To Run More Smoothly
Here is the Diamanda Galas story: She is a supernatural diva triumphant. She fears nothing. At 20 she played piano with Ornette Coleman; at 25 she turned tricks on Oakland's San Pablo Avenue; at 37 she composed an avant-classical response to AIDS called Masque of the Red Death. In her multioctave voice and expert piano she combines technical excellence with a direct line to the dark side; her muses are pain, struggle, and overwhelming desire. She is a champion of the dispossessed, heroine to outsiders, rage incarnate.
Here is the Sue Garner story: It's not quite so fabulous. A journeywoman musician coming into her own as a solo artist, Garner participated in some of New York's finest folk-country-pop-punk bands: Run On, the Shams, Fish & Roses. Her subjects are the lint from life's emotional laundry basket, little-noticed aspects of quotidian drama: how good the evening feels when you're in your lover's arms and the ways people give themselves away when they are lying. With sparkling clarity she reveals just how typical life feels, the internal battles and victories inside every boring hour. She has written some of the most beautiful songs in the world.
Throughout the wicked maze of history there have always been Diamanda Galases and Sue Garners. Each in her own way is an ancient archetype; beneath the glitter and glare of individuality lies a fundamental icon of womanhood. Galas is happy to create her own image -- a banshee, witch, heretic priestess, sympathizer of the devil. Garner doesn't make such grand claims. If asked, she'd shake her head and allow to just being a regular gal.
But there's always more to "regular." Garner's voice on her new To Run More Smoothly is that of every woman who's reluctantly compromised her way through a "regular" life, just as Galas' Malediction and Prayer channels the sound of every woman who's ever washed herself of polite society, whether through madness or outlawhood. In earlier times, Galas would be a Joan d'Arc, or shut up as a hysteric, or burned as a witch, while Garner would be a churchgoing, laundry-folding drudge, silently counting the ways that regular gals pay the price in a man's world.
While maintaining a significant reputation in the avant-garde music scene, Galas has worked increasingly over the last few years on pop. In 1994, she collaborated with Led Zeppelin's John Paul Jones on The Sporting Life, and produced something like a rock 'n' roll album. Last year's Malediction features covers of Phil Ochs' "Iron Lady," Willie Dixon's "Insane Asylum," and Johnny Cash's "25 Minutes to Go," as well as Galas' own compositions set to poems by Pier Paolo Pasolini, Miguel Mixco, and Charles Baudelaire. The new record, which will be released in May, is a document of her '96-98 tour, which Galas dedicated to people in various kinds of trouble. ("Iron Lady" is apparently sung for serial killer Aileen Wuornos.)
Malediction is a powerful, virtuosa affair, yet, at its core, it is near hollow. The fierceness with which Galas attacks the folk, blues, and jazz standards that make up the majority of Malediction's material wipes away the subtle inflections of feeling that originally made them powerful. As much as Galas wants to speak for those who have been forcibly silenced -- victims of plague, genocide, mental anguish -- she is either unable or unwilling to explore vulnerability. All the bombast yields a wasteland of emotions, with Galas in the middle, registering one-note rage again and again.
Garner's humility paradoxically makes To Run More Smoothly rich in comparison, though next to Galas' themes Garner's are utterly banal. Garner fixates on the pungently mundane -- the betrayals, the thrills, the accidental desires, the pathetic tragedies of home. Her elegantly structured, picturesque songs span the boundaries of her inner and outer worlds. The smaller a feeling seems, the closer Garner focuses in. "I got nothing but you dontcha see?/ And as far as I can see you've got nothing but me," she sings on "A Life." "But we call it a life."
For all of Malediction and Prayer's intensity, Garner is the more intriguing artist; she digs deeper into existence itself because she is able to acknowledge and illuminate the half-tones: the minor sacrifices, insults, unspoken words, and passions. Call it a life. Garner's intricate dioramas of home-fire drama and concession dovetail with the late-'90s obsession with cocooning and thrift, in the same way that Galas' theater and rage matched the late-'80s boom-and-bust plague panic. But there will always be the need for Diamandas to channel the shadows of a nation, just as there will always be a call for Sues chronicling the inside of the everyday.