Ladies and Gentlemen
Catching Up Before the Flood

We’ve got a lot of catching up to do:


I often bemoan the sad state of gender inequality represented here at tm3am, but I’m not sure what to do about it.

Some of my favorite artists are women – Aimee Mann, Tori Amos (who will always have a spot on this list, no matter how much she sucks lately), Ani Difranco, Kate Bush, PJ Harvey (sometimes), and on and on. Yet the disparity is evident, and I don’t think it’s entirely my fault. Women are just not afforded the same opportunities as men in the music business – not just at the signing stage, although labels take on many more male artists than female ones, but also at later phases, when men are allowed to dive into artistic risks while women are often nudged into sexpot pop singer roles to appease the bean counters.

There are exceptions, but for every Eleanor Friedberger (strange and wonderful from the outset, and showing no signs of compromising), there’s a Liz Phair, a formerly daring artist streamlined by the mass machine into fitting one of their pre-arranged roles for women. Granted, no one forced Phair to write and sing teen-pop radio hits, although a distressing enough number of women fall into that trap (*cough* Jewel *cough*) that it seems like a trend, and it fits with the labels’ attempt to confuse promiscuity with empowerment on a mass cultural scale so that they can sell sex and make it seem like they’re selling freedom and individuality.

I can name 25 male artists off the top of my head who have followed an artistic muse album after album, refusing to pander or write for the masses, but I can only name a couple of women who have done the same thing, and I think label influence has to be at least part of the cause. The aforementioned Difranco is one of the most self-determined artists, male or female, in the world, and it can’t be coincidence that she’s been on her own label for her whole career. Historically, it’s taken some measure of self-releasing, or labels committed to seeing women as artists instead of as sex objects who sing, to really level the playing field.

A good example is Neko Case, best known as one of the New Pornographers, but an accomplished solo artist in her own right. For her whole career, she’s been supported by little labels like Bloodshot and Anti, and she’s quietly built up a body of work that rivals that of her more famous contemporaries. Her fourth solo album, Fox Confessor Brings the Flood, is another good one – short, mostly acoustic, delightfully rendered country-pop of the highest order.

Case’s voice is, of course, the main selling point. It’s strong without being overpowering, effortlessly gliding over the music and tying it together. But, as Imogen Heap said recently, people don’t really think of women as producers and players, only singers, which is a shame – Case co-produced Fox Confessor, wrote or co-wrote every song (except the one traditional tune, “John Saw That Number,” which she arranged), and played guitar or piano on every track. And Heap’s right – if Case were male, I wouldn’t even feel the need to point any of that out.

While I always like Case better when she’s with the Pornographers, she’s crafted a gem here. “Star Witness” is a standout, a moody waltz with chiming clean guitar accents and a backing vocal performance to die for, as well as a great piano outro by The Band’s Garth Hudson. It slips into the minor-key delight “Hold On Hold On,” and then the brief yet striking “A Widow’s Toast,” on which Case spins a traditional-sounding chant over gorgeous echoed guitars.

The record never falters, and its 35 minutes are up very quickly. Case surrounded herself with great collaborators here too, including the members of Calexico, the Sadies and Howie Gelb, though she is absolutely the star of the show. Final track “The Needle Has Landed” is a perfect summation – co-written with the Sadies, the song is every bit as modern as it is drawn from a deep well of classic country and pop influences, and the cello arrangement is awesome. Neko Case has made another winner here, and aside from its brevity, there’s nothing at all wrong with it.

Faring nearly as well is Jenny Lewis, who, like Case, is taking a break from her time in a popular indie band. In Lewis’ case, it’s Rilo Kiley, a group that has grown more and more shiny, in a pop sense, as they’ve gone along. For her solo debut, Rabbit Fur Coat, Lewis made the wise choice to strip it all back and return to the early Kiley sound, all acoustic guitars and harmonies. And on this record, those harmonies are provided by bluegrass singers the Watson Twins, adding just that much more cred.

