And Then Everyone Else Has to Fall in Line
272 · 13 April 00
Melissa Ferrick: Freedom
Reading Nick Hornby's High Fidelity was one of the most astonishing encounters with art I've ever had, almost close enough to seeing myself in somebody else's imagination to make me wonder whether that's where I belong, so I've been anticipating the movie with some unease. Knowing John Cusack was involved kept me from panic, initially ("See all movies with John Cusack in them" is far enough up my movie-rule list that it overrides "Do not see movies about hit-men with hearts of gold", for example, although not as far up as "Avoid all movies about ruthless prison-transferees hijacking their jet"), and while I suspect a lot of fans of the book yelped with horror when they found out that Cusack was transplanting such an quintessentially English story to Chicago, I quietly let out whatever breath I was still holding. A High Fidelity set in Chicago couldn't be the book I identified with so strongly, so the question of whether the movie would do the book justice need not even arise. I went to see the movie, when it finally arrived, expecting nothing more than a pleasant hour or two about love, music and self-identity. Sure enough, I liked it. I probably liked it enough that it'll make my top ten list, this year, although eight and a half months of second-thoughts and other films will have their say first. But in no way did this movie change my life. I don't think it ever could have, to be honest; so many of its insights were seared into my worldview from reading them that I can no longer appreciate them as anything but lines from the book. Hearing them spoken in a movie, to me, is somewhere between watching twelve-year-olds perform A Christmas Carol, listening to a good librarian reading Pooh to a rapt story-hour, and reciting entire Monty Python sketches with my best friends from high school. These are not stories, any more, or not just stories, they are celebrations of stories. I believe, watching Cusack play Rob, that he loved the book as much as I did, and we simply have different ways of explaining our reactions. I write about it and foist it on my friends, Cusack acts it out. His movie seems to me like as sincere and uncluttered a tribute to High Fidelity, the book, as I could have asked for. It doesn't reproduce every nuance, by any means, but it captures the story's tone (especially by reading so much of the original text into the camera) and spirit. The book and the movie are, and this is far rarer than it ought to be, about the same thing.
There were exactly three details in the movie that I frowned at. One was Championship Vinyl itself, which seemed a little too big and interesting, a little too much like a record store in a movie (Empire Records, say), instead of a forgotten North London hideaway. My mental model for the store has always been Vinyl Experience, on Hanway Street in London, which I know isn't North London, but then central London has always been my mental model of North London, as well. But OK, in America everything is bigger, so the store in the movie is probably correct in proportion. The second thing that bothered me was the fact that Dick's stammering music-geek exegesis of Green Day didn't mention the Buzzcocks. In real life, he would have mentioned the Buzzcocks. There are people alive who would not describe Green Day by reference to the Buzzcocks, but they haven't heard the Buzzcocks, and if they haven't heard the Buzzcocks they certainly haven't heard Stiff Little Fingers, and Dick isn't any of these sad people (he's other sad people). But OK, you could probably convince me that this was a music-geek in-joke. The scene in question isn't in the book, and it probably should have been, along with the scene where Rob announces that he's now going to sell five copies of The Three E.P.'s, by the Beta Band (I bought one, so four to go).
