You Are Not of the Great Dead Sea of Bodies
252 · 25 November 99
Emm Gryner: Science Fair
One chance, usually perfunctory, and then you're sent back home. I thought Emm Gryner's major-label debut, Public, was as perfect an example of 1998 production art as the year allowed, and "Summerlong", in particular, was a heartbreakingly flawless pop song, but either everybody else disagreed, or else, more likely, they never got to decide. Or maybe it was Emm's fault, for doing things in the wrong order, for neglecting the requisite stint as a British soap-opera actress before beginning her music career, for spending all that time learning to operate instruments when she should have been fronting a grunge band, or getting punched in the throat by Courtney Love. Whichever, one album was all she got from Mercury before mergers swallowed her place on their roster. Warne Livesey, London studios, expensive session players, they're all gone. This time, back on her own label (Dead Daisy Records, invented for her pre-Public debut The Original Leapyear), she can't even afford for the package art to be in color. Eleven songs, all eight-track demos, self-recorded over a couple Spring weeks, that's all her follow-up consists of. Imminent celebrity, and then complete isolation. State of the art, and then borrowed pianos. It's the familiar story-arc of defeat, or at least tragedy, and however wildly we applaud the small victories at the end, like the ex-quarterback who gets hired as an assistant coach by his old high school just in time for the state championship, we know that by the rules of the form, this is a consolation prize. The trophy in his hand, or the plume of water spraying off the test track as a car-commercial Hyundai fishtails in slow motion, are icons of diminished expectations, ways to intimate that real, mundane lives can be filled with adrenaline, like the marquee lives of idols, if you can pretend to ignore the scale. The suggestion, of course, is corrupt. Real lives aren't ennobled by imitating decadence in miniature, but by recognizing that the hovering Grails in commercials are worthless, whether they're illusory or not. A high-school football coach who lives for the trophy will neglect (and mis-perform) his real job as a disciplinarian and role model. If your Hyundai ever skids like that, you're probably about to crash it. Your session musicians may be excellent, but they aren't you. How did this simple truth become clouded, in music? We look down on ghost-written novels, and we don't even have a term for painters who hire other professionals to carry out their brushstrokes, yet the mercenary union owns popular music. Christina Aguilera's three-minute lip-sync medley during halftime of the MLS Cup was in a way the definitive mainstream pop spectacle. Her headset had a microphone on it, to preserve the thinnest possible fiction that she was actually singing, but instead of a band, she just had dancers on the stage with her. Who made the music she was squirming to? Nobody knows, nobody cares. Arguably her "performance" had less to do with her singing than with her bare stomach, anyway (exposed despite the potential late-November Foxboro chill, but then covered, comically, by a superfluous parka, as if she hadn't noticed that the New England weather chose to cooperate with soccer for once). And on TV, maybe it worked, but in person the stomach was too far away to inspire much awe, and the dance-routine, without hyperkinetic post-production to animate it, looked all too human, especially as the portable stage shifted back and forth, unsteadily, in sympathy with the dancers' lurches. Later, during the Cup-presentation ceremony, one edge of it collapsed, spilling a couple United players back onto the field. Indignation surfaced one event too late.
And among the inspiring principles that Science Fair demonstrates, to me, is the essential irony of all this fantastically expensive misdirection in music: It's unnecessary. Emm produced, recorded and played most of this album herself, in a rented cabin and her own bedroom, and I think it sounds better than Public. "Serenade" is only a pair of acoustic guitars, a few piano notes and Emm's calm voice, and afterwards I couldn't have told you that Steve Vai and a children's choir hadn't joined in by the end. Kevin Fox plays cello on "Stereochrome", but the drum-machine loop is just a muted kick pulse, and the guitars and quiet shaker rustle are only there to provide background texture behind Emm's soaring chorus harmony. The handclaps on "Southern Dreamer" are endearingly unexaggerated, the sound of two or three people clapping instead of a thousand, and the whole song, gentle and warm, would fit right in on Sarah McLachlan's Freedom Sessions. "Julia", with Fox's other cello part, is otherwise a yearning piano ballad, somewhere between Tori's "1000 Oceans" and Beth Nielsen Chapman's "Emily". "Revenge" is a little more ambitious, with a brittle drum loop that reminds me of David Gray's The White Ladder, sinuous piano, one of the album's rare bass-guitar lines and a few tentative touches of studio manipulation, but Emm's voice, which mixes Sarah's grace with faint traces of Liz Phair's candor, Cyndi Lauper's cheer and Kylie Minogue's pixie allure, is still the song's reason to exist. There are a few words in the dead-pan mid-tempo rock song "Good Riddance" on which she even sounds like Björk, but Stephen McGrath plays drums like deviations from the beat cost extra, Emm's keyboards swell and sigh with boundless affection but harmonic restraint, the two of her in the refrains sing gleaming chords, and the result ends up somewhere between the ebullience of Scarlet or Roxette and the self-contained aplomb of Ron Sexsmith or Patty Larkin. "Stardeep" is just piano, acoustic guitar and voice again, and the string crescendos it surely would have had, on Public, are intelligence-insulting, even in absentia. "Boy Races", with low bass hum, intertwined vocals and alternately sketchy and rumbling drums, could be a rough draft for something from Paula Cole's This Fire. The spare piano cover of Paul Weller's "You Do Something to Me" sounds almost more like Cole Porter's. "Disco Lights", the understated slashing electric guitar notwithstanding, could be Prefab Sprout or Grace Pool, or perhaps both. And "Closure", the somber finale, might sound like Sarah McLachlan if Emm's doubled vocals, one in each speaker, weren't recorded with such unflinching detail, half Sinéad O'Connor and half Suzanne Vega.
