[22 May 2006]
I have a pet theory that when The Bends and Pinkerton were commercially underperforming in 1996, people of discerning taste were offered a Faustian bargain. Those two albums would be regarded as classics a decade later, but the price was that the lead singers from Matchbox 20 and 4 Non Blondes would become the gold standard for hired-gun songwriting. We bit.
Even though Rob Thomas has managed to shake our faith in cosmic justice by working with just about every living legend in music, the worst you could ever say about Matchbox 20 was that they were boring. 4 Non Blondes were actively offensive, but as punishment, Linda Perry has been given a far less desirable role than smoking joints with Willie Nelson, and that’s encouraging female songwriters to relive the times they rid themselves of the world’s weight by unashamedly belting “What’s Up?” at their top of their lungs.
It’s quite easy to hear that bellowing room-clearer’s influence on Linda Perry’s latest protégé, as Sierra Swan yowls through “Ladyland” unashamed or possibly unaware of how inane its eleven songs are. It’s risky and probably unfair to judge a female artist by her look, but from the album cover, it couldn’t be clearer what we’re getting into: notice the nose ring, the severe red dye job, the suggestively drooping dress straps, the cleverly exposed Chinese character tattoo, the graffiti and broken glass in the background. Would it surprise you that the press material describes Ladyland as “a lyrically charged and cinematic testament to both feminine strength and tender vulnerability”? So there you are: Bed, Bath and Beyond sentiment with a Hot Topic aesthetic sensibility. Which I guess positions Sierra Swan as the answer for people who’ve been waiting four years for piano ballads a little more peppery than Christina Aguilera’s “Beautiful”.
The agreeable arrangements, though occasionally spiked with gothic textures and “Top Gun” guitar tones, provide unobtrusive backing for Swan’s voice, which wields its force as judiciously as an Olympic powerlifter: this is how “window” can be overenunciated to the point where it rhymes with “milk cow”. Hooks are dutifully included, but fail to make any sort of lasting impression. The lone exception is “Down To It,” in which guest vocalist Aimee Mann manages to bring a little credibility to the project, but can’t make up for the fact that like every melody she’s concocted post-“Bachelor No. 2”, it’s the musical equivalent of a ship in a bottle: while it’s easy to admire the meticulous craftsmanship, it’s just as easy to ignore and ultimately boring.
Swan’s lyrics are front and center throughout and, at best, this is a necessary evil that makes Ladyland at the very least memorable:
“Sitting on broken glass that I threw myself, /
Tangled in securities where I like to dwell, /
Ignoring my impurities with one more glass of wine, /
Seeping through this melody deep within my vines.”
That’s the chorus of the first track on Ladyland. Still ready to go through with this?
While the subject matter of Ladyland is as old as the hills (song titles include “Mother” and “Dr. Love Boy”), one would be hard-pressed to call the lyrics clichéd; sure, they’re uniformly awful, but awful in ways that I’ve never heard before. Remember all the times a friend gave you a tape of songs they made themselves? Well, it probably took you a week to even give them a shot, because you feared it would turn out like the cringe inducing verbiage of Ladyland. I could probably write a better review just by rattling off choice cuts from the lyric sheet:
“I was walking in the hills of my mind to see what’s inside . . . My crops were ruined, there was a drought.”
“I’m done with this crazy lady fever . . . On my knees, /
Begging for a new disease”
“Remember when you were young,/
Remember how much fun? /
I’ve been getting sadder with each step of the ladder.”
You get the idea. Like the Cinemax movie that Sierra Swan’s Ladyland sounds like it might have been named after, it makes the listener wonder throughout whether its maker was in on the joke the whole time or just embarrassingly earnest. “Don’t Say” makes a good case for the latter. Like many songs on Ladyland, “Don’t Say” sounds like a sped-up, pesudo-parody take on the seafaring numbers from Fiona Apple’s When The Pawn . . . And then she pulls this corker right before the groundbreaking couplet of “scared straight” and “can’t procreate”: “I’ve never tried heroin, / I’ve never done time, / So why do I feel like I’ve committed the crimes?” It’s a shame that on an album that strives to be about “self-realization” and “ownership of her faults and flaws”, Swan stops short of the obvious follow-up to that lyric, and the best reaction to Ladyland: “what I need is a good defense.”