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Retreat Singing
Anna Waronker: Anna
On the surface, ex-That Dog singer Anna Waronker's semi-eponymous solo debut and Josie and the Pussycats' semi-pseudonymous soundtrack album seem like they could easily be opposites. The Josie movie was about as shamelessly commercial as you could get without capping Parker Posey's teeth (and I rather suspect that Parker's weirdly sedated presence was a cynically-calculated part of the producers' commercial aspirations), while Anna is an at-times-bitter post-major-label-ejection record released on her co-owned label and distributed by fringe-player Oglio as part of their game attempt to survive now that shittier labels have destroyed the ecosystem for New Wave reissues. Anna writes, plays and produces her own songs; it's not clear whether the girls in Josie operated their own lip gloss.
One level below the surface, though, things aren't as clear. Josie was a glossy movie, but the bulk of its soundtrack was done by people with independent pop credentials. Anna is a solo effort, but it has big ambitions of which it doesn't seem very ashamed. Josie has pictures of pretty non-musicians on the CD cover, but Anna has her made-up and naked. Josie had Adam Schlesinger and Kay Hanley crouched behind the curtain, but Anna has Steve McDonald and Charlotte Caffey. So maybe they're ultimately the same. They even have a song in common, Anna's "I Wish You Well". Kay sang it on the soundtrack, and now Anna gets a chance to do it her own way.
And whether commercial factors are the reason or not, for me these two versions of this song are the beginnings of the syllabus for a seminar on how much it matters what you do with a song once it's written. I realize I don't usually assign homework, but I encourage you to find copies of these two recordings and listen to them back to back at least twice. The Josie version is disarmingly straightforward for a lip-gloss anthem, a surging guitar/bass/drums arrangement augmented by little more than some extra guitar multi-tracking and a lot of airy chorus harmonies, and on its own I basically liked it. Anna's revelatory version, however, is a three-and-half-minute explicatory blitz through the opportunities Kay and Adam missed.
Start with just the first fifteen seconds of each. In Kay and Adam's version, you get five seconds of noisy bluster (mostly a heavy guitar hook and crashing drums), a not-too-crisply-executed half-stop, and then ten seconds of a time-biding musical holding pattern over which Kay sings with only a slight waifish affect. In Anna's, you first get a couple of intriguing prefatory drum spasms, after which there's an almost identical hook, except this time it cuts off cleanly, as if the half-stop was actually planned in advance. The processing on Anna's voice is much less evident than the reverb on Kay's, but Anna's singing trades Kay's traces of girlish chirp for tendrils of elegant melancholy à la Nina Gordon. When the instruments come back in under the second half of Anna's first sung line, they're not generic at all, the drum treatment letting some balloon-ish snare twang get through, and the guitar contributing a deft chordal counterpoint (rhythm guitar in the old blues sense) instead of simply doubling the bass. Kay and Adam's version follows the pop-song rules to the letter, and comes out sounding anonymous. By the chorus I'm ready for it to be redeemed. Anna's finds something interesting to infuse into each individual detail, and I'm excited to hear the rest of it before I even know if there is a chorus.
Kay and Adam's chorus is quite nice. The melody is simple, but the harmony is sighing and timeless. In Anna's version, interestingly, the first chorus doesn't have any harmony. Harmony is usually better than no harmony, but in this case its absence is part of a bigger plan. Kay and Adam's version progresses like Laurie Anderson's description of walking: during the mundane verses it slowly falls, and then in the rousing choruses it catches itself. But when your verses are interesting, they take the pressure off the choruses. More particularly, when your first verse is interesting, your first chorus doesn't have to use all its tricks. Anna's version develops.
