Some Celestial Voice
344 · 30 August 01
Emm Gryner: Girl Versions
It's the middle of the night, and just about the middle of Pennsylvania. This tour schedule seemed like an appealingly madcap adventure back when she agreed to it, a series of Monday nights in Boston and little circuits of the planet in the weeks in between. In practice, after the third or fourth of these ten-hour solo car-trips on far too little sleep, the sense of excitement becomes rather harder to maintain. Ten hours is a long time to spend alone in your own thoughts. Or, actually, the first three hours are fine. One hour can easily be absorbed in transition. There is drama, and hope, in setting out, and this tour has no shortage of beginnings. Sometimes, admittedly, she's leaving somewhere it seems like she barely arrived, somewhere she couldn't possibly have attached herself to firmly enough to feel it when she pulls away again. But she plays for people. She sits down at that little piano, or stands up and puts on her guitar or her bass, and she plays these little songs for small clusters of people. Some nights she introduces herself at the beginning, and it's news to the listeners. On the bad nights it's still kind of news when she reminds them again at the end. On the good nights, or at least, the reassuring nights, everybody knows her, and they gather in unnervingly intent arcs in front of her instruments, forming her words with their own mouths as she sings them, shouting requests in the breaks for songs she hasn't even finished writing yet. So the departure myths are easy enough to compose. She reaches the highway, once again, as if setting out on the next stage of a noble embassy, carrying some flickering torch from basin to basin. Gypsy tinkers would hang cups and plates off the outside of their carts so they'd rattle, informatively, as they pulled into town; maybe she should keep her guitar in an open tuning, bungeed to the roof rack, so that the interstate air could play it like an Aeolian harp, and as she came down off the exit ramps, and wove through these cities on the way to her tiny cafes and bookstores, people who need music would hear her pass, put down whatever they were doing, and bring their souls to her for renewal. And then later, when she leaves again, there is the escape from their need. Even if every city had demands, she still doesn't have to carry them with her. The spaces between cities ask for nothing but her passage. The boys can be left behind. The idea of boys left behind can itself be left behind. All she has to do is pray the car holds out.
The second hour is productive. Once she's safely nowhere again, she's got her pile of half-made demos to contemplate: choruses to mentally rearrange, new parts to improvise, lyrics to ditch and reconceive. Yes, it's true, later she won't necessarily remember all these individual inspirations, but she'll know which songs are nearly done, and which are barely underway. She'll remember emotional states, and from those reconstruct the music that must have produced them. Fragments of lyrics taken from misread billboards, tempo shifts dictated by traffic conditions and the constant sensation of movement will all end up in these songs somehow. It's a mercy that it's so hard to start songs while driving, else no doubt half of them would be about driving.
And if the second hour is work, then the third hour is relaxation. Her little cache of other people's music has to be rationed carefully, otherwise she'll tire of it far too quickly, but a record or two, or maybe bits of three, that's fine. Maybe a couple new songs from that tape David sent, maybe half of that new Death Cab album, maybe the first Ron Sexsmith record for a change. Enough to fill an hour. Or, the other way around, an hour of music you love is enough to nourish a day of life.
The fourth through the tenth hours, though, those are the hard ones. Those are the ones in which the glamorous versions of her life, glitter-ball backing-vocal gigs and own-label independence and the look in people's eyes during "Disco Lights", give way to the version of her life in which she tries to forget that she's been awake for thirty-two hours and she's driving a skittish old car at seventy-five miles per hour on an unlit rural highway in somebody else's country. She goes a little crazy during these hours, and often can't account later for exactly how they were spent. Elaborate fantasies, varying from the poignantly romantic to the disconcertingly violent, coalesce and dissolve again. More than once she has had shoe dreams so vivid she had to stop the car and open a suitcase to be certain they're fictional. The first week she had a lot of cell-phone conversations, but she's too low on minutes, and anyway those usually made her more anxious and lonely, not less. So mostly she just drives. Periodically she'll turn the radio on, less out of a real hope that there will be anything on it than out of a wish for the invisible towns she's passing to make proof-that-they're-alive noises. Usually the proof-that-they're-alive noises also serve as proof-that-she-should-keep-driving noises, endless talk-show shouting-matches about hockey officiating or undetectable catalytic-converter subversion.
