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‘A Conversation with Alanis Morissette’

A week after the release of her sixth non-Canadian-teen-pop LP, Havoc and Bright Lights, Alanis Morissette is sitting down Rolling Stone contributing editor Anthony DeCurtis to talk about subjects not yet revealed for the 92Y. Safe guess, though, would be the new album, stories from around the time she released her 16-times platinum monster album Jagged Little Pill, tales about mega-producer Glen Ballard, and maybe a little about being a Canadian teen-pop singer and getting slimed after saying “I don’t know” on You Can’t Do That on Television. We don’t know. (Oops.)

Thu., Aug. 30, 8 p.m., 2012

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Step by Step

Ah, the mid ’90s. A time when Gen X’ers resigned to aestheticizing their shaky future suddenly found a bunch of weird, semi-lucrative jobs to fill. The Internet budded into boom, and new “organizational cultures” buzzed about “performance coaching.” It was a heyday for Landmark Forums. Office retreats encouraged ritualized atonement. Jagged Little Pill hit the stores just as perceived prosperity edged out hand-to-mouth scarcity. And when preternaturally preachy Alanis Morissette hooked up with Man in the Mirror Glen Ballard, pop sanctimony would never be the same. Recasting the verbosity of fellow Canadian avenging angel Joni Mitchell, Alanis spewed old-soul caveats, post-fem pep talks, and new age hellfire. The promise: If we came correct, good vibes would be kozmo.commed right to our doorstep.

These days, we’re temp-jobbing if we’re lucky. G-Dub’s dogma is eating our karma, and the only cosmic force heading our way is a Day After Tomorrow tidal wave of global ill will. But Alanis, goddess bless her, is as programmatic as ever. Still equating bad love with addiction, our former supposed former infatuation junkie starts So Called Chaos with the tuneful rubric “Eight Easy Steps.” On its heels, “[The Only Way] Out Is Thru” returns to the shimmer and thwap of Pill, our guru ensuring not a beat goes by without a syllable of wisdom attached. But it’s just that stridency we love. The world-kitsched “Doth I Protest Too Much” is a chin-up for jilted sophisticates who calm themselves in heartbreak with overworked constructions like “I’m not insecure, as such.” Yes, it’s a special kind of labored playfulness that births lines like “You make the knees of my bees weak.” (She has bees??)

The overshare of Alanis’s self-improvement process still has a kooky charm. “Excuses,” she sings, “have kept me blocked,” and her “deadlines, meetings, and contracts” are as fun as commercials featuring the sound of typing. But just when you think you can’t take any more dissections of the I, “The Grudge” breaks into full-throated musical theater—too smart for Webber, too earnest for Sondheim, but transcendently cheesy and sublime nonetheless, and suggesting nostalgia for something even further back than the eve of dotcom.

Avril Lavigne, on the other hand, is living in the now with a vengeance. She may have ditched dirge-merchant production squad the Matrix, but the the younger Ontario-born yeller again brings her mad face and pro-tooled pipes to the task of soundtracking current strife. Yeah, she’s singing about boys and breakups, but those world-dominating guitars crash around her with apocalyptic ferocity, her voice evoking the shrill manifest destiny of an urgent communiqué rushing through fiber optics. She’s got one hand in her pocket, and the other one is, y’know, killing Bill. And, as before, the combined sonics address larger complications than mere schoolyard politics.

She may not be as saved as Christian rocker Amy Lee, but her blared “No one understands!” on “Take Me Away” sounds more like a cry from the cross than a sk8r-boi rescue fantasy. And the bombastic “Together” elides bedroom-decorating depression with wind-tunnel social alienation: “When I’m alone I feel so much better/When I’m around you I don’t feel . . . together.” We bang head, as the monstrous sound suction defenestrates us. And by the time our angry imp gets to “holding hands we’ll fall,” we’re already plunging beyond evanescence.

Nothing else quite achieves that t.A.T.u.-ed blare. The knockin’-around single “Don’t Tell Me” is Avril’s requisite abstinence song, where she advises a boy that his charm will not “get you in my pants,” adding “I’ll have to kick your ass/So that you never forget.” Blink-y bouncer “He Wasn’t” is a Tony Hawk pop shuv-it, and “Fall to Pieces” ‘ formula mawk gets buoyed up by a breakup dust-off offering her own anger-management bromide for these frustrating, impotent times. No time for Alanis’s brainy self-recriminations. Two easy steps: “freak out—let it go.”

