Jonatha Brooke stopped her career cold upon her mother’s diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease. Prior to that, she had carved out for herself quite the chunk of the “Lilith Fair” market for progressive female singer-songwriters. Her seven folk-pop gems (the most recent of which was The Works in 2008 where she gave melodies to unreleased Woody Guthrie words) exhibited the kind of free spirit that knew no musical boundary.
Conceived as a one-woman musical theater presentation with Brooke playing both herself and her mother, My Mother Has Four Noses (Bad Dog Records) is also quite the poignant, arresting, entertaining, uplifting and profound CD.
She sings in great gulps, with gorgeous string quartet backing. She can swoop into falsetto at the drop of an eighth note. “Sleight Of Hand” has those celestial strings buoyed by acoustic guitar on lines like “I used to be someone special” and “I used to be one of a kind.” Emotion peeks out from the dementia of her mom, a former journalist, Christian Scientist and professional clown, now deceased. She sings of the “unraveling,” and the last line of the song is goosebump-inducing: “just say you understand.”
“What Was I Thinking” has an uptempo horn section and bevy of background vocal oohs and aahs, enough to make this track this reporter’s pick-to-click as a hit single. But then comes “My Misery,” wherein the afflicted parent doesn’t want company (“I can do this by myself”). The sadness of the lyric, though, is offset by what sounds like a calliope or a working merry-go-round on Labor Day weekend down the shore. The juxtaposition of the sad and the happy presents a unique conundrum, the swirling strings creating a kaleidoscopic pastiche of conflicting sentiment. And it’s that way all the way through. With a production that pays attention to detail, the CD works on many levels. Its sound alone is worthy of repeated listenings…yet delve deeper and the anguish becomes paramount.
Jonatha took a time out from caring for mom when she flew to Los Angeles at the behest of Katy Perry to co-write the superstar’s “Choose Your Battles,” arguably the best song on Perry’s Prism.
The rather odd title of her own album refers to a moment when, at the depths of her mom’s illness, when out to eat, Jonatha returned to the restaurant table and her mom, with make-up compact in one hand and a pen in the other, had drawn eyebrows all over her forehead with the pen and asked her daughter, “Don’t I look great?” “This is real,” thought Jonatha, with a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach.
Call me corny but I’ve always loved James Taylor. He was the first artist signed to The Beatles’ Apple Records in 1968 (they passed on Crosby, Stills & Nash). Back then, he was a painfully shy, tall, gawky, monosyllabic, sullen artist who could only truly communicate with people via the songs he wrote. His long, limp locks obscured his face and he was constantly looking downward. He was fresh out of the mental hospital and had yet to battle an ugly heroin addiction. In David Browne’s great book, Fire And Rain: The Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel, James Taylor, CSNY, And The Lost Story Of 1970, Browne tells a tale about a strong hallucination Taylor had of his musical hero, Ray Charles, while in a psyche ward. When Taylor learned that it was no hallucination, that Ray Charles, indeed, was cowering in a corner of the same ward, upon being placed there during his own heroin addiction, that image haunted him for years. It’s hardly a stretch that Taylor should have Ray Charles for a hero. Many of Taylor’s songs are soul songs but sung in that laconic folk-rock style of his. That’s why they’re perfect to interpret. Dig The Isley Brothers version, for instance, of “Fire And Rain,” the song Taylor wrote about his mental hospital stay.
These reveries have been prompted by the release of The Essential James Taylor (Columbia/Legacy), a two-volume beaut which reminds me of why I’ve always loved him. I dare say this package is all you’ll ever need of the original JT. The hits are all here as are some discreet picks like “Steamroller,” Danny Kortchmar’s “Honey Don’t Leave L.A.,” JT’s cover of the 1960 hit “Handy Man” (Jimmy Jones), “Millworker,” “Her Town Too” (with JD Souther), Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times Come Again No More,” with cellist Yo Yo Ma and fiddler Mark O’Connor (written in 1854), a cover of the 1964 Marvin Gaye hit “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)” and 23 others.