436 · 5 June 03
Richard Thompson: The Old Kit Bag
I love Amnesia. I rarely see anybody else cite it as one of Richard Thompson's finest moments, and if I had to weigh in on that subject in front of a critical audience I suppose even I'd probably chicken out and side predictably with I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight or Shoot Out the Lights. Those are important albums. Amnesia is not important. But it is, I've discovered, the Richard Thompson album I actually play most often, even more than Watching the Dark for all its stunning live recordings. I pull out a whole row of them, and look over their track listings, and even though there are dozens of great Richard Thompson songs that Amnesia doesn't have, I remember what listening to those ten songs in that order feels like. "Turning of the Tide" is jittery and electrifying, even in the shadow of Bob Mould's tribute cover. Jerry Scheff's gruff bass and Thompson's berserk solos transform the otherwise lumbering "Gypsy Love Song", which I can remember sending caroming off the brick walls of the Lampoon building late at night when I was in college. "Reckless Kind" is poised and seductive, and to me somehow bridges the space between Bruce Cockburn and Warren Zevon. "Jerusalem on the Jukebox" seethes with slapback vitriol, but "I Still Dream" floats in azure. I bought my first LP of this because I kept seeing Richard Thompson's name mentioned in descriptions of other people, and I can still remember how discovering his other albums, after it, changed its context for me and which parts of it seemed unusual. The sinuous, champing "Don't Tempt Me" and the elegant, chiming "Yankee Go Home" seem to have traded bodies or brains. "Can't Win" explains why I never understood the point of Eric Clapton. "Waltzing's for Dreamers" is as harrowing and spare and perfect as anything Richard did with Linda, and so obviously a quiet finale that I easily forget the dopey "Pharaoh".
But I've done my doleful inventory of the albums after Amnesia before, and it doesn't get any more cheerful when I do it again. Rumor and Sigh has "1952 Vincent Black Lightning", which is right up there with "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" and "The Sound of Silence" in my folk pantheon, but the only other things on it I care about are the sturdy "Keep Your Distance" and the bleary "God Loves a Drunk", neither of which are worth the risk of accidentally subjecting myself to "Don't Sit on My Jimmy Shands" or "Psycho Street" again. By Mirror Blue Mitchell Froom's production has become intolerable to me, and even the deliberately exquisite "Beeswing" feels less like a great song than Thompson petulantly reminding us that he has been responsible for some great songs in the past. you? me? us? spreads at least half an album of ideas over two discs, and I never quite figured out how to play them both in sync and get them to sound like a whole. And I have an earlier review to testify that I was able to hear Mock Tudor as a return, but apparently I've forgotten how, as I still skip over it and listen to Amnesia instead.
But I am undaunted. I will try again. The Old Kit Bag is Thompson's second solo album out from under Froom's baleful presence, and maybe I just needed more convincing that he's himself again, or the self I wanted him to be. The title suggests a fond tour of familiar lanes, and this is at least half accurate. "Gethsemane" invokes omens of religion and faith (from "Calvary Cross" to "Bathsheba Smiled"), and the dilemmas and consequences of lifestyles ("1952 Vincent Black Lightning" wasn't going to get any better if James had lived). "She Said It Was Destiny" sounds like a wiser "Yankee Go Home", spinning and soaring. "Pearly Jim" is somewhere between the Great Valerio and Boris the Spider. "Jealous Words" blares and clomps and squalls, like rain-soaked tavern guests hoping for a fight before bedtime, and "I'll Tag Along" twists and crackles like an imp in creased leather. When the energy flags, "I've Got No Right to Have It All" is smoke-eyed and lost, and the distended, unfocused "First Breath" suggests that maybe the second or third breath, after some coffee, might have been the one to record.
