The circle game

Singer-Songwriter Issue: Parsing the return of the singer-songwriter in a superficial age
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Emily Jane White

Say "Kumbaya," somebody. Despite vast differences in sound, intent, and commercial appeal, a thin yet unseverable bloodline connects the big, bold, Brill Building, pop-factory-perfect songcraft of Carole King, last heard coursing off the AM radio, and the stripped-raw, close-to-bare-bones rasp and moan of Tiny Vipers' Jesy Fortino, delivered to a small clutch of listeners at the Elbo Room last year. Eyes squeezed shut, plucking her acoustic guitar beside just one other guitarist, Ben Cissner, she was a small dark star, poured fully concentrated into the sparse minor key chords of "Swastika," and, as gutsy as the loudest reaches of the underground, she sang as if her life depended on it: "If I would let you into my heart / Would you thank the Lord / Would you tear it apart?"

Superficially, so far away — doesn't anybody stay in one place anymore? — from King's monumental oeuvre, which seems almost incidental amid the gushy, gossipy tidbits propelling Sheila Weller's bio, Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon and the Journey of a Generation (Atria), concerning King's beleaguered marriage to her first husband and songwriting partner, Gerry Goffin, with whom she wrote such songs as "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow" and "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman," among many other classic pop numbers, even after he fathered a child with one of the pair's vocalists. Likewise Weller makes much of Mitchell's out-of-wedlock daughter and penchant for using her songs to seduce paramours like Leonard Cohen, Graham Nash, and James Taylor — the last often credited with spurring the singer-songwriter movement and acting as a unifying thread between Mitchell, King, and Simon — and Simon's uninhibited, proto-pro-sex feminist "eroticism"; read: sex in a cab was "no problem." Yet as remote as the early-'70s phenomenon of the singer-songwriter seems, the form appears to have returned: could this be the revival of core values of craft and voice, the intimacy and immediacy of a writer on a single instrument, during a tumultuous time for the music industry, post-Auto-Tuned disasters and Ashlee Simpson lip-synch blowouts — the adult flip-side to the bubblegum remnants of High School Musical, Miley Cyrus, and the Jonas Brothers?

The initial energy of so many turn-of-the-millennium garage rock bands may have petered and innumerable hip-hop artists may have turned toward dully materialistic navel-gazing, so hail the return of the soft-spoken singer-songwriter who can break down a tunes to its bare, unadorned components. The stars are aligned; the signs, apparent: from Outside Lands headliner Jack Johnson landing at the top of the Billboard 200 chart with his latest album, Sleeping Through the Static (Brushfire/Universal), earlier this year, to ex–Castro Theatre ticket-taker, proudly folkie Devendra Banhart being adopted by Parisian couturiers and glitterati, from the MySpace-inspired success of Colbie Caillat and Kate Nash to the iTunes-buttressed popularity of Eureka native Sara Bareilles — hell, not to mention everyone and their dog documenting their solo acoustic version of "Bubbly" and posting the video on YouTube. This quiet flurry of activity undoubtedly whetted someone's appetite for all things unplugged.

Those with eyes trained on pop cycles might point to the rise of antiwar sentiments throughout the country, coupling it with the renewed attention given to the softer, sincere sounds of singer-songwriters — a worthy theory, though apart from the many unfortunate CD-Rs of anti-Bush agit-pop that crossed my desk during the last two presidential elections, the generally apolitical vibe of the music from this crop of singer-songwriters seems to belie that notion: championing green issues are as didactic as these writers get.

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