But not much more – this isn’t a country record, it’s a sweet pop outing that’s reminiscent, oddly enough, of Neko Case. Lewis’ clear voice isn’t quite the powerful instrument Case’s is, but she still carries this album winningly, She also takes greater pains than Case does to ground her album in a traditional sound. “Happy” could be an old Patsy Cline number, so convincing is its torchy balladry, and the title track is an old-fashioned story-song, “Coal Miner’s Daughter” style. There’s a refreshing intimacy to the album that’s like an antidote to more recent Kiley.

Like Case, Lewis includes one cover, but it’s a surprising one – “Handle With Care,” the 1988 hit by the Traveling Wilburys. The Wilburys were a supergroup that included Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison, George Harrison, Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne, so for her take, Lewis assembled a little supergroup of her own, trading verses with Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst and Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard. I’m surprised this hasn’t received more press – Lewis doesn’t even make a big deal of it in the liner notes, and the familiar voices are a neat surprise.

But as with Case, this is Lewis’ show, and Rabbit Fur Coat shows a deep love of folk and country history. She’s on Oberst’s label, Team Love, which bodes well for her solo career – if there’s anyone who knows what it means to develop at one’s own pace, it’s Oberst. Nothing here is going to push music forward, but the album is a sweet look back, and if Lewis can bring some of the starker, more haunting moments of Rabbit Fur Coat back with her to Rilo Kiley, it could only be a good thing.

Sometimes, though, stripping down the sound is not the best idea, as Beth Orton shows us on her new Comfort of Strangers. Orton has long been a favorite of mine – her second album, Central Reservation, made my top five for 1999, and her debut, Trailer Park, is one of the coolest messy, unfocused records I own. She seemed to be on a roll, and I sincerely hoped that Daybreaker, her 2002 album, was just a slight misstep. But now it seems to have been the penny that derailed the train.

Don’t get me wrong – I like Comfort of Strangers, somewhat. There are some good ideas here, but they’re clipped and truncated far too often. The album is 14 short songs, mostly little acoustic-and-piano rambles, and while some shine (“Safe in Your Arms,” “Feral”), others just sound unfinished. The record was produced by Jim O’Rourke, formerly of Sonic Youth and currently of Jeff Tweedy’s other band, Loose Fur, and you’d think he would infuse some life into the proceedings. But no.

Here’s the issue – Orton has an incredible voice, when she’s allowed to stretch out and use it. She’s never been a complex songwriter, but she’s always infused her ditties with emotion, utilizing that lovely voice to captivate and enthrall. There’s pretty much none of that here – every song is over too quickly for that, and the production captures Orton’s worst Rickie-Lee-Jones-esque qualities. It’s like Trey Anastasio’s last album – streamlined to the point of suffocation, and containing very little of what makes Orton a musician worth hearing.

And maybe I have to alter my view when it comes to labels and artists, because I doubt highly that a company like Astralwerks would ask Orton to make an album like this one. Comfort of Strangers is probably exactly what she wants, which is unfortunate. The bits of it that stand out contain glimmers of the haunting, moving music of which she is capable, and I hope she realizes it soon and gets back to doing what she does best. This album reminds me of latter-day Tori Amos, and like Tori, Beth Orton is one of the most affecting female musicians on the planet, when she allows herself to be.

…and Gentlemen

Kurt Heasley was the second musician I ever interviewed. It did not go well.

I was brand new at Face Magazine, with absolutely zero journalism training, hired on the strength of my music reviews and my apparently rare decision to show up every day for my three-month internship. My first feature interview was with a guy who ran a tiny record label in Portland, and I think he was so grateful for the attention that he let my obvious nervousness and incredibly awful questions (“How do you want to be remembered after you die?”) slide.

Armed with a boost of false confidence, I marched into my second interview with head held high. I would be in control of this one, I would ask probing questions, I would get the Whole Scoop. The band was the Lilys, and my one-on-one would be with their leader and only mainstay, Heasley, a very tall, very wild-eyed man with flailing limbs and an energy level that would tire out even the hardiest Olympic athletes. He was also bugfuck insane, and believe me, I wasn’t in control of this interview for a second.

