Thursday, April 29, 2010

Forgotten Music: The Girl in the Other Room by Diana Krall

In 2004, Diana Krall tried something different and was savaged for it.

Up until that year, Krall had been riding high. She crept slowly to the world’s attention although the jazz clan knew of her long before the rest of us did. Her first breakout CD was All for You, a Tribute to the Nat King Cole trio. After another CD devoted to love songs, Krall exploded on the world stage in 1998 with When I Look in Your Eyes. That CD had the distinction of being the first jazz CD to be nominated for the Album of the Year Grammy. She followed with 2001’s The Look of Love, a lush, orchestral album, rich in jazz history with a modern touch. The DVD, Live in Paris, captured Krall at the zeitgeist of this run.

All of a sudden, things in her personal life simultaneously fell apart and found new joy. Her mother died in 2002 as did professional mentors Rosemary Clooney and Ray Brown, the man who helped convince Krall to move from her native Canada to Los Angeles to pursue a career in music. These tragedies might have been worse if not for her newfound love interest Declan MacManus. What? You don’t know that name? How about his profession nom de guerre: Elvis Costello. It cannot be coincidence that the confluence of personal loss, personal happiness, and the presence of a brilliant songwriter prompted Krall to try something new on her follow-up. She wrote her own songs.

Krall is, like all artists, a creator. You can’t deny that, for example, the Krall version of “The Look of Love” or gender-swapping of Cole’s “I’m an Errand Girl for Rhythm” are new songs, ones different from other versions out there. But, for all the reasons listed above and others we don’t know, Krall felt the urge to create her own work, to say something in her own voice. And the resulting CD is something very special: The Girl in the Other Room.

Krall wrote half of the twelve tracks on this CD with her new husband, whom she married in 2003. In liner notes on her website, Krall comments that she wrote pages and pages of thoughts, memories, and impressions but it was Costello who trimmed and honed the thoughts into verses and stanzas. What you experience in these songs is an adult woman—not some Top 40 teeny bopper—coming to terms with heartbreak, loss, the meaning of love and family, and romance.

If there’s one song that has it all, it’s the title track. The main character is alone in a room in a house. The silence closes in on her. She’s thinking. She’s remembering her mother. The musical arrangement intensifies this feeling, opening with a simply guitar chords by Anthony Wilson. The aural quality of the guitar evokes emptiness. The funeral’s over, perhaps, because there’s murmuring from a different part of the house. She’s looking at her reflection and questioning herself. Later in the song, the same girl is with her lover as they undress and fall together. She questions whether or not they should be together, but she finally realizes life goes on. The girl in the mirror recognizes herself. She’s different now, but still the same person she was and always has been. In all, this song is a positive song, one about overcoming calamity and still living as well as possible. To stay put is to stagnate.

Not every song is about love and loss. There are songs about Krall’s new place in life: as a wife, as a seasoned professional. “I’ve Changed My Address” shows Krall reflecting on her earlier life playing in jazz bars, sharpening her chops. Now, it’s a sports bar. I think we all can relate to this kind of jarring change, where our sepia-tinted memories clash with modern realities. The music brings to mind the past, coming across as the type of song Krall would have played back in the day, a song that could have found it’s way onto the soundtrack of “The Fabulous Baker Boys.” Not that Krall would ever sulk over a piano. But this song, and her voice, certainly imply that she could.

If you’ve seen a photograph of Krall, you know she is one of the most beautiful performers out there, jazz field or otherwise. Tabloid-wise, you never heard about her relationships until she hooked up with Costello. However, in her cover of the Chris-Smither-penned tune, “Love Me Like a Man,” made popular by Bonnie Raitt, a little of her romantic anger busts out. The words are like lashes of a whip, complaints to which, I suspect, many women can attest:

The men that’s I’ve been seeing, baby
Got their souls up on a shelf
You know they could never love me
When they can’t even love themselves

I come home sad and lonely
Feel like I wanna cry
I need someone to hold me
Not some fool to ask me why

It’s this kind of song that mutes us men. We don’t know what to say to a woman who’s singing like this. And that’s the problem. This track features Krall’s touring musicians of Jeff Hamilton on drums and John Clayton on bass, still with Wilson on guitar. There’s an effortlessness present in this song, a knowing something that you can’t get with just studio musicians. These players know each other and push and pull throughout the song like old friends. It’s during Wilson’s solo where Krall breaks out a couple of “yeahs,” something that came from within her. Again, modern, over-produced CDs don’t usually allow this kind of personal statement. But then, that’s what this CD is all about.

“Love Me Like a Man” is not the only timely cover Krall performs. Tom Waits’ “Temptation” comes across as that silky, snaky tune you’d hear on a late Saturday night, when you find yourself faced with something you know is wrong, something you’d have to come to terms with the following Sunday morning in a church pew. But, damn, it’s so good here, in the dark on Saturday night. The Hammond B3 organ, played by Neil Larsen, sneaks in on verse three, a sly reminder of the snake that is temptation. You can’t help but wonder if the temptation Krall sings of is the very album she’s creating, one that is of her and by her, but not necessarily what the jazz community thinks she should create. You get that vibe from her subtle counter melody under Wilson’s guitar solo. It’s a question that is left unanswered.

