Nothing But a Glass Wall Between Us
134 · 21 August 97
Jen Trynin: Gun Shy Trigger Happy
Every time I remember that Tracy Bonham got nominated for a Grammy, I get sad and a little angry. It's not vindictiveness -- I didn't like The Burdens of Being Upright as much as a lot of other people did, but I didn't begrudge Tracy her success -- so much as it is a mixture of confusion and disappointment for everybody I thought deserved it just as much. Where were all the other women who made striking and aggressive guitar records? There were more than enough good examples of the subgenre to fill a nomination list. In the absence of any of the rest of them on the Grammy ballots, though, Tracy's inclusion seemed bafflingly arbitrary to me, like some jurist's daughter had left the CD in her father's car by mistake, and it was the only album that sold less than Jagged Little Pill that the jury actually heard. So while a part of me was thrilled to see a local heroine get a chance, and amused that another album I owned actually made it to the final vote, another part of me felt suspicious and condescended to. The awards committee hadn't earned the right to nominate Tracy Bonham and have me believe they meant it, and I didn't for a moment expect that she'd actually win. Maybe if the nominations were sent out with explanations, so I could hear the nominators justify their selection, I could have been swayed. Come to think of it, that would probably be a good idea regardless.
The person I was most sad and angry for, as I walked past record-store sale-displays with stacks of Tracy's album right next to Sheryl Crow's, was Jennifer Trynin. Everything good I heard in The Burdens of Being Upright I heard at least five-fold in Jennifer's 1994 album Cockamamie. It was loud, sturdy, aggressive, clever and succinct, but it never tried to substitute intensity for melody, momentum for craftsmanship, or glibness for self-awareness. Tracy wrote some glorious choruses, but Jennifer also wrote glorious verses, and this is a rarer skill and, to me, a more valuable and interesting one. So too, Tracy was on a major label, and my favorite song on her album was two years old by the time anybody outside of Boston heard it, while Jennifer was on a tiny Boston independent called Squint, and making her way without the assistance of a fortuitous hit. She would have made a more compelling underdog. But nobody would have heard of her, and the Grammies, despite their long history, find themselves lately in the position of needing their awards to justify them, more than the other way around. Tracy could easily have been the result of intricate marketing triangulation aimed at just the right tradeoff between credibility and exposure. Jennifer, even after Cockamamie got redistributed, wouldn't have served the same function.
There may still, however, be time for reparations. Gun Shy Trigger Happy, Trynin's new album, is on Warner (Squint's logo still huddles in a corner of the back cover, but all the important copyright and publishing credits are unambiguously corporate), has a title calculated to frighten Topeka Walmart managers and intrigue their kids (at least, in both cases, until they really think about it), and finds Jennifer's name shortened to Jen as if to make her sound a little more indie (what cool person has time for extra syllables?). The core band, as before, is a trio, with Jen herself playing guitar, and new bassist and drummer Ed Valauskas and Chris Foley taking over for Cockamamie's Mike Rivard and Milt Sutton, but this time around producer Mike Denneen is given a little more freedom to interject some of his own ideas, so "If I" gets reverse-gate drum fills, "Writing Notes" gets a slow, slinky drum loop and meditative organ, "Bore Me"'s guitar gets squeezed and throttled through a gantlet of processors, "I Resign" finds Jen's voice drifting gauzily behind a sparkly, old-fashioned drum machine and velvety guitar reverb, and "Under the Knife" finds it flanged to a metallic gleam. Even on the songs built primarily around Jen's quick, slashing guitar and pinched, but unintimidated singing, Denneen's production finds odd corners of the timbres to emphasize, so that you'd need notation for pick noises and inhalations to get some of these songs right. The near-obligatory profanity to censor out of the radio edit seems to be missing from the lyrics, but there are lines like "we could do it in a hedge", "I think it's the time to make my tits flow like wine" and "I walked by your house scantily clad and prettily mad" to detain the prurient, and listeners with the patience for whole songs will find that "Around It" is about abuse and self-opinion, and "Under the Knife" conceals some barbed body-image insights under the goofy litany of surgical-improvement schemes.
