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Still Life with Beanie Babies: Mary Ann Farley and Juliana Nash, and the Persistence of Memory
By Linus Gelber, Home Office Records
(more articles from this author)
2000-12-12
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Home Office Records, home of Mr. Cyrano. Dateline: The East Village, New York. Once upon a time there were three bears, named Nina, Pinto, and Ave Maria. Their heads were green and their hands were blue, and they set off to market on a whistlestop tour far over the Misty Mountains cold.

The three bears bought cookies at Niemann-Marcus, went on a magical mystery tour, opened emails called GOOD TIMES, lost their kidneys in bathtubs full of ice, and sent business cards to Craig Shergold. They followed the Yellow Brick Road and downloaded Metallica songs from Napster. One voted for Gore, one voted for Bush, and one isn't sure whom she voted for any more, but the ballot didn't count anyway because Chad was trying to get poor Charlie off the MTA, and her citizenship was a dimple rather than a hole. They were interviewed on NPR, lived happily ever after riding through the streets of Boca Raton, and were never heard from again.

Hello. My name is Mr. Cyrano, and I am an electoholic. It has been 35 days since my last election. That's what my past few weeks have been like here in Happyville, USA: fluff and fevered nonsense. But with less porridge. I can't make head or fuzzy tail of it.

It's been unreal, or surreal, or hyperreal. Take your pick. I was out on Wahlnacht until the bears came home, watching Florida dither from blue to yellow to red and back to yellow again, wagging my head as the Democrats danced, and then the Republicans danced, and then nobody danced at all and everyone stood around waiting for something to happen. I'm still standing, as the sage says. And when someone someday counts those bloody ballots, President Bush will surely turn out to be The Wrong Guy. How embarrassing! Like playing Mystery Date and opening the door on the pimply nerd instead of the dreamboat.

She, She is so Sweet: Mary Ann Farley (avec New Haircut) and Bassist Dennis Ambrose
You can't see the dancing Beanie Babies from here, but they're cracking everybody up.

Red October, Blue November: But life is full of Wrong Guys. These things happen. There's been a steamy elusive weirdness in the air this past month, as if all the gritty hollering stuff we keep battened down day to day is extruding around the edges, trying to make its way out. Night in point: here we are of a Saturday at the Living Room for Mary Ann Farley's show, one of far too few in far too long, and at the front tables we've got dancing Beanie Babies. Now, there are a few things that we as a society hold sacrosanct. One of them, I think, is a tacit common-weal agreement that Beanie Babies may be fine in your house or draped over your computer monitor at the office; they simply don't belong dandling around at the Living Room. ("Hi. These are my Beanie Babies. Do you come here often?") But here they are, swooping and mooshing up together in the pale hands of their very-adult owner. Looks like we've got a hedgehog and some sort of cockatiel-type fringed bird. It's distracting.

There's a certain kind of movie -- you know the one -- in which someday (maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of your life) the story will sway terribly wistful, a noble choice will have to be made, and a precious treasure will be lost, crushed, bent out of recognition. Music will swell, there will be bitterness, and the world will be poorer for the loss. They'll always have Paris, and someone will end up wearing a sad hat in a rainy terminal, wreathed in romantic mist. This will be much more interesting than the last time you were in a rainy terminal, and much prettier than the last time you got dumped. Nature of the beast.

It's in such a setting -- dark, indistinct, dredged -- that Mary Ann Farley animates her exquisitely pained work. Fiercely independent and a perfectionist to her hard coiled core, Mary Ann is uncompromising in a life of compromises; her songs give no ground in their gravely-precise explorations of mood and mind. Her writing is spare and hard to spot, as if carved from air. If she were a playwright she'd be a Beckett or a Pinter, illuminating grand moments with small gestures and leaving the audience to divine the details. There are stories in her music, but they are private ones; her characters show but don't tell. We meet them instead in their pondering aftermaths, musing brokenly about what has gone before and how it got them here.

The Beanie Babies are pogoing wildly in the friendly welter after Eddie Skuller's crowded CD-release set; they seem to be enjoying the show. Your Mr. Cyrano certainly is. Mary Ann is a jointed presence, at times all knees and elbows and at times a quick stitch of keen eyes over a ready smile, a slightly-dotty cousin who knows where the best candy is hiding and won't tell you until it's just time to sit down for dinner. Sly, quick, appealing, and just a bit wicked, tonight she's backed by long-time collaborators Steve Wickins on drums and Dennis Ambrose on bass; she plays acoustic guitar in easy, sedate strums, favoring odd and almost dissonant open chords shaped by one-fingered roamings among the frets. Knowing her long history with keyboards, it's hard not to think of her guitar style as analogous to left-hand strutting on the piano. Which it might well be. It's unusual, unexpected; one might say strange and wonderful.

