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Two Paths You Can Go By
Patty Griffin: 1000 Kisses
Listen, maybe you don't think you're ever going to make an album, or at least it isn't in your plans, but we navigate through life on such partial knowledge. Anything could change. It already might have. Did one unexpected thing happen to you today, one tiny surprise? That might be the beginning of the change that eventually leads to you making a record, or two, or three. So indulge me, and learn one tiny lesson, just in case one day you need it. If you get a chance to make a record, don't waste it. Don't sabotage yourself.
I know, it doesn't sound like much of a lesson. Of course you won't sabotage yourself. Making records is tough, but not sabotaging yourself is easy. And yet, you say that now, but I want you to promise you'll really remember when the time comes. Because Patty Griffin didn't. She is the author (I say, but I really think I'm right) of the greatest folk record the current folk generation has produced, so you'd think she'd know better. She is the author (I say, but I really think I'm right) of a second album as tragically misguided as any musical error of judgment in my lifetime, so you'd think she would have learned. But apparently not, because she wrecks her third album so badly that only by random accident did I realize its error is isolatable, not pervasive. I've had this record for three and a half months, and once a week I've pulled it out and tried again to make something of it, and until tonight, I've failed every time. I get to the end, and I'm lost. There are ideas, but they don't lead anywhere. There is music, but where is the life? I can't believe she only had the one record in her.
But tonight, as I was listening, I was also cataloguing my latest Japanese mail order, and just as 1000 Kisses' seventh song ended, I paused it in order to verify that the b-side to Hitomi Yaida's new single really is a Japanese translation of Tracy Chapman's "Fast Car" (the answer: yes). After that I got carried away listening to other bits of J-Pop while I laboriously translated enough of the kanji in the artist names and album titles to render them in ASCII. Nearly an hour slipped by, and when I got done I found myself picking up the remote for the other player and wanting to hear that Patty Griffin album again. But I glanced up as I hit Play, realized there were three more tracks left, and as track eight started it dawned on me what had just happened.
1000 Kisses is exactly half the record it should have been. Living With Ghosts was just ten tracks, too, of course, but the good songs here are not as intense, and it would take a few more of them to fill a complete record. That's not the sabotage. Quite the opposite: I am now convinced that the first seven songs on this album do represent (as I believe Flaming Red did not) Patty's earnest attempt to live up to some form of her own astonishing precedent, and her failure, if you agree with me that that's what it is, is noble, unsurprising and hardly valueless. But the last three tracks are a disaster. Track eight is a period-faithful rendition of Sam Coslow and Will Grosz' "Tomorrow Night", written in 1939 and originally a hit for Lonnie Johnson in 1948 before numerous subsequent versions. Track nine, which is the source of the album's title, is a sultry cover of Emma Elena Valdelamar's latin ballad "Mil Besos", again done entirely in its native idiom. Track ten is a fragmentary instrumental reprise of an earlier theme.
Personally, I think these three tracks are failures of judgment and wastes of disc space. They are performed without the evident presence of Patty's own personality, I mean, and what the point is of including anonymous performances by a distinctive performer, I don't know and haven't been able to imagine. You can disagree with me if you like, but the reason they sabotage the album isn't that they're bad, per se, it's that they appear together at the end of an album that is short even with them, and they change the way you'll remember it. If you disagree with that part of my judgment, you'll have to provide an argument. It is fact that the album ends this way, fact that it's short, fact that these three tracks are qualitatively different, and fact that sequencing a ten-track record so that the last three songs are at a tangent to the others strongly affects the impression it leaves. I insist that if Patty cared about this album, she'd have spared it by saving these three songs for something else. They could have been a bonus EP, or b-sides for a single, or fodder ready for the next benefit compilation. They could even have been moved up earlier in the running order, where they'd still damage the mood, but at least there'd be time for other songs to try to repair it. Any way would be better than this. Of course you can disagree with me, and for your sake I hope you do, but don't think that makes any of this my fault. Patty chose to make a record to which it was inevitable that somebody would react the way I have. She made a record that invites disappointment, and then refuses to turn it away when it shows up.
