Americanna/Ameripolitan

4. Lost and Found: Gal Holiday and the Honky Tonk Revue Part Four: Cause He Looks So Damn Pretty – So Unrefined. By John M. Davis

This post continues our review of Gal Holiday and the Honky Tonk Revue’s new album; Lost and Found.  It discusses four of the songs on the album that include morality tales, Desert Disco, Loose Diamonds, Someone Like You and Treat You Better and concludes that Vanessa Niemann’s songs outline a variety of male characters: some loving, some not so giving, some that might run away and some that are less than gentlemanly.

 

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Desert DiscoLoose Diamonds, Someone Like You and Treat You Better

In the songs Desert Disco and Loose Diamonds Gal Holiday returns to the ideas of running away and of drunken encounters after dark.  Both songs take the position of a male character who has temporary lost his bearings. Indeed, Niemann is equally skilled at singing songs written from a male and a female perspective.

Loose Diamonds introduces a male character who took a ride on a runaway train, possibly risking his home and family:

Well he took a ride,

On a runaway train,

He left it all behind,

Everything he could find that was in vein.

His Name Was Loose Diamonds.

Loose Diamonds.

Again, Niemann withholds the full story. But, enough specificity remains to get the feeling of a person who has made lust led choices and awoken to regret it.  The song utilises haunting harmonies to covey the crazy pain of a love opportunity that ‘slips through your fingertips, Like a love that leaves a bitter taste’.

Loose Diamonds sensual nature gives the green light to female listeners to get in touch with their sensuality; it lets the lady listener know that You’ll love loose diamonds, Oh yes you will, Yes you will’.

This song may be the house wife’s choice of the album; because Loose Diamonds is a great song to sing along to, whether openly in the kitchen, or, elsewhere, as a guilty pleasure.  With lines such as:

Cause he looks so Damn pretty,

Looks so unrefined

So give it up girl,

And throw your pearls right down before the swine,

Cumon loose diamonds,

Yeh-yeh, yeh, yeh.

Loose Diamonds tune gives you permission to get lustfully carried away, but, as always in this album, we don’t quite learn what happened to this Honky Tonk affair. Indeed our Loose Diamonds is checked back at the end of the song when Niemann beautifully and intriguingly returns to Lost and Found’s golden thread by stating that: the ‘story goes on’, ‘it just doesn’t end’ and ‘I heard he moved back to town got himself back together again…’. 

You get the feeling Loose Diamonds is a guy with a troubled heart who is looking for a place to hide but can’t quite find that right hotel with a vacancy inside.  It appears that the character Loose Diamonds was smitten, had his head turned, his runaway relationship didn’t quite work out, but that the door was not firmly shut on future possibilities; e.g. next time his love interest returned to town.  drj

Listening to Loose Diamonds I was minded of C M Grieve’s: Poem,: A Four Years Harvest which includes the lines:

He pulled himself together again….

His memory was like the shooting of frost crystals on a window-pane:

Never was there a crystal which was not attached by traceable lines to the main body,

Yet no one could prophesy whether each fine filament might strike out on its undivided adventure,

What he sought would come slowly, and in its own way.

When the great music came it would not be such and such a bit of tone-colour, nor this or that sonority,

But the soaring or tender curve of the themes,

Their logical yet ever new unfolding,

The embodiment in the whole composition of richest variety with completest unity…

From Annuals of the Five Senses, p 79.Grieve’s first set of poems printed in  the name Hugh MacDiarmid.

Grieve’s poems are full of contradictions and he himself displayed many of the prejudices of the age he lived in. Towards the end of the above extract, Grieve employs the contrast of a change of pace to give us the feel of the ebb and flow of his character’s passions.  Grieve is at his best when he explains how our passions, lustful tensions, life experiences and enforced engagement with mortality can tear at us; until our minds are shocked and spent.

A Four Year Harvest p67/68 also includes the lines;

I too have prayed to find desire no more,

To find in little things small content,

No longer from the green and friendly shore,

To swim a waif in the huge element,

My spirit darkness, my heart beats fitfully,

A power descends on my soul and shakes,

The calm of tranquilising song and brakes.

The doom-dark wave of passion over me,

And every tumult in my being wakes,

A power not friendly to me but divine,

Troubles the current of my trembling line.

Loose Diamonds has a similar change of pace in  its lyrics.  Indeed, Niemann’s singing, the song Loose Diamonds and the album Lost and Found, are full of trembling passions that are divine but troubling.  Niemann’s story telling does not seek to restrict our imagination, therefore, we are left to ponder whether Loose Diamonds may well have prayed, like Grieve’s character, for to find desire no more.

Niemann’s refrain, at the end of the song, urges Loose Diamonds to come to his senses: ‘Don’t throw your love away, It’s so hard to hold, Yeh – so, so ‘ard to hold’.  In so doing, the lines suggest that: though Gal Holiday may have been attracted to Loose Diamond’s crazy lack of refinedness, she understood the value of what he might lose by having an illict relationship; even if he did not.

