I caught the first Lilith Fair in 1997.
Sarah McLachlan’s traveling celebration of women in music came at one of those bizarre cultural moments that seem to happen every few years, when we decide that it’s somehow novel that women write and play their own songs. I’ve never quite understood that, having been a fan of most of the women on that inaugural bill for years, but if the culture occasionally catches up to artists like Fiona Apple and Tracy Chapman, there’s nothing bad about that.
I ended up covering the Lilith Fair for Face Magazine, and I used my extended review to repeatedly poke fun at the notion that this tour was something revolutionary. This didn’t win me any friends, and I’ve grown up a lot since then. Were I to cover the tour now, I’d probably write something a lot more straightforward, noting that women songwriters still hold a disproportionately small percentage of the recording contracts, and female artists that are not called upon for their looks remain few and far between.
I didn’t know how things would go, though, did I? I couldn’t have imagined that the Lilith Fair artists would mainly have gone the way of the dodo by now. We haven’t heard from Chapman in six years (longer if you count the last time the world at large paid attention), and she shows no signs of returning. Fiona Apple is still phenomenal, but she puts out an album every five years, and then disappears. McLachlan’s last few albums have found her drifting off into willowy irrelevance. Jewel’s gone pop-country, Sheryl Crow hasn’t made anything worth listening to in ages. It’s pretty bleak.
Even at the time, though, I considered the great hope for female singer-songwriters to be Tori Amos. The first Lilith Fair took place the same year Amos released From the Choirgirl Hotel, a decent but unspectacular record that, as it turned out, was the first sign of the apocalypse. I’ve talked ad nauseam in this column about Amos’ first three unimpeachable albums, and how far she’s fallen since. It’s not worth rehashing. Suffice it to say that when the best record you’ve made in 20 years is a collection of rewrites of classical pieces, something’s gone very wrong.
But lo and behold, it’s like 1997 all over again. While Amos’ 14th album, Unrepentant Geraldines, isn’t quite up to the standard she set with Little Earthquakes and its two successors, it’s my favorite in some time. I initially approached it with trepidation, and if you’ve seen the godawful cover, you know why. And after my first listen, I wrote Geraldines off as just another latter-day Tori Amos album – overlong, overstuffed, full of mediocre songs hiding a few pretty good ones. In many ways, that remains true, but subsequent listens have convinced me that the good songs are actually really good, and could herald a Tori renaissance.
I don’t want to give the wrong idea here. Geraldines contains the usual mix of meandering nothings and a couple of absolute stinkers. I’ll tackle those first, so you know I’m not out to mislead anyone. “Promise,” a duet with Amos’ daughter Natasha, may be the worst song she’s ever written, a bland paean to motherly devotion. It doesn’t help that Natasha sings like she wants to be on American Idol. Seriously, Mariah Carey would be embarrassed to claim this one. It’s immediately followed by “Giant’s Rolling Pin,” another contender for worst ever – imagine a kids’ song about the NSA scandal. I expect that could work, given the right sensibility, but Amos, as ever, remains immune to irony, so the whole thing falls flat.
So ignore those. They’re at tracks eight and nine, so jump over them and listen to “Selkie” at track 10 to hear what’s so very right about this record. Yes, that’s Amos playing the piano and singing, and that’s a sound I never get tired of. Roughly half of this album hearkens back to her “classic” sound, just a girl and 88 keys, and it’s mostly marvelous. “Selkie” certainly is. It’s simple and poignant: “I’ve been waiting on the love of my life to find me… will you make your home in my arms.” I’d forgotten how much I love the sound of Amos just playing and singing. It’s been so long since I’ve heard her spin beauty like this.
“Oysters” might be just as lovely, particularly when Amos belts out the high, one-word refrain. (That word is “turn.”) She’s 50 years old now, but that voice hasn’t lost a note, and when she uses it right, as she does here, it can still sound like the most gorgeous thing you’ve ever heard. I have similar warm feelings for “Weatherman,” which rambles a bit, but is still wonderful, and closer “Invisible Boy,” an impossibly haunting piece of music. “Won’t it all fade away if I’m only made of clay,” Amos sings, and you’ve never heard anything sadder. This is Tori Amos. This is the artist I love. It’s been so damn long.