But the bitter outcast's lament "A Love You Can't Survive" is becalmed and devastated and devastating, and for once Thompson seems to throw his whole heart into singing it, instead of spitting the words out like he just chewed them off of a porch stay. The spindly "Outside of the Inside", like a roll-call pillory of futile genius, hums and spikes with bowed bass, trebly guitars and rattly hand drums. "One Door Opens" is a dance anthem for the dumped, but Judith Owen's taut Emmylou-Harris-ish backing vocal runs a thread of hope through it. Richard and Judith's duet on "Word Unspoken, Sight Unseen", freed (I assume) of the relationship tensions that always pulled at Richard and Linda's duets, is breathtaking, and the deft, flittery way Judith ghosts around Richard's parts demonstrates by contrast how much of how Richard and Linda's voices worked together was a product of them having relatively similar technical limitations.
And this album even ends right, with a mournfully wheezy break-up ballad, "Happy Days and Auld Lang Syne". "How I wish I knew / All the old songs they're singing", the woman says to herself. "Such comfort". And you wouldn't cite Richard Thompson for comfort, probably, at least not if you listened to the stories. But part of the point of old songs is that we aren't listening to their stories, or aren't just listening to their stories. We are celebrating the fact that the stories were told. Some of Richard's songs are the old songs, by now, through nothing more complicated than age. But this is misleading. His best songs, I think, are already old when they are written, warmed, no matter how cold, by the fire of accepting how they will burn out and die.
Except I spoil the finale effect, listening on iPod, by having sequenced the two songs from the bonus live EP onto the end of the album's running order. "So Ben Mi Ca Bon Tempo", a bizarre updating of whatever passes for popular music in what we have left of medieval Italian, is conclusively upstaged by a giddy acoustic deconstruction of Prince's "Kiss", which I think proves that even Richard has a covers album in him.
And maybe by morning I'll have forgotten all this, but at least as long as this moon watches, I believe this time is different. Froom's production is a bad dream. The years in which Richard sounded like singing made him suicidal and/or nauseous don't appear to have permanently crippled him. He has reclaimed his joy, even if in Richard's case joy so often comes out sounding like despair. It isn't, of course, and these aren't songs of despair. They are songs of understanding despair, and you could argue that understanding despair is necessary for joy. You could argue that understanding despair is joy.
Maria McKee: High Dive
Or maybe that's stupid. Maria McKee's Life Is Sweet sounded like it understood despair and joy, and didn't think either of them were a solution to anything. I'm not sure I'd have any more support for claiming that Life Is Sweet was an important rock record than I would for saying Amnesia was Richard Thompson's best album, but Life Is Sweet actually sounds scarier and more fearless to me today than it did when it came out. Not very many people succeed in making a punk record after growing up in another genre, and certainly not as a sixth album after three dusty records with a band and two pale solo ones. Life Is Sweet was like Natalie Merchant suddenly making a Throwing Muses record. Calling it a punk album is my own subjective and deliberate simplification, but it's noisy and violent and strained and desperate and defiant and broken and beautiful, and that's closer to punk than it is to any other standard label.
Life Is Sweet came out in 1996, which has left me a lot of time in which to wonder how or whether Maria would ever follow it. I have no idea what she has done while I've been waiting. High Dive appears, without the resources for fanfare (without, apparently, even the funds to update the discography page on her web site), on Maria's own new label, Viewfinder. But the second and third tracks on the new album reprise "Life Is Sweet"/"Afterlife", the diptych that concluded Life Is Sweet, and a remade title track ought to come closer than any interview to saying what Maria now thinks about her punk album.
Except I've listened to it, and I have no idea what it means Maria thinks. Or perhaps it means that she has no idea what she thinks. It's either confused or confusing, though, I'm sure of that. A song that used to be ferocious and lonely is now wandering around somebody else's party. Where it used to roar, toy-size timpani-rumbles cartwheel past like they're falling off snack trays. The backing vocals sound like escapees from a Christmas carol meant to be performed by DAR matrons in plywood collars. The strings keep to themselves, like maybe no one really invited them. Somebody plinks bells. You only remake title songs, it seems to me, to undo damage or apologize for error, and obviously I'm not too thrilled to hear Maria try to undo or apologize for a record I thought was brilliantly constructed and brave.
