| Issue #31, December 1, 2003.
* Subject: Surviving the storm
Date: 12/1/2003 00:37:42 -0500
Subject: Surviving the storm All headers
There haven’t been many things I looked forward to as much as the release of Storm, and the prospect of being blown away by Ms. Heavy Weather, unrestrained by record-company tinkering. So why was I so disappointed when I actually heard it? Everyone else (except Kevin. Hi Kevin) has had only good things to say about Storm. Actually, after multiple listenings, the disappointment is mostly gone and I’ve come around to really - "liking it" isn’t quite right - you don’t just "like" Heather’s music. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that the songs have taken hold of me. Apart from a couple of criticisms of the music that I’ll air in a minute (perhaps provoke some hate mail?), I’m beginning to think it’s one of the best things she’s ever done. Possibly the best. Time will tell.
Why was I disappointed when I finally heard Storm? First, it was probably inevitable, after hearing live recordings (that fabulous Cologne concert, with Heather’s voice richer and fuller and more expressive than ever, and the band really together) of some of the new songs, that the album would be a let down. I haven’t heard a single live recording by Heather that doesn’t deliver more impact than the studio version of the same song (even when she flubs a line or her voice cracks). Her studio recordings are more controlled, more restrained, perhaps less immediate even though they’re more polished. And I really overdid listening to the Cologne concert. I had ten weeks in the far north, brooding on (amongst other things) how unfair it was to be stuck on a job in the Arctic when what I really wanted to do was go to the UK and catch a couple of Heather’s concerts (I had the tickets ready and all).
Sometimes I played it 3 or 4 times a day. So of course the studio versions of those songs sounded ..... wrong, when I finally heard them.
Second, the subject matter of the songs (the ones that she didn’t sing in Cologne) took a good deal of getting used to. We all know that Heather’s songs portray scenes and events from her life (she’s said it often enough now), and she does it with an honest, straightforward quality that avoids coyness, self-congratulation or narcissism. This is what makes her music so unique. But there are moments when you think "I wish she hadn’t told me that". One of the things that I really like about this mailing list is that we don’t gossip, so I’ll shut up about this now.
My actual criticisms of Storm (and they are minor compared to the good things):
Mercury rev: Good choice of band, but I don’t think the right choice for Heather. Their music is totally non-commercial (good) and original (good) but what it lacks for me is .... excitement. It’s too cerebral. Critics may like it, and musicians may like it, but it doesn’t do it for this audience (that’s me). It’s hard to imagine those guys getting a crowd jumping.
There are parts of the album where I seem to feel Heather’s melodic line is pulling the rhythm behind it, giving a sort of lethargic feel. There’s probably a technical term in music for this. Only on "river of life" and "fool for you" does the band feel tight (as jazz musicians used to say).
Mixing and production: I first listened to Storm on a modest stereo (our good one was trashed some time ago and that’s another story) which usually does a fair job, but the music sounded "thin" and I could hardly hear the bass at all. Since then I’ve listened to it a lot in my car (10,000 km in the last 3 weeks) and it sounds much better. Car stereos have extra bass amplification because road and wind noises tend to drown out low frequency sound, but even so I have to crank the bass up to maximum to get Storm to sound full and rich. Also, Heather’s voice sometimes sounds thin, almost girlish. Again, turning up the bass frequencies adds some depth, but not quite enough to match the tones that she projected in Cologne this year. In the past, she has sometimes done "thin and girlish" to create a particular feeling, but I get the impression this was not planned, but was the fault of whoever was at the mixing console, not realising that most listening is not done on very lavish sound systems. Perhaps it is and I’m the odd man out. Well that wouldn’t be anything new.
What’s good about Storm? Here goes:
Heather’s lyrics. I’m beginning to think that her lyric writing is the most important single facet of her talent. Storm gives us the usual mixture of plain language, exotic metaphors and pop-song cliches, of straightforward narrative, peripheral details (that add depth to the stories she’s telling) and quite mundane comments (that ought to sound out of place but somehow fit right in). But she’s got much, much better at it over the years. It’s real poetry, but never pretentious, and never cryptic. You don’t have to guess at what she’s singing about. And like all good writing, it leaves room for the listener’s imagination to fill in the details. So what I hear when I listen to her songs may be quite different from what you hear. And it may be different from what I will hear next time. This is important because you don’t get tired of her songs - they evolve over time in your head. Heather’s voice. She doesn’t do the really high notes any more (who could?) but her voice seems to have gained breadth. I don’t have the musical vocabulary to say this right, but I seem to find more overtones and undertones than before. And they make her singing even more expressive than ever (if that is possible).
My favourite song on the album is "storm", perhaps because it’s just Heather, her guitar and a soft bass. What power it delivers! What wouldn’t I give to hear Heather sing that song companied by Nadia’s cello! I’ll just have to imagine it for now.
I think I’ve rambled on too long here. Should I scrap this and try to be more concise? Oh what the hell, I’ll send it and let somebody tell me I’m full of crap, over-analysing things that are best left un-analysed. Goodnight all.