Saturday, September 8, 2012

Sure, It's A "Collection," But It's Certainly Not The "Best Of" Alanis Morissette!

The Good: Some great songs, Some moments of vocal performance, Moments of instrumental performance
The Bad: Some of the songs are not Morissette's best and contain her trademark screeching vocals.
The Basics: An interesting collection from an artist whose works are rather stylistically fractured, The Collection is worth a listen for those looking for (mostly) familiar Morissette.

I tend to run into a problem when reviewing musical artists who have been on the scene producing for long periods of time. Almost without exception, when the time comes for them to produce a "Best Of" album, it almost never is. Their albums usually contain great nuggets that are vastly better than some of their hits. Similarly, if they call it a "Greatest Hits," all that they are bound to is putting out an album that has high-charting singles and that's usually a qualitative crapshoot, too. In fact, the best compilation albums tend to either be releases of "the singles" which provide a radio-digest version of the musical artist or a "Best Of" album that includes a disc of the known tracks and a collection of the best b-sides from the various albums. Alanis Morissette calls her big compilation The Collection. One thinks this ought not condemn her to the critique of being forced to present either the "best of," her "greatest hits" or her singles, but it seems to be a pretty weak collection of all of those things and the result is an album that is a remarkably average assemblage.

I've listened to and reviewed a number of Alanis Morissette's albums (see links at the bottom) and what tend to be her best works are often the ones she did not achieve commercial recognition for. So, it makes sense that she would not release a "best of" album which would merely recreate such commercial failure as some of her albums. Still, any collection of works that define any sense of genius that Alanis Morissette has must include "That Particular Time" and "You Owe Me Nothing In Return." This album seems to be much more a collection of Morissette's singles and the result is an album that is a hodgepodge between the truly great ("Still," "Uninvited") and the familiar ("Ironic") and the truly annoying ("8 Easy Steps," "You Learn"). The simple way to phrase this is that it's a good, average endeavor - and there are a few pleasant surprises - but one hopes in another decade there will be a more impressive "best of" compilation that illustrates the truly best of Morissette as a singer-songwriter.

With eighteen songs clocking out at 75:45, The Collection is mostly the works of Alanis Morissette. Morissette wrote or co-wrote sixteen of the songs, with only Seal's "Crazy" and Cole Porter's "Let's Do It (Let's Fall In Love)" on the album without any writing influence from Morissette. It is worth noting that all of the songs on this album, save "Crazy," are available on other albums, though with four from various soundtracks, this is certainly the most convenient way to get many of them.

Morissette provides the primary vocals for each song as well. She plays instruments on some, though not all and it seems that she has gone from being more a guitar-toting or piano pounding artist to a performer standing before a microphone with a band providing her with the instrumental music. She is listed as a co-producer on some of the tracks, so arguably much of this is Morissette's musical vision as a singer-songwriter.

That vision is a weird collection - never more odd than the jumbled presentation on The Collection of Morissette as an angry young woman developing into a spiritually peaceful and harmonious adult. On The Collection, this could have been done easily by frontloading the album with her angry Jagged Little Pill works and then presenting the more placid, contemplative works so the listener had a transition, a concept album of a woman growing past youthful anger. Alas, this is not that.

What it does have are lyrics that are surprisingly well done. On her earliest works, Morissette stood out to my ears for some seriously inane rhymes and rhyming the same word with itself. This is something that she never truly overcame entirely as some of her later songs, like the loathsome "Eight Easy Steps" has lines like "How to control someone to be a carbon copy of you / How to have that not work and have them run away from you / How to keep people at arms length and never get too close / How to mistrust the ones who supposedly love the most / How to pretend you're fine and don't need help from anyone / How to feel worthless unless you're serving or helping someone." Morissette manages to say something still, but rhyming the same word with itself or rhymes like "anyone/someone" are just creatively lazy.

But Morissette is, after many listens to a number of her albums, one who may be fairly accused of being intellectually or creatively lazy. She had a justified hit with "Uninvited" in no small part of the poetics. Indeed, Morissette sings the song in a soprano tone, but there is very little actual singing as she presents the poetic lines "Like anyone would be / I am flattered by / Your fascination with me / Like any hot-blooded woman / I have simply wanted an object to crave /But you, you're not allowed / You're uninvited / An unfortunate slight / Must be strangely exciting / To watch the stoic squirm / Must be somewhat heartening / To watch shepherd need shepherd" ("Uninvited"). The diction and poetics of the song are beautiful and well beyond the common one-thousand word average pop-rock artist. Moreover, Morissette's presentation of the song is haunting and memorable.

And Morissette manages to be both universal and deeply personal. "Crazy" is well-presented by her, though she tends to do a more literal cover of it than I usually prefer. Similarly, "Let's Do It (Let's Fall In Love)" is a very straightforward interpretation of the Cole Porter classic and the distinctive aspect of it on The Collection is that Morissette actually sounds happy while singing it!

The balance between autobiographical and universal is perhaps best exemplified by "Hands Clean." Written as a deeply personal song about a relationship she had with an older man at a young age, Morissette makes a song that can be interpreted in many ways. Lyrically, one need not stick to the literal statutory rape interpretation of "Ooh this could be messy / But you don't seem to mind / Ooh don't go telling everybody / And overlook this supposed crime / We'll fast forward to a few years later / And no one knows except the both of us / And I have honored your request for silence / And you've washed your hands clean of this" ("Hands Clean") and instead it can be viewed as hero worship or even two people who have a pact for any sort of youthful indiscretion. The success of "Hands Clean" is that Morissette doesn't name names and she doesn't make it just about her situation. In fact, there are lines in the song that any woman who has ever been treated poorly by a jerk will be able to empathize with (like the promise to come back, so long as she remains fit and young-looking!).

Vocally, The Collection is indeed a decent collection of the split personality of Alanis Morissette. Songs like "You Oughta Know" and "Eight Easy Steps" have Morissette presenting her lyrics in little more than a screaming diatribe. Conversely, the surprise on the album for me was "Mercy," a magnificent track that has Morissette presenting a slow, soulful ballad that is haunting and beautiful. On that, "Still" and "Uninvited," Morissette dazzles with an amazing soprano voice that has range and the ability to hold notes with a superhuman endurance.

Instrumentally the songs tend to be a mix of thrashing guitars on some tracks and slow, melodical piano work on the ballads. Interestingly, there is very little in between on The Collection, adding to the sense that there are two Alanis Morissettes. Unfortunately for her one of the observations I made when listening to So-Called Chaos is proven true by The Collection; Morissette's songs "Still" and "Everything" which are both on this album are almost identical musically.

Even so, anyone who likes a decent pop-rock performance by a strong female artist will find enough to enjoy on The Collection. It might not be the very best of Alanis Morissette, but it's enough of the recognizable mixed with the great to be worth the time of the casual fans who like what they hear on the radio from her.

The best track is "Still," the low point is "Eight Easy Steps."

For other Alanis Morissette works, check out my reviews of:
Jagged Little Pill
Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie
Under Rug Swept
Feast On Scraps
So-Called Chaos
Jagged Little Pill Acoustic
Flavors Of Entanglement


For other music reviews, be sure to check out my Music Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2012, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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