Friday, December 5, 2014

Why Aren't You Listening To Meg Myers?

1001 Albums To Hear Before Your iPod Battery Dies, Part One
Meg Myers, Daughter In The Choir and Make A Shadow

The first time I heard “Adelaide,” I stopped everything. I was cooking dinner at the time, and I admit, I burned the bacon. However, when Meg Myers’ voice, bold and resonant, forcibly contrasted itself to the introductory toy piano, I knew I’d begun hearing something revolutionary. As the percussion takes Myers’ side against the deceptively gentle piano, demonstrating Myers’ conflict with someone she only calls “boy,” she proved my initial opinion correct. She’s something new.

Recent years have seen the revival of breathy female vocal stylings so annoying, back in the 1990s, that it made my teeth hurt. When Selena Gomez or Carrie Underwood comes on the radio, I cringe, wishing they’d put more larynx, less lungs, into their vocals. Not that every female top-forty singer sounds wispy and girlish, but too many do. In “Adelaide,” Meg Myers sings with such full-throated bravado, I feel her singing in my chest.

Which made it doubly surprising when I purchased Myers’ debut EP, Daughter In the Choir, where “Adelaide” is track two. Track one, “Curbstomp,” has exactly that breathy style which annoys me from pop stars, and I cringed inwardly. Then, the second time through, I bothered listening to the lyrics:
I'm a sinner, I’m a liar
Want forgiveness, but I'm tired
I'm addicted to the fire
Let go, I'm ready for it
Let go, I’m ready
The lyrics, particularly coupled with Myers’ vocal tone, suggest a powerful woman who’s had the fight kicked out of her. Particularly since those last two lines, the song’s semi-refrain, sound very different: Myers’ beefier, more self-assured tone intrudes, though clouded through layers of distortion, like some nihilistic Jiminy Cricket. In a media environment where Strong Women are so ubiquitous that critics mock them, Meg Myers sounds different. She isn’t “Strong”; she just won’t be broken.

Among her many virtues, Meg Myers’ voice is so protean, she almost sounds like different artists on different songs. She uses this to remarkable effect. “Desire,” the first track and lead single from her second EP, Make a Shadow, mimics the breathy, besotted tone much loved by demure female pop stars. However, backed with a muscular, synth-driven backbeat and Myers’ frankly disturbing lyrics, she becomes the antimatter version of the crinkum-crankum songstresses she’s clearly mocking.

This reflects her general gist across her work.. “Heart Heart Head” starts softly, almost gently, though the music sounds less like a romantic ballad, more like a horror film soundtrack. By the end, Myers has ascended from gently husky lullaby, through gruff growling, into full-throated screams acidic enough to peel paint from metal. Her changing voice makes the superficially sweet lyrics, “You’re in my heart, you’re in my head,” a statement of undisguised animal terror.

We could apply such interpretations to every track, but more example will suffice. The song “Go” lets Myers use two voices in counterpoint. As her romance collapses, one voice timidly whispers: “Running away, running away.” Suddenly, the other, full-throated and brash, barks: “Go!” It becomes clear, these two voices represent one woman, and the pull between being good-girlish and being, well, herself. The song’s abrupt ending leaves us reeling—as, indeed, her romance leaves her.

I’ve seen Meg Myers in performance. She’s as dynamic and nervy as her songs imply. Not that she’s some fearless man-eater; as she sings songs of a woman asserting herself against the prissy roles society encourages in women, she looks terrified. But you quickly realize, she isn’t terrified of being judged. She’s terrified of the mighty power she’s discovered locked inside herself. She realizes, as if for the first time, that she could destroy you.

Myers is a fascinating performer. Watching her dance across the stage, between her guitarist and an electric cello player, I assumed she was improvising her moves. But Sarah beside me, who’d know, exclaimed: “She’s using belly dance moves!” Indeed, I quickly realized her moves were choreographed. One regional DJ observed that, where many alt-rock vocalists’ warm-ups involve slamming a beer, Myers actually does scales. Her passion is tightly controlled, which, if anything, makes her scarier.

Women’s roles come and go in rock music. Confident artists, from Wanda Jackson to Suzi Quatro to Aimee Mann, periodically assert themselves against the continuous thread of shrinking violets waiting for some man to complete them. Meg Myers is no shrinking violet. She has relationships, she loves men, but she won’t let them control her. The power in her songs asserts: I exist. Before you, without you, I exist. And nobody can take that away.

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