Posts Tagged ‘Life Is Sweet’

(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.)

To my ears and soul, Life Is Sweet is not just one of the greatest lost albums of all time, but one of the greatest, period. It’s glam. It’s rock. It’s operatic. It’s art.

The story behind it: While touring in support of her country-rock classic You Gotta Sin to Get Saved in 1993, one of the members of Maria’s band is said to have given her a mixtape of classic glam and glitter tunes. Maria listened. Loved. Obsessed. And then wrote and recorded a set of songs, released in 1996, that blended those glittery hues of yore with dramatic colors of her own design.

“Scarlover,” the opening track, is a great example. It’s rough, ragged and refined all at the same time, with guitars giving way to strings that give way to guitars, set to Maria’s seemingly stream-of-conscious admission that “ugly inside of me taught me of beauty/I wouldn’t trade that work of art.”

As a whole, the album explores self-doubt, self-loathing and, ultimately, self-acceptance. At times, yes, it’s stasis in darkness (aka Sylvia Plath set to song). More than that, however, it’s Maria McKee unshorn, seemingly exploring her rapid-cycle bipolar disorder in ways that both replicate it and make it relatable. It’s the Bowie homage “Absolutely Barking Stars” with lyrics that delve into yin-yang duality… 

…and the dramatic “I’m Not Listening,” in which she attempts to ignore the voices inside her head that are taunting and haunting her. 

The utterly catchy “Everybody” explores celebrity and Andy Warhol’s infamous “15 seconds of fame” maxim: “We’ve all been flirting/with the perfect day/when they think we’re perfect/Yeah, but who are they?” There’s also a flat-out incendiary guitar break:

“Carried” is another highlight:

And, of course, there’s the title track, which may well be the greatest song she’s yet written or recorded. 

Geffen, her record label, hated the album. AAA radio stations like WXPN, which embraced and promoted the hell out of You Gotta Sin, refused to play it. Some critics slammed it. Some fans did, too. Artistic growth often comes at a price, and in this case the cost was Maria’s major-label career. Life Is Sweet failed to sell, and she left Geffen not long thereafter. The album also fell out of print, and has never been reissued, even digitally. (A true crime against art.)

Twenty-plus years since its release, however, and it sounds as fresh and hauntingly familiar as it did upon first listen. If you like Anna Calvi, Bat for Lashes, and similar dramatic acts, seek it out. You won’t be disappointed.

The track list:

  1. Scarlover
  2. This Perfect Dress
  3. Absolutely Barking Stars
  4. I’m Not Listening
  5. Everybody
  6. Smarter
  7. What Else You Wanna Know
  8. I’m Awake
  9. Human
  10. Carried
  11. Life Is Sweet”
  12. Afterlife

[Update 6/23/18: Although I still have my issues with XPN, I’ve since become a member again – primarily for their support of Courtney Marie Andrews, who they now play every so often, and also because they play the Middle Kids and a few other cool/up-and-coming acts and artists that I like.]

After investing in a refurbished Iomega external CD burner in 2001, or thereabouts, for my low-budget DIY computer, I stopped relying on the radio for my on-the-go music needs. Instead, I made CD copies of favorite albums, created cool compilations and best-ofs, and (generally) only turned on the radio to check traffic or the weather via all-news KYW-1060AM – a routine I’ve mostly maintained, though the CDRs were eventually replaced by my iPod, iPhone, Pono Player and, now, Apple Music via my iPhone.

Prior, however, my go-to radio station was WXPN, a listener-supported AAA station in Philadelphia. They played a good-to-great mix of new and old, singer-songwriters and alternative country, plus non-alternative rock. They went deep on albums, routinely playing more than just one cut, and generally avoided the tried-and-true tracks found elsewhere on the dial. I liked it enough that Diane and I became members at some point, and renewed every year until…

…the summer of 1996, when we found ourselves – thanks to an acquaintance who owned a CD store – at a Penn’s Landing luncheon for businesses that supported the station. When the station’s program director, whose name I’ve long forgotten, stopped at our table, I mentioned my surprise that they weren’t playing anything from Maria McKee’s recent Life Is Sweet album – my favorite of the moment. My memory, and it may be exaggerated by time, is that he glared at me, shook his head and said “never” and “not on my watch” (or words to that effect), and made haste for the next table.

