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A Kiss in Front of Strangers
Rachael Sage: Painting of a Painting
He was standing in the dead space that either leads to the registers or, if you change your mind at the last minute, doesn't, looking down at the CD in his hand. I knew exactly what that particular scowl on his face meant, as I have stood in that same spot, with that same scowl on my own face. It means "I am trying to convince myself that it's OK to buy an album I feel drawn to despite knowing absolutely nothing about it." This is not really a topic worth obsessing over, because if the idea wasn't self-evidently insane to him, then one album more or less must not make that much difference to his budget, in which case he might as well go ahead. At worst, he won't like it, and the next time he feels this compulsion he'll be better prepared to resist. But this appeared to be his first time, and he hadn't thought through the sequence yet. One of the employees stopped to ask if he needed help, and he looked up with a tiny glimmer of hope in I don't remember which eye, turned the CD around to display the cover, and said "Do you have any idea what kind of music this is?"
I eavesdrop constantly when I'm in Newbury Comics, but I try to resist the resulting temptation to invite myself into other people's dilemmas. Boston isn't that kind of city, and while I don't especially care whether random strangers I'll never see again think I'm a lunatic for sneaking up behind them and telling them which Sisters of Mercy album to buy, I have to see the staff of Newbury Comics a lot, and if they decided I was a dangerous lunatic, it would be bad. But no way was I going to let this poor confused soul escape without finding out what was so magnetic that he was considering buying it without even knowing to which genre it belonged. The employee he'd asked peered at the name on the CD, shook his head apologetically, and turned to call over to the registers. With a twist of deft choreography I spun around a sale bin into a position just off the path of this inquiry, so that although I wasn't technically interfering with it, I was implicated in the process by proximity. "Do you know anything about," the clerk began, and reached the name of the band just as I got close enough to see the cover of the CD. No, the other guy didn't know either, and as the troubled potential buyer's eyes tracked back from the registers to the employee standing next to him, disappointment starting to reclaim his expression, I was able to perform what I believe, perhaps erroneously, to have been a plausible impersonation of a casual fellow shopper whose personal zone of public anonymity had been breached by this exchange, and who was thus obliged to participate in some way, if only in self-defense. Statistics mandate that I would almost certainly not know the album either, but in fact I did. It was Rooms, by Goya Dress, a dull record with an eerily compelling cover that I had purchased, myself, in similar near-total ignorance. "Oh, I have that", I said, immensely pleased with both my little maneuver and my coincidental knowledge. "It looks like it ought to be interesting, doesn't it?" "Yeah," the potential buyer said, adjusting quickly to my appearance. "What kind of music is it?"
And here, ironically, the conversation totally broke down. I opened my mouth to tell him what kind of music it was, only to realize that I had retained absolutely no information on the subject other than the fact that I thought it was a dull record with an exciting cover, half of which the guy already knew, and the other half of which was useless to him without elaboration. "Just, ah, ordinary. Not, the kind of, interesting. Because the cover, you know, that it's really. Something. But it isn't." So much for Daryl Zero's careful, decisive intervention. I left him still standing there, no closer to a resolution. This incident, however, gave me a third thing to file away with "Goya Dress" in my mind, which later resulted in my hearing singer Astrid Williamson's lovely solo album, at which point the whole experience was converted into a miniature parable in my mind, and although obviously a case could be made that the moral was "Leave people alone", I have opted instead for "If you make an album with an obtrusively colorful cover, you'd better back it up with comparably spirited music." Or, put more relevantly to the moment, if you are a gritty, Ani DiFranco-esque folk-singer, the cover of your third album should not portray you with faintly luminous skin, iridescent lipstick and eye-shadow, slicked-back hair, four-inch hoop earrings, a shiny sky-cyan dog-collar studded with costume pearls, a stomach-baring yellow and green halter with sinuous blue piping, an aura of hallucinatory doodling and a red cartoon crescent moon over your left shoulder, as if Cthulhu had decided to branch out into whimsical stained glass.
