Queer artists keep making great music
by Gregg Shapiro
As the year dawns, I must admit to being amazed at the number of CDs released by LGBT artists in 2003. Including the discs in the column below, I would estimate that I listened to at least 100 albums by queer performers this past year and have done what I could (space allowing) to write about as many as possible.
Dangerous Liaisons (Us Too), is the sexually graphic and feverishly funny debut disc by gay hip-hop artist Johnny Dangerous (pictured). “Hot Johnny” is a laundry list of sexual exploits that is sure to scorch more than a few ears. In “Fagazine Interview,” Johnny “covers a lot of grounds in just one first verse,” according to the interviewer, and pulls no punches in the next verse about the “down low brothers” he encounters when he’s on tour. The remix of “Sugar Daddy” is a fierce workout that provides details about Johnny’s sweet tooth. “Ball Busters” points a finger at all those who think it’s cool to “hop beds,” and “Not Your Average” pays a visit to the “house” of hip-hop.
While I listen to Independence Meal (Subtle Sister), the latest album by Alix Olson, I’ve been searching my soul, trying to figure out what it is exactly about Olson that rubs me the wrong way. Here is what I came up with. 1) We already have an Ani DiFranco, who mastered the spoken word/acoustic guitar music thing and continues to do so as you will hear on her forthcoming Educated Guess. To her credit, Olson does surround herself with gifted queer musicians, including Ubaka Hill and Pamela Means. 2) The hyperventilated and hiccupped slam-poet delivery repeatedly wears thin over the course of one piece, let alone a dozen. In a concerted effort to find something nice to say, I will tell you that “Wholly Human,” “8 X 10,” and “Womyn Before,” are standout tracks worth hearing.
Ember Swift is another one of the out musicians who performs on Olson’s Independence Meal, and Swift is also an artist whose delivery and performance persona are based in the Ani DiFranco tradition. On her most recent CD, Stiltwalking (Few’ll Ignite Sound), Swift, an OutVoice Chart topper and an Outmusic nominee, does deliver some unusual surprises, including “Ten Feet Tall,” “When a Gypsy Makes Her Violin Cry,” and “Boinked (The Bride).”
Speaking of surprises, I didn’t expect to be taken for a ride on a country road, as I was on Tom Andersen’s new CD, Who Knows? (Other Music). Andersen, a five-time MAC (Manhattan Association of Cabarets & Clubs) award winner, covers the twangy “Once I Was” and the torchy “Ghost in This House,” two songs written by country music songwriter Hugh Prestwood (Trisha Yearwood, Colin Raye, Kathy Mattea), as well as doing a heartbreaking interpretation of “I Fall to Pieces.” Even the originals, some of which were co-written with gay songwriter Tim DiPasqua, have a contemporary country quality. It’s not difficult to imagine the Dixie Chicks, Martina McBride, or Blake Shelton covering “Another Tuesday,” “Then Again,” or “Who Knows?,” although a daring country music DJ would do his listeners a great service by playing Andersen’s own version of these songs.
The songs on Intimacy (lamontridgell.com) by LaMont Ridgell are taken from Ridgell’s cabaret show, which premiered in January 2002. Ridgell has superb taste, beginning with the title track, which is a powerful Bruce Roberts tune. He also does moving renditions of songs by Craig Carnelia (“What the Song Should Say/Could It Be Love?,” “Look in My Eyes”) and John Bucchino (“If I Ever Say I’m Over You,” “Grateful”), and Roberts again (“Let Me Steal Your Heart from Him”). Ridgell also allows himself (and the listener) to have fun with “The Kite” (from You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown) and a revitalized reading of “Orange Colored Sky.”
Could Eric Himan be the gay Chris Carrabba (of Dashboard Confessional)? He’s got the tatts, spent time in Florida, and he possesses an emo energy that is hard to deny. Himan’s third album All for Show (Thumbcrown) also has the acoustic guitar fury of Melissa Ferrick and Ani DiFranco, and it also has the same queer spirit. From his admission of being a prude on “One Night Stands” to his confrontation of a rapist on “My Decision” to breaking through to someone on “The Outskirts of You” to the comfort of his shoulder on “A Good, Good Cry” to the closing perspectives of leaving someone (“On the Drive”) and being left behind (“It’s Only Fair”), the third time sounds like the charm for Himan.
As is always the case, there is no lack of discs by queer female bands. Escape Artist (Chaos Kitchen) by The Dolly Ranchers from Santa Fe is a stunning disc of insurgent Americana, reminiscent of The Be Good Tanyas, Victoria Williams, and early Erin McKeown. The Dolly Ranchers perform traditional-sounding originals such as “Drink Me,” “Maddie Girl Slim,” “Cholula” (as in “Maria gets her cholula on the side/and when she walks away/she ain’t hardly satisfied”), “Train Bridge,” “Chicken House Breakdown,” “Stars at Night,” and “WWJCD (What Would Johnny Cash Do?),” most with a queer stinger attached. The Dolly Ranchers’ cover of Hazel Dickens’s “Don’t Put Her Down, You Helped Put Her There,” also shows that they have done their research.