The fact that these songs are here, and sounding like this, vastly improves my opinion of the rest of the record. The folksy opening numbers, “America” and “Trouble’s Lament,” are well-written and memorable, and get Geraldines off to a sweet, low-key start. “Wedding Day” is pretty middling, but it has a swell guitar line buried in there, and a chorus that, well, sounds like latter-day Amos, but is somehow better for being on this record. “16 Shades of Blue” is pretty boring musically, but has a strong lyric about turning 50, and about ageism in our culture. (“There are those who say I’m now too old to play,” Amos sings, a line that would have been ironic on a lesser record.)
The other half of the album is pretty weak, as usual, but for the first time, I don’t mind as much. I’ll sleep through “Rose Dover,” or “The Maids of Effen-Mere,” or the shockingly normal “Wild Way,” to get to the stuff I love here. Even the lite-funk title track, at seven full minutes, isn’t a dealbreaker for me. Its first half sounds like the worst material on The Beekeeper, all “slinky” bass and organ, but stick with it, because halfway through, Amos sits at a piano and spins gold. That’s this album in miniature – sure, much of it is excruciating, but get through that, and the wonders that lay beyond will enrich you beyond measure.
This isn’t the Tori Amos album I’ve been waiting for, but at times, it sure sounds like it. I’d long ago given up the dream of feeling an emotional connection to Amos’ work, so the fact that she manages it more than a few times on Unrepentant Geraldines is a miracle. Hopefully this is just the first album of Tori’s second wind, and before long she will make a record so powerful, so resonant, so amazing that I can unreservedly fall in love with it. For the first time in a long while, I have hope.
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For it to really be 1997 again, though, we’d need Sarah McLachlan to come back with a new album that at least aims for the artistry of her breakthroughs, Fumbling Towards Ecstasy and Surfacing. It’s been a long time since she scaled those heights – her last record, The Laws of Illusion, was almost completely forgettable. And you’d be forgiven for not expecting a lot from her new one, given the blander-than-bland title (Shine On) and cover.
But I’ll be damned if this isn’t the McLachlan album I’ve been hoping for. More than anything else, I’ve been hoping she would wake up, invest herself in her songs again, and make a fully committed piece of work. Remarkably, she has – Shine On is a dynamic pop record full of sparkling, melancholy melodies and McLachlan’s strongest singing in ages. Like Fumbling, it opens with a pop hit, but “In Your Shoes” transcends its glossy production to really connect. Every time you think you’ve heard the whole melody, it rises again, cresting a new wave. It’s a great radio song.
And then, we get one organic, well-written tune after another, right through the end of the record. McLachlan’s at the piano for virtually all of this thing, furthering the connection to her best work, and she’s at the center of a real-live band – pounding drums, cranked-up guitars, a sense of vitality that I haven’t heard from her in ages. Let’s not kid ourselves, this is still fairly tame stuff in comparison to actual rock and roll, and the production (mainly by longtime cohort Pierre Marchand) keeps the edges sanded off, but for McLachlan, this is powerful.
It’s also remarkably uplifting, from a woman who elevated self-loathing to an art form. Where Afterglow found her giving herself 40 lashes and sulking, Shine On finds her healthy, strong and sound. It’s a wondrous transformation, and it sounds earned. Even a song called “Broken Heart,” a loping lament to lost love, is optimistic: “We trip and fall and stand again, and go on with our heads held high, we laugh and love as best we can, trying to hold on to the wonder…” A song called “Brink of Destruction” is about the joy of putting your life back together. A song called “Monsters” even finds the bright side of meeting awful people: “Think what your life would be missing if you didn’t have him to sing about.”
When she hits it here, she nails it. “Surrender and Certainty” is a slow burn, piano and drums with some tasty horns, and she sings the hell out of it. “Love Beside Me” is fueled by a distorted electric piano gallop, and explodes into a great chorus. And “Beautiful Girl” is the record’s loveliest piece, McLachlan singing like a bird atop a gorgeous piano part. “There could be winds of change in my auburn hair, but I’ll tie it back for now, and when the bitter breeze carries a trace of fear, we’ll persevere somehow…” I haven’t been this moved by a McLachlan song in years and years.
Shine On ends with a cover, a jaunty Luke Doucet number called “The Sound that Love Makes.” I inwardly groaned upon seeing that title, but the song is a warm, old-school delight. It ends this splendid little record on just the right hopeful note. As with Tori Amos, I had given up the idea of enjoying a Sarah McLachlan album this much again. I’m so glad she proved me wrong, and I’m even more glad that she sounds energized, healthy and ready to make good music again. It really is 1997, at least in my heart.
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See you in line Tuesday morning.