Culturespill » Joni Mitchell

Best Albums of 2011 Series: “The World Will Follow,” Andi Starr

16th November

andi.jpg

The first time I ever heard of Andi Starr was eight years ago when she emailed to ask if I would review her then-new album Me Beautiful, not because she felt assured that I would lavish it in praise, but specifically because I had just gotten done doing precisely the opposite to Jewel’s horrid 2003 album 0304. If you don’t recall that record, let me first say that I don’t blame you. And now let me remind you that it was the moment in that pop chameleon’s career when she took a stab at passing herself off as some literate Britney Spears, turning in live performances full of trashy clothes and quivering breasts packed into her push-up bra to pair with her stiletto heels and suggestive simper. The music was as substantive as the wardrobe, and the “artist’s” desperation was palpable as she stood at the cliff of her growing irrelevance.

In my review of that album, Starr seemed to have found a scorching critical flame against which to hold her work, and if it turned to ashes in the process, she made it clear that she was perfectly happy to accept that. To her credit, Starr, unlike 99.9% of bands who make their pleas to music bloggers, had actually bothered to read my blog and, even more to her credit, did not bother insisting on her greatness. She was more content to let her music do the talking and allow me to hear what it had to say on my terms, not hers. This was a courage I am yet to find in almost any other band that has emailed me in the eight years since.

The CD ended up in my mailbox days later (Yes, people still sent stuff in the mail back then, and yes, I am one of those prehistoric creatures who still prefers my music in the flesh). I popped the CD into my stereo with the same misgivings I have whenever I listen to music sent to me by a band who wants something from me–that it more likely would bore me than thrill me, that the CD would barely make it past track three before taking its place in my graveyard of albums almost interesting enough to listen to but not really. And that’s when Starr did something else that 99.9% of bands who email me never manage to do–she surprised me.

 

The album stunned me with a spareness and emotional honesty that yielded the kind of songs that call you by your name. At its most vulnerable (desolate tracks like “Elliott” or “Hush”) the album sounded like something recorded outside amid the eerie silence that accompanies the aftermath of a dizzying snowfall, where the ordinary noise of the world–a passing car, a bird–sounds like the only sign of life within a hundred miles of where you stand, but sign enough to get you through the cold night to come. Starr has dropped three EPs and four full-length records since then–this is an artist who works for what she’s after–and in retrospect, releases like the Supergirl EP or the full-length Leaving the White Line sound like blueprints for the fuller, more ambitious production that makes her newest record, The World Will Follow, play like the fruition of more than a decade of labor in the studio.

Starr’s latest disc opens with the wailing and full-bodied sound of the title track as she paints a portrait which, for an artist whose recording career began with the humble accoutrement of an 8-track in her living room, is undoubtedly drawn from personal experience–a dreamer subsisting on Top Ramen, crackers and toast while waiting for the world to catch on. “Do what you love and the world will follow,” Starr sings in a breathy voice as fragile as a spider’s web swinging in a breeze. Throughout the record, Starr’s vocals crack and fade into falsetto one second and boom with a kind of bawling earnestness the next. These songs are the restless tales and prayers of a performer who knows the desire of which she sings in all its depths and detours.

While prior albums for the most part seem committed to a particular mood–the spare atmospherics of Me Beautiful or the jaunty radiance of Supergirl–The World Will Follow roams a broader spectrum of attitudes. Tracks like “Little Bird” or “Ticket-Taker” keep their enthusiasms in check while others like “A Song that Never Dies” or “Happy Ballad” make their nods to a subtle brand of pop that Starr has honed into a sound wholly her own. Starr boasts her influences proudly throughout the record–the discerning listener can hear The Cranberries somewhere off in the distance of “Happy Ballad,” and “Already Gold” flirts with the ghost of Annie Lenox’s “Little Bird.” But Starr does not just pay homage to the bands that made her music possible; she brings some of their apostles to the party herself. Supertramp’s Jesse Seidenberg chimes in with some sweet lap steel here and there, while Jordan Richter, whose production credits include Sixpence None the Richer, lends some synth guitar to the mix.