None of which quite explains why I find this album so inexorably mesmerizing. Part of it must be Emm's voice, which works far better than most, it seems to me, as its own accompaniment (an effect also responsible, I assume, for her late-summer stint as backing vocalist for David Bowie), and which falls in a range coincidentally conducive to me singing along an octave down. Part of it is definitely her lyrics, which translate romantic truisms into a strange argot filled with private references, but still emotionally intelligible. But mainly, just as with Public, I am paralyzed in Science Fair's streetlight because I hear in it echoes of so many other moments that suddenly seem, now that I've heard this, like they weren't quite perfect, after all. Emm doesn't replace Julia Darling, Grace Pool, Aimee Mann, Shona Laing, Paula Cole, Tasmin Archer, Astrid, Natalie Imbruglia, Marry Me Jane, the Kennedys or Tara MacLean, but there is a soul all their songs hint at, and share, that Emm allows to consume her, a grand, selfless, pure melodic impulse that none of the rest of them give in to as fully. I think I had the same feeling, listening to Public, but mischaracterized it, thinking the commonality was mainstream production, but in retrospect it seems like I ought to have known better. If production were all it took, then eight out of ten Britney Spears' songs would have the poignancy of Cyndi Lauper's "Fearless", the Spice Girls would sound like the Kletters, and 'N Sync would have made me forget Richard Shindell. Big production is an obstacle to making art on a human scale; it's not the unblemished surfaces of these songs I'm reacting to, it's the flaws, whether they're obvious or nearly indistinguishable, that betray the person behind the machines. In that light, I'm not sure whether Public or Science Fair is a bigger triumph, whether Emm's ability to insinuate her personality into a mainstream production isn't actually more impressive than the resilience evidenced by this recovery. But unless you really believe that Mt. Rushmore is the defining masterpiece of portraiture, conflating effort and inspiration is a seductive fallacy. This is easy for me to say, of course, since I have a day-job, but I believe it's the artist's responsibility to understand when the logistics of their medium are interfering with their art. The right question, money aside, isn't "Can I impress my identity on this unwieldy process?", it's "In what environment are my inspirations most naturally expressed?" Mt. Rushmore is an evocative artifact, and a dangerously revealing example of the garish collective American aesthetic sense, but it isn't what I mean when I say "art". I mean individual people, not work crews; improvisation, not blueprints; expression, not engineering. I mean Emm, in some cabin in the Canadian woods, singing "You're forgettable, like 1993" into an old microphone and me knowing, despite every reason I have for remembering that year, exactly how she feels.