Taught by Sorrow: Mary Ann in Song (La La)
The former Queen of AntiFolk revisits her roots at the Sidewalk Cafe.

So Let's Say It: "Strange and Wonderful" is one of Mary Ann's most instantly-appealing new pieces, and it comes early in the set. Only one song tonight is from her showstopper first record, "Daddy's Little Girl"; the rest are from the upcoming independent "My Life of Crime," expected out in late winter ("and it's really and truly almost done," Mary Ann affirms). It's a love song of mismatched textures, wistful and intractable, about falling in love outside the lines. Her obscured object of desire is not the sort of man she thought she'd fall for, no match for the well-formed male picture "I've had inside my head since I was ten." She longs, in cautious pushme-pullyou lilts, for someone gloriously unsuitable: "You don't look right / You don't act right / You don't talk right / You don't move right / You're bothering me / So perfectly." And then breaks into a matter-of-fact set of la-la's that peel back her overanalysis just enough to give a glimpse at the skittish heart beneath. This is what Mary Ann does best: she mines a lode of insecurity or social maladdress from the placid surface right down to the hot longing bones, striking true in 50 words or less.

This may read funny, but it's not easy to write a good la-la. Mary Ann never gets one wrong. She uses a fair number of them, twining them carefully among the words so they act as a mental breather, a pause that lets you reflect on what she's said -- and what she hasn't -- in the verses. And they sound great. For the casual listener a bit of catchy nonsense may be little more than an excuse to tap the toes, but once you've surrendered to the tug of a song the la-la can entrap, enfold, illumine. It can be a melodic excursus, as in the stunning "Blindsided" (technically that's an "oo-oo" with a "la-la" dubbed along, but let's not be Supreme Court Justices here), or a mood-altering moment, a hiatus that lasts just long enough to let irony pad into the room and curl up, purring, at your feet.

A Better Blowdry: Tonight Mary Ann is wry, cracking wise, comfortable among the converted. She tells us a bit more about her new haircut than we probably need to know -- but then that's to be expected from the author of "A Better Haircut," a cautionary tale (as, say, "Valley Girl" might be construed as a cautionary tale) about the Secret of Successful Dating: "No, I'm not shallow / I'm just a special kind of girl / One who likes expensive dinners / One who likes Italian suits / A girl who likes ... credit." She's got a perky freshness on stage, a bobby-soxer's insolent bounce bent askew with an artist's sensibilities, and the effect is scampy and wanton (scampi and wonton? yum) under glass: considered, meticulous, spicy, unpredictable and fun. Mary Ann's voice is dry and distinctive with a fluted, fluttery vibrato and a startling dramatic range. In this bland world, rubbed arid by mainstream radio's adolescent squeaks and coo-bear tittles, it's a real joy to hear her plunge in and work the possibilities. From moment to moment she'll be boastful, broken, shy, tender, distant, bitter, artful and needy. It's a welcome reminder of the forest of tone and timbre that lurks in the throat.

Painted from Memory: "Those Three," by MAF
Pretty as a picture.  Photographed at the Liquid Lounge in Hoboken, NJ. You know all's not chipper in Mary Annland from a single gander at the aggressive aloof gaping nude on the back cover of "Daddy's Little Girl" -- if a picture is worth a thousand words, this one says it's going to be a bumpy ride, in several volumes. Songs like "My Bare Hands" and the delightful new "Crush" ("Velvet is sweet / Velvet is velvety / You're looking lean and mean / You're coming with me") are clever, winking uptempo gambols, but Farley's surest ground is scorched earth. Her title track, sung over unadorned strummed guitar, is a harrowing sketch of a dysfunctional family ("Daddy came home, put his foot through the door / 'Cause she didn't do what she was told / Daddy's little girl doesn't talk anymore / And she's treating all the boys so cold / And mother's in the kitchen cooking up a life / She had had once in a dream"); the pick-hit, "Blindsided," is a morning-after dry-throated sob of a song, stretched to transparency over a frame of icy keyboards and insistent rumbling drums, telling of misgivings, mistakes and misplaced trust ("I'm blindsided by a double cross / And double dealings / If I walked a finer line / My feet would be bleeding").

Like her songs, Mary Ann's paintings are narrative nuggets pared down for maximum impact but never pinned down for close scrutiny. Her curvy forms, nearly all women, face forward with mute simplicity. Some meet your gaze and some don't, but all are close-mouthed, bearing secrets, gravid with back-pocket stories and hidden histories. Memory may be baggage or may be birthright; in this film it's a weight and a balance, as inseparable from the plot as the stars are.

