PERMANENT RECORDS: OUR SATELLITE STORIES
Permanent Records is a year-long project. Each Friday (or thereabouts), I will post a new entry about one specific album, chosen due to its significance to myself as a fan. Though the list is numbered, a particular record's placement should not be considered a ranking. There will be 52 albums in all.
39. MISS RED FLOWERS - MISS RED FLOWERS (1997)
Personnel: Amy Kent (vocals/guitar), Jessie Spero (drums/percussion), Kevin Friedman (guitar on "Velvet," "Ocean" & "Satellite"), Marilee Hord (violin on "Abby" & "Rama")
Producer: Miss Red Flowers & Thor Lindsay/ Label: Tim/Kerr Records
Album cover art: Adam Warren; band logo: Tom Orzechowski
I feel a little trepidatious writing about the Miss Red Flowers record because my relationship with it is a little bit personal. In the mid-'90s, I spent time hovering around the Portland music scene as a fan and critic. I was writing for local papers and co-hosting a cable access show about Britpop, and then going out to clubs and listening to bands and having drinks. It was a good time, and I made some long-lasting friends. It was also an education.
When the album was released, I was friends with Amy Kent, the lead singer, guitarist, and songwriter for Miss Red Flowers. We had met when I interviewed her for my first ever article about a band. It was for a now-defunct magazine called Anodyne, and I handled it rather ineptly. Here is a piece of advice for all budding journos out there: when you write an article that is way longer and rougher than it should be, if you end up doing a second draft in a separate file on your computer, make sure to title both files in a very clear fashion. Otherwise, you might end up turning in the first draft, no one will notice how unfinished it is--even if it has sections where, instead of words, it says, "????"--and that will print instead, much to your horror.
Anyway, I met Amy, interviewed her down at a pub on Hawthorne, across the street from her indie record label's offices, and we became fast friends. Eventually, I wanted more out of the friendship, and I spent a lot of time kicking against a closed door because I had convinced myself that there was something for me on the other side. I was a frustrated young man, and I am sure I caused just as much frustration for Amy as I did myself. We tried to maintain what was really there for a while, and I even ran her band's mailing list, the fulfillment of a bit of a dream for me. I did newsletters and sent out postcards and it was a lot of fun. Unfortunately, my inability to let the other side of things go eventually meant that none of it would last. (And, yes, careful readers may put two and two together and realize that given the timeframe, this was indeed the girl whose voicemail I assaulted with Longpigs melodies, as written about last week.)
Despite all that, I've tried to allow the music to stand on its own, to not let the things that happened in real life taint my enjoyment of an album that meant quite a lot to me. There is nothing comparable to being around when something is being created--be it music or comics or whatever--and you can feel deep in your bones how special it is. I remember listening to the promotional EP of Miss Red Flowers songs before the interview session. They were tracks recorded for the WFMU radio station in New York. The album wasn't out yet, I had pitched my idea for an article on the band after having seen them live, opening for someone else. Most of the local scene bored me, so that performance was a real epiphany, and I think when I told my editor what I wanted to do, I said something like, "Miss Red Flowers is the only Portland band that I have any interest in talking to." And I vividly remember sitting in my bathtub, listening to those five songs, and thinking, "Wow, I can't believe I am going to talk to the person who did this tomorrow."
All through my association with Amy, I would be consistently amazed at the effect she had on people. The reaction was instant and it was heavy. After a gig, I'd be sitting at the table selling CDs and gathering names for the mailing list, and people would come up and ask, "Do you know her?" as if she were some untouchable, unreachable star. "Yes, I do know her, and she's standing about five feet away from you right now. You should go say 'hi.'" When you hear them talk about stars having an X-factor, they were talking about this, that indefinable thing that makes people react in these ways.
What was it, then, about Miss Red Flowers and their one gem of an album that was so extraordinary?
