18 Again: An Anthology
What would guy-rock poetry be without the perceived perfidy of womankind? Honest, gather together all of rock's great lyrical moments, blot out all the bitter missives to ex-girlfriends, and what have you got? A few doting promises to future ex-girlfriends masquerading as love songs, a coupla tunes about cars, the odd political rant, the collected works of John Fogerty, and maybe "Take the Skinheads Bowling." Oh yeah, and a smattering of bitter missives to ex-wives.
No one would be more entitled to slap first-class postage on one more such missive than Will Rigby, if only because you're less likely to know him as the drummer for flagship Hoboken pop leapabouts the dB's than as the former Mr. Amy Rigby. Back in 1996, when she emerged from the infinitely wide margins of NYC singer-songwriterdom, Amy was a still-pretty scenester closing in on 40, with a daughter and a temp job and a dissolving marriage. The latter was the focus of the brilliant Diary of a Mod Housewife (Koch), which plumbed the insecurities beneath a single woman's slightly defensive jokes in the manner of classic Roches, but without sisterhood's social safety net or cushioning harmonies.
Course, that was also Will's marriage dissolving, and Amy's lyrics were probably all the more stinging for neither seeming malicious nor referring to him specifically. With Paradoxaholic (Diesel Only), Will's first solo album since his slight 1985 post-dB's bow, Sidekick Phenomenon, you might expect the butt of so many drummer jokes to counter with a few jabs of his own. And he doesn't disappoint: When some nameless former lover calls it quits, Will responds, "Hot damn/Ain't life grand/Now I don't have to go and see your band." I did say nameless, though: As if anticipating the obvious reading, the guy one-ups Carly Simon's pronoun shell game by playing coy about identities, dubbing his breakup rant "This Song Isn't Even About You."
The always unsatisfactory second-person males in Amy Rigby's life have grown increasingly nameless in her two albums since Housewife, at least judging from 18 Again: An Anthology (Koch), which distills all three of her discs into one great introduction. For long-timers, it's downright disorienting to hear Housewife's closing track, "We're Stronger Than That," followed by that same album's opening number, "Time for Me to Come Down." But maybe disorientation is part of the plan: a careful move away from diary entries by an ex-wife who hasn't played house in half a decade. It's all culled from real life, sure, but Rigby is now crafting a persona rather than simulating personal confessions--a pro move from a woman who's currently shopping her songwriting services around Nashville.
In those quarters Amy Rigby's distinctively unsteady warble hasn't got a prayer against the preferred purty angels of the millisecond. Say that two times for the mopey drawl and pinched hysterics of Will Rigby, whose singing on Paradoxaholic is its own kind of "distinctive"--too much for Nashville, and maybe for Bloodshot too. Hang in there, however, and you'll be rewarded with a roots-pop disc of uncommon beauty. The ear-grabber is Jon Graboff, whose jagged guitar escalates to vertiginous "Palisades Park" swoop on "Got You Up My Sleeve" and staggers through "...Wheelchair, Drunk" as if he'd improvised the riff each time he played it. But Will's drumming and Blonde on Blonde organ whorls are the bedrock, and no dulcet gulp could lend the line "I know that I ain't much/But once upon a time you wanted to touch/Me" the resonance his choke wrenches from it.
As with his ex, what sets Will Rigby apart from the competition is simple: better jokes. "Leanin' on Bob" is a Dylanomaniac's confession that implicates the listener. "I hang on every word he's ever said/Well, maybe not 'Wiggle Wiggle,'" is funny only if you own Bob's 1990 placeholder Under the Red Sky, which makes you rather Dylanomaniacal yourself. It's funnier if you recognize that album's referenced lead track as the sort of juvenile toss-off with which Dylan sets out to piss off the faithful. Then again, you don't need to know any of this to get "Bob, I'm counting on you/I can quit smoking if you will, too."
Dylan is the likely inspiration for the non-sequitur rambles, though They Might Be Giants shouldn't be ruled out either. (Particularly on an untitled hidden track that imagines bluegrass plucker Ricky Skaggs getting kidnapped by terrorists and indoctrinated in gnosticism before resurfacing as a revival preacher.) But the even-handed approach to failed romance that characterizes Paradoxaholic is all Will Rigby. At first, "Sensible Shoes" sounds like a typical snarl against some ho who desires financial security from a freewheeling bohemian dude. For once, though, it's not the woman's fault that she has more expensive tastes, and Rigby captures the sadness of the couple's incompatibility.
What was it Howard Jones said again? No one ever is to blame? Well, Jones was a dip. But I know this much is true: Breakup songs are as idealized as love songs. Faced with a jumble of regrets you can't articulate, and resentments you can't justify, who doesn't envy the confident bitterness of Elvis Costello? Both Rigbys know better, their art thriving off the complications of an ex who refuses to settle for simple hate. On "Cynically Yours," Amy reels off a potential scenester prenup: "In the event that our mutual disappointment outweighs the positive aspects of this union, we agree to part without the destruction of crockery, automobiles, or each other's good name, in print or in song." Lucky for us, the Rigbys hewed to the letter of the law, but not its spirit.