Saturday, March 21, 2009

"Between The Lines," by Janis Ian

Janis Ian stumbled onto the scene in 1965 as a fourteen year-old wunderkind, writing and performing “Society’s Child,” a then scandalous song about a white schoolgirl falling in love with a black schoolboy. The song reached number 14 on the pop charts in spite of being banned by most radio stations across the country, with one radio station reportedly being burned down after a DJ dared play it. Janis Ian, who has had songs rendered by musicians as varied as Bette Midler, Amy Grant, and John Mellencamp, may be more known today from pop culture references than from her gorgeous, meticulous, and often controversial poetry songs. In 2004, a character in the teen comedy, Mean Girls, was named after Ian: an outcast, “Goth,” high school girl. I wondered if the kids even knew how hip was that name-check...

In fact, Ian’s number 3 hit from 1975 and the quintessential teen-angst song, “At Seventeen,” is from the album, Between The Lines, one of most heartbreaking and beautiful albums of that wacked-out and wonderful decade. And in the 1970’s when America was reeling from Vietnam, Watergate, and the disillusionment of the hippie generation, that’s saying a lot. In truth, the album feels like 1975, with its faded yellow-brown cover and somber tones that saunter into your ears and linger forever. But despite being a perfect reflection of that moment in time, the album still sounds fresh today, like it might have been recorded last winter.

Borrowing elements from folk, pop, rock, classical, and even Broadway, Between The Lines paints a diverse musical landscape filled with sketches of isolation, fury, and redemption (sorry kids, joy sold separately). The album boomerangs between world-weary wisdom and youthful naïveté, at times asserting a voice of independence and strength and at other moments quiet desperation. Ian opens the album with the quintessential pick-up line from the “Me Decade:” “Would you like to learn to sing?” the singer asks, “Would you like to sing my song? Would you like to learn to love me best of all?” Not asking much, right?

The album features one sorrowful rumination after another on lost love (“In The Winter”), failed dreams (“Bright Lights And Promises”), and heartbreaking regret (“Water Colors”). Yet, in Ian’s tortured world, heartbreak never sounded so engaging. Ian draws you in. In fact, as a listener, one feels compelled to participate and to even enjoy the misery; the songs are that amazing. In fact, Ian’s brilliant writing on this album reveals a knack for breathing life into tear-stained journal entries - turning them into pop music poetry. In fact, with the success of Between The Lines, Ian essentially handed-out careers to decades of artists after her (you’re welcome, Tori and Alanis).

But I’ve always wondered why Ian chose the title, Between The Lines. “Between the lines” usually refers to subtle word messages, dancing around the topic when you’re afraid to come right out and say what you mean. But there’s nothing passive about these lyrics; they grab you by the lapels, look you in the eye, and demand your rapt attention. In fact, Ian’s beautiful melodies and imaginative, sometimes startlingly honest songs illustrate how truly sublime pop music can be.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

"Stardust," by Willie Nelson

Willie Nelson spent the 1960’s writing hits for other country superstars, including two of his best known songs in the same year, 1961: “Hello Walls,” a number one hit for Faron Young, and “Crazy,” a top ten hit for Patsy Cline. Yet, solo success was elusive. But finally in 1975, derailed and tired of trying to fit the trends du jour, Willie Nelson decided to just be himself: he stopped cutting his hair, he exchanged his cowboy boots for running shoes, and he released the semi-autobiographic album, Red-Headed Stranger. The world’s love affair with everything Willie hasn’t stopped since. So many hits from so many albums followed: “Blue Eyes Cryin’ In The Rain,” “Good Hearted Woman,” “On The Road Again,” “Always On My Mind,” etc., but it’s 1978’s out-of-nowhere album, Stardust, that remains the perennial fan favorite.

Stardust is an album of pop-standards, and Nelson approached this concept well before doing so became a music business inevitability. Today, it’s practically a right-of-passage for middle-aged singers past their “sell by” date to record a series of albums covering “The Great American Songbook.” This proliferation of nostalgia has a long history: Carly Simon (1981’s Torch), Linda Rondstadt (1984’s What’s New?), and Sinead O’Connor (1992’s Am I Not Your Girl?). More recently, Rod Stewart and Barry Manilow have both made late careers of repackaging pop memories, and in spite of its greatness, Willie Nelson’s Stardust is, arguably, to blame.

But here’s how it happened: in the wake of his mid-70’s country crossover success, Nelson felt moved to pay tribute to the songs that inspired his own work. His record company understandably resisted the idea, as their star had finally found a commercially viable country niche, so why mess with a winning blueprint? But Nelson prevailed, choosing homage over formula, and Stardust went on to become one of the most successful country albums of all time, selling millions of copies and spending a decade on the charts.

And what’s so great about Stardust is its sheer testament to music as a shared language – his interpretations defy categorization. They’re not country, but they’re not pop, either. On Stardust, they’re simply Willie Nelson songs. In fact, when technology allowed musicians to easily “sample” other artist’s work in the early 90’s, it was controversial. But I never understood the contention. Musicians had been referencing the past from the beginning of recorded song. You can’t listen to a Simon and Garfunkel album, for example, without hearing echoes of the Everly Brothers, and what rock album released post 1969 doesn’t illustrate clear references to the Beatles? Hasn’t “new” music always been informed by what’s come before? Nelson’s Stardust illustrates this time-honored tradition of musicians inspiring musicians…and we listeners reap the benefits.

The Stardust album opens with a mystery: “Sometimes I wonder why I spend the lonely nights dreaming of a song.” And Nelson spends the rest of the album answering this question: for the love of the music. With Stardust, Nelson blends country, jazz, and pop into an unidentifiable new sound never heard before or since. Always just ahead or just behind the beat, Nelson’s vocal makes one thing clear, while the songs may be familiar, it’s Willie’s house we’re in. And the album sequencing is perfect; creating a patchwork mood for the album that never lingers on one emotion for long. Stardust bounces from the quiet contemplation of “September Song” to the giddy skip-and-step of “Sunny Side Of The Street” and then back again.

In space, stardust is a tiny granule of terrestrial matter that existed before the earth was formed: a dust grain that condensed from cooling gases of prehistoric stars. Essentially, stardust is an artifact of what came before, but is now gone. And the songs Nelson picked for this album seem to follow this motif, longing for what is no more: longing for home (“Georgia On My Mind,” “Moonlight In Vermont”), longing for connection (“All Of Me,”), or longing for lost love (“Unchained Melody,” “September Song,” and of course, the title track).

And the longing is what keeps me coming back to Stardust over thirty years later. In fact, this album regularly finds its way on my playlist during quiet weekend afternoons with my partner, when I’m feeling nostalgic about the farm, or when I’m thinking of those I’ve loved and lost along the way. The songs somehow bring everything and everyone back as if they'd never been gone, or as Nelson sings, “the melody haunts my reverie, and I am once again with you.”