My favorite song is a cover of Joni Mitchell’s “Black Crow.” Here Krall sings of highways, of constant movement, diving down for that “something shiny,” searching for love and music, trying to find it in every nook and cranny she can. She laments “How’m I ever going to know my home when I see it again.” You can’t help but hearken back to the character in “The Girl in the Other Room” questioning herself as well. It’s a well-chosen cover and the soaring solo Wilson delivers is fantastic.

I have mentioned other musicians but I need to turn to Krall’s own musicianship on the piano. She is an accomplished piano player but not one who knows only one thing or one style. What this collection of songs—and, by the way, Krall is credited with the music for all twelve songs—demonstrates is Krall’s ability to pull from the piano exactly what the lyrics require. That’s a benefit of being a composer, singer, and player. She brings out breathy notes for some slower, emotional songs, evoking Vince Guaraldi’s sound on “Almost Blue.” She bangs out octave-based accompaniments in other, broader songs. And her solos express a command of the instrument that rivals few in the jazz world.

After listening to the album, you have to wonder why this CD earned such mixed reviews when it came out and in the six years since. The folks in the jazz tribe certainly loved it when Krall covered old songbook titles but balked when she struck out on her own. Why? Do they just want to pigeon hole her? Ditto for some of the folks who reviewed the CD on Amazon. They loved her previous CDs when she sang love songs but didn’t like this one. Why?

One reason could be our society’s tendency toward the simple. We don’t often like to think and The Girl in the Other Room requires thinking. Sure, there are a couple of tunes where you can check your brain at the door but the rest--the autobiographical material--calls for listener involvement. There’s a saying that a book is never finished until a reader reads it. The same could be said for an album’s worth of music.

With The Girl in the Other Room, Diana Krall has challenged us as listeners. She wants to show us her painful journey through the loss of a mother, something we all have to deal with a sometime in our lives. She shows us that loss hurts, it can be debilitating, but there is always hope. A line from “Narrow Daylight” compactly expresses this hope: “Is the kindness we count upon hidden in everyone?”

And if you don’t want to think too hard about one woman’s journey from the valley to the mountaintop, just listen to the music. It’s stark, it’s expressive, it’s tentative, it’s soaring. As is this CD. I, for one, hope that Krall delivers another album’s worth of songs she herself pens. She’s a mother now. I can’t help but wonder how that experience has affected her muse. I don’t expect it to have the resonance the The Girl in the Other Room has but, then, this CD was a complete surprise. I look forward to being surprised again.

NOTE: The DVD, Diana Krall: Live at the Montreal Jazz Festival, is the visual document of the tour promoting this CD. Nine of the twelve songs from The Girl in the Other Room show up on this DVD. The songs are expanded to allow more soloing and interpretation. Some of the tracks exceed the studio tracks. It’s a nice comparison piece to the 2001 “Live in Paris.” Same artist, different vibe. She’s visibly happy during both shows but you can’t help but wonder if she’s just a little more excited about playing her own songs on the Montreal DVD. As a creator, I certainly would be.


pattinase (abbott) said...

I remember my parents being disappointed with this too as big Krall fans. I could never understand why.

Unknown said...

Great review...thanks!

Perplexio said...

Great review, I'll have to check this one out sometime.

Todd Mason said...

I'm just glad that she's been able to gain enough clout that she doesn't need to try to sell her records with her admittedly nice legs any longer.

Perplexio said...

PS... I've never been too keen on Elvis Costello, I purchased the 2CD Rhino re-issue of This Year's Model and it has some admittedly enjoyable moments on each CD but by and large I found myself somewhat underwhelmed. He does toss out some decent lyrics now and then, I really dig Greenshirt which is a demo on disc 2 of the re-issue. The cadence of his voice is infectious and it has the great lyric: "who put these fingerprints on my imagination?"

Evan Lewis said...

Wow. Gotta hear this one.

Paul D Brazill said...

Top stuff. I think she did the right thing. It's easily her best LP.

Chantel Nouseforaname said...

I really did like this album when I heard it, as a young woman I found it very real. I work in a record store in the jazz section & no one likes Diana Krall except me. It's funny. She's pretty cool tho and this was a great review!

Charlie Ricci said...

Unfortunately, this is one of my least favorite Krall records and that's because of the songs she wrote with her hubby.

Scott D. Parker said...

Patti - Question for them: did they like the follow-up CD? If so, then you can assume they like Krall when she's doing standards, not originals.

Andrea - You're welcome.

Perplexio - I think you'll enjoy it.

Todd - Exactly! I love most of her CDs but her latest, Quiet Nights, was a bit too soft for me. I spin The Girl in the Other Room or Live in Paris much more often.

Perplexio - Costello's an acquired taste. I prefer more of his esoteric stuff (especially The Juliet Letters) than his "usual" rock and roll stuff.

Evan - Definitely.

Paul - Glad I'm not the only one who thinks so.

Chantel - Wonder why no one likes Krall? Too mainstream? And, again, why is that a problem?