Titles are important to me.
I don’t know that I can adequately explain why. It’s true that the title of an album, book or movie has no real impact on the quality of the thing itself. One of the best albums ever made is Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and if you strip that title of its cultural significance, it’s pretty silly. Would the album still be amazing if it were called something else? Definitely. Do I still love the album, even with the name it has? Also definitely.
But an album’s name is generally one’s first impression of it, and that’s important. Most often, I’ll hear a title before I hear a note from an upcoming release, and it’s fun to imagine what kind of album we’ll be getting just from its moniker. Serious? Silly? Self-important? All three, as in the case of Fiona Apple’s new record, The Idler Wheel is Wiser than the Driver of the Screw, and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More than Ropes Will Ever Do?
It really is difficult to tell anything about an album just from its name. I’m not sure anyone would guess the depth of composition on Frank Zappa’s Burnt Weeny Sandwich just from that phrase, for instance. But I like rolling titles around in my head for a while before hearing the records themselves, and that’s easier and more satisfying when the titles, you know, roll. Instead of stumble and pitch forward clumsily.
All that said, I’m still trying to decide what I think of the name Marillion has chosen for their 17th album. They’ve called it Sounds That Can’t Be Made. Now, despite the fact that I’m left wondering whether my CD will be blank (and at $45 for the deluxe edition pre-order, it better not be), I’m just not sure what they’re trying to evoke. It’s kind of a klutzy name, but if it ties back into the lyrics nicely, I’ll be happy with it. I imagine I would have had the same reaction to Anoraknophobia, and that didn’t even call back to a lyric. I like that record just fine.
But while the oddly similar name of the new Choir album, The Loudest Sound Ever Heard, really works for me, Marillion’s title doesn’t yet. I expect that’s because I know what the Choir’s title means – the loudest sound ever heard, in drummer/lyricist Steve Hindalong’s words, is the heartbeat of a true friend. I like that. It’s schmaltzy, but nice. I hope the other Steve H., Marillion’s Steve Hogarth, has a similar reason for Sounds That Can’t Be Made.
Even if he doesn’t, hell, it’s the new Marillion album, so I’m still excited about it. But really… Sounds That Can’t Be Made. Not sure about that yet at all.
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And now for something completely similar.
It’s no secret around Aurora town that I don’t like the title of Andrea Dawn’s new album, Theories of How We Can Be Friends. Andrea and I need no theories – we are friends, and my dislike of the title (and her stubborn refusal to change it to make me happy) is a long-running in-joke at this point. She even brought it up during her recent interview on the Fox Valley Voice podcast, forgetting to mention that a) it’s funny to both of us, and b) I really like the album.
So, here. Let me set the record straight. The title, Theories of How We Can Be Friends, is clunky, overlong, inelegant and not very memorable – essentially, the exact opposite of the album itself. The album is extraordinary, a triumphant and uncompromising coming out party for an uncommonly good singer and songwriter. Listening to it, I have to continually remind myself that Andrea lives about 10 minutes from my house, and I have her cell phone number. It’s so far beyond what you’d expect from a self-released local album that your head will spin.
This is Andrea’s first full-length solo album, following a split LP with Jeremy Junkin and a live EP, and she worked on it for a year and a half with her incredibly talented husband, Zach Goforth. Andrea tickles the piano and sings like a smoky angel, while Zach plays every instrument known to man with a skill that will make your jaw drop. Their drummer is Dan Knighten, and while most other drummers might just keep a beat, Knighten paints little percussion pictures behind many of these tunes. It takes a few listens for his work to sink in, but he’s fantastic.
In fact, it may take a few listens for all of Theories to really take hold. This is a particularly subtle album, full of simple tunes that will sneak up and wallop you. The first song, “Theories,” is nothing but piano, strings and Andrea’s stunning voice, and it’s your first hint that this is not going to be a collection of pop singles, but rather a journey. The piece – part Fiona Apple, part Radiohead’s “Pyramid Song” – is gorgeous, a dark and dramatic kiss-off. It’s a song clearly addressed to someone in particular, and she begins by asking if that person knows the role he plays in her lack of innocence, and then ends with this: “Since I’ve given everything, each verse, each melody, I’m afraid it has to be nothing at all…”
It’s a bold choice for an opener, but it soon smoothly glides into “Numb and Fine,” which rides a Dan Knighten drum pattern and a repeating piano figure into one of the record’s best tunes. This one’s like driving through a dark tunnel at night, with some ringing vibes to add atmosphere. It takes more than two minutes for the song to reach its full bloom, and the crescendo is so subtle you may not even notice how much it builds.
