Special Sauce

“It’s my belief,” Janet Jackson says at the beginning of her (choose one: terrific, slammin’, dope, flawless) new album, “that we all have the need to feel special, and it’s this need that can bring out the best in us and yet the worst in us.” Though the tone is stiffly professorial–teach, Janet, teach–there’s still something hushed and confiding here. After years of talk shows, magazine profiles, sound-bite interviews, and therapy, most celebrities are adept at this mix of pompousness and intimacy, but Janet, who began her career at age seven, has had a lifetime to get it right. And she’s certainly had enough firsthand exposure to the destructiveness and driving urgency of “the need to feel special” to speak persuasively on the subject. But steeped as she is in the fuzz of psychobabble, she often can’t seem to find the words.

The Velvet Rope–which is otherwise more songs about fucking and death, the two subjects sparking black pop’s current resurgence–could be called Fame. “There are two sides to The Velvet Rope,” Janet told Vibe’s Danyel Smith, “those who want to be on the other side and those who are on the other side.” She invites us past her velvet rope on the album’s opening title cut, instructing, “Outside leave judgment/Outside leave hate.” It’s all rather melancholy and uplifting until you catch the pungent whiff of noblesse oblige. Janet may have had specialness thrust upon her; she may even chafe under its demands and restrictions; but she’s never not been famous, never not been chosen. That doesn’t mean The Velvet Rope couldn’t be a provocative metaphor for the color line and other forms of social exclusion, but Janet only floats the idea, then fritters it away. No matter how color-blind and democratic, there isn’t some we-are-the-world paradise on the other side of that rope, just a damn VIP room. “Come with me inside,” she sings, never acknowledging the alienation, the delusion, the trap. Like Madonna’s, like brother Michael’s, like any star’s, Janet’s sympathy might be genuine, but it’s useless. “Don’t forget YOU ARE ALL VERY SPECIAL!” she writes at the end of her exhaustive acknowledgments. Thanks so much.

For such a debased word, special has many meanings for Janet. She turns her spun-sugar version of Rod Stewart’s smarmy “Tonight’s the Night” into a paean to the menage a trois (“This is just between me and you and you”) that sounds like it’s destined for some sex-ed benefit record. But whatever small frisson Janet raises by addressing most of the song to another girl evaporates during the interlude, when she whispers, “This is so special.” The album’s last listed track is titled “Special.” After opening with Janet’s side of a breezy but, like, deep chat with an old friend who is probably her own alter ego, the song turns into an earnest, churchy self-help anthem in the Michael mold. “We’re all born with specialness inside of us,” Janet and a choir of children assure us, and it’s hard not to get carried away on their puffy clouds of positive thinking.

But Janet does something slightly disarming here as well. She closes the song by singing, in a soft, measured voice, “I have the need/To feel real special too.” “Special” stops abruptly then, and Janet says, “Work in progress,” summing up, perhaps, all that came before, but suggesting more pointedly that she herself is still in the process of psychic reconstruction. Again, these are exactly the sort of calculated confidences we’re used to sharing with celebrities these days. She hints at childhood abuse in Vibe and refers repeatedly here to overcoming pain in “the past.” So why is her girlish confession of insecurity kind of touching? Maybe because it sounds less like another gilt-edged whine than a simple admission of need. Maybe because it says some small thing about the compulsion to succeed and the emptiness of fame–the void on the other side of The Velvet Rope. “Specialness” is Janet’s pathetic word for true self-esteem, but it’s all she’s got.

Janet’s anger is more bracing and more valuable than her tentative confessions or regal concern. In “You,” a song apparently addressed to Michael, she uses that anger to shed more light on the underside of fame. Here’s something Janet truly understands: obsessive, isolating control. Acting as her brother’s conscience, she laces into him–and the whole culture of self-deception and complaint: “Learned to survive in your fictitious world/Does what they think of you determine your worth?” Here, too, Janet is probably talking to herself; she knows about getting lost in “fictitious worlds,” about trying to please everyone at the expense of your own needs. But her asides to Michael are brutally on the mark, even more so because they seem to be delivered in his own voice.

Producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, who’ve crafted an unusu-ally busy, electronica- spiked soundscape for The Velvet Rope, turn “You” into a dark-disco workout, ominous and dense, with a neat rhythmic underpinning copped from War’s period-perfect “Cisco Kid.” They’re even more impressive on the cinematic “What About,” which jump-cuts scenes and moods as quickly as any music video. Beginning with a liquid electrowash and a moonlit beach scene, Jam and Lewis sketch in shimmering bliss and Janet gets real dreamy. But while the guy’s sweet-talking her, she suddenly veers off and synths crash across the strings. In an ecstasy of fury, the song seesaws violently between romance and recrimination (most memorably: “What about the times you said you didn’t fuck her/She only gave you head?”). Because much of this remembered abuse sounds like it’s been dredged up from deep childhood, when Janet finally verbalizes the questions in her head, it’s cathartic, exciting. She’s not so cute when she’s mad.

As usual, Janet knows how to deliver a sexy song–fame is about seduction, after all. If the fuck numbers here don’t have the slashing electricity of “You” or “What About,” they’ve still got mad finesse. You don’t have to credit Janet’s s/m flirtation in “Rope Burn,” her lesbian flirtation in “Tonight’s the Night,” or her queer-friendly broadmindedness in “Free Xone” to appreciate their propaganda value. She’s certainly not competing with Lil’ Kim or Foxy Brown, but Janet projects a ripe, playful raunchiness: “Tonight/I feel so tight.” “I’ll be your best,” she promises. “I will do anything for you.” As consumers, we expect no less.

Throughout the record, Jam and Lewis weave Janet’s creamy vocals through the choicest borrowed riffs: Diana Ross, Archie Bell, Ashford and Simpson, Lynn Collins, and, most brilliantly, Joni Mitchell, whose repeated snippet on “Got ‘Til It’s Gone” sends the song straight to pop heaven. But that’s where Janet’s been ever since 1986’s Control, when she made it clear that she’d learned more than dance steps from her brothers. Combining fierce determination, an increasingly assured vocal style, and the sort of private drama necessary for modern celebrity, Janet established herself as the new, improved Jackson, anticipating Michael’s decline and eclipse. Her collaboration with Jam and Lewis has allowed her to recapitulate Motown’s suave orchestration, disco’s hyper optimism, and postmod r&b’s cold grooves through both canny quotes and cannier synthesization. Like any performer who’s grown up in public, she totes a lot of baggage, but it’s this history that grounds her and allows her to experiment, to play, to fuck with us, without having to reinvent herself each time out. So she’s landed in a pantheon that only Michael’s mentor Diana Ross could have prepared her for. She must feel the heat from rising stars like Mary J. Blige, Toni Braxton, Björk, Mariah Carey, and Alanis Morrisette, but Janet cruises in more-rarefied air. Like Madonna, and with few other peers, she combines a pure pop sensibility with ambition, vulnerability, freakishness, and extraordinary savvy. She’s–in her inadequate word–special.

On “Rope Burn,” she asks us to “come into my velvet room.” We won’t probe that metaphor too deeply, but it’s clearly far beyond that velvet rope. Janet wants to make us very comfortable, to confer “specialness” upon us. Even if she has an uneasy relationship with celebrity (who doesn’t?), she wants to spread it around.


Look Who Stopped Sucking!

Katie bar the door and Grandma bang the pan! Phish have made a good album. It’s not a grand statement, mind you, but a second live set that’s engrossing in a way they never have been before. This is a woolly pop band who can stretch out, rather than an overgrown music-box simulation of one. The most recent studio recordings show some gain in sinew and glossy sound, but Slip Stitch and Pass is an unforeseen development.

Back in 1988, any number of pop commentators in the Northeast could have looked like prophets if they had testified that the crude, band-distributed Junta cassette with the hick-psychedelic fish logo presaged festival-filling success. Still, it was dreadful stuff, so no regrets. Swarms of comparisons to the Grateful Dead (a fascinating group until their temporary retirement in the ’70s) clung to the band like remoras, but always seemed like sucker fare. Phish had aspects in common with the Dead–dilute vocals, faint drumming, keyboards that drained vitality, rhythm problems throughout–but invariably sounded more like Jethro Tull. One reason the new collection breaks out is that finally outsiders can hear the band has roots.

