As I Waited for You to Wake Up
278 · 25 May 00
various: Where the Heart Is
I don't often believe movie romances. Or, maybe more precisely, I don't often believe that they are romantic. The vast majority of relationship movies employ at least two of the three standard-issue Hollywood storytelling cop-outs: the first is relying on the audience having been trained, by hundreds of earlier unromantic romantic movies, to root for the leads to get together, regardless of whether any emotional logic has been presented for such a thing. Thus The English Patient, Til There Was You, At First Sight and Message in a Bottle. The second is allowing physical beauty (or celebrity) to stand for character, thus Jerry Maguire, Great Expectations, Bulworth, Out of Sight and Meet Joe Black. The third is confusing familiarity and/or animosity with resonance, thus Addicted to Love, You've Got Mail, One Fine Day, Forces of Nature and almost all romances in action movies. Frequently I believe half of the romance. I believe people who suddenly decide they've fallen in love with friends, like Julia Roberts in My Best Friend's Wedding, Sanaa Lathan in Love & Basketball, Bud Cort in Harold & Maude and at least one person in almost every teen romance ever made (although arguably these last shouldn't count, since teen romances aren't really subject to plausibility constraints). I believe people who fall in love with someone who facilitates their evolution, like Illeana Douglas in Wedding Bell Blues, Kate Winslet in Titanic or Jack Nicholson in As Good as It Gets. But it's a very rare movie in which I believe both people, in which I feel like I'm seeing a balanced relationship with genuine potential, one actually worth cheering for. I believed Kissing a Fool and Dream for an Insomniac, both (tellingly, I assume) stories in which readers and writers fall in love. I believed Chasing Amy, in which writers fall in love with each other, although that involved a leap of faith on my part, so I'm not surprised when people disagree. To find a recent movie romance that I believed completely without identifying with in some way, we'd have to stretch the definition to include Timothy Hutton and Natalie Portman in Beautiful Girls. Hutton's character is right, waiting for Marty to grow up is probably not going to work, but it's an grand gesture to contemplate, and so I expect I will see quite a few movies I might otherwise have skipped, over the years, because, as with Claire Danes and Angela Chase, watching Natalie grow up is as close as I can get to finding out what became of her character.
Where the Heart Is, sadly, is no more a chapter of what became of Marty than The Phantom Menace. The romance isn't botched as badly as it could have been (at least she doesn't take the shitty country singer back), but I don't believe that Novalee could adjust her emotional receptiveness from complete jerks to tousled librarians that readily, even with the example of Ashley Judd's subtlety-free walking cautionary-tale about the price of low standards conveniently present, and I guess we're supposed to believe that Forney falls in love with her because he sees her "potential", but redo those first few scenes with a girl who looks like a borderline-illiterate pregnant sixteen-year-old who's been brought up so poorly that living in a Wal-Mart seems like a step up, instead of like a famously pretty and talented Harvard student who we know is just pretending, and I strongly suspect they'd come off as perverse. The plot's drama hinges on a scene in which she tells him she doesn't love him, in order to free him to leave, which if they were the people they're supposed to be she wouldn't have said and he wouldn't have believed. And naturally, since the movie must end with a kiss, she has to drive across the country (and then wander around his campus at random, making the kids in Road Trip look resourceful by comparison) to tell him something normal people would have dealt with over the phone. I might not care if it didn't seem like the story could so easily have been better. Take out all scenes that feature or mention the country singer, for example, and you lose a funny Joan Cusack bit-part but improve the movie by at least a factor of three. Let Novalee's maturation involve revitalizing the moribund library and extracting Forney's sister from her alcoholic daze, instead of taking up photography, and you not only allow her great gift to him to be a product of something he gave her first, but you give him a reason to come back (plus you can eliminate the baby-photographer, one of many inessential characters who seem to have been inserted solely in anticipation of the crowd scene at the end, which you can still stage with all the grateful townspeople whose lives the couple have brightened with the library; and you can probably work out a way for Novalee to get her patio umbrella without needing to sacrifice Stockard Channing's perfectly decent Sister Husband to a Satan Ex Machina tornado). Get rid of Lexie's molestation trauma, which as storytelling is lazy and exploitative, and let her end up learning something about life from Novalee, instead of vice versa. Ditch all the scenes that exist solely to reinforce the unluckiness of the number five, a device in service of nothing. Skip the irrelevant religious-wacko kidnapping. Snip out Sally Field's inane but hilariously crass cameo as Novalee's mother and stick it on the end, after the credits, as a bonus for the patient. OK, maybe "so easily have been better" was an exaggeration, and of course most of the changes I propose, with the notable exception of expunging Willy Jack, would do serious violence to the notion that this is a film adaptation of an existing novel. But movies are different.
