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I Will Love Every Minute of My Life
Melissa Ferrick: Willing to Wait
A year and a half ago, when I was picking my choices for the best new artists of 1993, I could narrow the field down no further than two. One of the two, Liz Phair, has gone on to remarkable notoriety and acclaim, including a Rolling Stone cover and being called something like the most promising rock goddess since Chrissie Hynde (or was it Janis Joplin? the "since" would make more sense that way...). The other, Melissa Ferrick, has only garnered a few passing mentions in the "Miscellaneous Notes" sections of music magazines for writing a song complaining about how much more promotion Juliana Hatfield got from her label than she did.
It should have been, in my firm opinion, the other way around. Liz Phair's debut album, Exile in Guyville, was a bracing mixture of abstract noise and crisp pop, blunt sex and poetic views from airplanes, anger and whimsy. Her second album, Whip-Smart, however, I found monochromatic, uninspired, overthought, spiritless and otherwise limply disappointing. I keep putting it on every week or two, thinking that maybe I've just not been paying close enough attention to it the other times, but I can't pay any closer attention to it no matter how hard I try. I can't find anything to concentrate on. The songs glide by, harmless at best. "Supernova" is catchy, but there are at least four catchier songs on Exile in Guyville. The amateurish charm of the first album has been replaced with a prematurely jaded, and unexpectedly conventional, competence. Or perhaps it's just that in between Liz's first and second albums, I discovered Lisa Germano.
Melissa Ferrick, on the other hand, has made a second album to risk federal incarceration for. Her debut, Massive Blur, was a very impressive work, but the presence of such notable accomplices as Peter Holsapple, Vicki Peterson and Susan Cowsill (and some other people whose names I don't recognize) meant that there was at least a little piece of my mind that still wondered whether she'd be as overpowering left to her own devices. For this record she has politely dismissed the helpful celebrities, and stripped the band down to herself, bassist Marika Tjelios, and drummer Mauro Rubbi (half-heartedly concealed behind the percussionym "4 O'Clock"). If everybody could do this well without help, celebrities would have to stick to their own bands to make a living.
The album opens intensely, with the slow, defiant "I Am Not". Melissa Ferrick sings like a warped cross between Melissa Etheridge and Sinéad O'Connor, or perhaps between Maria McKee, Tori Amos and Jean Smith. There's a slight country twang at times, but at other times a guttural howl threatens to take over. "I am not smooth, / I am not soft, / I am not angry or mean, / I'm just a little shut off" are the first things she says here, and this is a pretty fair description of her usual attitude. "Your ankles are so strong. / I have seen you kick when you swim.", she muses, and complicated emotions always seem to lurk behind such observed details. Where Liz Phair has a gimmick as easily latched onto as Dee Snider's, Melissa Ferrick's strengths are subtler and, as is usually the case with subtler things, truer.
The album picks up slowly. "Cracker Jack Kid" is mostly slow, with a little surge in the middle. The drums finally kick in in the middle of "Faking". The acoustic guitar starts to edge toward staccato, and a doubled vocal lifts the song into its uneasy chorus. The trio only finally cuts loose on the anthemic fourth track, "Falling on Fists", as acoustic gives way to slashing electric, and co-producer Julie Last joins in on the backing vocals. I don't surrender completely to Willing to Wait until song five, though. A hyper-precise machine-gun vocal over rapid-fire acoustic guitar and shuffling drums, "'Til You're Dead" is a fascinating study of a relationship (an internal monologue, which is odd for the genre) either poised for obliteration or bound for eternity, with even the narrator not entirely sure which it is.
"Gotta Go Now", next, is an itemized anti-prejudice song that reminds me a lot of Jewel's "Pieces of You". It made me frown the first couple times I heard it, because one line sounds completely like "But Madonna would never marry a black man", which I just couldn't make sense of. I'm not much of a Madonna fan, musically, but you can hardly fault her for caving in to the bludgeoning of social pressures. Really it's almost more surprising that she hasn't married a black man yet, just to upset people (though in a way such a calculated taunt would be even more offensive for the smug assurance with which it would assume its noteworthiness). Liner examination, however, reveals that the line is "But my daughter would never marry a black man", delivered by the song's studiedly conventional narrator, which makes much more sense.
