Archive for February, 2009

Aimee Mann, Lost In Space

February 27, 2009


Aimee Mann Lost In Space

I’ve fallen in love with Aimee Mann and lost it again. I bought I’m With Stupid when I was 18, and I was a little heartbroken myself, and found a line like “All that stuff/ we knew before/ just turned into/ please love me more” to be the height of wounding precision. Mann was always jaded and dispassionate, but she also was onto something – dismissive without being glib, wallowing in feelings while also mocking them. I’m With Stupid is still the vintage Mann record, representative of who she is. In 2008, when Mann released her weakest record @#%&*! Smilers, Spin pulled a Mann on Mann – unfairly, I think – describing it as “Another nuanced collection of mid-tempo ’70s-pop-referencing tunes that document the lives of folks who manage only fleeting moments of happiness between protracted stretches of frustration.”

That was the Mann project, the stuff Mann would refer to as “my normal stuff.” By the time 2002’s Lost In Space came around, Mann had found some amount of mainstream success after early 2000’s Magnolia soundtrack, and the freedom that gave Mann to purchase back her most successful record, Bachelor No. 2. The truth is the nuance, mid-temp, 70’s-referencing collection is Bachelor, and it doesn’t hold up well. By 2002, critics took it out on Lost In Space. Rolling Stone gave it a two-star review saying her writing was obvious and her hooks were non-existent, citing “The Moth” that was drawn to the flame and “Humpty Dumpty” who had a great fall. But is that really fair? I actually find some bravery in an opening number called “Humpty Dumpty,” especially this “Humpty Dumpty,” with its ferocious chorus: “Better take the kids/ and drive forever/ Staying won’t put these pieces back together/ All the perfect drugs and superheroes/ wouldn’t be enough to bring me up to zero.” The truth is the line is just crankier than anything she’d written before, but also, sung in a lower register, more forbidding.

I had Lost In Space for at least a year before I got the whole thing, and each year I value it a little more – and, in truth, the rest of Mann’s catalogue a little less by comparison. “Humpty Dumpty” is cranky alright, but it also has bridges of soaring vulnerability – “I’m not the girl you once put your faith in,” she sings, “just someone that looks like me” in her highest register, before switching out of it to that vicious chorus. Lost In Space, then, seemed to me to be the first record of Mann’s to really indulge her viewpoint, the true emotional coldness that underlined her cynicism, sarcasm, and nuanced dismissal in her previous records. Its cover features a cartoon drawing of power lines across a spare night sky. You follow its stars and bouncing lines that connect a personality adrift in misery.

As I said, it was a year. During that year, I didn’t pay a lot of attention to “It’s Not,” the album’s final song, but eventually something struck me – this song was perfect. At first, it merely seems like the most resigned song of Mann’s career, the opposite of an affirmation – a disaffirmation, that you think things will get better but they won’t. It just seemed too simple and whiny. But the coldness that echoed through the record eventually caught up in my own life – it was a remarkably cold winter in Colorado, and I, in a phase of my life readjusting from a long study abroad, felt remarkably alone. I first got hooked on the more directly enticing songs of “This Is How It Goes” and “Pavlov’s Bell,” but “It’s Not” kept me coming back. It was a line in its bridge – “People are tricky/ you can’t afford to show/ anything risky/ anything they don’t know.” But sung with such sadness, it went from being an observation by the loneliest girl in school to being wise with hard fought, isolated lessons. That’s because the desperation that Mann’s dispassionate work had covered up comes to bubbling, thrilling fruition on Lost In Space. This is Mann embracing her inner PJ Harvey but retaining her own eloquent style.

From there, every song eventually takes hold, even “High On Sunday ‘51” and “Guys Like Me,” which I skipped on my cd player for months. Each is constructed with just the right malaise and revealing resentment. Like “It’s Not,” the album, rather than being a pick-me-up, is a rather comforting, deeply moving confirmation of your worst fears. Each song seems to reveal a line of deep poetry about the pits of self-loathing, like in “Real Bad News” which sees Mann singing, “I won’t make you feel bad/ when I show you/ this big ball of sad/ isn’t worth even filling with air.” Or in “Invisible Ink,” which finds Mann singing to a lover, “I feel like a ghost whose moving your hands across some Ouija board in the hopes I might spell out my name,” and of herself, “I suppose I should be happy to be misread – better be that than some of the other things I have become.” These are most certainly not lines written by an artist in a slump.