Granted, the glam-infested Life Is Sweet was a dramatic departure from the country-rock stylings of 1993’s You Gotta Sin to Get Saved, which XPN had featured a fair bit, but the title track wasn’t. It should’ve been played. The (perceived) rudeness of the program director annoyed me even more, however. I let our membership lapse.

Anyway, through the 2000s and first half of the 2010s, the only time I listened to XPN was when Diane was with me and, for whatever reason, requested it. And for a time, whenever we tuned in it seemed a Steely Dan song was playing. Odd, that. Then, in 2015, First Aid Kit was booked for the station’s annual three-day XPoNential Festival and members paid less for a ticket, so – sound basically unheard for umpteen years – I rejoined.

I assumed, because they played First Aid Kit (and, according to their searchable playlist, they did – “My Silver Lining” on and off for six months, then “Stay Gold” pretty much ever since) that the rest of what they programmed would be similar. I began listening – and was quickly disappointed. They rarely play more than one song from a new release, instead going the FAK route – one song for months, then maybe replacing it with another – and seemed more a descendent of the long-gone WDRE, a modern-rock station that never quite gained traction during the mid-‘90s, and WMMR, a mainstream rock station, than the XPN of yore.

I let my membership lapse again.

But still, sometimes, I find myself listening – it’s easier, and safer, than tapping on my iPhone while driving, so when an album ends I sometimes switch to XPN. Once in a while, I hear something and think, “wow, who is that?” Then they play ZZ Top, the Moody Blues or any of a number of “classic” acts that leave me flipping to KYW or, of late, WOGL, an oldies station that is enjoyable in small doses.

All of which leads to today’s Top 5: Songs XPN Should Play…

1) Courtney Marie Andrews – “Near You.” In April of this year, I asked – via a tweet – why they weren’t playing anything from Courtney’s Honest Life album, which was released last October. Back in the day, they would have been all over it, playing “Put the Fire Out,” “How Quickly Your Heart Mends” and “Irene,” plus the title track and “Table for One.” One of their deejays liked my tweet, in fact…but, nothing. Nada. Zip. Months later, however, and a search of their playlist shows that they have played “Irene” a handful of times.

They should followup by placing this track, a new recording of an older song that she’s releasing on September 15th, in frequent rotation. It’s a powerful, moving tune.

2) Lucy Rose – “No Good at All.” I reviewed Lucy Rose’s recent Something’s Changing album yesterday, and included this clip. It’s a wondrous, addictive number that, according to XPN’s playlist search, has been played exactly once, three days after the album’s release.

3) Paul Weller – “Long Long Road.” They’ve played Paul Weller – a man without whom “modern rock” would not exist – exactly 14 times this year. Think about that. He’s scheduled to play the TLA in October, however, so the time is ripe to up those numbers. This is a standout track from his recent A Kind Revolution album.

4) Garland Jeffreys – “14 Steps to Harlem.” Here’s another artist without whom “modern rock” would not exist; and, to XPN’s credit, they do play him from time to time. But instead of dipping into his past catalog, why not feature something new? This, the title track to Garland’s latest album, is a beaut.

5) Karrie – “I Don’t Hear You.” The Irish singer-songwriter’s summer single is utterly addictive.

And two bonuses:

6) Courney Marie Andrews – “How Quickly Your Heart Mends.” And, just because, here’s one of those Honest Life songs XPN should be playing at least once a day. This is from a recent appearance on Swedish TV…

7) Maria McKee – “Life Is Sweet/After Life.” Finally, the song that obstinate program director refused to discuss in 1996 should have the digital dust blown off the CD and played. It’s a true lost classic.

