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Lit By Corrupted Blood
196 · 29 October 98
The Nields: Play
Having had an extra year to think about it, while the 1997 Guardian reissue of 1996's Gotta Get Over Greta impeded the Nields' recorded, if not commercial, progress, I've managed to isolate the four aspects of their character that intrigue me most, just in time for their third album, Play, to reinforce these exact four impressions with a dizzying precision.
First, the Nields are one of the few folk groups I actually like better as a rock band. In the universe of genre cross-overs, this is usually one I resent, Patty Griffin's electrified Flaming Red being the most recent demonstration. (Clannad's shiny synth-pop album Sirius and Maria McKee's bracing Life Is Sweet are the only two counter-examples I can think of quickly.) The Nields, however, manage to construe rock as a natural extension of their enthusiasm for performing, it seems to me, not a product of any conscious affectation or calculated market ploy. The clattering drums and buzzing guitar of "Georgia O" sound like a family sing-along derailed by a fit of Halloween-candy sugar-high hyperactivity. "Snowman" leaps from Suzanne Vega-like restraint to its howling chorus as if realizing that even the quietest, smallest forms of desperation can make you completely crazy if you focus on them. Dave Chalfant's fuzzy bass runs and David Nields' choppy rhythm guitar on "The Art of the Gun" are like arena rock blasted at the rec-room wallpaper, and the cacophonous two-minute instrumental reprise, "Nugehtfotra" (read it backwards), is a pure lighters-aloft jam. "Friday at the Circle K" is giddy pop halfway to the B-52s. Katryna's megaphone vocals on "Train" squawk arrestingly, but have all the menace of your eight-year-old daughter calling you to an imaginary tea-party. Jittery drums and frenzied bass shore up the otherwise plaintive "Jennifer Falling Down". The fractured "Tomorrowland" whips from Pixies-ish thrash to hopscotch-rhyme twitch to a surging stair-step-chord howl. Flaming Red saddens me because it sounds like Patty trading her most irreplaceable talent for a bunch of easy skills out of which less gifted people are already making uninspiring careers. The Nields, conversely, sounds more like themselves, to me, the louder they get.
Second, and I think this is a big part of the reason that the Nields' version of rock refuses to collapse into any of the existing, seductive clichés for me, their music retains a sense of childhood playfulness that most rock groups usually beat out of their style with the frightened assiduousness that previous generations reserved for lynchings. When Nerissa and Katryna sing, I hear, and I think they hear, too, echoes of the joke songs they memorized when they were six, running through the rock songs they thought up in their twenties. They're in the radio reverence of "Georgia O", the goofy strip-mall fantasies of "Friday at the Circle K", the lurching mock-rap of "Check It Out" and the nonsense chants and sprinting rhymes of "Tomorrowland". There is a continuum between "Free to Be" and "Freebird", however obdurately most male bands try to deny it. The Nields' version of rock is how Pearl Jam might have turned out if they'd grown up as Muppets, and I certainly don't have a glut of other records that sound like that.
Third, Katryna and Nerissa's voices blend in a way that I'm not sure "blend" is really the right word for. Although I think they're capable of soothing, conventional harmonies, they must not like them, as their duets on these songs almost always find one (sometimes both) of them delegated to a part that is either hair-raisingly shrill, or so violently vibratoed that it's hard to tell where the center of the pitch range is supposed to be any more. Katryna performs the verses of "Georgia O" in a clipped, impish chirp, and the flailing choruses sound like an owl and a sheep rehearsing for a punk musical of some of Aesop's more judgmental fables. The hushed verses of "Snowman" sound more than a little like Aimee Mann, but Nerissa wails her half of the choruses like she's auditioning for Heart. The oblique harmonies on "Last Kisses" are heir to the Story and the Indigo Girls, and the bleating, luckless refrains of "Nebraska" sound like Patsy Cline fighting through either a nervous breakdown, or anthrax. "Tomorrowland" skips from one vocal personality to another like a three-minute pantomime survey of Dickens. If you hate the Nields, the sisters' voices will probably be why. Somebody encouraged them, when they were very young, and they've long since stopped being self-conscious about how they sound. I find that the more abrasively they sing, the more I enjoy it, but I should note that I still fondly remember a bowl of chili I had, when I was ten, that was so spicy it made my nose bleed.
