First Appeared in The Music Box, May 2005, Volume 12, #5
Written by John Metzger
Since 2000, CD sales have been sluggish, but DVD technology seemingly has opened a new chapter for the music business to explore. Not only are old, VHS-based videos being refurbished and reissued, but many made-for-television shows from the past decade also are being released for the first time to the home theater market. One such series is VH1 Storytellers, which launched in 1996 with an episode that featured The Kinksí Ray Davies. Its concept was to have an artist discuss the inspiration for a handful of songs and perform them within an intimate setting. Yet, despite its simplicity, VH1 Storytellers, much like MTVís Unplugged, actually became one of the most transcendent music-oriented programs ever to air. Unfortunately, like most moments in popular culture that attract widespread attention, it sporadically lost its way, and not surprisingly, this occurred whenever its creators allowed the program to be co-opted by the industry for the purpose of its own self-promotion. Thereís little doubt that segments with Culture Club, Meatloaf, and Def Leppard had more to do with rejuvenating the faltering careers of former rock stars than they did with spotlighting true craftsmanship.
At first glance, the folk-pop of Natalie Merchant might seem like an odd choice for VH1 Storytellers to have tackled, but beneath the glossy veneer of her songs lies weightier subject matter that warrants this sort of attention. For example, in explaining her personal connection to the neglected and abused child that stirred her to compose Whatís the Matter Here? for 10,000 Maniacs, she brought the emotional underpinnings of the song to the forefront, and her subsequent vocal delivery powerfully exuded the anger, the sorrow, and the passion of her lyrics. Elsewhere, Merchant carried Wonder from a somber examination of a handicapped childís struggles to the uplifting joy that overcoming insurmountable odds can bring, and on Verdi Cries, she magically captured the solitary and sad aura of a hotel guest in an adjacent room, who repeatedly played the opera Aida. Unfortunately, she didnít take full advantage of the format to delve as far as she could have into her exquisite catalog. Instead, she opted to fill part of her eight-song set with lighter fare such as Kind and Generous, These Are Days, and Carnival. Nevertheless, her pliable voice combined with the tight, but dexterous ability of her backing band yielded superficially similar but texturally different interpretations of some of her best known tunes. As a result, her contribution to VH1 Storytellers proved to be one of the programís finest moments.
VH1 Storytellers is available from Barnes & Noble.
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2005 The Music Box