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Oh Bondage Up Yours!

“What you are is missing a beat,” Dave Matthews declares midway through Everyday. Timing, he’s reminding us, is everything. Agreed: The usual late-winter lack of new releases means the critics are beating a drum for DMB’s delivery of their give-props Pop album, with producer Glen Ballard as midwife. That said, Dave’s still tough to square with today’s ‘tween, angry teen, and alt routine radio triangulation: He’s lovable when all anyone seems to want are foxy pre-fucks, fuckups, or plain fucks. His eccentricity, and rad rhythms on arty singles, point to a parallel between the Dave Matthews Band and, among select others, Destiny’s Child. And though Dave’s no Beyonce Knowles when it comes to mature sass and smarts, the crying-for-candy child he admits he is on “Angel” beguiles nonetheless. In spite of apparent adult issues.

Consider the forward-thinking “When the World Ends.” “I’m gonna tie you up like a baby . . . you’ll come with me,” pervy extrovert Matthews coos, making just enough sense to violate what you thought a love song was supposed to be. DMB’s three previous studio discs average three super songs each, all almost-ballads—a combination of Dave’s horny scorn, corny horns, chirpy riffs, and Beyonce-to-this beats. Everyday has at least six tracks more beautiful than U2’s “Beautiful Day”; the album, needless to say, kicks All That You Can’t Leave Behind‘s behind. The ballyhooed-by-critics, merely-booed-by-fans common wisdom implicitly equating Everyday with Phish’s short-songs Farmhouse (none of which, by the way, made it up Cripple Creek) rings true. Indeed, solos have been subtracted (give or take the obligatory Santana stain in “Mother Father”). Ballard—who may well not even smoke the doobie—quashed ’em. The producer-arranger-songwriter was brought on board when Dave’s social drinking and antisocial feelings started to affect the socialist vibe of the band; no one wanted to jam on the 12 cuts Dave dragged out of his dumps. All these demos were canned subsequent to Ballard’s ballast righting (via cowriting) Matthews’s muse; if we’re to believe Rolling Stone, this made Dave happy again yaytheend.

Yes, we should all be happy that Ballard insisted the band kick, not drool, out the jams. But Dave is still searching for that “space between our wicked lies,” the place where he hopes to be “safe from pain”; Ballard’s editing forces him to squeeze his sex and hope and rage into smaller spaces, between rat-cage bars. But they’re open bars, where the sweet wine he presumably still drinks flows from; Dionysian melodies abound. Then there’s that catchy-so-what new single fans were disappointed by. Oops: “I Did It” again finds Dave mentioning magic mushrooms and trippin’ on “all-for-a-song” rhetoric. But infinitely more important is the “B.O.B.”-gone-adult-contemporary thump backing that jazz up. The clichéd backbeat-as-heartbeat bit can’t be applied here—think murmur or palpitation. (Then again, there is that jive about one’s ticker skipping a beat and the earth moving. Love is so confusing!)

This is drummer Carter Beauford complying with Ballard’s blandishment to keep it rock. “I Did It” ‘s bump isn’t the butterflies-in-the-stomach high-hat flutter of “Crash Into Me,” the lil’-drummer-boy-on-the-run anxious snare sneer of “Two Step,” or the split reggae-hip-hop drop of “Crush.” It’s huge and twisted and dense—just not showily so. Stefan Lessard’s bass maintains a metallic bop; there’s a busy but indistinct midrange (including the first electric guitar ever on a DMB disc); and on top—where else would he be?—is Dave, dancing all over somebody’s grave. Who cares why he did it—that’s what the almost-ballads are meant to explain. As in the above-mentioned next track, “When the World Ends.” Boy, does it ever. What was it the French said about the little death? Dave seems to be working up to one as the D-day clock ticks down. He’s whispering dirty things in our ears. He’s playing an acoustic guitar (insert phallus reference here—no, wait, right . . . here).