The one scene that gave me chills, Novalee wandering around Forney's campus, would be gone in my proposed revision, but the scene itself had nothing to do with my reaction, it was the song playing over it. The music sounded vaguely familiar, and when the words came in I immediately recognized the voice, but as the song continued I became increasingly agitated. The first voice was clearly Emmylou Harris, but the second voice was somebody else, and I should know whom. I should know the song, too, but as long as Emmylou was singing it I couldn't imagine it any other way. The movie was almost over, at that point, so my suspense didn't have to last long. Of course, I sighed, as soon as the appropriate credit rolled into view. The second singer is Patty Griffin, and the song, "Beyond the Blue", is Beth Nielsen Chapman's, originally from Sand and Water. Using a deeply spiritual song in which life is just a dream that briefly delays our reunion with our dead loved ones as an atmospheric love theme is as oblivious and incompetent a touch as most of the rest of the movie, but it did get me to buy the soundtrack. And as with the movie itself, if I mentally discard about half of this album I'm left with the core of something appealing. Emmylou and Patty's "Beyond the Blue", produced by Emmylou's guitarist Buddy Miller, is both twangier and airier than Beth's version. Beth's own "Shake My Soul", here in advance of her new album in the fall, is snappy and resilient, and presages the kind of defiantly light-hearted pop album that You Hold the Key might have become if it hadn't fallen into the clutches of the undead. Martina McBride's sweet ballad "There You Are" and the Corrs' peppy trifle "So Young" are sparkling crossover pop songs to whom "roots" are a distant, if fond, memory. John Hiatt's "Let It Slip Away" is drawled and exuberant, and a delightfully mismatched companion to the junior-Dixie-Chicks lip-gloss grin of teen trio 3 of Hearts' "Just Might Change Your Life". This (and not the pro forma country and blues that fills the rest of the disc) is what I imagine the real Novalee, the one in the better story I wish for, would have liked, music in which hard-won maturity informs, but doesn't temper, the impish, unselfconscious, unapologetically ordinary charm. These are the songs of a girl who could probably live quite happily in a Wal-Mart if it weren't for the pregnancy, whose fondest dreams are of porches and chocolate milk, who thinks of $4.45 plastic shower thongs as "shoes" but recognizes sadness and dissatisfaction when she sees them. The fantasy Where the Heart Is represents (and another good argument for leaving Willy Jack out) is that everyone is redeemable, that trailer parks and tabloid sidebars are populated with princesses in caterpillar-stage, and that they are set free by their own determination, not the kisses of interloping aristocrats. I don't actually believe that, just like I don't really believe that factory-produced pop songs sung by cute teenagers are as cathartic and uplifting as two of the best singers on the planet retracing one of the best songwriters' path to accepting the death of her husband. But you don't embrace fantasies by believing them, you embrace them by understanding that the ways the fantasies are wrong are better than the ways the real world is wrong. We evolve not by overcoming our flaws, but by improving them.
