Sunday, December 02, 2007

Kat's Korner: Ann Wilson sings and stands tall

I don't want to bum it all
But this axe, she got to fall
Even it, come on, even it, even it up.

Kat: "Even It Up" is a song written by Ann Wilson, Nancy Wilson and Sue Ennis for the Wilson sisters' band Heart. Heart has a ton of hits -- "Never," "Dog and Butterfly," "Alone," "What About Love," "Tell It Like It Is," "Barracuda," "Straight On," "Magic Man" and many, many more. But "Even It Up" was what came to mind more and more when I thought about Ann Wilson's Hope & Glory.


Heart's saga is far too lengthy to recount here but the briefest explanation is that the Wilson sisters started a band with three men and with Nancy's amazing guitar work and Ann's one of kind voice, the sisters were at the forefront steering and steered it through countless line ups. Along with Stevie Nicks, the Wilson sisters were often the only women to get significant air play on rock radio following the banishing of both Janis Joplin and Joni Mitchell. Like Nicks, but unlike many others who would briefly receive moments of airplay, they were women other women could listen to with pride. They weren't teasing pud, they were rocking out and proving that women could and would.

Though Nancy released a solo album in 1999, Ann had confined her solo work to singles. She scored hit duets with Loverboy's Mike Reno ("Almost Paradise") and Cheap Trick's Robin Zander ("Surrender to Me"). Hope & Glory is Ann's first solo album. Considering that she first hit the US charts in 1976 ("Crazy on You"), it's been a long wait.

Hope & Glory is an album of eleven covers with one new composition. Cover albums? Carly Simon and Patti Smith managed to make a statement with their cover albums this year. But the bulk of cover albums in the last years have been as disappointing as Judy Collins' most recent release. Since this is not only a cover album but a solo one, we should probably talk a little about band members and solo albums. Everyone thinks they'll be Stevie Nicks but most just end up embarrassing themselves. You listen and you think, he or she could have done this project with their band and, if they had done that, the only track worth hearing could have been included there and spared you the garbage that is the bulk of the album. It's equally true that rockers who do solo albums frequently tend to go soft as they sport their 'sensitive' side and steer towards the pop market.

Hope & Glory is as strong as the best Heart albums. Musically, the thing rocks. It's a muscular album that finds arrangements which actually match up to that amazing voice, one of the most powerful and yet underrated in rock. It took "Up On Cherry Blossom Road" (on Heart's 1995 live album The Road Home) to remind me yet again how amazing Ann's voice was. Probably because there was an effort to steer the group towards pop for the bulk of the late eighties which makes about as much sense as attempting to steer Robert Plant towards the dance charts. So it's thrilling to hear Ann's voice teamed with arrangements that let her go as raw as she wants, let's her shade as much as she wants.

The voice. She can wail, she can be tender, she can be strong, she can hit more notes than most 'divas' can dream of and the kids on American Idol only wish they had her sense of dynamics (they should lust for her shading, but they lack the sense to realize that). How could something so powerful, so moving and so amazing not get the just recognition it deserves?

Heart's been around long enough to suffer through several backlashes. Though rocking brothers have been a staple of rock history, two sisters who rock out is another issue which explains the early rumors that the Wilsons weren't sisters but actually lesbian lovers. A similar outlook was at play when the rumors spread that the two were witches. Why not? Two women who rocked in the same band? Must be something 'strange' there. As the Wilsons attempted to steer their band, they were attacked for that as well. And as women, they rarely got credit for what they accomplished. Rolling Stone is infamous for repeatedly asking journalists to rewrite and tone down praise for the group. (Rock journalist Daisann McLane has been most public about this issue but it wasn't limited to McLane's 1980 profile on the band that led to McLane being fired from the magazine.)

Tina Turner's long road back became the "comeback" in 1984 and with Turner's raw vocals, who cared if some of the arrangements were a little too poppy? The comeback led labels to boil down a few 'rules' for many artists. Heart was far from the only band to soften their approach for singles (see also Aerosmith, Def Leppard and assorted others). But they were a band led by two women so "These Dreams" became a point of contention while "Love Bites" got a pass. It didn't matter that, along with the intended singles, the albums contained tracks that rocked out. Music was being overly mechanical -- which is the whole reason alternative rock rose up the charts -- and Heart was seen as the worst example. Which was more than ironic since they weren't among the Miami Vice set turning out the most annoying songs that were not only featured on the program but bore distinct resemblance to the show's irritating theme song.

"All I Want To Do Is Make Love To You" was a huge hit but there was a backlash there as well: Who does Ann Wilson think she is arranging a one night stand to get pregnant! As if the song wasn't fictional and as if one night stands didn't have a long history in the world of rock. It's equally true that excessive attention was focused on Ann's appearance. It's rather amazing to look back and remember all the 'jokes' about Ann Wilson and Stevie Nick's weight at a time when men were bald and balding as well as far from CK models. Of course that went untouched on. But, to give younger people an understanding of the sort of 'humor' provided, a (male) dee jay felt perfectly comfortable in the late eighties offering of Stevie, "She should move to India, they worship cows there." Though Ann and Stevie were regularly targeted with such 'humor,' it needs to be noted that the males with less than gym-perfect bodies didn't get the same on air hostility from dee jays. I'll be kind and not list them all but I'm sure, if you were around then, you can think of many.

So Ann Wilson has endured a lot of crap when all that really mattered was did that voice rock out? It did and, as Hope & Glory reminds, it still does.

