Enough for Tonight
422 · 27 February 03
Astrid Williamson: Carnation
I'd be more worried about the imminent death of the music business if I thought it was worth more to me. Actually, I'd be more worried about the supposed imminent death of the music business if I really thought there was any chance of the whole thing magically imploding one day, but even if I believed it could, it's hard for me to work up a lot of personal anxiety about the prospect. I have loved things that it may have taken an industry to support, and I have certainly loved bands that have been able to make music as their livelihoods and quite possibly wouldn't have without a music industry's assistance. But even if we stipulate that these are services of value, I'm not at all sure that the music industry is still providing them to me. It was a very different world in which Big Country and the Icicle Works and Echo and the Bunnymen got to make records, in which Game Theory and Let's Active and (for that matter) REM got second chances even after their first chances didn't make anybody rich. I have the distinct suspicion that today's music industry has mutated into a huge, highly optimized machine for giving up on people at a moment's sign of weakness. There are good records with big business behind them, but are there still (if there ever were) good records that big business enables? Maybe not. Maybe Tori and Alanis and Per haven't been reduced to selling their records on their own websites yet, but I see no reason to feel confident that they someday won't. Possibly the British industry still takes a somewhat longer view of their relationships with artists than the American one. Possibly the Japanese industry takes an even longer one. But we could predict those things from general cultural principles, and I fear that this is one of the areas in which Americanization of business values is proceeding globally with inexorable speed. What, other than temporary logistics, keeps the music industry from "supporting" artists with the same attention-span day-traders use to "support" the stocks of evanescent system-integrators? The morning after Norah Jones won all those Grammys, do you imagine boardrooms full of impassioned executive vice-presidents devising academy programs for promising young musicians? I imagine boardrooms full of frustrated gamblers and small-minded accountants trying to think of ways to only invest in proven product.
And while Norah Jones tries to figure out where to put five trophies she won for making a record that lets people who are afraid of new art feel like they're somehow staying current, Astrid Williamson is selling CDRs. Once you give Norah Jones five Grammys, what range of expression are you left with? We would have to abandon the categories and simply ship the things in truckloads and award them in bulk. If Norah's meticulously harmless Come Away With Me is worth five, then Astrid's sparkling second solo album, Carnation, is worth at least twenty. In malls all over America, racks of Come Away With Me are now on sale for meager discounts on inflated list prices; Carnation can be ordered from an import site that looks suspiciously like it's run by Boo Hewerdine's mother, or bought off of Astrid if you run into her in the street. What is the music industry supposed to be doing for us if not bringing us music? Buying your music exclusively from major labels, at this point, is like buying all your groceries from a gas-station mini-mart, and then wondering why you feel sicker the more you eat.
Astrid was once in a band called Goya Dress. They weren't especially great. Then she made a solo album called Boy for You that was, but even with the help of Malcolm Burn's production and the continued support of Goya Dress's label, Nude, didn't generate any huge hits. At some point a scruffy pop group from (insultingly) her own country usurped her first name. Thus, for Carnation, she is back to her full name and her own resources. Her own resources, apparently, consist of herself, co-producer and various-instrumentalist Robert White, a CD burner, patience, and a large suitcase full of fairy dust. She plays acoustic guitar on most of these songs, piano and synthesizers on a few. White plays mandolin, bass, electric guitar and supplementary noises. Astrid sings.
Maybe it's unfair to say Astrid is better than Norah twenty to five. Norah is clearly talented, and her record suffers only from the beginners' conceptual mistake of adopting an existing style with such cautious discipline that her music becomes the equivalent of well-crafted replica furniture. Astrid makes music of her own, but maybe she doesn't do so out of any profoundly greater insight. Maybe the other option just didn't occur to her, and do I really think a factor of four is the right quantification of a decision that may not have been any harder to make? Well, yes, I guess I think it is. More, perhaps, if I grant that Carnation represents less technical proficiency than Come Away With Me, especially when you factor in Norah's players and producers and pedigree.
Ah, hell, four is being nice. The difference between the two records, to me, is the soul of art, and why, if this is all it's good for any more, the music industry deserves every misfortune it brings upon itself. Why aren't we hearing the buoyant, twinkling "Never Enough" twice an hour on every radio station on the planet? Mandolins gleam, drum loops spin, Astrid's voice swoops in and out of falsetto like Tanya Donelly channeling Sarah McLachlan, and the lyrics ask a simple but telling question. "If it's never enough for one, then how's it enough for two?" Combining lives should raise expectations, not lower them. "Love" is the ebullient folk-song Throwing Muses and the Wonder Stuff never wrote together, White's mandolin twitter goading Astrid's calm guitar. "To Love You" slows down and spreads out, but soars into a timelessly sad chorus as redemptively melancholy as any of Sarah's. "Bye and Bye" is spare and haunted, little more than voice and echoes over a gauzy synth texture, but I now wish ardently that I could retroactively fit it into the soundtrack for Firelight. "Blood Horizon" starts out like it's going to be a remake of "The Rose", but gathers into a multi-tracked chorus that verges on gospel both in musical exhortation and lyrical courage. White adds legato ebow solos to the unhurried "Calling". Six songs in, and we are halfway to a pop album of potentially enduring stature on world scales.
