I almost drove to Nashville today just to hear an hour's worth of music...one of my all-time favorite bands, Bering Strait, which broke up several years ago before I ever got to hear them live, is getting back together for one evening tomorrow night to raise money for their old manager's medical bills. There were challenges to be solved because of my family situation, but I was going to solve them and go anyway; but in the end it occurred to me that spending a couple hundred dollars on gas in order to donate $15 to Mr. Kinnamon was sort of missing the point and that it would be far more in the spirit of the evening to just send the gas money in as a donation...in short, I was being pretty selfish. And once God had pointed that out to me...well, I'm sending 'em the money and not going, which will at least relieve the minds of those of my friends who were unhappy about the idea of my sleeping in the back of my pickup truck at an Interstate rest stop in the middle of a snowstorm. (Which was OF COURSE one of the major attractions of the whole trip -- do you know how long it's BEEN since I slept outside in the snow in my trusty old Eskimo-style sleeping bag??? [disconsolate sigh] -- but I understand that the female 50% of my acquaintanceship would have worried about my safety...I would say "about my safety and sanity" except they gave up on the sanity bit a long time ago.)
But I've been listening to all Bering Strait all the time for the last couple of days, and you know what? I don't think "one of my favorite bands" is right. I think it's pretty much my favorite band, full stop. And when I went back to look up the old blog posts in which I reviewed their stuff, I was appalled to discover that my review of their first album was sent to a mailing list rather than posted on my blog, and is irretrievably lost.
So, since I presume that Mr. Kinnamon continues to earn royalties whenever one of those two albums sells, and since I presume that most of my Gentle Readers like good music, and since I therefore conclude that everybody wins if every Gentle Reader buys every available Bering Strait (or alumna) album...because of all this, I'm going to do a full review of Bering Strait's entire body of work, including Natasha Borzilova's recent solo album (I'm still waiting for Lydia Salnikova's and will tell you when it becomes available). Express version:
Buy the original album, Bering Strait.
Also buy the second album, Pages.
Also buy lead singer Natasha Borzilova's solo album, Cheap Escape.
Also buy the DVD documentary, The Ballad of Bering Strait.
Bering Strait was, in the end, too talented to fit into their commercial radio format. They did Nashville pop about as well (in my opinion) as anybody has done it, and songs like "The Trouble with Love" are very high on my all-time Nashville singles favorites list. But I think those of us who fell head-over-heels for the band, did so for the sake of the songs that never had a chance to get airplay on KASE 101. Their Grammy-nominated instrumental number "Bearing Straight," for example, is five and a half minutes long...guess what, no airplay. The leap-out-of-your-chair-and-commence-to-foot-stomp bluegrass number "Porushka-Paranya" is in Russian, and even though it was (I am given to understand) a crowd favorite in concerts...guess what, no airplay. Same with the delightful experiment in waxing and waning harmonic richness and intensity that is "Oy, Moroz, Moroz"...in Russian, guess what, no airplay. And the astonishing "Safe In My Lover's Arms," which I can only describe, very inadequately, as haunting Slavic-Appalachian fusion...well, once you've heard the song, you'll agree that the world needs more haunting Slavic-Appalachian fusion music, but also that no Nashville-oriented KASE clone is going to give haunting Slavic-Appalachian fusion any significant air time.
It seems obvious to me that what Bering Strait tried to do, was to include enough commercially viable music on each album to underwrite the cuts that were uniquely their own. And the commercial stuff should have done well; but then we all know that public taste is mysterious and unpredictable. I don't know why "The Trouble With Love" or "I Could Be Persuaded" didn't catch on with the public. Alas, they didn't, and the experiment failed, and the band members eventually went their separate ways. But they left us two top-notch albums, and based on Cheap Escape I'd say we can hope for plenty more music in the years to come, at least from Natasha and Lydia individually.
Now, for the rest of the post, what I thought I'd do is just arrange the cuts in the order of my preference, from the one or two that I generally skip past, all the way up to my very favorite cut, which is...no, let's preserve the suspense, shall we? So, from #34 up to #1, here we go, countin' 'em down.
Four cuts out of the thirty-four just don't particularly work for me. Not that it's painful for me to sit and listen to them -- I wouldn't turn down the radio if they came on -- but it's just bland Nashville pop that I skip on the iPod because there are better Bering Strait songs to listen to. (But hey, thirty out of thirty-four is a pretty good batting average.)
