Monday, November 26, 2007


What can be said about the Lilith Fair phenomenon that hasn't already been said? It's remarkable that it didn't happen earlier. It opened some ugly industry closets that a lot of us thought had been cleaned out already. It gave incredible opportunities to some incredibly deserving women, and also sucked some of those opportunities back when the tide ebbed.

The music industry hopped on the female act bandwagon (as with so many bandwagons before and since) as soon as they saw it was viable, and labels rushed to sign women purely to capitalize on the trend. Women who had been laboring in obscurity for years before 1998 suddenly found themselves in the spotlight, only to feel it burn after the proverbial fifteen minutes. There had been a first wave: Lisa Loeb, Jewel, Paula Cole; and there came a second: Shawn Colvin, Luscious Jackson, Meredith Brooks, Chantal Kreviazuk. A few scant years later, these women had returned to a place below the pop radar, some even by choice. Sarah McLachlan herself made a point of laying low, feeling the bite of overexposure.

In the midst of all this, Emm Gryner provided a dazzling moment. She appeared in the third installment of Lilith Fair, and while she has enjoyed a higher level of success in her native Canada, she never scraped the pop charts in the United States. Public, her 1998 album, is the only one she's done with a major label, and they impatiently dropped her when it didn't perform better. Only minor figures in the music industry have paid attention to her since; folks like David Bowie, with whom she toured, and Bono, who listed one of her songs as a track he wished he would have written.

I didn't really consider how male-dominated the britpop genre has been until I heard Emm Gryner take that sound and re-spin it without the bravado. The whole mod-glam-punk-shoegaze trajectory is encapsulated in her sound, and I think it's telling that Emm has more often been lumped in with female singer-songwriters of different styles than she is with Smashing Pumpkins or Garbage. Public's survey of melodic pop rock shows both range and consistency, and there is much to be savored from start to finish.

For me the standout track is 'Phonecall 45'. A slower version of the funk drum line favored by the Madchester scene drives the song, with a controlled wash of effected guitars that falls somewhere between My Bloody Valentine and Suede. Some unexpected touches hide in the mix: synth effects that are modulated across the spectrum, and chimes that gild the chord progressions and add nostalgic majesty in the same way they do on Pumpkins' 'Disarm'.

Emm Gryner's lyrics are mosaics of images that inflect to form a personal narrative. While she never says so in the song, it's important to understand that this really is the 45th phone call; there is a strong undercurrent of weariness and resignation carried over from the previous 44. We don't know if all of the calls have been to Johnny (if so, he's a saint); but it's clear that Emm has chosen this form of talk therapy in an attempt to come to terms with her crisis.

The crisis is summed up in the perfect last couplet of the chorus: 'I've had x number of endings / When do I begin?' She can count the number of phone calls, but the number of disappointments looms so large it can only be expressed in a variable. Solve for x.

While there is a romantic, or more accurately a sexual relationship here, it seems like the real thing at stake is an ideal about the music industry that has fallen flat. Our narrator has found herself in the surface-over-substance world of Los Angeles, and has been betrayed by someone she used to idolize: 'Love and respect in the front of a book lied again to me.' The relationship was always skewed - 'I will show you mine if you show me around' - and she held onto it too long - 'The speedway burned to nothing and I thought there might be you'.

But the realization that she has been betrayed has brought on a much larger crisis of confidence and optimism. Johnny is likely still in the northern town that she left on a lava train of exuberance, and she calls him now with a list: 'These are the things that I'd like to forget'. But the emotion has drained away; she sounds jaded and disillusioned, and the scabs have already formed.

It's a character study, possibly a self-portrait, though I would think such a self-portrait would have been more likely to come on Emm's next album, after her relationship with Mercury Records had ended. Without ever being too specific, it conveys the despair that comes from finding someone to trust and being betrayed; of failing and trying to summon the strength to pick up the pieces one more time. T.S. Eliot measured his life in coffee spoons; I hope Emm Gryner doesn't measure her life in phone calls like this one.

Emm Gryner official website