There’s another element that binds the album together like the lost telephone wires on the cover, and this is still to me the album’s strangest elements – drugs. They’re mentioned in at least half of the songs recorded – in “Pavlov’s Bell,” Mann implores a lover to “give her the fix,” in “This is How It Goes,” she muses, “It’s all about drugs, it’s all about shame,” and in “High on Sunday ’51,” the chorus sadly begs a love to “Let me be your heroin.” Was Mann experiencing the world’s most transparent chemical dependency? I doubt it; I think it has more to do with that over half of the “This Is How It Goes” couplet – it’s all about shame. Mann floated around the notions of humiliation and, really, of sadness with her wise, omniscient, perfectly-rhymed eloquence for years. Lost In Space goes so fervently for its own sad underbelly that it turned off the core Mann fans who fell in love with her dejection in the first place. What’s brave about it is that it revealed what was there all along.


Tori Amos, Boys For Pele

February 7, 2009


Let’s be very clear about this – I used to be a much bigger fan of Tori Amos before I figured out how nuts she was.  Perhaps all artists are a little nuts, but Tori is nuts.  On VH1’s Storytellers in 1998, when describing why she wrote Pele’s “Hey Jupiter,” Amos recounted a tale about a dead man that sat on the edge of the bed in her hotel room while on tour.  On that same broadcast, she described the tale behind a song, from 1998’s From The Choirgirl Hotel, called “Iieee,” which being told on television, in her description of a little boy who told her to drive to distant cities and start fires, would be enough proof of hallucinations to get your average citizen hospitalized.


Yet even as my embarrassment for Amos’s public appearances cooled my teenage love of her, my admiration of 1996’s Boys For Pele hasn’t subsided – I’m still certain it’s her best work, and the work of a personality we’re lucky to have.  At the time, Rolling Stone gave it a two star review calling it “self-indulgent,” and Entertainment Weekly echoed the sentiment, labeling the record “histrionic.”  The aim was often at Amos’s bewildering lyrics, which I could try and waste everyone’s time in defending as quasi-mystical, or feminist calls to arms.  But really, they are mostly bad.  The amazing thing is that doesn’t matter much.  Even more amazing is that they occasionally are pretty successful anyway.


Boys For Pele is, to me, great because it is self-indulgent – it’s the only record of Amos’s catalogue that fully explores her crazy-feminist-pissed-at-men-and-God lunacy and sublimates it.  It combines her best melodious instincts with her fiery consciousness and creates a result that’s as creative, as vital, as it is crazed.  She begins with quiet piano trembles in “Beauty Queen/Horses,” adds a harpsichord in “Blood Roses,” includes a trumpet and a bass in “Father Lucifer,” and by the time track 4, “Professional Widow,” explodes into a cavalcade of industrial synth, you’re willing to believe that Amos has abandoned all of the wise A/C melody she cultivated on Little Earthquakes and tweaked, sorta, on Under The Pink.  Frankly, those records don’t hold up well – they’re sanitized and half-cooked, even when the material is good.  Boys For Pele succeeds because it feels like so frenzied, it might explode at any moment.  For an album titled after a goddess who sits in a volcano waiting to swallow men thrown at her, that frenzy fits.


But for a minute, let me say what I mean about how it doesn’t matter that the lyrics don’t work.  I think if you wanted to pull out Amos’s lyrics and read them like a poem, like you could with Joni Mitchell, you would be disappointed.  But what are song lyrics supposed to be?  Amos has a knack for small phrases that evoke winces of emotion, that complement her idiosyncrasies.  In “Professional Widow” – still Amos’s most whacked out track to date – a line like “Everywhere a Judas as far as you can see/ beautiful angels calling” doesn’t exactly mean anything, but it sounds good.  On the big-band backed “Putting The Damage On,” a line like “I’m trying not to move, it’s just your ghost passing through” sounds deeply wounding and lovely.


Looking at the initial release information of Boys For Pele, I realize that I’ve been listening to the album in some form or another now for 13 years.  For most, “Professional Widow” and “Hey Jupiter” – if not Amos’s entire career – are flits of distant memory.  For me, I can hear the record and admire its ups and downs.  A song like “Professional Widow” that can turn, with a jump, into a sweet, lovely soft song like “Marianne.”  The beautiful “Doughnut Song” that gets exploded by sitting next to a fiery, wonderful number like “In The Springtime Of His Voodoo.”  I, for one, am happy I have Amos’s lunacy to admire, even if I’m less than overwhelmed with the rest of her catalogue – Boys For Pele is the album that Amos, acting also as producer, dared to put her lunatic head into, and we’re all a little saner for it.

