All You Want to Hear Is Yes
366 · 31 January 02
Kelly Hogan: Because It Feel Good
I was not an old-style country-music fan when old-style country music was new, so I tend to have mixed results with revivals of it. I admire Gillian Welch's careful updating of murder-song bluegrass, but I don't often find myself in the mood to listen to it. I can listen to early Emmylou Harris records because I can hear traces of what would become the later ones; I can listen to Patsy Cline because so many other people have built later music out of her templates and mannerisms. And at least initially, I like Because It Feel Good, the third solo album by former Jody Grind singer Kelly Hogan, mostly because the country referents she evokes date back to the perhaps semi-mythical time before country became so self-conscious about its boundaries. On Beneath the Country Underdog, her previous album, the country tinges mixed with simple, indie-rock-ish production and a prominent Magnetic Fields cover, and after it Kelly went on tour with Neko Case, all of which seem like impulses I would endorse, but despite repeatedly putting the record on expecting this to be the time it clicked with me, it never did, and I couldn't have explained why. After some time with Because It Feel Good, though, I now have a theory. It's not very complicated, but there's no reason it should be: the earlier album had enough characteristics of the kind of country-derived rock music I'm most familiar with (Maria McKee, Son Volt and points in between) that I tried to treat it as another one of those, and as a modern Lone Justice album it wasn't very impressive. On Because It Feel Good Kelly makes three key decisions that completely change the way I receive her music: she picks different material, she uses more strings, and she uses more reverb.
The choice of songs is the most obvious difference. The bulk of Beneath the Country Underdog was original; all but two of the songs on Because It Feel Good are covers. The five older ones are the Statler Brothers' "I'll Go to My Grave Loving You", Charlie Rich's "Stay", Randy Newman's "Living Without You", King Floyd's "Don't Leave Me Lonely" and something called "In Time" that Kelly attributed in an interview to Ketty Lester, but I haven't been able to confirm this independently; the three newer ones, although I wouldn't have guessed the age differences by listening, are ex-V-Roys guitarist John Paul Keith's "(You Don't Know) The First Thing About Blue", Smog's "Strayed" and Lost Continentals singer Amy Pike's "Speedfreak Lullaby".
But you could make a disco album out of these songs, or doo-wop, or anything. Songs are poorly equipped to defend their natures. Written down as sheet music, songs are poorly equipped to have natures. In the hands of Kelly and ex-Sugar bassist David Barbe, who co-produces, these take on an elegant and uniform bleakness, like abandoned antebellum mansions or long stone walls reclaimed by kudzu. "More reverb" may seem like a small detail, but for me it is sufficient to shift my vocal frame of reference from Patsy Cline by way of Carla Bozulich to Patsy Cline by way of nobody, pushing this music four decades backwards. Andrew Bird's strings, at their most demonstrative, conjure the dizzying shimmer of big early-Sixties girl-group pop, and I'm left listening to this album as if it's a deliberate exercise in speculative fiction, an attempt to reconstruct the next album Patsy Cline would have made after her death, not the album she would have made if she hadn't died, but the first album she would have made while dead, if dead people were allowed to keep making records. A forceful vocal on "In Time" drifts off into empty space in what ought to be its most gripping passages, leaving me distanced exactly when it seems like I should be most entwined. "Strayed" creeps along a few beats slower than kids would play it, single snare-hits falling into the kinds of gaps where I've been trained to expect fills. "Speedfreak Lullaby" has almost as much room-noise as music, like the Cowboy Junkies killing time until the heating system switches off again, but Kelly's vocal is obliviously sultry. "Please Don't Leave Me Lonely" swells from haunted Clientele-like calm to surging, string-fueled, Supremes-worthy exuberance, and then subsides back into smoky jazz-club composure. "(You Don't Know) The First Thing About Blue" is a buoyant waltz struggling to get out from under an arrangement in which pedal-steel ambiance swallows the piano and everything else that might have grounded the rhythm. Until the harrowing last note, "Living Without You" sounds like a tragic musical heroine's quiet will-he-love-me? soliloquy. And most fittingly, the album's bookends, the eerie "I Go to My Grave Loving You" at the beginning and the Leslie-shivered "Stay" at the end, both cloak themselves in a This Mortal Coil-ish reverie that sounds very much like a dream of how half-remembered life might once have felt.
And if that's all this album were, eight gracefully macabre covers recorded (as an instructive The Trinity Session contrast) in a derelict elementary school, it would be kind of short but basically fine with me. It would benefit from clarity of purpose and stylistic unity, and although covers albums are temporarily in vogue, this isn't a covers album in the modern sense, it's a throwback to the days when most singers recorded other people's songs. A part of me wishes Kelly Hogan had just made that concise record, and overcome my reticence toward Beneath the Country Underdog by not implying anything she doesn't deliver. Eight enthrallingly creepy covers would have been enough.
