Wednesday, January 13, 2010

"Sweetheart" / Jill Sobule

I'm a little hurt that Jill Sobule decided to move out to California without asking me. I mean, I know our acquaintance never amounted to more than me sitting in the audience while she sang on stage, but still. The point was, she was living in Brooklyn, just over the river, and I liked the idea that this girlfriend -- potential girlfriend, anyway -- was just a subway ride away.

It does make me feel a little better, though, to listen to California Years and discover that Jill is the same fish out of water there as she was here. I mean a real misfit, not a rocker cliche in biker boots. The Stevie Nicks/Chrissie Hynde/Joan Jett singers never did much for me anyway. I totally prefer Jill's elfin quality, the breathy voice, the wry self-effacing humor -- she had it all down long before Zooey Deschanel wandered onto the scene, with her own saucer eyes and effortless vocals. (I love Amy Rigby for that same quality.) Clinging onto the margins of the music world, Jill -- notice how we're on a first-name basis -- has never been the Next Big Thing. (As she says in an earlier song "Freshman," "I live like a freshman / I still have a roommate") In fact, to finance this album she had to solicit donations from her fans, which is why track 14 on the new album is called "The Donor Song."

When an artist is this fringe-y, it's easy to miss when they release a new album. Catch 22 -- the label doesn't spend money to promote it, so no one knows about it, so it doesn't sell, so the label doesn't spend money to promote it. But over the holidays, Amazon offered a $5 album sale for MP3 albums, and (I never can resist a sale) as I browsed through the choices, there was California Years, an album I hadn't even known existed. I one-clicked immediately.

On first listen, I realized that I already knew this one track; I had heard it last summer on Sirius Radio (on Sirius Disorder, or The Loft, or whatever they're calling my obscure boho station these days). I remember being so enthralled by it, I could barely drive. I can still visualize the hillside road I was cruising up in Connecticut when it came on -- cows to the right, corn to the left, aching blue skies above. Not that I noticed. Jill's whispery little-girl voice was made for storytelling intimacy, and when she starts on a story, I am so there with her.

It's a simple story. Jill is sitting in a diner, watching a waitress, fantasizing about being her sweetheart. I picture the diner, the same one in that Adrienne Shelley movie Waitress, one of the best girlfriend movies of the past few years. My other point of reference is a lovely old Maria Muldaur song, also called "Sweetheart," also about a waitress (this one in a donut shop), only that one's from the waitress own viewpoint, fantasizing about one of her regular customers -- who so carelessly calls her "sweetheart" as he picks up his daily coffee. I'd love to know if Jill had this song in mind when she wrote hers.

Maybe that's why Jill calls this song "Sweetheart," instead of "Waitress" -- but it could also be because to her, the table-waiting is really irrelevant. Like Ray Davies, Jill is never a passive observer; she fiercely projects her emotions and sympathies into a vignette. I am so moved by her tenderness, all the more so because it's for a woman she doesn't even know.

Despite that gamine quality, Jill's a scrapper, flaring up in righteous anger about the male customer berating this poor waitress. Then in verse two she drifts off into her own fancy about how she'd care for this woman. ("If I was your secret / And you were my keeper / I think we'd be happy..."') A plangent bit of slide guitar sneaks in (the superb Greg Leisz), and some soft male back-up vocals -- an intriguing touch, as if to fudge the sexuality.

Is the waitress gay? Does Jill even know, or care? Because the fact is, she's never going to make a move with the waitress. This romance is all in the World of What If. Which, if we're honest, is where most of our most passionate romances lie anyway. The power of her fantasy tells us less about the waitress's beauty than it does about Jill's own loneliness and longing. Oh, she'd write songs for this woman, IF she was her sweetheart . . . but hey, Jill has already written the song.

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