And fourth, also in keeping with the atypical familial flavor of the Nields music, Nerissa's lyrics (they're usually hers, occasionally her husband David's) are laced with a persistent empathy that people who didn't grow up inventing stories and wishing they were in them sometimes never master. "Georgia O" is a anxious mixture of sexual tension, artistic distance and personality-cult yearning. "I don't care about your lover. / I won't make her go away.", promises the narrator of "In the Hush Before the Heartbreak", trying to find any way around the inevitable. "I'm a snowman, / Cold is all I understand", goes Nerissa's wail in "Snowman", and the strain in her voice seems to me like her frantic realization of how isolated she's allowed herself to become. Most of "Last Kisses" could be the reverse camera angle on Del Amitri's "Driving With the Brakes On", or 'til tuesday's "Coming Up Close", or any of the dozen other fading-relationship songs set in cars, but this one's chorus is a moment of complete emotional collapse, although I can't quite tell whether "These are my last kisses" is resignation or resolution. "Nebraska" compresses two whole lives of abandoned dreams and retracted horizons into a single sigh of geography, and a stranger who either sees beauty in the singer's face, or death, or maybe both. "I've been twirling around in circles to see which was my better half", explains "Jennifer Falling Down", which is perhaps more self-awareness than the narrator has earned, but a good theory for why obsessive self-analysis doesn't always lead anywhere. And although much of this sounds sad, the gleam in the Nields' eye gives itself away in the middle of "Tomorrowland", where Katryna spins out of "Everyone's got twenty-five lovers", in a description of paradise, into an ebullient "And each of them dreams only of me!" Even telling sad stories can be fun. And perhaps, one step further, even living through sad stories can be joyful.
The Nields: 'Mousse
Play is the new Nields album you can buy in stores, but if you go to their shows, or their web site, you can also buy 'Mousse (a dubious contraction of "pamplemousse", itself a dubious spelling of the name of an oversized grapefruit, whose significance eludes me), their other 1998 album, this one an eighteen-track collection of demos and out-takes spanning the band's four-year history. "Julia (Not Julia)" and "Blind", the two earliest inclusions, sound embryonic to me at best, with hints of the band's sound, but little of their essential playfulness. By the next group, though, the slinky "Waco Lake", the wistful "39 Orange Street" and the snarling "Kamikaze" are all showing signs of mischief, and the spare, sinister "Dictator" stretches out into an expansive rock sprawl. "I Hate MCI" is a pure joke-song.
As the chronology slides past Gotta Get Over Greta, the songs start sounding much more like sketches and experiments for Play to me. "Cool in the Backseat" is bouncy, but can't quite find its harmonic frequency. The bluesy "Monster" is too dark and unsettling for the album, although I'm guessing the chorus could have been reworked to brighten it. "Stainless Steel" sounds like a cross between Lisa Germano and Tanya Donelly, which also isn't the mood of Play, but is a fine, quiet mood of its own. "Living It Up in the Garden" and "Giving Them Back to Susan" are relatively straightforward folk songs, with bits in both that remind me of Joni Mitchell. "I'll Meet You in the Sky" is like the bass line from the Pretenders' "Time the Avenger" given a second life as a sing-along.