And maybe I would have figured this out, eventually, even without the accident of pausing in between tracks seven and eight, but it might have been a while. The confounding issue is that even the seven songs here that sound like Patty Griffin are emotionally uniform. They are slow, quiet, haunting ballads. There are slow, quiet, haunting ballads on Living With Ghosts, too, but there they are intermingled with roaring fury. Here, tragedy is leavened only with melancholy. Glassy vibes and bells shimmer through the elegiac "Rain", which to me seems to be begging Patty to wake up and sing it like the clouds haven't swallowed her. The small-town vignette "Chief" almost breaks its restraints, but in the end Patty lets the character stay a cipher, and lets the song chime mutedly. "Be Careful" is a mundane-rhyme-laden pattern song that ought to shut up anybody who figured Alanis writes pattern songs because they're easy. "Long Ride Home" is uncannily close to Richard Thompson's "1952 Vincent Black Lightning", and although Emmylou Harris tries to inject a little backing-vocal catharsis in the vein of Thompson's angels on Ariels, Patty doggedly refuses to cooperate. "Nobody's Crying" could have broken free, too. Could have, could have. She's there, singing the right notes, but somehow she never lets them have enough breath. It's like the whole record has been recorded at the ends of soul-sapping day-job work days, or her doctor has warned her against taxing her lungs, or she knows her first record freed some demons into the world and she doesn't realize that exactly what a scarred world is shortest on is wrath borne of personal defiances.
It's a sad commentary on Patty's decision-making, or maybe a sadder commentary on my filters for it, that the song which stays with me the longest here isn't even hers. It's another cover, this time of Bruce Springsteen's "Stolen Car", but she treats this one like one of her own songs, rather than an excuse for a costume change. Springsteen's lyrics have real people and real places in them, and several of the lines turn out to be unexpectedly improved by gender switching: "I met a little girl and I settled down" could be an adoption, or an oblique revisionist view of having been widowed; if the woman reading the narrator's old letters isn't their recipient, then my guess is she's the narrator's mother, and one's old love letters causing one's own aged mother to feel one hundred is a much more complex effect than them just making a man's wife feel distanced from her younger self; and to me the way she sings "I'm driving a stolen car" carries no tone indicating that she stole it herself, which raises all sorts of questions about the missing male, whose pointed absence begins to seem like it might be the subject the whole song is avoiding.
But no, I'm lying. That's the song that I like best, but it's not the one that stays with me the most tenaciously when I finish listening to even my improved, truncated version of this half-album. "Stolen Car" is the one I want to keep humming, in my head, but I can't, because I can't extricate the nasal weariness of "Making Pies". There are real people in this one, too, and a real factory if not a named city (Table Talk, real manufacturer of those awful discus-shaped and -flavored things sold exclusively in desultory stacks beside the lottery machine in urban convenience stores). Like the best songs on Living With Ghosts, this one is sung in character, an aging Italian woman momentarily measuring her solitary life against a lost sweetheart and lost dreams. But where "Poor Man's House", for example, turned against its suffocating environment, and made an anthem out of survival, "Making Pies" reduces what could have been an anthem to the brink of collapse. The repetitive chorus edges into sing-song, and at the end all the woman can say to try to redeem herself is "You could cry or die, or just make pies all day." Since when are those the only options? Since when is Patty Griffin, who ought to be the new master of just this sort of story problem, incapable or unwilling to think of another way out? So she walks the block to Table Talk, and around her a city seethes, and yearns to be taken up in her voice. She says a defeated rosary, and continues on her way, and around her our sparks flicker, and we try to sort through the lessons she has taught us, looking for something other than fear, surrender, and the foolishness of trusting a poet to say your prayers for you.