Well, we knew it was coming. The crank-it-up-in-your-Explorer tune, that is. There may not be a “Crush” or “Crash Into Me” on Everyday, but that pair was practically unequaled in pure prettiness on the radio during the ’90s. And tracks two through five and seven and eight come damn close. But Dave doesn’t always have so much to say: Like a chain-smoking, coffee-guzzling AA addict, he seems timid and nervous as well as reformed. Hi, I’m Dave, and I’m a codependent: “I’m seeking more wisdom.” (Big brother Ballard nods approvingly.) Duh. Whereas “When the World Ends,” “The Space Between” (“You cannot quit me/so quickly”), and “Sleep to Dream Her” (“I wish I could bend my life to hate her”) sound like the gin and tonic talking. Which might also explain the stumbly drums that so often accompany DMB’s best songs, and how quickly Dave goes about his business therein. Why would anyone prefer to hear him (or his sax or violin man) noodle over hearing about his noodle?

Which noodle of his hardly matters; we all know what guys are supposed to think with anyhow. Witness the following exchange between Dave and Tori Amos, in Newsweek three years ago:

Tori: Oh no, no, I’ll turn red. Not when he’s sitting here. I’m not going to talk about sex.

Dave: Sex is, it’s like a thing, right? That people do. I’m going to have some coffee so I don’t say some things I’m going to regret.

Tori: You’re charming, I’m telling you. Do you have a woman?

Of course he did, and he’s since gotten hitched. He’s not a simple sleaze like that guy Steely Dan or Marshall “Mediocre Social Skills” Mathers; even Dave’s small, searching voice sounds a little embarrassed leading rockers like “So Much to Say.” No, he bats his eyelashes at least as well as he pulls his pud.

Meanwhile, earlier in the interview, Dave says he’s “one of those alcoholics that’s doomed to a long existence as a smiley drunk.” “Crush,” the song off ’98’s Before These Crowded Streets that makes me the most smiley, hums as he gently implores, “Lovely lady/let me drink you pleeeease . . . crush me/come on.” This, obviously, wasn’t what we meant calling somebody a “crush” in high school. And the delicate-sounding “Crash Into Me” (off Crash, ’96), which culminates in “you come crash into me/and I come into you,” begins with “you’ve got your ball/you’ve got your chain/tied to me tight/tie me up again.” Like a baby, maybe—think of the categorical imperative. (Hubby’s obvious—word is, Mrs. Matthews has motivated adult Dave to depart Old Virginny for the left coast.) Whether he’s infantilizing himself or someone else, Dave’s figurative BDSM language betrays the ways in which hurt (like groove) is in the heart. Beyonce Knowles rightfully insists men quit callin’ her baby. But would she object to Dave Matthews calling her mommy?

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Taking Communion

She carries her left hand vestigial, dangling at the wrist, her elbow crooked like some prehistoric bird, as if waiting for it to grow a wing. Alanis stops to let the song course through her. A moment to deliberate. On a stage that evokes a biblical, desertlike stalking space surrounded by monolithic boulders of equipment and the occasional foreground monitor, her musicians bear shadowed witness and provide momentum where words fail, their measured cadenzas keeping up a Bonham-like pace. She paces and rocks in place and waits for her re-en-trance.

Iconic. And ironic. Dontcha think? A twixt-12-and-20 discolette more influenced by the Solid Gold dancers than rock lit-crit, an alumnus of Nickelodeon’s You Can’t Do That on Television, comes out of the Great White North to encompass the nexus, sexus, and plexus of just about any cultural inclination for this century’s final fling. She’s got the ’90s silhouette: the drive-by wordplay and slice-of-life slashings that is mod hip hop, the alt-grrrl take-no-shit-or-prisoners, the Lilith heart-on-embroidered-sleeve, the divaesque multioctavian epiglottal stops, and the lost boys’ bombast of hardest rock. Not to mention the hit singles.

Jagged Little Pill‘s 1995 transformation of Alanis Morissette may have been hard to swallow for those who knew her when, but when they then turned into nearly 30 million worldwide listeners lined up to take their two every four hours, to say it went down easy is to understand why it’s called pill-popping. A music addict’s first hook is always free. Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie is the second album of Alanis’s new lifeline, with the same supporting cast (i.e., producer Glen Ballard) and the same rush of tangled emotives, on-mike confessionals, heart-to-heart rendings, and scarred revealings. Craving expiation, closure, she pulls apart tumultuous relationships with an obsessive’s gaze. No detail is too small to elude her scrutiny. No slight is unrelived, no behavior too superfluous to avoid being held up to the light. And to her credit, she’s as hard on herself as on those with whom she’s entangled. Even after mutual ardor and anger have passed into memory, she finds herself perusing details of their take-and-give, trying to figure it all out, come to terms. What went wrong. Right. Fucked up. Forgiven.