What interested me in the project first was that I love the amazing voice. I would've been content, if not happy, with three good or even okay tracks and an album of filler. Last month, I was looking for reviews of Joni Mitchell's Shine and finding that it was still being ignored when I came across news of Ann Wilson's CD. On November 5th, I wrote, "Canada's Leader-Post has one article that contains five reviews so I believe I can excerpt one of the five brief ones. I will also note that one of the albums I want to review before the end of the year is covered in this review, so, if you're curious, you can read the article". The album was Hope & Glory. I immediately looked around for the CD but couldn't find it and assumed, Canadian press, the CD would be released later in the US. Between alternating road trips with Ava and C.I. to speak out against the continued illegal war and trying to jam as many photography jobs into the few weeks that I am home, a lot falls through the cracks. Friday morning, I remembered the CD and mentioned that I had to get it. Silly me, C.I. already had it (it was released on September 11th in the US). We listened as we drove from campus to campus and when we were at Trina's at the end of the day, I immediately listened to the entire CD straight through. My only complaint was that I was too tired to stay up and do the review then.

I've talked about how amazing the music is so let me turn to the second point about the CD, Ann's standing up. The illegal war hits the five year mark this March and some could argue that five years into Vietnam (after the US first started sending in 'advisers'), a lot of the music world was still silent outside of the folk segment. I really don't buy that but if you're going to make that argument, you need to remember that support for the illegal war shifted strongly in 2005 and only then went on to crater. Has music bothered to reflect this? No, not really.

We've had alleged voices of peace like Carole King stay silent despite releasing a two-disc set. We've seen Judy Collins decide now was the perfect time for her to do a third album saluting men and avoid any political statement the Beatles ever made. We've seen a lot of cowardice. As though everyone was so damn sure what was done to the Dixie Chicks would be done to them. Apparently a multi-platinum album and multiple Grammys is something to be feared?

It's most disappointing, this silence, to me when it comes from established artists who most likely will not top the singles chart ever again. They have their base and their base can make their CDs a hit if they know the artists have released something new. Certainly artists like Collins and King who've built their public images around being supporters of peace have nothing to fear from their loyal base in making a statement against the war. Also it's not as if either woman stands much chance of notching up a top forty hit. Maybe they don't grasp that? But making a statement could draw attention to the fact that they have a new album and could alert their fans -- who were on board the peace trip with them for years and years -- that they were still making contributions. Instead they played cowardly. Let's not forget the men. Bruce Springsteen does a tribute album to Pete Seeger, a very political artist, and fails to include the song everyone expects. Apparently realizing he blinked, six months later it is reissued with Pete Seeger's "Bring 'Em Home" among the bonus tracks. Would have been nice if he could have put that message out when he was hawking the album on its initial release. And of course, you can't talk about the men without talking supreme coward Bono who is trying to do damage control over his continued silence on the illegal war. Lots of luck but it's hard to pose as political and caring after you tell Jann S. Wenner, "Everyone in the administration knows how I feel about the war in Iraq. Everyone. I criticize it to Tony Blair as well. Do I campaign against the war in Iraq? No. . . . That's the compromise." (page 67, November 3, 2005, Rolling Stone).

A lot of cowards out there. A lot of people protecting themselves and their careers (most of which peaked long, long ago) but wanting to be seen as 'brave' when they rush out with their 'safe' issue. It's disgusting. Having heard them trot out their nonstop praise of the 'sixties' repeatedly over the years and seeing that, when confronted with a similar illegal war, they can only offer silence is disgusting. Bono can try to market it as a "compromise" but the only thing that's been "compromised" is himself.

So along comes Ann Wilson, rock's most underrated voice, and guess what? She can and does stand up.

Screaming hopeless questions
Dreaming 'bout my home
Till the chopper comes from heaven
To gather up my bones
I'm standing on a ledge
Out here on the edge
The moon is hanging high
It fills my dying eyes
Little problems, little lies

That's from the album's one new song, "Little Problems, Little Lies," written by Ann Wislon and Ben Mink. The covers take a stand as well. With Wynonna Judd, she revists the Brill Building and the most political writer there was Cynthia Weil so it's no surprise Wilson bypasses Goffin & King, Greenwich & Barry and heads straight for Barry Mann and Weil's "We Gotta Get Out Of This Place." Wynonna Judd? Yeah, Ann's teamed up with some big names for this album including Judd, her sister Nancy, k.d. lange, Elton John, Gretchen Wilson, Rufus Wainwright and Shawn Colvin among others. With Elton, she duets on "Where to Now St. Peter?" and, here's the thing, Elton wrote that song with Bernie Taupin in 1970 about Vietnam. Don't say Elton John hasn't stood up. Bono can't call out the illegal war but Elton John can. And John didn't spend the 80s glorifying the '60s' and bemoaning that he wasn't around then because, 'man, he would've weighed in, you dig?'

Every time I listen to Hope & Glory, I've got a new favorite track. I'll notice the wail Ann adds to Pink Floyd's "Goodbye Blue Skies," get off on the way Ann and Elton tear into their duet, marvel over how no one, to this day, interprets Jimmy Page and Robert Plant like Ann (on this CD it's "The Immigrant Song," with the sidegroup Lovemongers she earlier nailed "The Battle of Evermore"). Maybe it's the duet with Alison Krauss on Neil Young's "War of Man"? The way she tears into John Lennon's "Isolation"? Or maybe it's the life and hope she, Nancy, Wynonna and Deana Carter bring to "Get Together" -- Chester Powers Jr.'s old chestnut that I would have thought had nothing left to say.

That Ann Wilson is an amazing singer shouldn't be news all this time later. That she's capable of making an amazing album on her own may be. Along the way, she shows up many of her 'weightier' and more 'serious' peers. On every level, this is one of the most amazing releases of the year.