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CD Review: Emm Gryner - "Public" (1998)
Who is Emm Gryner anyway?
I seem to be a bit of a risk-taker when it comes to choosing the music I listen to these days - at least in terms of buying CDs from artists who I know practically nothing else, about apart from one song I've heard on the radio, or in some cases simply based on a recommendation along the lines of "you liked x, so you should like y". Said risks pay off more often than not, sometimes even handsomely - one of my "finds" during 2007 was Canadian Emm Gryner, who's actually been in the business for over ten years now but who it's also safe to say hasn't exactly set the world alight in terms of exposure and sales. Of course, I know the record buying public can be quite a fickle lot, plus what one might class as talent isn't always appreciated by the next person - but if you're on the lookout for an hour's worth of intelligently-performed mellow-"Adult-Alternative"-rock by someone who possesses a distinctive yet pleasant voice, then Emm Gryner's 1998 album "Public" might well be something of an investment.
Canada seems to have had an understated ability to produce some of the best "adult alternative" female singer-songwriter written albums during the last decade - at least in my humble opinion, among my favourites being the likes of those from Melanie Doane, Kathleen Edwards and Amy Millan. Clearly the Canuckistan Government were putting something in the water supply thirty-odd years ago to bring about such a wealth of girl singer-songwriter talent nowadays! Whilst Emm Gryner's "Public" isn't quite at their level (although it's not too far away), there's plenty on this CD to like, appreciate and admire - and it even whets the appetite with regards to obtaining the rest of her back catalogue. If Kathleen Edwards abandoned alt-country and tried her hand at straight-up folk-rock, she'd probably sound like Emm Gryner. Both possess strong vocals that are reassuring and absorbing, whilst still quite capable of lifting themselves clear of mediocrity - in the latter's case, she's got a fine range which doesn't sound strained at the top end, which is always a plus. Whilst on "Public" she's got a band behind her, and there's a definite "production" about the album - even over-produced in some places, she's also keen enough to perform "living room" shows in fans' homes - that's one way to ensure a fan base.
So who is Emm Gryner, and why haven't you heard of her? Another artist who is content to let her music speak for her, rather than trade on looks or getting her kit off for FHM, "Public" was her third album after debut CD "And Distrust It" in 1995 and 1997's follow-up "The Original Leap Year". Trying to attract the attentions of music industry distributors by sending them her demo CDs wrapped up in baskets of fruit, and whilst still playing bars and clubs in Toronto, she entered "Wisdom Bus" (eventually to become the second track on "Public") in a Canadian song-writing competition. She won, the prize money being used to fund the release of her debut "And Distrust It". Noticed by a producer, she was then signed by Mercury Records. Ms Gryner was subsequently rather prolific in terms of album releases - "Public" came along in 1998 and since then she's recorded another seven, the latest being "The Summer Of High Hopes" in 2006. However, the same year also saw her releasing a revised version of "Public", called "PVT", which was put on general sale after originally only being available with pre-ordered sales of "The Summer Of High Hopes". This review looks at the 1998 "Public" CD, however.
Although "Public" was her first (and to date only) album released on a major label, it did not sell in large numbers, possibly due to a limited publicity campaign, which led to Emm Gryner being dropped by Mercury Records shortly afterwards - subsequently she resurrected her own label, Dead Daisy Records, for follow on projects. As far as I am aware, only the track "Summerlong" was released as a single. Seven of the tracks on the album (marked * in the listing below) had already been included on the previous year's "The Original Leap Year", although there was apparently a rougher sound to the earlier cuts. And what was the reason for the title? She chose "Public" because she felt she was making some intensely personal songs public and also that her career would become more so due to the contract with Mercury Records - simple when you think about it.
What's on the CD?
There are twelve tracks on the album:
01. Hello Aquarius *
02. Wisdom Bus *
04. Death Is A New Day
05. Phonecall 45
07. The Good You Make
08. Your Sort Of Human Being *
09. The End *
10. July *
11. 89 Days Of Alcatraz *
12. This Mad *
"Sagittarius won't have me in his orchard
Thought about how messy it would get
He doesn't know a mess 'til I open my mouth
And say how I broke all my New Year's resolutions"
I have to admit when I first heard the opener "Hello Aquarius" I started to wonder why I'd bought this album. Clearly I was either being distracted by something else or wasn't paying enough attention to the song, because after a few more repeated listens, it turned out to be something unusually special. I'll certainly admit it didn't grab me straight away - it didn't really register at all for some reason. Possibly the curse was in the fairly subdued first couple of verses, where you don't really get much of a flavour of Emm's usually strong vocals (but do discover what an evocative lyricist she is), but my curiosity really should have been piqued by the distorted guitar intro and her opening salvo which actually bodes well for the rest of the track. As soon as the above-mentioned lyrics are out of the way, she climbs several notches in pitch and there's a whole different feel to the song, although it's a brief sensation - "Hello Aquarius" is odd in as much as it seems to promise more than it delivers, yet somehow sticks in the memory, especially the upbeat choruses alluded to above and even the unleashed guitar afterthought right at the end. This is evident on most of the tracks on "Public" - one of Emm Gryner's strengths is her adeptness at realising memorable choruses, despite what your initial thoughts about the songs themselves might be. Whilst "Hello Aquarius" appears to have a temperament that matches its slower tempo, stick with it - there's a rewarding experience at the end of the journey for those who endure.
