Debuts

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I’ve been listening to the debut album of much-discussed-on-unfogged Janelle Monae, ArchAndroid. If you haven’t heard of her, I recommend starting by watching her performance on Letterman (watch to the end for a James Brown homage). Seeing that convinced me to buy her album, and it doesn’t disappoint.

There are a couple of things that one might notice from the video that are reflected in the album — she is young, genuinely talented, full of creative energy, very ambitious, and spends a lot of time thinking about her music and her performance. Were she not so good the whole thing could sound way over thought. I’ve only listened to the album a couple of times, so I don’t claim to have figured out how the elements fit together, but I cal already say that one of the pleasures of the album is the way in which she keeps introducing new puzzle pieces — different styles, different moods. It’s all very clever and it seems like she pulls it off.

Having no particular place to start, talking about the album, I did get an interesting echo from one song. Listening to “Cold War” made me think of one of my favorite Marianne Faithfull
songs, “Broken English”, with she shared phrases “cold war” and “fighting for.” They’re an interesting contrast in styles. To begin with, the Janelle Monae song is in favor of, or at least anticipating, the titular cold war, so her version is more seductive, suggesting glamor and grandeur. But, even just hearing that song, I think you can get the sense that that “Cold War” is obviously a piece in an ambitious larger picture, while “Broken English” is whole in and of itself. This isn’t to say that one is better than the other, but Marianne Faithfull makes an emotional commitment to the song while Janelle Monae makes an intellectual commitment.

Sitting in my (metaphorical) pile of music to blog about are a couple of “from the archives” releases of early live performances by musicians that went on to become quite famous, that I’ve picked up within the last 18 months. Notably the Joe Jackson BBC recordings, and the recording of David Bowie in Santa Monica are both very good. Just last week, however, I picked up the recent release of a 1991 Tori Amos concert which is remarkable as a performance and makes me re-assess her early work. Listening to them, it is completely unsurprising that she went on to become a star.

The recording covers many of the songs from her debut album and took place seven months before the release of that album. So the material was all new to the audience, and it was her first experience performing it in front of a large crowd. The performances have, as the cliche goes, the energy of somebody who has now expectations and nothing to lose. As she writes in the liner notes, “At the ’91 show, I though, well, I’m nowhere anyway. So let’s go out and give it my best show and if it doesn’t work, well I’m still nowhere when I leave.” Hearing them makes me more impressed with her songwriting, and her investment, both creatively and emotionally in the songs.

The first thing that stands out is that she doesn’t pull an punches. Her piano playing is loud and aggressive, her singing is uninhibited. That, by itself, is no small thing. It’s one thing to write songs based on intense personal drama, it’s another to perform them without hesitation or embarrassment, and still something else to be ready to perform those songs and take over a room of 2,000 people. The second thing that’s clear is that she worked on those songs for a while and that it’s strong material. As I said I think the Glen Campbell thread you can tell the difference between a strong performance which reveals limitations in the material and one in which the song proves itself to be solid enough to support that energy or emotion without strain.

Start with “Precious Things.” The piano playing is physical and forceful, and when she gets to the line, “He said, ‘You’re really an ugly girl / but I like the way that you play”” or “I want to smash the faces of those beautiful boys” there is genuine touch of (emotional) violence.

I also find the chorus to be effective in this version of the song.

These precious things / Let them bleed /Let them wash away
These precious things let them break their hold over me

I don’t have a sense of a literal meaning but, I think of the passage from Yeats that Ferron uses as an epigraph for Shadows On A Dime in which he describes the In A Vision, Yeats describes a state between the death and rebirth of each soul, when the spirit engages in a process of “In the Dreaming Back the Spirit is compelled to live over and over again the events that had most moved it; there can be nothing new, but the old events stand forth in a light which is dim or bright according to the intensity of the passion that accompanied them. They occur in the order of the intensity of the passion that accompanied them . . . the most intense first, and the painful are commonly the most intense, and repeat themselves again and again. . . .”

It evokes someone working though intense emotions to drain from them their overwhelming power and control over the memory.

Or consider, “Leather.” I don’t think it’s as strong a song, and I think that it does have some weaknesses revealed in that performance, but it’s still an admirably nervy performance. Start with the introduction in which she says that she was told, “if you perform that song you’ll have no career” and remember that this is months before her album would be released. She can’t know at that point that things will, in fact, work out remarkably well, she just has to commit what she’s doing. Her performance doesn’t hide or sugarcoat the emotionally ugliness of the situation described in the song.

Also, it does put a different emphasis on the opening lines, “Look I’m standing naked before you / Don’t you want more then my sex” when it’s being performed live and she is standing there on stage singing that. That’s not a neutral opening. That said, the performance makes me think that lines like, “I could just pretend that you love me / The night would lose all sense of fear / But why do I need you to love me . . .” feel like cliches. No matter how much someone may mean that when they write or perform those lines, it isn’t the sort of verse that any singer can own. It’s too generic a sentiment (contrast with the verses on “Precious Things”).

