Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Secondhand Daylight #1: Jane Siberry's The Walking

I think this will be the start of an intermittent series here at CTRNR - many other bloggers do it, so I don't know why I didn't bother with it before. Of course all series but the weekly mix one will be intermittent, but that's just because I'm lazy and easily distracted (in a rather embarrassing eight-hour binge last evening, I watched a fantasy film marathon on a movie channel, including Legend, The Clash of the Titans, Excalibur, and Ladyhawke). Anyhow, this series, entitled Secondhand Daylight, will be about albums I happen to pick up at used music shops, and considering I pretty much only shop at used music shops (since the closure of A&B Sound, all the music shops that sell brand new music in the city aren't really worth going into and since my music wants can often be difficult to track down here, I've also become an avid online shopper), this series should work out all right. There's something especially fun about going to a shop that sells used CDs and records - I think it's that sense of discovering something completely unexpected and possibly life-changing. I'm not being particularly hyperbolic when I say life-changing; after all, I found a copy of Generation Terrorists in a used music shop. There's also a part of me, albeit a mentally ill part, that feels like I'm rescuing old, unloved CDs and records that have been discarded by their owners. I like cleaning up old discs and cases and giving them a spot on my shelves. While this series will likely feature albums and artists that many of you will already be familiar with, it will be my way of sharing some of that heart-pumping excitement of experiencing a record for the first time.

This first installment of Secondhand Daylight is about Jane Siberry's 1987 album The Walking, which I picked up a couple of days ago for a mere $5. Having only heard Siberry's hit song One More Colour, but also knowing that the Toronto-born singer-songwriter was an indie music touchstone, I decided to give this record a go. According to Wikipedia, The Walking was a critical success but a popular failure - a fact that just boggles my mind because I found this album to be very accessible in addition to it being an incredible piece of work. Although, I suppose an album that is composed of eight tracks that average six minutes in length with the longest two being nine and eleven minutes respectively, isn't exactly standard for a pop record. Nor is the use of several different voices to represent various characters in scattered narratives that take up eight panels of lyrics in the liner notes. In fact, the lyrics in the liner notes are extraordinary pieces of art in their own right with their numerous digressions and literary tricks. Rather than attempt to explain what I mean, you can take a look at the following set of lyrics for the uniquely titled song Lena is a White Table:

first you go up the hill
(don't forget to say the church)
the church why? i don't think...
(in case they miss the turn)
let me do the talking
(you make mistakes sometimes)
well so do you too
never let me talk
yaahhh - drink your beer
this is no surprise

they're always arguing. they're from down in...
(darts my friend?)
and when you reach the top
out on the scraggy backs just there
say - you must be new
a movie camera! (ooohh!)
(darts?) don't! (over his shoulder as he goes to play darts)
(darts my friend?)

how does she hang the clothes
climb up on herself?
there's a house (white)
a back porch (grey)
just a table there
(don't forget the laundry line)
yes - nobody knows how far it goes (many men have died
past the fishing banks
probably past the edge of the earth maybe

and sometimes there is a chair the table legs they never
move waiting and
pressing and the clothesline stop don't move

well, maybe she should go to school
no, no...she's a table
lena's a white table

and in the afternoon
and in the autumn air
the porch is bare and still
there is a waiting there
and flint the laundry line
apples rolling down the hill

i hope that she's here
what if she's not here
i don't think she's here
i hope she's not here
don't you think she's here
i don't think she's here

and sometimes there is a chair the table legs they never
move waiting and pressing and the clothesline stop don't move
well, maybe she should go to school
no, no...she's a table
lena's a white table
well, maybe she should learn to pray
no, no...she's a table
lena's a white table
we saw her waiting by the line
which line? the laundry line
waiting for the clothes to dry
what if she freezes in mid-air?
no no no no no...

As you can see, it's poetry on the page, using a variety of techniques including stage directions and asides, which become delicately overdubbed vocals from Siberry. With its degree of imagination and scope, this one song is more ambitious than the majority of albums these days. Throughout every track, everyday relationships become cinematic and romantic in their flawed bittersweetness while inner monologues compete with external voices until they are no longer distinguishable from each other and they threaten to overtake the narrator in a heap of breathless emotion.

While the lyrical composition is complex and the musical arrangements mirror their complexity, it doesn't feel like work listening to this record; instead, this record reminds me of being immersed in Kate Bush and Cocteau Twins at the same time. Composed of several mini-suites, which perfectly suit the myriad lyrical shifts, this album is actually like having an autumnal walk through unpredictable, but gorgeous, sonic landscapes full of bubbling brooks and pollen-drunk bumblebees, sky-rending thunderstorms and dense fogs, melting ice cream and rattling streetcars. Like most great art, Siberry presents you with a view of the familiar in a completely unfamiliar way and under a completely unfamiliar guise. The mundane world and its actors are transformed as though seen through a faerie tapestry. Siberry's voice reels from operatic to mournfully dissonant to rich and warm like perfect pitch in the pit of your stomach. She runs through serenity, alarm, and bubbly sweetness in the movements that make up just the first song, The White Tent The Raft, alone, and the shortest track, Goodbye, is a fierce scrabble through loneliness as Siberry herself becomes the howling wind keening along the seashore, sculpting the sand as much as her lyrics carve lines on the page. One of the most poppy songs (and one of my favourites) is Ingrid and the Footman, and it recounts an offbeat relationship with a glittering humour and a fantastic exchange between male and female voices before Siberry's comes in like a gleeful play-acting child.

I'm now very tempted to purchase the copy of Siberry's Bound By the Beauty that I didn't bother buying in the same store. Apparently a few years ago, Siberry changed her name to Issa and completely decommodified her life, but I'm thinking I should look into her more recent work as well.

The White Tent The Raft - Jane Siberry

Ingrid and the Footman - Jane Siberry


Rol said...

Nice idea for a feature. I like the idea of rescuing unloved discs from the orphanage of the second hand shop.

Eric Bosse said...

It's great that you've discovered this lost treasure. It's a brilliant album, the kind of ambitious art that's rarely attempted--much less surpassed. I decided to give it a listen, myself, tonight, and I'm surprised to find this record has aged so well (and surprised that I'm so surprised, now that I'm hearing it again).

Bound By the Beauty isn't as ambitious, but it's a fine album in its own right. If nothing else, you'll love The Life is the Red Wagon. (But there isn't nothing else.) Thanks for blogging, and happy listening.

john said...

Big Jane fan here, yes buy Bound By The Beauty!! It's different from The Walking, but truly an amazing piece of work. And her newer work as Issa is def worth the time and money. Awesome to find your nice blog about Jane/Issa. I was just creating a FB page for her album The Walking. If you're on FB, become a fan and say hello. John

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