Pop: Music to drive by
Tuesday 14 December 1999
SEE, ANI honey, here's the deal: if you spit in the eye of big- bucks record company dictatorship and go out on your own, you need not only the music to get things rolling, you need to know how to keep the momentum.
No one's saying you don't have what it takes - not after you started out at 10 years old playing honky-tonks with a middle-aged muso, then sweating through endless coffee-house sets, where you honed that edgy, punk-folk sound and developed your gutsy, honey-sweet voice. Labels approached you, and you saw them off for all the right reasons ("I'm pretty much in this for the art and the inspiration and the politics... I'm not trying to become a big star"), instead using 50 bucks to launch your own record label, Righteous Babe. There followed a sack of albums filled with poignant, powerful songs, which got better and better until 1996's magnificent Dilate.
Since then, the output has been a bit complacent, and the shows tend that way, too. Three years ago, when I saw you in Dublin, you were incandescent. On Thursday night, the evening dragged. All right, it was freezing in there (apparently, the boiler packed up; that's England for you), which may have stifled some flow. Then one of your band had asthma (notices told us not to smoke), though the band seemed on fine form. You tore into the material with spindly arms splayed from the elbow like an autistic spider, flailing that guitar in staccato-flamenco style, confiding in the audience with endearing, wisecracks. ("One way to get warmer is to work yourself up into a little folk-singer tizzy. Notice me doing it?") The fans were yours from the start, but you could've picked your nose and the girls would'a cheered; your reputation as a militant lesbian icon marches right along. (Why do we put people in boxes? After all, you're married to your sound engineer.)
No, the problem was the songs you picked. You have a repertoire anyone would die for, from Appalachian resonance to molten funk and freeform jazz. Some of it did a twirl - the opening rap and building bass riff of Freakshow, the intense, broken time signatures of Providence, the devotional Everest, warm as a summer night and swooning into a gentle calypso beat. The rest, though, was a swampy mass, a continuing theme with little variation. This, I have to say, is where a record company producer usually comes in, providing that firm hand on the editing tool that cuts away incipient self-indulgence. At one point you chuckled, "I come from Buffalo, a place you drive through on the way to Niagara Falls". We waited and waited but, one after another, these were songs to motor through on the way to the rapids. Didn't you feel that, really, too?
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