#34. "It Hurts Just a Little" (Pages). Doesn't work for me. Sounds like they needed an extra song to fill up the album and had this one lying around.
#33. "Long Time Comin'" (Pages). Nothing objectionable, nothing memorable.
#32. "Like a Child" (Bering Strait). Nothing particularly wrong with it, but nothing particularly right with it, either. I think this particular recording may have sentimental value for the band members, as it was from one of their earliest live shows in the U.S. Doesn't have any sentimental value for me, though.
#31. "Cruel Man" (Bering Strait). A couple of nice lyrical twists ("He doesn't care about my pain, only brings it") but not enough to keep me from skipping ahead to one of the 30 better cuts.
Nice, solid cuts that I don't usually skip
#30. "Jagged Edge of a Broken Heart" (Bering Strait). A good, solid broken-heart country song, more Nashville than Austin. Some nice lyrical touches ("every night's a different shade of blue") but somehow the image of the "jagged edge of a broken heart" seems a bit strained.
#29. "Only This Love" (Bering Strait). A nice, pleasant, peaceful, unlabored little love song that would be nice to listen to on the front porch at sunset with the girl you've been happily married to for ten years or so sitting next to you on the front porch swing. Unless you find steel guitars annoying, of course.
UPDATE: When I first wrote this post, "October Blue" came in a #28...but the last verse has really grown on me and it has been promoted up all the way up to #18.
I just found out something I never knew about loveYou never want to confuse the songwriter with the narrator, and I don't know much about Borzilova's personal history, but she does breakup songs awfully well. The album that begins with "I'm Angry" ends with a song in which she complains, in obvious bewilderment:
It always tries to slip away
Things are only get worse --
That's what you said...
You gave up so fast
Guess I wasn't good enough
But I'll never know
Anyway, you're gone
UPDATE: Naturally, despite the fact that I've been listening to this song for a year and thought I had it memorized, I listened to it again right after writing this post and thought -- "Hey, wait a minute...I think she's saying, 'Lying to the one I don't love that he's someone I can't live without,' not, '...that is someone I can't live without." I plugged in headphones, listened intently...well, son of a gun. And that changes the song, since "I can't live without him (even though I don't love him)" and "It's a lie that I can't live without him" are, um, sort of like, you know, direct opposites. Sheesh. And this is a bummer, because I like it better the other way; now it seems that she's sticking with him more out of guilt than because there's anything valuable left in the old relationship.
It also changes the emotional balance a little in another way: it heightens the fact that the narrator's defining characteristic is not confusion so much as it is simple dishonesty. Both relationships are doomed because she is lying to both men, and lying is a function of character, and character is destiny.
Hmmm...still interesting, but I'll have to let it sink in a bit. Might change the ranking of this one eventually. I'll leave it where it is for now, though.
Okay, the last time I realized that (a) I had misunderstood a word in the lyrics and therefore misinterpreted the song somewhat, and that (b) I liked the misinterpretation better...well, that was here, where I misread the Portuguese arrastar as arrestar. And it nagged at me enough that I eventually went and wrote my own lyrics. So I suppose I ought to write my own song about a guy who isn't really in love with his wife any more, and is in the middle of a passionate affair with his newly found soulmate, but there's still a lot he values about his marriage and family even though the romance is a more or less distant memory and...oh my God I'm channeling Mark Sanford!! Quick, quick, on to the next song!
Songs I never skip
UPDATE: You know, in the last day or two this song has really grown on me. In the first version of this post "October Blue" was #28; it's now jumped up ten spots to #18. For some reason the last verse has started really hitting me more than it did at first. The point of the song, I should have said to begin with, is that the guy she's been in love with was briefly in love with her, too, but she can tell her charm is wearing off ("With all my ways memorized / I don't seem so new anymore"), and nothing she's tried has worked. So the last verse ends:
...it's all no useThe image of catching up with him as a metaphor for getting him to fall in love, but then falling back behind in the race again...you know, for some reason that's really started settling in. Too bad we can't do something about the musical weakness of the bridge...if this song were just the three verses and a poignant fiddle solo where the bridge is currently, it might start threatening for the Pantheon.