Chantal Kreviazuk: Colour Moving and Still
But then, just as I'm working myself into a judgmental fury, I remember three of the reasons why a simplistic equation of individual presence with artistic worth isn't as productive as I might have been about to think. First, it's perfectly possible to have an enormous degree of individual control despite the physical involvement of a lot of people. Peter Greenaway and Kevin Smith films are no less unmistakably theirs for the length of their credits. Second, it's insane to claim, on the one hand, that art is about communication, and then insist, on the other, that it has to be created in isolation. Glen Ballard, and Glen and Alanis' creative synergy, are inextricable components of Alanis' Jagged Little Pill and Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie; Eric Bazilian and Rob Hyman's collaborative dynamics with Cyndi Lauper and Patty Smyth are significant factors in my love for those records; it's hard to argue that Veruca Salt were on their way towards Eight Arms to Hold You without Bob Rock's intervention. And third, often you simply can't tell. I liked Public. I liked it when it was all I knew of Emm, and I still liked it after I heard The Original Leapyear, so Science Fair is no sudden revelation. I still like Public, for that matter. And I liked Chantal Kreviazuk's plainly mainstream debut, Under These Rocks and Stones, and I like her second album, Colour Moving and Still, even more, despite the fact that it doesn't appreciably alter the formula. Maybe, locked in a cabin with an eight-track for two weeks, Chantal would make a record that sounds just like this, and maybe she'd make one that consists of three twenty-five minute ambient polkas built entirely out of belching samples. I don't know. She wrote seven of these songs herself and co-wrote the other three (two with Raine Maida of Our Lady Peace), and plays piano and organ on them in addition to singing, so you don't have to be outrageously charitable to assume that she had a lot to do with how the record sounds, but then again producer Jay Joyce is credited with enough instruments to explain most of the noises, so maybe she didn't. Not only is the question unanswerable without resorting to (shudder) journalism, but because it can't be answered by inspecting the artwork, on one level it has to be irrelevant. If we can't tell whether these songs are individual catharsis or calculated commerce by listening to them, then we're asking a meaningless question. Either we find things to like, or we don't.
I find things to like. "Blue", the opener, is airy and expansive, like an evasive Radiohead dirge humanized by Chantal's piano and her arresting vocal oscillation between soft, folk-ish chirp and stentorian, Celine-Dion-esque wail. The brittle, sly "Dear Life", with its lithe, syncopated chorus, wouldn't be out of place on Abra Moore's Strangest Places. "Until We Die" is a slow waltz with Sarah McLachlan-style brushed drums and breathy backing vocals, but Chantal's voice hasn't Sarah's ethereal reserve, and so the song retains a faintly Joni Mitchell-like immediacy that Pierre Marchand would have airbrushed out. Chantal's lower registers, on the verses of "Souls", remind me pleasantly of Patty Smyth and Shona Laing, but the whirling, demonstrative choruses are closer to a synthesis of Sinéad O'Connor and Enya. "Before You", rattling, twangy and spare, is the sturdy rock song Amy Rigby and Nanci Griffith probably won't make, complete with twinges of Cyndi Lauper and Maria McKee. "M" is a little too smoky and becalmed for my tastes, but "Soul Searching" whips from crackly techno-ethnic muttering to uncluttered folk-pop choruses like outtakes from when Sara Hickman auditioned for Shirley Manson's slot in Garbage. "Far Away" makes serpentine Eastern flutter and spangled Western grace-notes sound like variations on the same traditional impulse. The first half of "Eve" is about as good as job as anybody but Tori has done of writing a Little Earthquakes b-side, although by the end Chantal is definitely drifting towards Paula Cole. And "Little Things", the last of the album's non-welcome-overstaying ten tracks, splices a scratchy vocal sample (which sounds very much like the one from Marine Research's "Parallel Horizontal" played at double speed) onto an elegant mid-tempo anthem with clear Adult Alternative potential, perhaps a little rougher than Beth Nielsen Chapman or Shawn Colvin, but well within any tolerance that admits Abra Moore and Melissa Etheridge. I could be enjoying this album for its potential, savoring the idea that Chantal will one day leave Joyce and the others behind and make a simple, bracing solo record, but that's not what listening feels like. It feels like I'm happy now. These songs don't chart much new territory, but they fill in little blank spots in some of my favorite maps, supplying missing details of the routes from Jewel to the Corrs, or Sarah Slean to Clannad, or Stina Nordenstam to Alanis. Yes, I could temper my enthusiasm, waiting for her to transcend this, but pushing away beauty is no life. The more likely a song is to be superseded, the more imperative it is that you learn to love it now, while you can.
