I Steal These Words and These Phrases from My Life
33 · 14 September 95
Patty Larkin: Strangers World
In the pantheon of the New Folk, Patty Larkin is about as prominent as they come. She put out the slew of small-label releases needed for credibility (including one recorded live right here in Harvard Square, which used to be about the coolest folk nexus you could find, before Christine Lavin relocated the movement's capital to Martha's Vineyard, perhaps to get away from the sound of fire trucks leaving the station right outside Sanders Theater's doors), appeared on the seminal first Four Bitchin' Babes album, and then even managed to get a big-label record deal (with High Street, a division of adult-listening mainstays Windham Hill) to supplement the reputation and resume with things like distribution, promotion, etc. She's widely regarded as one of the genre's best guitar players, to the point where the song she wrote about her own skill, "Not Bad for a Broad", doesn't seem particularly presumptuous. She sings well, she writes well, and she can make an amazing amount of noise with just one acoustic guitar and a microphone to sing into. She would seem to be perfectly situated to just make an album a year of reference-standard folk music.
In fact, listening to her last album, Angels Running, and seeing her on tour for it, I think both my parents and I wondered why she didn't just make solo albums that way. Was it label pressure that forced her to hire the obligatory band and adorn perfectly adequate folk songs with extra guitars, bass, drums and keyboards? If Patty Larkin couldn't make a person-with-guitar album seem viable, then who in the world could? I liked the full-band arrangements well enough, but her live show made it clear that they weren't integral to the songs, and so a part of me couldn't help wonder if this was the musical equivalent of gratuitous sex and car crashes in movies, elements that the money people had to have to understand how to market the thing.
After listening to Strangers World a few times, though, I think I understand things differently. On one hand, there are a number of conventional folk elements here. The lyrics are filled with storytelling and observational poetry, and sparkle with both a smart sense of humor and a compassionate warmth. Patty's guitar playing is elegant and clean, and while her voice isn't going to going to win much in the way of baked goods from county-fair how-many-octaves-can-you-sing contests, it's more than adequate for relating the narratives at hand. Backing vocal performances from Shawn Colvin, Jonatha Brooke, Jennifer Kimball and Bruce Cockburn (Bruce on two songs that sound very much like his own work, though the liner doesn't attribute anything but singing backup to him) provide the requisite illusion of there being this quiet little neighborhood somewhere where everybody in the folk community lives, hanging out on each other's porches harmonizing with whatever anybody's working on. On the other hand, though, the overall sonic texture of this album is not very folk-like at all. Subtle keyboards and whirring electric guitars from producer John Leventhal, and carefully processed background vocals, give the record a rich atmospheric depth and detail that would be more in character for Sarah McLachlan than for Christine Lavin (and in inspecting the credits, I discover that this is perhaps not coincidental, as Pierre Marchand, Sarah's producer, mixed one of these songs). The simple directness that is usually central to folk storytelling is almost completely absent, with even the funny songs here played much more for grace than for comic effect. Even the CD packaging, with its orange-toned photographs, handwriting watermarks, and clear disc tray, is unusually studied for a folk record. And though it's just an offhand reference this time, I can't help noticing that this is at least the second Larkin album in a row to contain a mention of MTV.
The most obvious explanation for all this, of course, would be that Patty is attempting to cross out of the eddies of folk into the faster current of "alternative", where spiritual compatriots like Tracy Chapman, Suzanne Vega and Shawn Colvin have profitably ventured before. If nothing else, she's eminently well-prepared for an Unplugged appearance. The thing is, this album just doesn't sound like that sort of crossover is in the mind of anybody involved. There are way too many songs that are way too quiet and stark for this album to lodge high on the want lists of overfunded college students whose last Cranberries tape finally got eaten by the player in somebody's hand-me-down Civic. Even the songs where the full band puts in an appearance are much too controlled and discreetly shaded for this to be a concerted attempt at selling out.
What I think it is, instead, is a fascinating attempt at making a different sort of genre transition, breaking the aural constraints of folk music without losing them as influences, or replacing them with dance or punk elements or anything. The kind of music that Kate Bush, Jane Siberry and Clannad have all arrived at in their own ways, from disparate directions, Patty seems to me to be trying to reach from her own. She is, at least on record, challenging the consensual fiction that there is no separation between the artist and the performer in folk music, challenging the idea that the only fitting production style for folk music is one that mimics the productionlessness of a coffee-house open-mic-night improvisation. Where the application of "production values" to folk music before has sometimes seemed very strange to me (Cheryl Wheeler's Driving Home, where even the joke songs are drenched in totally unmotivated reverb, comes immediately to mind), here it sounds like part of the art work, like part of the creative impulse, not anything imposed on it from outside. This is folk music where the sound matters, folk music that has found something more to do with a recording studio than use it to pretend that there was no such studio involved. I think it's a pretty impressive discovery.
