Who the heck is Annie Gallup?

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First, a bass line - elastic, assured, melodic. An electric guitar drones into the soundscape, dropping us into the lap of a classic-rock organ, noodling a quick lick while the drummer keeps a taut backbeat. And then come all these words:

The night I saw his pickup parked beside that
darkened house at 5th and Chester
I went home and swept my arm across his dresser


And she's not even really singing, is she? This is some irresistible sort of rhythmic talking, affected by a voice full of roundness and dusk, assisted by the jaunty bass line, and powered by the sheer force of the lyrics' unrelenting iambs (line one) and trochees (line two):

the-NIGHT i-SAW his-PICK up-PARKED be-SIDE that-DARK ened-HOUSE at-5TH (and)
CHES-ter I-went HOME-and SWEPT-my ARM-a CROSS-his DRESS-er


This is the start of "Money," the first track on Annie Gallup's 2001 album Swerve. After one minute and three seconds of this, a pressing question sprung into my head: who the heck is Annie Gallup and where has she been all my life?

Do you know this?

It was the spring of 2002. My 13-year-old had randomly pulled the album from a disorganized shelf of used books offered for sale in our local library for fundraising purposes. It was the only CD there. "Do you know this?" he asked, well-trained to assume I knew pretty much everything. Which I of course didn't, but it was a great illusion while it lasted. The CD had a white cover, with no writing, featuring a dark square picture of a woman with a guitar in the center, in semi-profile, facial details obscured by hair and darkness but for an elegant Roman nose. I bought it with four quarters of change from my pocket and took it home, hoping merely it was not an album full of overly earnest singer/songwriter music. I am not a fan of overly earnest singer/songwriter music.

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And it was anything but. Tough and literate, funny and sensual, Swerve is an adventure through some alternative world in which songwriters really are poets and storytellers, alert to the rhythms of language and life, alive to nuance and humor and infinite fallibility. With her smoky yet quizzical voice, her deft phrasing, and her fierce intelligence, Gallup is an engaging but unpretentious performer.

A series of compact first- and second-person narratives, full of odd details and trenchant observations, the album, coming to me when and how it did, cast an unusual spell. I think I needed someone who focused on palpable details, someone who demanded my presence without ego, someone who showed me rather than told me that life is strange and powerful and that if you are alive you move forward - swerving, perhaps - because what else is there to do.

It was 2002: The world had gone grim

I mean, it was 2002: you remember. The world had gone grim. Even music had stopped being the solace to me it once was. I no longer knew where to turn for new music I could connect to, but dreaded the idea of sliding into heedless nostalgia by listening only to familiar favourites. Meanwhile, as peer-to-peer file-sharing was promising a brave new world of unlimited music, I felt more saddened than encouraged by the 21st century's two new prime musical directives:

1) that music fans were now to covet music libraries featuring hundreds of thousands of maniacally stockpiled songs rather than a few hundred thoughtfully assembled albums

2) that these songs could and should be uploaded off the internet for free, regardless of whether the artists had chosen to offer the music for free or not.

While I appreciate a good deal as much as the next guy---I've always loved nothing more than browsing for hours through well-stocked used CD racks---the idea that we were collectively pronouncing the end of music as something to value and pay for seemed senseless to me, and sad.

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And now along came this offbeat album that no one but me seemed to know, an album that maybe no one has ever illegally downloaded, and it set me straight, all but single-handedly allowing me to open my eyes and ears to the 21st-century via its explicitly told, elusively resonant stories. The resilient if shell-shocked narrator in "Money" takes us through the discovery of a cheating boyfriend and what happens next, a quirky story propelled by real-life randomness and animated by her propensity to reveal strangely specific details:

a boomerang-shaped
ashtray full of ticket stubs from Tiger Stadium and
the SkyDome


I found a furnished room for forty-seven bucks
week and rented it from Helen Carrothers


It was a guy named Gordon in a two-tone Pontiac

And somewhere inside this small-but-large tale (she leaves her boyfriend; rents a room for a few days until the landlord needs it back; has a flat tire), the lesson is the simplest and most difficult of all: Be Aware. Even if first your awareness is simply of your own ignorance.

Narrative and musicianship

Swerve isn't for the faint of heart. Words tumble from Gallup's mouth with idiosyncratic precision. The songs feel fierce. Despite the speak-singing she favors, Gallup can sing when she wants to, and the melodies can break your heart. In fact as word-centric an album as Swerve is, it's the musicality that seals the deal---the scrupulous craftsmanship, the sparse but canny arrangements, the brave intelligence that shines through its unique confluence of narrative and musicianship.

For every track that feels more conventionally song-like ("True," "Great Distance") there are bracing pieces of lithe invention, running the gamut from the sly humor of "What I Know," a conflicted love song in which words cascade over nothing more than an acrobatic bass run and a snare drum, to the stark complexity of "One Two," a second-person story with spoken verses that begins with the harrowing account of a dream of a soldier releasing himself from duty by shooting his toes off.

And then there's the album's slippery centerpiece, "Georgia O'Keeffe," an evocative meditation on love and history and change. At once Swerve's most solid and most immaterial song, "Georgia O'Keeffe" is the album's lone singer-songwriter-y composition, but in place of over-earnestness is beauty: Gallup sings with haunted grace over a Paul Simon-like acoustic-guitar accompaniment, there are sweet chord changes and elegant lyrics, and a lovely simple chorus---just one twice-repeated line---that takes my breath away, for unknown reasons:

Georgia O'Keeffe could only guess about the
future


And what do you know, as with Jane Siberry's When I Was a Boy, Swerve in this song likewise features an indelible passage about a sunset, the words on the page only hinting at the power of their presentation within the song:

sunset2.jpgTonight I walked into the sunset
Wild blazing sky
Then walked on by
'Til color shaded black and white
I told you I'd write
But how could I say
The sky goes on forever


As poignant as the album can get, I think its power lies in Gallup's adroit blending of humor and sadness. There aren't many happy endings here but neither are we trapped in some Tom Waits-ian cabaret of shabby ne'er-do-wells. Gallup peoples her world with authentic human beings, for better or worse. When the second-person narrator of "Absecon Bay" sees an accident on the side of the road, pulls over to help, but then actually can't, it's a searing moment, a tiny but indelible inner tragedy. In "Great Distance," the line "And what I still want to tell you/Is what you still don't want to hear" is as succinct a description of failed intimacy as I can remember.

Three guys named Bill

But these moments coexist on Swerve with both broad narrative silliness ("Three Bills"---a pun-laced song about, yes, three guys named Bill) and innumerable wry asides ("You've always had a thing for girls with red hair/But this year all the girls have red hair/And you kind of feel cheated, like it's just that easy") and this coexistence is, I think, what moved me to listen, and listen again, to this most kismetically discovered album. It was 2002. I needed the balm Annie Gallup was selling; I needed the connection to unsimplified human spirit via music.

Not long afterwards, I had the idea to abandon my previous career as a professional freelance writer and start a music blog featuring free and legal MP3s. It was my way of marching (swerving?) into the new century without trampling on artist rights that civilized societies have long since understood to be important. By the spring of 2003 I had it up and running and it's been going ever since. While I can't claim the idea sprung entirely from my attachment to Swerve, I know that the climactic lines from "Money" often floated into my head as I ramped up my new site:

I think I understand for the first time in my life I
really don't know where I'm going


I still don't know. And on my best days, I no longer want to.

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