But I can't immediately see how to construe this record so it doesn't imply that Maria now thinks Life Is Sweet was a terrible mistake. Even without the remake to make the comparison doubly inevitable, the records counterpose themselves by their nature. Life Is Sweet was raw and ragged, High Dive glows under velum. Life Is Sweet attempted, one could think, to jump Maria into a younger generation, and if so, then High Dive bounces her back past her own generation towards an older one. If Life Is Sweet was Maria's I-can-do-that rejoinder to Hole, then High Dive sounds more like she's spent a few years locked in a basement apartment with two cats watching old tapes of David Bowie appearing on the Lawrence Welk show. "To the Open Spaces" may think it's a country song, but "Be My Joy" is hung over disco, "High Dive" itself bahs and flowers in pastel horns, and "My Friend Foe" is obviously from a metaphorical hippie musical about organ function.
Except "In Your Constellation", if you can listen through the way the weirdly flat production kills the inertia every time the drums try to build some up, has the soul of a grand rock anthem. "Love Doesn't Love" sounds like the work of a reformed and revitalized Supremes. "No Gala" makes me think Maria might have a grown-up album like Joe Jackson's Night and Day II in her.
And then a song called "Non Religious Building" opens with Maria howling "Suicide!", and I realize that I'm so confused that confusion has started to make sense. "All of me, / Frozen like lobotomy, / When my lover gets a hold of me, / Closing in like sodomy", she declares, projecting clearly, while the songs builds towards "Baba O'Riley" flourishes. What is going on? There's something badly wrong with the production on this album, or the arrangements, something that always gets in front of these songs, so it keeps sounding to me like the left and right sides are out of phase, or maybe the drum tracks have slipped ahead or behind just subtly enough that we can only notice it subconsciously.
But strings and horns and backing vocals do their best with "Something Similar", and I can hear the expansive requiem it wants to be. "We are not collecting dust", the choirs avow or wonder. And it still sounds to me like something is wrong, but maybe it's not terminal.
And then Maria gets to "From Our T.V. Teens to the Tomb", and in a few seconds I forget I was ever confused. My brain still says there's something weird going on, but my hand jerks involuntarily onto the volume knob (and you're not cool until you have a volume knob for your computer), and sure enough, if you turn it up louder the weird stuff doesn't matter as much. She still kind of sounds like she's singing a musical for lip-readers, but when the piano and strings and guitars and drums and cymbals blast into the choruses of this, I stop thinking of that as a criticism. "And we believed / Our mothers hung the moon. / We stayed asleep / Forgetting what we knew. / And we will dream / And never leave our rooms." The choruses cut short a few beats too early, and maybe Maria also thinks she's become Meat Loaf and Carole King at once. The title line doesn't scan or cadence right, the verses sound like they were stolen from a the theme for a pantomime "Hill Street Blues", and the crash cymbals are on all the wrong beats.
And it's great. I mean, it's Great. I offer you whatever authority sincerity can confer when I tell you that this is one of the small handful of major additions to the rock song canon that we will get this year. It is a song that should grant its writer instant immortality, and provoke an immediate backlash and an almost-as-immediate revival in its defense. It is "Paradise by the Dashboard Light" good, and "Stop! In the Name of Love" good, and "Piano Man" and "Rocket Man" and "Secret Agent Man" good. Not only is it good, but it's good in a clear, bold, expressive way that will sound retro because nobody does it anymore, but nobody did it this way before exactly, either. Email Apple and tell them to get this record for the iTunes store so you can pay a dollar for it, or email Maria's webmaster to get her to put it on her site for free. Or buy the album, because this is a song worth a career's price, not just an album's.
And although it seems like a song this great and this unexpected should eclipse the rest of the album, so that it has to be worth an album's price, that's not what I find happens for me, either. This song doesn't explain the others, but it makes me stop demanding explanations. All the songs on this album sound strange, and maybe stranger in their subversive way than the ones on Life Is Sweet. But now that strangeness has an identity, to me. Punk is easy, after all. Why, when Hole and Throwing Muses can already make Hole and Throwing Muses records, did I think that had to be Maria McKee's new permanent role in the world, too? She made one of those already. And here, instead of another one, is an album you weren't waiting for, and I didn't expect, and nobody asked for, and everyone should hear.