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PopEntertainment.com > Reviews > TV on DVD Reviews > VH1 Storytellers - Alanis Morissette & Natalie Merchant

 

VH1 Storytellers

Alanis Morissette (Rhino-2005)

Natalie Merchant (Rhino-2005)

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Copyright 2005   PopEntertainment.com.  All rights reserved.  Posted: April 24, 2005.

VH1 has 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.

The 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." 

These 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.

Each of 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. 

"I was 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..." 

She is 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. 

While 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.)

Her 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. 

Neither of these programs is perfect, but both are perfectly good concert videos by performers who did have something interesting to say.

 Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright 2005   PopEntertainment.com.  All rights reserved.  Posted: April 24, 2005.