeen Young, and "My Eliza" is closer to Melissa Ferrick's Massive Blur. The spare "Alive Before You" is a cross between Brenda Kahn, Milla and the Hill Street Blues theme. "Swallow This Phone" is a bleary, faded waltz I can almost hear Emmylou Harris covering already, although something would have to be done about the lurches in the middle of the chorus. "Lotus Flower", a rare love song that reads like someone managing to examine their feelings without filtering them through the usual gauze of cliché, combines twinkling, Tori Amos-esque piano with soaring, timpani-fueled refrains more in character for Jewel. The piano/cello duel on "Down My Spine" is part Tori, part Beth Nielsen Chapman, and there's a kink in the melody when I swear it's about to break into the "Oh oh!"s from "Video Killed the Radio Star". "Conversation" sounds like an Ani song with the guitar transposed to piano and a bizarre Latin clap track grafted on. And "Brave", the unexpectedly harrowing conclusion (a love song trying to decide if it's a break-up song, I think, a wrenching dilemma to watch a person grapple with), could be Cyndi and Jane singing over an accompaniment devised by Beth and Patti Larkin. If these scattered styles aren't ones you care about, you might not care about having them bound together like this, either, but then again you might reverse the equations and let other people's songs remind you of the balance and confidence in these. Or forget the equations, and just listen. I want to just listen, as these songs plainly deserve it, but I can't. Segues and juxtapositions are the way I understand music, perhaps the way I hear music, and I grab at pieces like this one, even if they could have stood on their own, because I know that the more other sounds I hear in any given record, the bigger the section of the puzzle it's going to complete.