"On the wisdom bus heading into town
I'll pay the fare to be a believer
I've rode imagination straight into the ground
And I gotta know what I gotta know by now"
Okay, so poor-ish start, you might think, what's next in the CD pile? Hold on, don't stop reading just yet: my faith in Emm Gryner was restored once "Wisdom Bus" started playing - talk about catchy. Not in an immediate, Top 40 dance hit stylie, though, another slow-burner but one that you know is good from the off and which takes a few more listens to truly sink in. Don't be deceived by the subdued opening though, which sounds like a rattlesnake preparing to strike - or even when the first verse slides in with hardly a whisper - there's both a lyrical and a vocal storm brewing. Dave Genn's guitar work is absorbing pretty much from this point onwards, not because of the power or energy, totally the opposite - it's exquisite, gentle and soothing where it matters, emphasis only being added to the choruses and even then the muted accompaniment works really well. Emm takes up some of the slack instead, with unexpected alterations in emphasis and power - whilst she's nowhere near shouting or screaming, it's on a much broader canvas than the previous track. Be warned - once the chorus comes in, its insidious arrangement will stay with you for ages, the multi-talented Ms Gryner playing Wurlitzer, bass and piano. Her primary instrument is the latter but she's equally at home on the others - although it's the sudden change in clarity and purpose throughout this track that really forces the issue on "Wisdom Bus", plus the vocal range she deftly demonstrates towards the denouement. It's a song about the artist wanting to know everything about the mysteries of the world right now, about an unfulfilled wonderment - well, the "sense of wonder" here is only too evident. There's a refinement that's precise but pleasing, a pace that's strident but unhurried and an arrangement that is mature but still challenges the listener. Like "Hello Aquarius", it's not going to win fans over to Emm Gryner immediately, but those who persevere may, like me, end up summoning the chorus in their head at the most unexpected times of day.
"I used to be infectious
Now I feel a continent away
Chasing the ghost that haunts you
Has nothing to do with you today"
If you've heard of Emm Gryner before, chances are it's because of this track. In the remote recesses of my mind, I seem to recall "Summerlong" getting some airplay on daytime UK radio or maybe that's just my imagination playing tricks on me. Whatever the truth, this is arguably the most radio-friendly song on "Public" and certainly the most accessible. Whilst the intro shares the fate of the two preceding tracks in that its fairly muted, here Emm has included a commentary on a summer-long romance set against some quite sparse backing for the opening half-verse. Once the guitars crash in, though, she discards the downbeat opening for a frothy, uplifting rhythm, which almost seems out of character. It's not that Emm Gryner doesn't do "happy" - she's clearly not Aimee Mann - instead she has this knack of wrapping disappointment and frustration up in arrangements that point the listener in completely the opposite direction. "Summerlong" is a case in point: it's about how she let go one of her most important relationships - clearly a milestone event and one that you'd think deserved a much more sombre take than she's given it here. Mind you, Emm's conscious of the underlying theme throughout - strip the song down, and you're aware that she's hurting inside, plenty of raw emotion coming through loud and clear via her heartfelt vocals and the jabbing intensity of the lyrics. She seems to reach a point where it all gets too much for her - thus the "Now the summer's gone and I think I'll end my song, 'cause something feels wrong" finale. And no, I'm not becoming senile just yet - "Summerlong" did receive plenty airplay at the turn of the century, I checked!
Death Is A New Day
"If I called you a dead man I might survive
Dancing to your favourite rock songs in my spare time
Every other thing that breathes goes up against you
They try to scrape you from my skin but they always lose"
"Death Is A New Day" seems to have stolen the sombreness and sobriety that should have belonged to "Summerlong" - Emm's rendition of this moving ballad relies almost totally on her regret-laden vocals and a barely-noticeable acoustic guitar to set the scene. If you've made it to the end of the first verse without sharing in some or all of her depressive state, then clearly you're bullet-proof. Attempts by Dave Genn's electric guitar to drag the song out of her flat-lined but strangely emotive delivery during the first chorus don't success in terms of the second verse, but by the end of the song, sheer weight of effort prevails - there's a chink of sunlight here and there, Emm picking herself and her voice up a little with the promise that there's light after the darkness, aided by some delicious distorted guitar. What's all the more surprising is that she reaches this conclusion at all - there's so much expended beforehand that she's almost as limp as a wet dishcloth by this point. She's on record as saying the album is about going through break-ups and rejections but not being prepared for them - this song basically encapsulates that description. You might think that "Death Is A New Day" is something to avoid at all costs, then - no chance, this is no "by the numbers" ballad but a song that creeps up on you, one that you wonder why you didn't pick up on it sooner. Just call it another reason why you can't pin Emm Gryner down to a particular description, nor quite pigeonhole her into a certain group of similar artists.