I wonder, maybe I was born
To watch you run and follow you
So far I caught up only once
Under the vast October blue
Under the vast October blue
#17. "Cheap Escape" (Cheap Escape). Maybe I like this song better than most people because it reminds me a lot of my childhood and my family's way of making wonderful memories out of a life that never had much money in it. "Look / I found a couple of dollars under the lining / Oh, this could be great." In fact I'm the kind of guy who, when he's desperately in need of a vacation, comes up with idea of driving to Nashville for a one-hour concert as an excuse to get out of town, sleep in the back of the pickup truck, eat Russian-balogna sandwiches out of an ice chest...so this song works for me. I think it probably would work for other people, too, even those who like their vacations in Cozumel and Hawaii...but I don't know for sure.
#16. "I Could Be Persuaded" (Bering Strait). A lovely little falling-in-love country waltz. Simple and unpretentious and enjoyable. Alas for the disastrous fourth line:
I could be persuadedReally, that was my reaction the first time I heard the song. One of the very few genuinely lazy bits of song-writing out of what is otherwise a lyrically strong band. But once you get past that wince-able fourth line, it's a nice waltz.
To give my heart to you
If you promise not to break it
'Cause that's [oh, no, don't say "it's so easy to do"] so easy to do [aauuugghhhh! you said it!]
(Your mission in the comments, should you choose to accept it: come up with a good fourth line to replace "'Cause that's so easy to do." Hint: try some word other than "do" -- "'Cause that's what men usually do," for example, is not an improvement. If you have to rewrite the third line as well, feel free.)
#15. "When Going Home" (Bering Strait). Situation: you fell wildly in love four weeks ago with a guy who fell just as wildly in love with you, and you told all your friends and family you'd found The One, and you flew to Austin to see him only to have it end as abruptly as it started...and now you've got between now and when your plane lands to figure out what the hell you're going to tell all the people waiting at home to hear how it all went. I don't know which band member came up with the idea for the song, but it's a great idea and they nailed it. (Imagine having three hours to "remember how forever felt / and then forget.") Oh, and the rest of the title phrase? "...when going home / feels like moving on."
#14. "Tell Me Tonight" (Bering Strait). As in, "Look, I know you love me; how come you keep not saying so?" Reminds me very much of the delightful dialogue in The Importance of Being Ernest as Gwendolyn strives womanfully to get "Ernest" to propose marriage so that she can accept him:
GWENDOLYN: Yes, Mr. Worthing, you have something to say to me?So it's sort of the antithesis of the My Fair Lady number "Show Me"...
JACK [in some confusion]: Well, yes, Gwendolyn, you know what I have to say to you.
GWENDOLYN [in deep exasperation]: Yes, but you don't say it.
#13. "Matches" (Cheap Escape). I don't know what the memories are that the narrator intends to overcome and leave behind ("let me whisper screams I've kept all these years deep inside"), but this is a sure-handed poet at work, mixing a physical passage through a snow-bound landscape with an emotional passage into peace and health, in visually arresting images that leave you unsure (but it doesn't matter) where literal sense hands over the reins to metaphor. Or, rather, metaphor and literal meaning meet and kiss and weave in and around each other and what matters is the dance rather than the partners.
Look, I know I keep talking about Borzilova's lyrics, but that's because they're what sets her apart. The fact that she's enough of a composer to know exactly how to fit the music to the lyrics, and that God blessed her with a dark and expressive voice to breath life into them...well, those are bonuses. But we're talking about a lyricist who expects you to let phrases like, "I am cold / as the ice that is under my skin / (I) have no matches for the candle I carry within," sink in and take some time to work magic, and who has enough poetic skill to make it worth your while to cooperate.
#12. "Choose Your Partner" (Pages). There's nothing fancy about the idea, which is simply, "Life is happening and you're missing it; get away from the wall and join the dance." And while the music, in a nice 6/8, sets the mood exquisitely, still you wouldn't just hear the music and say, "Into the pantheon goes this song." But the lyrics...my goodness. A taste, from the opening stanza:
You sit all alone after sundown
You wait for your TV to run down
You slip off to bed
And fall off the edge of the same old dream
You wish you had someone to care for
Somebody that you could be there for
But time keeps on passing
And life is a habit you're scared to break...
#11. "I'm Not Missing You" (Bering Strait). This was the cut, on my first hearing of the Bering Strait album, when I realized, "Holy cow, somebody in this band has The Gift when it comes to lyrics." Consider the choice of telling detail in a verse like the following:
Got your sweater onA slow waltz in the time-honored tradition of proving that you miss somebody by saying how much you don't miss them; but I doubt anyone's done it much better than this.
You know the one that I gave you that you never wore
Guess I'm better off
That you didn't like the color 'cause it keeps me warm...