The only serious criticism I had was that Marie LaSalle was totally wrong. In the book, she is a fantasy figure, but it's a individual fantasy almost totally of Rob's own devising. "...he gets to go to bed with an American recording artist", he says, narrating his own good fortune to himself. He describes it as a sexual triumph, but it's much more about music than sex, or perhaps about expressing his love for music through sex, which isn't much different. Although they only spend one night together in the book, too, her role is much bigger, both before and after, and the specifics of her music (and that she is a musician, turning Rob's involvement into oblique participation in a process he usually only watches) more relevant to her part in Rob's struggles with himself. In the movie, she's just a glamorous dalliance. Too glamorous, in fact: the most bizarre detail, although perhaps this is another in-joke, is that Cusack left in the verbatim description of her, from the book, despite the fact that Lisa Bonet bears no conceivable resemblance to a plumper, post-Partridge Family Susan Dey. But after a day or two of thought I'm ready to concede that these sacrifices were probably necessary. The book's version of Rob and Marie's night together would never have worked on screen. It relies on the implied skew between Rob's own images of himself (hapless and unremarkable) and Marie (exotic and unattainable) and the "real" ones (Rob confused but basically decent and well-meaning, Marie lonely and a celebrity in only the most nominal sense), but on the screen we don't get Rob, we get John Cusack, and although John Cusack pretending to feel hapless and unremarkable is nowhere near as incongruous as Lauren Holly pretending to be a small-town-trapped waitress, or Denise Richards pretending to be a scientist, Cusack is still a non-obese cultural icon, and thus the only way to portray the event as a sexual triumph is for Marie to be played by somebody more famously attractive than him. Marie's continuing role in the book, which is half discarded and half displaced by the skate-punks' band in the movie, works because Rob gradually realizes that being a musician doesn't make her a deity. It you tried to leave it in the film, I'm pretty sure it would come across as a romantic triangle between Rob, Marie and Laura, instead of between Rob, his dream self and the real other self he eventually decides to become.
My own mental image of Marie circles around four American recording artists. The closest one, musically, given Marie's penchant for arresting covers, is probably Mary Lou Lord, but Mary Lou's own songwriting doesn't feel like Marie's to me, and her air of waifish reticence is inappropriate. A somewhat more animated option is Ani DiFranco, but she's a bit too confrontational for the part, and I'm certain Rob would have mentioned the piercing. In my version of the movie, then, Marie LaSalle is Melissa Ferrick. There's a small issue of gender preference, admittedly, but since I don't expect to sleep with any of these women, it's not especially important whether I belong to their target demographic. Freedom is Melissa's fifth album, and the third of her post-major-label period (so "freedom", mercifully, is not another reference to restrictive recording contracts). I've liked all of them, but as my opinions of them have settled over time, I find that unless I get them out and refresh my memory of their individual contents, I lapse into a simplistic revisionist conception in which "Honest Eyes" and "Happy Song", the first two tracks on Massive Blur, would probably make my top-five list of the best all-time album-openings (which might be rounded out by the first three songs on U2's The Joshua Tree, the first two on IQ's Nomzamo, Black Sabbath's "Turn Up the Night" from Mob Rules and the Slingbacks' "No Way Down" from All Pop, No Star; in assembling that list I was chagrinned to discover that Jane Siberry's "Mimi on the Beach", the Loud Family's "Sword Swallower", the Comsat Angels' "Independence Day" and the Manic Street Preachers' "La Tristesse Durera" are all not, as I persist in remembering them, the first songs on their albums), while Willing to Wait, Melissa Ferrick +1 and Everything I Need all fail, in one way or another, to live up to what I originally thought of as Melissa's potential. I found things about them to enjoy and admire, and individual songs to adore, but I'm good at that. Massive Blur is the only one that overpowered me without asking for any active cooperation on my part.
In between Everything I Need and Freedom, though, I finally saw Melissa play live for the first time, and maybe that subtly adjusted my listening posture for this new album. Or perhaps, although I've been trying to wean myself off thinking this about records, it's Melissa who's only now comfortable with herself here, not me. Whichever, Freedom moves a few steps further away from the full-band rock drive of Massive Blur, which is the opposite direction from the one I thought I wanted Melissa to go in, but as if the world is round after all, she ends up right where, it turns out, I hoped she'd arrive. Part of me is mundanely mystified, as she still sounds like the same basic hybrid of Ani and Melissa Etheridge that she has since the Maria McKee and Sinéad O'Connor comparisons stopped seeming so apt. The rest of me is rapturously mystified, caught from the first measure. "Freedom" itself opens the album, just Melissa and her guitar, and although the spindly, Richard-Thompson-esque arpeggios, measured pace and understated vocal delivery are far from the frenetic crunch of "Honest Eyes", I'm as transfixed. The guitar fades in and out under the words with some of both Tori Amos' dynamic control and Mary Lou Lord's hesitancy, and the distracted falsetto passages threaten to evaporate like some of Stina Nordenstam's. It's a break-up song, but it begins "Sadness finds its way onto me", and with High Fidelity on my mind I never shake the conviction that break-ups are merely symptomatic, and the solution to sadness isn't overcoming it, it's accepting it.