Julie Miller: Broken Things
Calling pop songs sung by country singers "crossovers" probably doesn't mean much, any more. It used to, but since Shania Twain, the Dixie Chicks, Garth Brooks and Faith Hill have all made records that have about as much in common with Roy Acuff as they do with Mr. Mister, and American Music Club, Wilco, Son Volt and Richard Buckner have all written unambiguous rock albums in what used to qualify as country idioms, the bin dividers have become pretty arbitrary. Where do you file Wrecking Ball? Beachwood Sparks? I might be more upset about this erosion of traditional borders if I liked "real" country music more. But I lived in Texas until I was 18, and stetsons, discus-sized belt-buckles, jacked-up pickup trucks and Lone Star beer are no more an "aesthetic" than Burger King is "cuisine". Independent, principled country music certainly exists, but to me it isn't a significant improvement. I admire Stacey Earle and Gillian Welch, but their songs make me feel bad. Steve Earle did a bluegrass record, and I played it twice. I have two Buddy Miller albums, and they strike me as irredeemably clichéd (by which I mean that the established tropes they reuse don't happen to be among the many of which I'm fond).
But in between his own albums and Emmylou's, Buddy Miller also produces and plays on his wife Julie's records. On this one they're joined by Emmylou's drummer Brady Blade, Emmylou herself, Patty Griffin, Victoria Williams, Larry Campbell and Steve Earle, some combination of whom do, among other things, a new version of Julie's "All My Tears", which Emmylou covered on Wrecking Ball, which makes at least three independent clauses that require me to buy the record. I got Broken Things and Buddy's Cruel Moon a week or two apart, last fall, and while Broken Things survived the initial wary spins (Cruel Moon did not), Julie was such an incongruous presence in my teetering pile of obscure four-track pop groups that at the time I couldn't really have told you whether I kept the record in rotation because I liked it, or because I was too confused to explain why not. There it stayed, though, month after month, and then finally, when Kym Brown and Kathleen Yearwood came along, I found myself thinking that at last this little cluster had some critical mass. Which thought was followed directly by "Critical mass? What the hell am I talking about?" Kym's industro-ambient clatter, Kathleen's barely-subdued hysteria and Julie's calm, open-sky Americana don't have that much to do with other, superficially, but they belong, together, to one of my earlier genre immersions, relatives of Kate Bush and Tori Amos in the same way that Sleater-Kinney and Sarah Dougher can be traced back through Sleeper and the Go-Go's to X-Ray Spex. I'd been trying to understand Broken Things entirely by triangulations based on Buddy and the Earles, which is like trying to navigate with a GPS that will only tell you how far you are from Fort Worth. What this album really sounds like is a cross between Cyndi Lauper and Maria McKee (later albums in both cases), or the middle of the triangle that connects Emmylou, Cheryl Knight and Patty Smyth. No wonder country crosses over into pop so readily; Buddy's self-contained, largely acoustic production here has, for me, almost exactly the same effect as Hyman and Bazilian's far slicker and more synth-reliant settings for Patty's Never Enough, Cyndi's Hat Full of Stars, Joan Osborne's Relish and their own Largo. Julie's reedy bluegrass twang was bred hundreds of miles from Cyndi's New York helium-district squeak, but when they sing like they're hearing nothing but the music and their words, the same tendons in my shoulders relax, and for a few minutes I think that in time maybe enough good will come of our filling up this continent, after all. Buddy's electric guitar on "Ride Like the Wind" sparkles like a mandolin, and he takes turns singing the harmony part and playing it on a melodica. "With a kiss you'll wake to see / That you're strong at the broken places", they sigh, so well-matched that I can't tell which one is supposed to be reassuring which. "I Know Why the River Runs" is sparer and more measured, Blade's trash-can drum cadence biding time behind Julie's hushed, "One of Us"-ish lead. "I Need You" is brash and frayed, and might descend into blues squawk if Buddy's guitars didn't shine and whir so much like the Connells'. "I Still Cry" is a brittle lullaby, with acoustic guitars, piano, accordion and cello joining Julie and Patty Griffin's tender duet, the two singers edging just enough towards the opposite extremes of their ranges that this pairing ends up sounding surprisingly similar to Julie and Buddy or Julie and Steve Earle. Julie switches into a lower register for the galloping "Out in the Rain", which could easily be a Patty Griffin song, but then she and Victoria Williams pool their resources to turn "Orphan Train" into a pretty credible impersonation of Emmylou singing a Gillian Welch/Loreena McKennitt collaboration.
