Wednesday, June 27, 2012

CD Odyssey Disc 412: Indigo Girls

I spent Sunday and Monday evening cleaning out a couple of closets, which felt pretty good (not the Eminem kind either - actual closets).  In addition to a lot of games and shoes (a man can't have enough of either) I came across a bunch of forgotten keepsakes from twenty years ago.  It is only fitting that the next album I would review would go back to the same period.

Disc 412 is…Indigo Girls (Self-Titled)
Artist:  Indigo Girls

Year of Release: 1989

What’s up with the Cover?  This cover really didn't want to photograph in focus.  Emily Saliers and Amy Ray, aka the Indigo Girls, stand looking pensive.  Usually to appear pensive you keep your mouth closed, but look like you have a lot to say.  That is definitely true with these two.

How I Came To Know It: As I mentioned when I reviewed “Strange Fire” way back at Disc 50, a friend introduced me to the Indigo Girls.  Once I was hooked with “Strange Fire” I went immediately to this album, which was probably even better known, and I was not disappointed.

How It Stacks Up:  I have six Indigo Girls albums.  This one is probably my favourite, although there is one other that might vie for top spot before it’s over.

Rating: 5 stars

Two talented women, playing guitar, singing harmony, and speaking the truth of their hearts – that is this album’s recipe for success.

I always think of this album as the Indigo Girls first album, probably because it is self-titled, but I think “Strange Fire” pre-dates it.  Both records are heavy on complex harmonies, simple guitar melodies and lots of energetic folk strumming.

This album came to me as I was just getting into Celtic folk music, and opened up a new world for me – that of American folk.  It showed me that there are lots of modern and interesting ways to make folk music that stay true to that music’s roots, and still sound fresh.  Despite my seriously overplaying this album in the day, it is still enjoyable today, and listening to it on the walk to work the last couple of days has been like catching up with an old friend.

In many ways, this album is of its time, having such a huge influence on me during my university days.  Coming from a hard rock/heavy metal background, I was hungry for something different, and folk music’s emotional core really resonated with me.  The Indigo Girls are as emotionally resonant as it gets.  An example of this is the opening track, the five star anthem “Closer To Fine” which sums up so well the yearning we have for absolute truths, and all the various ways we search for them – including education (“I went to see the doctor of philosophy/with a poster of Rasputin and a beard down to his knees”), and at the bottom of the bottle (“I stopped by the bar at 3 a.m./to seek solace in a bottle or possibly a friend).  Anything to get some clarity of purpose, but as the chorus reminds us:

“There’s more than one answer to these questions
Pointing me in a crooked line
The less I seek my source for some definitive
The closer I am to fine.”

This was an important message when I was 20, and it still resonates at 40 just as strongly.

Other modern folk bands of this period took their music into politics and social commentary, but this Indigo Girls album stays intensely personal.  It is an album that explores the innermost aspects of the human condition, with lyrics that speak like living poems right to the heart of every issue.  The Indigo Girls are always willing to lay bare their personal experiences for the listener, like this amazing section from “Prince of Darkness”:

“I don’t know when I noticed life was life at my expense
The worlds of my heart lined up like prisoners on a fence
My dreams came in like needy children tugging at my sleeve
I said ‘I have no way of feeding you, so leave.’”

The song then takes this intense personal experience and translates it outward:

“And now someone’s on the telephone desperate in his pain
Someone’s on the bathroom floor doing her cocaine
Someone’s got his finger on the button in some room
No one can convince me we aren’t gluttons for our doom.”

Yes, those last two lines cross into political commentary, but that person in the room with his finger on the button is a ‘someone’ to the Indigo Girls, every bit as much as the brokenhearted lover or the addict from the preceding lines.  The dangers of the cold war (still very much alive in 1989) are ultimately reflected in the individuals faced with the hard decisions of the age.

To pull this kind of high-intensity poetry off the vocal performances need to be pitch-perfect, and both Amy and Emily are at the top of their game here.  I’m not musically literate, but the way they sing their harmonies fairly loosely give the record a rawness that wouldn’t be there if they just matched up and tried to sound ‘pretty’.  Nashville would not be impressed with the edge they sing with, but then I’m rarely impressed with Nashville these days (for a delightful look at the Indigo Girls’ experience with Nashville, listen to their album “Rites of Passage”).

In addition to furious strumming, the guitar work on this record really snuck up on me this listen, with a lot of intricate plucking, played with a depth of feeling that adds just the right spice of complexity to what are, at their core, fairly simple compositions.

Never is this better displayed than on “Land of Canaan”, a song that also appears on the “Strange Fire” album, in a slightly slower version.  I like the one on that album, but I love the version on their self-titled effort, which is tighter, better produced and has some of the sweetest slide guitar you’ll hear (played by John Keane).

Musically, this album exudes talent and an understanding of exactly how to dress up a melody just the right amount with harmony and virtuoso playing.  Lyrically, the record takes emotional chances, but more than that, delivers great poetry.  The combination is simply unbeatable, and is as fine an example of American folk as you’ll find. 

Best tracks:  I like all the tracks, but particularly Closer to Fine, Prince of Darkness, Blood and Fire, Love’s Recovery, and Strange Fire.

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