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Gina Birch's songs of self

By Charles Taylor

JULY 6, 1998:  "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.


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