"Hold On" starts off strained, with a scratchy drum loop and squashed singing, but when the warbling backing vocals kick in, in the chorus, the song rises towards heights for which "Blue Sky Night" required a lot more equipment. "North Carolina" is restrained and half-muttered, anchored by a steady kick-drum thump and Marika Tjelios' murmuring bass, but I hear warring traces of both Patty Griffin's catharsis and David Gray's composure. "Some Kinda Nerve" feints flashingly towards Sinéad's "I Am Stretched Out on Your Grave", but ends up being enthusiastically unpolished in the way that I imagine Melissa Etheridge's songs might have become if her accountant had never impressed on her the commercial potential of not alienating VH1 viewers. The blocky and slightly overwrought "Blind Side" is shaped like an Indigo Girls song, but Melissa wails the chorus like a born blues singer who's never heard the blues, and her harmonies avoid the strange, coppery in-between intervals that Amy and Emily favor.
The pivot point of the album, for me (and I suspect I wouldn't be so captivated if I didn't think there was a pivot point, which suggests that a top-five-list of middles of albums, if I could spare the month one would take to compile, would be more expressive for me than the list of beginnings), is "Little Love". Melissa and Marika shut off the drum machine, mute the rest of the multi-track, and slide unhurriedly through a guitar/bass/voice song that could easily be the first take or the hundredth. The lyrics are rather straightforwardly autobiographical, a message to a lover who resents the fact that the singer spends so much time touring, but the clipped, repetitive chorus ("And you don't need, / And you don't wait, / And you don't love, / But you don't know, / Yeah you don't know how I feel") is as understatedly anthemic in execution as it is banal on paper. The pace picks up slightly for "The Stranger", an intriguingly inside-out and unusually realistic love song in which the singer both thanks the other person for simultaneously holding her at a distance and letting her fall in love, and then also explains the price. Guardedness is wiser, but I wonder if you learn more by committing yourself, even to causes you think you know are hopeless. Things subside again for the moody, becalmed "Then So It Is", the one song here I haven't really developed strong feelings for, only to reawaken rejuvenated for my favorite song on the record, the jangly, rattling, redemptive, out-of-body road-journal "Win 'Em Over", like "We're an American Band" rewritten to acknowledge self-doubt. I hear David Gray again, and Bruce Cockburn, and distantly even Don Henley, but like most American traditions (and yes, I'm aware that Gray and Cockburn aren't American), it's a mistake to evaluate this one based on what it turned into after too many years in LA. "This Is Love" is nervous and fluttery, like a flamenco strut via Ani, but "Drive" shakes off analytical reserve and leans into a simmering, extended sexual litany that I think is intended to be risqué, except I'm disappointed to admit that I'm jaded enough from years of far more explicit sex in media that when Melissa tacks "holding you up" onto the end of "Your back is arched, / My hand is under there", it just sounds coy. And the album concludes (apparently Melissa didn't get my memo about unlisted bonus tracks having gone out of style with the turn of the century; at least this one is prefaced by only twenty seconds of silence, instead of fifteen minutes) with a distorted electric version of "Freedom" that sounds uncannily like "Hold On". I assume she left this off the track list because there's some perceived taboo about admitting that a twelve-song album uses the same composition twice, but if it's OK for pop songs to repeat their choruses, surely it's acceptable for an album to revisit a song. The usual pattern would be to put the electric one first, then the acoustic version at the end as an afterthought; reversing them is, I think, this album's final and consummate stroke of brilliance. Here it sounds like the electric version is a demo for the acoustic one, not vice versa, and as a result I am left, as the last few notes die away, not thinking that this is the beginning of a different album that should have been (as, to an extent, I do after the acoustic songs at the end of the Arrogants' Your Simple Beauty), but that Melissa has succeeded in producing a cyclical work of art in a linear medium. The electric "Freedom" is an incomplete cadence, for which the acoustic "Freedom" is the resolution, so the right thing to do with this album, when it ends, is play it again. In some sense, I think, "Little Love" is really the beginning, or the end, or both, and the ingenuity of the record's sequencing is just the trick of starting the arc in the middle. But then, we already established that I like the middles better than the ends, and where else, really, do the best stories ever begin?
