19 March 2007

women's march : part 2

These are some of my favorite female artists from the 90s whose work I still find immensely relevant to this day. The 90s was a great era for women in music. There was so much diversity in rock alone: from Hole to Mazzy Star to PJ Harvey to Tracy Bonham. These are the ones I listened to the most.

sinéad o'connor : red football
sinéad o'connor : sacrifice
click here or on the image below to listen

Did you know that more women aged 15 to 44 suffer death or disability from domestic violence than from war, cancer, malaria, and road accidents combined? Sad but true. I grew up in a household full of strong, nurturing women, who selflessly raised, educated, and provided for me and my siblings. It's simply beyond my understanding why women should suffer from violence at home and from biases in the workplace, politics, and many other facets of society. Not a lot of female pop artists take up these issues in their work, but you can't blame them. Any form of entertainment is less likely to have mass appeal when its content is heavy. Never one for commercial success, Red Football is doubtlessly Sinéad O'Connor's most up-front statement about women's rights. What this song achieves is it delivers an unequivocal message without being moralistic. Indeed, calling an end to violence against women no longer needs to simply appeal to people's morals. It needs to confront. It needs to provoke. It needs to agitate, as the ending of this song does. Of course, Sinéad is not only to be appreciated for her bravery, but also for her vocal uniqueness. Which is why I also have to post Sacrifice, her cover of Elton John's song about infidelity, which Sinéad delivers with unfurling anger. You will notice the change in her tone when she sings "We lose direction, no stone unturned." Even for a Sinéad song, Sacrifice is heavy on the reverb, but it only highlights what she can do with her voice.

paula cole : happy home
click here or on the image below to listen

If you knew Paula Cole from her breakthrough album, This Fire, you would know that Happy Home, from her debut album Harbinger, is anything but happy. In fact, it's about the opportunities women miss and the compromises they make, willingly or otherwise, when they carry out the roles of wife and mother. But what's good about this song is it's a story of two people: the mother suffering a crisis of what defines her identity, and the well-meaning daughter trying to figure out what is going on. It reminds me of the relationship between the young son and his mother, played by Julianne Moore, in that excellent film, The Hours. Best line: But everybody could feel the suffocation underneath the façade of a happy home. Best part: The mix of acoustic and electric after the bridge where she sings "Home sweet freedom, flowing in my mind."

crossroads : tracy chapman
click here or on the image below to listen

Yes, I know Crossroads came out in 1989. But like many, I had dismissed Tracy Chapman as a one-hit-album wonder until she released Give Me One Reason in 1995. The album where it's from, New Beginning, renewed my interest in her music. So while I listened to the spawns of the grunge era in the 90s, I was also rediscovering her sound, which is why I will always associate this song with the 90s. There's a lot of sorrow in her music, but she never makes them sound hopeless or desperate. Her voice doesn't have the range or versatility that the rest of the artists here have, but it beats in itself, not with anger, but with willpower. Hers is the voice of quiet defiance, which you will hear in Crossroads, a song about a woman's refusal to make compromises. Best Line: Standing at the point, the road it cross you down, what is at your back, which way do you turn. Best Part: The intro hooked me to the rest of the song.

caught a light sneeze : tori amos
click here or on the image below to listen

I'm not a Toriphile, but I did enjoy her music immensely from Under the Pink to Boys for Pele. The albums that came after were just too labored for my taste, until she released Scarlet's Walk in 2002, where she became a watered-down version of her old self. That said, what I like most about old Tori is not so much her lyrics as her voice and sound, from the restraint of Merman to the more elaborate arrangement of Tear In Your Hand. Most of the time, her lyrics are too coded for me to comprehend; I don't think I've ever agreed with anyone about what Silent All These Years means. Caught A Light Sneeze is no less difficult, but there are enough hints to say it's about the meltdown of her relationship with Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails. The reference to Pretty Hate Machine, the album that catapulted NIN to fame, is a giveaway. Best line: I need a big loan from a girl zone. (I have no idea what it means, but it sure sounds good the way she sings it.) Best part: How she stretches "building tumbling down" at the chorus.

ghost : indigo girls
click here or on the image below to listen

I first learned about the Indigo Girls when their album Swamp Ophelia was given to me as a birthday present by someone I dated. While the relationship didn't last long – it was in fact my shortest ever – the impact of Emily Saliers and Amy Ray's music on me did. I was so impressed by that album that I immediately looked for their prior work and discovered Rites of Passage, where Ghost is from. Where do I even begin to talk about this song? It's a gem. It captures you with its quiet start, then with the lyrics bit by bit, and then ultimately with its totality. Your appreciation of it grows the more you hear it. There's so much beauty in this song that every time you listen to it again, you're touched by one aspect that's different from the last – a poetic line, Emily's tearful wail, Amy's somber backing, or the way their fingers slide on their guitars. What first struck me was the first line in the chorus – There's not enough room in this world for my pain. It sounds so sincere that it reaches out to your own sense of pain and longing. The best line? It's hard to choose, but it would probably be from the final verse: This bitter pill I swallow is the silence that I keep, It poisons me I can't swim free, the river is too deep. The best part? I love the bridge, where Emily delivers an evocative wail, followed by a reversal of the duo's vocal roles.