And just when you think you’ve got Andi Starr figured out, here comes a trippy instrumental in “Water Rising” that keeps you on your guard with its goth-tinged echoes of psychedelia and new-wave. “Water Rising” suggests there may be a hell of a lot more to Andi Starr’s muse than she has let on thus far, and that there may be some fascinating experiments ahead.

Gianmarc Manzione
gmanzione@culturespill.com

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Visions of Johanna: On the Hunt for the Next Great Songwriter

7th May

Leonard Cohen
Leonard Cohen in 1969

“Mona Lisa musta had the highway blues
You can see it in the way she smiles.”
–Bob Dylan, “Visions of Johanna

Not too long ago, I lived the life of an alienated lover of books and music, awakening from the baffled and brutal slumber of a high school experience largely dominated by the anxious desperation of a yearned-for belonging, a need that eludes so many who navigate those tortured and cliquish halls on the way to a college experience where the freaks find their kind and settle into an initial notion of who they are. I spent hours on end each evening trading banter with a fellow Leonard Cohen lover about the nuanced passages of obscure bootlegs of his, musical diamonds mined from the cluttered shelves of overlooked record shops on Macdougal or Thomspon in the village, a storied neighborhood in the bowels of New York City where Dylan and Van Ronk once ruled as kings of a counterculture whose reverberations we weather to this day.

No, not too long ago at all. I recall pulling off to the side of a rural road in Long Island as Cohen’s “Sisters of Mercy” played on the stereo, my eyes literally bloating with held-back tears as I reeled in the throes of a gut-wrenching break-up while Cohen sang softly about “The sisters of mercy who are not departed or gone,” how “they waited for me when I thought that I just can’t go on,” who “brought me their comfort and later they brought me this song.” With what effortless precision had Cohen identified exactly the note and notion I needed to hear at that moment–a possibility of hope and survival found only in song. I recall hanging on the line in silence with that above-mentioned friend as we listened in reverent stillness to Cohen’s “Let Us Sing Another Song, Boys” from his devastating masterpiece of melancholy, 1971’s Songs of Love and Hate. How only our hushed but vaguely audible breaths stood between ourselves and the song, a wild whirlwind of singers twirling the tune around their haunted voices, a wiry wail as undisciplined as it is sincere.

I recall many cold nights driving through downtown Manhattan, a winter rain thrumming the windshield as I struggled again to squeeze into an only parking space in that sleepless town, fleeing my car to wade through the weather with the collar of a worn leather coat popped to keep my wet neck warm on the way to another cappuccino at Cafe Dante, the historic cafe on MacDougal just across the street from a loft Dylan lived in thirty years before. I recall how many nights that weather brought to mind the song Dylan tattooed on the American memory in a voice edged with cigarettes and dust, lines about how “the harmonica plays the skeleton keys and the rain,” or the way “Louise holds a handful of rain tempting you to defy it.”

Dylan in ‘66
Dylan in London, 1966

These are the lines against which any more recent songwriter’s work must be held. They are memories that only the best-made songs call us to connect our lives to, and any aspiring masters of song who shy away from that great challenge are doomed to shrink in the shadow of a history they might otherwise have enriched. When bands like Death Cab For Cutie storm the scene with hailed writers like Ben Gibbard to offer a latest gem by the name of “I Will Possess Your Heart”–the title alone one of far less subtlety and tact than anything either of the aforementioned songwriters would ever even ponder–it is this fertile heritage he confronts. Lines like “How I wish you could see the potential of you and me” or “I know you will find love” read like phantom impostors by comparison, knee-jerk lines scribbled on a napkin in crayon and shoved in the pocket of a shirt that’s later tossed to the hamper and forgotten. It is a difficult but hardly arguable fact that one commits an act of blasphemy in pairing figures like Gibbard, however sincere or loved they may be, with the predecessors that paved the way to their fame all those years ago. Such undue claims to glory suggest that younger fans mistake a catchy tune for lyrical intensity, trading substance for surface in a fit of confused adoration.