And Phish might have felt they needed to explain themselves to outsiders. The group is only a midrange curiosity in Europe, and this show took place in front of a relatively tiny school of fans in Hamburg, Germany, so the thrust was Phish revisits the garage. Three cover tunes set up the six originals: Talking Heads’ “Cities,” ZZ Top’s “Jesus Just Left Chicago,” and the barbershop quartet fossil “Hello My Baby.” These diverse numbers belong together only through the group’s affection for them. It would be dazzling if Slip Stitch and Pass drew a line from the breathless new wave of “Cities” to the heaving keyboard flourishes of “Taste,” a mature-phase Phish number. While the linkup doesn’t happen onstage, it’s enough that it happens in the performers’ minds. The sense of the tunes flowing together, even if individual numbers stick together no better than usual, gives the whole album a pleasurable, eccentric contour.

Trey Anastasio’s guitar dominates the first three-quarters of the show; he oozes effortlessly into and around a long pedal-effect workout in “Wolfman.” Partisans will claim the beats get funky around here, as the Wolfman turns into Jesus leaving Chicago. The rhythms do loosen, and Anastasio keeps the road map in front of him, but there’s no hint the groove will swallow the room, as in proper funk. Another sore point between true believers and skeptics, the band’s philosophical profundity or lack of it, is solved by the guest writers. The clear language and meaning of “Cities” and, screwy as this sounds, “Jesus Just Left Chicago” (which sounds like a story in this context) make even the recycled Frank Zappa yocks of “Weigh” feel articulate. And words don’t need to haul hefty loads for the rest of the set.

The off-kilter but inexorable pace retakes command on the previously undocumented, and nicely hard-bitten, “Mike’s Song.” Anastasio’s guitarations hammer phrases to pieces and reassemble them. He’s not the dimensional explorer he strives to be, but he works up a sweat thinking hard here. His accumulated sizzle carries you through korny kwotes from the Doors’ “The End” and Pink Floyd’s “Careful With That Axe, Eugene” as well as a mercifully compact rendition of “Lawn Boy,” another one of Phish’s not-stoned-enough jokes. “Weekapaug Groove” ends with a graceful nod to the Stones’ “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking.” None of which is as instructive as the first encore snippet that follows.

The a cappella “Hello My Baby” is Phish with the flannel cloak of enigma stripped away. “Send me a kiss by wire,” indeed. Clearly the audience thinks wow, what far-out material, but the earnest presentation, right through shaky harmonies, turns Phish into plain folks at last. Slip Stitch and Pass will probably remain an oddball item in the band’s catalogue, since it cuts straight across their mystique. Modest and gawky, this set takes prog-rock satire and psychedelia and heavy blues and turns them into a backyard playlet. This is a bunch of nice fellows from down the block who happen to know how to keep the gang entertained for the afternoon with card tricks and shaggy-dog yarns. Rather like what their name always led you to expect.


Art for Art’s Sake

Thanks to the runaway growth of the celebrity industry, the late 20th century will probably be remembered more for oily compliments than for witty put-downs. Perhaps that’s why one of the highlights of last year’s NXNW conference in Portland, Oregon, came during a set by the band Junior High, when former Crackerbash singer Sean Croghan, a man who evokes a younger, balder Elvis Costello, stopped one song cold to sing a verse a cappella. “They say Art imitates life/They also say he beats his wife,” spat Croghan, and there was an audible gasp as the audience soaked up this majestic affront. It was as if Croghan had slapped a lacy white glove across the face of Portland’s resident rock star, Art Alexakis, who, in 1993, was charged with domestic violence.

Alexakis is loathed in Portland’s slack-like-me underground, and not just for that incident (he has, incidentally, since received counseling and is still married to the complainant). To guys like Croghan, Alexakis’s band Everclear is the archetypal alt-rock nonentity, rootless, soulless, and utterly calculating in its quest to cash in on the post-Nirvana pop economy. Croghan and Co. might cite as proof of Alexakis’s inauthenticity the fact that back in the late ’80s, he led a San Francisco based band called Colorfinger that allied itself with a then hip country-punk movement; four years later he resurfaced in Portland with a short purple buzzcut and a band–Everclear–which rode to the top via an ethos that made much of his debatably grungy past as a heroin addict.

