People Eating People
So, back in the day, I was in a struggling band in Seattle. And back in that day, one of the biggest breaks a struggling band could get was getting a blurb written about them in The Stranger, the local indie newspaper (edited by none other than Dan Savage, of “Savage Love” fame). While my band was scrambling between shows, staying up way too late at practice, and generally creating plenty of VH1 Behind the Music drama, another band was stealing all of the time in The Stranger: Mon Frere.
When members of my band said their name, it sounded like it should be in italics and in caps, just because we said it through gritted teeth in a mean voice, as in, “Oh, how sweet, Mon Frere got another piece in The Stranger!” (Not that our music could even really be compared—my band and Mon Frere sounded just about as similar as Elton John and Black Flag). So, I admit that when I saw Nouela Johnston went solo and has a new album with her solo act, People Eating People, I was all over it! Heck Yes! Revenge!
Well, here are the facts: I really like People Eating People. I was fully planning on hearing something that I’d heard before (piano plus angst multiplied by the square root of Tori Amos, post-Strange Little Girls, roughly equals something irritating), but People Eating People is really, really good. I don’t even have to totally hold myself back from gritting my teeth as I agree with Stranger columnist Megan Seling. Johnston’s sound lies with Fiona Apple (minus my mom asking me if I’m feeling okay when I’m listening to her), Regina Spektor (minus the kitsch), and Amanda Palmer (minus those funky tattooed eyebrows). Only (sigh!) I like her more than all of the previous three. There. I said it.
“For Now” makes me teary-eyed in a way that Fiona Apple could only do back when I was about sixteen. “Rain, Rain” is funky and quirky without being obnoxiously so (and yes, even Spektor can overdo the quirky at times). I like Amanda Palmer quite a lot, but Johnston just about slays her with a jazzy bravado and riffing on the old jazz standard “Summertime” in her song “Let’s Rage.” And, finally, let’s face it: She just kills with her wickedly fantastic lyricism. Take “Supernatural Help”: “I don’t need supernatural help/I can fuck things up myself.” Well put.
What makes People Eating People work is that Johnston keeps things simple, letting her voice and her piano speak by themselves when appropriate, and bringing in drums and other accouterments only when they are needed. Gee, she’s so great that I don’t even have to be jealous that Matt Bayles mastered her disc. He only was responsible for mixing, engineering, or producing (or all three) bands like Botch, Mastodon, The Murder City Devils, and Pearl Jam, to name but a few. Not me. I’m just not the jealous type.