By Brad Lopez
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By Noah Hubbell
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Some critics feel that open-mindedness is a waste of time. For instance, an ex-colleague at a Westword sister paper once pitched music editors like myself on a review of a Rolling Stones kickoff tour date by guaranteeing to rip the band a new one, despite the fact that the gig itself was still weeks in the future. But believe it or not, I try to approach every CD, performance and film with as much neutrality as I can muster. And while it can be mighty difficult to do so, I have collected a load of anecdotal evidence that keeps me committed to this methodology. Take, for instance, Yentl, a 1983 Barbra Streisand film: I went to it reluctantly yet came away thinking it was pretty damn good (which makes me gay, according to the screenplay of In & Out--but that's another story).
Although my objectivity has been tested on many occasions since then (even by Streisand, whose followup to Yentl was 1987's dreadful Nuts), I've never abandoned my convictions. But seldom have they been strained as severely as they were on March 23, when Alanis Morissette visited McNichols Arena. Truth be told, I regarded Jagged Little Pill, Morissette's debut full-length, to be so actively annoying that I temporarily shirked my duties as a chronicler of the Denver/Boulder music landscape and avoided several previous opportunities to see her live. And her latest disc, Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie, didn't inspire me to wave her flag, either. However, I had a firm talk with myself after the announcement of her March appearance and subsequently realized that I had taken the easy way out. Besides, if I exited at show's end raving about how Morissette is an artistic genius on par with Pablo Picasso, my beliefs would only be strengthened as a result. So off I went with my head held high, determined to give Alanis every possible chance to rock my world.
Things started well thanks to Garbage, Morissette's opening act. Lead singer Shirley Manson's injured left arm was in a sling and obviously caused her some discomfort--she regularly massaged her rigidly held digits between numbers--but as she stalked the stage, her eyes glinted impishly, as if she were keeping a wonderful secret all to herself. Meanwhile, main Garbage men Duke Erikson, Steve Marker and Butch Vig churned out a guitar-based approximation of the band's sound, which layers modern studio condiments atop indelible art pop. This blend of catchiness and hipster cachet proved utterly irresistible: "Medication" didn't give me much of a high (it's arguably the outfit's weakest tune), but "I Think I'm Paranoid," "When I Grow Up," "Special," "#1 Crush," "Push It" and the rest had audience members figuratively reaching for the volume control on their car radios to turn the music up. (As a bonus, Manson interpolated some Spice Girls lyrics into "Stupid Girl.") The 45 minutes Garbage was in the spotlight flew by and raised my hopes. Maybe it was going to be a nice evening after all.
When Morissette followed, I was still optimistic, but shortly thereafter, my heart began to sink. The problem was the material, culled mainly from Infatuation Junkie. The spin doctors at Morissette's labels have successfully convinced the nation's mainstream scribes that the Eastern motifs on display throughout the recording can be traced to the singer's Indian journeys, but she obviously learned far more by studying Robert Plant and Jimmy Page, since almost all of her newer songs, from "Baba" to "Uninvited" (from the City of Angels soundtrack), are rewrites, to varying degrees, of Led Zeppelin's "Kashmir." Song after song after bloody song was built upon the same sludgily played riffs, which more often than not failed to cohere into anything resembling a hook. Morissette, meanwhile, alternated her two primary voices (a fragile schoolgirl croon and a nasal whine capable of slicing through titanium) while whirling around the stage like a toddler dervish. She stomped her feet, danced spasmodically, tunelessly huffed into her harmonica as if she'd started learning how to play it earlier that day, dug her nails into her abdomen and twitched her arm à la John Belushi imitating Joe Cocker. Then, as the assorted extravaganzas reached their conclusions, she pressed her hands together, prayerlike, touched them to her mouth and thanked the crowd with the perfect-hostess panache of Martha Stewart. It was the kind of instantaneous transformation that made me wonder whether I was watching a concert or Sybil.
Frankly, the appeal of this behavior was mystifying to me. But rather than souring on the entire experience, I redoubled my efforts to find the positives in Morissette's presentation--and found that I was able to pretend that the glass was half full most easily during the handful of Jagged Little Pill ditties she offered. A deliberately paced new arrangement of "You Oughta Know" actually qualified as interesting (at least until it turned into--big fat surprise--"Kashmir"), and the unctuous but undeniably effective melody of "You Learn" wedged its way into my gray matter like a piece of shrapnel; the next morning, I was still trying to dislodge it. The attendees, who filled approximately two-thirds of the McNichols space available, responded more enthusiastically to these compositions than their comparatively recent cousins, singing along with every word warbled by Morissette instead of merely shaking and shuddering beatifically. That I understood their reaction and wasn't overtly alienated by it struck me as something of a breakthrough.