The album treads an interesting line between folk and rock. While the bulk of the songs have a folky acoustic simplicity, and "I Am Done" even has a jittery country bounce, complete with a nonsense-syllable vocal scat near the end, others like "Falling on Fists" and "Willing to Wait" spray raw energy in their wake, and while Melissa Ferrick might be able to hold a stage with only a 12-string, Melissa Etheridge fashion, these powered moments give me the impression that she wouldn't necessarily be content limiting herself to strictly that form. Even some of the songs that are little but acoustic guitar, like "Somehow We Get There", have a dark edge and non-narrative vocal presence that would make them odd coffeehouse material. On the whole, though, this is a much less noisy album than Massive Blur, so perhaps the trend means I'm wrong.
And, come to think of it, it's not that easy deciding which of the two albums I like best. Massive Blur still has more high points, more full-bore rock songs like "Happy Song", "Honest Eyes" and "Blue Sky Night". It also has more missteps, though, at least in my opinion, experiments that don't quite pan out, with the result that the album as a whole missed my top ten that year. Willing to Wait is more restrained, but conversely more controlled, and thus more consistent. Then again, the same could be said of Liz Phair's two albums, and yet Liz's second leaves me bored, and Melissa's leaves me fascinated.
What's with me?
Ani DiFranco: Out of Range
The fast acoustic guitar of "'Til You're Dead" leads naturally to Ani DiFranco, whose style strikes me as remarkably similar to Melissa Ferrick's, perhaps mixed with a touch of Jewel and a little Lida Husik. She's not new; I'd heard the name around, but hadn't paid much attention until she was described to me recently as "the Fugazi of folk music" (so there's another lesson in how little it takes to get me interested in a musician). She already has, I'm chagrined to find, six albums, all put out on her own Righteous Babe Records, of which this one, from last year, is the most recent. She's from Buffalo. In the pictures in the liner to this album, she has a nose ring and, in one shot, some very impressive hair spikes.
Like Melissa, Ani plays mostly acoustic guitar, with some electric, and gets help on parts of this album from a bassist and a drummer, along with, on one song apiece, an accordion, a piano, and a horn section. Her voice is smaller and frailer than Melissa's (not that that's saying a lot), but she takes advantage of this nicely, skittering through fast verse and whipping through melodic hairpin turns on two tonsils (something wrong with that metaphor, isn't there? but onward...). Her songwriting, with its predilection for retracing musical steps, is the part that reminds me of Lida Husik, though with Ani this mathematicism is an ingredient, not the core of her style. Her light voice is the part that reminds me of Jewel, especially on the more delicate songs here, like the airy "Hell Yeah", but Ani doesn't display the deliberately eccentric troop of influences that Jewel does.
Ani DiFranco also immediately reminds me of Happy Rhodes, though this identity is wholly extra-musical. Their styles have little in common, even when Happy's early acoustic-guitar-heavy albums are considered, but they're both fiercely independent, put out their own albums (well, Happy's significant other runs her label, Aural Gratification, but that's close enough), and are from upstate New York. And what reservations I have about both of them are very similar in nature. Though they each have singular voices and clear artistic visions, listening to their albums I still occasionally feel like their isolation shows through. A few songs on this album sound just a little too similar to me, and the piece of me that isn't overly impressed with independence wonders whether if Ani were on a major label somebody would have pointed this out to her, and prodded her to push herself more. I wonder the same thing about this column, frankly. It's hard to do good work in isolation. Or, perhaps more exactly, it's hard to evaluate your work in isolation, so whether you're doing good work or not, you have a hard time telling.
At the same time, I can certainly understand Ani's position. Faced with the choice of battling against commercial bureaucracy to assert an artistic identity, and just ignoring it and seeing what you can come up with on your own, I'd side with her without much need for reflection (not that I mean to imply that I've faced this particular choice myself; and I don't really know if Ani has, either, though I'd think that after six albums like this somebody would have tried to lure her away from her own imprint). In doing so, you implicitly resign yourself to the chance that you'll miss some and not realize it, but the hope, I guess, is that the lack of interference allows enough hits that they outweigh the misses. And given how much junk is churned out by the biggest, most polished, machines, it seems terminally inane to let the fear of imperfection paralyze you.
