september 2009

thumbnailClose Encounters
By Laura Fissinger

Mix-Ing It Up with Men and Women, Together And Apart

(Or, How I Came To Love Amy Speace and Judith Edelman, At The Expense of Guys With Beards)

A good pal of mine sent me two complete CDs and two compilation discs a few weeks back, looking for my take on each. This particular buddy relishes mixing things up, making mischief with music and popular culture. It's an annoying tradition, and I love it.

I love it because Mr. Mix It almost always knows what music will make his friends really happy...or really reactive. This shipment's four artists are getting all kinds of critical applause, plus approval from the trend-oids, his letter says, nudging me to (over)react to the mention of hipster-anointed artists.

He wants a response to a provocative query, as well: what about the post-feminist questions around the state of break-up/divorce songs? Who is writing the better new millennium parting-ways anthems, men or women? Should we be talking gender at all—has it been personality all along?

I absolutely, truly love The Killer In Me by Amy Speace—what a title, huh?—and Clear Glass Jar by Judith Edelman. Mr. Mix It says they're classic breakup albums. I'd say they include themes carried from the ladies' respective divorces, but that's it. Otherwise, I think both CDs, overall, are about the power of believing in the power of all kinds of love, especially when one's heart is slow-dancing with loss. Any loss.

The assorted tracks from William Fitzsimmons and Bon Iver, I don't love. My feisty friend is going to get his jollies denied, though; unlike him, I don't hate these tracks, either. I would have fun mocking their creators, okay, I admit it. But I'll give this to my comrade: it is strange, that two guys with funky woolen snow season caps, bad hair, unattractive beards and a propensity for flannel shirts should generate media buzz at the same time. (Heck, Bon Iver's so au courant, the guy and his band even made a David Letterman show appearance this past April.) I enjoyed calling them Gorgeous and Handsome instead of their real names. (To answer the sizzling question, Fitzsimmons was Gorgeous. He grows the more strokable beard.)

But I really listened to the tracks my friend sent, especially the ones from each guy's latest CD—For Emma Forever Ago by Bon Iver (real name: Justin Vernon), and The Sparrow and The Crow by William Fitzsimmons.

While listening I kept Mr. Mix It's question in mind—can it be fairly said that either gender writes better break-up/divorce songs? Or is it a matter of personality and insistent mysteries?

William Fitzsimmons: Critics love William Fitzsimmons and his birdfeeder...

I've got to go for personality, with a little serving of society's substandard gender training on the side. I think some men tend to see complex emotional situations as more black-and-white than they are. Fitzsimmons, for instance features a pair of songs on his newest CD that come directly from his own divorce—"I Don't Feel It Anymore (Song of the Sparrow)" and "Please Forgive Me" (Song of the Crow)."

Check this out for black-or-white thinking (from an online interview by Mike Clark): "The album uses the two birds to represent the male and female characters in story of a divorce... The sparrow is the one...who was the victim. The owl is the offender, the one who carries the guilt. These two are basically the cornerstones of the album."

Proof that the critics love Fitzsimmons and his birdfeeder: The Sparrow and The Crow was named the Best Folk Album 2008 by the tastemakers employed at iTunes.

In the interviews I read from both Fitzsimmons and Bon Iver, I found them to be exceptionally decent guys (quirky, too, but that was a foregone conclusion, ja?). More than anything, I was struck by their undeniable devotion to their fans and supporters. How could I mock them?

Okay, okay—some of Bon Iver's lyrics can be mocked pretty easily. Obviously I couldn't resist checking a song called "Skinny Love," being a bony maroni myself: "Come on skinny love what happened here/ Suckle on the hope in lite brassiere/My, my, my (etc.)/Sullen load is full/So slow on the spit/...Now I'm breaking at the britches/And at the end of all your lines..."

Then again, sometimes mockery is redundant.

Get flash player to play to this file

Amy Speace, 'The Killer in Me': Every character has been created with substance and a memorable individual voice.