When was it? Fall of ’85? Spring of ’86? Difficult to say, but I suspect it was sometime in the spring that I first heard 10,000 Maniacs. They were one of several of the era’s new folk-flavored acts that I discovered while deejaying the weekend Folk Show on Penn State’s studio-run radio station at the time, WPSU. (It’s now a professionally-run station, with WKPS filling the void for students.)

I’ve written about those times before, but for those who haven’t seen those posts: It was a two- or sometimes three-times a month gig, depending on the schedule laid out by Folk Show overlord (and friendly grad student) Jerry, and – aside from the occasional 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. slot – usually meant I had to be in studio by 6 a.m. On a Saturday. Or Sunday. After a night of…well,  I won’t say debauchery, but it was college…and State College, the home of the Penn State mothership, is nicknamed “Happy Valley” for a reason. But me waking at 5:30 a.m. and hiking across campus while bleary-eyed was a rarity. I (usually) got a good night’s sleep beforehand.

I also prepared. During the week prior to a shift, I stopped in the station and flipped through the LPs in the massive library, mapping out my playlist. I generally focused the first hours on folk-rock old (Byrds) and new (Long Ryders) before, around 8 a.m., trading in that palette for one that mixed more stereotypical fare (Joan Baez, Holly Near, Pete Seeger) with up-and-comers (Nanci Griffith, Suzanne Vega).

At some point, too, I began bringing in treasures from my own collection; and also became adept at tossing aside my planned platters and programming on the fly. I’d queue up Side 1 of a Fast Folk Musical Magazine sampler, introduce the first track and then slip out of the booth and into the library for 5 or 10 minutes in search of something, though I usually didn’t know what that something was. That was how I stumbled upon The Wishing Chair, the major-label debut of 10,000 Maniacs, in fact. Someone may have mentioned it at a staff meeting, which was how I discovered Suzanne Vega, or I may have recognized it from this review in Record magazine. I decided to give it a whirl. I can’t say for sure, but I likely went with the first song on Side 1, “Can’t Ignore the Train.”

In some ways, Natalie Merchant’s years with 10,000 Maniacs equate to a somewhat lengthy college career – though those of us who became fans at the time didn’t recognize it as such. As this Rolling Stone article (which I spotlight here) recounts, she joined the group as a shy 16-year-old girl, often singing with her back to the audience, and left as a confident woman.

The 10-CD Natalie Merchant Collection skips all of it. Which is fair.

Looking back, however, I think it’s obvious that many of us started a journey together during that pre-history era. Whether we date our fandom to the early-‘80s indie days, rocked in The Wishing Chair, hopped aboard the “Peace Train” or traveled to “Eden,” and traded tapes on the pre-Internet boards of Prodigy or AOL, doesn’t much matter, anymore. We were young.

We graduated to adulthood and, now, middle-age together. That, in essence, is what the collection charts. It features her seven studio albums, beginning with Tigerlily and ending with Paradise Is There (bookends, in a way); a disc of new songs alongside older ones redone with a string quartet; and another disc of rare and previously unreleased tracks. There’s also a CD-sized booklet that contains lyrics, song personnel and plenty of pictures, though no laudatory essay chronicling her artistic journey – the latter is somewhat customary for such box sets, but isn’t missed.

We can hear the trek for ourselves – and relive our life’s journey, for that matter – in the grooves. Those albums include two of my Albums of the Year in Tigerily and Motherland; runners-up in Leave Your Sleep and Natalie Merchant; and others that I enjoyed, though thought flawed. (Live in Concert, my top pick for 1999, is curiously absent; one hopes that plans are afoot to release an expanded edition in the future.)

The one album that I most misjudged was Ophelia. On my old website, I wrote that “while an admirable concept, the album’s overarching theme (the many facets of womanhood) weighs on the individual songs to the point that, save for a few, one can’t tell them apart.” I singled out “Break My Heart” as its best track and dubbed “Kind and Generous,” which I now thoroughly love (especially in a live setting), “simple-minded mishmash.”

And “Life Is Sweet,” which I now rank with her best songs? I only mentioned it in a months-later addendum, and then just to say that, while I’d come to like it, it paled in comparison to Maria McKee’s similarly themed song of the same name.

