Thursday, December 22, 2011

Gonna Dream, Ariana Gillis Ups The Ante

"Dream Street" gives this particular blog its title because it's the first Ariana Gillis song I heard.  Dave Marsh sent me the MP3, and I'm glad I wasn't driving when I heard it.  That insistent tom tom and occasional stroke of guitar behind this clarion call--

I'm gonna dream
I'm gonna dream street....

That might have driven me off the road.  Nothing needs to follow, considering the immediate effect is something like Suicide's (or Springsteen's, take your pick) "Dream Baby Dream"...sung by a hopeful and determined young heart. 

Of course, Ariana Gillis makes sure plenty follows, and those emotions would have surely made me pull over.  "Dream Street" tells the tale of a young singer who yearns to connect with her dead mother and argues with her abusive father (David Gillis, her guitarist and co-conspirator dad gets special credit for being down with this) about the dangers of dreaming "too far."  The song is a meditation on limits and desires.  The singer's resolve to tackle that contradiction as a problem, not as a reason for defeat, is at the heart of the liberating vision that ties Gillis' sophomore album, Forget Me Not, together.

The record opens with "Money, Money," which echoes everyone from the Plastic Ono Band to Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five in a seething, taunting panorama of deception and violence, a song that describes the world the O'Jays would recognize with a determination to make a break.  "Forget Me Not" celebrates the end of a relationship gone wrong, finding it in the singer's heart to "hope you'll change" [but] "don't change for me."

Like her folk ancestor Woody Guthrie, Gillis seems to prolifically generate art out of her surroundings.  After "Dream Street," two songs (two songs and a narrative prologue to be exact) seem to be born from the 2009 dolphin harvesting expose The Cove. "The Cove" doesn't hide that fact, telling the story of Ric O'Barry, the dolphin trainer at the center of the movie, who regretted ever training dolphins because of the captivity industry he helped create and fights like hell to destroy to this day. Unlike, say, Guthrie's "The Ballad of Tom Joad," which retells The Grapes of Wrath in song form, Gillis's song manages to turn O'Barry's story into a more generalizable anthem for those fighting to correct their own past mistakes.  Amazingly enough, that anthem is one of the most infectious, danceable uptempo singalongs on the record.

"John and the Monster," the song with the prologue, is something else altogether.  It tells the story of a boy who discovers a creature with healing powers, which leads to its captivity.  He ultimately has to sacrifice himself to restore the creature's powers, which not-so-incidentally are bound up in its freedom and happiness.  This song is an exquisite ballad.

Which serves as a reminder I haven't said nearly enough about Gillis's voice.  She can yawp like Dylan one moment and ride a laugh like Ani DiFranco the next.  On "John and the Monster," she manages to deliver something like a Gaelic lilt, which rolls from a whisper to high tide, stilling itself with startling agility.

The delightful range of Gillis's voice is essential to sell "Samuel Starr," a song about a heart attack victim and a deep sea diver who find themselves engaged in conversation six feet under.  What makes such a song work, aside from sheer audacity, is the way Gillis' voice delivers the horrors of death with the plainspokeness of each victim and expresses amazement at the realization of this miraculous second life.  The delight in Starr's voice as he offers his friend a plan to protect his widow from a useless new husband--"We'll get up out of this graveyard and freak the bastard out"--has to be heard to give these words their due.  Starr's new friend, Joe Jasper Cloverwood, suggests a trade off that will make his loved one smile.  It's Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train where everything goes right; Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book with a jaunty rhythm and more hooks than you can count.

 Another crazy catchy folk song, "Cannonball Sam," carries forward the theme of impossible escape well established by "Samuel Starr," hinging on the lilting refrain, "Free!  "Snap Crack" breaks down the very method of musical transcendence while "Back on the Hill" simply delivers it, in the context of a decidedly un-nostalgic rock 'n' roll love song.  There's a liberation in naming the reality, "I never loved you," which closes the song.

The album ends with "Oh the World," a song that starts with the possibility in a cut kite string.  Then comes the memory of a mother's love.  After that, a poverty stricken child on the street who seems to have all the hope the singer struggles for. In the end, she asks we "don't give up on her too soon." Not only does this music guard against any thoughts of giving up, we wake from these dreams hungry for whatever comes next.

Meanwhile, there's her terrific first album, To Make It Make Sense.  If less focused, similar ebullient thrills obviously abound there.  I'm a big fan of "Simon Brooke," the song of a lover lost to war.  I haven't spent near as much time there yet.  I'm looking forward to taking my sweet time with both, and oh the world to follow...