But all these tricks would lead to a hollow victory, at least artistically, if the quality of Jen's songwriting didn't keep pace with them. The current commercial viability of feminine fury has given many writers an excuse to rely on the shock value of shouting at critical points where there would otherwise have to be a memorable hook, and my impression is that Jen could do this, too, but she gracefully declines. "Go Ahead" barrels along thickly, "Love Letter" is a square stomp along the line that links "Go Your Own Way" to Ratt, "Bore Me" combines quasi-industrial churn with tiny bits of falsetto harmony purloined from the Gibbs, and "Around It" is only a slight remove from Veruca Salt's "Volcano Girls", but "Getaway (February)" is liquid and thoughtful, "Under the Knife" is distended and caterwauling, and "I Resign" is elegant, legato diffidence. Reeling guitar licks and breathless Breeders-like half-stop harmonies fire "If I", but a trace of timeless rock expansiveness seeps through at the ends of the verses. "Writing Notes" begins like Alanis' "Hand in My Pocket", and skids through moments of sounding like Sarah McLachlan, Joni Mitchell and Aimee Mann, and the edgy 3/4 swing of "I Don't Need You" reminds me of PJ Harvey, albeit more in spirit than vocal tone, but "Everything" has quiet Cowboy Junkies intensity and sighing Mike Mills-ish harmonies, and the album closer, "Rang You & Ran", sounds like Low trying to make a pop song sound animated for once, and only just failing. Trynin's guitar, struck as much as strummed, buzzes and chatters around the margins and through the hearts of everything, and formations of cloned Jens reach for contrastingly angelic harmonies.
Lyrically, too, the few obvious songs are outweighed by the ones that fold themselves around smaller dilemmas and epiphanies. "Getaway (February)" is about a disintegrating relationship, but comparing the truncated relationship to the shortest month suggests (bleakly, but intriguingly) that even durable relationships are only a little bit longer-lived. "Writing Notes" is an ex-lover's lament, but the narrator misses the person she used to be as much as she misses the man with whom she was. "Love Letter" is "Writing Notes"' flip side, a relationship that the singer doesn't want to analyze (and which I think both of us suspect wouldn't survive it). "Washington Hotel" is a break-up song trying to improvise its own staging. And "Around It", though it is about abuse, is less an outcry, like Pat Benatar's "Hell Is for Children", Suzanne Vega's "Luka" or 'til tuesday's "Voices Carry" (or, in a less physical sense, Tori Amos' "Silent All These Years"), than it is simply an explanation of why the victim can't extricate herself.
Whether all this means that Jennifer Trynin merits a Grammy or not, I don't know, not least because I don't know what "merits a Grammy" could actually mean. The album cannot, even if it sells well, start any trends, because the one it belongs to is already underway. But I think many of us, myself included, tend to gravitate too strongly towards the strange and novel, and while the frontiers always beckon, those who set the places we've already been in good order do noble work, too.
Melissa Ferrick: Melissa Ferrick +1
One of the other great rhetorical "But why...?" questions I ask, this one every time I read an article that casts Ani DiFranco as the current patron saint of the counterculture, is why a nation that can support Ani, even though she insists on releasing all her records on her own label, couldn't also find it within themselves to buy enough copies of Melissa Ferrick's Massive Blur and Willing to Wait to keep Atlantic from dropping her. The two women's gender-political positions and frenetic acoustic-guitar styles are extremely similar, and although Melissa has several singing voices, at least a couple of them sound a lot like a couple of Ani's. Willing to Wait, the album that exhausted Atlantic's patience, is actually the more Ani-like of the two, and though I wasn't as floored by it as I was by Massive Blur, I thought it showed Melissa maturing nicely, and boded extremely well for the future.
Then again, if I ran the world, Massive Blur would have earned Melissa record-label tenure, and it wouldn't have mattered if Willing to Wait consisted entirely of Hungarian folk songs rearranged for humidifier and kazoo. Four years, now, after it came out, I'm only more convinced that it's one of the greatest debut albums of all time. It jumps from howling dissonance to harrowing preternatural calm to soaring, giddily anthemic, post-Lone Justice twang with an equanimity that few artists ever manage to cultivate, much less start with. Melissa's vocal demeanor combines Sinéad O'Connor's intense intimacy with Melissa Etheridge's disarming candor and Maria McKee's exquisite wail, and the hybrid leaves me half inclined to sing along, and half inclined to find something to cower under while I scrabble to get new batteries into the stereo remote.