But tonight is different. Tonight there must be a small college hidden behind one of those low hills she's speeding past, big enough to have a radio station but not big enough for anybody to care what gets played on it. Apparently it's a good night for radio-wave transmission, and she slows down just a little to stay in range for a few minutes more, and has time to hear ten songs. They are played without comment or interruption, and without any evident theme or logic. At the time she thinks they're mostly from the Eighties, but in fact most of them are more recent. On their own they each have virtues, but it is this arbitrary and anonymous juxtaposition, in the middle of the night, in the middle of nowhere, that burns them into her memory. For ten songs, she feels like she's listening to a psychotic, disorganized and ultimately encyclopedic history of popular music and personal pain, a sort of ten-step incremental transformation of paralyzed desperation into quiet acceptance. Only one of the ten does she know by name, and half of them she's sure she's never heard before, but they fit together as if they were commissioned expressly and exclusively for this night. When the station finally fades out, she leaves the radio playing its static for miles, and when it finally starts coughing up the next town's clunky bubblegum r&b she skids to a panicky stop on the shoulder, pulls a heart-racing u-turn across what she desperately hopes is as level a grassy median as it looks in her cracked headlights, and drives back, shuddering with the fear that she will involuntarily hit the radio's tuning knob with her hand as she's shifting, and never find the station again. She re-enters its range just in time to hear the call letters, slam to a stop again, and use up her last few cell-phone minutes calling directory information, mis-typing the station's number in her hurry, and then on the second try getting through to somebody there and begging them to repeat the playlist to her. Two minutes later, she's back on the road, a scrap of diner menu in her bubble-vest pocket with ten hastily scrawled band-names and approximated phonetic song-titles. It won't be until a week and a half and a couple thousand miles later, home again in Toronto, that she'll have time to poke around on the net and figure out exactly what all ten of those songs were. Tracking down copies of them takes a little longer still. And horribly, but probably inevitably, once she's gone through the defiantly literal-minded exercise of compiling a CDR of those same ten songs in the precise order she heard them that night, listening to it is not the same. It's not even close to the same. Enough of that rapture was a product of her state of exhaustion, and the smell of the night air, and the texture of the road surface under her worn tires, that the songs alone are not even sufficient to recall it, let alone recreate it. A moment that might, she thinks, have mended what she had not before now thought of as a broken life of lashed-together escapes, has itself in turn escaped, which only makes her surer that she must recapture it at all costs.
But if the rapture is not in these recordings any more, it must have moved into her. And if it's in her, maybe it can be extracted, and given back to these songs. And so she sets out, because she can suddenly no longer see any other way forward, to create the album she thought she heard that night. One by one, she disassembles these songs, discards the superfluous pieces, and puts them back together beautiful. One by one, she reveals something in each of these songs, sometimes something close to the surface, sometimes something so hidden it's hard to imagine how she knew it was there.
Here, then, is rapture's track-listing. It begins, as did Fugazi's genre-defining 1988 debut EP, with their numb repudiation of inaction, "Waiting Room". On paper, a smoky piano-and-cello rendition of Fugazi's minimalist thrash seems like a parlor trick on the order of Moog Cookbook doing "Sweet Home Alabama", or at best a pastiche of Tori Amos' version of "Smells Like Teen Spirit". But Tori's translation of Kurt's rage was a jab at anybody who didn't understand that its inarticulateness was part of its point. Emm's haunting, soaring "Waiting Room" isn't so much a rephrasing of Fugazi's argument as a suggestion that they missed their own point. The original purports to be about refusal, its drum and guitar parts smashing repeatedly into the words as if into the walls of the room in question. Emm's version is calm, and in the coda, in particular, "Sitting in the waiting room" cycles without appreciable hint of disdain. Fugazi's version is a wounded animal's attempt to argue its way out of a trap. Emm's recognizes that any walls can be a trap, if you don't know how to make them constitute a home.
