Such Work to Stay Conscious
261 · 27 January 00
Alanis Morissette: MTV Unplugged
When we say that pop musicians "write" songs, of course we don't mean that we think they sit down with fountain pens and inkwells and rolls of stiff parchment staff paper and notate a score, the way people who've studied the subject in schools, or who've been dead for centuries, presumably would. You can get sheet music for pop hits, but you can also get movies of video games and novelizations of movies and comic books of novels and video games of comic books (in a recent survey of American high school students, almost 15% identified this process as the answer to "What is the Krebs Cycle?", just edging out "It's like a Nordic Track without the skis" (12%) and "Isn't that how elves bake crackers?" (9%)), so we must know that media transformations don't prove anything. All the same, we still cling to a deliberately simplistic mythology of the song-creation process, endorsed by the parade of serious-faced Behind the Music subjects explaining where their tour bus was when they "wrote" some particular song, in which all tunes are born as tentative acoustic-guitar improvisations, later embellished by studio technology to turn them into finished products, and then, even later, stripped back down to their rarely-glimpsed essences in an acoustic performance intended to assert the songwriterly discipline of someone who, usually, has given us ample reason to doubt them previously.
And sometimes that is how songs get composed, but often pop songs are less written than devised. I don't actually know how Jagged Little Pill came into being, but my guess would be that much of it was formed right in the studio, improvised on gadgets, directly into finished form. Or if there were "original" versions, I imagine them on the order of the demo of "Uninvited" on the "Thank U" single, a limping arpeggio like a science-fair experiment to prove that you can power a player-piano with thirty-five cents of Radio Shack wire and one raw potato, sort of. The album versions of Alanis' songs are the real versions. The songs do not have concealed souls waiting to be revealed by rearrangements, and so you can't make an unplugged album, in the usual sense, out of them. Switch off the circuit-breakers to Jagged Little Pill and you will get the sound of a very quiet room in which Alanis is singing very loudly. Which isn't necessarily a bad idea, but I wouldn't want to be in charge of marketing it.
Alanis knows all this. The name "MTV Unplugged" evokes a mood, and serves as fair warning that there will be no typhoons of electric-guitar feedback, but if it weren't such a convenient brand-name, this record might have had a title that reflected the real transformation worked on these songs, which isn't subtractive, it's additive. Songs born in the studio change, when they're exposed to sunlight and open air. If Jagged Little Pill and Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie followed Tori Amos' leads, using claustrophobia and self-assessment as incubators, then perhaps this record is Alanis' attempt to learn a parallel lesson from Sarah McLachlan, about how a studio recording can be the beginning of a song's evolution, not its culmination. In some of the early performances that I've seen footage from, Alanis seems caged, restless inside small spaces that she didn't build with the idea that she'd have to live inside them for months. When I saw her this summer, she seemed more patient, more aware that people who've grown attached to her songs, the way they were on the albums, may not need, nor even want, to hear them radically reinvented. We showed up, I think, to have our faith confirmed, to have her hold up this handful of unassuming little songs that have come to stand for a decade, and to whisper to her and to ourselves, at the top of our lungs, "Yes, exactly." And at one of those shows, after one of those whispered encouragements, Alanis must have realized that her job wasn't quite done. She gave us small songs, and we amplified them, and by pointing a microphone or two into the audience you could document that, but recording is not the same as understanding. To say "You're welcome" properly, she had to listen, and then play back to us not her songs, but our songs, the ones hers have become in our hearts. These songs aren't un-anythinged, they are peopled. The two guitarists, keyboard player, bassist, drummer, percussionist, two violinists, one violist and two cellists who surround her on this stage are not there to confer muso credibility, they are there as our proxies. People who don't understand Alanis' appeal often try to itemize the things about her albums that are flawed, or unremarkable, but I think in doing so they fundamentally misconstrue the relationship between her music and its fans. These records are not temples, they're not supposed to be perfect. I don't worship Alanis, I look at her and see myself. I watch her confront her fears like it's game-film from my own life. If I stand motionless in the face of her songs, I am paralyzed not by awe, but by swelling pride. Listen to what we're capable of.
"Listen to what we're capable of", however, isn't always an uplifting exhortation. I identified with Kurt Cobain, too, but in Kurt's case the particular power I hear is our ability to abandon all hope, not just to evade good fortune but to run it down and beat the crap out of it for having the temerity to wander, lost, into our neighborhood. Nirvana's MTV Unplugged album is the one thing, out of the entirety of musical history, that I most wish I could unmake. It is, to me, a recording of the voice of Death. And since I can't delete it, anything that helps me not believe it is precious. One of the other things people who don't understand Alanis don't understand is that her anger and Kurt's share a word only because English is woefully inadequate for dissent. Kurt's anger was loathing, much of it projected self-loathing, and a constant pressure; Alanis' anger arises from compassion and determination, and anybody who thinks it defines her must have stopped paying attention after "You Oughta Know". Kurt's self-loathing was no more sustainable for us than it was for him. Alanis' vitriol melts. "You Oughta Know" may have been the song that got people's attention, but the songs that sustained it were "Hand in My Pocket", "You Learn", "Ironic", "Head Over Feet", "All I Really Want", "Thank U", "Joining You" and "So Pure", not a measure of fury to be found among them. Jagged Little Pill and Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie were not angry albums, overall, and this unplugged record abandons even passing pretense.