The Ani DiFranco comparisons will surely make sense to more people than just me now that Melissa has filled the time between record contracts by putting out this album of acoustic live recordings on her own label (the self-referentially-named What Are Records?). Musical subjectivity can defy the surest logic, but predicting that people who liked the solo parts of Ani's Living in Clip will also enjoy Melissa Ferrick +1 is about as safe as these bets can get. The twelve-song live set reprises two songs each from Massive Blur ("Massive Blur" and "Blue Sky Night") and Willing to Wait ("Willing to Wait" and "Till You're Dead"), and adds eight new ones. "Massive Blur" and "Willing to Wait" were both slow and somewhat grim in their original forms, and lose none of their raw emotion when stripped musically to guitar and voice. "Till You're Dead"'s center is its hyperactive acoustic guitar, and this performance, with Melissa and her guitar somersaulting after each other in their attempts to keep up, is even more propulsive than the album version. The virtuoso improvisations and tempo variations do partially obscure the lyrics, but this is a concert, not a lecture, and presumably most of the audience already knows the words to the album songs. And although the full-band version of "Blue Sky Night" is the song that introduced me to Melissa Ferrick to begin with, and its surging choruses remain some of my favorite moments on Massive Blur, her singing and guitar playing here manage to preserve an astonishing amount of the fuller arrangement's dynamic range, and the unannounced segue into the Kinks' "Lola", with which the concert version ends, is surprising enough that I enjoy this version almost as much as the original.
The new songs, reasonably enough, sound like parts of a new album and perhaps a few tracks that won't end up making it. The driving "Asking for Love" is almost certain to get bass and drums, even though it proves here that it doesn't need them. If Melissa ends up on a big label she'll also be lucky to escape without the song retitled "Small Town Whore", for one of its more provocative lines. "You've Known It All Along" has the makings of a country torchsong or a campfire sing-along, depending on how it's produced. "Let Me Go" is Melissa Etheridge mid-tempo, and "Alone" is dark and droning, but I suspect both songs will end up with waves of guitar noise by the time they get out of the studio. "To Let You See Me", and the particularly Jewel-like "Heredity", on the other hand, are quiet folk songs, and could easily stay that way. Of the songs that feel unfinished, "Somebody Help Me" seems to me to get lost in between chords more than once, and needs to be relieved of a few more words here and there to fit the lyrics into the meter, and I think "Frog Named Freddy" would be improved by some additional notes in its circling guitar part.
The albums ends (hence, I presume, the "+1" in the title) with one band number, the deadpan country waltz "Favorite Person in the World", complete with a rueful horn solo. If this is intended to represent the style in which the next album will be done, then I haven't the slightest idea what all the other songs are going to sound like, after all.
Sara Hickman: Misfits
My friend Mike's and my musical tastes have spun in separate orbits at many points in our long acquaintance (I remember trading him the Cars' Candy-O for something when we were twelve or so, and then trading him something else I've forgotten a year later to get Candy-O back), but there's always been overlap somewhere in our spheres. Because we haven't lived in the same city since high school, though, part of my understanding of his tastes is still mired in endless afternoons listening to The Who and the Moody Blues in the various permutations of his family's "...And He Built a Crooked House"-like home when we were kids. As I careened from heavy metal to New Wave, Mike's pile of records always seemed firmly anchored to Rock, which at that age I thought of as the genre of music that fanned out, philosophically, from Pete Townshend doing his windmill thing in front of 55,000 people at the Texas Jam, or perhaps Mick Jagger peering down at them from his cherry picker. So I have a hard time absorbing the fact that Mike and my musical Venn diagrams now intersect largely out in folk music, and his stretch off into expanses of country music where I don't venture. I call him, excitedly, each time another Who reissue comes out, and each time he patiently reminds me that he hasn't listened to Live at Leeds since he was seventeen.
