On Girls and Girlymen
Indigo Rarities and a Little Star

So I finally saw Crash.

If you’re not familiar, Crash is the directorial debut of Paul Haggis, the guy who wrote last year’s Best Picture winner, Million Dollar Baby. In structure and tone, it’s like Spike Lee does Magnolia – a series of interlocking stories, all of them dealing with race relations in modern Los Angeles. It features a cast of about 400, most of them (except for Sandra Bullock and Matt Dillon) experienced character actors, which means you know the face, but probably not the name.

The movie is anchored by the great (let me repeat that – great) Don Cheadle, who seemingly can do no wrong. He picks great roles, and plays them with depth and grace, even when they’re as slight and goofy as his parts in Ocean’s 11 and 12. But the film also finds great roles for Ryan Phillipe, Thandie Newton, William Fichtner, Larenz Tate and Terrence Howard, among others. The biggest surprise, though, is the terrific acting debut of Ludacris (here billed under his real name, Chris Bridges). He’s riveting, and a joy to watch.

But the real star is the script, one of the best I’ve seen in a long time. It finds room for each character to come alive, and plays its string of coincidences as a natural progression, rather than a disbelief-stretching jumble. Each main character is given a moment to show us his/her prejudices, and another moment to change them. It sounds preachy on paper, but it’s the furthest thing from that on the screen, and not all the changes are for the better. It’s just a phenomenally moving film, the best thing I’ve seen yet this year. It’s June, which means this movie will be ignored come Oscar time, and that’s a shame – Cheadle deserves one, if not Haggis and most of the rest of the cast.

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Anyway. Since we’re talking about prejudice and social issues, we might as well segue into the Indigo Girls.

I first heard Amy Ray and Emily Saliers the same way most people did – on the radio. “Closer to Fine” was a huge, huge hit my sophomore year of high school, the Girls completing the unlikely pop star hat trick with Tracy Chapman and Edie Brickell. Yes, Virginia, there was a time when a well-crafted, folky, socially conscious song like “Fine,” or like Chapman’s “Fast Car,” could attain massive popularity. This was around the time that R.E.M. signed to Warner Bros., and “alternative” still meant something. It was, in that long-gone time, okay to have a brain and a radio hit simultaneously, something that has happened very rarely since.

“Closer to Fine” was an unabashed singalong about opening one’s mind, sung by two women who were obviously born to harmonize together. The rest of their self-titled debut was similarly folksy and beautiful, and though some wrote them off as a hippie novelty, the Girls spun that sound into a nearly 20-year career that’s still going strong. Along the way, they’ve brought attention to issues close to their hearts, like Amnesty International, Honor the Earth and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. They are hippies in the best sense of the word – they imagine a better world, and work towards it, not just with music but with real actions.

As far as this column’s concerned, it’s the music that matters, and on that front, the Girls have never disappointed. They started expanding their sound on 1992’s Rites of Passage, and exploded it with 1994’s Swamp Ophelia, cranking up the distortion and the rage. The push-pull of Ray’s volatile anger and Saliers’ more meditative joy provided a compelling contrast on subsequent records, and even though they’ve pulled back into more acoustic and pop realms recently, their albums are still full of great songs. And as always, there’s the voices, strong and clear and intertwining. The Indigo Girls catalog has been a joy to follow.

It’s the end of an era, though, as the Girls have just wrapped up their major-label contract with Epic Records. It figures, since they haven’t had a hit since “Galileo” in ’92 – there’s just no room on radio for what they do anymore. Luckily, indie distribution and the internet have evolved as mainstream radio has devolved, and the Girls are considering options (including starting their own label), many of which would not have been available to them 10 years ago.

Their final Epic release is a fitting overview called Rarities, including non-album tracks ranging from 1986 to 2004. It’s an uncommonly generous collection – 18 tracks, more than 75 minutes, and a non-chronological sequence that flows like a proper album. With only a few exceptions, everything here is good enough to have been included on the “real” records – there’s very little of the spottiness associated with these compilations, more treasures than you’d expect, and nothing that could be termed embarrassing.

Best of all, to me, is that the consistent quality of this record points to the same consistency in the Girls’ catalog as a whole. They’ve never had a sell-out period, never did radio pop because their label asked them to, and never incorporated rap or other trendy styles to seem more hip. For their whole major label career, they’ve done their thing, and done it well. Every album is worth hearing – there’s no precipitous drop in judgment, no fallow period. The Girls are so quietly excellent that even long-time fans (like yours truly) can forget just how solid their output has been.

I sound like I’m eulogizing Ray and Saliers, and I’m really not, but I think their achievements as songwriters and recording artists go unrecognized, and now that they’re off of a major label, that’s unlikely to change. It’s just that I’ve been looking over my Indigos CDs in preparation for reviewing Rarities, and trying to find songs I hate, or even dislike, and it’s tough. Even the simplest of their songs are elevated by their voices and skilled arrangements, and the direct, genuine honesty that pumps through their catalog like life’s blood.

Here, then, are the cover versions and live readings and unreleased gems put to tape around and between the nine albums. We have contributions to tribute albums, like their takes on the Clash’s “Clampdown” that opens this set, and their great version of the Grateful Dead’s “Uncle John’s Band.” We have unreleased wonders like “Winthrop,” intended for The Shaming of the Sun but never included, and here in a Saliers-only piano-vocal incarnation. We have “Free of Hope,” their Vic Chestnut cover from the Sweet Relief benefit, that finds Ray laying on the feedback and howling in despair. And we have “It Won’t Take Long,” a cover of a Ferron song that is a late-album highlight.

