Friday, November 30, 2007

TERRELL'S TUNEUP: SCARRED AND SCREAMING

A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
November 30, 2007


Johnette Napolitano’s new solo album, Scarred, could almost pass for a Concrete Blonde album. It’s dark, intense, full of sneaky little hooks, sometimes a little overwrought, and, of course, it’s centered around the low, hoarse, frequently world-weary but always sexy voice of Johnette Napolitano.

All it lacks is the distinctive guitar scream of James Mankey (who mixed several tracks but didn’t play on it). A new collaborator, Will Crewdson, plays some pretty good guitar and provides some tasty little electronic gurgles and rumblings here and there.

Napolitano performs a couple of covers on Scarred. There’s a so-so Coldplay song called “The Scientist.” And there’s The Velvet Underground classic “All Tomorrow’s Parties,” though I’m not sure the free world really needs another version of this.

Far more interesting and arresting are Napolitano’s original tunes. Napolitano opens with “Amazing,” a song with a catchy chorus that sounds like it could be a happy love song. “Amazing, you’re amazing. ... And I just want to live in your light.” But as the minor-key melody suggests, there’s something deeper going on. “Look at my hands/Look at my feet/Clumsy stumps of leftover fin.” It’s a song of self-loathing and co-dependency.

It’s not hard to connect this with the title song — a smoldering little masterpiece of inner pain. Here, Napolitano sings of being so damaged by love gone sour that her only refuge is sleep. The lyrics are sparse, but the emotion in her voice as she wails, “I am so scarred,” is downright frightening.

The lyrics of “Save Me” sound like they’re from a woman trapped in a building after an earthquake. “I heard a train on the roof and a burglar alarm/And a shaking foundation/And I tried to hold on. ... And the windows breaking/And the dogs were barking.”

I can’t help but remember the time I interviewed Napolitano over the phone in February 1994 — the day of a big earthquake in Los Angeles that shook her home in Silver Lake. (“I got home about 2:30 this morning. About 4:30 it hit. I just shook in my bed. I crawled on hands and knees, got my dog, and went outside to see my neighbors. ... Something like this puts things in perspective. Life is very short and precious. This is just a reminder.”)

“Save Me” is just one of several “spoken-word” songs in which Napolitano recites rather than sings the verses. Also in this category are “Poem for the Native,” “I’m Up Here,” and “Everything for Everyone.” She’s used this technique occasionally since the early days of Concrete Blonde (remember “Roses Grow”?), but she overdoes it here. On all three of these songs, however, the music builds up to such a powerful rage, I wouldn’t want to tamper with any of the chemistry.

Still, I go back and forth between loving and hating “Everything for Everyone” because of the vintage pop-psych slogans that Napolitano drops into the lyrics. She actually says, “Today is the first day of the rest of my life” and that she wants to be “naturally high.” Oh well, at least the music doesn’t sound like John Denver’s.

I thought I was going to hate “Poem for the Native.” Usually songs by white people extolling the mystic virtues of Native Americans make me cringe. (Except maybe Hank Thompson’s “Squaws Along the Yukon.”) But, to her credit, Napolitano’s song doesn’t fall into patronizing clichés. Plus, the dang thing rocks every time it gets to the chorus.

As for “I’m Up Here,” which closes the album, this song sounds like it might be a furious rant against God himself. “Where was I when the levy broke?/When the husband choked his wife?/Where was I when the priest ruined his son?” (The first one Napolitano thanks in the liner notes is “The Creator,” so maybe she’s hedging her bets.)

Napolitano plays at Santa Fe Brewing Company (27 Fire Place, 424-3333) at 8 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 1. David J of Bauhaus and Love and Rockets open. Tickets are $18 in advance at the Lensic Performing Arts Center, 211 W. San Francisco St., 988-1234.

Not recommended:

*White Chalk by P.J. Harvey. Just a year ago, the release of Harvey’s The Peel Sessions 1991-2004 reminded me of what a vital rocker Polly Jean Harvey was, especially when she first started out. Her first three albums (four if you count the outtakes record 4-Track Demos) were nothing short of mighty.

Harvey’s output in the last 10 years has been spotty. But this album is one big splotch. The only people I can imagine voluntarily listening to this dreary dreck are college girls reading Sylvia Plath at 4 a.m. It makes me want to stick my head in an oven.

That being said, the one little thing I do appreciate here are the opening piano notes on the first song, which remind me of the intro to the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows.” The name of the song: “The Devil.” Clever. But not enough to carry the rest of the record.

Forget the piano, Polly. The world needs your guitar.

*R.E.M. Live. Most washed-up rock bands that insist on carrying on join the casino circuit. Those from commercial rock’s higher strata release two CD, one DVD live packages — heavy on the “greatest hits” and fortified by backup musicians.

I have to admit, many of these songs still have a lot of power. “The One I Love,” “Cuyahoga,” “Orange Crush” (I still don’t know whether they were singing about Agent Orange or the Denver Broncos), and “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth” are well done.

Probably the weakest tracks are the new protest songs “I Wanted to Be Wrong” and “Final Straw.” Don’t get me wrong, I love a good protest song: “We Can’t Make It Here” by James McMurtry, “Nothing at All” by the Waco Brothers, “They Crowned an Idiot King” by Swamp Dogg, “Rich Man’s War” by Hundred Year Flood. But these R.E.M. tunes are anemic.

The sad truth is that R.E.M. has a history to be proud of. I’m just not so sure about the present.

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