Ten years ago Virgin Records released The Flowers of Romance, the third studio LP from Public Image Ltd. During its infancy, PiL (fronted, of course, by former Sex Pistol vocalist John "Johnny Rotten" Lydon) insisted that it was not merely a band, but a corporate/terrorist amalgam issuing an ultimatum to the tired pop ethic. With 1979's Metal Box, the band finally achieved anti-music, and The Flowers of Romance consolidated that gain. While conventional pop watered the plants and mowed the lawn, Lydon went under the house, slit his throat, and bled into damp dust, shrieking. Drum skeletons tapped out punctuation. Ghostly vocals mocked the sun.
As an outright rejection, murder even, of commercial pop, The Flowers of Romance remains a milestone. Some industry observers marveled that a major label would release such perimeter product. Prepare to marvel once more, this time at Ingrid Chavez.
For those of you who follow the alternative dance-poet scene only casually, the 26-year-old Ingrid may be most familiar from her association with Prince. She's the enigmatic soul mate who allegedly inspired him to abandon work on the infamous Black Album and concentrate instead on 1988's Lovesexy, and she even contributed guest vocals, whispering "Rain is wet and sugar is sweet/Clap your hands and stomp your feet" at the beginning of "Eye No." Not content with having sprigs of her talent garnishing someone else's plate, Chavez explored acting with her portrayal of the spirit-guide Aura in the abysmal Graffiti Bridge, and then splashed big earlier this year when she sued Lenny Kravitz over her uncredited songwriting involvement in Madonna's monster hit "Justify My Love."
Now she has emerged from the Arcadian wood of Prince's Paisley Park camp clothed only in her own eponymous debut, and she'll be popping up on local radio within the next few days for promotional appearances. She needs them.
With Chavez's poetry recitations skimming over laggardly dance instrumentation cooked up (short-order, no doubt) by assorted Paisley impresarios, including Prince himself, Ingrid Chavez should have come custom-packaged in a pine box. From the first limp lines of "Heaven Must Be Near" ("Falling water echoes like the rain on a hollow day/If I could bust these invisible walls I might be ok"), Chavez muses about Emotions, Needs, and Dreams with a dear-diary awkwardness. These are things I'm feeling, the album screams. It's enough to send the warm tinglies coursing through Rod McKuen.
Commercially, it's baffling. Someone at Warner Bros. must have listened to the LP and heard the sound of the future, but even Pop Warner would have been wise enough to keep these junior-league masters in the closet. A few songs have kick - the lead single, "Elephant Box," for instance - and it's a good thing, given the drop-four-and-punt mentality of the album. But once she's into the meat of the LP, wading with blithe oblivion in the shallow lake of her soul, Chavez makes PiL look like Brill Building stooges. When people say that records are made to be broken, they're probably talking about this one.
The face behind the farce, to be fair, is only 26, a fledgling recording artist who may need time to unkink her ambitions. Despite the doll-house quality of her breathy, delicate voice (it's a waif-in-the-stairwell voice, a voice like sheets worn smooth by overuse), Chavez is intelligent and articulate, equally at ease discussing her role models (ex-Japan member David Sylvian and rapper Queen Latifah, as well as Herman Hesse, Yukio Mishima, and Anais Nin) and her introduction to the music business. "Ten years ago, I would have thought that I was going to be a teacher of some sort," she says. "That was the career that appealed to me. As I got older and more into writing, I began to realize that I needed an outlet." Interviewing her is disarming; it's refreshing to speak to a pop performer who's willing to talk about her work's strengths and weaknesses. If only the game weren't such a rout.
Wary of the ulterior motives of critics and other practitioners of petty jealousy, Chavez doesn't read reviews of her own work. "I don't have any interest in those trashy magazines or trashy write-ups by people who are just out to be assholes. I don't think they're coming from a very fair place," she says. But Ingrid, what if we believe in the improvement of pop music through lyrical depth and emotional honesty, but still feel that your album pulls up about two suits short of a full deck? "Well," she says, "if someone is good at what they're doing and they have something critical to say, I don't mind that."
Okay. Here's something critical. Drop the emotional Polaroids. All they do is suggest oxygen deprivation. Stop languishing in the effete and quasi-spiritual. And if you can't stop languishing, then stop recording. It's a fine instinct to resist commercial pressures and fleeting trends, but some criteria, such as good songwriting and interesting lyrics, are necessary ingredients no matter who's eating. This advice won't matter, especially since you've got that Warner contract waiting like a getaway car, not to mention that impressive new Polygram publishing deal. But what would Herman Hesse think of the first lines of "Candle Dance"? ("Flicker, flicker/Candle dance"). How would Mishima feel about the use of the phrase "kissy fish" in "Hippy Blood"? Busting those invisible walls is an upstream swim, and you'll need finer fins than these. Good luck, Ingrid, and good riddance.
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