Archive for the ‘Indigo Girls’ Category

(As noted in my first Essentials entry, this is an occasional series in which I spotlight albums that, in my estimation, everyone should experience at least once.)

In some respects, for those of us who came of age during them, the 1980s were akin to the 1960s with the 6 closed off. In the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, last-gasp baby boomers and first-wave Gen Xers navigated an oddly dispirited land due to a forever-faltering economy, incompetent leadership and a moribund pop culture that mythologized the Summer of Love and Woodstock and dismissed everything else; the new wave coming was, by and large, ignored by rock radio.

But, to quote a Paul Simon lyric, “every generation sends a hero up the pop charts” – MTV, which debuted on August 1st, 1981, saw to that. A new wave, a slew of New Romantics, college rock, hip-hop, country-pop and lightweight metal battled for airplay both terrestrial and cable, with the latter seemingly more important than the former. 

By decade’s end, the long-deposed old order was older still and the new order that had supplanted it was growing stale. (It’s the way of the world, after all.) Yet, even as that was occurring, a quiet revolution was taking place, fueled in large part by the folk and folk-rock sounds of Suzanne Vega, 10,000 Maniacs and Tracy Chapman, not to mention R.E.M. 

The Indigo Girls’ self-titled set, released on February 28, 1989, is another piece of that puzzle.

Amy Ray and Emily Saliers first met in elementary school in Decatur, Ga., but – being a grade apart – didn’t become friendly until high school, when they began performing together. College interrupted their musical journey, however, as Saliers left for Tulane University in Louisiana and, a year later, Ray chose to attend Vanderbilt University in Nashville. But, in time, both became homesick for their native Georgia and transferred to Emory University in Atlanta, where they reunited their partnership. They released a single, an EP and an album, Strange Fire, prior to being signed by Epic Records (which, after the success of Indigo Girls, released a reconfigured Strange Fire).

Indigo Girls, the album, isn’t a five-star set, yet its importance can’t be underestimated: It’s a crucial step in the resurgence of acoustic and folk-styled music, though the undertow of rock ’n’ roll is present in the songs, too. I first heard it not long after its release; I was 23 and managing the CD departments at two video-chain stores, and had free rein to open and play what I wanted. And I have to say: It was a hit not just with me, but with most of the (overwhelmingly male) clientele as well as co-workers at both locales. Although it topped off in the charts at No. 22, it was – easily – in the Top 10 of my stores for several weeks that late winter and early spring.

“Closer to Fine,” the catchy lead single, opens the album with aplomb. Due to the demands of my convoluted work schedule and social life, I rarely watched TV – let alone MTV or VH1 – at the time, so wasn’t aware that a video for it existed until this morning.

Emily’s vocals are, like her hair, light; Amy’s are, like hers, dark. Together, however, they mesh into a sonically seductive whole that overcomes the occasionally iffy lyrics, which can conjure the pretentious poems shared in first-year poetry classes. (God knows, I wrote my share.) Yet, at the same time, there’s something gloriously exhilarating about the same. They mean what they sing and sing what they mean.

One of my favorite tunes is the brooding “Kid Fears,” which features vocal support from R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe:

Another highlight is the Byrdsian “Tried to Be True,” in which they’re backed by R.E.M.’s Peter Buck, Mike Mills and Bill Berry.

“Land of Canaan,” which they also recorded on Strange Fire, is another favorite. This video, another that I just discovered today, shows the power of their live performance. I saw them live three times that year (once opening for Neil Young and twice when they headlined the TLA in Philadelphia); they were charismatic and their songs incredibly infectious.

In short, the history of popular music is littered with artists and acts that came and went with little or no impact. With this album, the Indigo Girls did the opposite. Even when lyrics shade lilac (aka prose colored purple) to make a rhyme, the performances are guaranteed to pull you in. It’s an intense, fitful and fanciful album. It’s a must. It’s a part of us.