Boldly, Alexakis didn’t even bother to change his music, only his appearance and the tag used to describe it. But the truth is that Everclear, who’ve been known to cover Tom Petty live, have never been the smallest bit indie-rock. The band plays a more classic-rockinfluenced genre–midtempo, power-chord ridden ballads in 4/4 time shot through with the hurt-and-angry white-guy ethos that you hear all the time on songs by Counting Crows, the Wallflowers, and even Hootie and the Blowfish. Much of this genre is suspiciously sappy at heart; Alexakis’s version, though extremely tuneful, is comparatively aggressive, and that’s a good thing, since his blunt and pugnacious persona would curdle immediately at the least drop of sentimentality.

So Much for the Afterglow is Everclear’s third album, and its first in the wake of its 1995 smash hit Sparkle and Fade. One of its more admirable traits is the way it addresses the allegations made against Alexakis by the Portland cognoscenti. “I hate those people who love to tell you money is the root of all that kills,” he snarls on “I Will Buy You a New Life.” “They have never been poor, they have never had the joy of a welfare Christmas.”

Them’s fighting words to the effete indie world, and Alexakis knows it. But because his personality is so intense, Alexakis is doomed to tell the truth, or what passes for it in pop. That’s probably why So Much is such an adult album: both self-righteously anti-idealist and very antielitist. It is a record about lost illusions and growing up, about coming to terms with reality, and the resulting songs eat at the heart of a lot of indie-rock cant. The title cut, for example, begins with a hazy Beach Boys harmony before degenerating into a hard tuneful blitz. “This is a song about the way things are,” shrieks Alexakis, and amazingly, it is, as are many others. Though like many a songwriter, Alexakis makes way too much of his shitty childhood–deadbeat dad, schizo mom, and a subsequent feeling that “I will always be weird inside, I will always be a little lame”–he is a short-story writer at heart, moving easily among first-, second-, and third-person narratives.

On the first-person songs–“I Will Buy You a New Life,” for instance, and “Why I Don’t Believe in God”–he concentrates on his own personal failings; elsewhere, however, he tries to get inside the heads of his detractors. On “California King,” for example–which may or may not be about another former Portland rock star, Courtney Love–he rages against someone who sounds very like himself. On “One Hit Wonder,” he again justifies himself in the third person: “He likes the big time/he wants to live the kind of life/that will make the folks back home/scream and bitch and whine,” he sings, as if from Croghan’s point of view, only to conclude–as himself–“but they can’t hurt you unless you let them.”

In short, Alexakis isn’t afraid to be an asshole–or shoot holes in certain perverted rock ‘n’ roll myths. One of the more surprising themes that emerges is a sympathy to feminism, although it’s usually harshly expressed. “She is perfect in that fucked-up way,” he sings on “Amphetamine,” “that all the magazines seem to want to glorify these days.” The single, “Everything to Everyone,” describes a girl who tries too hard to please, because, Alexakis points out, “you are blind to the fact that the hand you hold/is the hand that holds you down.” And, on “White Men in Black Suits,” a song about a too hip rock ‘n’ roll couple who live on money earned from stripping, Alexakis really lets rip at the fallacies that abound about how empowering the sex industry is. “The white men in black suits,” he sings, “I think that they diminish you, I think that they diminish me, I think they are diminishing.” The way he sings it, “minishing” sounds like “machine.” It’s a nice moment.

Alexakis has his pretentions–like calling himself “A.P. Alexakis” on the production credits, an undoubted reference to A.P. Carter. Musically, he has evolved a formula that involves distinctly sour notes, anthemic choruses, and straight-ahead martial beats. And for all his railing against life’s little hypocrisies, there is a slight callowness to his work: he seems unable to envision a woman who doesn’t at some point act neurotic, drugged, or helpless. So Much for the Afterglow is both melodic and epigrammatic enough to get away with such dramatic personae, but for all Alexakis’s large-mindedness, the album ends with a distinct kiss-off: “I wish that I could have a drink and make you pay/I wish that you would go away.” Ah, but if that happened it would be a case of life imitating art–and Alexakis, of all people, knows that will never happen.