always been the kinder, gentler MTV, so you knew that in the 90s when MTV
hit ratings paydirt with their Unplugged series, it would only be a
matter of time before their sister station would come up with their own
variation of the idea. Of course, there was always the built-in
complication that Unplugged was also by design a show in which rock
and roll was stripped down to the bare bones, leaving behind all of those
loud power chords for acoustic guitars and voice. Thus MTV was
treading on VH1's traditional turf.
idea that VH1 came up with was VH1 Storytellers, where the artists
are allowed to bring their entire band along. (The performances did
tend to be more acoustically based despite the fact that they are allowed
more musicians on stage.) It gives the series an odd vibe, it seems
like VH1 is imitating a show that was already imitating them. They did
come up with a difference, though. All the musicians had to do was
talk about the songs they were going to perform; explain where they came
from, tell if there was an ex-lover involved and essentially bare their
souls as a songwriter. Of course, it didn't always work out that way.
Sometimes the stories were nice. Sometimes they were personal.
Sometimes they were trivial. As Natalie Merchant said when discussing
the song "These Are Days" on her 1998
episode, which has now been released on DVD, "So that was easy, right?
I didn't have to tell you anything deep and dark and scary about myself."
are the latest two video releases for the series. There
have been many episodes, and even though both of these shows
were quite enjoyable, they seem to be kind of odd choices to release.
Both of these artists were promoting albums (Supposed Former Infatuation
Junkie and Ophelia respectively) which were generally considered
to be both creative and popular disappointments, and their careers have just gone
further downhill in the seven years since. Then again, these are far
from the first releases in this series, either, with many bigger names
already on the shelves. I'm still holding out hope that they will let
loose the 1999 Tom Waits episode, but I guess that's a bit of a pipe dream.
these titles is rather short: seven songs in the actual program plus two
bonus tracks -- and one of the bonus tracks for Merchant is the full
performance of her 10,000 Maniacs song "These Are Days," which is included
in an edited format in the actual program. This leaves less than an
hour of music on each, but at least it was mostly good music.
Particularly in the case of Alanis Morissette, who recognized that most
people were there for songs from her debut album, Jagged Little Pill
and she does not disappoint, dropping in the popular singles "Hand In My
Pocket," "You Learn," "You Oughta Know" and "Head Over Feet" (as a bonus
track). She knows the format of the series, and yet she seems a bit
uncomfortable with the stage banter that makes up the series' uniqueness.
encouraged to speak a lot between songs," Morissette told her audience,
"which is something I rarely do, because I feel like I'm speaking so much in
my songs themselves. So this will be big business for me..."
right, she does her best to narrate her life and her intentions in the
songs, but they do speak best for themselves. From the livid break-up
drama of the infamous "You Oughta Know" to the more settled and blissful
"Thank U" to the giddily happy in love "Head Over Feet," Morissette's songs
throb with the kind of confessionality in a way that the stories about
working with Glenn Ballard after moving to LA can't totally grasp. Not
that Morissette doesn't try, she grasps for the most eloquent and deep
thoughts that she can to explain her motivations behind the songs and
answers fawning questions from fans in the audience. However, it all
gets to be a bit much, like Alanis was guesting on Oprah rather than
doing a concert. Even when the stories are interesting, they aren't
going to be something people watch over and over (and Rhino thoughtfully
made the some of the intros into their own chapters so that they are easy to
skip over on repeat viewings.). It's the songs that matter, and most
of these songs are good enough to warrant repeated viewings.
Morissette's disk ends up making a nice little "greatest hits" EP of
Morisette's first two albums, Merchant had a much longer career to
cherry-pick from. Three of the eight songs included come from
Merchant's former band, the other five from her first two solo albums. It is
hard not to notice that the two best songs ("What's the Matter Here?" and
"Verdi Cries") in Merchant's set were from 10,000 Maniacs In My Tribe,
an album that was about ten years old even when this was recorded.
(It's particularly nice that the beautiful album track "Verdi Cries" made
the cut over many more well-known 10,000 Maniacs tunes, and ironically it
also inspires one of Merchant's most heartfelt stories, about visiting
Europe the first time.)
solo singles are more problematic, but that is more a reflection of her solo
career than the songs themselves. When Merchant left the Maniacs, it
was well understood that she was the creative force behind them, however it
turned out that they helped to ground her. She had previously been
best known for writing disturbing and dark songs about life wedded to
gorgeous pop melodies, a talent shown in the wondrous and angry
child-abuse song "What's the Matter Here," which only gains power from the
way that when Merchant has to fight off tears as she tells the story of a
neighborhood boy who was the motivation for the lyrics. Her solo hits,
on the other hand, had a tendency to get a bit sappy, particularly on the
two then-current singles "Kind and Generous" and "Life Is Sweet." On
the plus side, her earlier solo singles "Carnival" and "Wonder" have aged
much better than I would have thought -- in fact they sound better now after
years away from them than they did when they were on the charts.
of these programs is perfect, but both are perfectly good concert videos by
performers who did have something interesting to say.
All rights reserved. Posted: April 24, 2005.