The flip-side, though, is that the difference between gritty folk music and coruscating mood-pop, at least for me, may not be as great as it would seem. There are enough moments on Rachael Sage's Painting of a Painting (her third album after 1995's Morbid Romantic and 1998's Smashing the Serene) that could be shoe-horned into her old forms. "Better From Mars" has slinky bass, snapping drums and chatty spoken verses. The choruses of "Pictures They Took" bray, swell and sigh. "Painting of a Painting" itself is a pretty good impression of Ani doing Alanis' "Ironic". "Footsteps" has twangy sing-along grace, even with a lithe and faintly Corrs-like violin. "Precious" has shuffling drums and a bleating melodica, and reads like Ani's diary. "Grace" has too many words, too few notes. "I Guess" sticks doggedly to "I guess I'll--" / "I tried to--" fill-in-the-blank lyrics. But where Ani's musical core is the acoustic guitar, Rachael's is the piano, which is here given a solemnly atmospheric treatment reminiscent of Beth Sorrentino's in Suddenly, Tammy! or the Hill Street Blues theme, which calms the mood down significantly. Ani's recent experiments have pushed into funk and electronics; when these songs depart from folk it's usually towards smooth rock surges, more akin to Alanis' slower songs, or Sarah McLachlan's faster ones, or Paula Cole's circa Harbinger.
But in the end it is one single touch, half performance half production, that most clearly makes Painting of a Painting a different experience for me. And maybe it's more of a measure of how much I miss the old pre-jazz, pre-Sheeba Jane Siberry than anything else, but Rachael's singing on this album dumbfounds me. It was delicate and fluttery on the other two records, but here, closely recorded and given a wide berth by its accompaniment, and often straying into an exaggerated slow tremolo that might well drive some people crazy, I think it has become positively ethereal. Rachael doesn't have Jane's range, control or confidence, but that only makes her attempt at this kind of angelic shimmer even more enchanting to me. Phrases dissolve into weird watery noises that have nothing to do with their meanings. "My lover's sweet as sugar, / Because she's made of it", at the beginning of "Cyanide and Cinnamon", sounds like a surreally precocious jumprope chant. The middle syllable of "sarcasm", in the first verse of "Satellite", pulses for an endless frozen instant as if maybe the whole concept has become obsolete in mid-utterance. A rhyme of "in my hands" and "from neighboring lands" in "Better From Mars" sounds so palpably plucked from the swirling air of a Seussian valley that I'm startled to find the relatively mundane wordplay "skim-milk and honey" hiding in the printed lyrics (along with two possessive "it's" and the amusing typos "stimgs" and "hungly"). "Painting of a Painting"'s "...idea of solace till...", if I try to sing it back without the record playing, morphs into "...ideal solitude...", although admittedly that would sort of miss the point of what I think is intended to be a love song in the form of an inverted coming-out confession. "Undertow" apposes a gossamer vocal that reminds me of Jane's "The Taxi Ride" against chiming music more like Beth Nielsen Chapman's or Julie Gold's. And when I get to the end of the record, and realize that Rachael has inexplicably survived all those harrowingly fragile moments when it seemed like the next intake of breath might shatter her, I'm forced to conclude that these spare, open songs offer her more protection than their structures suggest. I misjudged the cover completely: its vibrant colors are not Cirque du Soleil effusiveness, they are butterfly markings and camouflage for dreams. So I start the album over, close my eyes, and try to hold still.
Melissa Ferrick: Skinnier, Faster, Live at the B.P.C.