In my overactive imagination, I found a potential solution: Justin Vernon and his Bon Iver band could write most of the music, and William Fitzsimmons could write most of the lyrics. Then they'd get together with all this new material, call themselves Guys With Beards, and win a Best New Artist Grammy award. Maybe they'll let Justin Timberlake take them clothes shopping.

Judith Edelman: On Clear Glass Jar, Ms. Edelman sounds plenty rough and tough, even in the midst of all the classical music elements in the arrangements.

Back here in the other world, let me again thank Mr. Mix It for dropping Amy Speace and Judith Edelman into my life. I fully intend to pass them on to anyone who loves mixed-bag, unusually sophisticated roots music. I'm also going to pass them on to anyone trying to do better than just survive a breakup/divorce. I love how both of these women insist that emotional and psychological pain have positive transformative potential, however obfuscated. They are tough customers, finding newer, better possibilities inside and out while still swollen-eyed from last night's revelations.

Another thing they have in common—they know how to let their lyrics' narrators feel bad without tipping over into self-pity. I love Amy's "Dirty Little Secret" and "Would I Lie"—nobody's the official victim in the human drama of those cuts. No sparrow, no crow. More likely a cockatoo that knows how to cuss in three languages.

"Dirty Little Secret" also faces the universal self-esteem issues that get tangled up in romantic love: "If I'm good enough for you/ Am I good enough for me?" I wonder if a male writer would be brave enough to admit to that level of self-image discomfort. Heck, do most men even ask if they're "good enough"—in a general sense—without sarcasm?

When spreading the word about Amy Speace or Judith Edelman, they have to be described as highly articulate lyricists and talented composers. What's even more impressive is how far beyond those attributes a description can go. People new to her work should know that Speace is a well-trained (Amherst College), experienced stage and Shakespearean actress who's writing plays while she's writing her country/folk/rock/pop/bluegrass/roots/blues songs. You can hear the acclaimed actress at work on her CD—every character has been created with substance and a memorable individual voice.

thumbnailEdelman received classical piano training for years, taught herself bluegrass guitar, and earned a degree in English from Swarthmore College. She also spent a year working on community development in Africa—and what do you want to bet that music from that continent worked its way into her mojo? Currently, she's finishing a Masters in Fine Arts in poetry at Bennington University, while also living and working in Nashville. (The biographical goods on both Judith and Amy can be found in the August 2009 issue of

To go back to one of my friend's kickoff questions: neither one of these ladies appears to worry for a nanosecond about writing too rough and tough for potential male fans. How many women have used the word "killer" in a song, referring as much to themselves as to any male in the picture? That noun still has the power to offend some people deeply in certain contexts; women aren't supposed to be called "killers," even by their own pens.

On Clear Glass Jar, Ms. Edelman sounds plenty rough and tough herself, even in the midst of all the classical music elements in the arrangements, most notably shaping "Karma, Jane," "Meet Me There," "Dead Slow" and "Tired Of This Town." Lyrically, too, she stands up and takes names. About personalities and good break-up songs: no men I know would want to be dealt with as a bad-news ex in song by Edelman or Speace.

In the "not so rough and tough" category languish Mr. Vernon and Mr. Fitzsimmons, whom I half-salute in secret. Truth is, I think both of you have some measure of ability. I said "some." Still, I will be following your work, from a safe distance. Pop culture fans do themselves a favor, keeping track of what the cool kids like.

With more eagerness, I'll be following your beards, and fashion developments in general. Definitely pay up for cooler-looking hats. I come from two snow-belt states, and I know how hot the guys from freeze-out country can look.

If you're as smart as your hipster fans and rock critic champions say you are, you'll both just break down and get some sharper clothes. As that champion of hip indie roots music himself has declared (who else but Mr. Mix It), "Once every fifteen years, show up in a suit. Chicks dig it." Mr. Mix It would know.

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