But I can only think of this album as having a single identity if I take out two of the ten songs, and I guess I'm not particularly surprised, when I check the credits, to discover that they are Kelly and co-writer Andy Hopkins' two originals. "Sugarbowl", towards the end, is the point where the record briefly crosses over into daylight again. The band plays like a band, Kelly sings closer to the microphone, and the result creeps forward towards the Seventies, perhaps in an alternate universe where Kris Kristofferson never got around to writing "Me and Bobby McGee", or Rod Stewart wanted to follow up "Maggie May" with something that sounded a little more like Joe Cocker. The other, though, "No, Bobby Don't", is clearly my centerpiece, and the last thing from my 2001 best-song list I hadn't written about yet. An effusive rock waltz spiked with cheerfully raspy guitars and movie-grade strings (a pizzicato passage in the middle is particularly and wonderfully shameless), it rounds up every distraught-girlfriend anthem from "It's My Party" to "Reno Dakota" and channels them into a tentatively cathartic farewell that culminates with one of my favorite song endings in years, a string flourish like the hook from Beethoven's Fifth recast as the sound of the ghosts of all of history's unreliable suitors being impaled at once on a single infuriated violin. And now, perversely, I'm dissatisfied again. Contrasted with "No, Bobby Don't", too many of the covers seem like underdeveloped set-pieces. The reverb seems like a failure of confidence, the borrowed lyrics like prevarication. Maybe if I liked Patsy Cline more, the moments when Kelly drops the act wouldn't so clearly outshine the others. (Maybe if I liked Patsy Cline more, none of this would seem like a Patsy Cline pastiche in the first place.) The craziest thing is that if I forget the credits for a moment, I really do like the whole album. Two flashes in a dark setting is a perfectly good plan for a record, and more originals didn't save Beneath the Country Underdog for me. But I am a prisoner of my own rules and instincts. I can't forget what I know. I don't want interpreters, I want creators. With thousands of great songs to choose from, why write more? Because that's how there got to be thousands of great songs. Millions of people risked writing bad ones, and one or twice, in a year or a life, managed not to.
Cindy Bullens: Neverland
Here, I'll even put it the other way around: I don't think Cindy Bullens is a very good songwriter. Her lyrics flop into rock cliché with the aplomb of a mud-wrestler in a leg-cast, and the musical cores of her songs almost invariably sound to me like she got them out of a book of Steve Earle sheet music for autoharp. She's like Melissa Etheridge's less-creative, less-successful, kind-of-bitter older sister living in some dreary town in Delaware or Rhode Island. She calls every Thursday night, and you see her number on Caller ID and for three rings fight with the temptation to not answer. She's just going to have some depressing story, layoffs at the plant or a neighbor with Graves' Disease, debt or disappointment. Nothing ever goes right in her world for long, and it's hard not to believe it's her fault somehow. But you answer, finally, because somebody always has to, and this time it's you. She is part of your misfortune, or vice versa. And sure enough, it's been another week of setbacks and silences in Delaware or Rhode Island or wherever. After forty-five minutes or so you get through them, and she asks how you are, and you can't really bear to tell her. You got a bonus at work, and a blind date went surprisingly well. You got new shoes. Gilmore Girls was good. You stayed afloat without really trying, and buoyancy is a horrible quality to flaunt among the forever drowning. So you say "Nothing ever changes", and let her agree and think that means the same thing to you that it does to her. But when you hang up, and shake your head to clear away the gloomy fog, you realize there isn't any. Actually, you feel better for the conversation. Yes, trouble seems to follow her around, but it hasn't killed her yet. You're part of why, but also her strength is part of why you think your own life is easier.
And so even though at no point during Neverland do I reconsider my opinion that Cindy Bullens isn't very good at this, I've had this album for months and I'm still listening to it. It may be entirely borrowed, but so is most of my cooking. I think she writes in clichés, but I like her cliché tastes. The music is recycled, but I liked it the first time, and it has come through the recycling process pretty much intact. Nothing new happens, but the old things that happen are familiar, comfortable and welcome. "Neverland" clomps along in indefatigable 4/4. "Long Way Down (I Liked Falling)" rises an inch above loss. The sparkling "Cry to You" invokes Patty Smyth and Patty Larkin and Cheryl Wheeler, but I like them, too. "Hammer & Nails" is what it should sound like when gospel mutates to folk and then folk turns to rock. "The Right Kind of Goodbye" is what acoustic guitars and harmonicas would play if they had demo modes. "Send Me an Angel" offers the hope that every drippy twenty-three-year-old doing open-mike with way too many moonlight metaphors will one day find dignity. "Drivin' My Heart Around" proves there's at least one more song left in cars. "Baby I Want Your Love" is awful, stunted blues, but Emmylou's "Jerusalem Tomorrow" was worse. "Gravity and Grace" shows encouraging self-awareness. "Sensible Shoes" is twanged "These Boots Are Made for Walking". Drums thump, guitars purr, voices rub against the throat on the way out. Steve Earle, John Hiatt and (of course) Emmylou show up and sing like themselves.