I’d call them equals, now.

Of course, a collection that features so much of the old – all things most longtime fans will (or should) already have – does make one question the necessity of it. But the two discs of new and new-to-us material are well worth the price of admission.

The ninth disc, titled Butterfly, includes three new-to-us songs set beside seven older ones, and features Natalie accompanied by a string quartet. The title track wafts like a breeze on a late-spring day while, lyrically, a smart metaphor about fate and chance flutters like a spider’s web billowing in the wind. There’s a foreboding in many of the lyrics, such as “Baby Mine”: “There’re so many things you’ve got to fear/It’s making me ache to see so clear/So many things you’ve got to know/It’s making me ache/You’ve got to grow.”

The redone older songs are Paradise Is There, Part Two, in a sense, but come off somewhat better due to their dispersed sources – three from Ophelia; two from Leave Your Sleep; and one from Motherland. Though it may be new to some, to my knowledge the Ophelia outtake “She Devil” first appeared on the two-CD edition of 2005’s Retrospective.

The 10th disc, Rarities, is a sheer delight. True, some of the tracks have been available on various compilations, such as her cover of Buddy Holly’s “Learning the Game”…

…and “The Gulf of Araby” is from the aforementioned Live in Concert album, but – all in all – the disc is a five-star alternate history.

Among the nuggets: her takes on the Kinks’ “The Village Green Preservation Society” and the spiritual “Sit Down, Sister.” (She needs to release an album of spirituals. Just sayin’.)

My only other observation: I wish that an additional disc of rarities had been included, if only to have everything in one place. And, too, I’d hate to think that her many Tigerlily-era bonus tracks, such as Joni’s “All I Want,” the Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil,” Irma Thomas’ “Take a Look” and the Aretha-Dusty medley of “Baby I Love You”-“Son of a Preacher Man,” have been lost to time…

…or copyright issues, given the way videos come and go from YouTube.

Anyway, the set is inexpensive – $50 for 10 discs. For young fans, honestly, it’s a no-brainer. Order it and the 10,000 Maniacs’ 2-CD Campfire Songs compilation. For longtime fans hesitant to re-purchase much, if not all, of what they already own, I’d say that…hey, it’s $50. A cool package. Nice booklet. Great music. The songs you know will take you back; Butterfly will make you think; and Rarities will make you smile.

Life. It’s sweet. Every day is a gift, every moment a treasure, despite the pain and misery we sometimes endure. Those are cliches, I know, but I believe them – especially while listening to The Natalie Merchant Collection, which I’m doing as I write. The set, for the uninitiated, features her seven studio albums alongside one disc of new and old songs performed with a string quartet, and another disc of, as the press release states, “rare and previously unreleased tracks recorded between 1998 and 2017.” It’s due out on July 14th, but those of us who preordered received it early.

Much has and will be written about the collection, I’m sure, and I plan to write about it myself this weekend, after I’ve had time to digest the new material and contemplate what the set, writ large, means in the scheme of things. I will say, however, that if you had told me back in 1986, when I first heard Natalie with the 10,000 Maniacs, that I’d still be listening to her all these years later…well, I’m not sure how I would have responded. But I’m glad she’s still making music, and glad to still be a fan.

Anyway, for now, here’s today’s Top 5: Natalie Merchant. Not necessarily her greatest songs (though some are), but great songs and performances, nonetheless.

1) “Carnival.” (From Tigerlily.)

2) “Life Is Sweet.” (From Ophelia.)

3) “Break Your Heart.” (From Ophelia.)

4) “I’m Not Gonna Beg.” (From Motherland.)

5) “Space Oddity.” (From 1999’s Live in Concert, which isn’t included in the collection.)

And three bonus tracks:

6) “Maggie and Milly and Molly and May.” (From Leave Your Sleep,)

7) “Ladybird.” (From Natalie Merchant.)

8) “Frozen Charlotte.” (From Butterfly, the collection’s disc of new and old material recorded with a string quartet.)