Finally, it’s interesting to compare both of those songs to the album versions (“Precious Things“, “Leather“). I like the live performance better, but I think the album version have power in a different way. The live versions are more forceful, but the album versions are, in a way, more intimate. They aren’t more revealing but, by dampening the emotional intensity, they’re easier to live with. You can listen to them repeatedly without them necessarily making an emotional demand on you as a listener. Beyond that, putting them into a different, more moderated, emotional register creates an effect that is very loosely, gossipy. There’s a feeling of, “can you believe that I’m telling you this” which is (very imprecisely) flirtatious. I feel like the album versions create a relationship in which the performance says to the listener, “you are somebody that I trust to share this with” whereas the live performance says, “here’s what I have to say; deal with it.”

I admire how much of a powerhouse she is in the live performance but the contrast between that and the live versions also makes me think that her success was well earned. In both cases I feel like the performance is crafted to take full advantage of the occasion, and those two occasions are different. That’s also why I say the live performance makes me reassess the album — it’s different to hear it as making very conscious choices about presentation and know that she is capable of bringing far more energy to those songs.

Here’s another track that I’ve been meaning to write about for a long time.

A while back I picked up this Toni Childs collection knowing nothing about her*. It’s ended up working very well as a CD to listen to at work. It’s got a strong personality, she has an amazing voice, and it flows well.

I want to highlight on distinctly atypical but very good track, the (modest) hit single off her debut album, “Don’t Walk Away” which I think is a good example of 80s music done right.

It has the complete 80s production package and yet, she’s strong enough as a singer that it doesn’t bury her. She sounds young and like she doesn’t completely feel comfortable knowing how to assert herself and yet there’s an impressive intensity to her performance.

It also got me thinking about how there is something distinctly 80s about that style of having the vocals completely separated, not just from the music, but from the listener as well. The vocals are produced in a way that is neither intimate nor inflated. She isn’t close miked, but there’s almost know reverb on the vocals either. She isn’t singing in your ear, and she isn’t singing in a physical space either. It’s a vocal tone that’s powerful but suspended in space somewhere. It reminds me the production that they Eurythmics used so effectively.

I will post one of her later recordings at some point, but I need to decide which one.

I don’t have a favorite album. There are too many choices, and too many ways in which an album can be good for me to ever want to pick one favorite. But I can distinctly remember a time when I did have a favorite and I was reminded of that today.

In 7th grade my favorite album was Failure by the Posies. A choice that stands up rather well, if I do say so myself. It’s still my favorite Posies album. At that point the Posies were Jon Auer & Ken Stringfellow, just out of High School, recording in their parents’ house. According to allmusic.com Failure was recorded as a demo and Pop Llama liked it enough to release it as an album (on cassette). As they say in the liner notes to the CD version, “[W]e warn you that you are listening to a disc that was not only recorded in someone’s living room, on used tape at that, on eight tracks but was released inauspiciously as a cassette over a year and a half ago with the intention of selling a couple hundred copies to our friends and such. Little did we know, that like musical George Bailey’s we found ourselves unexpectedly blessed with darn near 10,000 friends. Fortunately, they didn’t all stay at once. Some of you may know that our house is rather small and gloomy and hardly the place one invites dignitaries. Which, if you have been so kind as to pay full retail and not hassle your record-store-cashier buddies for a discount, you are.”

As you can probably tell from those notes, they were clever, a little bit bored, and listened to a lot of music. As it turned out, they were great musicians as well. It is the classic story of rock and roll surprise success (though they never really rocked, and their success was ultimately modest). Failure is my favorite of their albums because it is the one in which they seem most relaxed in their ambitions. All of the other albums feel, to me, like they’re consciously trying to do something different, and it isn’t completely comfortable. Failure, by contrast, feels unselfconscious in a very positive way.

My favorite song, in seventh grade, was Under Easy, a sarcastic song about being frustrated with someone (a friend? or a boy/girlfriend?) who is wallowing in adolescent angst. Despite not being a particularly angst-ridden adolescent I identified with the target of the song.

They certainly weren’t above adolescent angst themselves. Take, for example, I May Hate You Sometimes. Some of the lyrics are almost painful, “I’m another one just like you, a human being.” but others are fantastic, like the opening, “Here we are, only been a couple of years, maybe longer.” That is a near-perfect opening line, particularly for someone just out of High School. “I don’t want to live up to your expectations / I don’t want to be the one to end relations / I may hate you sometimes, but I’ll always love you.” That was a line that made a big impact on me at 12. I think I’ve carried that around for a long time as an image of someone trapped in a non-functional relationship who has tied themselves completely in knots. It’s an easy emotion to empathize with.

