A personal diary keeping people abreast of what I am working on writing-wise.

Friday, September 29, 2006


If today's entry intrigues you and you live in the Portland area, please support Lara Michell and go to one of the record release parties for her band Dirty Martini that will be going on this weekend. For more information, see their website. I'll be in the audience on Saturday.

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.

This endeavor is based on a concept started by Chris Tamarri at Crisis/Boring Change. It has since been expanded as a concept, as Neal Shaffer takes on a study of album covers over at Leftwich.

Personnel: Lara Michell with Rob Scrivner (some additional guitar & bass) and Erin Sutherland (backing vocals on "Overheard" and "Phrygid")
Recorded by Rob Scrivner / Label: NewHat

The first time I saw Lara Michell play, the natural brunette had blonde hair and was strumming guitar for Carmina Piranha, an all-girl quintet who looked as loose and unrehearsed as could be when they sauntered on stage, joking around and laughing, but then changed all minds when they started playing and revealed they were one of the tightest bands in the mid-'90s Portland scene. The Lara I saw that night wasn't really the Lara I would come to know. Maybe it was the peroxide, but she seemed serious. Her brow was furrowed, her big blue eyes a little stony. After Carmina's slot, she came down and stood with her then-boyfriend and they watched whatever other band was playing that night (the Atoms, maybe?). I observed her from my vantage point leaning against the pillar that sits in the middle of the floor at Berbati's Pan, much to the chagrin of anyone who has ever been stuck behind it during a concert. I was wont to go off to shows on my own in those days, and I was just as likely to spy on the crowd as I was the performers.

The thing I remember about that night was that Lara stood with her back to her boyfriend, pressed up against his chest, her arms stretched behind her and wrapped around his neck. I've always envied couples who stand like that. It's never happened to me, which must speak for my taste in women. I remember seeing a pair of kids stand like that at a New Order concert in 1989. That's how long I've been holding that image in my head, and probably why the pose stood out for me so many years later. It still holds up, as two young lovers stand that way in Love the Way You Love #5--something I mention because of that book's tangential relationship to Lara Michell. (In fact, I picked her album this particular time out because the second issue of Love the Way You Love goes on sale this week, and if you don't know why that connects, go here.)

I would see Lara again, and actually meet her this time, backstage at a different concert. This was in my most glam phase, wearing stuffed-animal backpacks and silver clothes. I often wore lipstick and eye shadow and painted my fingernails. It was the height of Britpop, I was on the TeeVee, and I would blast my way through gigs just about every night of the week. I was chasing a completely different band girl (see this entry), and she was on the bill with Carmina Piranha. Lara and I met backstage, and we joked and shared champagne and got along pretty much instantly. We didn't exchange info, but I knew where to find her.

At the time, there was a local radio show called the Church of Northwest Music. I disliked most of Portland's music but knew enough people that it was worth listening to the show to hear performances by my acquaintances, and occasionally I might get turned on to something new I would like. The show aired Sunday nights, and the following Sunday, I heard a song that I thought was just incredible. Unfortunately, the DJ would play long blocks of music and only announce what was what after it was done, so I had to wait to find out who it was and do the backwards math to hopefully pick out the right name and match it to the right song.

Of course, it was Lara Michell.

I had no idea she had done any solo material, but according to the DJ, she had an album out called Tide Pool. (I have long since forgotten what song I heard that night.) The next day, I went to all the downtown record shops to see if they had it, probably starting at Ozone and Django's because they were closer, and ultimately finding myself at 2nd Avenue Records, which was usually the last ditch effort. I think they were still in their old location back then. Imagine a store like the one on the cover of DJ Shadow's Entroducing, but instead of being reduced to fit on a CD cover, Shadow just printed the place at actual size: that's what 2nd Avenue was like. If someone was in one of the two aisles, you couldn't actually go past him, it was too cramped. They kept all of their CDs either in the glass case up front or in a cardboard box behind the counter. Lara was in the case.

Listening to Tide Pool now, I think it's fair to call the production naïve. It didn't strike me as such at the time, but the DIY aesthetic was still very much in vogue then, and the credit on the inside is not a "produced by" credit but "Recorded by Rob Scrivener @ his house." That says it right there, I think. It's not bad, I'm not being insulting. What I am describing is a sound of distance, almost like they had one tape recorder and they hit play and record at the same time and then just went for it. Lara is playing guitar and leaning over the machine, and Rob is behind her pounding on a drum kit that his parents bought him when he was 11 (though, Lara plays the drums, trainspotters should note). It actually sounds pretty good, kind of quaint, like a first album maybe should. Like, in all the ways Cut My Hair (which has a Lara Michell quote up front (see "Notable B-Side" below)) was young and clumsy but was (hopefully) endearing for it, so was Tide Pool. The record of initiation for an artist coming into her own.

Because if you listen to the first three tracks, you'll immediately be struck by how ambitious the songs are. "More of Everything," "How Should I Know?," and "Tyrant" are proper pop songs, a little British, a little Veruca Salt. They exceed the record's capacity to contain them. "How Should I Know?" was so catchy, I actually played it on my Britpop TV show. At the end of every episode, we'd pick something bouncy and we'd dance to it over the closing credits. (It was one of those "What were we thinking?" devices that started as a joke but then became the thing everyone liked and we couldn't get out of it, much to our chagrin when the director would call for the credits early and we'd be stuck out there on live television dancing for much longer than anyone could ever want to.) The lead guitar has an almost Peter Buck quality to it, a chime that borders on being a siren. The drums are a simple bap-boom-boom-bap, and Lara strums steadily behind it, her trademark. Her voice is soft and distinct, rising up in the chorus, multiple tracks showing her range. Someone should have put it in on a 45, it would have been a hit.