As Emily sings in “The History of Us,” “So we must love while these moments are still called today/Take part in the pain of this passion play/Stretched our youth as we must, until we are ashes to dust/Until time makes history of us.”

The track list:

 

1989 was a year for the history books: Tiny cracks in the Iron Curtain grew into a chasm that brought down the Berlin Wall; a pro-democracy movement in China, known now as the Tiananmen Square protests, ended in bloodshed; and, closer to home, the mercurial-tempered Ron Hextall of the Philadelphia Flyers became the first goalie in history to score a goal in the playoffs. Oh, and I saw Neil Young for the first time.

The date: June 10, 1989. The place: Bally’s Grandstand Under the Stars in Atlantic City. As I remember it – and I was only there two or three times – the open-air venue consisted of very steep bleachers placed in front of a stage. The Atlantic Ocean served as the backdrop.

The Indigo Girls opened with a concise set that, despite the dreaded opening-act slot, was quite good. Folks flowed into the makeshift coliseum, their shoes and boots clanging on the metal steps (or maybe that’s my memory playing tricks on me), while Amy Ray and Emily Saliers sang with confidence. Their voices carried like Aimee Mann’s with ’Til Tuesday, sweet and spot-on from the opening “Closer to Fine” to the closing “Strange Fire.” Amy Ray, as I remember it, hit home runs with “Secure Yourself” and “Kid Fears.”

Neil_Young_FreedomBy nine, or thereabouts, the sun had set and Neil, wearing a Chinese worker’s cap, strolled out. It was basically a solo acoustic show, though he was joined by Ben Keith and Frank “Poncho” Sampedro for a few songs.

After closing the ‘70s on the back-to-back high notes of Rust Never Sleeps and Live Rust, Neil embarked on a decade-long journey that veered from hard rock to techno to rockabilly to country to horn-driven R&B; and that had left him, for many (though not me), an afterthought. Along the way, he was sued by his new record company, Geffen Records, for not sounding like himself. It was a surreal time to be him, to be sure, and no more surreal than the year before when, after returning to the Reprise label, he scored a surprise hit – his first of the decade – with the satirical “This Note’s for You.”

Anyway, by the time my friends and I had clomped up the bleachers to our seats that late-spring night, Neil was back to being Neil – not that he’d stopped, of course, but he was mining a more familiar terrain.

Forget the fact that the show was “acoustic”; it was as electric a set as I’ve seen. Neil prowled the stage with a handless microphone strapped to his face, his guitar a shield and a weapon at the same time. He opened with a sterling “Hey Hey My My (Out of the Blue)” and followed with a fierce “Rockin’ in the Free World,” turning the satirical knife he’d wielded on “This Note’s for You” on George H.W. Bush’s “kinder, gentler nation.” His guitar on “Crime in the City” was like a machete, the chords chopping at one’s knees, while the harmonica worked like a blackjack and blunted the back of one’s head. Other highlights included an unsentimental presentation of “Sugar Mountain”; the one-two punch of “The Needle & the Damage Done” and “No More”; and a heart-thumping “Ohio” that he dedicated to the students slain in China’s Tiananmen Square less than a week before – everyone was on their feet, fists in the air and lungs as one while we shouted the lyrics. Incredible, that’s how I remember it. Just incredible. A second stab at “Rockin’ in the Free World” was followed by the night’s final number, ““Powderfinger.” “Red means run, son,” takes on a new meaning in the context of Tiananmen Square, if you think about it.

The Philadelphia Inquirer carried a review of the show here.

Neil Young: My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue)/Rockin’ in the Free World/Comes a Time/Sugar Mountain/Pocahontas/Helpless/Crime in the City/For the Turnstiles/This Old House/Roll Another Number/Too Far Gone/This Note’s for You/The Needle and the Damage Done/No More/After the Gold Rush/Heart Of Gold/Ohio/Rockin’ in the Free World//Powderfinger

Indigo Girls: Closer to Fine/Secure Yourself/Love’s Recovery/Kid Fears/Land of Canaan/Prince of Darkness/Strange Fire