Mary Ann Farley is out and about now on a new round of gigs, after a long silence spent collecting, recollecting, painting, writing, and grooming the minutiae on her new record. "A bad mix can blow the whole thing," she notes in a recent email, "so the attention to detail is so crucial." Early word on the early mixes is that this album is a worthy successor to "Daddy's Little Girl," which Billboard chose as a Critic's Pick for 1997 -- the sort of honor that basically never goes to independent artists, and is well-deserved here. "DLG" is simply a fantastic record, and you should own it. You should. Would I kid you about something like that? No I wouldn't.

Juliana Nash in Motion: Inseparable as the Stars
Juliana, in a gig with Talking to Animals.

I Want Candy: Speaking of far too few in far too long, it's a chilly Monday night in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and Mr. Cyrano has trundled out to Pete's Candy Store to see Juliana Nash in her first musical appearance since last spring or so (new daughter, bliss). Playing solo with her acoustic guitar, Juliana is charming and easy with the crowd in the back boxcar room. This is an among-friends reacquaintance gig, and it's a gem. And there's not a Beanie Baby in sight, which is how it should be.

Juliana is one of New York's finest songwriters (Mary Ann's from Hoboken, and no, we're not comparing), and her voice should be declared a national resource. As the singer and songwriter fronting the band Talking to Animals, which more or less broke up last year after a decade of playing hard and getting stomped in a sour major-label experience, she was a roaring hellion rocker-poet. In her chamber-pop mode, Juliana turns the volume down a few notches but stints not a tick in power or presence. She has a rare gift for instantly-memorable hooks, and for marrying perfect words to perfect licks. If you're watching at home, this means that not only do you hum the damn stuff for weeks after you first hear it, but also that when you see her again the songs are even better than you remembered. Repeat as necessary; it's been a couple of years for your correspondent and this is still going on.

Where Mary Ann Farley is master with the aftereffects of sorrow, Juliana's strength is in poignancy and heartbreak. Her songs are portraits, colored in broad strokes of sympathy, disappointment, desire. There's a wounded wisdom at work in her writing, a quiet certainty that all the good intentions in the world aren't going to fix this place up, but that we might as well do our best anyhow. At this show, Storytellers-style, she footnotes some of her work, matching songs with their origins. Juliana seems nonplussed at being in such a talky mood, but we're eating it up. So we learn that "Indiana Angel," which begins with the startling line "Please don't promise me Christmas / And then take it away," came about when a friend decided not to bring her home to meet the family in Indiana one holiday season ("Oh I've seen where / Where promises go / I've seen where they go").

Some of the favorites aren't in this set; it's been a while since Juliana played guitar. Those that are here are delicious, swaddled in her gorgeous plumsweet voice, rendered in a pageant of just-so melancholy. "Don't ask how long / We're built for longing," she sings in a song to local talent and friend Jenifer Jackson. It's the kind of canny and instant wordplay that defines her writing and makes return visits constantly rewarding. The first and only Talking to Animals record, "Manhole" (Velvel, 1998), can be found here and there in the odd record store; it is no longer in print, which is a rotten state of affairs, and contains older work (including, notably, "Turning into Beautiful," which is 3:23 of pure thumpy joy). Juliana's recent songs are not yet recorded, so you'll have to come out and hear her live. A little bird tells us that there will be a reunion performance by Talking to Animals here in New York early in the New Year, and I cannot recommend this show more highly without embarrassing myself. Keep an eye out.

This column goes in scant hours before the Big Court is expected to rule on the latest round of electoral lawsuits. It's driving me crazy. "Moose," I will say in my dotage to my unconceived grandson (he's a strapping lad), "Moose, I was snowlocked in a Boston guest room with nowt but a feather quilt and my first girlfriend during the blizzard of '78. We could still burn wood back then, and we did. I remember the Napster lawsuits; I remember when we thought MP3.com might not make it through the year. Pass me that thermojelly warmer for my widdershin shanks, boy, and spunt close, I'm tired of yelling. I voted in Noughty-O, the year the President sat but wasn't elected. So when I say we're watching Star Trek, that's what we're watching. Ha. Now where's my remote?"

See you in two.

Percentage of flight delays nationwide caused by La Guardia airport: 23
Number of flight delays nationwide caused by Mr. Cyrano showing up 10 minutes before his last flight: 1
Number of weeks this column is late because Mr. Cyrano has been obsessing over the NPR election coverage: 1
Percentage of things Mr. Cyrano is late for these days: Most.

Linkography

Mary Ann Farley: www.maryannfarley.com
Jenifer Jackson: www.jeniferjackson.com
Juliana Nash does not currently have a Web site. She says she will soon. The old Talking to Animals site at www.talkingtoanimals.com is down, but the domain is reserved at this writing.
Check for Juliana Nash/Talking to Animals NYC performance dates on The Gigometer™: www.web-ho.com/gigs.html
Eddie Skuller: www.skuller.com

"There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest." - Elie Wiesel, writer and Nobel laureate (thanks, Anu)

All photos this week by Pierre Jelenc.


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