That she does this on such a universal level— the idiosyncratic as everyday— implies that no matter how unique each coupling may seem, we all rake each other through the same old coals. “Unsent,” a jumble of letters to lover after lover, dispassionate the way mail can be (a phone call might devolve into sniping and sarcasm, the cup of coffee into a lunge for the throat), seems like it comes from my own to-be-answered pile, or yours, or anyone’s ex’s and why’s. In “Joining You” (with Alanis, communion is always directed at), she pronounces her run-on credo: “We want to reveal ourselves at will and speak our minds and never talk small and be intuitive and question mightily and find god my tortured beacon.”

The relationship as divine quest is hardly new. Pop music has spoken of it since Isis was a gleam in Ra’s eye, but Alanis, in her torrent of words and wails, her Vedic pleadings and diatribes and slings and crossbow arrows, takes it a step further. She has moved into the realm of the chant, her album a ritual hymnal aimed not at any particular deity but rewarding the singer with the eternal afterlife of airplay. Her songs are structured like prayers, building on repetitions and rolling cumulative fervor and called response. Not a lot of rhyme. She’s one for lists: “Are You Still Mad,” Alanis asks in the mnemonic I can’t get out of my inner ear today, and then recounts each excruciating moment and cutting insight and jabbed thorn of belittle and disrespect. Followed by “Sympathetic Character” enumerating all the ways in which she was afraid, which frees her to trail the title phrase of “That I Would Be Good” with a caveating “even” or “if” for every line.

I am reminded of Herman Hesse, not so much the creator of Steppenwolf, though there is a good deal of Siddharthic postadolescence in Alanis’s diary of song, but the between-two-worlds semiautobiographical painter of Rosshalde, preparing to leave his old life behind to find spiritual nurture in the East. Having transcended not one but two identities— Jagged Little Pill‘s spectacular dream fulfillment made her question her motives for making music— she sets off to find her “silence,” and a reason to create. All of this is decorated by a circularly breathing production that never overwhelms the psychodrama, that in fact celebrates its silence, the space between instruments. The soundscape deftly frames Alanis’s multilayered conversings with skronking guitars and “Blue Jay Way” percussives, strings in which you can feel the movement of the bow and flutes where the drawn breath matters as much as the note. While much is made of Ballard’s Top 40 heritage, this is no Nosferatu at work. If anything, Michael Jackson and Wilson-Phillips have grounded him in stacked, swirling female vocals. Most likely he appreciated the chance to break out of the chocolate factory.

As did our heroine. In SFIJ, she can hardly wait to get under way, bursting the album open midsentence with “Front Row”— its vocals in dialogue, sparring with each other, filtered and flanged. There’s a paean to her female parent (“Heart of the House”), an ode to inspiration’s frustrating wait (“Would Not Come”), dark character studies (“The Couch”), father figures of speech (“Baba”), vignettes of desire denied (“I Was Hoping”), and her own quest for perfection and need to please (“Your Congratulation”).

At the Hammerstein, on a short prealbum tour, she strode purposefully on stage, long slit silk skirt over pants, hindustani-style, running shoes, no-nonsense, resolutely picking up the mike and hefting it to the Doppler siren starting to gather at the back of her throat. She has the rangy swing of a Rebecca Lobo, the sinewy arms and shoulders of triathlon training. Alanis likes to play ping pong backstage, a game of spin and aim. She uses her voice in the same way, as one might put english on a ball, skipping lithely along the cadences of South Asian and Semitic singing, skewing her syllables so they stretch in unlikely places and semitones.

She performed most of the new album and a few old Jagged Little Pill favorites reconfigured to undercut their anthemic qualities. Though you might expect her to milk the audience for sing-alongs, it’s actually the opposite. Aware of not abusing her superstar power— the topic of “One,” where she admits she’s “gotten candy for my self-interest” and calls herself a “sexy treadmill capitalist”— the showgal in her keeps it humane, down to earth; this is a onetime child actress who knows that if you get too full of yourself, you’re likely to be slimed, as she was frequently on Nickelodeon. There is a thank you after every song. In fact, the album’s first video track is called “Thank U.” Appearing naked amidst the detritus of everyday life— on the subway, standing on the street. Whether she can do that on television or not, Alanis seems sweetly and blithely appreciative, unaware that she’s creating any stir. Unclothed the fashion equivalent of silence? Go diva go.