The highlights of this set, though, for me, are the first, middle and final songs. 'Mousse opens with "Daddy's Little Girl", a simultaneously poignant and sly coming-out anthem that could easily have fit in on Play, musically, although possibly it would have biased the album's theme too much. The middle song is a charming live rendition of the mock-blues number "Einstein's Daughter", one of the three songs added to the Guardian version of Gotta Get Over Greta. And the final track is the one that could single-handedly justify the collection, for me. A miniature concert unto itself, complete with two-bar solos and a fly-by medley of "Smoke on the Water" and "Tequilla", "Superhero Soup" is a children's song (starring Nicholas Ridiculous and Michael Motorcycle) for which a Saturday-morning TV-series ought to be created just so this can be its theme.
Kate & Anna McGarrigle: The McGarrigle Hour
Kate and Anna McGarrigle are the previous generation of folk-singing siblings, literally. The McGarrigle Hour is more or less their Northern companion to Nanci Griffith's Other Voices series: where Nanci recruits dozens of friends and colleagues, and stomps through the history of American folk music, the McGarrigle's mostly just round up their own family, and set off on a parallel, but somewhat less showy, trek through the French-Canadian version of folk's heritage. Before you try to do this yourself, keep in mind that the McGarrigle family includes Kate's ex-husband Loudon Wainwright, and their son Rufus, as well as Kate and Anna's other sister Jane, Kate and Loudon's daughter Martha (who appears in the title track of Kate and Anna's last album, Matapedia), Anna's husband Dane Lanken, and Anna and Dane's children Sylvan and Lily Lanken, who are joined here by old friend Chaim Tannenbaum, longtime producer Joe Boyd and engineer John Wood, violinist Joel Zifkin, guitarist (and Matapedia producer) Michel Pepin, drummer John McColgan, Rufus and Martha's pianist friend Tom Mennier, and celebrity impostors Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris. Their repertoire, for the most part, is either older or newer than Nanci's. The covers include Jesse Winchester's bluegrassy "Skip Rope Song", performed as an eerie duet between Anna and Emmylou; an elegant, almost Christmas-carol-like piano and voice performance of Stephen Foster's "Gentle Annie", led by Kate and Linda; Lily's endearingly archaic piano-violin-voice rendition of McCarthy and Tierney's "Alice Blue Gown", like one of the deadpan musical interludes in a Marx Brothers movie; Kate, Anna and Emmylou's reeling trio on the propulsive Cajun dance song "La Porte en Arrière"; Rufus, Martha, Loudon and Kate singing a frighteningly beautiful quartet over Jane's piano on Irving Berlin's "What'll I Do"; Chaim leading Dane, Kate and Anna in a rolling a cappella strut through the traditional Bahamian spiritual "Dig My Grave"; Jane taking the lead for a nostalgic version of an old French pop song called "Bon Voyage"; Martha's breathy cabaret take of Cole Porter's "Allez-Vous-En"; a gentle, pulsing, Emmylou/Kate/Anna/Loudon choir on the Sixties folk standard "Green Green Rocky Road"; Chaim's drawled country-lullaby waltz through Cartey and Joyner's "Young Love"; Loudon, Anna and Chaim's busker-style "Baltimore Fire"; all hands donning sailors' caps for the sea shanty "Johnny's Gone to Hilo"; and Rufus and Martha's angelic duet on Campbell, Connelly and Noble's ballad "Goodnight Sweetheart". The players' original contributions, some of which are as old as the covers, include Loudon's swaying "Schooldays", sung in rotating duets by Kate and Anna, Rufus and Martha, and Loudon and Chaim; Anna's "Bridge Over Troubled Water"-ish "Cool River"; Rufus' unearthly solo turn "Heartburn", on which he seems intent on impersonating Jeff Buckley, Thom Yorke and Scott Walker all at once; Kate's educational "NaCl (Sodium Chloride)"; Martha's pensive "Year of the Dragon"; Anna and Philippe Tatartcheff's elegiac farm tableau "Forever and the Same"; Rufus and Martha backing up Kate on her gauzy "Talk to Me of Mendochino"; and Chaim and Tom's smoky piano-bar performance of Chaim's old-fashioned "Time on My Hands". The McGarrigle's version of family music doesn't have the same personal resonance, for me, as Nanci Griffith's, but this, too, sounds like a marvelous way to have grown up.