Sara Hickman: Spiritual Appliances
After a little more reflection on High Fidelity, though, it slowly occurs to me that Melissa Ferrick is wrong for Marie in more or less the same way that Sleater-Kinney or Slingbacks songs would have been wrong thing for Alyssa to sing in Chasing Amy. As closely as I identify with Rob, I do so because I see myself in every alternate thing about him, and fifty percent is an incredibly high subjective correlation. The other half, though, remains. My romantic problems are very different from his (or I think they are, anyway), as are my musical tastes. I don't have a top-five-break-up list, and I don't own a single one of Rob's top five songs. Melissa Ferrick not only isn't his kind of singer, she's also not not his kind of singer in the right way for his story. If I take all the criteria in the book seriously, and I see no reason to assume they were meant otherwise, then Marie has to be cheerier, she has to be from Texas, and she has to write the kind of song that Nanci Griffith might cover. And she at least has to belong to the same ethnic group as Susan Dey. I might well have nominated Nanci herself, but since she's explicitly enjoined, the next closest match I know of is Sara Hickman. Compared to Mary Lou, Ani and Melissa, or to Lisa Bonet for that matter, she's not very hip, but I believe that was part of the point. There's that Dan Bern song about the friend who gets to go down on Madonna and finds that his life is an empty shell afterwards, and Rob's story is precisely the reverse. Sara Hickman's effervescent, nurturing folk songs would clash with Rob's diet of mopey Brit-pop, vintage punk and classic soul, and appeal to Barry and Dick, I'm guessing, in the same semi-ironic way as "Walking on Sunshine". The one possible flaw in my logic is that Sara's music has become increasingly maternal, which Rob never notes about Marie's, and arguably that, too, would have been a useful tweak to the story, and if not, I can just imagine that Marie is Sara as of a few years ago, as of Equal Scary People or Shortstop, or what that period might have been like if she'd been on a Blackpool cassette label instead of Elektra.
Sara's career, at least label-wise, parallels Melissa's closely. Her major label run lasted three albums, instead of two (the third on the Warner subsidiary Discovery), before the retreat to an indie (in Sara's case Shanachie) for an odds-and-ends collection (Misfits) and a revitalized studio album (Two Kinds of Laughter), and now this. Spiritual Appliances isn't anywhere near as spare as Freedom (if you count the backing choir, over forty people play or sing on this), but its expansive lightheartedness serves a similar purpose. Both are albums, I think, that could only be made by people who have recently had important and encouraging revelations about themselves. "Thank god you slowed me down", reads the caption in the liner notes on a page of pictures of Sara's daughter Lily, but the resulting record isn't slower so much as it's more serene. "Standing Ground", with its impish tambourine rustle, Sara's sweet, half-elfin voice, and a whirling Andy Timmons guitar hook, is the kind of enchanting folk-pop that I've never quite been able to credit when the Kennedys attempt it. Her singing is deeper on the verses, airier on the choruses of the warm, surging "Life", which seems to me like a sleazy rock song crossed with "Free to Be...You and Me". Timmons' guitar sprawl and Glenn Kawamoto's gruff bass turn "Kerosene" into Nanci Griffith filtered through Emily Bezar. The piano-string-and-horn ballad "Edward" is elegant, sugary and timeless, merging impulses from Julie Gold's "From a Distance", Peaches & Herb's "Reunited", Beth Nielsen Chapman's "Emily" and the Bee Gee's "How Deep Is Your Love". "Woman Waiting to Happen" is closer to the way Nanci would probably arrange it, except for the Morissette/Ballard-ish string augmentation on the choruses and the spiraling Jethro Tull-esque flute solo towards the end. "I Wish I Could Run" opens with pensive woodwinds, but later draws on (albeit by deconstructing) Sara's girl-group apprenticeship in Domestic Science Club.
