[7 July 2005]
Yeah, yeah, I know: singer/songwriter snobbery is no better than any other kind of elitism. But it’s written on my palms; I can’t leave without it. Yes, I do tend to sneer at vocalists who get help with their material. Come on, you do it too. In the arena of break-up/been-done-wrong songs: Elliott Smith or Kelly Clarkson? In the arena of hip-pop girl struts: Missy Elliott or Ciara? But, then, those are easy. What about Billie Holiday, who only wrote two songs in her extensive catalog? Should she be considered less of a musician than, say, Joni Mitchell?
Of course not. And yet, it’s the age of over-achievement and I’m rarely impressed unless a solo artist is singing, playing, and writing every part of every song on every record. This is why I have a hard time fully embracing artists like Emiliana Torrini, who do a lot of co-writing and covering, and who record songs written, or given, to them by others. In this respect, Torrini, most known for her haunting contribution to the Lord of the Rings soundtrack, is something of a Norah Jones to me: Both are captivating vocalists who own their performances if not, necessarily, their songs.
So when Torrini took the stage with empty hands, backed by three fairly busy musician-dudes, my brain rolled its eyes even as my hands clapped politely. Unfortunately, Torrini is terribly gorgeous, and, as fem-educated as I am, my unwarranted pre-judgment was that she’s been getting by more on looks than talent. It didn’t help that the intoxicated middle-aged men behind me wouldn’t shut up about how hot she was. (Later, one of them actually shouted it out, met with another audience member’s corrective response—“Because you’re talented!” Amen.) In short, I was made to feel foolish as soon as Torrini started in on “Today Has Been Okay” lulling me into a hypnotic dream-state that stayed with me for some 70 minutes.
With friendly chatter and fluttery, nervous laughter, Torrini romanced the audience all evening. In song, she serenaded with her eyes closed, lost in blissful reverie. In speech, she chirped in fast, accented English (she’s Icelandic) that was always charming, if sometimes hard to follow. She told the story, for instance, of going “camel-toe spotting” in Austin, Texas, during her stay with Bill Callahan of Smog. Like I said it was, ummm, charming
That was her attention-getting intro for Callahan’s “Honeymoon Child”, which glowed with the warmth of her near-whisper. With a sensibility like Amelie, whimsical and romantic, Torrini was every bit as sweet in person as she seems on record. And if it sounds like there’s a smile in her voice, it’s because there’s one on her face—looks to be chronic, as I don’t think I saw her even once without one.
The set pulled hard from Torrini’s second album, Fisherman’s Woman, which favors acoustic folk-pop over the trip-hop leanings of her debut. And maybe it’s her new place in that genre that makes her dependence on collaboration a bit off to me—the smoky chanteuse is par for the course in a lot of blues, jazz, trip-hop, and pop, but not folk. It’s unusual to see confessional acoustic songs performed by a singer who’s not also playing and writing all of her material, and because of this fact Torrini does lose some authenticity.
Her standalone vocals benefit from this less saturated sound, brought to life by the three musicians on tour with her—an acoustic guitarist, another string player, and a drummer/percussionist/multi-instrumentalist. Slide guitar, mandolin, and what may or may not have been a toy guitar were all employed to provide a lushness that lifted Torrini’s quiet voice. For its quietness, that voice is strong, and it’s a shame she doesn’t do more exploring with it. Only on the set’s penultimate song did she venture out of her favored octave to produce some lower notes, and it was about time, for the sweetness had begun to suffocate.
Though most of Torrini’s songs are slow-to-midtempo affairs, the set’s middle third jacked up the mood with the healthy rolling beat of “Sunny Road” and the cheeriness of “Heartstopper”, both of which got big responses. Throughout, Torrini introduced cover songs by describing the moments she fell in love with the originals. So obviously does she love the songs she wears that it’s easy to forgive the songwriting help—if there’s anything to forgive. She writes some, she borrows some; you take some, you leave some. At the end of the show, I would’ve gladly spent another two hours at Torrini’s magical helm, especially after hearing the final tune, “Unemployed in Summertime”, get everything right. A fun, carefree pop song about being young and penniless in a new country, it was Torrini at her best—sunny, bemused, and breathing life in deep.