Jonatha Brooke and the Story: Plumb
When they weren't singing on Patty Larkin's albums, Jonatha Brooke and Jennifer Kimball used to be a Boston folk duo called The Story. Jonatha wrote the songs, supplied the hyper-literate lyrics, played the guitar, did the arrangements, etc., and Jennifer provided the other half of their intricate, angular harmonies. Writing about them a couple years ago in a book that any publishers reading this should drop me a note asking about, I speculated that they might be the Simon and Garfunkel for the next century, both because their partnership seemed to have a similar dynamic, and because I thought Jonatha might well be as talented as Paul Simon. Well, the next link in the parallelism, the dissolution of the collaboration, didn't bother waiting for five albums like it did for Paul and Art. After only two Story records, Jennifer bowed out. Although this album retains the words "The Story" in the attribution, it is really a Jonatha Brooke solo album, and I doubt the "and the Story" qualifier will adorn her next effort.
Fans of the Story in its duo incarnation will probably approach this with a mixture of anticipation and dread. On one hand, Jonatha was clearly the prime inspirational force behind the band all along, and there's no reason to assume that she can't survive Jennifer's departure with her aesthetic largely intact. On the other hand, their harmony was so much of what made the Story special, and however Jonatha's name crowded Jennifer's out of the itemizations in the credits, there was still a real sense that the group was a result of their personal synergy. So the solo aftermath had the potential to be either uplifting or a crushing disappointment, either the announcement of a new life, or the epitaph of a great group that should have given us a lot more music before giving up.
You'll have to make up your own mind, obviously, but I'm signing in the "announcement of a new life" column. No, this doesn't sound like Grace in Gravity or The Angel in the House, exactly, but when you notice that the instrumentalists here are mostly the same, it's no surprise how natural an evolution from them it seems. To me, The Angel in the House was a much more relaxed album than Grace in Gravity, with less-contrived music and a less-chilly overall feel. Plumb continues Jonatha's development from writing for a duo to writing for a full band, from a writer with a flair for geometric constructions of sixths, sevenths and ninths to one who doesn't have to rely on acute musical angles to give a song structure.
The resulting album falls, I think, somewhere between Strangers World and Fumbling Towards Ecstasy. There's not much that's conventionally folky about this, unless you count acoustic guitar as inherently genre-specific. Jonatha's oblique aesthetic keeps the album from turning into a rock outing as a whole, but "Nothing Sacred" has some bluesy guitar, "Where Were You?" has a muscular groove to it, a noisy crescendo finds its way into "No Better", "Full-Fledged Strangers" has a sort of Bruce Hornsby-like soft-rock cadence, and "Charming" has a very McLachlan-esque cycling drum pattern. At the other end of the spectrum, the nicely understated string arrangement of "Paris" supports that song's persistent 3/4 acoustic guitar and some syncopated old-Story-style harmony between Jonatha and Ingrid Graudins. In between are a bunch of stately and distinctive mid-tempo songs of enviable sophistication, with Jonatha's adept guitar and edgy voice never far from the center. Bruce Cockburn appears to have squeezed Jonatha's sessions into his Boston visit, as well, as he turns up to sing backup and play a little guitar on "War". And continuing a tradition begun on The Angel in the House, Jonatha cedes control of the last track to one of her musicians, which this time gives us a very pleasant jig from "Charming"'s uilleann piper Jerry O'Sullivan.
In addition, a big part of the reason I feel my Simon-Brooke comparison is defensible is that Jonatha's lyrics are routinely exquisite. This album seems a little less overtly crafted and dense in that regard than the last one, where literary quotations accompanied almost every song, but I still have no trouble finding lines I want to write down somewhere so I'll be a participant in their existences. I love the soulless deliberateness of "Position memories carefully, / You dust them off at holidays, / Then you'll go back to the board room / And declare your passion for the new day", particularly the idea that passion is something you calmly "declare". "And our hopes will rise, / And we'll watch them fall" captures a poignant relationship detail vividly for me, as does "I will carry you along, singing discreetly", later in the same song ("West Point"). I'm fascinated by the literalness of "A man's skin will be blown back with time and confusion / 'Til it gathers by his ears", and find myself rubbing the sides of my head every time I read it, wondering when the process will start (wondering if this very confusion isn't hastening it). And in "Charming", when she sings "I want this more than anything, and I want the damned red shoes / And I want to lead Dorothy back home", the peculiarly complex mixture of frustration and determination is both appealing to me, and resonant.
Paul Simon has made a lot of albums. I'm hoping the similarity holds up at least that far.