In Anna's, therefore, the first harmony vocals can slip in, quietly, under the second verse. There's a little keyboard part hiding back there too, I think, and for me the combined effect is that I spend verse two still intrigued, not entirely sure (before this piece-by-piece analysis, I mean) whether these details are new to the second verse, or were there in the first one and I'm only now noticing them. In Kay and Adam's version, verse two is exactly like verse one, fifteen seconds of nothing much until the chorus comes back. The two versions begin to diverge in earnest in the bridge, which arrives exactly on pop-formula schedule after the second chorus. In Kay and Adam's bridge the drums initially back off to a kick pulse and hi-hat rustle, the guitar sticks to slow chords, and the bass twitters around in its upper range while Kay and the backing voices whir. All instruments return to regular stations for the second iteration, which is thus essentially verse-like, so nobody should be especially surprised to find another chorus at the end of it. The first half of Anna's bridge, on the other hand, replaces the central guitar with humming strings for a much more dramatic effect, and instead of showing off, the bass stays out of the way for a few bars and then slowly crescendoes in to set up this second iteration, in which the strings cut off and the band finally does do their version of the verse churn from Kay and Adam's. Exactly when Anna's version seems to be thinking about giving in to simpler urges, though, it makes what I think is its most inspired and counterintuitive move, realizing that the build-up to the third chorus is so obvious that the chorus itself can be taken as read. If you are compiling a pop-song advice list, "skip a chorus" would probably not be on it, but once again, if you've got verse that can support your weight, all sorts of new structures become viable.
Kay and Adam now begin to hit problems. They're barely past their halfway point, but they've already done everything once, so they're forced to start trying arbitrary variations. For the third chorus Kay sings the first line, and then they replace the rest of them with a guitar solo ripped off from the Posies' "Flavor of the Month". For the first line of the third verse they take out everything but a single guitar. The fourth chorus' innovation is that it leads straight into the fifth chorus, whose only new idea is to do both Kay singing and the "Flavor of the Month" hook. They then repeat the exit riff a few times and hold the fade-out, killing another twenty-five seconds or so, before deciding that 2:55 is close enough to three minutes that maybe the contract lawyers will give them credit for effort. Musically speaking, I believe the song's final note should be last one of the first Posies hook, at exactly 1:46. The other 1:09 is junk.
Anna's version, though, is just getting going. Her third verse, taking advantage of our displaced chorus anticipation, bumps up the backing-vocal fader a couple marks for one heady word, and then finally does surge into the third chorus, but her version then drops into a second bridge (although arguably this repetition means it's not a bridge). This time she gives the strings an acoustic guitar to play with, lets them have a couple measures to themselves before she starts singing again, and puts off the band-return a few seconds more. The driving second iteration comes to the same full stop as if it's going to skip the chorus again, and Anna even sings her next few words like she's starting another verse, but it's a feint, and the fourth chorus arrives after all. Anna's fourth chorus leads to her fifth, too, and from there on the two versions are almost note-for-note identical down to the drum fills, but even a routine ending can be mailed in or delivered. Kay and Adam's version has Kay singing the four repetitions of "All of the above" with exactly the same intonation and cadence, emphasizing their stasis, and lets the guitar fade-out take place at sound-dying speed, without any apparent sense of purpose. Anna sings the first one normally, the second one fractionally behind the beat and the third one with a slight extension at the end, which sets up the fourth one for a held final syllable that allows her to participate in her version's crisply decisive finish, as everything stops in organized sync except the nicely understated, exhalation-like decay of one cymbal hit.
The difference between adequate and inspired is most evident on "I Wish You Well" because the two tracks are nominally the same song, but go ahead and listen to the rest of both albums if you bought them to do the homework. The rest of Anna teaches the same lesson. If you'd played me Veruca Salt's Eight Arms to Hold You and Nina Gordon's Tonight and the Rest of My Life, but not Louise Post's Resolver, and asked me to interpolate the missing third album, Anna is basically what I would have imagined, the melodic and harmonic exuberance of Eight Arms to Hold You given a quirkier setting to counterbalance Nina's ambrosia immersion. "Love Story" has some of the darkness of "Volcano Girls", cut with glimmers of Go-Go's sparkle (I know the printed credits insist all vocals are Anna's, but I swear that's Charlotte Caffey in the background of at least half of these). "Beautiful" plays with diffident drum-machine ticks and murmuring synth noises, and ought to be part of the prosecution's counter-example explanation of what Mitchell Froom did wrong. "Nothing Personal" is blunt and stomping, but the measured "John & Maria" reminds me vividly of Lisa Germano, and only in small part because Lisa herself is playing violin on it. The venomous, keening "All for You" channels American Thighs, but I love the one suggestively lilting line about staying home and making lunches. Using the fragmentary "Long Time Coming", with its faked LP surface noise, as intro to "Fortunes of Misfortune" is a variant on the same old-segueing-to-new trick as the beginnings of Cyndi Lauper's A Night to Remember and "Feels Like Christmas", but it's a fine trick, and in my opinion Cyndi's music has been sadly under-appropriated.
