So let’s talk about women.
It’s a sad fact that female artists make up a depressingly small percentage of what you’ll find in the record store on any given day. You’d think it would be at least 50/50, but it isn’t. As of this writing, Eminem sits atop the Billboard albums chart, leading a top 10 that is 90 percent male. (M.I.A. is the only female artist there, at number nine. Two more female artists, Ladies Antebellum and Gaga, are present in the top 20.)
The reason isn’t that women make less popular (or less interesting) music than men. The reason is fewer female artists are given record contracts. The Internet has gone some way toward evening that out, but not enough. As for me, I’m not often conscious of the demographics of my CD collection. I have albums from artists of both genders and many different nationalities, although I suspect the overwhelming majority of records I own were made by white males.
I’m not really sure why this is. I can get into the racial aspect another time, although my general disdain for hip-hop probably has a lot to do with the whitewashing of my CD collection. But the gender thing baffles me. I do pay attention to the number of female artists who make it into my top 10 list every year, and the percentage rarely climbs above 20. I haven’t checked, but I’d be willing to bet that accurately reflects the ratio of men to women in my collection. Just in 2010, I’ve bought an even 175 new CDs this year so far, and women contributed to a whopping 27 of them.
This isn’t bias on my part. Some of my favorite songwriters (Aimee Mann, Ani Difranco, Imogen Heap) are women, and Joanna Newsom currently sits atop my 2010 top 10 list. (In fact, we’ll be discussing another woman in the top 10 list later in this column.) The problem is that fewer female artists are allowed to be heard. Of course, there’s the usual crop of sexualized pop stars, but we’re not talking about them. We’re talking about artists, songwriters, musicians. Women who spend just as much time as their male counterparts crafting intelligent, personal music and letting it loose on the world.
I find, because of the imbalance, I tend to overcompensate. I cut women more slack than I do men, most of the time. I highly doubt I’ll ever buy a record by James Blunt, or Jack Johnson. But I have every Jewel album, including her two recent blander-than-bland stabs at country stardom. I heard something, some spark in that first album she made, that has sadly never returned. But while I’d have clambered off the train of any male artist who put me through the same Zelig-style facelessness Jewel has, I keep coming back for more. She’s one of the 27 I supported with my cash this year.
Same with Sarah McLachlan. She makes an album every seven or eight years now, and I dutifully pick it up, hoping for something with the vitality of Fumbling Towards Ecstasy. So far, I’ve been disappointed. But I still get that little tingle of excitement when I hear about a new McLachlan project. This year, not only did she release her sixth studio album, Laws of Illusion, she reignited her Lilith Fair tour, which purports to offer the best female artists in the world, all in one place.
I went to the first Lilith Fair, in 1997, and wrote a snarky column about it for Face Magazine. In that piece, I pointed out that men actually outnumbered women on the Lilith Fair stage by a factor of three to one, particularly since bands like the Cardigans, with only one female member, were invited. I got some angry letters after that, calling me a “clueless nerd” and a sexist. While I’ll cop to the former, I will definitely defend myself against the latter. If I were a sexist, would I have bought Laws of Illusion, and then suffered through it so many times, trying hard to like it?
Okay, I don’t hate the album. But I don’t understand how it can take McLachlan seven years to write and record songs like these. There’s minimal stylistic difference between this and Afterglow, from 2003. It’s once again produced by Pierre Marchand, who frames McLachlan’s voice in lush guitars, pianos and synthesizers, then smoothes it all out to forgettable wallpaper. Opener “Awakenings” is the most interesting thing here, with its quick-hit electronic beat, soaring chorus and piano-vocal coda. But it’s like she spent seven years working on this song, and tossed the rest of the album off.
As if to emphasize the point, two of these songs (“Don’t Give Up on Us” and “U Want Me 2”) appeared in exactly this form on McLachlan’s 2008 best-of collection. But many others here sound familiar as well. “Forgiveness” is another of McLachlan’s slow-piano-chords ballads, using the same structure as “Building a Mystery.” “Love Come” is the bastard child of “Possession,” but blander. I like closer “Bring On the Wonder,” but in the exact same way I like “Full of Grace.” (And it uses the “Building a Mystery” chords again…)
Again, I don’t hate Laws of Illusion. But it’s exactly the same kind of record McLachlan has made before. If you thought Surfacing and Afterglow were little masterpieces, and you’re hungry for more of the same, this album will do it for you. But if, like me, you’ve been waiting for McLachlan to grab hold of some grand inspiration again, and make an exceptional leap forward, you’ll be left wanting.
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You can’t say McLachlan’s fellow Lilith-er Sheryl Crow hasn’t tried something different on her seventh album, 100 Miles from Memphis. Whether it works is another matter altogether.
Crow made her name on middling pop-rockers like “All I Wanna Do” and “A Change Would Do You Good,” and she’s mined similar ground since then. Two years ago, though, she released Detours, a modern protest album wrapped in history. It was my favorite thing she’d done since The Globe Sessions, and it bought her another chance with me. That chance is Memphis, a (ahem) detour into old-time Motown soul music, and it bores me as often as it makes me dance.