The middle of Spiritual Appliances is less distinct than the middle of Freedom, but the contained, ticking verses and wailing, Paula-Cole-ish choruses of "Everything's Red" serve as the pause and the restart at once, for me. I know I've passed the midway point in my experience of this album by the fact that from this point on I start hearing through the songs, more vividly, to the other things they remind me of and link to. The staticky drum loop and humming keyboards of "Dear Tracey" are practically Aimee Mann, and "Moment of Grace" could be Loreena McKennitt and Gerry Rafferty rewriting each other. The bright, sinuous "Bowl Full of Stars", twirled between sparkling trumpets and a snoring sax (trombone?), would only need to be sped up a few revolutions to suit Tracey Ullman just fine. "Come Again" (credited to "Barbara K", who I assume is Barbara Kessler, only if so I don't have a theory about the half-hearted pseudonym), with its fluttering whistles and easy, loping chorus, sounds like a Pretenders song recast for Sesame Street. Chuck Brodsky's "We Are Each Other's Angels" rides a country twang out of range of Jewel, but I have to check discographies to be sure Nanci Griffith hasn't covered it. The dizzy, fiddle-laced finale, "I'm Not Going Anywhere", however, like Patsy Cline's spirit survived despondency to be reincarnated in Jane Siberry (which would help explain Bound by the Beauty, come to think of it), is as cogent a summary as any one song of Sara's unmistakably irrepressible tranquility.
It's tempting to assume, because Sara doesn't sound tormented by anything, that she isn't. These songs are filled with sunlight, moonlight, starlight, flowers and kisses, and I have a feeling Rob would write them off as oblivious, because it's hard to take anybody seriously if they seem happier than you. But I think Sara is very aware of what she's doing. The joy in these songs isn't obliviousness, it's a clever disguise for defiance. There are two dozen things this album could be called, instead, if it wasn't. I take the title literally: these songs are machines for feeling better, and they should seem out of place in our collections, yours and mine and Rob's, of machines for feeling the way we already do. At the end of the book, Rob, DJing his comeback gig, puts on a bad dance song just to see Laura's face light up, beginning to understand that the problem with his deductions within his own musical and romantic systems wasn't that the logic was invalid, it was that the systems are self-contained. No matter how much music he absorbed, it was all his music. Marie's intervention was meaningful (and ultimately unsuccessful) because her music, as Sara's and Melissa's would have been, was foreign to him. Connections are based on learning to accept other people's logics. On pessimistic nights I think this is what I've failed to do. Sara's sunny folk-pop and Melissa's intimate monologues, alien though they might have been to Rob, are more or less what I've grown up on. I let people coax me into buying records I'd previously resisted, but this is rarely more than aesthetic sleight-of-hand, spotting elements of my existing self in theirs. I reach more intricate understandings of things, which sometimes appear to contradict earlier, simpler ones, but that's as close as I usually come to changing my mind, and the two aren't interchangeable at all. This music isn't my way out. In deciphering how it could be Rob's, though, I may have learned how some music could be. If this is, as it appears, the answer to the riddle Cusack promoted from page twenty-four of High Fidelity to the opening of the movie (do we listen to sad pop songs because we're depressed, or vice versa?), then maybe the ending, which I've grown fond of after some early doubts, is part of the fifty percent of the story that can remind me of me. We always ask the wrong question about endings. We ask whether the lovers soar into the sunset or crash into the sea. That matters, sure, but what matters more is whether, at the instant before their fate is decided, they are, or aren't, you and me.