In spite of the inconsistency of my posts in the last couple of years, it's probably pretty obvious that I've been listening to more female-vocal music in recent months. I've also aimed a little bit in a more acoustic direction as well.
Two artists have dominated those two areas for me lately. One is Dala, who I caught opening for Matthew Good up in Ontario during his fall acoustic tour. I may go more into detail about them later, but, despite some lyrical issues and the more poppy fare on their recent material, their first album, This Moment Is a Flash, has some incredibly strong songs on it.
But the one whose music has gotten the most attention from me lately is Anna Ternheim.
I first heard of Ternheim in 2005 via a site called Record of the Day. There, labels and managements submit songs for the site's subscribers to check out. (It's not a site I would normally frequent, given it's penchant for Top 40 fare. However, around that time, a member of the Everclear online community noticed that a demo of the song "Glorious" had been posted by someone at Everclear's then-management. It's a version I still prefer to the one that made Welcome to the Drama Club.) At the time, the site was reposting their favorite songs of 2005, including Ternheim's cover of Swedish band Bröder Daniel's "Shoreline".
"Shoreline" was nothing short of amazing. Within the year, I'd snagged "To Be Gone" and her startlingly strong reworking of Fleetwood Mac's "Little Lies". "Little Lies" was a song that I identified with my middle-school years, and her reworking was fantastic - and completely unlike the original.
I poked around for any news about US releases of her material and came up blank. In late 2006, she released her second album Separation Road and its first single, "Girl Laying Down". "Girl Laying Down" is a great song, but something about the out-of-key piano threw me on initial listens. Poking around, I found a so-called "naked version" of the song featuring Ternheim and a(n in-tune) piano. At that point, I discovered something unique about her catalog - for both of her albums, she recorded "naked versions" of many of the songs and released them on a bonus disc in limited edition packages of each album. Most of the tracks featured Terheim accompanied solely by acoustic guitar or piano.
Finally, late last year, I decided to suck it up and order her catalog from an online store in Sweden called Bengans. (When Separation Road was released, it was the site that her website suggested for international orders.) I figured I would get reamed on shipping and taxes, but was shocked to discover that the shipping was reasonable and tax didn't apply for international orders. I went ahead and ordered everything all at once, and the cost was only marginally more than if I'd bought some US-made CDs at full price.
Obtaining her full catalog pointed out one thing right away: many of her best songs are buried on the "naked versions" discs. "Black Widow" was only included on the "naked versions" disc with Separation Road, and was easily one of the best songs in the bunch. And, in many cases, the naked versions of her songs are stronger than their full-band cohorts. For example, while "A French Love" on Somebody Outside is an upbeat song in a 60s spy movie vein, the "naked version", featuring Ternheim on piano, is mind-blowing. To me, the emotional power of the lyrics is lost on the full-band version. (Some might consider the lyrics slightly obvious, but the French chorus - which I immediately understood from my high school classes - makes it work.)
It's a damn shame that the limited edition of Somebody Outside is out of print. There's also a great R.E.M.-ish rock song called "Wedding Song" on her out-of-print first demo CD that rivals many of the songs that she's released since. (Then again, I'm a sucker for good R.E.M.-ish rock songs.)
Having said all of this, I'm not entirely sold on what Decca/Universal is doing with her music in America. They're essentially taking her existing catalog and creating new releases out of the material. (It almost feels like what Capitol did to the Beatles in the 1960s, though in a less-nefarious manner.) The debut EP they released last fall has several solid tracks on it - I prefer the "naked version" of "Lovers Dream" to the two other released versions. (Those two are essentially the same, but one has additional vocals provided by another Swedish singer, Fyfe Dangerfield.) Her cover of "China Girl" is also strong, and "My Secret" is one of the better tracks on Somebody Outside. "Shoreline" is on there as well, but, for some reason, only as a video.