The first thing that you're likely to notice is the voice. Amy's singing has a haunting lilt to it, as if she were caught between two planes of existence, the girl who feels pain and the woman who wants to strike back. The sound of it is unadorned, lacking studio twiddling or even training. On the best song on the album, "Velvet," the only overdubbing is to create a twin effect, of an echo one syllable behind. On certain lines, you can still hear a breath being taken. Off in the back, there are whale cries that only become evident as Amy's moaning the deeper we get into the track, when the echo catches up, and all are one. (It should be noted, though, that "Velvet" is one of the songs where drummer Jessie Spero is credited with back-up vocals, so it really is two.)
It has a deeply personal effect, which is the second thing you notice: Miss Red Flowers is a personal record. The first two lines of the album are "Here I am/ Alone again" (from "Dear James," a song that is not about me no matter how much I would love to say it was). Listening to this record is like being alone with someone's private thoughts. The lyrics do often take off on poetic flights of fancy--"I'm content to be your fool for now/ Until my mouth opens so wide/ I gobble you up with the world--that instantly give way to bald language devoid of any subtext--"It hurt me when you told me/ I got in the way/ It hurt me when you left me/ For most of the day." Too often, a writer would be embarrassed to gravitate between the two extremes, and academically, indulging in both in the same song would likely be poo-pooed. Except our inner lives know nothing of academia. No one is grading us on how our emotions unspool. Just let it come.
Which isn't to say that there is no editing process to how Amy writes. The truth of stream-of-consciousness writing is that you have to know when to dam up certain things, controlling the passageway for what's important. If there was no filter, there would be all sorts of gobbledygook, and it wouldn't make sense to other people. The audience for Miss Red Flowers never had this problem. I listen and the course of the stream is clear to me. I ride it as if on a raft, and the thoughts that travel beneath me are ones I can understand.
Or to swap metaphors, it works like a magic spell. Songs like "Ocean" entangle you in their language and lull you into a sense of the familiar, that you've been here before. The soft strumming of the guitar is secondary, almost absent-minded, its reverberations pushing you out of normal space. This is music to lose oneself in, best enjoyed with the lights out, flat on your back, looking for the same thoughts somewhere across the distance of your mind. Much of the lyrical content is about escape, about finding this space. On "Ocean," Amy sings about how "The best things in life/ Are at the bottom of the ocean...And I'm never coming back because I know/ Where I really want to be."
"Her Own" speaks of similar things: "Wishing for an edge of the world/ Somewhere to jump off/ And never to be found." I wrote a short story that borrowed its title from that line. Listening to "Her Own" again, I realize that in writing my story, I missed the point of the song. There is a tension between the singer and her lover, as images of her as "a shooting star" are really all in his perception, and something she can't live up to. In fact, his needs are sucking out any interplanetary light she may actually have in her. "Looking after you/ And chasing my desire/ So far away." In the end, she needs her own world to escape from his. He's self-absorbed, too far away, stuck in his own head "gone and dead and gone and dead." I guess I probably saw myself in the role of that boy, but in an ironic miscalculation, I spun out of it with a tale about another boy chasing another girl in hopes that she would save him by indulging his delusion of saving her--which is the biggest pitfall of writing someone a story, that you will miscommunicate and be misunderstood. It's a most dangerous game. If I ever write the sequel, knowing what I know now, it would be about how ultimately she'd have to escape from the clutches of his love rather than have to consistently live up to the main character's fucked up construct of her. I'll call it Garden State II.
The production generally takes a step back--sometimes two--letting the vocals stand right up front. There are only two musicians at work here, and the songs are built for guitar and drums. Live, there was, of course, an adherence to the Spartan nature of the songs, but that arena gave the songs an immediacy, a warmth that is often absent on the CD. If there is any flaw in Miss Red Flowers, it's that the man at the mixing desk seemed to convince himself that by maintaining a distance he was maintaining the scaled-down dynamic, even as he added too many guitar effects or dropped an extra vocal coo into the background. A rollicking song like "Daisy" needs the crazy hoo-ha of the stage, especially as it's the one place where Amy really opens up vocally, the chorus swinging like a showtune. The one clear misstep on the album is "Alien Song." It's too dissonant, dragged down by an empty jangle. The chords are too deep, grating against the droning chorus, the chant of "In awe of life I die."
