this new vacancy

Ever had a favorite artist? You know the kind I'm talking about; the creator of the go-to CD that you hand off to people as the answer to the question about the one artist whose work you couldn't do without. (That is, of course, assuming desert islands have power generators and CD players.)For years, mine has been Jonatha Brooke. It's been a great default, because she's wandered on in relative obscurity for years, and it meant that anyone who asked me the name of my favorite artist was likely to get a new musical treat. I could point to the elliptical, poignant vocals, the graceful choices for instrumentation and harmony, and tell my friends without hesitation that this pretty little album, 'Plumb,' was worth every moment you spent listening to it.

It's still a fantastic little album, the kind that I can pick up cheap at many used CD shops and give to friends, knowing that it was worth every penny I didn't pay for it.

The problem is that I've liked each of her successive albums a bit less than the one that came before. 'Plumb' was an extraordinary thing. 'Ten Cent Wings' was an ice-queen album, slow to reveal its loveliness, but there were songs I just never learned to love, and a few awkward moments that made me wince every time my CD player reached them. I dismissed it as the growth and experimentation I would expect of any artist attempting to hone her craft. 'Steady Pull' was a good album, with a few flashes of brilliance and a few songs that grew on me, but it never saw the heavy and steady rotation that 'Plumb' did.

That's when things really started to go south.

I awaited 'Back in the Circus' with a great deal of excitement—maybe this would be the album I'd waited for? When it arrived, I added it to my player with a willingness to be patient; I knew that it had taken 'Steady Pull' a long time to grow on me.

I listened to it and thought, "I'm not sure 'grow on me' is the right phrase. I'm not sure I even like this." But I gave it a few listens, and I found a few tracks I liked, and I decided not to write off the album as a total disappointment even though I was disappointed.

Nevertheless, I didn't move fast to pre-order her latest album, "Careful What You Wish For." I was getting increasingly gun-shy, and it saddened me. I decided to order it and give it a try, just to see how I felt about it. I saw a few initial reviews that praised it on Amazon and I thought, "Okay, they're probably devoted fans, but they sound really excited about it. We'll see."

I was in agreement for a minute and fourteen seconds, until the song's vocal style changed and I nearly ripped my headphones off. This was a woman whom I knew from previous albums could do gorgeous, lush vocal harmony. Why, then, was she screeching? Had she forgotten how to sing? It was like she had taken everything I'd liked about her music out of her music, and what was left felt more like a blatant grab for top-40 alterna-grrl airplay than anything I cared to play again.

I played the album through a few times, hoping that my mind would change, but was unsurprised when it didn't. It surprised me how much sadness I had when I pulled 'Careful' out of the player and tucked it back into its case, knowing that it was unlikely to come out again anytime soon, if ever. I was disillusioned, and I can't even pinpoint exactly why. I suppose it boils down to this: getting a bad album by an artist you like is one thing, but getting a succession of disappointing albums, capped off by a truly bad album, from someone you once considered your favorite artist is much more of a let-down.

(My account says that even though Steely Dan is still showing up at the top of the list, I should probably expect Imogen Heap or Beth Orton to move into this new vacancy soon. I've listened more to Imogen Heap lately, but most of it comes from just one album; I can definitively say that greatly enjoyed all four of Beth Orton's albums.)

I've long wished that Brooke would find mainstream success, in the hopes that the extra money would mean she would be able to give her creative muse the freedom I felt it deserved. The problem is that if her latest album is any indication, I don't think I'll be buying her future albums, and I wouldn't be surprised to learn if I wasn't the only longtime fan of her music to come to that decision.

It just makes me sad to say it, is all.


Be careful what you wish for; I've seen artists make a lot of money and have their work suffer in the name of what Cameron Crowe called "Lifestyle Maintenance." Granted that tends to happen only to the very successful folks. Do you not have Imogen Heap's "I Megaphone" or the Frou Frou album?

I've got both 'i Megaphone' and the Frou Frou album. I like both, and a couple of tracks on 'Megaphone' really caught my ear, but neither quite reached the pure earworm level that 'Speak For Yourself' found in me. What I've been doing lately, to try to cut down on the CD transport issue, is to copy mp3s of the CDs over to my flash drive and just bring the flash drive to work. I'd been thinking about dropping the Frou Frou album on for another rotation, and writing this entry brought it back to mind. About a month ago it occurred to me that the library's audiovisual department is two floors from where I work, so I've been wandering down there once a week and checking out random CDs. It's helped with the variety (and notably lately reminded me that I like U2 a lot more than I originally realized).

You know about my own disappointment when I heard Vienna Teng's latest album. However, in that case it had nothing to do with the quality of the music. If anything, she seems to be growing more adventurous, independent, and talented. As a consequence, though, the music is more abstract and austere than her earlier songs. I felt like I had a pretty decent internal "decoder wheel" especially for her second album, but she has outgrown me with the third. I was surprised at just how much of an emotional loss that was for me. Her music is the most thoughtful and intelligent that I have ever simultaneously enjoyed viscerally and grokked. Most stuff I enjoy is pretty derivative, so it was cool to have my very own favorite "indie artist". She's still a favorite, of course, but I'm disappointed that I lost touch. Oh well.

Hey, on my end, my favorite band from college---whom I'm now friends with and for whom I run their fan site---has put out exactly one good album in their last *five*. [Mind you, I think that one album was their best work of art to-date, but ... still.] But yes, these things happen. Life's too short to listen to music you don't dig.