Album Details

May 29, 2007
Hybrid Recordings
Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock, Contemporary Singer/Songwriter, Alternative Singer/Songwriter, Adult Alternative Pop/Rock

Album Review

It's taken a while for Johnette Napolitano, the powerful singer and songwriter from the defunct Concrete Blonde, to find her way, but she hasn't been in a hurry. She released a couple of records independently through CD Baby, collaborated with Talking Heads when they re-formed without David Byrne, worked on film soundtracks, made a film herself, made her own clothes, and bought a cabin in the desert over 130 miles from her former home in Los Angeles. Napolitano is no stranger to letting out what's inside in her lyrics -- remember Concrete Blonde's greatest recorded statement, Bloodletting? Scarred is her first widely distributed solo project; it's so naked, emotionally intense, and honest that it's bound to make some people nervous, but it will lure in many others (if they get the chance to hear it). Scarred was written mostly in her cabin and recorded in Los Angeles and in London. She co-produced the set with Danny Lohner; it was engineered and mixed by her old CB mate, James Mankey. Lohner played electric guitar on the set, but Napolitano did everything else. Napolitano wrote or co-wrote ten of the album's 12 cuts, and there is a pair of covers in Coldplay's "Scientist" and the Lou Reed-penned Velvet Underground nugget "All Tomorrow's Parties." The covers are fine; they add atmosphere and textural changes to a poetically revealing recording that deals with everything from entropy to revelation to psychological and emotional damage to yearning (both spiritual and carnal). Take the title track, which begins with a lone acoustic guitar and then builds in layers dynamically and texturally until it threatens to overcome the listener -- sonically with careening guitars, thudding drums, and swirling keyboards, and psychically with lyrics that deal with an emotionally paralyzed person who cannot feel or relate to being connected to the world. She can't sleep for over a day, and fights the disconnection and grief that have caused the condition. This is not only a broken love song; it is a testament that has been shattered down to the basics of functioning. By the time the guitar solo enters and the tune begins again in a circular fashion, you are no longer hearing a song, but through your aural senses are looking so deep inside the protagonist that you may be tempted to hit "skip."
"Amazing," the lead-off track, is a song of both spiritual and carnal longing: "Look at my hands, look at my feet/Clumsy stumps of leftover fin/I manage to walk and I manage to talk/Speak, eat, drink, and live in my skin/Looking at you, and watching you move/I almost pass out, I so want to be you/My tongue is like leather, I feel nails in my jaw/You're so together, that I am in awe/Angels among us, they're not so far above us/They're here on earth as well/At least as far as I can tell/Amazing, you're amazing, I'm just OK/And I just want to live in your light...." The cut begins to crackle and crash as the keyboards tower above in the mix with power chords and synthesized strings, and one has to wonder if this is a person who is seeing the depth of a spiritual presence, or if this is simply a projection of erotic obsession. The bottom line is that it's obsession either way, and so nakedly confessional about the inner being of the singer that the power in her voice threatens to capture everything within hearing range and take it all into the whirlwind. "Poem for the Native" brings a bit of the mysticism of the desert into the mix with its drum loops and circus keyboards. Here, the recitation talks about kissing the ghost of James Dean (is it?) or some other ghosts floating through the air -- she knows they are there, as the desert "blooms and dies," and she can't feel anything. But she knows they are waiting for her, though she is the one who has been waiting incessantly for the past: "All this time, all this time/We will be together again." The mystery, need, and strength expressed in these songs -- through Napolitano's large husky instrument, which may be limited in range but more than makes up for it in her control, phrasing, and projective energy -- set this disc far apart from the league of contemporary rock. Scarred uses all of its trappings -- funky, razor-sharp electric guitars, walls of sounds and keyboards -- but its artfulness is wonderfully reckless. There is nothing precious about vulnerability, pain, rage, or enchantment and wonder here. It's all right out there, in front for you to dive right down inside -- if you are brave enough.
"My Diane," a beautifully written ballad, feels like a psychic read into the mind of Dianus. It sounds -- without claiming it is -- like the mirror-opposite image of Georges Bataille's wildly obscene homage in his delirious prose piece Halleluiah! The Catechism of Dianus. For all her utter seriousness and the psychological digging in her lyrics, Napolitano hasn't forgotten how to compose exquisite rock and pop melodies. For the all the power and dynamic of "Amazing" and "Scarred," there are the hooks and sensual harmonies and ringing guitars in the languidly beautiful and tender "Wave," or the swaggering rock & roll of "Everything for Everyone." "Just Like Time"'s old-school rapping meets the Wilson sisters at Heart's hard rocking best in "Save Me," which, with its banging metallic fever -- is the most shattering vocal performance on the album. While the Coldplay song is well-placed near the beginning of the album, Napolitano's cover of "All Tomorrow's Parties" adds something significant to the track, as its skeletal beginning meets distortion, wildness, and a voice that pays a real homage to Nico's -- especially since Napolitano's range, while bigger and richer, can easily phrase the German femme fatale's cool-as-ice delivery as the music squeals and swirls all around her. It's one of the better versions of this tune in the canon. Ultimately, Scarred is a surprising, wondrous, beguiling, and often harrowing journey through the artist's world, despite its loudness and unabashed rock & roll stance, along with the presence of the desert in all its aridness with its haunted and trickster phantoms hovering about. The final track, "I'm Up Here," is a crackling, fiery, overdriven rocker that serves as a jeremiad from God, who has -- broken-hearted, lonely, and irritated to the point of response -- witnessed the hidden darkness in the human heart as it expresses itself in the world. But it's also a plea to the accused who has ranted and run far afield. In the end one is not sure who is saying "If you believe in me/I'll believe in you." Perhaps it's a duet that brings the dialogue to a close and a new beginning as the album fades into silence.
Thom Jurek, Rovi

Track Listing

  1. Amazing
  2. The Scientist
  3. Scarred
  4. Poem for the Native
  5. My Diane
  6. Just Like Time
  7. Save Me
  8. Like a Wave
  9. Crazy Tonight
  10. Everything for Everyone
  11. All Tomorrow's Parties
  12. I'm Up Here