A couple of weeks ago Stuart Moore and I were discussing our differing views of what we wanted to do with this 52 Albums thing. He wanted to sing the praises of classics and reminisce about them, as he just did with Sgt. Pepper’s, while I had in mind drawing attention to albums which I think are unjustly neglected, in some cases downright obscure, or at least not as well-known as I think they should be. I thought from the beginning that Jane Siberry would be one of them, in spite of the fact that I hadn’t heard her music for quite some time (apart from one or two songs like her beautiful collaboration with k.d. laing, “Calling All Angels.”)
Around 1989 I worked with a young woman who was a music lover—with pretty good taste, I might add, meaning it was compatible with mine—and who was a bit of an evangelist for female artists. She introduced me to several whom I probably would not have heard otherwise. Jane Siberry was one of them, and the one that I liked best. Robin (the co-worker) lent me several of Siberry’s albums, and I ended up buying them for myself. These were LPs, which were on the way out in favor of CDs by then, but were still available, and I didn’t have a CD player. There were three of them: No Borders Here (1983), The Speckless Sky (1985), and The Walking (1988). I listened to them a few times, and then in 1990 I left that job and we moved from north Alabama to the coast, and what with one thing and another, including intermittent problems with my turntable, I didn’t listen to very much music for some years, and when I did it was usually not LPs.
In short, almost thirty years went by between the last time I heard those Jane Siberry albums before I changed jobs in 1990, and last week, when I listened to The Walking. I picked it because it was the one that had really stuck with me. Though I probably hadn’t heard it more than three times back then, even after all those years I could still hear a couple of bits and pieces of it in my mind.
I was not disappointed. The Walking is as good as I remembered. Siberry is a little bit like Kate Bush, not in any specific musical way, but in a broad sense: both strike me as representative of a type which I’ve encountered a few times, and to which I’m going to give the possibly offensive, but not badly intended, name of Flaky Chick. The Flaky Chick with whom I’m most familiar is a hippie girl who seems to live in a world of her own, a world of dreamy and obscure but intense emotions, moods, whims, and visions. This can be irritating or charming, depending on a number of things including whether one senses that the flakiness is genuine or contrived. The word “quirky” is usually applicable. She’s capable of apparent nonsense but also of great insight, and sometimes it’s hard to tell which is which. There’s a sense almost that she’s listening to voices only she hears, or following a vision that only she sees.
In Jane Siberry, or at least in this album, those qualities are in the service of a prodigious musical talent. (That’s true of Kate Bush, too, but I’m not writing about her now. And just in case there is any question, both of them seem to be utterly genuine, their eccentricity not contrived in the least. In that respect their work reminds me of the poetry of Hopkins.) She has a very very good voice, and she’s a gifted writer in both words and music. Somehow the word “songwriter” doesn’t seem quite appropriate for the compositions on this album, at least the longer ones. And those are the best, to my taste.
The first track on the album, “The White Tent The Raft,” and the second, “Red High Heels,” are the ones I remembered most from my 1989 hearing of the album. They clock in at 9’12” and 7’19” respectively, and are not “songs” in the usual sense of the term, but swirling, tumbling, eddying streams of music and imagery, sometimes sweet and poignant, sometimes driving. When some songwriters deploy a series of apparently disconnected and obscure word-pictures, you get the sense that they’re throwing together things that just sound evocative of whatever state of mind they’re trying to establish. With Siberry it seems more that the bits and pieces are, for her, very particular and concrete, that she is referring to definite people and incidents, and that they only seem obscure and disconnected because she declines to provide the whole picture, as if she’s showing you only certain details from a series of photographs. It works, for me anyway, because the music is so good, and because those details are often so intriguing and effective. The arrangements and playing are very effective, too--she has a great set of instrumentalists working with her, and the fact that she’s listed as co-producer suggests that she had a big hand in the arrangements.
I’m only going to include one track here, “The White Tent The Raft,” because it’s so long. If you don’t like it, never mind. If you do, you’ll want to hear more. And please don’t decide that you don’t like it without listening to it more than once. And you really must read the lyrics.
The reviewer at AllMusic.com, in an unenthusiastic 4-out-of-5-stars review, says that the album is “bound to lose the casual listener quickly.” Well, so much for the casual listener’s taste.
Possibly my special liking for those first two tracks is only because I heard them more. It often happens that I start listening to an album and don’t get all the way through, so this is a common occurrence. I’m very much looking forward to getting more familiar with this album, and the other two I own, and to investigating her later work. Apart from “Calling All Angels” I haven’t heard any of it later than The Walking, though I know some of it has been well-received.
P.S. Thanks, Robin, wherever you are.
--Mac is the proprietor of this blog.