Sinead O'Connor - She Who Dwells in the Secret Place of the Most High Shall Abide Under the Shadow of the Almighty
Sarah McLachlan - Afterglow
Dido - Life for Rent
Far from the furtive grindings of teenybop, past the land of the goth children, and just this side of the City of Techno, there exists a rather curious genre. It consists of women. They're singer/songwriters, but this is not the realm of the Lucinda Williamses or the Indigo Girls. Nor is it the Beatlesque borough of Aimee Mann or Chrissie Hynde. It is definitely its own distinct universe.
Though not exclusionary, fans of this genre tend to be both men & women of a certain age--my age, to be precise--people who are also fans of the spookier end of 80s pop (i.e. Peter Gabriel, Kate Bush, anything with Brian Eno on it).
In the absence of an official title, let's call this genre Fempop.
Fempop was fairly well-populated through the 1990s, and sprouted interesting offshoots such as Loreena McKennit and Enya. But for a good while, there were really only two real standouts in Fempop, at least commercially: Sinead O'Connor and Sarah McLachlan.
One might blanch initially at this pairing, but a closer listen will reveal that these two artists' approach to arranging and melody are more similar than different. The real difference is one of attitude.
O'Connor's feisty, fight-provoking manner is well-documented, while McLachlan is the girl you couldn't possibly hate, all sweet and angelic, but a bit risque all the same.
But in 1999, an interesting challenger to both entered the field. And many would say and have said that she embodied the bridge between these disparate artists; the Unified Theory of Fempop, so to speak. This new arrival was known as Dido.
On her bedazzling debut, No Angel, one is treated to injured rage reminiscent of O'Connor (Don't Think of Me, All You Want), but also the pop friendliness of McLachlan (Thank You, Here With Me), and even offered the familiar falsetto jumps favored by both reigning Fempoppers.
One might think this apparent musical fruit smoothie might go down a little sour, a product of some record label thinktank trying to keep GenX'ers buying now that they've got real jobs. But the record was just too damned good not to listen to, for Fempop fans and proles alike (hell, even Eminem liked it), and Dido has since eclipsed both on the charts (not that it's that hard to out-sell O'Connor in the States lately, more's the pity).
But is this the real story? Not sales-wise, but from a chicken-and-egg standpoint. Is Dido in fact the bastard stepdaughter of Fempop?
Fortunately, in the Autumn of 2003, we have been presented with a unique opportunity for analyzing this question: A new album from each of these women.
In the interest of full disclosure, I hereby announce myself as a staunch fan of all three, and therefore interested in the even-handed resolution of such a quandary. I am probably, in fact, the only one who gives a shit.
But here we go anyway.
Of these three albums, the most earth-shaking release, and the furthest under the radar, is the purported last album ever by Ms. O'Connor, the massively-titled She Who Dwells in the Secret Place of the Most High Shall Abide Under the Shadow of the Almighty.
Skeptics may dismiss this retirement business as a publicity stunt to boost flagging sales, but stunt or not, this collection of previously unreleased material provides a fascinating look into a career of risk-taking. A good deal of O'Connor's jumpy position on the fame-meter (apart from pissing off Americans) has been due to her refusal to repeat herself. And that's a bit of an understatement.
The woman who followed up her Prince-penned hit Nothing Compares 2 U with an album of brassy standards has been paying the commercial price ever since. Nonetheless, she has continued to release compelling albums to a slightly smaller but intense fan base.
The tracks on She Who Dwells show the merest hint of the broad range of styles from which she has drawn over time. This range is highlighted most in her choice of covers. Here we find a jangly Love Hurts, of all things, next to a slightly dissonant version of Dan Penn's countryfied Do Right Woman. These are alongside a groovy reworking of Abba's Chiquitita and a darkly rocking cover of the B-52's Ain't It A Shame.
O'Connor treads more familiar ground in collaborations with Massive Attack (It's All Good), Roger Eno (No Matter How Hard I Try), and Asian Dub Foundation (1,000 Mirrors). This is not to say she's asleep at the wheel. The swirling electronics wrap her voice perfectly, but it is that voice, as always, that drives the bus.
