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Karen Ires
Pets Allowed Music
By Mark Kirby
(more articles from this author)
2001-04-30
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Artist: Karen Ires (www.karenires.com)
Title: Karen Ires
Label: Pets Allowed Music

Acting class teaches the creation of character through imagination. You ask questions like, "What if?" and "Then what?" Use of the imagination, informed with lived experience, both in the first person and in listening to others (including unsolicited eavesdropping), helps to flesh out answers that you recreate live, i.e., act out. The same thing happens elsewhere in life. I use this imagination game myself when I'm stuck with the boring and the mundane. Shopping in a grocery store, waiting for food in a rest stop, riding the subway. It's fun and a good way to pass the time. Singer/songwriter Karen Ires performs a musical variation of this mind game on her new, self titled record.

Her sense of character and bizarre narrative could make her a great short story writer. She takes you to worlds not your own, worlds barely dreamed of. Strange characters. Adventure. Intersecting the lives of the weird, getting caught up in them, and at the same time, hovering overhead and chronicling the whole thing, witnessing, as in a dream, where you are both the I and the not-I, the eye and the other. One has to envision her sitting around sizing people up as they walk by, and creating a whole story based on their look, their expression, they way they walk. Or she takes a half-heard scrap of conversation and fills in all the blanks, thus, creating these intimate, arresting songs. No doubt much of her material has its genesis in personal experience. Where her life story ends and fiction begins is blurred because of the way her songs are written and come off. This is especially true of the song "EvryLstHwy." Another obsessive song of the modern day preoccupation of the "other," and what they have, as you intersect, dropped in the middle of their play; the protagonist sees her and wants what she seems to have, and then we, the listeners, are swept forward to see a future of her sad end, an inevitable end.

The album's opener, "One Closed Eye," is more indicative of the murkiness of Karen Ires's musical world. It's beautiful song, with simple strummed chords supporting and augmenting her voice. What's it about? A lack of awareness on the part of someone? "Out of all the pretty suns in the sky, How many lights can you see with one closed eye?"And how this lack has a smothering effect - "I can't sleep, I can't smoke, 'cause I can't breathe . . . "I'm walking to the back of your regard."And definitely denial. "I really don't mind if you fake it." Maybe I'm dense, but I find the narrative oblique, impenetrable. Like poetry. This is part of what makes her so good. With other singer/writers I've listened to recently - Gabriel Gordon, Jennifer Marks, Clyde Wrenn - I've been able to make a good deal of sense of what they were saying (though they are no less poetic than Karen). But with her songs it's different. Most of them give me the same feelings of vague awareness that certain rock and soul songs used to give me when I was a kid: you knew something intense was going on, even if you couldn't put your finger on it, because you were too young to know. Not unlike reading Jack Kerouac or William Burroughs.

Take the song "Star." At first I thought it was a song about the arc of a relationship with a person of charismatic starlike qualities, at least in the singer's eyes. The star is possibly a real movie or rock star: "I could tell you were a star before I saw you in the dark." This implies that it could be some sort of obsession involving projected fantasies. But then the line "I can be in two places at once, isn't that why you chose me?" made the singer and the star's relationship more intimate, so I decided it's not a dark tale of obsession (maybe I watch too much T.V.). Just an ordinary relationship that ain't working out. "Don't you want this anymore, don't you want this baby?" This is backed up the line "He's just some boy I used to know, just some girl who had a brother's friend and I just happened to be there. I didn't know to hesitate . . ." Yep, I got it, the song is about some local bad boy that the singer loves. "You drink you smoke you lush cause you have nothing left to prove." You see? There are a lot of potential conniptions to go through. That's what makes her songs cool. Of course, the songs sound so good and the emotions come through so clearly, that you can just hum along while you sort your laundry, lie in bed with the sheet pulled up to your neck, as you gaze out your bedroom window at the sunny day, while having idle sex fantasies . . . but enough about me.

Yes, one could enjoy the songs on the light listening level, but where's the fun in that? You miss so much. For instance, "Nadine" is a road movie. A lover's obsession becoming total as Nadine runs off with a boy and takes everything that belongs to the soon-to-be-ex-boyfriend. Memory is evoked by Elvis on the radio, and a sense of doom, but the runaway characters just keep cruising. "Say goodbye to my lover and me." They appear to be headed for a bad end, but, for now, they're only driving. This is not, no matter how it sounds, about my next to last girl friend and our road trip. Sweet, naive youth. But anyway . . .

"Hotel Room" is a new version of the classic film "An Unmarried Woman," about a person whose life has been pulled out from under her like a rug. "I want a divorce." Or something like that. All the vulnerability comes up and pushes you out the door, your skids greased via your being abused by someone close. Someone who knows you all too well, knows the chinks in your armor that can only be found by stroking your naked body in the middle of countless nights. Someone saving it all up for the time when they cut you to a fare thee well. How could Karen Ires possibly know about me and my other last girlfriend? The rustle at the door, the clicking noises on the phone. It was her, doing research, no doubt. Yes, I was the unmarried woman.

The songs go on like this for the rest of the album. "Faithless" is the moment a couple realizes they lost something. "Crush" is like "I'll Never Fall in Love Again," by Burt Bacharach, but cooler, more intimate. You can hang out with Karen's voice, with the pretty melodies, and talk while eating a caesar salad, like the table next to me when I saw her perform at the Sidewalk Cafť in March. But if you sit with these songs, they grow close to you. A little too close. Maybe I'm wrong about these songs and what they mean. I meant to ask Karen myself, but why spoil the fun? She probably wouldn't answer anyway. That's half the fun of music, or any art form, for that matter: you create your own meaning. Just like that dude who thought Jimi Hendrix was saying "Excuse me, while I kiss this guy," in "Purple Haze."

Watching the movie "American Beauty" for the third time, I found myself humming one of her tunes during the closing credits, right after Kevin Spacey's disembodied, voice-from-beyond says, "I should be pissed off about what happened to me (being murdered), but there's just so much beauty in the world . . . I relax and let it flow through me." I think the song was "One Closed Eye." Or maybe it was "Note." Get the album for yourself and see. Go to www.karenires.com and go for it. It's money well spent. Your friends will think you're cool, your girlfriend will know you're deep and sensitive behind that steely exterior, and - the horror, the horror - you'll see and learn something of yourself. And if you're really young and inexperienced reading this - don't worry, you'll get there soon enough.


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