Little Things Mean a Lot

For all of the raw power and resonance in Kurt Cobain’s carefully articulated rage, its magnification on airwaves has had a rather adverse effect on pop music. An endless slew of ascendant post-Nirvana malcontents–from prince of darkness Trent Reznor to the whiter than snow Jewel–have reduced the complexity of contemporary life to mute screams. The raspy wail of Courtney Love may have conveyed a poignant moment of desperation, but she and plenty others have continued to scream like kids waiting for someone else to come along and clean up their messes. Of course, many of these misery cases are kids, and unfortunately the cachet kids have with the entertainment industry has relegated adult perspectives to the fringe.

On her perfect 1994 album, My Life, describing such unsexy things as childhood memories, the transcendence of songwriting, and personal maturation, Iris DeMent accomplishes more through personal observation in one song than any anguished Alanis can hope to in a lifetime. She understands the layers of meaning hidden in small things. She’s no candidate for Up With People, but the small, poignant affirmations she draws from life’s everyday travails far outweigh the narcissistic whining of today’s teen angst pop star, for whom every betrayal is a personal affront and a cause for painful catharsis.

So it’s hard to figure out why DeMent has taken on the burden of political profundity with her third album, The Way I Should (Warner Brothers). Maybe her growing popularity–and a worldview broadened by regular touring–has prompted her to speak for the oppressed and against all of those rich fuckers who keep them down. She delivers a few zingers in the protest-singer mode, but most of her topical songs lack the effect of her more personal writing. Anyone who pays attention to national affairs is bound to get incensed now and then, but such subjects could really benefit from the empathy with which DeMent has treated her previous material.

In “Easy’s Gettin’ Harder Every Day” from My Life, she sang “When supper’s done we’ll watch some TV show / Of a bunch of folks who’ve never heard of Idaho.” This subtle assault on the dislocated reality of the media is blown up large on the new album’s heavy-handed “Wasteland of the Free,” in which she points fingers at the Christian Coalition, bought politicians, NAFTA, greedy CEOs, the gulf war, and MTV; elsewhere she beats up on Beavis and Butt-head. It’s hard to argue with her, but the listening is painful–especially when she assails kids “runnin’ round in Calvin Klein and Guess / Who cannot pass a sixth-grade written test.” There’s a late-breaking Vietnam protest in “There’s a Wall in Washington” and she gets downright self-righteous about neglected yuppie children in “Quality Time.” But as evidenced by Ralph Nader’s presidential campaign, preaching to the converted doesn’t effect change. If Garth Brooks sang this song he’d risk losing some fans, but DeMent’s modest liberal audience will just pat itself on the back. When she gets really pissed about the government throwing kids in prison, the best she can muster is “it sounds like crap to me.”

“Letter to Mom” addresses another favorite talk-show topic–sexual molestation–but here DeMent reclaims her edge. She’s not saying anything new on the matter, but she essays the alternating guilt and rage with pinpoint effectiveness. “Walkin’ Home” uses the sort of vivid imagery that filled My Life to conjure her modest upbringing and homespun values. Looking at herself, DeMent says plenty about all of us; looking outward she says little at all. (It’s a shame, too, because DeMent’s voice sounds better than ever on The Way I Should, even if producer Randy Scruggs seems intent on coating the old-timey folk amalgam she developed with previous knob twirler Jim Rooney with an ethereal folk-rock gloss.)

On her solo debut, a sharp-edged, self-explanatory concept album called Diary of a Mod Housewife (Koch), Amy Rigby keeps her concerns close to home despite the fact that she feels boxed in there. The subject and style are different from DeMent’s, but Rigby has the same knack for tapping into feelings everyone can relate to. In the Shams, the terrific but short-lived New York pop vocal trio she led, Rigby lusted after a gas-station attendant; now, on “Knapsack,” she fantasizes about a bag-checking bookstore clerk (“He took my knapsack and his fingers brushed my wrist / Gave me a number, but it wasn’t even his”).

Rigby’s humor softens her lyrical blows. Half a dozen tunes chronicle romantic decay (she recently split with husband Will Rigby, former drummer for the dB’s), intimately examining the way the giddy ritual of marriage becomes lethargic routine. “Beer & Kisses” zooms in on the role of a couch: when the relationship started the couple would “Get home from work / Turn out the lights / Sit on the couch / Spend the whole night there.” Years later they get home from work and get into a fight. She’s still spending the whole night on the couch, but she’s there alone.

DeMent, who has traded her own microscope for a wide-angle lens, could take a remedial lesson from Rigby. If she’s hell-bent on writing about politics, she’d be better off working from their effects on real people. In fact, that’s an idea we can all relate to.

Rigby makes her first local solo Chicago appearance next Saturday, November 2, at Schubas.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): George Du Bose.