Recording of August 1988: The Walking

888rotm.jpgJane Siberry: The Walking
Reprise/Duke Street 25678-1 (LP), 25678-2 (CD). John Naslen, eng.; Jane Siberry, John Switzer, John Naslen, prods. DDD. TT: 53:03

I came to Jane Siberry's music pretty late in the game. This is her fourth album, and the third released by a major label—No Borders Here and The Speckless Sky were released by Open Sky/Windham Hill a few years ago. Hadn't heard 'em (footnote 1). Didn't need to. On the basis of The Walking alone, it was clear Siberry is one of the most important singer/songwriters we've got.

Had to laugh when I read Reprise's promo sheet: "Siberry began drawing critical comparisons to such artists as Laurie Anderson, Joni Mitchell and Suzanne Vega, in a sometimes misleading attempt to get a handle on the core of originality that informs her music." Easy to say in hindsight, Reprise—fact is, I mentioned every one of those immensely talented women in my notes, trying like hell to "get a handle" on Siberry. Want to hear?

OK. For about five seconds, I was going to start like this: "If you think Suzanne Vega borders on the fey, her terminally whitebread voice never having left prep school, wait'll you hear Jane Siberry." I know: cheap, demeaning. How 'bout this?: "She reminds so much of the guitar/dulcimer Joni Mitchell of Blue, the piano Joni of For the Roses—an aching delicacy to her lightest of voices, sort of an entirely contemporary Blossom Dearie." Groping? You bet. "This is the music Laurie Anderson might make if she could let go of her mirror-house irony, and if she were a musician." Hmmm.

Then there's the Pop Sociology angle, with pipe and slippers: "The New Preciosity, I suppose—it's a touchy balance to strike, bringing out the child in spirit, words, melody, and vocal quality all at once. It's to Siberry's credit that she's able to do this consistently throughout The Walking. 'Lena Is a White Table' sums up so much of this—a dialog between two Janes, it has the fascination of listening to twin wispy-voiced sister space cadets (the 20th century's version of over-sheltered Victorian virgins) who every once in a while come out with some profound observation sung in a voice like Jack Bruce." Ungainly, but I can live with it.

The No-One-Says-It-Better-Than-The-Artist-Herself Bit: "Her music is essentially dramatic, operatic. But her aesthetic [ get this guy!] is best summed up in her own words, from the title song: 'the waiting and constantly / an endless shift of sifting through / the facts, the fey / you never know for sure.' "

That's how you end the review, of course. But then there's the frustrated-poet critic (me) waxing poetic in the only way he now knows how—critically: "A combination of the specificity of dream images and floating timelessness, equally of dreams. Songs of slightly missed connections [dot dot dot] 'The Lobby' is a song of cycles and false beginnings, starting seven times as the singer is sent back to the top of the stairs again and again. Her progress is slow, hard-won, but never absolutely sure, never to be taken for granted: 'so i go down to the lobby / and everyone's still there / and they say take off that foolish hat / put down that chair / and they say this is your darkest hour / this is my finest moment / you can't leave him like that / he'll be okay / so i go down to the lobby / i know it / i know it.' All to a falling, elegiac melody that has the same sense of American tragedy as Jim Kweskin & Mel Lyman's version of 'Old Black Joe'." I mean, is this guy for real?

'Fraid he means it, folks. Jane Siberry has as much wit and courage as anybody singing these days, and strong dramatic and musical talents to clothe them in. She brings out the girl-child of an obviously mature woman with some wisdom, and in "Red High Heels" catches the moment one realizes one's in love better than any song I know—including the sweet pain of trying to prolong a moment that you know must eventually, like all moments, pass.

Delicacy, strong fragility—"Chime the feet / dry the sand / clouds collect out at sea / start to run / this pink shell / this grey span / and a thousand pardons trail behind."

But "The Bird in the Gravel" hit me hardest: "I was walking through the dry leaves / it was very strange / they hadn't changed their color / all the leaves were green / i don't mind when it's over / i don't mind when it's all done / it's just the moments in between / just before it's gone." What's she talking about? Life? Summer? Making love? Nuclear war? Doesn't matter—the song supports all these readings, and to a melody reminiscent of Mitchell's "That Song About the Midway" without ripping it off.

"the yawning when the world shifts"—it's poetry, and good poetry at that. You'll have to take my word for it that the music is spare enough to let the words shine through, and tuneful enough to stay in my head for the last few weeks (no mean feat for modern pop). And these are long songs—up to 10 minutes, the album nearly an hour long—and concise at that.

Look, I'll shut up—you go out and buy The Walking, and be willing to take seriously a talented writer/musician taking herself with a serious grain of salt. Be willing to sit down and listen. Enough "ambient" music; Jane Siberry is an artist.

(Oh yeah, the recording is digital, and does sound better on CD. Vocals on the LP are recessed, and, believe me, you don't want Siberry's voice any more recessed than it naturally is. Besides, my LP surfaces were pretty noisy. All lyrics © wing-it music/red sky music.)—Richard Lehnert

Footnote 1: Since then I've picked up the two earlier albums, and, while they're striking enough on their own terms, The Walking has "Major Statement" written all over it. For those few already familiar with Siberry's work, The Walking bears strongest resemblances to Borders's "Dancing Class" and "Map of the World," and Sky's "Vladimir" and "Empty City."—Richard Lehnert