Open Letter #57: In the nick of time, she's gonna come through

Dear Edie Carey,

Last night was simply spectacular. But I have a complaint: Where the hell have you been all my life?

For (quite literally) fifteen years I have been looking for this moment. I didn’t know I was, but it turns out that I was. It’s that instant where you pop a new CD in the player and listen to it from start to finish, and where you can do absolutely nothing else because you are so transfixed by what you’re hearing. Last night, I played your latest album, Another Kind of Fire. And for the first time since October of 1993, I was nearly moved to tears by music that was so achingly beautiful and gorgeous that I have been able to think of almost nothing else for the past 24 hours.

Who are you? Where did you come from? Why didn’t I know about you before last night? How did you manage to write such a lush and pitch-perfect collection of songs without me knowing about it? Why weren’t you writing this music when I was 15 and in desperate need of hearing lyrics like this:

hey, i know just where you are
you ate up every last word
and you swore you’d never let it get this far
and you’d never get hurt
hey, i know i can’t change your mind
like you can’t change her heart
hey, i know i know the cliche ‘love is blind’
but who knew it could be so dark?

God, I needed to hear that once upon a time — when I was young and heartsick and full of unrequited love. I would have found that very, very soothing.

The thing is, Edie, this isn’t really about you and me. Not exactly, anyway, at least, not until now. It’s really about me and a girl called Sarah. See, the early 1990s were eye-opening years for me, musically, and for a bunch of years I kept running into these albums that just knocked my socks off, that left me helpless and unable to do anything except listen. Two of those years stick out — 1992 was all about Shawn Colvin’s Fat City (which I bought and listened to in San Antonio, and will be forever linked to that city); I remember thinking about how grown up the lyrics were, how plain and honest and yet deep and touching. Then, the next spring, I sat in a cafe in Montreal and played Jann Arden’s Time For Mercy over and over again, and I sort of figured that was going to be it for me and 1993 and music; I wasn’t going to find a better record that year.

That’s where Sarah enters the picture. I’d known who she was for a while, mind you, because I’m a Canadian and wasn’t living in a cave. I knew Sarah was going to come back into my life in the fall of 1993, was even looking forward to it a little bit. But I was so thoroughly unprepared for what was going to happen the first time I slipped Fumbling Towards Ecstasy into a CD player and let the thing go — it was stomping on the accelerator of a very very very fast and dangerous car. When I finally worked up the courage to put a new CD in we were well into 1994, and I continued to form all kinds of associations with that album four or five years later. At the time I remember thinking that it had no right to be anywhere near as good as it was, and even now I will sometimes play it through, half-thinking I’m going to discover some kind of critical flaw on it that I’d missed the previous eight million times I’d listened to it.

I know that album better than I know some people I see on a daily basis. I know every note, every chord change, every pause where she stops to draw breath. There’s this long pause after the final track plays, and then there’s this weird little discordant chunk of musical noise (for lack of a better term), and I even know exactly when that chunk is going to come in. It is so familiar to me, and yet I daresay that I still have moments where I’m awestruck by how good it still is. (They’re apparently putting out a new version of it next week that I’m going to have to go pick up — the 15th anniversary edition. Who knew?)

The problem is that October of 1993 is the last time that happened to me. Oh, sure, there’ve been tantalizing moments where that kind of experience flashed in front of my eyes. Sarah Harmer’s You Were Here didn’t start out that way, but turned into it over time — I certainly didn’t need to sit there and just listen the whole way through the first couple of times. Ultimately You Were Here is an astonishingly great piece of work, and Sarah Harmer deserves every bit of praise and then some for it. Suzie Ungerleider’s “Tangled and Wild” and “Alabaster” are nearly pitch-perfect, and Johnstown was looking like it was going to be one of those albums, but somehow it fell short; other than those two tracks, it never really came together for me in the way that Fumbling Towards Ecstasy or Fat City did.

But here’s the thing about Suzie’s music: It has this weird, timeless quality to it. Playing those songs, it feels like I’ve been listening to it forever. Every time one of her tracks rolls over in the player I keep thinking I should have piles of CDs with music like that. But I don’t. And then, last year, I heard Rose Cousins doing a studio session on CBC Radio 1, and there was this momentary shiver that ran up my spine.