But Andrea and Zach have just been easing you in at this point. They pull out all the stops for “Fightin’ Off That Bad,” a relatively simple tune that sounds like they spent a million bucks on it. In fact, it’s the only one here that feels weighted down by the production, instead of buoyed by it. It starts with a slinky bass line and a simple yet appealing chorus, one that gives Andrea her Adele moment around the two-minute mark. But then they pile on a full horn section, clarinets, a synth breakdown with a million little percussion instruments surrounding it, and an admittedly awesome low-moan vocal ending. That it almost pulls it off through sheer confidence is kind of remarkable.
After that, you’ll need a break, and “Underground” shows up at just the right time. A little wisp of a song, “Underground” floats by on lovely backing vocal harmonies. It doesn’t do much, but at this point in the album, it doesn’t need to. It takes you by the hand and leads you to “Spell It Out,” one of the record’s best – it has a melody that will stick with you, and the soaring bridge is probably my favorite part of the album. “Peter and the Sheep” is similarly dramatic, Andrea’s voice gliding over a staccato, Regina Spektor-ish piano figure. The lyrics are a twist on “Peter and the Wolf,” and the orchestration on this one is breathtaking.
But for all the sound and fury harnessed on this album, perhaps its most affecting song is “Old Letters,” featuring nothing but Andrea and her piano. It’s a demo recorded at home, and it’s remarkably intimate, delivering her best lyric with all the emotion it deserves. The song is a soft cry for lasting love, the singer writing of it in letters hidden below floorboards, carving it into tree trunks, keeping it in a locket around her neck. It’s tinged with sadness – as she cuts initials into a heart on a tree, she sighs, “Five or so years from now when you hardly know my name, we’ll have made history just the same…”
The greatness continues with “No Love for the Devil.” Theories is not an album full of pop hits – it’s too much of a personal journey for that – but if there’s one song here with the chance of breaking wider, it’s this one. You’ll hear why the second Andrea starts the chorus: “Bye bye, baby, oh oh, I can see…” When those clean guitar hits come in (courtesy of fellow Aurora musician Jeremy Keen), it’s magic. This song has been in my head since I first heard it, and it’s my favorite thing here.
Unfortunately, the record stumbles near the end. “Silent May” is a bit of a mess, based around an impressive, hyperactive drum pattern that doesn’t quite mesh with the simple piano chords played over it. The song’s back half is a piano-bass-drums jam that never quite lifts off – if any moment of this album could have used some intense orchestration, it’s this one. After that, “Aren’t We” is a sweet comedown, a lullaby on Rhodes piano and brushes. After the tumbling relationship depicted in “Silent May,” the closer is soothing and delightful: “All this time we thought if we could just not fall in love, but we already are, aren’t we?”
Andrea has long said she hoped to make a million-dollar album on a thousand-dollar budget. It sounds to me like she did it. But more than that, she tapped into a deep songwriting well, crafting an intensely personal piece of work. I have no idea whether Theories of How We Can Be Friends will take Andrea to that next level. To her credit, it doesn’t sound like she thought too much about that when making it. This record is uncompromising, and it’s all the better for it. And for that, I think she deserves that wider fame her record doesn’t seem to be chasing.
It’s hard to be unbiased about Theories. I heard so much about it while Andrea and Zach were making it. But even if I didn’t know them both, I would consider this album one of the best I’ve heard this year. It does what only the best music does – it draws you in, and grows deeper and more meaningful each time you hear it. With Theories, Andrea Dawn has graduated from “local artist” to just plain artist. She’s in the big leagues, and this record is too good to remain a local secret for long.
Check her out here. Now, about that rubbish title…
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Let’s finish with a title I do like.