"A corporate nightmare on a Sunday night
A grown-up reminder that I am still alive
I don't need another friend, maybe you do"
Picking herself up from the despondency on "Death Is A New Day", there's plenty to admire on the racy (for Emm Gryner) and purposeful "Phonecall 45". Not that you'd think this when the now trademark "Emm Gryner subdued and deceptive intro" kicks off, though - however there's a slightly more upbeat percussion running in the background which leads into her own much more bouncy vocals, which are sent off climbing into the stratosphere on several occasions during the choruses. These changes in pitch result from heavy emphasis on a single word, a rather enchanting yet amazingly restrained set of vocal gymnastics from an artist who in previous tracks has merely hinted at such a mellow-sounding range. I've already noted her knack of writing melodies and hooks - here they're particularly persuasive and long-lasting, possibly the most memorable on any track during the first couple of run-throughs of the album. In fact, they are so strong that they totally dominate the song, snowploughing everything else aside - even the wonderfully muted accompaniment from her mellotron.
"You just dropped your bomb
Like blood on a Tuesday night
Like everyone else you've found a pretty face
And you're all set for life"
"Acid" made one of the Lilith Fair compilation CDs a few years ago, and even from the most cursory of listens it's not too difficult to work out how Emm Gryner was included in what is a quite stellar line-up of North American female artists. Concentrate on the lyrics for a moment - here they're meaningful, full of emotion and completely moving. Couple them with Emm's simple yet heartfelt delivery, no histrionics or screams needed or wanted, thank you, then add an extremely complimentary backing courtesy track of Emm herself at the piano and you have a winner. I've never really been comfortable with ballads for a variety of reasons, yet this one seems perfect on numerous levels. Whilst it's melancholy, meandering and maudlin, she's still able to inject a cunning hook in the form of an unexpected one-line pitch change which in anyone else's hands would sound totally out of place. Here, it becomes the most memorable part of the song and it still feels right.
Your Sort Of Human Being
"So my love song isn't hard enough for you
Did I lose my tune to one of Jupiter's moons?
Did I pass with the centuries in your Coventry house?
Did I, did I call your name too loud?"
"Your Sort Of Human Being" almost seems to mark some sort of watershed on "Public" - there's an awakening here that suggests she's turned the corner in terms of dealing with the heartache laid out so publicly beforehand. Whilst the lyrical self-examination still goes on unfettered, the arrangement is much more positive here - no doubt the inclusion of strings from the London Session Orchestra have a part to play in that, plus Emm's vocals seem sparkly, sprightly and even - dare I say it out loud - upbeat. Yet again she's created a delicious hook, one that makes this song probably more memorable than it really deserves to be, careful emphasis on a single word changing the whole feel of the chorus.
"My love carved his name in me
Carefully but full of might
See my head spinning
As surely as the planets"
I've come to love ballads - there now, I've said it, so I can't take it back. Well, there's always a catch. In this instance, the caveat is "only if they're sung by Emm Gryner". If someone could bottle the essential elements of "The End", they'd make a fortune flogging it to aspiring songwriters the world over. It's a completely unassuming song, one that really should wash right over you, yet there's something virtually indescribable about the whole experience that makes you just want to sit and listen. It's a bit of a cop-out but it's true - "The End" possesses something magical that would fall apart if it was to be analysed. I started off writing this review thinking I would award "Public" a four-star rating but this song typifies what's intrinsically "right" about this album, despite my initial misgivings - so it's getting the full five-star treatment.
Artwork and Inlay Time
Full lyrics for each of the songs is included on the multi-faceted fold-out inlay - it's not in booklet form. There are also a healthy selection of arty photographs taken of the artist at night on the streets of New York.
I started writing this thinking that I'd write a review praising Emm Gryner's talent but ultimately suggesting that she didn't quite deliver the goods. To be honest, I've had the album for a few years but haven't really listened to it much beyond half-a-dozen attempts when I originally acquired it. For the purposes of this review I was determined to give "Public" a couple of decent hearings, if only to reinforce my initial feelings. How wrong I was in my assessment - whilst I hope the above makes pleasant and informative reading, it has been well worth it in terms of making me re-examine Emm Gryner in terms of my favourite artists. Okay, she doesn't have the immediate appeal of several other singers I could mention, but perseverance pays dividends - "Wisdom Bus" and "Phonecall 45" were elevated to "oh, wow" status whilst "The End", "Acid" and "89 Days Of Alcatraz" suddenly took on new, previously unheard of dimensions.
Get beyond the immediacy and radio-friendliness of "Summerlong" and you're more likely to appreciate Emm Gryner's undoubted knack for writing memorable hooks and melodies. Her voice is pleasant, aided by sympathetic arrangements and whilst the subject matter for the songs on "Public" doesn't go beyond break-ups and rejection, she does it justice throughout.
I started off this review by saying I'm a bit of a risk-taker with my selection of music - Emm Gryner's "Public" just became another "win, win, win" scenario.
(This review also appears elsewhere in modified form.)
Disc #1 Tracklisting
1 Hello Aquarius
2 Wisdom Bus
4 Death Is a New Day
5 Phonecall 45
7 Good You Make
8 Your Sort of Human Being
11 89 Days of Alcatraz
12 This Mad