We also have a track from 1986, “Never Stop,” recorded for the Girls’ first ever EP. We have a remix of the rocking “Shed Your Skin,” mutilated by Audioslave’s Tom Morello. We have songs featuring Michael Stipe and Ani DiFranco, the latter a Woody Guthrie tribute. We have a demo of “Ghost,” still to my mind the most beautiful song these two have written. (I remember how proud I was when I figured out, by ear, how to play the tricky bridge section.) And we have live takes of songs familiar and unreleased, stretching back through their entire career.

This is the 12th new Indigos record I have bought, counting their two live albums, and I’ve even bought several of them twice, upgrading from cassettes to CDs when the re-releases hit a few years ago. I’ve never regretted forking over my money for their work, not once, and that’s something I’ve just realized. I hardly ever think of them in this category, but they’re one of the few long-running acts I know of that’s never made a bad album. The Indigos have forged a career in the background of popular music, always there and yet not, and they’ve built a fanbase that should follow them wherever they head to next.

They’ve also been an influence on many vocal-driven folk-rock acts that have come up in their wake. The final track on Rarities, a cover of singalong “Finlandia,” features one of them, New York trio Girlyman. I raved about Girlyman earlier this year, after my friend Mike got me their debut CD, Remember Who I Am, for Christmas. Sweet, simple songs delivered by three of the finest harmonizing voices you’re likely to hear outside of… well, outside of the Indigo Girls, actually.

The Girls have championed Girlyman, inviting them to tour with them and signing them to Amy Ray’s record label, Daemon. As the Girls are wrapping up their recording contract, Girlyman are starting theirs – their second album, Little Star, is in stores now. If you’re new to the group, don’t worry – they haven’t suddenly taken a huge leap into unexplored territory. Little Star is just like the debut, only more so, and makes a fine first Girlyman record for the uninitiated.

The same strengths and weaknesses remain here, too. The biggest strength, the primary reason to listen to Girlyman, is the three intermingling voices – two female, belonging to Doris Muramatsu and Ty Greenstein, and one male, owned by Nate Borofsky. They’re each good singers on their own, but when they harmonize, they’re amazing. Just listen to opener “On the Air,” and dig the countermelodies and whispering webs of vocal weavings, then thrill as they come together. The sound is almost unearthly, and spine-tinglingly wonderful.

All three Girlymen write songs for the group, but you won’t be able to tell just from sound and style which song is whose. The songs on Little Star are breezy, easy, folksy and often surprisingly deep, but they mostly stay within the boundaries erected on their first record. That’s not much of a criticism, since great little numbers like Muramatsu’s “Speechless” and Greenstein’s “Young James Dean” live quite comfortably within those bounds.

They do take a couple of risks this time, which bodes well for their long-term prospects. “Commander” is an especially dark tune, with pointedly anti-Bush lyrics by Greenstein: “When the war came, you ran for your life, as your businesses dried… you were bad fruit, they knew you wouldn’t ripen on the vine, and they made you commander…” Right after that, Muramatsu’s “Bird on a Wire” takes them into Norah Jones territory for the first time, and they manage it nicely.

Sonically, this album is a little richer than Remember Who I Am, owing partially to the presence of Ani Difranco Band keyboardist Julie Wolf on nearly every track. But fear not – the focus is still on those incredible voices, as it should be. Little Star is a step up for Girlyman, but a small one, and it will be interesting to see if they evolve into or out of their strengths. If they’re looking for a good role model for a lengthy and vital career, though, they could do a lot worse than their label boss and touring mates. Hopefully one day I’ll be writing a review of the 12th Girlyman album, like I’ve just done for the Indigos.

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One more thing I wanted to mention, musically speaking. I’m always looking for music that busts down barriers, that kicks open doors between audiences, and I’ve recently found a really cool one – the new album by Paul Anka.

Yes, that Paul Anka.

His new disc is called Rock Swings, and it features big band versions of ‘80s and ‘90s hits like “Black Hole Sun,” “Wonderwall,” “Jump,” “Eyes Without a Face” and, yes, “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” There’s no rock here, just big, brassy horn sections and swinging beats. And it’s fantastic. The arrangements are top notch, staying true to the originals while knocking down the genres they’ve been boxed into.

The closest comparison is Pat Boone’s In a Metal Mood, from the late ‘90s. That was cool (honest, it was), but this is better, and here’s why:

1. Paul Anka is a much, much better singer than Pat Boone.

2. There’s not an ounce of parody or camp to this album. These songs are treated as standards, and played and sung with respect.

3. Anka takes from a much broader range of songs. Where Boone stuck to Led Zeppelin and Alice Cooper and other hard rockers, Anka does songs from Spandau Ballet, Bon Jovi, Soundgarden, and Michael Jackson. (“The Way You Make Me Feel,” and that one swings.)

4. Did I mention Anka’s voice? It’s as swell as it’s ever been.

All in all, a fun listen, especially for fans of that big band sound, and for those who like to see preconceived notions of what makes a song (the production, the marketing, the video) shattered. A good song is a good song, and records like this prove it. Thanks to Mike Lachance for the tip – check out his blog here.

Next week, we Fight some Foo. Or something.

See you in line Tuesday morning.