#10. "Dear Diary" (Cheap Escape). The word "haunting" is overused, but this chronicle of a woman's attempt to deal with her lover's decision to break up with her, all but demands the term. A spare, sledgehammer-powerful song. Hard to imagine anything less Britney than this. (Britney Spears, you see, also had a song called "Dear Diary"...oh, never mind.)
#9. "I Could Use a Hero" (Bering Strait). Why, oh why, didn't this song climb way up the country charts? The back-and-forth between Borzilova and Salnikova on the verses, and the harmony on the chorus, and the violin soaring lonely above the urgent, not-quite-rock-tempo staccato of the base line, all put in service of lyrics that avoid the triteness of a typical Nashville lyric while still remaining accessibly rooted in pop culture...why wasn't this one a hit? I have no idea.
Songs that, if they come on the radio, I'll make everybody in the car stop talking until the song is over
#8. "Don't Stop" (Cheap Escape). I just love this song. Basically, the narrator is hopelessly and helplessly in love. I'm not sure I'd necessarily want to be in love with her, because if she had her way, the guy she loves would be the one who would be hopelessly and helplessly in her power rather than the other way around. That is, she believes in relationships with whip hands -- but she knows exactly who has the whip hand in this one, and it isn't her, and she isn't at all happy about it...but please God don't let the torture stop. "This heart refuses to resist...don't stop the torture, please!" The characterization is so deft, and the situation so clear and unmistakable...perfect.
Also, I have to say on a personal note, that the couplet, "On standby to disagree / And feisty just to be amusing" -- hey, as far as describing my high-spirited (and delightful) daughter Kinya perfectly in ten words or less, if that couplet doesn't do it, then it can't be done.
#7. "How Do You Do That?" (Cheap Escape). A delightful little piece that makes me want to just transcribe all the lyrics into this post and be done with it. In case you think Borzilova only does painful relationships, I give you this perfect image of a young woman dancing innocently and happily through her days on the wings of a perfect relationship with the perfect guy. The eye for the telling detail is here as well: "We're both late for work / but I've got your pockets for my freezing hands / this winter morning." Plus there's just something girlishly insouciant about the guileless lines, "Wouldn't you agree / I look better when I'm happy?"
And as always the music captures the mood of the lyrics perfectly.
#6. "Ой, Мороз, Мороз (Oy, Moroz, Moroz)" (Pages). The band takes a simple old Russian folk song, starts it with a simple solo voice over a lone acoustic guitar, then begins to add layers of harmony and instrumentation. Four stanzas in, we've got three voices weaving in and out across each other and amongst a bandful of instruments driving the song forward with all the intensity of a lone rider far from home longing for the end of his journey, before the song fades back into a simple final stanza recapitulating the first one. This, my friends, is musicianship. You'll note, for example, that they have the musical tact to bring many of the new parts in halfway through a verse rather than mechanically stepping up parts between verses, and their use of instrumental bridges between the verses to heighten the mood is particularly effective.
On a personal note, I can tell you that this song, sung a cappella, is very very useful in the wee hours of the night when your housemates' three-year-old twins have woken themselves up with nightmares and need to be lullabied back to sleep. You pick one girl up in your left arm and one in your right, and you settle them with a head on each of your shoulders, and you waltz gently around the room while singing quietly, "Oy, moroz, moroz / nye moroz menya / nye moroz menya / moyevo konya." And by the last "moyevo konya" they're back asleep...at which point you get to try to figure out how to put them back down into their beds without waking at least one of them up.
#5. "The Trouble With Love" (Bering Strait). This song just totally cracks me up. In fact, hang on a minute, because I have to go listen to it again...
So I said I had to have himAnd not only do I defy you to listen to the song without smiling in amusement, I also defy you to listen to it without tapping your toes and/or attracting the attention of other drivers on the freeway.
Then he stopped takin' my calls
When he was breakin' down my door
I didn't want him much at all
That's the trouble
The trouble with love
So I told him it was over
Said we couldn't be more than friends
One good-bye kiss, then another
There I was in trouble again
That's the trouble
The trouble with love
Seems like I'm either drownin' in it
Or just can't get enough
That's the trouble with love...