A couple weeks ago, I got the chance to see Blue Like Jazz, the movie based on the book of the same name by Donald Miller. I just love that name. Blue Like Jazz. It could be about anything, couldn’t it? As it turns out, the film is a coming-of-age story that bears only the thinnest of resemblances to the book that lends it that title, a book I haven’t read. But that’s OK, because as interested as I was to see the movie, I was much more interested to meet its director, Steve Taylor.
I’ve been a Taylor fan since the ‘80s – before launching his film career, he was a musician. In fact, he was the sharpest satirist that the Christian music industry had ever seen. Over four full-length albums (and one biting EP), he took deadly aim at the hypocrisy he saw around him, angering the establishment. Taylor never trafficked in sweetness and light, and he always saw faith as a journey, not a destination. His early material strikes me as a little too right-wing these days, but tunes like “To Forgive” and “On the Fritz” still resonate with me.
And I still consider his 1987 album I Predict 1990 one of the finest “Christian” albums I’ve ever heard. This is the one that got him booted from Christian bookstores across the country, both for the artwork (which some thought looked like a Tarot card) and the lead track, a jaw-dropping abortion satire called “I Blew Up the Clinic Real Good.” The satire was so impressive, in fact, that many thought he was serious. Beyond that tune, there’s a depth to this album you just didn’t hear from this corner of the music world in the ‘80s. (Or, quite frankly, since then.)
So Taylor’s pretty used to pissing off the Christian industry, and he’s done it again with Blue Like Jazz. This is a film that is unapologetically Christian, and yet unflinchingly realistic in its depiction of college life. It follows a 19-year-old Don Miller (completely fictional) as he leaves his southern Baptist home and heads to Portland, Oregon to attend Reed College. Miller spends a year ditching his beliefs, both out of a desire to fit in and a genuine sense of betrayal from the church, but embraces them again by the film’s end.
Which sounds pretty hokey and typical, particularly from someone like Taylor who has railed against just that kind of pat narrative. That’s why a summary of Blue Like Jazz isn’t going to encapsulate it. This is a movie of moments, of touching relationships, of humor and heart. It’s a movie that introduces a character passing himself off as the pope of Reed College, with the big hat and everything, then gives him a real story to tell. It’s a movie full of frank sex talk, drug use and swearing (well, PG-13 swearing), relentless in its pursuit of accuracy and truth – which, it turns out, is the secret to its spiritual core.
Blue Like Jazz ends with a scene in a confession booth, erected during a particularly crazy campus bacchanal, during which Miller (played with wide-eyed wonder by Marshall Allman) realizes what he’s been running from. The film actually begins with a similar statement of faith, but where that one comes off as clunky and forced, the speech at the end feels earned. It’s especially important to me, since it’s a faith I don’t share. The pat answers and simplistic homilies had a hand in driving me away. They’re not the world I know.
That’s what the evangelicals are missing – without the struggle, it means nothing, particularly to those on the outside. That’s what they missed about I Predict 1990 as well – they lashed out at the first nine songs without listening to how the tenth, the striking “Harder to Believe Than Not To,” wrapped it all together.
I don’t think this is a great movie. But it affected me, and not just because, for long stretches, the dialogue just sings. It affected me because it depicts one of my favorite themes – faith through hardship, like blades of grass through concrete – beautifully. Taylor’s been exploring that terrain for his entire career, and his unblinking sense of the world around him makes his belief even more interesting and real to me. That’s why Blue Like Jazz is the first movie I’ve seen this year that I will likely buy on DVD.
I’ve been calling it a film without an audience – the sex talk and swearing will turn off the churchy folks, and the spiritual philosophy will turn off the non-churchy folks. But the 4,500 supporters who funded this movie through Kickstarter – one of the most successful campaigns in the site’s history – beg to differ. The book was a hit, so perhaps the movie will show that thoughtful examinations of faith can do well. We shall see.
Thanks to Emily Miller, and to Erin and Andy Sauder, who experienced the movie with me, and got to see me geek out to the point of incoherence upon meeting one of my favorite artists. Let’s never speak of that again, ‘kay?
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See you in line Tuesday morning.