Among the first things Heasley did upon sitting down with me was to eat my tape recorder. Not entirely, and he didn’t swallow it, but he did stick nearly the whole thing in his mouth. His answers to my queries were all over the map – hell, off the map – and I was so stunned by the whole thing that I couldn’t even converse with the guy. At one point, he accused me of selling my list of interview questions for crack, so befuddled was I throughout the whole process. I got pretty much no usable stuff – I was surprised to learn that the things I liked about the band’s ‘60s-inspired Better Can’t Make Your Life Better album were improvised solutions to financial problems, and at the time I couldn’t think of how to write that story effectively.

Which is a shame, since I now realize I had Heasley in his prime. After Better in 1996, he made one more pop masterpiece, The 3-Way, in 1999, and then started to lose focus. The latest Lilys album, Everything Wrong is Imaginary, is a far cry from the excellence of previous releases, a mish-mash of grooves and noise that ends up going nowhere.

There’s a reason for that – the album was reportedly recorded mainly on the cheap, at home, when Heasley’s personal life kept him from diving in to a long production schedule. He recorded his own guitar and vocal tracks at his house, and studio musicians filled in the rest later, under the direction of Michael Musmanno. And if you think that style of recording would result in a thrown-together album with no clear vision or direction, well, you’re right. There are good moments – “Still in All the Glitter” is trippy, and the instrumental title track has a good melody – but they’re drowned in meandering half-songs that stretch even this 38-minute disc to unbearable lengths.

I have very little idea what personal problems kept Heasley from devoting his full energy to this record, but it represents a downward slide from even his last couple, which have been pretty lacking. Heasley’s voice is strained, when the poor mix doesn’t drown it out, and his songwriting has never been more lax. It’s a shame – I certainly hope everything works out for him, and soon, because he’s so much better than this album would lead you to believe. Thanks to our brief encounter in 1996, I’ll always have a soft spot for Heasley, and I wish him well.

I’ve done probably hundreds of interviews since then, and I’d like to think I’ve gotten a bit better at it. Case in point – I had the opportunity last month to talk with Greg Boerner (pronounced Burner), a Georgia native who moved to Illinois a few years ago. Boerner just self-released his third CD, World So Blue, and since quite a lot of the album was inspired by his recent divorce, our features editor thought that would be a neat story. Especially since I got to talk to his ex-wife, too, and get her thoughts.

But even if you’re not enthralled by real-life tales of lost love, Boerner’s music is worth checking out, especially if you’re into folk and blues traditions. His songs are uncomplicated in the best way, especially a romp like “Heaven Bound,” and his acoustic guitar playing is deft and skillful. His best quality is his deep, soulful voice, but here he’s surrounded it with his most complete production. Boerner still plays most of the instruments himself, as he did on his comparatively stark earlier records, but World So Blue adds percussion, electric guitars, horns, and a host of other colors. You’d never know it’s a DIY effort, so clear and well-balanced is the sound, but the elaborate measures don’t detract from the core – acoustic-based songs, played and sung well.

Boerner stretches out here, too, incorporating a Tom Waits influence on “Don’t Wake Me From This Dream,” perhaps his finest song. It fits in well with the more melancholy tone of this record, which, considering its subject matter, is not surprising. The title song is a mid-tempo lament, a plea for a second chance, on which Boerner provides subtle mouth percussion, and “This Love,” another minor-key favorite, takes an old blues trope and makes it new – “One thing’s for certain, there’s two things I know, this love will kill me, and I can’t let it go…”

Both Boerner’s lyrics and music are simple and accessible – sometimes too simple for my taste – and fans of singer-songwriters like John Hiatt and Steve Earle (in acoustic mode) should find much to like here. The two things I admire most about World So Blue are the sense of diversity – there’s gospel, Louisiana shuffle, country-folk and pop mixed in with Boerner’s traditional blues and roots music – and the sonic texture. The whole thing is sequenced well, and lest you think it’s all lovelorn moping, it concludes with two breezy, upbeat numbers that leave you wanting more.