Through seven tracks, Anna has been fun and interesting and instructive, but lyrically nothing special. For "Fortunes of Misfortune" though, the eighth, Anna suddenly thinks of a story to tell. The first couple times through, actually, I thought the story she'd thought of was the one from the movie Heavenly Creatures, and while that theory doesn't quite survive closer attention to the lyrics, it wouldn't surprise me if there were some influence involved. "We were just girls". "You wanted to be beautiful". "I knew I'd never see you again". In this version one of the girls seems to die, rather than them just being separated, but then again, that may be closer to the subjective experience. The alternately choppy and ebullient "How Do You Sleep?" isn't storytelling, but I give it credit for effort for the brash couplet that the booklet claims says "Every time you use your name / There's a girl like me going down in vein". A culture with healthier sex mores than ours would realize that the drug implications of "down in vein" are really far more odious than the rather plaintively human relationship-frustration of the homonym "vein" pretends to disguise. The quasi-blues trudge "Perfect Ten" is braying and fairly ugly, I think, but "A Hollow Daze" is an impressive hybrid of Lisa Germano fragility, Go-Go's confidence, Blake Babies wistfulness and a few faint traces of Mary Timony's evasiveness, and Anna's phrasing breathes more life than I would have expected into "And hopes will further grow, / While on and on and on they spin, / With little doubt, but little fear".
"Eat Me Alive" is a 3/4 lullaby that for me keeps threatening to turn into "What's New Pussycat?" The harrowing break-up lament "The Powers That Be" ("It was a time and place, / The way you held my face / Until it was black and blue"; "I'm glad I knew we'd part before death") is in the same meter, but a few crucial beats slower. These two set the stage for the cheerfully aggravated kiss-off finale, "Goodbye". "So you say I'm free? / I guess you must have forgotten to tell me, / At least in a way that didn't scare me." Pianos, crescendos, harmony rockets, roars, sighs, and then a delicate collapse. Yes, that one line in the lyrics raises the specter that this song is a record-label grievance, but I choose to overlook it. As a Geffen fuck-you, "Goodbye" would be inexplicably ambivalent and muted. As a relationship song, it's perfect. Oppression escapes are adrenaline-fueled, and this song retains its calm. Relationship break-ups can be oppression escapes too, of course, but those are the ones you should have known better than to get into. The sad, important ones are the break-ups that are not escape, merely letting go, the ones you were right to get into even if you're also right to get out. "I will teach you how to say goodbye", Anna sings, backing away, not wanting to leave but knowing she has to. It is a rueful, dignified, compassionate farewell; "I will teach you" is a real offer, not an idiomatic threat. This is how to say goodbye, to people, records, successes, failures, pasts, futures. Face towards what you've done, or not done, and retreat singing. The awful DuJour songs on the Josie soundtrack are an attempt to distract us from the fact that there's no way for that album to retreat at the end, because it hasn't committed to anything in the middle. Josie was the sound of intelligent musicians agreeing not to become emotionally involved in their work, and it thus becomes an upbeat soundtrack to non-participation. But non-participation is the least upbeat, least compelling, least responsive form of defiance, shapelessness given only the implicit contours of the space around its object. Anna is a version of what it sounds like when we insist that our refusals have their own structure. Skipping choruses may seem like poor pop-song procedure, but knowing which coveted things you don't value is the difference between wearing cat-ears on your head and hearing.
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