Gina Birch's songs of self
by Charles Taylor
"I'm glad I'm me today," sings Gina Birch near the beginning of the Hangovers'
Slow Dirty Tears (Kill Rock Stars), and no rock performer could sound
more convincing making that claim. As one of the founding members of British
postpunk legends the Raincoats, Birch was always no more and no less than
herself. When the re-formed Raincoats played a show at the Middle East in 1994
(the night, it turned out, before the man who had encouraged their reunion,
Kurt Cobain, killed himself), that unadorned presentation felt like a kind of
heroism that goes beyond the guts it takes for a band to get up in front of
people after 10 years in which they existed mostly as rumor.
I'd venture to guess that, like myself, most of the audience were seeing the
Raincoats for the first time, having come to the band's albums after the group
had disbanded. We'd become used to punk's disdain for the very notion of rock
stars as aristocrats. What took place on stage that night went deeper.
Forgotten lyrics, muffed notes, and all, the show confirmed that sometimes the
most energizing and exhilarating and shocking thing performers can do is to
speak as themselves, and that such honesty is a means for making the most
immediate connection with an audience. That's not to deny the pleasure and
sustenance we get from the drama and flash of more theatrical performers. There
is, however, an unmatched thrill in experiencing a band who erase the distance
between audience and performer, bands who make you feel you're an active
participant in the performance.
The reggae and dub that were an essential part of the Raincoats' sound are
mostly submerged on Slow Dirty Tears. There are samples, keyboard
twiddling, weird noises throughout, and a dark, echoey feel. If there's a
thread connecting the Hangovers to the Raincoats, it's that Slow Dirty
Tears is a gesture of insistent individuality meant to resonate
collectively. The subject of the album is the implications -- not all of them
pretty -- of life lived according to the limits you set for yourself, even if
sometimes you say to hell with limits. The sound in Birch's voice is
persistence that has transcended weariness and found confidence in its own
ability to put one foot in front of the other.
The musicians who play with Birch in the Hangovers (including Joe Dilworth on
drums, Ida Akesson on keyboards, and John Frenett and Mary Deigan on bass,
these last two especially distinctive) are right at home with her playfulness.
In some respects, the song structures are the most "pop" Birch has worked with,
though they still allow for plenty of rhythmic and melodic tangents. I hesitate
to use that word, because on an album about making your own path, there is no
such thing as a tangent; detours are the same thing as direct routes.
Birch's voice is the sound of a nasal kewpie doll burbling, growling,
trilling, moaning, and cooing. Listening to the disc's 13 tracks is like
following a conversation that is sometimes three a.m. lucid and sometimes 5
a.m. slurred, but never less than urgent. It's both of those things in "We Had
a Really Smashing Time," a memory of a party in which the singer, in a voice
sometimes very close, sometimes far away, remembers a party where she peed off
a roof, punched the hostess, and jumped up and down on parked cars.
On the closing track, Birch repeats, "I'm sitting on top of the world/Couldn't
be happier if I tried and tried and tried," over and over again, and it's
impossible to tell whether it's tears or laughter that starts breaking up her
delivery. On the bloodied-knuckle break-up number "Sorry," she sings, "Sorry
doesn't mean a thing anymore," then goes on to prove it by chanting "I'm sorry"
over the final minute of the song, turning it into a plea, a mockery, a threat,
sheer gibberish. The lyrics are mostly plain speech; their meaning comes from
the emphasis she puts on them, like the trill on "need" when she sings "I need
you" in the let-me-count-the-ways loveliness of "Phone."
What's most startling about Birch's voice here is its uncanny resemblance to
Bob Dylan's. In ways that are more intuitive than definable, Slow Dirty
Tears sounds like a female looking-glass cousin to Time out of Mind.
Both are albums of age and experience, showing every bit of wear and tear,
understanding contingency but uncompromised and unapologetic. It can be
startling to think that punk has been around long enough to produce a CD like
that. Slow Dirty Tears, an odd duck of an album that's both modest and
brash, posits rock and roll as a design for aging on your own terms. The
galleries and pubs and cinemas Birch visits in "Soho" are every bit the hangout
and refuge that the corner soda fountain is in Ricky Nelson's "Waitin' in
School." Almost 20 years on in a life in rock and roll, she sure looks good in
them baby-doll shoes.