On bare-bones tracks such as the Latin chant O Filii Et Filiae and her own Brigidine Diana, we are reminded what an arresting and powerful voice she possesses, even if her musical choices haven't always lived up to that voice's promise.
The second disc of She Who Dwells is a presumably recent live concert. It offers a few variations on old favorites, and a stirring take on the Irish dirge The Moorlough Shore, but this disc is nowhere near as riveting as the first.
All told, it's enough to make fans like me camp out in front of her house and protest her retirement. In the absence of that, I propose an alternate title: She Who Dares.
From the precarious limbs on the O'Connor side of Fempop, we now turn to the stately columns of the McLachlan estate.
Again backed by the quizzical yet atmospheric production of Pierre Marchand, McLachlan's Afterglow has some big shoes to fill. It's been a long time since Surfacing, Lilith Fair, and all the attendant hubbub that thrust her into the pop spotlight.
McLachlan's voice has, if possible, become even more resonant and powerful than on Surfacing. It is so overpowering, in fact, that it takes one a while to realize that there are really no songs here. The atmosphere is the object, and in this the record succeeds unequivocally. Put it on while doing...anything, and you'll feel all warm inside.
But you also won't remember any of it. The tunes are fleeting, and over before you realize they've begun. You might expect that from Cocteau Twins or the aforementioned Enya, but McLachlan's past penchant for hooky and heartfelt melodies makes Afterglow a bit elusive for the fan, like a dream that keeps slipping from your mind, though you're sure you remember it. Still, for all its misty transience, there has scarcely been a more gorgeous sonic pillow to rest your ears on.
Far more concrete is Life for Rent, the all-important sophomore album from Dido. Coming four years after No Angel, the disc that propelled her from obscurity to ubiquity, this new album was constructed by many of the same hands, principally Dido herself and her brother Rollo (of trip-hop purveyors Faithless).
But rather than leaning back on the looping grooves of her first album, there seems to be a deliberate shift towards songcraft over style. Not that there aren't plenty of lush keyboards, drum loops, and oodles of reverb, but the whole album is decidedly more organic than its predecessor. Entire tracks such as Mary's In India and This Land Is Mine feature little more than acoustic guitar to support Dido's airy voice.
But something else has changed, something that may put some distance between this newbie and her matriarchs: Someone's gone and gotten herself a knowing, wry delivery. There's a conspiratorial tone throughout Life for Rent, a back-porch familiarity that serves Dido well, particularly because it is so completely absent from the works of both O'Connor and McLachlan.
Which is something I've never noticed before.
With the older Fempop icons, life is huge. O'Connor makes rage and pain seethe, yet shouts hope from the rooftops, as everything from Ireland's plight to a boyfriend's deceit are projected onto a stage so massive it can't help but overpower one's senses. In McLachlan's voice, feelings soar; love, despair, ennui, all cry aloud through the voice of the angel.
But Dido sits smirking on a stool in her bare feet as if to say, "Hey. C'mere a minute."
Many of the same tales are told--love, heartbreak, etc.--but Dido's delivery is more like what you'd hear on the phone to a friend or in a neighborhood coffeeshop: The girl next door with an acoustic guitar.
This is an encouraging development, because it shows that she knows her strengths. Though certainly melodious, her relatively tiny voice can scarcely approach the sweep on either O'Connor or McLachlan, and in truth, that strain showed through at times on No Angel.
But on Life for Rent, she has pulled back a bit, and opted to give you an invitation for tea rather than a night at the opera. Dido may indeed be the siamese stepdaughter of Fempop, but she's definitely making moves towards separation.
All of this is to say that while Fempop's elite certainly have plenty in common, a closer study will lead you to find differences you didn't expect. Each has their own stories to tell, but more importantly, their own ways of telling them.
And in the case of these three albums, the studying couldn't be more enjoyable.