#4. "Bearing Straight" (Bering Strait). This was the one that got nominated for the Grammy -- and yes, there are three songs that are better than this one. But it's a heckuva number all the same, allowing each member of the band multiple turns to step to the front of the stage and take the spotlight, and leaving no doubt that there's not a weak link in the entire ensemble. It opens as a furious, driving, pickin'-'n'-grinnin' showoff number for the lead guitarist and the banjo picker and the dobro, but then unexpectedly comes to an emphatic halt -- and turns into a slow, poignantly meditative piece that makes you (well, me, at least) think of mountain sundowns and a rocking chair well-earned by years of hard, honest labor. Once again the music dies away, and then the banjo quietly begins to set up a new beat, halfway in between the energy of the first movement and the calm of the second, and slowly the music builds back up to full strength and power before the band in effect fades off into the sunset, still playing away with all their energy and passion. It's almost six minutes and it's worth every second.
#3. "Real Fight" (Cheap Escape). Okay, I admit that there are other numbers on these three albums more musically and lyrically impressive than this one, and that my high ranking of this song is purely subjective. But I find it physically impossible to listen to this song without (a) trying to sing along with it and (b) failing because I keep having to stop to laugh. I don't know why I think this song is so hilarious (it's basic point is, "Okay, we're breaking up now, but as a parting gift I'm going to teach you what a real fight looks like," which doesn't sound funny but trust me on this one...). But I find it irresistible. The melody is just as quirky as the lyrics and the acoustic guitar lick that provides the musical signature for the piece, is hopelessly infectious. And how am I possibly supposed to resist a song whose opening two lines are:
Let's just admit that we're something that didn't work outAnd on a more serious note, I think this song has a lyrical passage in it that goes to the heart of why Bering Strait, in the end, didn't make it commercially. I leave the lyrics to speak for themselves:
It's important that we both recognize your flaws
Some therapist could get rich off all the damage you've done
I'm guaranteed about twenty pretty awesome songs
But they don't get my music anywhere in this town
So I'll remain just as broke
But I will teach you a real fight
It'll be my last present for you-oo.
#2. "Порушка-Параня (Porushka-Paranya)" (Bering Strait). If you took a vote of my kids, this would be the champion Bering Strait song; indeed, as far as my kids are concerned, "Porushka-Paranya" laps the competition. I don't think I have ever -- not even once, not even now six or seven years after we first heard this song -- I don't think I've ever had this song pop up on the iPod playlist without having Sally and Rusty and Merry instantly let out a literal cheer of delight.
"Porushka-Paranya" is an old Russian folk song...sort of. As far as I can tell, it's a mishmash of three or four different old Russian folk songs that traded lyrics back and forth amongst themselves more or less promiscuously.
It remains true that when you turn Bering Strait loose on Kukuruza's rework of "Porushka-Paranya," what you get is a foot-stomper of a live number that...well, if you don't wake up and dance when this one plays, it's because you're dead, even if you don't know a word of Russian.
But not even "Porushka-Paranya" could make it to Number One. And this brings us to what is, in my opinion, the best song Bering Strait ever turned out:
#1. "Safe In My Lover's Arms" (Pages).
I don't know how to begin to describe this song, which is the first cut on Pages, and which I replayed at least five times before I managed to move on to find out what the rest of the album was like. If you remember the Sting/Alison Kraus song "You Will Be My Ain True Love," from Cold Mountain...well, start there. That's the only popular song I can think of that's even remotely like this astonishing piece. The instrumentation is provided by Salnikova's synthesizers in string orchestra mode, but this is a song that gambles entirely on Borzilova's and Salnikova's voices, and on their ability, without flourishes and on a simple minor-key melody, to carry a song by the sheer texture and richness of their sound. It's one thing to be able to hit exactly the right note; but to have a voice that through its timbre and tone can infuse a single long note with an aching sense of longing...only God can give you that.
For the entire first two verses the only beat is provided by Borzilova, over a single long sustained string chord. As the orchestra swells into the third verse and Salnikova's soaring soprano comes in above the dark, rich tones of Borzilova's melody, the longing in the song becomes almost numenous.
Look, here's the thing: I don't know what you're imagining right now from that description, but I can promise you that what you're imagining is not what you'll hear if you buy the album. All I can hope is that, having heard the song, you'll too be able to see what it is that I'm struggling hopelessly to capture here.
So there it is, from #34 down to #1.
Now go buy the albums. Don't just sit there; go git 'er done. Mike Kinnamon needs the money. And you need your life enriched by this music. Those albums, again:
Bering Strait (Bering Strait, 2003).
Pages (Bering Strait, 2005).
Cheap Escape (Natasha Borzilova, 2008).
The Ballad of Bering Strait (documentary, 2003).