If the universe were more glib, song two might be "Song 2", but in this case that one comes later, and the second track is, instead, Ozzy Osbourne's "Crazy Train", originally from his solo debut, 1981's Blizzard of Ozz. Osbourne was never known for the literary sophistication of his lyrics, and the words to "Crazy Train" don't read like much, either, and in Ozzy and Randy Rhoads' incendiary-guitar version they're barely even relevant. But Emm slows the pace down, adds some dynamic and emotional range, and then steps back from it, turning an awkward, sprawling song about confusion into a precise, evocative character-study of someone trying to extricate themselves from awkward, sprawling confusion. And although Emm would have been among the last people I'd have nominated to convert one of the Ozzy songs Randy Rhoads played on into a heartbreaking memorial for him, the elegiac roll of the piano turns out to be the perfect touch, as if the most unambiguous possible demonstration of how much of the original version Randy took with him is this quiet summary of what's left without it.
But "Crazy Train", after all, was a sad song to begin with, and Ozzy's new role as the patron saint of blunt-headed "extreme" metal results, I think, from a fundamental misunderstanding of the pervasive melancholy behind most of his singing with Black Sabbath (and most of the parts of his solo career that weren't self-abnegatingly stupid or medicated into unintelligibility). The conversion of "Crazy Train" into a sad piano ballad, then, is nowhere near as shocking or impressive as the corresponding deconstruction, and reconstruction as a tentative plea, of Def Leppard's lip-smackingly nonsensical, testosterone-addled seduction anthem "Pour Some Sugar on Me", from their 1987 status-consolidation album Hysteria. You will find few more blatant examples of smugly lascivious rock-and-roll doltishness, in both lyrical and musical senses, than the original of this song, a lumbering wreck that I believe could only have been written by a band whose judgment had been totally destroyed by stardom, which makes it one of the uniquely modern song-types that modernity will be uniquely embarrassed about when it grows up. When Joe Elliot sings this, I feel queasy. He knows with such certainty that he's going to "get" the girl (the entire interaction paradigm of arena-hair-metal backstages dictates the scene's resolution) that he simply sputters out every ridiculous stream-of-consciousness come-on he can think of, less as endearments than as ululant celebration of his impending conquest. Emm's version, with every word and phrase coherently enunciated, runs the risk of sounding like Steve Allen reciting "Hot Stuff", but somehow she manages to sound sincere, as if she's found a thread of meaningful metaphor running through this rant after all. Emm's version realizes that the rock clichés are actually a barrier between the two people, if not between the swaggering star and his groupie prey then between the songwriter the star used to be and someone who won't regard him as just as superficial a conquest in return. In this context, the randomized lyrics amount to a frantic attempt, using the grammar of the dream logic, to formulate a rescue entreaty. "Pour some sugar on me" turns into a plea not just for attention, but for everything bigger the singer should want, but has no idea how to request.
Equally perplexing to me, in its own way, is Emm's at-first stark (a one-note-at-a-time piano line that reminds me of Alanis Morissette's demo of "Uninvited") and later sumptuous (i.e. "with cello") performance of Death Cab for Cutie's "For What Reason", from last year's We Have the Facts and We're Voting Yes. I bought that album, having liked its predecessor (Something About Airplanes), but I listened to it several times and could never hear anything that sounded like songs to me. Emm's version of this one is dumbfoundingly elegant, though, so I got the DCfC record out and listened to their version of it again, and I confess that I still can't hear the song there. If I'd been in the car, I'm pretty sure I wouldn't have been able to identify this, and it's possible I would not even have realized I'd heard it before. But the explanation of what I missed works whether I keep missing it or not.