So here's what our testament to ourselves sounds like. "You Learn" is impish and sinuous, its gentle acoustic guitar, piano and steady drums wrapped in the bass line's warm embrace. Where the album version howls, this one sighs and soars, "The fire trucks are coming up around the bend" an invitation to the worst, and a promise that we are ready for it. "Joining You" is elegant and organic, an angel of Hope with a sense of humor, like Patch Adams without the clown noses, and maybe I'm the only one who thinks of Alanis and Kurt as inextricably linked, but read this song as hers to him, and see if you understand why, when Alanis ends it with "Feel free to call me a little more often", I am suspended between tears, because for Kurt it's too late, and elation, because for the rest of us it isn't. "No Pressure Over Cappuccino", one of the three new songs in this set, brings in humming strings and some fluttering falsetto. "That I Would Be Good" is halting and resilient, and Alanis' flute solo at the end is inept, unafraid, unselfconscious and magnificent. "Head Over Feet", bouncy and gracious, reminds me of Sarah's acoustic remakes on The Freedom Sessions. "Princes Familiar", the second new song, is an odd set of pleas to the narrator's father, but the band plays it as straightforward mid-tempo rock, and I can imagine Dave Matthews joining in for a duet on an eventual album version. Where the studio version of "I Was Hoping" turns strident, this one substitutes murmuring cello and flamenco-ish guitar.
"Ironic" is a few beats slower than the original, but otherwise it seems to me like the song here least changed. Alanis has taken a lot of smug abuse for using "ironic" where she probably only meant "poetic", but she made the mistake while looking for a way to deny misfortune its hold on us, and the people criticizing her word-choice were only trying to belittle something bigger than themselves, so her stubborn refusal to stop playing it or change the words in any way has come to sound like an anthem of how much better it is to be flawed and kind than correct and mean. I'd probably have included "Unsent" instead of the similarly stream-of-conscious "Joining You" b-side "These R the Thoughts", if the track list had been up to me, but I'm always pleased to see a b-side get a turn on the front. I'm even more pleased by the set's one cover, a fond version of the Police's "King of Pain" with keyboardist Deron Johnson singing harmony. Police purists may wince when she switches "King of pain" to "Queen of pain" in some of the later choruses, but I don't care that much about the Police one way or the other, so to me it's just playful and charming. I'm fascinated to hear Alanis singing somebody else's song for once; I know my own voice changes when I sing a song I learned, instead of a song I wrote, something to do with the way we compare the feedback loop through our jaws with what we heard through our ears, but in Alanis' case, used to songs so heavily invested in her own emotions and doubts, she also sounds, for once, heartbreakingly relaxed, happy to spend a few minutes singing only for the joy of it.
Alanis would hardly leave out "You Oughta Know", but neither would it be the right note to end on, so she compromises by putting it second to last. The arrangement is mostly given over into the bows (and hands) of the string ensemble, but it's Alanis' voice, as usual, that I can't tear myself away from. I hear two stunning new details this time around, one small and one large, one that I managed to overlook despite hearing it at least a hundred times and one that she has only just added. The small one is how carefully Alanis picks through the word "eloquently", artfully conveying a shard of low self-confidence that belongs to the narrator, not the author. I would have said that Alanis never makes this literary distinction, but now I wonder what other examples I've missed. The large one is that after four years of performance this song has been cleansed. Where there used to be bitterness, there is now only a rueful nostalgia for old chaotic passions. Consumer culture, which has no memory, invites you to believe that you make progress by forgetting your past, but this is a heartening demonstration of how you can move forward by remembering it vividly, and slowly turning the person you were into a character you aren't any more. The only missed opportunity I really rue, on this album, is the same one I thought she missed in concert, which is that she fails to end with "Thank U". That would be too obvious, you might contend, but to me a significant part of Alanis' gift is not shying away from obvious truths. I wish she would end with "Thank U" because to me it would represent gratitude reverberating in the space between us, which is exactly the harmonic frequency I want for our relationship, for the relationship between Alanis and everybody who supports her. But then again, I think when I pause for reflection, in a way all this gratitude is premature. I hope it's very premature. I expect Alanis to keep making albums for decades, and since I'm only seven years older than she is, and life is fractionally easier than music, I expect to survive to hear them all. So what am I thanking her now for? The things we haven't accomplished dwarf the things we have. "Uninvited" is a much more appropriate half-stop. "I need a moment to deliberate", ends the concert. Alanis will take her moment to make the next record. I will take mine to finish being 32. When we next meet again, she'll be ready to tell me a few more stories about how I got this far, and I'll be ready to love the album she won't make until 2007.