World So Blue is an interesting homemade document, and Boerner is obviously a talented guy with quite a good voice. Nothing here is going to change the world, but Boerner’s not trying to be innovative, just enjoyable. If you like straightforward songs about love and life, drawn from a perspective of deep respect for classic American music of all stripes, then this is for you. I’d also recommend Wishing Well, Boerner’s second record, which is more blues-based, and sounds more like his live show.

Check Boerner’s work out here.

Another guy who makes simplicity work for him is Teddy Thompson. The first thing people will want to tell you about Teddy is that he’s the son of Richard and Linda Thompson, and that his parents both appear on his second record, Separate Ways. They’ll want you to know this because it makes it easier to dismiss him as a child of privilege, handed a record contract because mommy and daddy pulled some strings. And I want you to know it because these people are wrong – Teddy Thompson is his own guy, and his music stands on his own.

Separate Ways sounds a bit like Rufus Wainwright trying his hand at country-folk. Thompson’s voice is just as even and ethereal as Wainwright’s, but with a slight twang that belies his British roots, and his songs are little ditties produced like art objects. The first single, “Everybody Move It,” is a fine example of the tone – the party-anthem lyrics could fit an AC/DC song (“Bump and grind, have a good time, free yourself and lose your mind”), but the music is mournful, almost tragic, as if the singer were already thinking about the consequences.

“I Should Get Up” is an apathy anthem, set to a mid-tempo country beat, and in a way, the same character reappears in “I Wish It Was Over,” a song about not having the willpower to end a bad relationship. Thompson lets out some of his darker side on “Think Again” and the backhanded “That’s Enough Out of You,” and what’s fascinating about them is how half-hearted they sound, as if he lacks the energy to be as mean as he wishes he could be. The classic here is the title track, in which Thompson leaves the terms of a breakup to his partner. Separate Ways, as a whole, is about drifting through life, and it’s a better portrait of disaffectedness than a hundred records with hipper pedigrees.

As an extra treat, the album ends with an unlisted cover of the Everly Brothers’ “Take a Message to Mary,” performed as a magical duet between Teddy and his mom, Linda. In the wake of the sparkling music that precedes it, this feels more like a celebration of Thompson’s talents than a refutation of them – yes, he comes from a semi-famous family of musicians, but his work is dynamic enough to deserve attention for its own sake. Separate Ways is a very good sophomore album from a songwriter on the verge, and I expect great things in the future.

We Are Floating in Space

As if this weren’t long and late enough already, I thought I’d debut a new regular feature this week. Just like the folks who handicap the Oscars eight months early, I draft and revise my top 10 list again and again as the year progresses. Some have asked me just how seriously I take the list, and just how much thought I put into it, and I can tell you – way more than I should, on both counts.

So for those who have asked for a glimpse into my process, I thought I’d try something akin to quarterly reports this year – I’ll publish a draft of my top 10 list once every three months, so you can see how it progresses as new albums are released and old ones are bumped up or down. I fully understand how self-indulgent this is, and if you don’t care, I don’t blame you. But for those who do, here’s what my top 10 list for the first quarter of 2005 looks like:

#10: Prince – 3121
#9: Duncan Sheik – White Limousine
#8: Ester Drang – Rocinate
#7: Teddy Thompson – Separate Ways
#6: Neko Case – Fox Confessor Brings the Flood
#5: The Violet Burning – Drop-Dead
#4: The Alarm – Under Attack
#3: Ross Rice – Dwight
#2: Belle and Sebastian – The Life Pursuit
#1: Mute Math

The final list will, hopefully, look nothing like this. Upcoming records I expect will shake this up tremendously: Bitter Tea, by the Fiery Furnaces; You in Reverse, by Built to Spill; Mr. Lemons, by Glen Phillips; Foundation Sounds, by Eric Matthews; Permafrost, by Bill Mallonee; and Just Like the Fambly Cat, by Grandaddy. And I’m hoping the Flaming Lips, Ministry, Tool and Paul Simon surprise me. (Simon’s album is even called Surprise, so that’s a good sign…)

Anyway, expect a second-quarter report at the end of June.

Next week, there’s a job for you in the system, boy, with nothing to sign…

See you in line Tuesday morning.