I say "Ani DiFranco", when I'm talking about independent, aware, fast-acoustic-guitar agit-folk by women you assume to be lesbians (even if you aren't necessarily surprised if they later vacillate on the issue), because at this point the informed music listener is expected to know who she is, approximately what she sounds like, and very loosely what she stands for. I haven't actually liked an album of Ani's in a while, but that makes her even more useful as a symbol, to me, since it's clear, at least inside of my own head, that if I mention her at all I'm probably doing so solely for symbolic purposes. In my opinion the current master of the kind of music Ani represents is, as it has been for a while, Melissa Ferrick. After years of harboring reservations about Melissa, based on a lingering wish that she'd reverse her slide into acoustic simplicity and make the dense, roiling, noisy rock record of which the busier songs on her debut Massive Blur hinted she was capable, I was finally conclusively won over to her cause by seeing her play live a couple times. One by one, her stripped-down concert versions of songs I'd wished were more complicated convinced me that my wishes were wrong. This didn't help my experience of her actual records that much, though, because now instead of wishing they were all more like Massive Blur, I just wished they were all concert albums. Her second (and first full-scale) concert album, in fact, came out a few months ago. It is a two-disc, twenty-two-song, ninety-seven-minute concert recording (a whole concert, banter and sound negotiations and all, which "concert" albums often aren't) called Skinnier, Faster, Live at the B.P.C., BPC for Berklee Performance Center, the very nice auditorium connected to the Berklee College of Music. Ani's Living in Clip would be the obvious comparison, but that was a meta-concert assembled from many shows, and a career retrospective, and big. Skinnier, Faster is resolutely small, despite its length, a single show apparently unretouched, the set list shamelessly biased towards new songs (everything from Freedom and half of Everything I Need, but only three songs from Willing to Wait and nothing from Massive Blur). It's just Melissa and her guitar and a large room full of people who are abundantly willing to think of themselves for the night as her closest friends.
And this is all so plainly Melissa Ferrick's proper environment to me. "Freedom" is measured and stirring. The tour-song "Win 'Em Over", basically redundant in this long-ago-won-over setting, becomes a shared celebration of the sustaining strength of being home. "It's Alright" is jagged and seething, and her guitar is lucky to survive a furious rendition of "I Will Arrive" (in the middle of which her monitors finally start working). The would-be roar "Blind Side" is disassembled and picked through for parts. "Everything I Need" is rapturous, "Faking" reticent and gentle, "This Is Love" spiked and jittery. "North Carolina" almost gets away from her, but she tracks it down somewhere in the second verse. "Particular Place to Be" is a frenetic guitar thrash, but "Gotta Go Now" is subdued almost to lullaby. Somehow "Willing to Wait" has evolved into Melissa's "All Along the Watchtower". "Will You Be the One" and "Welcome to My Life", in advance of Valentine Heartache, slide into their spots in the set just as comfortably as the songs the audience has heard for years. "Mr. Bumblebee", an improvised sketch for a later sea shanty, clears the way for the finale, a menacingly vivid performance of her seduction anthem "Drive" that it sounds like several members of the audience are trying to volunteer to help her reenact. A tacked-on studio-munged remix of "Drive" only highlights how much more vital these songs are when Melissa is allowed to perform them without any outside interference.
Melissa Ferrick: Valentine Heartache
Which leaves us to wonder, though, what to do with Melissa's studio albums. Valentine Heartache opens with "Welcome to My Life", about as introductory a road-song as you're likely to find, and clearly a sequel, both lyrically and musically, to "Win 'Em Over". But this is the studio version, with drums and bass and backing vocals, and I feel myself bristling. This isn't her life, one of my internal cynics gripes, this is the sitcom pastiche of it. On a few of these songs the sitcom is charming enough, but the entire middle of the album feels to me like an exuberant child reluctantly putting up with being clothed by an unimaginative mother. That's a fairly uncharitable response, given the unassuming home-made production on even these "full" arrangements, but the inescapable truth is that even on the songs where the studio work turns out well, I wish she hadn't bothered. It doesn't help that her lyrics seem to be increasingly self-referential and road-derived: "Welcome to My Life" is a tour song, "One Night Stand" hints at it, "Who Knows Why" is about the schism between stage extroversion and private neediness, "Crack the Mirror" may or may not be about career pressures, "Break Up Song" is (at least in part) about writing break-up songs, and "E-mail" is (despite the defiant "Now you're talkin' at me ... like I'm some twenty-year-old poet with tits") Melissa's fuck-you equivalent of Alanis' "Right Through You". All of which would be fine, and even compelling to me, on stage, but coming from the studio it seems misfit. If Melissa would rather be out, playing for people, and we'd rather she were out, playing for us, then what's she doing in a studio at all? She's on her own label, these days, so it can't be contractual pressure, so I'm left to fear that Melissa doesn't understand her own power, and that she thinks, like Patty Griffin, that her songs are better when there's less of her in them. And lest you think I'm imagining this, Valentine Heartache ends with a full-band cover of Patty's "Moses", and as disappointed as I was in Patty's apparent ignorance, on Flaming Red, of what she'd accomplished on Living With Ghosts, it's nothing to how sad I am that Melissa Ferrick of all people, one of the few musicians who could do one of Patty's acoustic songs justice, should choose instead to try to do to it some of the very damage it originally escaped.