After the last post, thinking about music that succeeds as both pop and conceptual music, I was reminded of just how impressive Laurie Anderson’s debut single, O Superman is.

Laurie Anderson’s career and musical style are such that details of chronology may not be obvious to a casual listener and, as such, it’s easy to hear how confident and successful “O Superman” is and think of it as a mid-career piece rather than a debut. I know, for myself, I heard United States Live relatively young and, while I didn’t listen to it that often, it had a significant, lasting, affect on my musical tastes. It seemed like an accomplished artistic statement by a mature performer. I never would have thought of it as a first album.

In some ways, that is a misleading description. According to wikipedia Laurie Anderson had performed live, and done previous recordings for art installations*. “O Superman” was her first recording to get widely distributed when Warner Brothers picked it up after it had become popular in Britain after being promoted by John Peel. It isn’t, therefore, the work of someone who is preparing a debut to try to make an impression on the pop music world. It was conceived of for a different audience and noticed by the pop music world.

At the same time, as I’ve said before, it’s difficult to write pop music. Whatever Laurie Anderson intended for the piece, it clearly works and that’s a significant achievement. The loop of her voice saying, “ha” is wonderfully evocative as simultaneously electronic and human. The vocals are electronically modulated in way that makes them unfamiliar without feeling overly processed or “produced.” The lyrics are allusive but, again, evocative. “Cause when love is gone, there’s always justice / And when justice is gone, there’s always force / And when force is gone, there’s always Mom / (spoken) Hi mom.”

It seems, at this moment, like a fitting descendant of the beat humor of the previous piece, though her style of humor is very different.

* For example, “One of her most-cited performances, Duets on Ice, which she conducted in New York and other cities around the world, involved her playing the violin along with a recording while wearing ice skates with the blades frozen into a block of ice; the performance ended only when the ice had melted away.”

A little while ago I mentioned that a band containing a pair of High School friends of mine had gone into the studio to record material for an album.

I subsequently commented that I had been enjoying the advance copy that I received, and that there would be more information at a later date.

That time has arrived. I have heard that CDs will be back from the duplicator next week. As soon as I find out information about how to purchase the album, I will give you the hard sell and try to convince as many of you reading this blog as possible to buy a copy. For now, however, it’s time to celebrate a project done well — the upcoming album Red Over Red by Trenchmouth.

Red Over Red cover art

There are two things I want to talk about, first how much I like the album, and secondly a little bit of what I know from sitting in on the recording process.
Read the rest of this entry »

I was listening to an album that I hadn’t listened to in a while, and was really impressed.

It was done as a document of the local music scene in Victoria BC. I know the person who produced it (and how can you not like someone who titles their label “Pucker Lips Music … a division of Apocalypse Enterprises Inc.”), and I knew that I liked it, but I was really surprised to remember how successful it is. It manages to capture the feel of a live music scene without being too earnest, for lack of a better word.

I want to quote the liner notes at length, at some point, but first a teaser. The opening track off the CD is by two people who had never done ny recording before (which is true of several of the tracks) and it’s an astonishing debut — Little Bird of Heaven.

I think it’s a remarkable example of the distinction between “people having fun playing music” and “people playing music that makes them happy.” In this case, I think it’s palpable that the act of playing this music brings them pleasure.

It is special to be able to hear that in a recording.

Update: I realized that I forgot to credit the performers — Katherine Dennison and Shanti Bremer.

I need a new category for music that I like but for which I haven’t completely decided why I like it.

I was given a copy of the Guided By Voices box set for my birthday and, with some trepidation, I started listening to it last week and have been enjoying it.

I’ve gotten solidly into the first two albums and have started listening to the third album. The song that most jumped out at me from the first album was “A Portrait Destroyed By Fire” (which I will probably post later) but on second and third listenings I’ve really appreciated Crux to my surprise.

Whatever I can say about it is still provisional, but these are my thoughts:

Whatever “lo-fi” means as a style the song is clearly excited about sound. From the thin but very tight and precise drum sound that opens the cut, to the clean electric guitar that comes in later it’s a certain example of great sound.

There’s something endearing about the combination of interesting sounds, with a very modest track. There is nothing about it that compels attention, but it invites attention is very casual way. It feels very sincere in it’s way.

It is also a certain model of indie music. It is completely radio unfriendly without being unfriendly to the listener in any way. There’s nothing harsh or rude, but you couldn’t imagine it being played on the radio. It has no narrative arc to the music. It has a beginning, middle, and end, but they don’t follow any logical sequence. It is non-teleological and, in that, it makes clear how much the radio wants music that has a destination and an order to one thing following another.

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