The Finishing School: Destination Girl

[25 September 2003]

By Matt Cibula

Questions and Answers and Questions

Her name is Sasha Bell, she plays keyboards and sings in the E6-affiliated Essex Green and the Ladybug Transistor, and the Finishing School is her band. It’s so her band, actually, that I can’t find any information on who else, if anyone else, plays in her band. That’s just the first mystery about Destination Girl, the first record by the Finishing School, in a long line of mysteries. Here, we solve some more like Nancy frickin’ Drew.

In the CD era, can a 31-minute release really be considered an album

In general, I would vote no; I’ve heard dance remixes that last longer than 31 minutes, and that is kind of a scanty number even for a Willie Nelson record in the 1970s. But here on Destination Girl the answer has to be yes. These nine songs certainly share a similar sound and feel, but that’s not what makes an album. What makes an album is the creation of a mood, and Bell has created a mood here that few other records this year even attempt: enigmatic, lovely, tough-minded. When it ends, with the final strains of the cow-pokey “Page 16”, I’m not mad and don’t feel cheated—I just push play again. (Plus, I just found out this morning that there is a bonus DVD included with the record, so it’s a good investment.)

Is it okay, in the year 2003, to slavishly rip off 1960s arrangements?

Well, of course—what a ridiculous question. The only real issue here is “Is it done well?” And the answer is “Oh yeah.” An organ sound is always cool, so Bell uses it a lot, and makes it sound different on every song, from the Farfisa on the precious country opener “Reno” to the churchy drone of “New Sensation” to the Breakfast in America throb on “Silent Space.” Burt Bacharach pop pops up on “Morning Light”, which is so crystalline and easygoing that you’d swear Dionne Warwick was going to start singing. “Hair” has the same kind of vibe as those Simon and Garfunkel songs that started as folky strumfests and had artificial “rock” arrangements slapped on top to make them palatable to hippies. The title track is straight Tom Wilson production on Dylan records with Phil Spector strings floating above it all. And these are all good things.

Is this some kind of concept album?

No, although rumors are that it started out that way. Or maybe it is and it’s just too subtle for me to tell, in which case it’s not. The songs have different focal points. Sometimes, Bell is playing the retro angle for all it’s worth: “Destination Girl” seems to be some kind of modern self-deprecating indie-pop anthem at first: “Hypothetically / Could you see some good in me / I feel like somebody / You wouldn’t even look at twice”. But then it shifts subtly, imperceptibly, to become a kind of mission statement for the jet-setting young female professional of 37 years ago, discovering her new independence: “All this walking, driving, flying / My flag unfurled / My future’s here, and I’m arriving / Destination girl”. It’s sublime beyond all specter of a doubt, especially when Bell links up the two strains of the song with the end refrain: “Nothing ever changes, nothing ever changes”. Is the modern woman really no better off than she was before?

This sounds kind of all over the place. Is it?

Yes and no—I told you, it’s an enigma. Sasha Bell is a canny songwriter who knows what will sound good with her fragile wistful voice: songs of innocence and experience, songs that exist as enigmae. The outlaw I’ll-walk-alone toughness of “Reno” (“I’m going out where my body can roam / I got my name, my pride, and that’s all”) is balanced internally by the chiming of the track, which softens us up to hear that message; and when the Morricone guitar takes a two-bar solo, it whips our head around again. To shift from this to the barrelhouse bubblegum orchestral-pop “Rowan’s Theme” or the folky waltzy “Day Is Over” just seems wrong on paper, but Bell’s pretty voice and fresh lyrical slant and shifty crafty song structures tie it all together in a weird and sweet way.

Tell us more, briefly, about the lyrics.

I think these are probably the best lyrics I’ve heard this year, maybe only touched by Over the Rhine’s record. Example 1: “I can be the secret that you don’t wanna keep / Let me out the door, and I will cling to the seat / Have we not learned a thing / From the silent space in between?” (“Silent Space”). Example 2: “And if I appear to look right through you / Don’t be alarmed / I’m just blinded by the morning light on you” (“Morning Light”). Example 3: “From the year that you describe / I never know which way I’m looking / The sad café still has room / For wanderers like you” (“New Sensation”). If these don’t seem like poetry to you, well, you’re probably right—Sasha Bell is not a poet. She’s a songwriter. And with the kind of lovely music that backs these tracks, that makes it all okay.

Do you think you did justice to this record?

Uh, no.

Did you just put this on your Top 10 list for the year?

Uh, yes. Yes I did. And it might just stay there.

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