Vance Gilbert: Fugitives
Almost the same group of musicians that made Plumb, including Jonatha, got together last year to support Vance Gilbert on his first (?) album, Edgewise. I haven't listened to that album. It looks good, I've got it right here beside my keyboard, but I haven't had a chance to play it yet. Soon. Soon as I get this week's column written. This album, however, is produced by John Switzer, who I know from his having played on and co-produced five amazing Jane Siberry albums. In fact, Siberry collaborators Anne Bourne and Rebecca Jenkins both show up on this album, and the final song features Jane herself playing piano, and is recorded in her living room. (If my columns were longer this would make a natural transition to Jane's new album, Maria, but we'll have to wait until next week for that.)
Like Patty and Jonatha, Vance is a nominal folk musician whose style doesn't obey the implied strictures that usually guide the current singer-songwriter movement. His delicate half-falsetto singing, for one thing, is far from the gravely discursive timbre of the fireside storyteller. The band backing here ranges from competent to distinguished, but basically just lends most of these songs a good-natured folk/jazz/rock appeal, amiable enough that fans of anything from James Taylor to Hootie and the Blowfish should find the sound familiar in form. I'd be more inclined to criticize if attempting to compete with Gilbert's melodies and his own guitar playing didn't seem so clearly like an exercise in annoying futility. His songwriting is a regal relic from an earlier era, an era when writing songs meant drawing out the sheet music and getting the compositions into the standard repertoires of whatever singers you could enlist. If Vance himself didn't do such a good job of performing these songs, this set of them would be a demo tape any classic singer of timeless popular music would drool over. Never mind Bob Dylan, this is the man whose songs Judy Collins ought to have been singing all those years. Every melody is so simple, beautiful and compelling that I find myself dumbfounded that, as far as I know, they're all original (with the exception of the Miracles cover "Just a Mirage", a song that was actually on the charts the day I was born). In a genre stereotyped by humility, these tunes' ambitions to immortality are arresting.
And having found one awe-inspiring dimension to this album, I'm blown away to find another. Vance's lyric writing, if you can focus past his voice and music to pay attention to it, is astonishing. Fugitives, as the title implies, is a collection of portraits of the lost and the wayward, and Gilbert travels to all reaches of society to locate them (he even looks like a fugitive on the cover, a tactic I'm guessing is intentional, since he looks happy and non-threatening on the cover of Edgewise just a year earlier). "Scene of the Crime" is a song to a lover running from commitment. "Outside Looking In" could easily be the same tale told in an omniscient third-person narration. "Pound of Prevention"'s fugitives are an attractive bank robber and the smitten teller she takes hostage in her getaway. "Annalee" finds a lonely driver on the road away from his love (Is the separation temporary or permanent? Is she dead, or did they just break up?). "Pablo's Lights" is an abused child's imagined escape into a magazine picture of a fishing boat (and reminds me of one of my favorite books, Jim Shepard's Flights, except that that child wasn't actually abused, and it was planes, not boats, and actually the planes weren't imaginary, the imaginary parts were Minnesota Vikings games, and-- okay, I just wanted to mention the book...). "Jenny and the Tower" finds a small-town prisoner atop a radio antenna, contemplating the pain in the world below her and wondering whether the wedding she is supposed to climb back down for is more likely to be her escape from that pain or the final step of her inexorable entry into it. "Johnny" finds an old friend of an AIDS victim (at least, I think it's AIDS, but I'm interpreting) trying to understand how the friend's end, and his remembrance, could have been different. "Times Two" is another one I'm reading into, but my guess is that it's a song from a father to the daughter he left. "Just the Way That It Was"'s fugitive is a racial one, a black man cut off from society by skin color, and then cut off from it even more firmly by an electrocution that the issue of race can't quite be extricated from. Even "Spencer the Rover", a traditional text, concerns an outcast, again one whose isolation is self-imposed, but it's a telling detail that the one song Gilbert didn't write is the only one in which the fugitive is readmitted into the community he left.
The song that wins Gilbert my eternal devotion, though, is "Dear Amelia". I don't think I can adequately explain why the idea of a love song to Amelia Earhart should be such a compelling premise to me. I wrote one myself a few years ago (a dual love song to Amelia Earhart and Marie Currie, actually, not to be confused with the other one I wrote around the same time that was jointly addressed to Molly Ringwald and Richard Butler), and if anybody but me ever understood what I was getting at, they chose not to admit that to me. It's something about the poignancy of falling in love with a icon, when a component of that love is precisely the desire to be the agent of the icon's escape from their iconhood. Dead icons, particularly ones lost at sea while attempting heroic gestures, make the equation all the more powerful. In the end it probably has as much to do the writer's own habit of idealizing relationships whose hypotheticality exempts them from realistic evaluation, thus constructing arbitrary and unfair juxtapositions with the necessarily more banal interactions that actually constitute the parts of life that don't take place inside fictions.
Or perhaps there's just a gene some of us have that triggers empathic enzymes whenever we think about solo aviatrixes plunging into the Pacific.