But I'm not quite in love with Halfway to Fivepoints. It's essentially a sampling of tracks from Separation Road and the later Lovers Dream & More Songs for Psychotic Lovers EP, plus "To Be Gone" and "Little Lies". (In fairness, I haven't heard the final version - I've simply organized the songs in order of the announced tracklisting.) On the plus side, they included "Black Widow" and "You Mean Nothing to Me Anymore" from the Separation Road "naked versions" disc, a nice move that proves that Decca went deeper in assembling the disc.
However, to me, Fivepoints feels disjointed. It's trying to show all of her sides, but I'm not sure they work side-by-side in this fashion. The Lovers Dream tracks in particular have a slightly darker vibe than her albums. For instance, the transition from more-produced Lovers Dream track "The Ones They Blame" to the sparse "You Mean Nothing to Me Anymore" feels awkward. And I'm not sure why "Bridges" gets such high billing (and inclusion both here and on the EP).
But there are some real highlights on the record. Apart from the aforementioned "Black Widow" (which has an almost Nick Drake feel), many of my favorites of her catalog (including "No Subtle Men", "Little Lies", and "To Be Gone") are included.
Honestly, though, the main issue for me may be because of my personal preference for Somebody Outside, of which only "To Be Gone" appears on the album. Somebody Outside has much of the same emotional strength of her later material, but features a more upbeat tempo. "Bring Down Like I", "I'll Follow You Tonight", "My Secret", "Better Be", the title track, and, of course, "Shoreline", are all personal faves. I'm hoping that the absence of Somebody Outside tracks on Fivepoints means that Decca might issue that album separately at some point.
It's strange - it's the first time in years that I've dived through someone's entire catalog all at once. (I generally prefer to go one album at a time, just to give each its own fair shake.) But I've really enjoyed this thus far.
I'd say the really interesting thing about Ternheim isn't what's on her albums - it's what she can do alone with a guitar. (I'm completely jealous of her fingering - I typically have to do that with a pick. Though, admittedly, my style is much more strong chords and power, not the lighter touches of hers.)
Don't watch this if it's sunny and you're in a good mood. This works really well about 3am.
For a sunnier mood:
There's actually a ton of stuff on YouTube. (She's got several music videos for her original releases. The "My Secret" video is nice, save for one horrible late 80s / early 90s angle that comes up toward the end.) The solo acoustic stuff in particular is worth the time.
That's where Anna shines. Once you've seen enough open mics at your local coffeehouse, you start to believe that the solo acoustic thing is dead and done. But here's one reminder that it's still possible to move someone with guitar and voice.
She's touring the States in May. Unfortunately for me, not around here.
Clip for Today
Not sure I need one of these, given that the post already has two clips in it, but this performance has recently found its way into my Repeat Listens bin.
It's a performance from the 2004 Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony. I caught it by accident during last year's induction broadcast on VH-1 Classic; they used older clips to fill time before and after the live performances.
George Harrison was inducted as a solo artist that year, and this song was performed as the final "jam session" that typically takes place each year. A lot of great things happened for this performance. Harrison's Traveling Wilbury bandmates Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne take turns on vocals, with Harrison's son Dhani playing along on acoustic. (Dhani is hard to miss - as everybody points out, he looks eerily like his father.) It also features Steve Winwood on organ. (Traffic was inducted that year as well.)
But the surprise is who takes over at the end. Prince, another 2004 inductee, steps forward and solos the hell out of the last three minutes of the song. I noticed a lot of conflicting feelings among people around the 'net about Prince's performance - many feeling it was too flashy and showy for the song. I don't think I agree with that - the first time I saw the performance, I was blown away. Just seeing the huge grin on Dhani's face as he watches Prince perform sold me on it. As a friend of mine said to me today in reference to this performance, given all of the issues around Prince, it's easy to miss what a solid musician he really is.
Setting Prince aside, I think what makes this performance work is that it feels like this amazing group of performers is putting everything into it for Harrison. I've always been a little hit and miss on the Beatles version of this song (mainly for the awkward mixing and mastering on the White Album), but I absolutely adore this version.