But then, and maybe this means I've overestimated what people can do by themselves, the rest of this record lets it down. "Girlfriend" has only Astrid's own guitar for accompaniment, and somewhat defiantly ordinary lyrics, and the layered auto-backing vocals seem almost apologetic about turning it into anything fancier. "Tumbling Into Blue", the throaty piano interlude, underscores the sophistication of the rest of the record without really offering any other alternative. "Lucky" feels like a Boy for You rough draft that can't quite be finished in the new idiom. And "Call for Beauty" gets lost in too-slow static-drum loops and minor-key wateriness. And then the record is over. A part of me wonders whether resequencing could save it, moving the less compelling songs in amongst the wonderful ones, but then I realize what I'm saying, and am suddenly doubly proud of Astrid for not doing that. Carnation merely isn't done yet, I think, and maybe the way it trails off indicates that Astrid agrees. And that, in the end, is why I think it's four times better than Come Away With Me instead of eight times. I believe she'll finish it. I suspect that the album this CDR of music will become will be magnificent. It's taken Astrid five years to get this far, but so what? If it takes her three more years to finish it, we'll wait. We've got other records to play until then. Astrid isn't a franchise, and doesn't have brand equity to fret about. I don't know what she does with her weekdays, but I assume it's something other than this. And if this is what the death of the music industry means, great musicians piecing together great music in their scattered spare hours, then so be it. There are plenty of us to divide the work. We don't need an industry for music any more than we need ones for bread or friendship. Why does everything have to scale?
Chantal Kreviazuk: What If It All Means Something
Besides, the music industry hasn't even the wit to recognize its own good work. Chantal Kreviazuk is on Columbia/Sony in Canada, yet her new record hasn't even been released here in the US yet. There's probably some obscure logic to this, having to do with staged promotional schedules or seasonality or something, but to me this is just another solid record of winning pop songs when surely radio could use them. Chantal sings like a smoothed-out Alanis, and plays piano and keyboards like a Vanessa Carlton who has had her own precocity less thoroughly impressed upon her. The arrangements here are dense and grand, many of them filled out with complete orchestras. Half the songs were mixed by Tom Lord-Alge, half by Brian Malouf, and these two men have three Grammys between them. (Lord-Alge has three, Malouf has zero, to be precise, but Malouf travels in the same circles.) There isn't (amazingly) a Grammy for A&R, otherwise John Kalodner would have dozens. The combined AMG worked-with lists of the studio band defies printing. Chantal shares songwriting credits on seven of these eleven songs, including five co-written with Raine Maida of Our Lady Peace (to whom she is also married), and in general if there is anything available to be marshaled on this album's behalf, a press gang appears to have been dispatched to recruit it.
And the crowning irony or the saving grace, depending on where your sympathies lie, is that all this work produces a genially engaging record, but fails to transform it into anything anybody could plausibly claim differs significantly from what it would have been with lesser means. "In This Life" is a piano ballad, no matter how it's ornamented, and if payroll had cut out in the middle, Chantal could easily just have played it herself. Arguably she should have, as by the end the strings and guitars and drums seem to be holding her back, and I bet sacrificing scale might have saved pace. "Time" twitters and twirls, but sounds most inspiring to me in the rare moments when the pinging piano figures can actually be heard. Arrangement misdirection half-turns the title track from listless to languid, but surely a rewrite would have been more effective. "Julia" evokes Joni Mitchell and Little River Band, and maybe they should have just let it sound like it was 1975. "Flying Home" wavers between Alanis, Abra Moore and Mary Chapin Carpenter, and could have believed in its own sentimentality. "Waiting" spirals diffidently, and wants to be Tori Amos but can only come up with Michelle Branch singing backup. "Ready for Your Love" is a gimmick-encrusted mess (see Shania's equally inexplicable Asia-inanities on "Waiter! Bring Me Water!"), and "Turn This Page" is lugubrious.
But when the production feels earned, rather than imposed, it can still be fairly magical. The guitars on "Miss April" buzz like drag racing for teddy bears, and maybe the song isn't as cruel as the words read. The quiet, pulsing "Morning Light" is like a "Biko" for the good times, for mornings in lovers' arms instead of nights behind barricades or bars. "In This Life" is stately and expansive. And "Weight of the World" would be the single, if it were up to me instead of John Kalodner: John Kalodner, a dizzily effervescent ode to lightheartedness like Beth Nielsen Chapman's "Happy Girl" given to somebody who only knows the weight of the world as a constant from high-school physics. Spend as much as you want, in the end you can't really change people much. What if it all means nothing? What if we're too busy singing along to even wonder?