Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The List Returns From a Coffee Break: 65-61

I don't bunch these records together for any reason, but this week happens to feature five that are driven by distinct, powerful voices.

65. Iris DeMent -- My Life (1994)

Only listen to this record in the company of people around whom you would feel comfortable weeping. DeMent uses her acquired-taste warble on songs like “You’ve Done Nothing Wrong,” in which she consoles a lover who has left her (“just because I’m hurting / that don’t mean that you’ve done something wrong”). And that’s not the saddest song. Neither is the saddest song “Calling For You,” where she sings, “we fixed it, we thought, just by leaving / but the heart is too wise for deceiving / it’s calling for you.” And no, the saddest song is not “My Life,” which I posted here a few months ago. (That probably is the prettiest song, though.)

The champion tear-jerker is “No Time to Cry,” which clocks in at nearly seven minutes of strummed misery. “My father died a year ago today,” she begins . . .


The song is a lament for the way adult responsibilities can eclipse emotions. “I’ve got no time to look back / I’ve got no time to see / the pieces of my heart that have been ripped away from me / and if the feeling starts to coming / I’ve learned to stop it fast . . . there’s bills to pay and songs to play / and a house to make a home / I guess I’m older now / and I’ve got no time to cry.” There’s something undeniably maudlin about the lyrics, but with her voice and the arrangements backing her up, DeMent clearly works in a tradition that embraces the maudlin. Her songs are the musical equivalent of Old Yeller. And when you need a cathartic moment to yourself, I don’t know what else you could ask for.

64. Everything But the Girl -- Walking Wounded (1996)

OK, shake off the catharsis and get on the dance floor. Well, not quite. Walking Wounded was the duo’s first step away from gentle pop and toward club-influenced music, a step foreshadowed by the wildly popular remix of “Missing” off the prior album. But even though Ben Watt’s beats changed the sonic foundation of the band’s aesthetic, the continued presence of Tracey Thorn’s silky voice and grown-up lyrics guaranteed that the songs would appeal to a much broader audience than just ravers. Over the trippy backdrop of “Single,” she sings, “I'm sleeping later and waking later / I'm eating less and thinking more / and how am I without you? / am I more myself or less myself? / I feel younger, louder / like I don't always connect.” On “The Heart Remains a Child,” she finds herself wondering why she doesn’t “outgrow this kind of thing,” and concludes, “the mind may grow wise, but the heart just sulks and it whines and remains a child.” Even more directly, in “Big Deal,” she addresses someone who’s going through romantic distress and snidely says, “big deal / that’s the way we all feel.”

The album after this, Temperamental, is even dancier, and also terrific. It seems to me that Watt and Thorn, who are married, are done releasing albums as Everything But the Girl, which is a real shame. I’ll keep my fingers crossed for new material.

63. Van Morrison -- It’s Too Late to Stop Now (1974)

This double live album captures the legendarily moody Van in a good moment, kicking off with his cover of the cheeky-but-soulful “Ain’t Nothin’ You Can Do,” in which he sings, “when you got a headache / headache powder soothe the pain . . . when you got a backache / a little rubbin’ will see you through / when you got a heartache / there ain’t nothin’ you can do.” The horns-soaked record also features a raucous version of “Domino,” and a take on “These Dreams of You” that blows the original (on Moondance) out of the water. “Into the Mystic” is a beauty, and a perfect example of Morrison’s blend of beauty and flakiness. (Since I razzed Journey for the use of its music in films, it’s only fair to note that “Into the Mystic” has appeared in a trio that’s tough to beat for execrableness: Patch Adams, the Feldman-Haim vehicle Dream a Little Dream, and the TV show “Nash Bridges.”) The only song sorely missing on It’s Too Late from that period of his career is “And It Stoned Me.” It’s made up for by other great covers, like “I Believe to My Soul” and “Bring It On Home to Me.”

62. Ray LaMontagne -- Trouble (2004)

It’s hard to tell where this one will move. For now, this seems like a safe spot for it. When it first came out, I must have listened to it every day for several months on end. I probably would have put it in the top 15 in those days, just because I fall in loyal love like that. But now, after a somewhat less inspiring (but still good) follow-up, I’m eager to hear how his next album, out in October, sounds. I’m somewhere in between with him at the moment, so the album is somewhere in between on the list.

On this debut, LaMontagne proved he could write -- “Jolene” is a character study of a drifter, and “Narrow Escape” is a story-song complete with a tragic plot twist. It’s the more numerous and simpler sentiments, though, that work best, because LaMontagne’s voice is a raspy, rich gift that allows him to sing lines like, “I still don’t know what love means,” and not just get away with it but transport you. He takes fairly skeletal songs -- “Shelter,” “Burn,” “Forever My Friend” -- and makes them verge on profound through the passion and honesty in his voice. In this, he has something in common with the next singer on the list.

61. Aretha Franklin -- Lady Soul (1968)

There are massive hits here, like “Chain of Fools” and “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” spirited covers (of James Brown’s “Money Won’t Change You” and Ray Charles’ “Come Back Baby”), and a guest spot by Eric Clapton (“Good to Me As I Am to You”). But it’s two songs in particular that stand out for me -- “(Sweet Sweet Baby) Since You’ve Been Gone” and the album-closing “Ain’t No Way.” The former made an appearance around here not too long ago. The latter is a slow burner that reduces me to a puddle just about every time. Sure, Aretha has sounded lovelorn on some of the previous nine songs, but mostly her tone is of the jubilant-and-tough, I will love you, but don’t make me step on your scrawny neck variety. Then, in “Ain’t No Way,” she belts out, “I know that a woman’s duty / is to have and love a man.” Coming from the woman who sang “Respect” and “Think” with conviction to spare, and following the lyrics “ain’t no way to love you / if you won’t let me,” this “duty” sounds less like some pre-feminism relic than a desperate challenge -- you hold up your end, I’ll hold up mine.

Bonus: While searching for an image of the record cover, I came across this photo, which is both disturbing and transfixing:



Anonymous Anonymous said...

You're forgetting that "Into The Mystic" was also in "American Wedding", the third American Pie movie. Didn't want that to go unnoticed.

8:44 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just can't say enough about Iris Dement, after having stumbled over her a few months ago on the net, buying everything she's recorded plus all the stunning live shows available for download and catching one of her shows. Her songs are timeless, and she literally dances with your soul.

9:56 AM  
Blogger Dezmond said...

I don't have much exposure to DeMent, and I need to revisit Everything But the Girl. I obviously can't really argue with Aretha, but to be honest, Dusty Springfield's 'Dusty in Memphis' blows any Aretha album out of the water.

Now for the last two, because I have opinions on two extremes.

We've argued about Ray LaMontagne many times. You and some of your cronies think (or thought?) that he was Jesus with an acoustic guitar. I found that record to be fairly generic, coffeehouse stuff. If I heard some dude in the corner of Starbucks singing those tunes, I would be mildly entertained at most. But it would not stop my conversation and demand my attention.

The Van Morrison live album is one of the greatest live records ever released. You didn't even mention his stunning readings of "Listen to the Lion" or "Cyprus Avenue" in your commentary. It just doesn't get better than that one.

8:40 PM  

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