Sonic Youth, Daydream Nation

February 7, 2009

Sonic Youth Daydream Nationdaydream-nation


“Everybody’s talkin’ bout the stormy weather/ what’s a man to do but work out whether it’s true?” Thurston Moore asks in the opening track, “Teen Age Riot,” setting off an album that sounds both like stormy weather and “working out whether it’s true.”  That is, seeking the truth past the way we describe it.  Would you describe it as melodious listening to that clanging, off-tune guitar in “Riot”?  It repeats like a melody certainly, but it is dirtier, much noisier, full of static and feedback.  “It’s getting so stormy in my city’s head/ it takes a teen age riot to get me out of bed,” Moore muses, and what the band spews forth over 74 minutes and 14 sprawling songs is not just that riot, it helps start what will become grunge and the rock mainstream in just another few years.


Is that an overstatement?  The album, centered with gorgeous cover art featuring Gerhard Richter’s painting Kenze (Candle), is full of bombastic tendencies – symbols for each of the band members to echo Led Zeppelin’s IV, songs that allegedly reference Saul Bellow, Joni Mitchell, ZZ Top, and that featured an art film music video for the song “Providence,” a song of an off-key piano recorded on a walkman, played over an answering machine message left from Providence, RI.  Everything about the album declares its position in the rock pantheon, but amazingly, as the years have gone by, it’s not only evidently influential in the rock records that came in its wake, it still declares and blasts its conceptual daring, its rock virtuosity, and its astonishing beauty and wisdom on succeeding listens. 


This is easy for me to say – Sonic Youth has, since I first heard the record ten years ago, consistently been the band I refer to as “my favorite band.”  Is it that I love them that much more than, say, the Velvet Underground, or Sleater-Kinney, or the Rolling Stones?  Maybe, maybe not, but Sonic Youth continue to have a quality that has never been matched in any other artist – perhaps because they’ve stayed together under the same iteration for so long, perhaps because they’re schooled in the background of New York’s art-rock scene and is often more art than rock.  Daydream Nation is so singular a triumph even in their excellent catalogue, though – the collision of their noise with their melodiousness.  Art that never overshadowed the drive of the music.  Feedback that underscored emotion.  “Teenage Riot” goes into the furious “Silver Rocket,” and then into Kim Gordon’s song “The Sprawl,” a song that is pissy (“I wanted to know the exact dimensions of hell/ does this sound simple?/ Fuck you/ Are you for sale?”) as it was rather sweet and wondrous, blanketed by a wall of noise that was propulsive, lovely, and gave way to a meadow of noise on song’s conclusion.


For a record often described as “conceptual,” “sprawling,” and “ambitious,” what exactly was its sprawling, conceptual ambition?  I have theories – I hear in songs like “Eric’s Trip” and “Hey Joni” a desire to break free from the common understanding of the things we say in society and find some “truth.”  But that’s far too cerebral.  In 1994, the band would leave as an epigram on the back cover of their (great) Experimental Jet Set, Trash, and No Star record, “Once it leaves your head, it’s already compromised,” a quote from No Wave creator Glenn Branca.  That’s a quote that defined what worked about their music – of getting infinitesimally closer to the confusion, the riot in our heads simply by making the guitars cacophonous instead of melodious.  Over time, the noise turned into melody anyway.  Another quote would be from “Confusion Is Next,” a rather middling song on their first full length record Confusion is Sex: “I maintain that chaos is the future/ Confusion is next/ and next after that is freedom.”  Consider this a little more of columns B and C than column A.


This would always be the MO for the band, and, particularly in the records released between 1985 and 1995, I don’t think it’s ever not worked.  The truth is, even on records (like 1998’s A Thousand Leaves, or 2004’s Sonic Nurse) that don’t feel as conceptually full as their best work (Daydream, Dirty, Jet Set, EVOL, Bad Moon Rising), there are still qualities on the record no one else in music can approximate.  Because Sonic Youth was always a band most beloved by music critics, there tends to be a lot of snobbishness and revisionism in describing their music also.  But Daydream Nation is the record that justifies all of that – an album that feels as revolutionary as it sounds, that explodes in your heart as much as your head.  By the time the band reaches its 14-minute, sorta-conclusive “trilogy” that closes the record, blazing “It’s an anthem in a vacuum in a hyperstation/ daydreaming days in a daydream nation,” you’re aware of hearing the sound and the feeling of a generation represented with as much beauty as volume.