Tag Archives: Viper Room

River – Natalie Merchant

Last week I took my mum to see Natalie Merchant at the Royal Albert Hall as a birthday present for her. Mum’s a bit of a Merchant fan, whereas I knew very little about her (other than her connections to artists of whom I’m a fan).

As is sometimes the way of these things, I was just hoping I enjoyed it enough that my mum’s own enjoyment of the show wasn’t affected by a lack of enthusiasm from me.

Instead I was enthralled, pretty much all the way through the show. Merchant is touring behind an album called Paradise is There: The New Tigerlily Recordings. Tigerlily, released in 1995, was Merchant’s first solo album – her biggest commercial success and still her fans’ favourite. She’s re-recorded the whole album with new arrangements and is performing the whole of the album on this tour, using the new arrangements put together for Paradise is There. The band she had at the Albert Hall (drummer, double bassist, pianist, guitarist and string quartet) sounded wonderful and those new arrangements – based heavily around the strings – are gorgeous.

Merchant was the singer in a 1980s college rock band called 10,000 Maniacs, a New York-based chimey-jangle guitar group with a pronounced R.E.M. influence. After leaving the band, Merchant’s music became more layered, downplaying the rock and incorporating influences from jazz, soul, folk and classical music. Even as her music moved away from straight indie, though, Michael Stipe (a close friend of Merchant’s) remained a key influence on her writing, and particularly her vocal phrasing.*

River was the song that hit me hardest at the gig, not that I knew what it was called or what it was about. I was first hooked by the line “Let the youth of America mourn” (such a striking statement, especially when my lack of familiarity with the song left me unsure why they should be mourning), but was left reeling by the grain of Merchant’s voice as it rose to meet the line “And it’s nothing but a tragedy”. It’s a powerful moment on the recording; in the auditorium it was just devastating.

The history of rock artists re-recording their old material is a chequered one. Most often, it’s been for cheap cash-in compilations to avoid licencing costs, or to allow the artist to profit more highly from recordings made under an unfavourable contract. Other times artists have re-recorded works because they can’t leave well enough alone (David Sylvian, John Martyn) and aren’t really aware of what it is their fans liked about their recordings in the first place. Sometimes it’s been to show how much the artist’s voice or style has changed (Joni Mitchell, for instance, who insisted that she’d become a more interesting singer as her voice became a cigarette-coarsened husk of its former self). There’s a little bit of the last two at play in Merchant’s new version of Tigerlily, but in this case it succeeds for two reasons: the new arrangements are beautiful, and Merchant’s mature voice is a hell of a vessel for communicating emotion.

The young Merchant was a fine singer, with an appealing voice and an emotionally open vocal persona. On the original recording, Merchant sings the whole of that pivotal second verse in the same high register: indignant, but questioning and unsure of anything but her sadness. On the new version, she withholds that high register, instead building to that final line, emphasising the asymmetry of the lines, hitting some words hard and underplaying others, before finally letting go with a cry from the soul. Her vocal is fiercer, wiser; compassion for the departed balanced by contempt for those who speak and judge without understanding.

The sadness, and the contempt, was well earned. The subject of River is, of course, the late actor River Phoenix, whom Merchant knew; when Merchant sings simple, “With candles, with flowers, he was one of ours”, she is not singing of an imagined connection. Phoenix died in 1993 outside the Viper Room from a drug overdose, while Jonny Depp’s band, P (which featured Phoenix’s friends Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers and the Butthole Surfers’ Gibby Haynes) were on stage. The song that they were playing at the moment Phoenix’s heart gave out was called, by cruel irony, “Michael Stipe”. He was 23.

natalie-merchant

* My mother, it’s fair to say, is unclear as to what I find appealing about Stipe’s singing voice, and initially seemed to dismiss my comments about the musical similarity. It’s as clear as day, though, especially on River. She said to me when the first song of the second set was over that, now I’d pointed it out, the Stipe influence was plainly audible.

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How I See It – Carina Round

Carina Round’s debut album was released in 2001 with little fanfare on Animal Noise. It got some enthusiastic reviews, which tended to concentrate on Round’s voice and what she could do with it, but these tended to note her as one for the future, rather than as a fully developed talent. The Sunday Times reviewer, though, was less circumspect: ‘One of the most extraordinary debut albums I’ve ever heard – absolutely brilliant.’ I suspect it was this review that I read and that convinced me to track the album down.

The First Blood Mystery is nothing if not striking. Round’s voice may seem like a standard-issue ‘UK singer singing jazz with US accent’ kind of thing on some songs (she’d had a residency at Ronnie Scott’s in Birmingham before making her first record) but she could take it out to places where PJ Harvey, Kristin Hersh, Robert Plant and Corin Tucker were more comfortable: wailing, howling, screaming, paint-stripping kinds of places. Ribbons and On Leaving, the album’s last two tracks, were extraordinarily emotionally raw, uneasy pieces of music. When listened to in the right mood, they can be overwhelming. At other times when I hear them, they seem gauche, over the top. The emotional climax of On Leaving is also marred by a horrendous flub from the drummer, one I’m surprised they lived with. I’ve edited around it – replacing the affected half-bar with one from a later repeat – to be able to listen to the song without being taken out of it right at the crucial moment. Frankly, it was a shoddy piece of record making to allow it to survive to the master.

The album’s key stretch is the 3-song run from track two to track four: Lightbulb Song, How I See It and The Waves.This is where the album’s at its most adventurous in terms of texture and arrangement, while retaining some of the shock and awe of Round’s voice. Flutes, subtle electronic touches, electric guitars and vocal harmonies go to some seldom-explored places. Round channels Diane Cluck after the first chorus in Lightbulb Song and ear-catching use is made of harmonised flutes. One track later, How I See It uses Cousteau singer Liam McKahey’s lugubrious voice for some wordless moans and it’s a fine match for the song, which somewhat recalls the band’s Your Day Will Come, How I See It, though, is a more idiosyncratic work than Cousteau’s scotch-and-fine-tailoring revivalism. Spooky folk jazz with muted trumpet suited her well, and How I See It is the song I come back to most.

But this aspect of her first album didn’t make it to her subsequent work, which got bigger, louder, shinier, rockier, more adolescently gothic and progressively more dull. She moved to LA, played the Viper Room and made her third album with Glen Ballard. She toured with Annie Lennox. Her fourth record featured Dave Stewart. The jig was up.

Listening to The First Blood Mystery is a strange experience, 13 years after the its release. I can’t think of another debut record that had so much promise where the author went on to do so little of worth afterwards. I don’t like writing about records about which I can’t be more or less unambiguously positive, but so many of my reactions to How I See It, and to The First Blood Mystery more generally, are complicated by its author’s failure to develop artistically from here. What should have been the start of something really important is instead a 30-minute one-off, seven songs that could have led anywhere and instead led nowhere.

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Carina Round