Bandits: Bandits (soundtrack)
And the fourth complication interfering with this laudable (or smug, depending on your perspective) scheme to base all evaluations of art on the honesty and directness with which it was fabricated is that even honesty doesn't always matter. Your nerves have as much to do with how you understand art as the artist's intentions do, and every once in a while, despite your best attempts to intellectualize your senses, a song made with no good reason will seem to pull you close and speak an eternal truth into your ear, a truth that you know, somehow, is passing through its body without being absorbed, the song a conduit for an insight it is itself immune to. And so, at the end of Bandits, a 1997 German film in the understaffed genre of fugitive-all-girl-rock-band pursuit thrillers, long past the point where my irritation with its clichéd manipulations has begun interfering with my vision, after the motley band of the title (butch, erratic singer/guitarist; pretty, naïve singer/bassist; older, maternal, possibly-insane keyboardist; diffident, ambitious and ultimately nihilistic drummer) has run through a chaotic (but self-written, at least partially self-performed, and opportunistically sung in English despite the movie otherwise being in German) repertoire ranging from glib jangle-pop to manic, distorted thrash, via a surging cover of "All Along the Watchtower" and a drunken massacre of the German traditional song "Wenn ich ein Vöglein wär", all of which may be found on the over-generous seventeen-song soundtrack, the band, minutes from eluding the authorities for good, opt to stage an impromptu one-song concert on the roof of an abandoned building conveniently located next to their escape port. Time, taste and information-flow collapse in standard movie fashion, as the population of the city flocks to the streets below them and the police converge, all within the first half of the song, leaving the second half for the SWAT team's clumsy assault on the building, the musicians' improbable forty-foot stage dives, a photogenic cross-tarmac sprint whose presence in the trailer is mostly why I went to see the movie in the first place, and an idiotic concluding over-reaction that unwisely attempts to cross Emilio Estevez's Wisdom and Robert Heinlein's I Will Fear No Evil. The whole thing is baldly inane, relying on the mass-media-Bonnie-and-Clyde phenomenon, familiar to pursuit movies but never seen in life, in which everybody but the designated antagonists become ardent supporters of the fugitives. Somehow along the way a slimy, cocaine-addled record executive has turned their non-demo-sounding demo-tape into a commercial CD as well, allowing the producers to line the public thoroughfares with self-referential posters for, essentially, the movie's soundtrack.
But the song they play, there on the roof, as their past and future close in around them, born of a movie's worth of what I consider artistic dishonesty, is nonetheless magnificent. Martial, atmospheric drums crash through the whole thing, only settling into a backbeat for the haunting choruses. The guitar and bass are echoey, textural, Edge-like, totally out of character with the band in the movie. The gauzy keyboard parts are undeterred by the fact that the band's keyboardist bailed out about twenty minutes earlier. Katja Reimann and Nicolette Krebitz sing backup behind Jasmin Tabatabai's lead (although on screen Krebitz is the only one who reliably remembers to stand in front of a microphone at the right times, and I don't think Reimann's drum kit is even equipped with one), and after all the garage-punk (actually, in this case, chapel-punk) bluster that preceded it, "Catch Me" is a lot like Patty Smyth backed up by The Call, and could easily have been the exit music for one of John Hughes' high-school movies if the timing had been different. This movie hasn't earned it, but the song explains why it tried, explains the humane justification for all the pre-fab tropes, provides the reason we might be willing to suspend our disbelief. We wish the scene could happen. At least, I certainly do. It instantly becomes one of my two favorite movie-rock moments, and the other one, Renée Zellweger and Coyote Shivers' duet at the end of Empire Records, is a rooftop performance too. I want desperately to be momentarily convinced that a city is small enough that a single block can hold its population when unity is required, cohesive enough that one song can be unity's agent. "Don't forget to catch me", they sing, a literal message to the crowd below, but I empathize with the plea as metaphor. Maybe loving music this much is nihilistic, after all. I want this rapture not to end. I want to leap into the fabric of this song and never return to earth. Music I love thoughtfully, I love because it illustrates something true about somebody's life, sometimes mine; songs I love instinctively, involuntarily, like this, are escape, resolution, salvation. "I heard you drove a silvery sports car / Upon the empty streets last night". "I had a friend from over the harbor. / They said he stayed with a neighborhood girl". What do these things have to do with me? "Hold on princess, don't you think that it's time? / On this platform with the drizzle in my eye?" Since when is "Princess" a term of endearment, and in the film it isn't even raining. But no, never mind, that's not my answer. My mind resists, but ask me again. "Hold on princess, don't you think that it's time?" Yes, of course I do. Only the villain can resist the spell. Jump. We will jump together. Ask me again. Forty feet to fall, for you, and I'm standing on flat ground, but neither matters. At the instant we jump, we are going to rewrite the universe. Gravity will be dispelled, and six-minute songs will last as many lifetimes as we decide we need. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I know this is not what I want, but ask me again. The crowd below is not an infinite welcoming ocean. This isn't how I want to face my mortality, pretending that it doesn't exist. Playing on a rooftop isn't the only thing I still wanted to accomplish. But ask me again. There's only one answer. Start the drums, hand me a guitar, and ask me again. You know what I'll say.