This is not to say that those capable of hanging with such esteemed company do not exist in the industry’s current and bountiful crop of songwriters. Songwriters of that magnitude are and must necessarily be few and far between, but they are apparent to those looking hard enough. Joe Henry, for example, who is married to, of all people, the sister of the Material Girl herself, continues to produce one brilliant exhibition of lyrical mastery after another, particularly the trilogy of Trampoline, Fuse and Scar, albums teeming with an abundance of gripping language dressed in Henry’s unique and ethereal jungle of sound. Henry, producer of recent projects by Ani DiFranco, Aimee Mann, Elvis Costello and, most notably, a grammy-winning foray into soul that produced Solomon Burke’s Don’t Give Up on Me and the resurrection of Bettye Lavette, is a sought-after collaborator for a reason: he has quietly developed one of the most respectable oeuvres music has seen since Tom Waits’s Swordfish/Raindogs/Frank’s Wild Years package in the mid ’80s.

Joe Henry
Joe Henry

“Like she was the fever I wear like a crown,” Henry sings of some sought-after love in “Like She Was A Hammer,” “Like she was the raging flower in the brick yard . . . like she was Roosevelt’s funeral in the street.” Henry plows language to dig beneath the surface of the banter that passes for songwriting in a Death Cab tune, unearthing the raw jewelry of words to convey a far more persuasive sense of the helplessness and need that Gibbard reaches for in his newest single. He so quickly finds and exposes the pumping heart of the song that he hardly leaves you a second to breathe before you’re thrown into an empty room with nothing but your own wounded memories to get you through the hour. “I wonder how you turned out the stars,” Henry sings on the spare and fragile “Lock and Key,” “I hear your laugh / like falling railway cars . . . God only knows how I love you / but God and his ghost / and his roadhouse crew / ran me out of town on a silver rail / free at last and begging for jail.” Now that’s helplessness. That’s desire. That is song.

Others, like Mark Linkous of Sparklehorse, bring a maniacal abandon to the song that reduces so many to timid pretenders, singing of “the toothless kiss of skeletons / in summer hail” on his brilliant Wonderful Life LP. “I’m the king of nails,” he concludes as a grunged-up crescendo of guitars and pounding drums blasts the song to hell. Linkous’s talents are evident in the company it attracts. Tom Waits chimes in on “Dog Door,” while PJ Harvey lends her gut-deep wail to the scorching “Piano Fire.” “Every hair on your head is counted,” he whispers on Goodmorning Spider, an album recorded not long after medics literally brought him back from the dead amid a paralyzing overdose that left him nearly crippled, “You are worth hundreds of sparrows.”

Ben Gibbard
Ben Gibbard

The greatest songwriters of a generation do not always fall in our laps as thunderously as they may have forty years ago, when Dylan, Cohen and Mitchell torched the world with a revolutionary fusion of pop and poetry that no one dared attempt before. In an industry far more saturated with underground talent vying for a platform than the likes of Cohen or Dylan had to contend with in their day, too often the finest talent is kept away from the radio and crowded off the stage.

The songs of Henry and Linkous will not be heard on your local FM station today, and they will never pose for the cover of Spin or Rolling Stone. But they are without argument producing work of vastly superior quality to the majority of the sludge that passes for song on the scene today. Do yourself a favor–download a tune or two by either of these geniuses. Then listen to the new Death Cab album. As beautiful and brave as Narrow Stairs may be–and it is most certainly a commendable piece of work by a good band–still I challenge you tell me who the great songwriter is. I’ll be waiting patiently for your answer.

A Culturespill Flashback: Andi Starr’s “Me Beautiful”

30th April

Starr 3

I step into the stale air of Barnes & Noble, where a logo and four-dollar cappuccino replaces the mug and first-name basis of the local coffee house. The store flanks a highway choked with the obnoxious and insistent neon glow of corporate excess. An enormous Best Buy sign juts out with blinding hues of yellow and blue; the golden arches of McDonald’s glimmer over the road. Another Longhorn steakhouse announces itself amid a vast island of blacktop carved up by bold white lines; the ground stained with oil of Fords, Hondas, Buicks and SUVs. This is the new scenery down in Stuart, Florida — one of the fastest growing towns in America. Where there were dirt roads, there are traffic lights. Where there were fruit stands, there is Walmart, Petco, Wendy’s. Ten years ago you could drive through this town without passing a single car.