Dolly Parton: Halos & Horns
Dolly Parton was a joke I knew to giggle at long before I knew why. When I got old enough to understand, she became one of my totemic examples of the human propensity to fixate on effects without reference to what were supposed to be their causes. Buxom blondes are attractive, goes the reasoning, therefore a cartoonishly buxom and cartoonishly blonde woman must be especially attractive. Except wasn't the point of partially-exposed breasts supposed to be that you could imagine seeing them bared entirely? Even at an age when I had yet to conduct any first-hand experiments in bra cantilevering, I already suspected that if you were allowed to remove one thing from Dolly Parton, you'd be rather better advised to go for makeup. She sang one of the two dreadful "nine to five" songs with which we were afflicted in the early years of my radio awareness, and thus became the enemy. I did eventually come to own a third of a Dolly Parton album, but only because Emmylou Harris was one of the other thirds, and when Dolly followed up their shared 1999 Grammy for "After the Gold Rush" with individual Grammys in 2000 and 2001, I laughed for a solid eight or nine seconds. The Grammys! Milli Vanilli, Jethro Tull as heavy metal, and now this!
Somehow, though, in my enthusiasm for smug derision, I failed to notice that her 2000 Grammy was for best bluegrass album, rather than Excellence in Denim-Jacket Seam-Reinforcement. It's kind of hard to laugh at anybody for winning a Grammy for bluegrass. As a commercial genre it's a bust, and as a way to get your name in the paper, winning a bluegrass Grammy ranks slightly above winning a Grammy for Best Arrangement of a Contemplative or Moribund Gospel Recording for a Duo or Small Naval Armada, and slightly below running over a mailbox in the smallest town you can find that publishes a weekly police blotter. Grammy voting rules attempt to minimize the damage that ignorant non-specialists can do to specialized genres, so while you still can't be certain that the winner is better than the other nominees, it's fair to assume that each of the nominated bluegrass albums has some kind of actual bluegrass merit.
What, though, does that mean to me? I don't particularly care about bluegrass, no matter how excellently you say any individual sample demonstrates its principles. But Dolly's 2001 Grammy was for Country, and we're between Emmylou records (although she must be feverishly at work on one, else how do you possibly explain the fact that she doesn't show up here?), and I was feeling like I needed some rustic Americana to counter-balance all the hyper-synthed J-pop, and given enough time I will buy at least two albums by any musician I ever hated.
It's a good argument in favor of petulant musical aversions, actually, that they help prepare you to be astonished. If I hadn't had Dolly Parton mentally filed as a laughingstock for a couple decades, I'd probably merely like this record a lot. It is a brick wall I'd stand in front of, admiring its hue and mortar. But if you want to really appreciate a brick wall, you need to approach it with some momentum. I'm dumbfounded. I haven't listened to Dolly's two previous albums yet, much less anything from the long pre-rhinestone-trash phase of her career, but this isn't an against-the-odds breakthrough record, it's a real piece of musical art from a real artist whose make-up and bad movie career I should no more hold against her than Cyndi Lauper's incomprehensible wrestling thing.
And maybe you don't think you care about bluegrass, either, but a) bluegrass is a legacy here, not a constraint, and b) don't be a jerk. Hasn't Dolly been the butt of fifteen dollars worth of jokes over the course of your life? Well, time to pay up. You're getting a bargain, really: they were poor jokes, and these are amazing songs. Banjo, dobro, mandolin and various fiddles twinkle through the measuredly exuberant title track, April Stevens and Darrell Webb contributing eloquent backing vocals that only emphasize Dolly's own easy assurance. The radiant "Sugar Hill" may be enough to make you wish you lived somewhere where square-dancing isn't self-conscious, bits of Nanci Griffith's reedy charm intermingled with Motownesque swoops and an everybody-sing finale worthy of a black New Orleans church airlifted into Deliverance country. The wistful ballad "Not for Me" is what you might get by crossing Gillian Welch with Marilyn Monroe. "Hello God" eschews easy heresy and cheap-beer jokes in favor of a few sincere inquiries (most pointedly, given the historical context, "Do you love some more than others?"). The circling "Shattered Image" is sterling campfire sing-along material. "What a Heartache" is fluttery and rueful. The twirling "I'm Gone" may be history's wickedest break-up song, because it's going to take "Come On Eileen" therapy to get it out of his head. "Raven Dove" is a country-gospel hymn. "Dagger Through the Heart" supplies the compulsory appearance, on any album that wishes to qualify for Country tax exemptions, of a wronged-woman lament featuring the word "cheatin'", and after the cheerfully maudlin "If Only" I suspect the delegation from Tennessee will propose a new requirement that all such records also find somewhere to fit in the line "If teardrops were diamonds, how my face would gleam". "John Daniel" is a story-song about a modern apostle, which wouldn't normally appeal to me, but I laugh aloud when Dolly's narrator says "I'd planned to meet some friends of mine when I got off at three", and if it took scripture to get her out of her secretarial hell, then it's not my place to begrudge her her salvation's form.