Dana & Karen Kletter: Dear Enemy,
Joe Boyd and John Wood were also at the controls for this album of exquisite, string-accompanied harmonies from sisters Dana and Karen Kletter. The CD came with one of those paper Rykodisc wrappers across the top of it, explaining the mortal struggle of love and hatred that Dana and Karen spent the album, and presumably their lives, locked in, but I've lost the wrapper, and except for a couple token jabs in the lyrics, the album seems buoyantly free from contentiousness, to me, so I'm not sure what the point of the blurb was. As musical siblings, the Kletters are quite nearly the Nields' polar opposites; where I imagine that Katryna and Nerissa's introspective self-assurance was sufficient, from their first notes, to ward off anybody who might have tried to teach them to sing differently, Dana and Karen benefit from either a lot of very good training or an astonishing natural gift. At moments they remind me of both Tori Amos and Kate Bush, but more often my overriding impression is that this is what Agnetha Faltskog and Anni-Frid Lyngstad might have sounded like if they'd grown up in a good, studious British convent run by nuns with the sense to keep them away from the bad elements like Benny and Bjorn. Their harmonies are simply flawless, or at least beyond my ability to critique. The restrained accompaniments, mostly piano, violin and cello, with a sprinkling of guitar, serve as little more than canvas preparation, and could be from either this century, or Mozart's. Possibly the songs here have subjects (actually, I know they do; "Maria Marie", in fact, is an intriguing joint portrait of the Virgin Mary and Marie Curie, and I'm still deciding whether the line "Two Marys visible in darkness" is haunting or hilarious), but I can't concentrate on them while I'm listening. The sounds defy the assignment of meaning. The moments that render me most helpless, the stately "We Died in August", the ringing "Meteor Mom", the slow, legato "Father Song", the measured, brittle "Sister Song", and the haunting "Maria Marie", may as well be sunsets, for all my ability (or desire) to disassemble them and extract the source of their appeal. Too many albums like this would upset me, because I dislike, and on some level distrust, the way we react to sunsets, as if the most inspired human works are no better art than the way light happens to bend through the atmosphere, but if I only run across them every once in a while, I'm content to shut up for a few minutes and just let them glow.
The Kennedys: Angel Fire
Pete and Maura Kennedy (husband and wife, not siblings, but close enough) had a few of those moments, too, on their understated debut album, River of Fallen Stars, which had a few single chords, even, that I felt like I could listen to for hours. Life Is Large, though, their second record, found them trying to be an electric pop group, juggling more than a dozen famous guests, and in the process losing me completely. I'm thus pleased to discover that for Angel Fire they've fallen back on their own devices, enlisting a pianist and drummer on two songs, and a bassist and drummer on one more, but otherwise just relying on Pete's guitars and their earnest, bordering on artless, harmonies. The Kennedys' mode I like best is the one in which they attempt to add a few more entries to the catalog of songs for which twelve-string guitar was introduced to the world, a book that always opens, in my edition, with "The Bells of Rhymney". One or two of these per album is more than enough, I think. River of Fallen Stars had the title track, and "Stephen's Green". Angel Fire has the airy "Bells & Loaves & Letters", the spiraling "Feather in the Flame" and the undulating "A Letter to Emily", so the rest of it could be burglar alarms for all I care. But unless you are currently being robbed, the Byrds-y "A Common Bond", "The Fire & the Rose" and "A Place in Time", the "This Land Is Your Land"-esque folk-rock sing-along "Just Like Henry David", the Runrig-like "A Bend in the River" and the distorted, drum-machine propelled "Jesse" (which bears an uncanny resemblance to Tori Amos' cover of "Ring My Bell") will probably be even better.