I did not come here for a four-dollar cappuccino; nor am I interested in a grande soy vanilla latte, thank you. I am here for the music. Specifically, Live at Benaroya Hall, a two-disc unplugged set by Pearl Jam featuring a vicious and timely rendition of Dylan’s “Masters of War.” “Come you masters of war,” Eddie Vedder bellows, his haunted voice poised to burst through the Ozone, “you that build all the guns/you that build the death planes/you that build all the bombs.”

Most of my fellow shoppers, though, are not exactly clamoring for the “P” section. It is 2004, and Mike, my friend behind the counter, tells me that Ashlee Simpson’s “debut album” (how loosely we Americans have come to use these terms) just became the store’s #1 best seller. The “record,” as it is being called, was released just hours ago. “You know, she already had her own TV show before ever making an album,” Mike says, “meanwhile, Pearl Jam gathers dust on the shelf.” But after driving through a wilderness of advertising and corporate glitter on my way to work each morning, Mike’s revelation is hardly an astonishment. So I wipe the dust off my copy, toss a crumpled receipt in the trash by the door, and dart for my car stereo, Circuit City’s crimson insignia glowering from across the street.

But even Vedder and his taut guitar duo of McCreedy and Ament do not prepare me for the allures of Andi Starr, whose album, Me Beautiful, waits for me in my mailbox. No, Ms. Starr does not have any sisters on TV, and you probably haven’t heard of her. Starr, a local singer/songwriter from Oregon promoted by her manager/husband, writes great songs and prefers to keep her clothes on, if you please. The album, Starr’s second, offers neither Gwen Stefani’s navel nor Britney Spears’ latest hair color. No wonder I don’t see her photo next to Ashlee Simpson’s in Barnes & Noble display windows.

Nor is it any surprise to hear Starr singing “hold a mirror up to your soul/not your face/up to your heart.” As the opening track’s patient crescendo of piano, guitar and drums blooms into a soundscape entirely her own, I quickly understand that Starr’s songs cut deeper than flesh, further than bone. “I would crawl inside of you,” she croons amid “Little Angel’s” hushed ambiance, “to find the room that is dark.” But Starr, who confesses to a terror of performing and “being seen,” is a bit modest. There is nothing conditional about it: these songs do crawl inside of you, and as the biographical note on her Web site asserts, “If Andi’s music doesn’t follow you, haunt you, comfort you, awaken you, challenge you, inspire you, then you’re simply not listening.”

Starr 4

Andi Starr hits the right notes: the notes that hurt, the notes that know you, the notes that make you meet yourself. If glass had a voice it would sing like this woman. Fragile and clean, listening to her vocals is like peeking through the wiped window of an abandoned house. It is dark inside but you look a little harder, you want to know what’s in there. Gradually you begin to discern the silhouette of a coffee stand, the impression of a light switch, the beveled edges of a mirror. You can almost make out the angles where walls come together to form the corners of the room.

The brilliance of Starr’s work — truly a refreshing experience — is in its refusal to flip the light on. Me Beautiful never exposes more than shapes and shadows strewn about its dimly lit landscape of sound. Songs like “Wash Away,” with its gentle and surprising gust of mandolin and percussion, allow listeners to imagine and participate where so many of her more renowned contemporaries condescend and overindulge. The structured harmonies of many of these songs are as taut as any radio single without compromising the artist’s integrity.

Starr’s voice and lyrics plead with the past: the bruises of its memories and the dreams of its pleasures. Yet, for all the album’s complicated emotions and ideas, Starr herself seems to put it best in the end: “it’s simpler than we make it out to be/yeah it’s simpler than we make it out to be.” This may or may not be true of life, but it certainly speaks accurately for the music. That is precisely the thing that cannot be said of so much product hurled upon the masses by many of pop music’s female singer/songwriters. Andi Starr is new because her music is a familiar echo of the roots that made it possible: from Joni Mitchell and Cindy Lauper on down to Julie Miller and Aimee Mann. Starr’s voice combines the earnestness and intensity of this eclectic heritage into one cohesive force. One can only hope that it will soon be a force of change and influence.