The middle of the album turns time back for a few songs. Julie wrote both the title track and "All My Tears" in 1993, one recorded by the Williams Brothers, the other by Julie herself (on Orphans & Angels) and later both Emmylou and Little Jimmy Scott. "Broken Things" is mostly just an acoustic guitar, Julie's alternately fragile and confident performance reminding me in turn of Jane Siberry's "Taxi Ride", Cyndi's "Fearless", Jewel's "Foolish Games" and Beth Nielsen Chapman's "Emily". Emmylou already did the atmospheric version of "All My Tears", so Julie and Buddy play it like the lost Appalachian square-dance origins of Bob Seger's "Turn the Page". "Two Soldiers", the one song here Julie didn't write, is a traditional folk song arranged for mandolin, hurdy-gurdy, accordion, a breathtaking duet with Emmylou (Julie, intriguingly, taking the low part this time) and eventually the rest of the band to bring it up to date. I'm torn between grounds for astonishment: that Emmylou can walk into anybody's studio and turn whatever they're playing into something like this; or that there are this many people prepared to rise to her occasion.
Everything feels a little smaller after Emmylou leaves. "Maggie", with a restrained but elegant harmony from Teresa Williams, could be Mary Lou Lord. The lurching, mechanical "Strange Lover", with Julie and Steve Earle holding a bad-drawl-off, is the album's one egregious error in judgment, but I forgive it as soon as I hear "The Speed of Light", the finale, which Julie and Buddy have the presence of mind to understand could be Julie's "From a Distance", and so deliver as simply as they can bear, Julie playing guitar herself and Buddy making a harmonium sound like the sleeping exhalations of some creature whose lungs extract sad melodies, not oxygen. It should never have taken me six months to understand this record. I overthought. This album is magnificent and precious in the same way as hillsides as sunsets caress them, or the first smells of a meal that won't be ready for a while when you have nowhere else to be, or moonlit highways, or the pressure of a sleeping lover's hip. It's agenda isn't antithetical to Sleater-Kinney's or Mathlete's, it's preconditional, part of what binds them to each other, and to us. Country music is falling apart because it's hard to sing about roots to a rootless people, hard to play lullabies to people who won't shut up. But no matter how much of it we pave over, recoiling into towers, the earth remains, patiently holding us up, knowing that if we don't seem thankful, that's just part of the gift.
Sarah Harmer: You Were Here
Calling Broken Things "Americana" is typical American cultural myopia, as I'm conveniently reminded by You Were Here, the first proper solo album (after a collection of old covers done as a present for her father) by Sarah Harmer, once singer for the Toronto quartet Weeping Tile. Sarah's palette, courtesy of her and Peter Prilesnik's home production, isn't as broad as the Millers', mostly just guitar, bass, drums and some reticent keyboards, Sarah usually left to sing by herself, but the generosity and reserve are uncannily similar. "Around This Corner" twists the Millers' blues twitches into bouncy show-tune lilt, crunchy rhythm guitars coexisting unselfconsciously with a fluttery clarinet, something like Maria McKee doing a Woody Allen soundtrack. "Basement Apt." borrows a drum loop from Alanis, an acoustic guitar part from Ani, and animus from Patty Griffin. The humming "The Hideout" is exactly why I liked Weeping Tile, equal parts petrified, observant, claustrophobic and precocious. "Capsized", little more than a few organ notes, a sketchy acoustic guitar and Sarah's sleepy voice, ought to be a dirge, but somehow ends up reminding me of what a demo for a This Mortal Coil version of an Aimee Mann song might sound like. On "Lodestar" she sounds like a wayward McGarrigle child, but the snappy, surging "Weakened State" is as coarse and cathartic as much of Maria's Life Is Sweet, except with a drum machine and a fond memory of old REM records. "Don't Get Your Back Up" convinces me that Patty Griffin could have made an electric album that wouldn't have seemed to me like a betrayal of Living With Ghosts. The sultry "Open Window (The Wedding Song)", half