There are two places where the producer gets it exactly right. One is the closing track, "Rama," where the addition of beautiful violins by Marilee Hord and well-chosen nature sound effects bring the song's serenity to life. Rama, in Hindu legend, is the perfect man, and the song questions both his long absence and dreams of his return. Amy sings, "And if I go away/ And if you go away," letting her voice rise on "away" so that it sounds like it's being set free, as if we have found some peace.
The second song is the aforementioned "Velvet," and it's really an important track for us to discuss. Like I said, it's the best song on the album, and really, one of the best songs I have ever heard. It's one that never leaves me, and I cried more than once when singing along with the band as they performed in some dingy club or other. It's a once-in-a-lifetime creation, a rarity for any artist.
And probably where we must really question how I relate to this music. Am I too attached?
If "Her Own" is an example of how I got everything wrong, my misinterpretation of it maybe an indicator of how I may have placed too much pressure on the relationship, then I'd like to think "Velvet" is where I got it right. The writing is straightforward: once again, a woman describing a lover and the relationship they had together. The softness of the title, "Velvet," is nowhere in the actual song, it's more of a suggestion of what a balm for a troubled soul the song provides the listener. It's saying all the things that are so hard to say when a relationship has gone wrong for too long--the feelings of hurt and abuse persist even as we're unable to dismiss love entirely ("If I could only kiss you on the temples/ Then I could leave and finally turn the page"), the sense that your partner is better than he lets himself be ("These beastly outbreaks don't become you"), the sense that you are not as good as you pretend ("Oh why does a fool need so much company/ And why am I filled with so much rage"). It's the acknowledgement of our own misplaced motives ("But I guess that that is how I got here/ From the love of thinking someone needed me"), and the hope that both parties can escape clean ("I've dreamed of starting all over/ Only this time both of us are pure").
That last line I quoted certainly resonates with me. That's always been a desire of mine, to start fresh and on the right foot. At the time, I hoped that Amy and I could start over together, that we could be like velvet for one another, that it wouldn't be a lopsided union but one built on mutual need and support. That's the problem with my character in my story: he's not offering any of himself, really. He's playing the white knight, acting as if he is a blank slate, but it's all a sham. He's really balancing that emptiness against the spark he sees in her, and that means she is lighting the darkness as opposed to him providing a place for her to shine.
Could I have done that, too? I don't know. It's hard to say now, since I'm wrapping myself in the poetry of the music. Hindsight may be 20/20, but memory is nearsighted.
In that respect, I clearly fail at my stated intention of letting the music stand on its own. I've tried to be objective, to speak and react from outside of it all, but I keep taking it back to me. Granted, that's no different than any of the other entries in this series. I could cut out so much time by listing the title of the album and just writing, "Me, me, me!" underneath, but these are obviously flowers of a different color. To quote one of Amy Kent's lyrics, "All of my feelings are false and so am I." Was I at all objective, or do I come across as an old man ruminating on lost love? Or was I too false, trying too hard to be scholarly, and not emotional enough? I guess that's up to your subjective reading.
For those wondering how the story turns out, it's actually pretty anti-climactic. Amy and I sat down in a bar--I think it was a Brian Jonestown Massacre gig--and we both kind of apologized and tried to sift through what had occurred. I can't speak for how she felt at the time, but I sort of knew it wasn't really happening, that we weren't really going to rekindle the friendship. But, at least in some ways, we said "I'm sorry" before stepping away from one another for good. From what I understand, she's happily married with a family, and though the music fan in me wishes she had made more music, if the "happily" part is true, then more power to her.
NOTE: If you have any curiosity regarding what this music sounds like, there are sound samples at Amazon, as well as multiple used copies priced between $0.01 and $1.00. Follow the button below to listen and make a purchase, and if you do, comment here and tell me whether or not I'm actually full of it.
Current Soundtrack: Serge Gainsbourg, Comic Strip
Current Mood: devious
[to leave comments, click on the time-stamp below, then scroll down on the new page] – All text (c) 2006 Jamie S. Rich