Posts Tagged ‘Indigo Girls’

(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 “Pancho” 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

IMG_5111“Arete is the Aristotelian word which translates into ‘virtue,’ ‘goodness,’ or ‘excellence’ in any field. For Aristotle, Arete had many associations: intellectual, social, as well as defining a person’s moral nature. A more contemporary definition of Arete is the aggregate of qualities that comprise good character. In the context of this magazine, it means a forum for thought and reflection.” So reads the editor’s note inside this, the fourth issue of the short-lived Arete: Forum for Thought.

It was a bimonthly West Coast-based magazine that never made it East – or, if it did, it never made it to the magazine racks of the suburban Philly bookstores I frequented. I discovered it, I think, in mid-1988 via Writer’s Digest magazine, which mentioned its need of articles and reviews. I submitted some album reviews; the editor(s) bought a few (at $25 a pop) and printed one in the second issue – my take on Brian Wilson’s 1988 eponymous album. I submitted more; they bought a few and printed one in this, the January/February 1989 issue – my thoughts on Steve Earle’s Copperhead Road. I submitted more; they bought a few and…I don’t know. Free copies stopped arriving in my mailbox, so I have no idea what, if anything, they printed.

Anyway, by the time this issue reached me, I was leading a work life led by many a former English major: retail. The year before, I signed on with West Coast Video, which was attempting to expand into the CD market, and managed the CD department at a store in Philly’s Andorra shopping center, across the street from the apartment complex where my grandparents once lived. It was a thankless job in just about every respect, but I did well enough in it that, in early ’89, the division head expanded my responsibilities to include the Bala Cynwyd store.

It was in Bala, one Saturday afternoon in late February, that a cute brunette walked in, slammed her purse on the counter and said – no, demanded, “Where the hell are the Nanci Griffith CDs I ordered?” I’m exaggerating, of course, but that was how Diane and I met. She was impressed that I not only knew who Nanci Griffith was, but was familiar with her music. (I discovered her during my Folk Show days via a Folkways compilation – this one, in fact.) I, in turn, was pleased that she liked the Flying Burrito Brothers, whose new best-of I recommended to her.

So, today’s Top 5: January/February 1989 – as in, things I was listening to at the time.

nanci_one_fair1) Nanci Griffith – “More Than a Whisper.” Nanci, for those unfamiliar with her, is a Texas-bred singer-songwriter who learned her craft in large part – as so many of her generation did – from Townes Van Zandt. The live One Fair Summer Evening, released in late 1988, is a wonderful summary of the first phase of her career; and this song, originally released on her 1986 Last of the True Believers album, was (and remains) one of my favorites by her.

IMG_51162) Steve Earle – “Copperhead Road.” I’ve always liked good setups. I tried to create one with this review, though – reading it now – it didn’t quite succeed: “On his previous two albums, Steve Earle sounded cocky, occasionally substituting attitude for substance. He came across as a country-punk revel, a good ol’ boy who admitted he was an angry young man at heart. The songs themselves were rough-edged wonders, though a few were cliche-ridden creations that seemed like last-minute studio stitch-togethers. On his last album especially, it appeared Earle was traveling down Hank Williams Jr. Boulevard, that stretch of highway where talent’s just as likely to get chucked out the window as an empty beer bottle.” Next paragraph: “But on Copperhead Road, Earle proves himself capable of creating first-rate country-cum-rock. Simply put, it’s one of the best albums of the past year.”

(Despite it not working the way I’d hoped, I was proud of the Hank Jr. reference, as I was a once-huge fan – and still am of his late ’70s/early ’80s output – but that’s a post for another day.)

3) R.E.M. – “Orange Crush.” There, in the review next to mine, is Holly Gleason’s perceptive take on Green, R.E.M.’s major-label debut: “No doubt, cries of ‘sell out’ have already begun from those begrudging the band’s ever-growing audience.” I remember those cries well; and, in fact, they’re still there, in some corners of the Internet. Green may not have been R.E.M.’s finest work, but it was damn good.

4) Indigo Girls – “Secure Yourself.” I was, for a time, a huge Indigo Girls fan, and saw them not once, but three times this year – opening for Neil Young in June and twice in August, when they headlined at the TLA on back-to-back nights. The last two were good, if somewhat short, shows – very distinct voices that blended well together, and their occasional lyrical preciousness was disarmed by their sense of humor and smart choices of cover songs. One highlight: Amy played part of Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven.” Another: they sang an Elton John song – “Mona Lisa and Mad Hatters,” I believe, but I could be confusing it with another Elton song. But then…I don’t know. It’s kind of what I wrote about Pat Benatar in the last Top 5; I moved on.

5) Ciccone Youth – “Into the Groovey.” Another band I liked for a time: Sonic Youth. They released a few albums that I enjoyed leading up to this twisted side-project, a tribute (or something) to Madonna and the music of the ‘80s.