Which is all a digression that occurred to me in Ani's context, but which she hardly deserves. A couple songs here share similar guitar cadences, but there's a good range of styles, from the frenetic pop of "Out of Range", to the howl of "Letter to a John", to the classical-etude-ish "You Had Time", to the fractured blues of "The Diner". At times she's arresting, at times infectious. And always clear.
Tracy Bonham: The Liverpool Sessions
Back to Boston. I've been waiting eagerly for a Tracy Bonham release ever since her charged song "The One" came out on last year's local compilation Girl. I was expecting some fanfare, though, and so I was surprised to run across this unprepossessing little EP on the new-release rack a few weeks ago, with no warning. It doesn't even repeat "The One". For a moment the title even made me wonder whether this was the same Tracy Bonham. But it is. I don't know what the "Liverpool" reference is about.
Having to confront expectations of you based on one song must be a particularly thankless task (and where's that big Lisa Loeb album got to, anyway?). Tracy deals with it by slamming through seven fast tracks on this succinct seventeen-and-a-half minute CD, as if attempting to revise her own first impression in place. "Sunshine", the opening track, is deliberately minimal, with the verse accompaniment consisting of only two guitar notes, alternating. This quickly gives way to "Dandelion", which sounds the most like "The One", combining her nice, clean voice with some rousingly distorted guitar. "18 Heads Roll By" is even heavier, and "The Real" has more soft parts, but both are more or less of the same genre. Having lulled you into a little familiar complacency, Tracy then rips into the cacophonous "Talk", which finds her shrieking uncontrolledly over some monstrously sluggish guitar, and then explodes into the thrashing theme song "I'm Not a Waif", whose bruising guitar drive and screamed chorus duel with a sinuous violin part behind the vocal bridge. And then there's thirty seconds of self-conscious sing-song juvenilia called "Big Foot", and the CD changer is already switching to another disc.
So I guess I'm still waiting for Tracy's first album, but at least now I have a better idea of what I'm waiting for. If she can deliver a whole album up to this potential, she will have an interesting niche mostly to herself, with some of Hole's aggression and some of Juliana Hatfield's pop charm, but little of Juliana's frailty, nor much of Courtney Love's confrontational abrasiveness. It's not a bad mixture. In fact, I like it a good deal more than I like either piece on its own.
Helium: The Dirt of Luck
Speaking of confrontational abrasiveness, here's some more of it. Helium is mostly Boston singer and multi-instrumentalist Mary Timony, with a little percussion assistance from Shawn King Devlin, and some other miscellaneous instruments by Ash Bowie. (There is at least one album before this new one, perhaps more.) Combining Hole's more sedate moments with the noisy parts of Exile in Guyville would give you a decent idea of what this record sounds like. Mary's voice even reminds me of Liz Phair's.
In some ways I like this album a lot, and in some ways it infuriates me. The appealing parts of it are where an irresistible melody manages to get through the ragged, raw arrangements. The chorus of "Superball", where the song suddenly starts to sound like a lost bit of old Game Theory, is thrilling. The quietly mournful guitar at the start of "All the X's Have Wings" is very nice. The slow organ march of "Oh the Wind and Rain" is a thoughtful counterpoint to the song's high, breathy verse vocals. But the very thing that makes these moments most intriguing also makes me less likely to actually listen to this album that often. They are intriguing because they arise from the dissonant snarl that pervades the album; but as much as I'd like to recognize this dissonance as creation in its own right, too often its adventuresomeness flags, and it just ends up sounding like noise to me. There are too many moments on this album where the clamor seems to me to be taking the place of songwriting, where Helium could have made a song but opted to make a mess instead, just to be difficult. Too many moments I find myself mumbling that sometimes the reason nobody's played guitar strings in that combination before is that they sound bad that way. Too many chord juxtapositions where there should be chord progressions, too many harsh edges that would have been more useful rounded off a bit. Listening to this album should be more fun.
But yet, I can't write it off, or I wouldn't have even bothered mentioning it here. Tolerance for noise is a very personal thing, and where this wears on me and Mecca Normal excites me, maybe your reactions will be reversed. Particularly if "Cinco De Mayo" struck you as a loathsome betrayal of all those deliciously abstract slow songs on Liz Phair's first album, this may be just what you've wanted.
Or, like me, it may leave a taste in your ears that only repeated applications of "Sleeping in my Car", by Roxette, can eliminate.
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