girl-group swoon and half hop-along country, can't decide whether to be a muted Sara Hickman or a coy Patsy Cline. "Uniform Grey" is a graceful folk-song, a few stabs of goofy slide-banjo notwithstanding, and when somebody joins in on harmony I'm a little surprised it doesn't turn out to be Emmylou. "Coffee Stain" is open-hearted and unhurried, a little like Sarah McLachlan in her earthier, Freedom-Sessions-ish mode. "You Were There" itself slows to nearly a dead stop, and even the choruses sound scarred and involuted, somebody scratching at a violin as if repeatedly resisting the urge to actually play it. I want a rousing finale, after that, roaring guitars and fizzing cymbals, but instead the album ends with its least assuming song, "Everytime", one acoustic guitar and a scratchy vocal that appears to have been recorded, by mistake, in only the left channel. I assume the sequencing is intentional, in which case my guess at its point is that this isn't just a continuation of Weeping Tile, that Sarah has in mind other traditions to be part of, now that it's just her. Broken Things is bigger, and smaller, more in most dimensions, but I think the urges that power You Were Here are the same. On the back of the front card, right above where she's written in, with ball-point pen, that mine is the eighty-eighth copy of this record she's parted with (I think the plan is for this to be the "advance" edition, with a properly funded release later, but if you buy one from her web site, right now, you can be part of the proper funding), there's a picture of her peering intently into the camera, scarf around her neck, a little street behind her and somebody's house visible across it. Novalee isn't ready for Ontario winters (Maine looked strangely temperate for a month when school is in session, didn't you think?), but it looks like the house has a nice porch. Some days, despite everything I know, a broad, creaky porch, a big canvas umbrella and something other than traffic to look out at seem like more than enough to hope for. I make my life complicated, I don't know if that's my talent or my downfall. Maybe I resist real roots music because I don't have real roots, and you don't develop them by studying. I have parents, but no people, it sometimes seems, cities but no country. I'm tied to things by these tenuous threads, by songs that sound like how I imagine it would be to feel grounded, songs in which people don't have to have appraised love to know how to fall into it. Eighteen years in Texas, where the earth is a tangible presence, and analyzing your failures means deciding in what key to write the song about them, and what did I learn? What good guacamole tastes like, how to say "y'all" without blushing, the hand-symbols for every team in what used to be the Southwest Conference, and what a "JCT" signs looks like from a mile and a half away, because if you're relying on the alphabet game to enliven a West Texas car-trip you don't want to be stuck on "J" until the James Dean Steakhouse in Dalhart. That doesn't seem like much. Holed up, here in the cold, with my bookstores and colleges, with an ocean I've never learned to talk to, with a slow river that doesn't carry anything away fast enough, I have managed to become part of things without becoming of them. Maybe Novalee knows more than I give her credit for. Of course I want her to become the librarian, the library is the only thing in her town I recognize. I'd hide in it, just like Forney does. The silliest part of the fantasy (and the movie is Forney's fantasy, not Novalee's, let's not pretend otherwise) is that you can hide in a library, haunting the stacks and nursing your invalid alter egos, and an invitation to a happier life will breeze in wearing a sundress, carrying an emaciated buckeye tree and a stolen backpack full of their own fears and insecurities and potential, and ask you only questions whose answers you know. It won't happen. Not only won't it happen, but it wouldn't be what you need if it did. I'm painfully aware of all these things. I should get out. But it's the middle of the night, and I'm not going to go try to meet new people now, so for the moment the library and I have each other to ourselves. Gardening and agriculture books are in the 630s. Might as well be prepared.