Twice-Told Tales

LET'S FACE IT--most songwriters are just frustrated rock critics. Incapable of articulating the deeper meaning of the music that moves them in a language that can move others, they blow the dust off guitars they once abandoned as feckless undergraduates and slump into composing tuneful imitations of their idols' superior work. And then they parade the results as self-expression, as if it's nobler to create mediocre art than to create no art at all.

Minneapolis singer/songwriter Marlee MacLeod was actually a pretty good rock critic in her day. Her past work for Cake and No Depression evidenced a sharp ear for nuance, both musical and emotional. And it still rings with the near-improvisatory sense of discovery that marks the best arts criticism. MacLeod hasn't abandoned the computer for the guitar entirely--she currently crafts true crime pieces for an online repository of bloody outlaw narratives called the Crime Library (www.crimelibrary.com). But MacLeod's an even sharper songwriter than she is a journalist, and the verbal strengths she draws upon are only part of her appeal.

"She swung at his heart like it was a piñata/And the blindfold made her aim that much truer," is a hell of a line to kick off a record. But in the case of MacLeod's fourth album, There We Are (Hayden's Ferry), it's a misleading one as well. MacLeod doesn't often go in here for such sweeping imagery, kicking back instead with pithy little twists on common phrases such as, "Hanging like a steeplejack/On your every word" or "What a lot of you-know-what-I-mean under the bridge." Though she claims, "I love your abstract more/Than your actuality," she generally traffics in actualities, in the concrete language of the specific instance.

Such verbal dexterity could relegate a songwriter like MacLeod to the pit where sensitive fiction writers go to share their rote subtleties and quivering sentiments. But singers have one certain advantage over their page-bound kin--a physical control over the inflection of their language--and MacLeod is one canny vocalist. While not quite harsh, her drawl is far from soothing. What makes her delivery most distinctive is the ruminative distance she keeps from the emotional snags she encounters--this without sounding aloof. It's a distance that protects her from the floridity or kewpie folksiness that afflicts so many acoustic songpoets.

Live, MacLeod accompanies herself sharply on acoustic guitar, with the beat and texture of her strum implying the riffs and rhythms that are fleshed out on disc. She's again working with producer John Fields, but where her last, 1997 disc Vertigo cast spiky squiggles of riffage into hectic patterns, MacLeod's latest is more plainspoken. It's rootsier, but with an austerity that prunes away the kudzu of her No D. kinfolk.

Finding the resonance in a songwriting vernacular rather than burrowing into one's supposedly "unique" experiences is a worthy challenge. When she transforms an unadorned phrase like "I know better than to break your heart" into an understated expression of regret, only fools who mistake rampant intensity for authentic feeling could yawn. MacLeod has heard these familiar tropes of lost and found love and other such foolishness before, and now that they've come to affect her, she can't help commenting upon them, unraveling them, figuring and refiguring how they apply.

Every decent songwriter realizes early on that what they've felt has been felt before, and it's all been registered in songs everyone knows by heart. Many try to circumvent this wall, leading to the gimmickry of Beck's hip-hop bricolage or to Chan Marshall's dreary set of deconstructed covers. MacLeod takes the harder track, mapping the intersection between the nearly worn-out figures of speech at her disposal and the way she feels today. Which is just what the best songwriters--and the best rock critics--have always done.

 
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