10 March 2007

women's march : part 1

March is all-women month at Alternative Sounds, being that part of the year when we celebrate International Women's Day, which is on the 8th. I thought I'd make a conscious attempt to increase the representation of female artists in this blog. This first installment consists of artists from the 80s. The next one will be from the 90s, followed by women of folk and women from around the world.

all i want : susanna hoffs
click here or on the image below to listen

Before there was Lisa Loeb, before there was Natalie Imbruglia, before there were Frente!, Luscious Jackson and The Corrs, there was Susanna Hoffs. The most prominent one-fourth of The Bangles was the original pop-rock sweetheart, who exuded vulnerable sexuality with her delicately saccharine voice and wistful acoustic guitar. To someone growing up in the 80s and who was just beginning to form his own hormonally influenced notion of an ideal woman, Susanna Hoffs was the definitive girlfriend material. Madonna was too wild. Cyndi Lauper was too weird. Bananarama were just too...bleached. With her hoop earrings, tapered jeans and Aqua Net-architectured curls, Hoffs came out of VH1 and MTV like a singing porcelain doll, a small, shapely creature with the face of an angel, graced by a full set of lips that broke into a disarming smile, and wide eyes that charmed every time they half-closed. In other words, Susanna Hoffs was the first female artist that gave me the bone. She came to her peak in 1989 when the band released Eternal Flame – that irresistibly mushy ballad to undying love, the first three words of which provoke a universal sigh. But at age 48 – basking in the acclaim of Under The Covers, her 2006 album of duets with Matthew Sweet – Hoffs is still beguiling as ever, outlasting her 90s facsimiles, while her voice has hardly changed. I'm posting her 1996 cover of the Lightning Seeds classic All I Want, which she manages to make cute and edgy with her trademark rasp at the chorus. She only changes the instrumentation, giving it a minimalist treatment but keeping to the pace and form of the original. Best line: Confidence, coincidence, call it a sin, it's just like people say. Best part: I love the drums at the intro and the jangle of acoustic guitar at the first chorus.

soap and water : suzanne vega
click here or on the image below to listen

If you're not new to this blog, you may have noticed the new personality in the header art. Why didn't I think of putting Suzanne Vega up there in the first place? I've been a fan since Luka, which I realized even at 13 or 14 was a remarkable song. I had been exposed to pop music dealing with social issues before, or since I cared enough to actually mull over the lyrics – from famine (Do They Know It's Christmas?) to war (State of the Nation) to teen pregnancy (Papa Don't Preach) – but somethig was different about Luka. For one, whoever thought of writing a song about child abuse from the point of view of the child? (If you hear something late at night, some kind of trouble, some kind of fight, just don't ask me what it was) The words are haunting enough; the melody couldn't have accompanied them better. The brilliance of the songwriting becomes even sharper when compared with What's The Matter Here? by 10,000 Maniacs, about the same theme, released on the same year (1987). (I'm tired of the excuses everybody uses, he's your kid, do as you see fit.) Make no mistake – the song, written by vocalist Natalie Merchant, is equally brilliant, but Luka is more poetic and empathetic. In fact, a poet who happens to sing is what Suzanne Vega is. Her songs are always full of symbolism. It's not always obvious, but it speaks to you in ways only you can understand – just listen to Gypsy. Luka is one of the easy ones; Soap And Water is another – a song about a couple's separation and how it ravages the emotions of the child. But see how beautiful she illustrates tragedy: Soap and water, wash the year from my life, straighten all that we trampled and tore, heal the cut we call husband and wife. It's hard to think of another female singer-songwriter who approximates her intelligence. Best line: The verse I just quoted. Best part: The six guitar notes that run throughout the song.

circle dream : 10,000 maniacs
click here or on the image below to listen

Resolute is one of the words I use to describe Natalie Merchant's voice. It's an amazing instrument she has. You hear her sing, and you know she's out to make a statement – from depression (Like The Weather, which you can listen to right here) to media desensitization (Candy Everybody Wants) to unwanted pregnancy (Eat For Two). Or at least that's what I think the last song is about. Motherhood is a theme that Merchant writes about with emotional acuity, free of clichés and mawkish testimonies. Circle Dream, from the band's 1992 album Our Time In Eden, is a celebration of life – and here you'll see some parallelism between her and Suzanne Vega's songwriting, because it's written from the voice of the unborn child. Best line: Her warmth coming near, calling me "Sweetness," calling me "Dear." Best part: Natalie's own backing and harmony vocals.