It’s hard for me to imagine that anyone has been living life without knowing British folk rock ensemble Oysterband‘s mercilessly tender 1989 rendition of New Order’s ultimate dreamgoth war tragedy haiku, Love Vigilantes, which my friend Michelle introduced me to many years ago. But in case you’ve missed it, here is a live version that feels far too cheerful for the song’s subject matter.
The softer, tighter, almost brutally gentle studio version on their 1989 album “Ride” breaks my heart every single time. So soft, so obvious, so credulous, and yet, here I am again, bleeding on the floor.
This small-venue live version may make you dance, but that’s okay…it’s still gorgeous.
If you like it, it’s worth checking out the whole album, which is filled with gorgeous contemporary British folk. And Oysterband is still around, touring hard in Canada this month, then Denmark in November, then back to the UK for December gigs and continuing into next year. These guys are friggin’ road monsters. But then, I can imagine that their loose, improvisational, emphatic and empathic flavor of folk must be a HELL of a lot of fun to play live. It certainly sounds like it, however heart-rending some of their songs are. Sometimes music feels like a pure shot of joy, a mainer to my vain, and this album, it gots it.
Here’s the original “Love Vigilantes” — a classic. When I first heard the Oysterband version, I had never actually known the title of the New Order song, and didn’t even realize I’d heard it a zillion times while half-drunk on Captain Jack and pining in dorm rooms for gorgeous goth girls with bigger record collections than me.
This is an iconic guitar sound, a breathtaking riff and a great song. Just a little push, and you’ll be living in the ice age:
You know how back in the day — assuming you’re my age and an overgrown art goth who suffered the sneers of your fellows — Joy Division freaks would always badmouth New Order? Well, I was one of them. To me, New Order was middle-class shrubhead music for hoop-earringed trendies with bad taste in boyfriends, whereas Joy Division was pure doomed working-class Baudelaire with a Jim Carroll chaser. I was a pinhead; luckily, at some point my smarter-than-me girlfriend J. set me straight. She did it with the laudable kindness of someone who sees both points of view. But J., more than me, was free of pretension. She knew how to quest for that perfect riff, that most beautiful phrase, that ecstatic instant when chills go down your spine. If the occasional New Order song doesn’t do that to you, I submit that you oughta check your pulse.
I’ll always prefer Joy Divsion, too, because they were so much further out on the edge. Still, I think it takes an extremely limited palate to love Joy Division and hate New Order. Though their very early work was unquestionably a series of retreads as they got their footing after Curtis’s suicide, New Order later produced some magnificent work in a related but significantly different genre than Joy Division. The thing is, the members of New Order also championed many new bands. Suggesting, as is often done, that Joy Division is influential on a level comparable to the Velvets or the Stooges, but New Order is little more than a new wave footnote, is stark raving crazy. It’s douchebag-punk talk, valuing a simple and compelling aesthetic over complexity and the building of a practical life as an artist. Not everyone is here for the consumer’s amusement. How many friends have I seen plunge down the rabbit hole of “Live Fast, Die Young, Leave a Compellingly Deathrock Looking Corpse?” Too many.
Still, you simply can’t beat music like this:
Nor, just to get totally random about it, can you beat sheer genius like the other bundle of brilliance J. introduced me to once upon a time, during a rough time in our life when her kindnesses were far too many and mine far too few:
I would say I can’t listen to Ani DiFranco’s “Not a Pretty Girl” without thinking of J., except that I’ve probably listened to it 1,000 times since then, so…sorry, some albums are so friggin’ good they obliterate all memories except the ones they implant on their own.
But what I do think about, and somewhat often, is where Ani, after Pretty Girl, failed many of her followers. In one of the dichotomies of my life in those days, J. was utterly alienated by Ani DiFranco’s followup, Dilate. She wasn’t alone.
Dilate can be argued to be a self-indulgent and ultimately shallow attempt by DiFranco to justify her affair with a married man, as far from the bitterly self-empowered punk intensity of Not a Pretty Girl as it is possible for an album to be. I have no idea what J. thinks about Dilate now, or if she’s even listened to it since. But at the time I agreed with her.
That didn’t last long, because, as I see it today, if I were Ani DiFranco I would — unfortunately — be only one-tenths Not a Pretty Girl Ani and nine-tenths Dilate Ani. This is not something I’m particularly proud of, but nobody exactly asked me whether I’d like to be crazy or not. Hell, I’d rather be the calmly menacing, evocatively inspiring No-Drama Obama of Not a Pretty Girl-era Ani any day, since once upon a time she served as an idol to at least half a dozen bi women I’ve known.
With Dilate Ani, there’s less to shake one’s fist at…other than Ani herself, who (I’ve heard argued) deserves it. Certainly, I understand why those looking for Activist Ani did a big “WTF?” when Dilate came out. But while Ani DiFranco’s activist impulses are deeply personal and at times simply incomparable in their visceral qualities, they were never quite what convinced me she was a genius.
Wanna know what convinced me she was a genius? Alongside the fact that she is one of the most innovative, lyrical and brilliant guitar instrumentalists ever to play pop, rock or folk music — and will never, mark my words, get the credit for it — what I like is Ani’s ability to find the place where your heart hasn’t started bleeding yet, and slice it open with a D-string and a capo. She does it as clearly in “Not a Pretty Girl” as she does in “Cradle and All,” but with utterly different agendas, for different kinds of nightmares.
Listening today, what troubles me most is not Ani’s stridency but her claim that “Don’t you think every kitten in a tree figures out how to get down whether or not you ever show up?” I know, and I’m confident Ani knows, that in fact, some don’t. Some of them die up there.
Anyway, within a small number of months after I first heard it, I’d decided that “Dilate” was fantastic. I made up my mind that this deeply human album was brilliant — and that, maybe without intending it, DiFranco had uncovered the nightmarish underbelly of both hero worship and romantic obsession, in perhaps the most awful way conceivable.
To those of you who know the two albums, it is my opinion that Dilate is an album that “Cradle and All” hints at — but Not a Pretty Girl’s equally brilliant title song absolutely does not. It’s the two sides of being a bad-ass chick, or anyone bad-ass if you like. DiFranco may be a frenetic bundle of up-yours and in-your-face and take-it-or-leave-it and not-on-my-watch, but at some point, like the rest of us, she’s got to slow down and put her head on the pillow, and sometimes that’s when things get ugly.
It’s far too weird for words that my next extended relationship after J. featured an extensive mutual fixation on DiFranco’s Dilate, particular the title song above, as well as on The Cure’s Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me.
Especially this song, performed here in 2009 at Coachella in hugely modified form but with the at once brutally anarchist and mystically surgical labor pains of its guitar introduction left largely intact:
With his shrubby hair and his Stevie Wonder sway, Smith feels twenty years wiser — and yet no wiser at all. I feel his pain.
And there, I do not go, out of respect for all the many females “The Kiss” has, in retrospect, been about to me over the years, through no fault of their own whatsoever. None of you had any idea what you were in for, ladies…and for that I apologize. The secret that all of you seemed to know at the end, but never at the beginning, was that every character in a nightmare is a reflection of the haunted. In a dream, we all get to be ourselves.