The first two tracks illustrate that dichotomy perfectly. Six-minute opener “Our Love is Fading” is a horn-drenched workout, a nice introduction to this new style. Crow sings this material fairly well, although she doesn’t adapt her voice at all – she sings this stuff the same way she sang “Everyday Is a Winding Road.” Still, the music is pretty good, and the horn charts are sweet. But that gives way to “Eye to Eye,” a lite-reggae bore that kills the album dead. I almost don’t want to go on after this one.
But track three is Crow’s take on Terence Trent D’Arby’s “Sign Your Name,” and so curiosity gets the better of me. I’ve always said D’Arby is an underrated artist, and “Sign Your Name” is a great little song. In Crow’s hands, though, it sounds like Paul Carrack. She smooths it out (of course she does), and this new arrangement really brings out Crow’s deficiencies as a soul singer. She brings no passion or, well, soul to this thing at all. Even Justin Timberlake can’t elevate this.
The rest of the album goes up and down. Virtually all of these songs suffer from Minute Too Long Syndrome, which isn’t a bad thing when the grooves are well-crafted, as on “Summer Day,” but makes numbers like “Peaceful Feeling” an endless bore. A little too often here, Crow basically just adds horns to her standard folk-rock and calls it soul music. And when she turns political on “Say What You Want,” it’s jarring. (And ham-fisted: “Ignorance is patriotic, reason is idiotic, winds of change keep on blowing, if this is America you’d never know it…”)
Overall, 100 Miles From Memphis is a valid experiment in theory, but pretty boring in execution. I like “Stop,” an orchestrated ballad that plays to Crow’s strengths, and her take on Citizen Cope’s “Sideways” is pleasant, if overlong. But I can’t keep from thinking how much better each and every one of these songs would be in the hands of Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, for example. And to end it with a note-for-note cover of the Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back,” to which Crow brings nothing, is just a waste of time. So this was Crow’s one chance, and we’ll see if I buy anything from her in the future.
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But maybe the Lilith Fair lineup isn’t the best place to look for terrific female artists. True artistry demands that you take risks, and Lilith is all about the safe and comfortable path. The real musicians, the ones worth paying attention to, are the ones who sometimes baffle you with their choices, and no matter what, stay true to themselves.
It’s interesting that I bring all this up in the context of Liz Phair, considering how often she’s been accused of selling out. I even leveled that charge, and pretty strongly, when her self-titled album dropped in 2003. The foul-mouthed indie queen had scrubbed herself clean, hooked up with the team behind Avril Lavigne’s hits, and made a weak, limp stab at pop stardom. The album sucked, for the most part, and Phair’s integrity never made a comeback.
Except, well, it should have. 2005’s Somebody’s Miracle is a very good album, still clean-sounding and radio-ready, but inspired. Had this come out in place of the self-titled, few would have cried sellout. (Well, fewer.) And a true sellout would have done whatever her new managers at ATO Records wanted her to, rather than stick to her guns, make the music she wanted to make, and then part ways with the label over it, as she reportedly did sometime in the last five years.
Wondering what that music is like? Well, wonder no more, because earlier this month, Phair released her sixth album, Funstyle, as a $7 download through her website. The album’s first single, “Bollywood,” has some thinking she’s gone insane – it’s a pseudo-rapped rant about record companies over an unchanging, cheesy, tabla-fueled beat. It’s nuts. There are touches of Frank Zappa here and there, and a big ol’ chunk of Kevin Gilbert’s The Shaming of the True. It’s like nothing she’s ever done.
It’s also kind of awesome. I don’t necessarily even mean the song – it’s kind of a trifle, but it is funny, especially when she describes the aftermath of a murderous rage as “a bad day for the pool boy.” But I think the sheer gall Phair showed, putting this out there after a five-year absence, is pretty thrilling. Especially when so much else on Funstyle is more straightforward, more along the lines of what we expect from her at this point.
No, Funstyle isn’t all ridiculous raps and skits. Four of its 11 songs are jokes, including the opener and closer, but the other seven are serious pieces, most of which could fit nicely on Somebody’s Miracle. “Miss September” is sweet and sunny, “My My” is a slinky and convincing disco number, and the wonderfully-titled “And He Slayed Her” is a fine mid-tempo rocker with a good hook. Most interestingly, Phair has returned to a grittier, more home-demo style here – her voice is just as wavery as it was during her Exile in Guyville days, freed from the auto-tuner, and she sounds a lot more comfortable as a result.
Comfortable enough, it seems, to put out those four satirical swipes set to music. Opener “Smoke” is a few skits, one about Phair’s voice of self-doubt (which she carries around in a box), another about her inability to get into the best clubs in town, and another that finds her arguing with a record company exec, who only speaks in muffled, wordless sounds. “Bollywood” is right after it, delivering a one-two punch of batshit crazy. Thankfully, it’s another six tracks before we get “Beat is Up,” a song that juxtaposes a Dalai Lama-like voice dispensing wisdom with an airheaded housewife’s delivering banalities. (“I like the juicing? And the ginko… balboa?”) What she’s trying to say here is anyone’s guess.
