Alanis Morissette
So Called Chaos
2004
F



the worst you can say about today’s Alanis Morissette is that you can put her record on and do math without getting distracted. Yep. It’s like she’s not even there. The once engaging scorned lover of “You Oughta Know” (who knew Full House’s Dave Coulier could inspire such animosity?) has decayed into the blasé composer of background music. A newsflash for all those allegiant fans who attack Avril Lavigne for borrowing Alanis’ sound circa 1995: The Alanis you knew is dead. What remains is little more than an ordinary woman thinking out loud.

Cause of Death:
Performing the autopsy won’t be easy. Was producer Glenn Ballard’s departure the cause of death? Perhaps. Did the inevitable mellowing effect of fame and fortune lead to the lanky Canadian’s demise? Possibly. Will Alanis be missed? Absolutely. Jagged Little Pill was an excellent record. Its precarious balance between raw emotion and studio polish, bolstered by lyrics that managed to concisely encapsulate some of life’s universal moments, made for a debut that broke down doors for other female musicians who were decidedly not made of sugar and spice. But post-Jagged, the singer’s health rapidly declined.

Lyrics:
On several tracks Alanis meets our lyrical expectations, turning bitterly sarcastic phrases like “I'll be subservient and spineless / I'll lick your boots as empty shells / I'll be opinion-less and silent / I'll be the prettiest appendage to ever lose herself”. However, too often, her attempts at whimsy fall flat, as when she sings, “You make the knees of my bees squeak / Tremble and buckle”. It’s difficult to discern if this is a sexual pat on the bum or an arthritic condition.

In taking a long look at “Everything”, the single, we find Alanis employing contradictions with the aim of cleverness. Lines like “I'm the funniest woman you've ever known / I am the dullest woman you've ever known”, etc seem to want to ape the form of Chris Cornell’s best work, where he creates lyrical tension by juxtaposing opposing sentiments. But here it’s cheaper, something on a par with Meredith Brooks’ “Bitch”. I can be this and that. Isn’t that amazing? No Alanis (or Meredith, if you’re listening), it’s not ironic. It’s human.

Even Alanis’ lyrical delivery misses the mark. Nowhere can we find her trademark note-slurring warble, the one that commanded the attention of millions, as we were made privy to the jilted, ironic, wary state that Alanis called her life. The closest So Called gets is on “This Grudge”, where she disseminates information rapid-fire style, like the singer of some obscure off-Broadway musical.

The Tunes:
From track one, it’s evident that any residual edginess Alanis’ backing band may have possessed has been systematically quashed. “Eight Easy Steps”, a faux self-help manual, is a case in point. This transparent attempt to recapture the Rock-Out appeal Flea and Dave Navarro lent to “You Oughta Know”, despite frenetic guitar strumming and drum beating, ends up sounding flaccid and innocuous. “Knees of My Bees”, though, starts promisingly: with an Eastern string arrangement. It disappears after ten seconds never to be heard again, reveals itself to be mere window dressing on an otherwise forgettable track. This is all without mentioning “Not All Me”, which sadly opens with an obscenely corny synth that—no kidding—sounds like a castaway from the Chariots of Fire soundtrack.

The Production:
By track three, something awful is apparent. Producer John Shanks and company, presumably in an attempt to pasteurize all ten tracks for lite-rock radio consumption, have flattened the audio dynamics so much, even the crescendos fall flat. Listening to “Excuses”, one can’t help but wonder who gummed up the soundboard so that the bass knob would stick on “1” throughout the recording sessions.

The diluted production is all too present on “Knees of My Bees” and even sabotages the title track’s earnest attempt to emulate a bit of Massive Attack-esque tension. Never to be confused with a noise-meister, next to Shanks, Glenn Ballard comes off as a regular Steve Albini.

Findings:
This examiner—honestly—wanted to like So Called Chaos. As with every disc put under the knife, it began on a clean slab. From there, its descent was astonishingly swift, actually falling off the slab’s edge and dropping into what turned out to be a bottomless chasm.

But this is a story not without hope. There has been some talk around the office—albeit preliminary, speculative talk—that if a guru disc-doctor like Rick Rubin could get his hands on Alanis’ corpse, revitalization may yet be possible.

Verdict:
If you’re looking for some auditory atmosphere to get you through your Algebra homework, Alanis may serve you well. But if you’re a fan of scorned, potty-mouthed femme-fatales, you’d be much better off nabbing the new PJ Harvey.



Reviewed by: R. S. Ross
Reviewed on: 2004-06-16
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