But people you met at the University Park swimming pool when you were five are granted some special powers over you, and one of Mike's is that when he told me that he'd become a fanatic follower of a Dallas folk singer named Sara Hickman, I immediately went out and bought all her albums I could find, which at the time was 1989's Equal Scary People and 1990's Shortstop, and an EP by her neo-girl-group side project, Domestic Science Club. I liked them all, and found Sara's mixture of storytelling impishness and pop vigor warmly endearing, and I liked 1994's somewhat more serious Necessary Angels even better, but I never quite sensed the spark in her music that would provoke fanaticism. Mike's devotion was built on live shows, so I thought seeing her play might do it, but her one Boston appearance was an afternoon show, outdoors in a skyscraper's shadow, on a windy day during the earliest stages of autumn's advance, when nobody was carrying jackets with them yet, and even Kiss in full make-up would have seemed understated in those surroundings.
But I keep buying her records, in case the next one is the one I finally get. After an ugly label confrontation whose details I've mercifully forgotten, Sara also finds herself with a between-albums lacunae fit for releasing a miscellany into. Instead of previewing new material, she takes the opportunity to round up an assortment of out-takes, soundtrack songs for films that never got used, demos, covers, bizarre studio encounters and a recording of herself singing "Grandma's Featherbed" into a Sears tape recorder at age eight. Seven of the collection's nineteen tracks are relatively normal Sara Hickman songs that might have appeared on an album but didn't happen to. "Strong Woman" could be Christine Lavin fronting a big-hat country band, the Domestic Science Club song "Dumptruck" has mannered backing vocals but a lithe upright bass line, "Satin Sheets for Alice" is a little like a Kate Bush song stripped of its Englishness, and "Let Me Take Your Picture" sounds like the Muppets are somehow involved. "Hey! Where You Goin'?", recorded with Brave Combo, is seductive and pulsing. "False Pretenses" never breaks into flamenco guitar, but always seems about to. And the quick, perky "I Want to Go Swimming in Your Eyes" swirls together the B-52s, Lene Lovich and Toni Basil.
In between these songs, though, are moments of beauty and flights of whimsy of nearly every description. "Secrets of Love II" is a smoky ballad, accompanied only by spare guitar. "Baby, It's Cold Outside" is a spritely trifle totally corrupted by Sandy Abernathy ad-libbing a nonsensical monologue while Sara tries to sing. "Everyone's Gone to the Moon" is Sara singing an old lullaby over a melancholy, atmospheric Angelo Badalamenti backing track, and "Nobody Goes to the Moon Anymore" is a Damen Bramblett song that sounds to me, ironically, a lot like "Here Comes the Sun". "Rosie's Theme" is a sunny minute with way too much personality and too many words to be a TV theme song. "Grandma's Featherbed" is performed at an insane sprint, and is over far too quickly to be annoying. "Zippity Doo-Dah", a demo from Sara's first band that sounds more like a parody of one, is hilariously overdone, its solemn meandering bass line alone sufficient to make me laugh aloud, never mind Sara's wildly over-emotive vocal performance. "I Think I Love You", a radio-show collaboration with the Dallas band Mildred, sounds like something from Hair. "Take Me With You", co-written with David Batteau and sung with Adrian Belew, with Tony Levin, David Sancious and Jerry Marotta also in tow, is an interesting song, but Sara is barely discernible under the layers of studio-player proficiency and Belew's histrionic Bowie-esque wail. "Romania", an elegiac tribute after Sara's visit there, is by turns quiet and sad and a colossal choral epic. And the album ends with another Brave Combo collaboration, a low-budget-sci-fi homage called "Radiation Man" that could be the antisuperhero flip-side to They Might Be Giants' "Particle Man".
This sounds indulgent, and meant only for existing fans, but in fact, it has won me over exactly like I thought one of her albums one day might. The random experiments and incoherent overall pacing finally show me her personality in a way that her better organized and balanced studio albums did not, in the way, I'm guessing, that her shows do. I strongly suspect that if I go back and listen to Sara's earlier albums, now, once I figure out what box they're packed in, I'll hear different things than I heard the first time. Her studio albums have more of her songs, but less of her presence. They're more dignified, but sometimes you have to sacrifice a little dignity to be better understood. And after hearing Sara sing the Sesame Street theme like it was Janis Joplin's swan song, I feel like I ought to be able to guess her passwords.