The rapture nearly arrives prematurely, for me, not even halfway through the set, when Emm turns the Clash's grumbling "Straight to Hell" (from Combat Rock, an album I promise you I will never ever buy) into a ringing protest dirge. She has literate lyrics to work with here, for once, but the Clash's scattered delivery on the original, dense with stutters and portmanteaux, rendered it almost impossible to follow, and Emm, by singing everything quietly and clearly, but reproducing every syllable of the original verbatim, simultaneously reveals the text and the Clash's obfuscation of it, and the easy-out stair-step chorus has never sounded more like an abdication of the writer's responsibility to make all this complicated anti-US innuendo amount to something, nor more musically elemental.
And when I take this car trip with her, the second half is mostly a blur. Whether it was a blur to her, too, and she's succeeded in encoding that into these performances, or the blur is only a function of my fixation on the first five songs, I'm in no position to judge. The second half of the set begins with an evasive version of Blur's "Song 2" that leaves out the guitar blasts and thus makes no sense to me, picks its way through a legato and sentimental reworking of Nick Cave's gruff "Straight to You", gamely attempts to redeem Stone Temple Pilots' odious "Big Bang Baby" by giving it a chirpy piano accompaniment, and then plays Robert Wyatt's creaky "Sea Song" as mannered lounge-jazz. I phase out, however happily, during most of this stretch, returning to full consciousness only for the finale, a suitably conclusive remake of "The Day We Hit the Coast", originally recorded by the Halifax band Thrush Hermit on their 1999 album Clayton Park. It makes perfect sense, of course, for the journey to end at the coast. But maybe too much sense. The journey has to end at the coast, her car wouldn't last six feet in the ocean. But no wonder, if she never stops until she's forced to, that she always feels like she's escaping from something when she backs away again. And so this song becomes a farewell to an easier, but less useful, approach to endings, and an acceptance that from now on we will no longer have the luxury of destinations at which we can't help but arrive.
Emm's voice has rarely sounded more beautiful, to me, than it does soaring through the last couple verses of this song, and it hits me, as it should have multiple times over the course of the preceding nine songs, if not over the course of the four previous albums and the countless times I've now seen her (including what appears to have been an entirely coincidental cross-continent trip to play, on my birthday, at a cafe so close to my house that I can get there without crossing any streets), that the source of this beauty is not the structure of her vocal chords, it's the way she hears. Emm's "The Day We Hit the Coast" sounds so tearfully poignant because that's what Thrush Hermit's "The Day We Hit the Coast" sounds like to her. In her mind the drums and guitars melt away, and there's a gorgeous exit-song underneath. They could probably have been playing any ten songs, that night in the dark I've imagined, and this album would have come out sounding basically the same. Girl Versions will be compared to Tori's Strange Little Girls, of course, since the premises seem so similar and the release dates are close, but even before I've heard Strange Little Girls I can tell you the two share no essential motivations. Tori's versions will be impositions of her will on reluctant hosts, and pieces of an overarching (and ongoing) agenda. Emm's covers believe more deeply in their material than, perhaps, their material believed in itself, and have no program other than demonstrating that disbelief is the bigger mistake. Tori's album will be a big deal to a lot of people (including the executives at her label, and me). Emm's is a between-albums amusement (and her previous album was a between-albums amusement too, come to think of it) that's only significant to her label because she owns her label. I've heard many of the songs meant for Emm's next real album, including two stunning, sparkling, squirming tracks from sessions with Boston producer Wally Gagel that I think have the potential to be huge hits (although I've thought that about enough of Emm's other songs for it to be fairly clear that I don't have any idea what I'm talking about). The next album will be brash, fast and ambitious. In the meantime, here's a muted, slow and (ironically) self-contained covers record I can't stop listening to. I don't know why Emm has chosen to live her life tracing these exhausting circles, and it's my assumption, based on casual headcounts and estimated math, that her shadow existence as a backing-vocalist is paying for this solo career, not vice versa, but her bizarre choices mean that she has time to explore tangents, and that she can go to a hundred different places before she ever figures out where she wants to be. They mean, most incredibly, that I get to see her play, repeatedly, in tiny rooms in my own city, and that even when she's gone, she leaves these records behind. I say I don't know why she would drive all night just to come play for me, but then here I am, awake in the middle of the night, listening.