Patty Larkin: À Gogo
If you want a true unplugged album, Patty Larkin's À Gogo is probably the best one I've heard in years, maybe since Mark Eitzel's Songs of Love Live. I've had a fitful struggle with Patty's studio albums. Some days it seems good and right to me that they're overdubbed and processed and produced, that she's a musician and the studio is all an instrument, and if I thought from the choirgirl hotel, and not Little Earthquakes, was the album of the decade, then surely I can't demand that Patty put away all her toys except one guitar. And then some other days I think "Well, part of your responsibility, as an artist, is to realize that Tori Amos is better than you." Patty makes graceful, well-proportioned, atmospheric studio albums, but so do a lot of people. The thing she can do that most of them cannot is sit down in front of you on a folding chair and bat you back and forth between astonishment and hysteria for a solid hour. Many people have good guitar-playing on their records, but not that many are as dazzling as Patty when their only safety net is the speed of sound across a room. Patty loses herself a little, inside the studio, and starts writing songs meant for somebody else, and then gamely tries to sing them; on stage she drops the affects and allows herself to be a sly folk-singer. If I had my way, she'd record two or three live albums every year. Her way, on the other hand, last produced a live album in 1990, and has only generated four studio albums since then: 1991's Tango is represented here only by the title track; 1993's Angels Running contributes "Banish Misfortune/Open Hand", "Do Not Disturb", "I Told Him That My Dog Wouldn't Run", "Booth of Glass", "Who Holds Your Hand" and "Good Thing"; Strangers World, from 1995, gets most of the rest of the space for "Don't", "Dear Diary", "Mary Magdalene" and "Me and That Train"; 1997's Perishable Fruit supplies "Wolf at the Door" and "The Book I'm Not Reading"; and the one stray addition is William Stevenson's "Don't Do It".
The first time through this album, like the first time through one of her concerts in my mind, the songs that stand out are the fast, funny ones. "Wolf at the Door" is clipped and sardonic, with jittery guitar in the style Ani DiFranco might not have learned from Patty, but could have. "Do Not Disturb" simmers with talky slide-blues acidity. "Don't" is a list-song not that different, in principle, from "Everybody's Free (To Wear Sunscreen)". "Who Holds Your Hand" gallops through Dylan-esque rhyme-schemes. "The Book I'm Not Reading" sounds like at least two guitarists and two singers. The road hymn "Me and That Train" sounds to me like the song Shawn Colvin has been trying to write for a decade.
Funny songs aren't really my preferred folk idiom, though. I like Christine Lavin's records, but not if I have to hear them more than twice, and although Cheryl Wheeler writes both funny songs and haunting ones, the gap between the two is so wide that I can't navigate her albums. Patty spans the continuum more effectively, it seems to me. "Banish Misfortune/Open Hand" is a short guitar aside, half-based on Richard Thompson's arrangement of an English folk melody. "Dear Diary" is practically a four-piece rock song wedged into one guitar. The hesitant missed-connection ballad "I Told Him That My Dog Wouldn't Run" is about two parts Richard Shindell, one part Abra Moore. "Booth of Glass" explains why Patty doesn't need to cover as many of Richard Thompson's own songs as most folk guitarists. "Mary Magdalene" is what I think Jewel might sound like if she grows up and makes another folk record. And the finale is the triumph, to me, a spare, serene version of "Good Thing", the song from which Angels Running's title comes. Cher covered this, embalming it in treacle, and Patty's own album version filled in its spaces with synth pads, processed percussion, bouzouki and assorted guitars, producer John Leventhal treating her more or less the same way he treated Shawn Colvin and Marc Cohn. But resequence history just a little, and let Leventhal produce Rosanne Cash's 10 Song Demo before Angels Running and he might have sensed what seems so obvious to me now, which is that Patty needed no help. This isn't supposed to be "Shotgun Down the Avalanche" or "Walking in Memphis", it's a quiet, personal song, and it should be performed quietly, by a person. The other parts on the album version are played with obtrusive discretion; if you really don't want to interfere, you don't say "I don't want to interfere" in a sultry growl, you shut up.