You can't miss the album's centerpiece, though. It's in the middle of the album (some secrets of album-making are simpler than others), it's the album's second-longest track, and it's a character novella complete with two different narrators. The one Dolly sings in her normal (sic) voice is a curious young woman, giving in to her compulsion to go visit a mysterious outcast. The one she sings in a crone's trebly cackle (and a virtuoso mountain accent that makes me wonder if I'll end up reassessing Dolly's acting career, as well) is the unrepentant soothsayer. I won't tell you what happens between them, not because it's particularly surprising, but because Dolly spends eight verses, four choruses and half a page of extraneous ad-libs on the subject, and so should you. It's track seven, with seven more after it. Fourteen songs. See, Patty?
And Dolly wrote twelve of them, but the contrast with 1000 Kisses is actually starkest, to me, or at least most instructive, on Halos & Horns' two covers. The first one, set safely mid-album, is of Bread's cloying "If". To me the original is borderline intolerable, but Dolly and her band treat it like the just-discovered missing link between Gordon Lightfoot and Jimmy Webb, and skip through it with seemingly unfeigned enthusiasm. The other cover is the big risk, and Dolly puts it last, the same gamble that backfired on Patty. It's "Stairway to Heaven". I'm not joking, it's a six-and-a-half-minute bluegrass translation of rock's most intractable epic, and suddenly Emm Gryner's piano-ballad version of "Pour Some Sugar on Me" doesn't seem quite as death-defying. This, surely, descends to the level of glib absurdity, à la Aztec Camera doing Van Halen's "Jump" or Devo's doing the Stones' "Satisfaction".
Incredibly, enthrallingly, magnificently, it doesn't. What it does is as simple to explain as it is difficult to credit. Dolly, guitarist Kent Wells, banjoist Gary Davis, dobro player Randy Kohrs, fiddler Jimmy Mattingly, bassist Terry Eldredge, mandolinist Brent Truitt, drummer Steve Turner and backing vocalists Richard Dennison, Jennifer O'Brien and Vicki Hampton take one of the half a dozen rock songs on the planet with the most deeply ingrained stylistic legacies, and play it as if it was a bluegrass standard first. Not only can't you do this if you're laughing, you can't do this if you're concentrating on keeping yourself from laughing, and you can't even do it if you're congratulating yourself for managing to not laugh without having to concentrate. You have to believe. You have to take the same faith you would pour into a declared gospel song, and let it alight on the idea that banjos and cabin porches preceded (and engendered) flying Vs and flashpots, and all the inventions since have been expensive toys for playing briefly-popular variants of an ultimately simple and timeless game. 1000 Kisses wants desperately to be anyone else, and it's hard to love someone who hates themselves. Halos & Horns understands that being anybody you want to be isn't a matter of sticking your head through the hole in their picture where their face should be, or teaching yourself to imitate their rhythms and weaknesses, it's a matter of seeing, in somebody else's life, underdeveloped qualities of your own. Singing in somebody else's voice is as deceitful and self-mutilating as implants. Everything you need is already inside of you.
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