“I don’t remember where I was, when I first was lifted up.” Jane Siberry
I was in grade nine, in my friend Steve’s basement. His parents had the best stereo of any of our parents, and we always seemed to gather there. One time over the Christmas holidays, Steve had me sit up next to the speakers and he put on this song. It started out quietly enough, with soft, rolling piano, and a sweet soprano voice singing about “Winter-time on the frozen river”. It wasn’t until she got to the line “You skate as fast as you can ’til you hit the snowbank…” that I actually recoiled on the floor away from the speakers. He had the bass turned way up and on the word “skate” these drums kick in out of nowhere really unexpectedly. It’s at that point when the song really takes off, and I really hadn’t heard anything quite like it before. The drumming was all uneven and irregular, improvisational even, and I couldn’t make any sense it, but then when it got the chorus of, “Don’t……. Let……… Those Sunday afterno-oo-oo-ons……getawaygetawaygetawaygetawaygetawaygetawaygetawaygetaway, break away, break away, break away”, I was hooked. I had to find out more about this song, this person.
It was Jane Siberry, and I had found my first real musical crush. (Okay, maybe not my FIRST musical crush. That honour probably still goes to Cyndi Lauper, but you know what I mean). My first ADULT musical crush, if you could even consider a dumb kid from the suburbs anything close to resembling anything adult, that is.
Truth is, I think Steve wanted to play that song because it had the “eff word” in it later on. He was always finding songs that had swears and he got some kind of weird pleasure from playing them for others. I remember Bruce Cockburn’s Rocket Launcher calls some one a “sonofabitch” towards the end, and Steve couldn’t get enough of playing that one for me too. You can tell this was a simpler time before N.W.A. and other such groups. (We didn’t discover those until high school). I don’t think albums were even given “explicit lyrics” warnings then, either.
I wanted to hear more of this album to see if it was just the one song, or if I had really stumbled onto something. I am happy to report that starting right from the first track, I knew I found a singer that got better and better after every listen. The album was called Bound by the Beauty and the title track really is a powerful thesis statement about the beauty and power of nature in comparison to our short fragile human timelines. Certainly ideas that were beyond this 14 year old’s radar at the time.
Then, Something About Trains, and if you know anything about me at all, you’d know that if you referenced trains, you were already preaching to the choir.
“Most of the time when I’m walkin’ the line I’m looking at the ground, but every time I hear that whistle blowin’, and every time I hear that old black crow…every time I hear that whistle blowin’ I find myself shiverin’ in my soul”.
And then you get Hockey, the first song of hers I ever heard.
Next up was a playful little number that actually got a lot of video play on Muchmusic, Everything Reminds Me Of My Dog. There’s not much to this one, except that it’s rather cute and shows that JS can be fun and quirky as well as deep thinking and esoteric.
The Valley is next. A beautiful, haunting love song that takes its time. (It’s over 6 minutes long, but you don’t feel it). It culminates with that lovely line, “I love the best of you, you love the best of me. Although it’s not always easy…”
AND THAT’S SIDE ONE OF THE CASSETTE BECAUSE I WASN’T SATISFIED JUST LISTENING TO IT IN STEVE’S BASEMENT SO I WENT OUT AND BOUGHT MY OWN COPY.
I didn’t really think this was going to be a track-by-track review of an almost 30 year old album, but here goes. We’re halfway there.
Side two opens up with what probably could very well be the most beautifully moving song that Jane Siberry has ever written. The fact that you don’t get to it until halfway through the album speaks volumes to the strength of all these tracks. What can I say about The Life is a Red Wagon that doesn’t immediately turn into nonsense gushing? The first line is “You watch the slow train moving, through the city late at night…” Trains again, guys. (I know, low hanging fruit, but STILL). And then you get that lovely sentiment in the chorus, “The life is the red wagon, rolling along. The life is the red wagon, simple and strong. The life is the red…is the red… o-oh it’s no big deal. But when the feet are dragging, woah-oh oh oh oh, you pull for me and I pull for you…”
After this, the album does take a darker turn, with Half Angel/Half Eagle full of ugly language depicting city life. There’s a powerful rhythm that carries this song all the way through, and the pain is palpable. I guess Steve never got this far into the album, because there are way more swears in this song than in Hockey. Who knows? In any case, I’m glad Steve’s love of vulgarity actually led me to something beautiful in the end. In my case, I knew EXACTLY where I was when I was lifted up.
This is contrasted by La Jalouse, a hauntingly quiet tale of domestic violence that is so tenderly sung by Jane playing the role of an abused woman and then switches roles mid-song and sings as the abuser. The changing perspectives, especially when she sings the words, “I grabbed your shoulders and then I threw you as hard as ever” will stay with you for a long, long time.
The album ends with a sweet little confection called Miss Punta Blanca that has a lively latin beat and it brings the listener back from the brink (where she left them at the end of La Jalouse). Listen to its playful opening line, “I coulda been Miss Punta Blanca, I coulda but I didn’t wanta…”
Just when you think the album is over, the final track launches and it is a doozy. After Miss Punta Blanca gets us back on our feet, we are treated to a peppy, almost six minute mostly instrumental number called Are we dancing now? (Map III) which ends with the words, “Oh, life is a mystery.”
- Life IS a mystery.
- This song was a mystery: What does Map III mean in brackets? Is there a Map I and II? (There are). Will I find them? (I will).
- This album is a mystery. What a collection of songs! Starting with an ode to beauty in nature, and taking us through love, abuse, redemption, friendship, more abuse, and finally ending with dancing. It was an outrageous accomplishment. I even set aside U2 for a bit to let this cassette work on me. I couldn’t get enough of it. Of her. I was smitten.
- This woman is a mystery. Who is Jane Siberry? (Many different people). Has she made more albums? (She has). Will I eventually meet her? (I will). Is there more to this story? (There always is).
Next time: what happened next? Stay tuned.