Queer female rockers continue to dominate, and new discs by Evil Beaver and Erase Errata attest to that fact. Pleased to Eat You (Johanns Face/Frooty Nation) finds the Third Coast duo of Evie Evil (vocals and guitar) and Laura Ann Beaver (drums) still mining the metal (“Forbidden Fruit,” “Pot Pie,” “You Suck! Sucker,” “Nacho Baby,” “Where’s the Beef?”) and even dabble in some experimentation (“Sonny Side Up”) that pays off for them. Left Coasters Erase Errata could be graduates of the punk rock class of ’77, but are more likely the children of the class of ’77. Listen closely and you can hear echoes of Gang of Four and The Slits throughout At Crystal Palace (Trouble Man Unlimited). In this challenging but rewarding album, recommended tracks include “Ca. Viewing,” “Let’s Be Active c/o Club Hott,” “The White Horse Is Bucking,” and “A Thief Detests, The Criminal Elements of the Ruling Class.”
Gay men are also rocking out when they can. Frustrated Housewives, for instance, have released an EP, Boys Like Me (Le Lipsticke) with two edgy remixes of The Waitresses’ “I Know What Boys Like” and the original Adam Baum tune “Trade.”
The bands The Unicorns and Atomicbombpocketknife have openly gay men within their ranks. Che Arthur, who sounds like Husker Du era Bob Mould on his solo debut disc, All of Your Tomorrows Were Decided Today (Flameshovel), is a member of the Chicago band Atomicbombpocketknife. The album opens with some straightforward rockers before mellowing out on the songs “Words Are Impossible,” “After It Has Turned to Dust,” “Valley of Fire,” and the instrumental “Heresies.” Arthur cranks it up again on the title track and “Chains.” Who Will Cut Our Hair When We’re Gone? (Alien 8) by The Unicorns features openly gay singer Alden Penner, and like The Hidden Cameras, proves that there is a massive amount of cool queer music being made in Canada. Electronic flourishes enhance the guitars and drums on songs such as “Tuff Ghost,” a penny whistle raises the stakes on “Sea Ghost,” a garage rock roar propels “The Clap,” “I Was Born (a Unicorn)” has a pop zest, “Inoculate the Innocuous” recalls The Cure, and “Ready to Die” is the curious counterpart to opening track “I Don’t Wanna Die.”
Some 30 years after the release of Fur Coats and Blue Jeans, her debut album, Deidre McCalla is back with her latest disc, Playing for Keeps (MaidenRock). Continuing to combine her persuasive political messages with folk, country, bluegrass, and gospel musical arrangement, McCalla’s latest is definitely a keeper. McCalla shines her unique sense of humor on “If God Only Knew,” a song about a serious subject, on which she is joined by Linda Tillery. Touching on topical matters “from crusades to jihads,” McCalla sings “Armies line up/And their hearts fill with pride/Each one convinced/They’ve got God on their side.” You can almost hear her shaking her head in the chorus as she sings, “For if God only knew/What’s being done in her name/She’d realize the humans/Have all gone insane.”
Playing for Keeps also has a pair of songs about letting go of love. “Moving on from Here,” contains the empowering lines “Looking straight ahead/Facing the fear/I can’t undo what’s done/But I am moving on from here,” which is a sentiment to which many people can relate. “Thanks for Asking” deals with the dreaded experience of running into an ex-lover after a breakup and is infused with a positive outlook. “Mama Loves Me,” which is about the many “ways to be a family,” deserves to become the theme song of alternative families everywhere. In the song, McCalla who is a co-founder of Atlanta Family Pride, sings about same-sex parents, single moms, and blended families, with a warm, loving, and parental embrace.
Acclaimed and award-winning out singer/songwriter SONiA has reissued her 2001 CD, Me, Too (Disappear Records). She has shuffled the song order and added her cover of “I Just Don’t Know What to Do” (which originally appeared on the Dusty Springfield tribute disc Forever Dusty). As always, it’s a pleasure to have something to listen to by SONiA, and I am still touched by her duet with her nephew Dylan on “Turtle Flowers,” a song that they co-wrote. Acoustic blues singer/songwriter Sean Wiggins has released her third album, I Gotta Be Me (Wigmeister Music). A well-traveled live performer, Wiggins includes “live” song intros to “L.A. Blues,” the title track, “Grandpa,” the humorous yet traumatic “music business is rewarding” live monologue “The St. Louis Story,” and the expressions of gratitude in “Thanks.” Favorite tracks of mine include the lovely “Remember Spring” and the piano-driven “Anyway It Happens.”
And don’t forget about Christine Martucci, a rocker from the Melissa Etheridge mold, and her new CD, Mama Says (www. christinemartucci. com).
LGBT choruses have been singing the songs of John Kander and Fred Ebb for years. Several of the duo’s musical theater creations—Cabaret, Chicago, The Rink, The Act, Kiss of the Spider Woman, Woman of the Year, to name just a few—have a queer sensibility and contain songs that are a good fit for queer choral groups. Boston Gay Men’s Chorus, under the musical direction of Reuben M. Reynolds III, have taken note of Kander and Ebb’s appeal and have recorded Razzle Dazzle: The Broadway Hits of Kander & Ebb (www. bgmc .com), an entire CD of the pair’s compositions.
Finally, I want to make mention of a trio of older discs by queer artists. They are Precious (www.brianwspencer.com) by self-professed Catie Curtis fan Brian W. Spencer; Inside ([email protected]) by Richard Anthony (a Chicago-area singer/songwriter who I met when he was competing in one of the Windy City Suburban Gay Idol contests); and Too Much Excitement (Beluga) by the Chicago-based trio Pistol Whipped.
At the 2003 OutMusic Awards in June, Gregg Shapiro received the annual honor for Outstanding Support, which recognizes involvement by non-musicians in furthering the work of GLBT performers.