At the end there's one last piano ballad. Cindy plays the piano-part herself, and Sally Fingerett and Beth Nielsen Chapman are so much better at it. "I felt my heart break free", she says. "One flash of time", "one simple moment", "life's sure a mystery". Even Cher would have demanded a rewrite. But no matter how many times these phrases have been trodden on, they still represent events in lives. Hearts still do break free, and what are we supposed to say about it? There are countless clever answers, but cleverness isn't always the point. Sometimes your heart breaks free, and you're caught in the emotion. It isn't a clever feeling, so why not say what it feels like? "I felt my heart break free." "Are you OK?", you ask your sister in Delaware or Rhode Island or wherever, and as you wait for her response, you're not getting ready to evaluate it for eloquence or imagination. All you want to hear is a long silence, while she weighs pains against joys, and then "Yes".
Dan Bern: New American Language
If it's cleverness you want, there's always Dan Bern. Actually, Dan's music is sturdy and unremarkable, and not a lot different from Cindy Bullens'. But then he opens his mouth, and you can't ignore the lyrics even if you want to. It's probably time to stop comparing Dan to Ani DiFranco, since Ani has gotten steadily more experimental and Dan has gotten less; by now Dan's model is squarely the kind of Dylan song that goes on for verse after verse after verse, unvaryingly, for as long as it takes until he finally gets to the end of the damn story. Pop-culture reference-dropping is Dan's favorite gimmick, and over the course of these twelve songs he contrives to work in the Mafia, saturation bombing, Cowboy Joe, Leonardo DiCaprio, Eminem, the 2000 presidential election, the anti-tobacco lawsuits, Britney Spears, Alanis Morissette, Keith Richards, time-travel expeditions to save Kurt Cobain and Jesus and kill Hitler, two towns with names beginning with "West" and three in New Mexico, beer, hotels, poets, riots, World War Three, Thanksgiving, gun control, Charles Manson, pilot's licenses, McDonald's, Pepsi, various religions (including an unglossed reference to the Virgin Larry), Lithuania, Carolina, France, Spain, two Marxes, Toledo, Monte Carlo, Japan, cultural tokenism, the ozone, Michelangelo, the Pope, skateboarding, Y2K, AIDS outreach, a brief history of Australia from penal colony to Men at Work, Venus, eighteen people I don't know, and maybe the funniest dumb celebrity half-joke I've heard in a while, "Cheech and Rae Dawn Chong". I'm guessing it was only through the vehement objection of everybody around him that Dan was talked out of putting the "Bernstein and the International Jewish Banking Conspiracy" band credits on a part of the package that you could read from the outside.
But I've started thinking that confrontationally clever lyric-writing is now usually cover for sentimental sincerity. You won't confuse Dan Bern and Ben Folds on musical grounds (Ben writes pop songs, Dan plays accompaniments), but for me reading through their lyrics feels very similar. Dan tries very hard to sound like he's saying fake-profound things that are actually crap, but more often than not there's something real and/or empathetic to them. "Must you come up with a hundred and ten reasons why we're alive today?", he asks, pleadingly, in "Sweetness". "New American Language" begins with the plaintive dialogue "She said 'Love, love, love is everything', / I said "OK, I guess, whatever". / She said 'What does that mean?', / I said "Nothin', it's just good to have a backup plan.'" "Tourist towns are a drag sometimes," he adds later, "But in non-tourist towns you can get beat up." The time-travel stuff is in "God Said No", a long argument in which God explains exactly why he isn't going to send Dan back to do any of those things, and it's touching that Dan thinks of Kurt first, before Hitler and Jesus, but my favorite points are two of God's reasons for not letting him go after Hitler, "You would get caught up / In theory and discussion" and "You would make friends". The chorus of "Black Tornado" is just bluster, but all four verses have humane details: "I've been speaking later and later in the day, / Most days I don't talk 'til maybe / 8 o'clock at night"; "Every place I go is one less place / I could call home"; "I could do tonight with something / Soft and warm and furry, / But that ain't likely to occur / In south central Missouri"; "There is a tombstone of my father / I visit sometimes". I'm pretty sure Dan will have rewritten the guts of bouncy world-violence lament "Tape" since September, but the ending should still be his peevish impatience to find out if he's famous enough that the girl he met at a party will sleep with him. "Rice" is a funny sketch of obsession clashing against affectation. And the epic, "Thanksgiving Day Parade", is easily distracted, but all paths lead back optimistically to the parade. "And we slowly started dancing, / And began slowly to heal". "Play us a song, piano man", he might as well be saying. We write songs, even though they might not be any good, and stage parades, even when we've had terrible years, because destinations are hard, but directions are easy. You can always take one step. And if it doesn't get you anywhere, well, that only tells you that tomorrow's problem will be no harder than today's.