The Posies: Alive Before the Iceberg
I've managed to get almost all the way through January without discovering anything that I think should have been in my 1999 top-ten proper, but I did find this one record that would have joined Patty's on my best-live-album list if I'd heard it in time. I bet a Posies unplugged album, only Jon and Ken and a couple guitars, would be delightful, but that's not what this is. On the Posies' way into non-existence they let the Spanish label Houston Party record a battered July 1998 Barcelona appearance and eventually release it as this short, frayed live album. I have mixed feelings, in general, about chirpy pop groups who transform into arena-rock colossi or agit-punk anarchists when they get on a stage. It's way too easy, with an electric guitar slung over your shoulder and spotlights glaring in your eyes, to succumb to drunken, over-amped rock clichés. Sloan and Guided by Voices will be happy to demonstrate this for you. Few things offend me as efficiently as art with great potential that insists on mistaking itself for something lousy (which is why I become enraged whenever I bring up The Princess Bride, meaning the book, and somebody says "Dude, I love Billy Crystal!"). If I want to be bludgeoned, I'll go see a band that's good at bludgeoning. I don't want to see Marine Research setting up six-cab Marshall stacks, or Papas Fritas drummer Shivika Asthana spinning around in Tommy Lee's aerial drum-cage, or Rachel's performing in matching Evel Knievel jumpsuits.
The Posies, however, did make two albums, Frosting on the Beater and Amazing Disgrace, that could count as either fey pop or titanic rock, depending on whether you opt to focus on their meticulous attention to melody and harmony or the density of overdriven guitars, and this set (two songs from Frosting on the Beater, six from Amazing Disgrace, three from Success and one cover) includes nothing from Failure or Dear 23, the first two Posies records, so there wouldn't be much point in expecting any of it to sound like "Ironing Tuesdays" or "Suddenly Mary". The neat and unexpected trick they pull off, though, it seems to me, is making blaring rock guitars evoke the DIY charm of Failure, which is what drew me to them in the first place, by playing them through what sound like speaker cones that porcupines have been nesting in. If technical merit is high among your criteria for judging live albums, this is one you'll probably want to skip. Both singers sway in and out of tune as if they can't hear themselves very clearly. More than once Joe Skyward's bass line appears to temporarily drift into an abandoned key. At times drummer Brian Young seems to be in hot pursuit of several agile cockroaches escaping across his crash cymbals, a spectacle which also periodically distracts Jon and Ken from the guitar parts they're supposed to be playing. My overriding impression is that the band, knowing this was their last tour, were determined to do the Who one better by dismantling not just their instruments, but their entire repertoire. The first half of "Somehow Everything" is a relatively restrained start, but by the second half there's a squalling guitar solo, hoarse yelps in place of sweet harmony vocals and enough percussion clatter to elicit complaints from nearby construction sites. In "Please Return It" one of them must be singing with an electric massager strapped to their neck, as well as playing guitar with mittens on at least one hand. Where they found narwhals in Barcelona I can't imagine, that's plainly the sound of two getting garroted during "Dream All Day". "You're the Beautiful One" is mostly understated and calm, but the part that's supposed to sound like Simon & Garfunkel is closer to Starsky & Hutch. The guitar solo in "Start a Life" sounds uncannily like a playground taunt. "Precious Moments" comes gradually unglued, and "Grant Hart" is full-speed thrash. "Flavor of the Month" is kind of a different joke when it sounds like the flavor involves broken glass and kerosene. "Everybody Is a Fucking Liar" is faintly agitated, and I think one of the guitar parts in "Broken Record" is being played with the neck buried in drywall up to the sixth fret. "Throwaway" is merely fuzzy, but the fake-accent strangling of Cheap Trick's "Surrender", complete with an inane reggae digression in the middle, makes the original sound as disciplined as the Moody Blues.
By any rational standard of professionalism, this record is a total disaster. But I grew up with the thrilling idea that rock is dangerous, to itself if nothing else is available, and for me hearing a band this wholesome and precocious undergo self-immolation demonstrates the ragged glory of rock in a way that a sloppy or menacing performance from a band who are sloppy or menacing by nature could not. It's reassuring to be reminded how thin the partitions between pop and rock are, and by extension how thin the partitions between melancholy and fury. "There's an upside, / There has to be an upside", they shout in "Please Return It", desperation turning palpable. "Dream All Day" sounds like the misspent youth the Mamas and the Papas might have enjoyed if they'd been born in the early Seventies in some paved-over Southwestern tract suburb. "You're the Beautiful One" is out of control even at a walking pace. "It's only getting worse", warns and welcomes "Precious Moments", effectively re-proposing the time-honored rock compromise between burning and fading. "Grant Hart", an irritated punk homage on record, coalesces into a borderline punk classic in the thick club air. "Flavor of the Month" is less ironic in this noisy form, but more caustic. And the delirious, stomping version of "Surrender" is as vibrant a portrait as you're likely to find of kids getting to be, briefly, the exact rock stars they always dreamed about.