Let me talk about Rose for a second. You know Rose, of course; she’s another in a long line of east coast musicians, girls with guitars, who are classified broadly as folk acts but for whom that particular label is totally useless. Rose is a folk act the way I wear shoes — it’s technically true, but there’s a lot more to it than that. I bought If You Were For Me last year on the strength of its title track. On first listen, I felt a little twinge on the back of my neck. The sound, the mood, the lyrics — it all fits. Like Suzie’s music, it had that ageless feeling to it, familiar though it was the first time I’d heard it. I thought, once again, “I know I have more like this.” And, once again, I couldn’t find anything like it.

If You Were For Me didn’t exactly take the first couple of times outside of a handful of tracks, though. Slowly, though, I’ve been coming to realize how remarkable it really is — to the point where I’m listening to it quite regularly right now, and to the point when someone asked me the other day what kind of music I liked, I almost immediately blurted out “Rose Cousins!” before realizing that (a) it wouldn’t have contributed anything to the conversation and (b) he wouldn’t have had any clue who I was talking about, so instead I made up some lame story about being really into ambient and trance right now, which made me seem like a huge dork.

I should have said something about Rose instead. If You Were For Me really is a great album, and deserves all kinds of publicity.

Anyway, because I’ve been listening to her music so much lately, I thought it might be nice to try branching out a bit. Since it seemed like I should have had CDs full of her kind of music, I thought it would be reasonable to assume that finding more music would be trivial. Yeah, not really — it turns out it’s hard to come up for comparables for musicians who aren’t well-known outside of a small but loyal following. Out of desperation and more for my own amusement, I fed Rose’s name into the engine at, and was deeply disappointed by the three comparables that came up in response.

Tracy Rice, who was closest to Rose on the map, wasn’t very good. I didn’t really want to listen to Sophie B. Hawkins, because I’ve never been able to get into her stuff. But there you were, drifting down towards the bottom right of the map. I fed you into Google and went over to your MySpace site in the thoughts you might have some music samples up.

Now, when I listened to Fat City, it took about four tracks — right into the middle of “Round of Blues” — before I fully understood what I had on my hands. I sat through “Polaroids” and “Tennessee” and “Tenderness on the Block” with a kind of a stupid look on my face, and halfway through the fourth track I finally understood why I hadn’t been able to do anything else. It was the third track on Time For Mercy, “Will You Remember Me?” that secured that album’s place in my heart. “Possession” had been floating around for a couple of weeks on radio before Fumbling Towards Ecstasy had been released, so it didn’t count as far as I was concerned, but it took 30-45 seconds of “Wait” before the album vaulted itself into my musical pantheon. I knew it was going to be good, but it took me that long to realize how good it was, and from there I was hooked.

Here’s where things get kind of strange. It took you and Another Kind of Fire the first thirty one notes of “Hollywood Ending.”

And all I could do was sit there, slack-jawed, listening to this music wash over me. I realized at that moment what had been missing from my music for so long — I didn’t think I’d been craving that kind of experience again, but it turns out that I needed it in some way. God, how I needed it! I’m a loser that way, I know, but strange to discover that something had been missing for so long.

Another Kind of Fire is perfect. I hesitate to call it a concept album because I don’t know if you meant it that way, but it feels like a concept album about the nature of love and relationships; it feels like it grows in its understanding of those concepts, building towards a grand finish. There isn’t a single moment on it that feels wrong or artificial. It is soaked in honesty. God, it’s really, really good. It’s so good it almost hurts.

Thank you so much for making this album, Edie. I didn’t realize what I’d been craving, but once I figured it out there was this almost palpable sense of relief that came over me. I don’t know whether I’m relieved because I found another one of those amazing albums, or whether I’m relieved because I’m still able to feel this kind of thing fifteen years later.

But you know what? I don’t care. Your album is fantastic. I want to hug it.

Lots of love,
Dr. Hazmat