In many dictionaries the word “collaborate” is followed by “collage,” “collagen,” and “collapse.” I find this strangely metaphorical for that temporarily insane state of shared subjectivity known as “love.” Or is it just my fascination with this particular album, made by people with similar artistic sensibilities who exquisitely demonstrate that love itself is not a collaboration?
Elya Finn’s sweet voice, amazing vocal range, and piano stylings are easy on the ears. Michael Rothenberg’s skillful and poignant lyrics are deceptively simple. He is an excellent poet who normally utilizes a grand vocabulary and reads his own words with a tenderness that devastates me. So it's not surprising that their collaboration has restored my nostalgia and hope.
Can someone be gradually ambushed? After my first listen to this album, I thought these were just silly love songs and enjoyed the sound. Second listen, third listen, I became discomfited, then suddenly caught off guard. Having spent the last few years as a model of cool pragmatism, my self-imposed moratorium on these kinds of songs began to crumble like a sand castle under alternating waves of cynicism and romantic yearnings. This compilation is good medicine, a kind of poison that cures or kills you.
Because these songs evoke in me so many memories and emotions, When I Met You succeeds. In this, Elya Finn's second album, the tracks effortlessly segue between minor and major keys. Her voice has a crystal tinkling, tiny bell-like quality, reminiscent of a ballerina in a music box. But you also hear survival and the subtle strength of her personal journey. Rothenberg’s philosophically balanced lyrics imbue these songs with realism and showcase Elya’s romantic sound. Completing this expert package are Bobby Simcox on guitar, Bill Noertker on bass, Jason Wall on drums, and percussion by Martin Garro.
I hear a bittersweet mélange of words and music, a mixture whose separate ingredients are no longer recognizable because they blend to make a whole new thing. I hear jazzy piano riffs, folk, rock, pop and a little bossa nova. There are plaintive minor keys that remind me of a suffering Russia. Painfully honest lyrics about love are never easy to listen to. Soon enough, you'll find these songs stuck in your head, but not in a monotonously annoying way. They memetically seek a private place within your mind. This collection accomplishes that elusive goal only attained by great songwriters and musicians - unforgettability. Fortunately this style of music is having a mainstream revival.
From the verse of the title song, ominous lyrics are entangled with a tender voice of longing.
When I met you
How was I to know
You were just like me
We were both alone
That's no way to be
Then I felt you touch me
All my tears flew by
And every kiss
That took my breath
Also stole my mind . . .
In the chorus Elya double-tracks her high range vocals with a hushed lower octave. This simple technique sounds like two different people singing, until you realize you're hearing a shadow of her own voice. Is this the theme song, a warning of the uncomfortable dichotomous futures of relationship? Meeting you, leaving you so I can grow, coming back to you, for "all my life?"
The upbeat tempo of Big Eyes, Complications, and the strut of It Doesn't Really Matter and Little Lies deceive an easy future. I adore these lyrics.
Sometimes people have to take a chance
But a midnight fever, love
Sure can kill romance
You could lose
But then you've always got, big eyes
Don't think about the way we'll do it
Or how we'll do it, or when we'll do it,
Or if we'll do it
Like two lovers in a novel
About to make a great escape
And old promises we've made
Afraid of what we've done
Too late to turn around
Now we're in love
It doesn't really matter
If we walk around the block
Or take our tea and sympathy
Where nightmares want to walk
If the windows start to bend
You want to run outside
I can always follow
(It Doesn't Really Matter)
Call me in the morning
And you know
I'll be there when you call
If you need an ear
To catch your fall
In the morning you can call
If you appreciate melancholy, Through the Night, Forget Me, I Was Alone, Following Blind, and Another Night will break your heart. Time most closely mirrors my own daily existence. For listeners who haven't yet experienced the terror-joy of personal space, peace and freedom, this song of future transcendence will entice you.
I dig all kinds of music, but I can actually sing these songs. As a child I listened to Sinatra, Bennett and Clooney. In the 60’s I participated in hootenannies until I was swept up in the British invasion. In the 70’s I could barely keep up with all the artists arriving on the scene. Couldn’t avoid the 80's New Wave with my kids; and now I've added trance, house, and break beats, and the best hip-hop, alongside Pavarotti and Chopin.
In my teens I participated in talent shows and family dinner club entertainment. Once sang I Left My Heart in San Francisco with our stage band, but I left the microphone turned off through the whole song! That combination of nervousness and technical retardation ended my amateur career. Through it all, I always wanted to sing like Janis or Dusty, Aretha or Gladys, Mary Wells or even Kim Carnes. All I could produce were poor imitations of Baez, Emmylou, or Joni. So I really enjoy singing Elya’s songs to myself as I cook pasta or walk around the park. I love the way she sings “vodka” in that sexy, lower tone. Vamp or innocent victim of love? Elya’s voice is wonderfully unique with a charming Russian accent.
Imagine eating a piece of rich, luscious chocolate cake and unexpectedly biting into little pieces of bitter unsweetened chocolate. Is it enjoyable and puzzling? Ambiguous? When I Met You is tender and tragic, laced with humor, easy and casually eclectic. It sticks with you like last evening in the hot tub, or in front of the fireplace, or in the bedroom. So when you notice a faraway glance in your lover's eye, a certain catch or hesitation in their voice, an excuse or explanation - remember the biochemistry and philosophy of love. Promises get broken, and you must never, ever want to be with someone just like you.
Perhaps, as slaves to love, we shouldn't settle for anything less than the freedom to love with honesty. I realize yet again that we're only "poor wayfarin' strangers, a travelin' through this world of woe", and that the only bright world to which we can ever go is a tricky commingling of flesh and hope.
In my opinion the tightest, most expertly woven songs are When I Met You and Through the Night. In the latter Simcox's Spanish guitar, Finn's piano and voice, and Rothenberg's lyrics provoke a hopeful sadness rarely crafted.
And in devotion love finds a reason
If we can face up to our confusion
And if you're waiting for truth to find you
You can be sure now that love will blind you . . .
Through the night
I think about you and it drives me wild . . .
And in confession we find direction
If we can only learn from our lessons
And when you're thinking that love will save you
Another lover will come and crave you . . .
And from I Was Alone
I never asked for much
But I don't want to be alone again
Or be afraid to ever fall in love again
So what do I mean, that love isn’t a collaboration? Ever watch the mating dance of the porcupine? Just how much can we balance the need for flesh with our fears and common sense? What compromises our freedom? What hypocrisies surface? You can make love, but you can’t create or manufacture it. No amount of co-laboring can guarantee the longevity of a relationship. Love isn’t art but different levels of intimacy. You exist as an other-self, a body-mind, wired and capable of ecstasy and torture. Relationships are collaborations only in the sense of entering an enemy camp, hoping to find common cause and ensure victory over our utter alienation from one another. Either love is, or it isn’t.
When I Met You is a collaboration about love, and its labor is not lost on me.
Check out the Unlikely 2.0 page on Elya Finn.
Mary Jo Malo is a "continuing undergrad in the School of Hard Knocks." Born in 1949; a foster child; now proud mother of seven. In 1993 she was disabled in an auto accident. Forced into early retirement, she’s had an abundance of time to pursue poetry, philosophy, cosmology and evolution. While appreciating every poet and critic who takes time to talk with her as she seeks to better express her own voice, Mary Jo Malo finds now herself in good company. She is the host and moderator of Company of Poets, a poetics mailing list/discussion group. E-mail her for details.