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In Lost and Found, Vanessa Niemann deploys Gal Holiday’s awareness, of male flaws, that men cannot see in themselves, as an extremely powerful tool.  Her songs outline a variety of male characters: some loving, some not so giving, some that might run off and some not so gentlemanly.

Loose Diamonds illustration of a man taking a ride on a runaway train also reminds us of other times when Honky Tonk music was prevalent.  The times: of Spaghetti Westerns; of dust bowl movies;, of outlaw songs sung by people like Jonny Cash; of a tatter minded beat poet who shared a box car ride with a Dharma Bum and of train running summers with destinations unknown.

In the main, Niemann’s message is clear, whatever type of man you are, whether you’re a mean box car dick who throws people off trains or a gutter punk that seeks to catch a ride unpaid, you have to, at some point, shape up and pull yourself together.

In Niemann’s world , just like in the song Ain’t Gonny Buy My Ring, freedom is a land that has constraints, particularly in the case of her male characters. Niemann tends to reverse the split morality of the traditional country genre and cut her female characters a bit more slack than her male characters.  Her male characters are specifically called out when they get out of line.

The song on Lost and Found that calls us out most of all is Desert Disco.  At first the song encourages our consumerist and escapist nature:

Well if you have the time,

Why don’t you go unwind,

And spend your hard end pay,

On the city lights and sinful sites,

And booze, to chase those blues, away.

But then, Niemann presents a character who has drunk too much on an empty head, lost their bearings and is wandering on untrue legs; like a newly foaled beast.  This song enables Gal Holiday to critique our consumer culture, draw a line in the sand for people who take their entertainment too far and distance Gal’s fun and games from the excessive behaviour of people who have become all consumed, un-adored and sickened citizens of the candy store.

Desert Disco’s lyrics question the behaviours of our contemporary life,in a way that reinforces one of the album’s golden threads; that there are limitations to our escapist fantasies:

When the dust cleared out,

I was staring at a king who’d lost his crown

Standing over some poor souls body,

Lying lifeless on the ground.

Well truth be told,

He had sold his soul

For his own brothers gold

Well if you have the time you can go unwind,

But ill be far away

From the city lights and bloody nights

You’ll regret the day….

You get the feeling from Desert Disco that whilst playing in NOLA, touring other permissive settings and in her role as leader of the Honky Tonk Revue, Gal might have had to fend off quite a bit of unwanted and excessive attention.   

Desert Disco, updates the folk/country murder ballad by depicting a poor fellow being gunned down; a king who has lost his crown.  In so doing, it picks up the themes of Loose Diamonds to use as nails to be hammered into our errant Desert Disco dancer’s coffin.  Where Loose Diamonds is soulful and advisory Desert Disco is abrupt and uncompromising.

In this way, Lost and Found balances songs about loving caring homes, inter-generational trust and corn flowers blooming with tunes that explain that our worlds include gritty sandscapes and landscapes that we, unfortunately, have to traverse as we journey through life.

In particular, Gal holiday’s stories about men appear to be the grittiest on her albums.  This chastising theme can also be found in Niemann’s Last to Leave album that includes the song Broken Rings which is about a turbulent relationship and love gone cold.

Previously, Niemann has utilized quicker, dance-able covers from other artists to: chastise errant lovers, sing of the trickier side of life and contemplate our relationships, e.g.: Love Is A battle Fielded, Don’t Think Twice, and Fulsome Prison.

On Lost and Found, the quicker dance songs let you know that Gal Holiday is no shrinking violet and that whilst songs like Come home and In My Dreams Again, portray her vulnerable side, she also knows how to have a good time:

Niemann’s morality tales will play well with men and woman who have had to jilt lovers for not playing fair on the battlefield.  Someone Like You tells a story of a person who has had to move on from a partner that has been mean to them:

I been looking,

For someone like you.

Try to overlook,

The means things you do and say to me

Someone Like You demonstrates the maturity of Gal Holiday’s character by reflecting on a relationship that turned out to be inappropriate.  It tells us that Gal Holiday may be tiring of love’s miss-taken detours, men who make her feel insecure, those who only offer false promises and those with whom she has had quickly forgettable affairs.

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Someone Like You has lines Like:

When you left me,

Alone and in pain,

I came to realise,

You were never that man.

These lines reminds you of Loretta Lynn’s tearful loneliness in Don’t Come Home A Drinkin’ With Lovin’ On Your Mind.  In spite of locating Gal Holiday tearful, alone and on her own, the lines do not place her in a passive role.  For example, when Gal reflects that: I broke my own heart, Waiting for someone like you. She takes control of the narrative moving beyond the unconstrained, illicit, lips kissing and lust filled rendezvous of Let’s Run Away to locate us in a more constrained setting.  A place where she has had to set clear boundaries concerning what types of relationship behaviours are acceptable.

By portraying a relationship that is at first hopeful but then hit with a tranquilizer dart, Niemann is able to put a contemporary theme on country tear jerkers that, traditionally, talk about a woman’s need to escape a lousy partners but then finish by telling you she just can’t help but stay with him.

