The OOZE, Samples Now + Fully Sprung soon...
OK, so I've already said how much I admire the songwriting of Ms. Shena Verrett, and the next time the Village Voice has its Siren Festival they need to try to get girlfriend to MC, because she knows how to work the positive magic on a crowd, except I think she's loyal to the music festival/series she co-produces, URB ALT. (left photo by rich press; right photo uncredited)
On top of all that is her admirable work on her new Tenderhead album, OOZE, where a little bird suggested to me the parallels between her writing and the best parts of Heart (the Wilson Sisters, Ann & Nancy) in its prime (think about all the song structures within a single song that Nancy Wilson worked, e.g. "Heartless."). This is particularly evident on "Goes 2 Show," where Verrett comes out with some burning guitar parts that are fiery cause they're saying something, not just because Verrett has the skills to bring the house down. In that same song she throws down two vocal styles, one reminiscent of both Neneh Cherry (early work, circa Float Up CP 's Kill Me In the Morning) and Kristin Hersh's (solo & reformed Throwing Muses era) particular ways with vocal melodies and harmonies ending in places you don't quite expect--which is a good thing to my ear--and showing off the steely vulnerability of Verrett's voice. Then with the memorable refrain, "If you'd come to my rescue/ once in a while/maybe I'd smile," Verrett gets down to some soulful balladeering and delicate lyrical runs which give that song its great emotional duality of a woman walking in her strength, but also wanting to have that "soft place to fall" now and again (oh, yeah I know, I hate to quote Dr. Phil, but when his language is on, it is so on). You can also hear this vocal play between the hard and pliant, those harmonies pushing the balanced edge; and blistering guitars on "One," itself a song about the fragility of balance: "it only takes one dollar/one day/ to win it all/to whup your ass," well...
(photo left, Ed Marshall; photo below right, Louis Devito)
The song "He Said, She Said" is getting the most play right now on Tenderhead's MySpace page and reminds me of both of spare guitar-driven late 60's pre-punk rock, and British 1980s post-punk rock, with some solid drumming. Once again Verrett's vocal character is walking with a foot on either side of the vulnerability-strength divide, calling out in the chorus, "Don't want to be your/your pitiful, pitiful girl/ there's more to me than/than whispers you may have heard." There is also some really complementary production happening on this cut, with the use of reverb to accent parts of the lead vocal. I noted the spatialization of the guitar, lead and background vocal parts, and the way the bass is brought up the middle for the last few choruses and how the whole instrumentation fades away until all that's left are some faint metallic sounds and Verrett's reverbed vocal which is pushed way back in space, so the intonations of "whispers you may have..." become literal whispers.
Now some people may think "Heart?"And say to themselves, "oh no, Album-Oriented-Rock!" mega-stadium muzak! Whatever. Hold up. It's important to remember that a lot of progressive, concept-album folks like Heart, King Crimson, and hello, Pink Floyd, were getting great reception from the public and critics back then. Hell, the Police were a stadium band, actually the stadium band in the mid-late 1980s until they passed the hat to U2. And both those bands started off in the punk/new wave scene despite guitarist Andy Summers having great chops--well they all were good musicians, including Stewart Copeland and Sting (née Gordon Sumner)--and U2 being primarily made up of avowed Christians who didn't consider themselves to be in a Christian rock-band. So once upon a time album rock was a different kind of animal, and you could play three different genres within a song and audiences would scream for more. Tenderhead inviting folks back to a more layered type of songwriting, think Canada's The The or the different styles mined by fellow New Yorkers Clem Snide or The Magnetic Fields. I get the sense Verrett is looking to explore those genres in a single song, with more electricity & amplification, and to play with how they can be combined and made to speak to each other. But I would likely be remiss not making connections from what she's doing to the legacy of other black rockers such as guitarist Vernon Reid, Love's songwriter & vocalist Arthur Lee, as well as ground-breaking conceptual funk-rocker composer/arranger Betty Davis. Like Davis, Verrett has a number of on-stage personas. In Davis' case her overtly sexualized image, and that of her primarily male band, were about creating a performance environ for the audience. Verrett, like Davis prior to Davis' going into music full-time, is a model (and actor) and is adept at creating a multitude of personas (and takes amazing pictures--just check out the photos here culled from Tenderhead's MySpace page), visually, sonically, and as a songwriter. I find myself wondering how all those elements work in the complex negotiation of what it is to be an attractive, intelligent, creative, and talented woman in the music industry, since, uh, forever...But that's another conversation. (above left, photo by tippi shorter)
Not to leave out Verrett in a more overtly experimental and ambient mood, "A Free Ka" employs a lot more openness in its musical framework, with less emphasis on forward-moving beat. The processing on the guitars creates a shimmering drape, and then has them falling away and the drums--in a staggered pattern--and bass coming forward. The guitar returns for some sonic accents, simple percussion coming forward, equally for timbral color as for rhythm, and then the whole piece fades away before the final percussive moment. Again, Verrett has a lot of musical legacies she expressing, and I'll be interested to see where she takes those paths. (right photo, Wilson Black)
Please do support indie artists and check out Tenderhead's MySpace page. If you want something different you gotta create that difference yourself and engage with the work of folks who are out there doing the same. Also, if you want to hear more of Tenderhead's work their first album, Psickcevyn -Ate (which includes the live fav, "Halo (My Kind Exist)"), is still available through cdbaby.com (love 'em).
One of my favorite music writers, Kandia Crazy Horse, on black women in rock: "There's A Riot Goin' On (Agin): Who says black sisters can't rock?" (Perfect Sound Forever, August 2005).