Sunday, December 27, 2009

I'd Buy Anything By...Jane Siberry (at One Time)

You couldn't be a child of the '80s in Canada without being exposed to Jane Siberry. Our radio and television stations, hungry to fill their CANCON requirements, instantly seized upon any halfway-decent Canadian artist and flogged them to death, often resulting in a cynical fatigue on the part of the populace.

But the Canadian music scene was one of boundless talent and innovation, and sometimes it takes a backward glance to recognize this. Now that Jane Siberry's songs have been relegated to occasional "classic" playlists and retro video shows, I can look back and say: wow, she was brilliant. And it's doubly shocking that she went to University in Guelph, only twenty minutes from here.

Some of her precious avant-gardism was typical of mid-80s semi-independent music -- those hats, that makeup, those tights! -- but there's just no denying that Siberry was a tad flaky. Neither she nor her promoters could decide if she was a folkie, a new wave goddess, or a genre-transcendent artiste. One minute she was a northern Laurie Anderson and the next she was quietly strumming an acoustic guitar.

Then, suddenly, she released "One More Colour," and we realized that Jane Siberry had a special knack of poetry, voice, and instrumentation, as well as a close-knit group of brilliant musicians behind her. Remove some of the twee '80s production and you have a joyous, expressive, TIMELESS song. It makes me cry, it's so good.

Speak a little softer,
work a little louder,
shoot less with more care.
Sing a little sweeter,
and love a little longer,
and soon you will be there.
It was her big hit, and she retreated to the recording studio and spent two years on "The Walking," an epic album that could only have been realized with (as then) cutting-edge digital editing techniques. It's one of my favourite albums ever: perfect, bizarre, beautiful. It is similar in many ways to Kate Bush's "The Dreaming," including the way that critics praised it...but audiences HATED it.

The only single they could wrench out of it was a dramatically edited "Ingrid and the Footman." It came out when I was fifteen and I simply could NOT understand it. I remember my father becoming visibly angry whenever it was played, he so disdained its goofiness. Now I hear it and I simply melt. It's also a perfect distillation of the album's complex vocals, meticulously-tweaked instruments, and constantly-shifting structures.

The commercial failure of "The Walking" seemed to send Siberry into a tailspin. She began stripping down her music. It was like she was running away from the excesses of that one, amazing, inscrutable album.

Like I said, I didn't like Jane Siberry at the time, and it wasn't until ten years ago that I rediscovered her. I started "buying everything," but I was forced to admit that after "The Walking" I enjoyed her albums less and less. By the time she'd changed her name to "Issa" I'd stopped listening, and I haven't listened since. Maybe someday I'll check her new albums out.

I leave you with the most beautiful Siberry song of all time: "The Walking (and Constantly)." To prove how wonderful it is, here's fan Michael Thorner singing it solo in his living room. When Jane Siberry had an emotional connection to her subject matter she could write exquisite poetry, and this is the perfect example.

Albums to buy: "The Speckless Sky" is possibly her most accessible, as is "Bound by the Beauty" with its country-tinged sounds, but "The Walking" is the best if you like a challenge, and her self-titled debut is wonderful folk. Albums to avoid: "When I Was a Boy" and "Maria" are just dull nothingness. For fans only: "Teenager," a collection of songs she wrote as a teenager, proving once and for all that most precocious teens need a few more years to hone their songwriting skills.

1 comment:

Anna said...

"Hey, Jesus! Let's rock and roll kiddo!"