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COMET, by Suddenly, Tammy!
A great lost work re-emerges!, April 20, 2011
By Fred Murschall
We waited a long time to hear Comet. Warner Brothers cut Suddenly, Tammy! from its roster just prior to the album’s release in 1997. Despite the large number of bands dropped at the same time (reflecting the first surge of “downloading panic” in the industry), some wondered if Suddenly, Tammy! had fallen prey to DTAS (Disappointing Third Album Syndrome). Have no such fear. Comet is a masterpiece. For their third album the trio honed the hallmarks of their unique sound and performed with aplomb, grit, and sometimes abandon.
On Comet Beth Sorrentino’s piano riffs soar so high Elton John and Billy Joel gaze jealously skyward. Her beguiling chord changes underscore haunting melodies. Ken Heitmuller’s bass playing flows as naturally as the blood coursing your vessels, despite its rhythmic and harmonic complexity. Even at moderate volumes it shakes loose any platelets that may have collected in your arteries and jiggles your bone marrow to boot. Jay Sorrentino’s athletic drumming dances for you. Hell, it frequently dances ON you!
Early descriptions of Suddenly, Tammy!’s sound as “Carole King meets Charlie Brown” sold short the depth of some very powerful songs, but got right one essential element. This is gentle music played with intensity. Even the slow songs, at times so quiet they seem to be trying to avoid detection, may invoke catharsis. The mid- and up-tempo rhythms convey suburban youth: riding your bike in the fall, skateboarding, skipping and whirling. But they carry both conflict and resolution along with them and are played with outlaw courage that belies the ages of the band members. Three brave musicians ride their instruments like confident horse people who barely contain the wild stallions they’ve harnessed because they love the edge. (Remember we are talking about a pop band with no guitarist!)
They are outlaws, too, because they don’t play by the conventional rules. Beth Sorrentino’s songs (songwriting credits go to the band, but I believe she provides the words and melodies) make their own rules, blazing trails in a process that allows subject matter to determine form. The players (Beth Sorrentino included) have no choice but to invent their means of expression. The songs on Comet are often fragmentary depictions of emotional states in times of crisis. Appropriately, many are built on a collection of riffs rather than verses and a chorus. Sorrentino uses the technique of repetition to explore how meaning changes with context. Sometimes a revealing hint is dropped lyrically, sometimes it comes as a key change. Sometimes the only change in the context is the repetition itself, and, yes, the meaning of the same lyrics and melody change with repetition. The approach is heady, but there isn’t a trace of pretentiousness. These songs are honest, vulnerable and personal.
So personal, in fact, we listeners may never know them fully. The vivid lyrics, like panels from a realistic graphic novel, suggest narratives but rarely complete them. Much of the emotional content is delivered musically. We may not fully understand what Sorrentino’s narrator is thinking, but we know exactly how she’s feeling. Wise beyond her years, she compels our attention. The pictures she paints in song intrigue us and we long to know more details, but we must resign ourselves to a shared feeling. We want to stay with her forever, but we will only get four minutes. This theme is central to Suddenly, Tammy! in general and Comet in particular. The subject matter is sweet and sad, hopeful but knowing, tender but firm. Surprises come in virtually every song, and they may be joyous or disturbing. What links these contradictory impulses is acceptance, often in the shape of forgiveness.
I think Comet is about surviving childhood intact. There are songs about wanting to run away, living in dysfunctional households, adults who are clueless about their children, parents who express their displeasure badly, and, of course, knowing that you are going to grow up just like them. Through all this, our narrator remains determined to love without fear, and she will help you do the same. Her strength allows her to put the solution first, and then state the problem. She also sticks up for herself. The first words on the album are “Don’t stop me now. It’s all that I have/ ‘Cause I can make this. I can have this./The places we go get to me sometimes. So heavy. So hard.” She can handle trouble and she’s going to use all she’s got in order to live well. Her tools are many and considerable, and she knows when it’s time to exit. She will soar and accept the consequences.
Almost unprecedented in the vulnerability of its emotional content, Comet belongs in a category with Joni Mitchell’s Blue and Aimee Mann’s music for Magnolia (which it predates). It is loaded with deeply affecting moments, some of them heartbreaking. The second Suddenly, Tammy! album, We Get There When We Do, contained the ultimate song about missing someone who had gone away too soon (“River, Run”). Comet‘s closing number (optimistically entitled “Merry”) backs up a step in the grieving process and faces loss at the point of departure. Someone precious is leaving because it hurts too much to stay. He wants something he can’t have. The young lady offers an alternative. Rethink your attachment, she says, to relieve the unbearable truth. With a little acceptance, a little adaptation and a new coat of paint you can make it tolerable. And then you can stay. In the face of emotional adversity she displays wisdom and true feminine courage.
Beth Sorrentino is a gifted songwriter. Her unique creative approach and unpatronizing lyrics may not bring her mainstream popularity, but she is an original and she will be influential in years to come. I say let’s hasten this process and show a working artist some well-deserved appreciation. Since the demise of her band she has released two excellent digital-only albums, Nine Songs, One Story and the brand new Hiding Out. Buy them! They are wonderful.