I’m just a writer of simple record reviews. I read The New York Times, but I’m not sure I can tell you the difference between the Hives and the Vines. Actually, my reviews aren’t simple, and even if they were I’d have to make them appear complicated, or else the Voice wouldn’t print me. (So let’s see: The Hives are the ones that are from, um, Sweden, which is, like, in . . . Europe . . . right?)
When country singer Alan Jackson goes, “I’m just a singer of simple songs, I’m not a real political man/I watch CNN, but I’m not sure I could tell you the difference in Iraq and Iran”—this in the not-altogether-simple “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)”—he’s identifying himself with the guys and gals who see themselves as ordinary, the puzzled voter for whom 9-11 hit out of nowhere. And he’s suggesting that the song’s heartfelt sentiments and common experiences are validated by his simplicity. (And if the song happens to leave out a lot of your sentiments and experiences . . . )
Whatever country’s actual complications, the genre likes to pretend to derive from a stock of simple shared experience. Dissatisfaction with town and family is portrayed often enough, but it’s only supposed to take you into bar fights or into wide-open spaces, not into the compact twists and turns of urban life. But country doesn’t want to come off as a bunch of dumb hicks, either, and throughout its existence it has been absorbing and helping to create the twists and turns of urban music, such as swing and rock ‘n’ roll.
In the case of female country trio SHeDAISY, their music ought to go urban contemporary (i.e., r&b) because their talents invite it: They sing close country harmonies but also split their voices apart and dance them around each other. The best song on their first LP was “Lucky 4 You (Tonight I’m Just Me),” in which a woman displays her proudly multiple personality, as her disparate identities tease and seduce and crave and detest and pummel an ex-lover, and in the aggregate drive him batty while wrapping him around their collective finger. The obvious next musical move would be to follow the lead of Destiny’s Child and send contrary beats dancing around all the contrary voices, while tossing in a few contrary melodies as well: a touch of classical here, some jump blues there, just like Beyoncé. I don’t think their genre would disallow this: Brooks & Dunn often play crypto-r&b, and recently hit with a Mexican dance. But then, the Brooks & Dunn types usually find a way to disguise their complexity.
So I’m somewhat disappointed with Knock on the Sky, the new SHeDAISY album, in that their polyphony doesn’t go further into r&b, and that there’s nothing as obnoxious and clever and inventive and flat-out funny as “Lucky 4 You.” And on half the songs the multivoices resolve themselves into nicey-nicey slush. The singers do their complicated dance, and there are expert leaps and wails and melismas, but the arrangements are mostly soft rock, which subdues the emotional impact. But there’s also good bouncy MOR pop, a Sheryl Crow-ish country-rock rocker, a black-gospel repentance tour de force, a song about getting lit that sounds nicely lit.
And there’s transgression where I least expected it: choice of vocabulary. In the liner notes, group leader Kristyn Osborn tells us: “As a songwriter, I feel like a living dichotomy. I am fiercely protective of my privacy, but at the same time compelled by some ‘greater creative force’ to fully expose my inner workings . . . ” And she goes on to quote Emily Dickinson, and in so doing emphatically declares herself not simple.
Sample lyrics: “Some days I’m frightful or awfully delightful/The consummate extremist.” “The travesty is the irony and the irony is you.” Alanis alert! Alanis alert! Yet the “awfully” in “awfully delightful” is well chosen, signifying that delightful could be something awful.
The opening song, “Mine All Mine,” starts awfully enough with its poetry-class “Sun kisses the windowsill,” but it then settles into good straightforward country songwriting: “My loss, my lonely, my mistake, mine only.” She pushed the guy away; now he’s not there, and she wants him. Her lonely.
And that’s the mixture on this album, a verse of abstraction and metaphor and then a verse of clear love lyrics, one following on another. Where the words tend toward poetry they also tend toward vagueness, signifying exposure but delivering fog. Yet these “poetic” words also signify Kristyn’s personal commitment; these are her loves, her mistakes, her emotions, hers only. Not the genre’s. So the bad poetry manages to convey individual commitment even where it does a bad job of portraying it.
Where on album number one, SHeDAISY tried to flounce into sassy-mouthed Dixie Chicks territory, the new album cover is wholesome all the way, three fresh-faced MOR girls in their heartland blouses, the three sisters walking in the tall grass, the country hilltops, the big sky behind, as distant from the urbs and burbs and biz as country is supposed to be. The liner notes say, “Thank you God for all things good, for things we ‘shouldn’t’ and things we ‘should,’ for blessings not yet understood and those that grace our hallways, for music, home, and family,” yet . . .
There is a title track, “Knock on the Sky,” but look at the track listing and you won’t see it. The lyrics aren’t on the lyric sheet, just the cryptic comment “In case you can find it . . . KNOCK ON THE SKY.” And if you think the LP is over and you don’t bother to look or fast-forward but just go about your day, it’ll wait 14 minutes to suddenly jump you as a hidden track, and jump you it will. It’s not “Kick Out the Jams” or “Paranoid,” but it’s very much and very loudly NOT COUNTRY, either. It sounds like beatnik girl rappers accompanied by the Red Hot Chili Peppers or Soundgarden doing a distorted-guitar-and-harmonica version of “I Am the Walrus.” Guitar scuzz and alt attitude, but with a psychedelic sweetness to it. The SHeDAISies lilt their way into Polonius platitudes (“To thine own self be true”) but also sample, right in the midst of the song, the very same trash-movie line that girl punkers Fabulous Disaster had sampled last year: “Don’t you know that bad girls go to Hell!” Of course, SHeDAISY cut off the word “Hell,” and, unlike the guitarist in Fabulous Disaster, no one in SHeDAISY wears an “Enjoy Cock” T-shirt in publicity photos. SHeDAISY do, however, have a song that goes, “It was easy falling in love/It was beautiful on the way up/But I need a man goin’ down.” Just a metaphor, love’s easy on the way up but can you be a man for her when things go down? Kristyn’s too corn-bred Utah innocent to mean anything sexual by “goin’ down”—that’s what I thought at first, before hearing the “Knock on the sky/Bad girls go to Hell” thing. Now I don’t know. The hidden track has flipped my view of the whole record. The track sounds good, too, not merely daring. And of course in any other American pop genre it wouldn’t have been the least bit daring, but in country . . .
Though there’s nothing novel about a good-girl/bad-girl sexual dichotomy in country, on this track it’s the music that seems to be declaring itself the bad girl. And this does not come from c&w’s old-timey sin-and-redemption drink-and-repent dynamic—this song is just not on that map. What’s odd and interesting is that, at the last moment, Kristyn puts her whole stake on the “bad girl,” so there suddenly seems to be something at stake—for herself and her music—in getting that music and that self under the aegis of the Greater Creative Force, when in her heart she might fear that the music, and therefore she herself, really belong over in God’s Great Shouldn’t. That “Repent” song back on track six is full of conviction; yet with the context flipped, the standard girl-poetry stuff seems suddenly out in left field, like the psychedelic harmonies. On a rock album you wouldn’t get this tension from these old rock tropes. But on a commercial country album you sure can. To thine own self be true. And what? Go to hell for it?