And then there is the closer, “U Hate It.” This is the one on which she rhymes “I think I’m a genius” with “you’re being a peni-us,” quickly adding, “colada, that is.” Inspired, or insipid? I don’t even know, honestly. Sometimes I laugh, sometimes I groan. The rest of the song features a pair of record company men trashing Phair’s work, but then, when it proves to be popular, claiming they loved it all along. If nothing else, that’s ballsy. It’s also pretty damn funny.
Whatever you think of Funstyle – and I think it’s pretty entertaining, all told – you have to admit that Phair’s gone and done the unexpected again. Had anyone asked me to predict her next move, I would never have guessed she’d self-release an album on her website, rap over a Bhangra beat, or match Zappa in bitterness over the music industry. That, to me, is the mark of a good artist, female or otherwise – the ability to surprise me time and time again. That the record is actually pretty good helps, too, but Phair’s unpredictability is her greatest strength.
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In the end, despite the gender difference, looking for music made by women is like anything else: you have to dig for the good stuff. And you’ll often find it in unexpected places. For instance, I never would have suspected, before picking it up, that Janelle Monae would make one of the best albums of the year, and that album would be released on P. Diddy’s label, Bad Boy.
But here it is. The ArchAndroid is an absolute masterpiece. Monae is a 24-year-old singer and composer from Kansas City with a strong, soulful voice. While she would be forgiven for using that voice to sing typical club-bangers and sex ballads, she decided instead to devote it to a four-part science fiction concept piece that obliterates genre boundaries and practically explodes with imagination and life. In the process, she proves once and for all that pop is not a four-letter word, and can be an amazingly fertile ground for skillful record-makers.
Okay, hang on, because I’m about to explain the concept. Metropolis is a full-blown sci-fi pop opera in four parts, which Monae calls suites. It’s not only named after Fritz Lang’s 1927 film, it borrows liberally from its plot – Monae’s Metropolis is about an android named Cindi Mayweather, cloned from Monae’s DNA, who falls in love with a human (quite against the rules), and becomes something of a messiah figure to the other androids in a futuristic city. She self-released the first of those four suites (called The Chase) in 2007, and The ArchAndroid, her debut full-length, encompasses the second and third. Confused yet?
Well, not to worry, because even if the concept means nothing to you, the album is a fully enjoyable ride from first note to last. How best to describe this thing? Imagine if Prince and Erykah Badu had a kid, and that kid really liked Blade Runner. The music on The ArchAndroid is somewhat retro-futuristic, like Prince’s ‘80s material, but it gallops through rock, Motown, electro, rap, ‘50s balladry, and just about anything else Monae can come up with. It changes every couple of minutes, too – like the best art, The ArchAndroid is restless, like Monae simply can’t wait to show us what she’s thought of next.
The album opens with an orchestral overture, then slams into a three-song mini-suite, each tune segueing into the next. “Faster” is just awesome, the quick-step beat and nimble guitar work supporting an army of harmonized Monaes, and “Locked Inside” features a terrific soul bridge, with a bass guitar line worthy of 1970s Stevie Wonder. “Cold War” is a soaring rocker, which flows directly into “Tightrope,” one of the album’s best. Over a skipping bass line, Monae and Big Boi spit out the rapid-fire lyrics, and Monae really shines on the chorus.
Throughout this record, I was amazed at the number and variety of Monae’s influences. “Oh Maker” references Simon and Garfunkel’s “Kathy’s Song,” while “Come Alive” could be a Squirrel Nut Zippers song, if not for the flailing electric guitar and Monae’s nearly-unhinged voice. Over in the third suite, which begins with another orchestral intro, she enlists Of Montreal (yes, that Of Montreal) to perform “Make the Bus,” a psychedelic Prince-esque explosion. “57821” is a ‘60s-style acoustic piece reminiscent of The Mamas and the Papas, complete with xylophones. (It’s named after Monae’s patient number in the futuristic hospital where doctors are recording the Metropolis story from her memories. For real, that’s the story.)
The whole thing ends with an eight-minute psychodrama called “BabopbyeYa,” which twists and turns through several orchestral detours, at times sounding like the score to the original Star Trek series. It’s massive and self-indulgent and kind of amazing. The striking thing about The ArchAndroid is that, in a pop landscape dominated by iTunes and download singles, it’s a cohesive – nay, seamless – conceptual album piece, designed to be listened to as a whole. And an album this complex and detailed will take you at least three complete listens to digest. At least.
That alone is worth praising, but Janelle Monae has gone above and beyond. Her album sounds to me like a blueprint for wide-ranging pop music of the future. It takes from everything – no music is off limits –and swirls it all up in an intoxicating brew. The ArchAndroid is easily one of the best albums of 2010, and that it’s the product of an insanely talented female artist is just the icing on the cake. Monae is proof that the sad state of women in music is a cause worth taking up. If, by letting more women in through the gates, we could get more albums like this one, I’d call that a win for everyone.
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See you in line Tuesday morning.