Melissa Etheridge: Skin
I'm old enough to remember when Bonnie Raitt was the matron and Melissa Etheridge was the new girl, but after six albums over thirteen years and a well-publicized private life, Melissa Etheridge would probably constitute the establishment by now even if her albums were wildly inventive and risk-taking, which they are not. Arguably, given the lowered profiles of John Mellencamp and Bryan Adams, and Bruce Springsteen's folk digression, Melissa is now the leading producer of what used to be the most mainstream of heartland rock styles. The list of things it's easy, listening to Skin, to imagine never happened is not that different from the list of things that have happened in music in between Melissa Etheridge and now. There are tendrils of programmed drums on a few of these songs (the credits even have a whole section for "loops"), but nothing here remotely threatens to unseat "2001" as the sole moment in Melissa's career when its stylistic trajectory was in doubt. It's common knowledge that this is Melissa Etheridge's post-break-up recovery album, but you'd figure that out from the straightforward lyrics of any two of these songs if you somehow missed the PR. The acoustic guitars are big and strummy, the rhythms are square and solid, and Melissa's voice is bruised and emotive in a way you can only be if irony has never touched you. Nick Hornby complained, sounding old and tired, that Melissa sounds old and tired on this record. If "young and energetic" is Atari Teenage Riot, then it would be hard to claim that Melissa is anything but the opposite of that. Her time is long gone. Breakdown, her last album, came out in late 1999 when I was still in the deep throes of an indie-pop obsession, and I couldn't find any connection with it, even a tenuous nostalgic one.
But some balance has been restored to my musical intake since then (fey Sarah Records pop and Scandinavian death metal turn out to produce a surprisingly stable equilibrium), and I'm a little older and wearier myself, and now I find myself back on Melissa's side. I've yet to read anything nice about this record, as if the word has gone out through the critic pack that Melissa Etheridge is defenseless and it's safe to feed. But I hardly think she cares, and nor should we. This is comfort music, not connoisseur's music, and critical acclaim in the usual sense would be as out of place (and unwelcome) as a restaurant reviewer spewing extended ballet metaphors onto the sandwich you just made. Nobody buys a Melissa Etheridge album wanting hallucinatory dreamscapes, or glitch-hop beat-tracks, or Polly Harvey cameos. We buy them because we know that whatever else has gone post-modern and ridiculous in the world, we can count on Melissa Etheridge to show up in faded jeans, a white tank top and a black leather jacket, and sing like it's still OK to feel simple pains, and reasonable to search for simple therapies, however elusive or arduous. So if a decade rolls back as I listen to this, that's more than fine with me. I would give up Beck and Marilyn Manson and Max Martin and Eminem and two-step in an instant to keep "You Can Sleep While I Drive", if for some reason I had to, and when Melissa sighs "I drove all night just to drive all day", near the beginning of Skin, and an arsenal of reflexes demands that I recoil from this and the dozen other recidivist offenses against self-awareness for which "anachronistic" is a woefully inadequate censure, I just turn it up a little louder. There are still roads and distances and nights, and us among them, able, for a moment or two in a thousand, to remember what we'll have lost once there aren't.
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