The ambition rises higher on track 4, "Denial." It's a song with a lonely soul, the mix putting the soft acoustic guitar up front, the singing sad and plaintive in the back, striking out from the cave Lara refers to in the lyrics. One finger on the piano pushes a key here and there, the singer in pain and unashamed to lay it bare. That is until halfway through when the song gets angry. "She will never remember what you told her not to ever forget," Lara spits, and it's unclear if the singer speaks of herself or the competition. As she has said, "If you can remember every hand you've held in your hand, nobody else would stay." It's a damning detail.

There are tracks like "Denial" on Tide Pool, other intricate, brainy songs with a hint of schizophrenia. There is maybe a tad of Tori Amos in them, sometimes the convoluted imagery of a girl who is a little too book smart for her own good, such as "Phrygid," where Lara gives shout-outs to Charon, Minos, and Taratarus. "Hallway" is a short instrumental that wouldn't be out of place on a spooky movie soundtrack, and all the more fitting for its placement on the record. It leads into the noirish "You Didn't See Me Here," a change into outward sleaze for what has previously been a largely interior album. Its story is one of seductive, of the proverbial fly in the proverbial spider's parlor. Think "Trust in Me" from The Jungle Book. Someone has gone where they shouldn't have, and the old pros smell the new meat. (A later recording of the song with Carmina Piranha for their ballet soundtrack Revenge Poems, would make the dark dance even more clear, as Lara would trade vocals with Lisa Stringfield, each playing a character.)

Lara actually has a pretty good knack for capturing this kind of experience, of someone being where they should not, of being the observer to the twisted games played upon those who merely seek love even while standing outside of oneself. "Overheard" is one of my favorite songs on Tide Pool, an innocent sounding ballad that aches with the loneliness of being trapped in a loveless relationship. In what could be a case of disassociation, Lara eavesdrops on a conversation, but by the end of the song, it's not entirely clear if she's not really just looking back on her own memories. Or did she simply fall into the trap of giving the bad boy too much credit? The man she describes is the bullshit rebel. "He tells her he hangs out there on the fringes," a statement those of us who know such things will recognize as untrue just by the fact that it's been said. You don't have to tell someone how rock 'n' roll you are if you really are rock 'n' roll. But yet, how does Lara get from listening to his false promises to seeing the couple riding away in their car, the woman unable to extricate herself from the relationship? Therein lies the narrative question.

I listened to Tide Pool repeatedly, absorbed it, and eventually decided to write to Lara's P.O. Box listed in the CD booklet. It's a weird thing to do, to write a fan letter to someone you've actually met. I put my e-mail address on the letter, and she got back to me that way, and we started talking. Now she's one of my oldest friends. Me, the notorious bridge burner. We've seen the various changes people our age go through as they go on living, we understand how our art ends up being little time capsules of those periods of flux. It can't be by accident that we smashed into each other this way. There's too much that's similar. If Tide Pool is Cut My Hair, then her second album, Somniloquy, is I Was Someone Dead, standing apart and challenging outsiders to penetrate the arty veneer. Her third and most recent, Ruby Red is the kind of self-assured barn burner I tried to write with The Everlasting. And thus, it's also fitting that she would co-write the song for "Love the Way You Love," a happy and romantic song for a happy and romantic book. Products of the naïveté of being in our mid-30s.

My favorite song on Tide Pool is actually the one most like "Love the Way You Love" in gushy sentiment. I know Lara has a bit of a contentious relationship with "Crimson Flag." It's a tranquil song about being alone with your thoughts and being in love even if your lover isn't there just then. It was on the soundtrack for The Everlasting, and I think it pretty well fits the Lance Scott point of view.* "I fumbled to make everything fine/ and I guess you weren't such a big waste of my time/ I just wanted to make everything go/ With things about me that you still don't even know" is like The Everlasting in four lines. I even used a line from it as a chapter head: "Part of knowing is remembering that which wasn't bad." It's the rare moment when Lance stops and reminds himself that things have actually been okay every once in a while.

That's the pearl of wisdom I want to remember every time I listen to "Crimson Flag," and often why I actually play it. Lord knows if anyone needs to be reminded to pull his head out of the water, it's me. We all need a friend in our life--be it a real person or a compact disc--to teach us this lesson. Lucky for me, I got both in one.

NOTABLE B-SIDE: Not a B-side, per se, but one of the songs that immediately followed Tide Pool. Though it would show up again on album #2, it first surfaced on More, a Hush Records compilation of Portland-based female singer-songwriters. "Not For This World" is the song I quoted at the beginning of Cut My Hair, sharing a place of honor next to Pete Townshend. It's a dreamy song, beautiful in its heartache. Amidst all the beauty in the world, staring at the beauty of an individual, at the end of the day, you still stand alone, unable to be a part of the world at large. The crisis of the solitary man whose heart is as big as the universe, as bright as the stars he dreams of. There is a lovely violin on the track, and desperate whale cries on an electric guitar, and Lara creates her own world, the place waiting for her as the song fades out on the line "You'll know when you're ready to go." Once again, a Jamie Rich-like sentiment.

* Lance would also probably like the song "Volumes," and its central image of a "mind's library [where] there are volumes about all of you/ They are classified by the way I think you think."

#26 #25 #24 #23 #22 #21 #20 #19 #18 #17 #16 #15
(The first 26) (Permanent Records iMix 1)

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Current Soundtrack: still J.T.

Current Mood: nostalgic

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[to leave comments, click on the time-stamp below, then scroll down on the new page] – All text (c) 2006 Jamie S. Rich

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