Similarly, by enabling Gal Holiday to take clearer and more decisive steps away from partners who hurt her, Someone Like You updates the lines of Love is A Battlefield which state ‘You’re begging me to go, Then making me stay, Why do you hurt me so bad’ and ‘I can’t tell you why, But I’m trapped by your love, And I’m chained to your side’ .

Gal’s no longer trapped and by rejecting passive victimhood, Niemann creates tunes that will have a crossover appeal similar to Shania Twain’s ‘if you’re not in it for love, am out of here’, Lorrie Morgan’s Standing Tall and Martina MacBride’s Independence Day.

Gal Holiday has feelings and yearnings to meet the right guy; but not at any cost.  The later songs on Lost and Found slowly reveal the torn nature of Gal Holiday’s fantasies, aspirations and realities and yet, also tell us that Gal, and nobody else, will decides what happens in her life, how her heart is broken and what the future holds.

Across Lost and Found, Gal’s identities emerges in a complex way, but, they have also been cleverly crafted over a series of albums that demonstrate Niemann’s ability to sustain her presence and independence in the Ameripolitan genre.

Lost and Found invites the listener to escape into whichever of Gal’s character traits that they, themselves, most associate with.  Whilst doing so, Niemann employs the technique of the slow reveal to very gradually let us understand Gal Holiday’s different identities.  Some writers link the slow reveal to the idea of the Dance of the Seven Veils.  However Niemann’s album does not provide a strip tease to satisfy some patriarchal male fantasy.  What is revealed is a complex, considered and thoughtful woman who is funny, intriguing, powerful and yet, vulnerable. A woman who is full of flaws, tensions, uncertainties and mistakes but also capable of moments of liberation.

Some One Like You also reveals that Gal is looking for a good man and that ‘He doesn’t have to be perfect cause lord knows I’m not’.  This, admission that Gal is not perfect, nor a saint, enables Niemann to exhibit Gal’s mature awareness that she, just like anyone, can have bad days.

Her self-reflecting approach builds upon the lines in the song Treat You Better that reveal that Gal is also capable of injuring other people. Treat You Better displays Gal’s aching feelings of regret and places her in a position where she is offering apologies, displaying contrition and requesting forgiveness:

Running through my mind,

I know I was unkind,

Words escaped that were mine,

That were better left behind.

Theres no excuse I can find

But if you give me a sign,

I know that I,

Would treat you better this time

Three little words is all I need,

And your arms wrapped round me.

There is no excuse I can find.

But if you give me a sign.

I know that I would treat you better this time. 

The song is a self-corrective, repentant and pleading submission. It apologizes to a specific person that Gal has dented, mistreated and possible scorned.  In stating that Gal is looking for a 3 word sign, the song signifies a shift in Niemann’s portrayal of Gal Holiday.

Previously, Gal may have been too edgy to contemplate singing love songs, the Punk Rock Patsy Cline being more inclined to follow Nancy Sinattra’s lead: Then You Go And Spoil It All By Saying Something Stupid Like I Love You, than to say Three little words is all I need.

Over the course of Lost and Found Niemann’s work shifts from being about lust to inviting the listener to fall in love with Gal’s idea of being in love; to empathise with Gal’s tribulations in the love department; and to encourage Gal on, in her search for that special person who will treat her right.

Niemann tells us, on her earlier live album, that the Gal Holiday song Louisiana Waltz (a song about her grandparents) is one of the few love songs that the band sings.  So this shift is unusual.

Niemann’s ‘authentic’ message is that no one is perfect, least of all Gal Holiday, and that you have to adapt when life does not quite work out the way that you wanted it to.  Hence, though the album plays with the idea of being in love, it does not put forward stereotypical stand by your man, Nashville Sound, solutions, nor does it offer up a sweet bubble gum type happy ending.

Niemann’s edgy and irreverent Ameripolitan style has become deeper and more personal but not schmaltzy.  Whilst reflexively exposing Gal’s multiple truths, Niemann reveals Gal’s love life is complicated and these complications ain’t that easily fixed.  For example, though the final song of the album, Wayward Wind returns to the word love, over the course of Lost and Found we don’t get to find out if Gal’s apology is accepted, her regrets overcome or her love interest returned.

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Treat You Better is a lesson to us all that we should never treat our yearned for streetcar like a trolley.  That it is better to make love not war. And, that a relationship of equals does not require your lover to utilise crystal balls, krypton shields nor bulletproof vests.

Niemann does not offer simplistic solutions to Gal’s woes.  The painful experiences that are expressed in Lost and Found are not always resolved  Throughout the album Niemann attempts to deftly balance the scales of clarity and ambiguity; play off ideas of certainty and feelings of wistfulness. So much so, that we never quite know if Gal will get her man; if it is really a man she is looking for; and/or if her ideal partner actually exists.

You can buy and download your copy of Lost and Found here.

This theme of ambiguous and confusing love stories is further discussed in the final installment of our review.

Part Five: I Might Not Be Back This Way Again.