Clare Means - White Bamboo Album Review
  • 5/5
Reviewed by Billys Bunker

Simple, Sharp, Stark & Elegant. Clare Means has a smoky voice and simple style that stings deep. Her lyrics explore pain with the direct creative honesty of a dispassionate fairy tale. She finds a still beating heart at the center of the story of our lives.

"Writing in other voices is almost Japanese in the sense that there's a certain formality there which allows me to sidestep the embarrassment of directly expressing to complete strangers the most intimate details of my life."
~ Suzanne Vega

"But in answer to your questions about the songs, these are stories from my life and things I have gleaned from observations and experiences, both mine and others. I think it is interesting how different people interpret songs so I'll leave them up to you to interpret for the review."
~ Clare Means

"A song is anything that can walk by itself."
~ Bob Dylan

"What should I say about life? That it's long and abhors transparence."
~ Joseph Brodsky

Clare Means has a distinctive voice from that smoky territory between Suzanne Vega and Beth Orton. Her songs are so deceptively simple you might miss them the first time around. She isn't out to win accolades for sturm und drang or the "Too-Clever-By-Half" award reserved for British bards and ex-lit majors. Her voice is intimate and dusty without being sultry, and she's left out sufficient details in her songs to keep her from being mixed up with the confessional circuit's Ani DiFranco or Tori Amos. Her songs stand up for themselves with an inviting sense of consequence a little like the poems of Joseph Brodsky or some of the short stories of Raymond Carver.

On first hearing possibly 20 seconds of Clare's voice singing on myspace, I knew she had something. I know that because I believed what she was singing, and hadn't heard enough to know what it was. After a couple of days listening time and time again to her songs, I'm not quite sure I know what she intended but I know what these songs mean to me. I believe in the rule of thumb that a song that benefits from knowing the writer's intention is improperly born. Somehow these songs ring for me, hold me through the repetitions like great folks songs will do, and their meaning attaches to parts of my life and the feelings just beneath the surface on a given day. There is perhaps a Clare Means frame of mind in them, which is to me a sense of acceptance and wonder at the damages of daily experience. She won't burn anything in effigy, but I wouldn't want to be the one she's singing about for the most part. She's been hurt into poetry, and has the smolder of Beth Orton in her delivery stripped clean of unnecessary detail. She writes first-person songs with the detached vision of a third-person narrative. Hell, I don't know what draws me in, but these songs stick with me. I want to hear them again, and I do. And they work again as the listener inside me is changing. There is soul in this singing as deep as acceptance, though not quite precisely passing through to forgiveness. Or something like that. You will have to decide for yourself. Where it comes to opinions about a simple song, "God bless the child whose got his own."

Clare Means sings of hurts healed over with internal scars. She sings songs of soft personal losses that prick at the sense of self without the catharsis of rage. The remnant of pain is present in the quaver and timbre endemic to her dusty voice. Her stories are born in a quiet place where the damages can be dispassionately reported. The homicide of neglect and abandonment to a child, hollow love affairs, and the homeless quality of New York nights in the city of permanent transience infuse her songs with a gnawing desire for meaning. She has a quality Marianne Faithful developed over many years and first revealed in "Broken English." Her songs are the words of a quiet, lost child whose worst fear is nobody will listen. Clare Mean's songs are infused with the raw courage of hope without illusions, which quality has won her the right to join the ranks of songwriters and poets.

Judge: Who recognizes you as a poet? Who enrolled you in the ranks of poets?
Brodsky: No one. Who enrolled me in the ranks of humankind?
~ From the transcript of the Soviet trial of Joseph Brodsky for "parasitism"


1. NEW YORK NIGHT chronicles that last night in the Chelsea Hotel locked up on the fourth floor between a spiral of paint and a spiral of sky, where "all that's between is is all that we're not / and we're giving it all to the New York night." The world is spinning as "Sirens wail on 23rd, / drowning out our every word, / but there is nothing left to say. / It's better off this way." The atmospheric wail of a guitar like a woodwind blows through this landscape, but the finger figure on the acoustic is as simple as time. "So close your eyes, and hold on tight / and wrap yourself around the New York night." Something happens in that room this night cannot be described. It can be sung.

(NEW YORK NIGHT ~ lyrics by Clare Means, music by Clare Means and Michael Starr)

2. EVERYBODY'S ROOM BUT MINE is a slow country self-portrait of a song which might describe a foster child. "My momma left me / when I was born / She couldn't care for / a baby boy." Momma had another love. "Her body filled with poison / she put the needle in / Body filled with cocaine / and heroine." The damages from this abandonment have been told in many ways in countless stories. Clare says it simply: "But don't listen to me / I tell too many lies / don't listen to me / 'cause I've lived in everybody's room but mine." I have a picture in my head of an unwanted child told nobody listens because he tells too many lies. That's not in the song, but that image pops up for me. But that's too easy. I'd rather not remember being told by my father, "You already told me that." Didn't make me proud. Didn't make me want to talk again. "I have four brothers / never met one / I've had six mothers / never trusted none / Every night I rock myself to sleep / Every night I rock myself to sleep." Whatever gets you through the night.

3. SNOW ANGELS has a mandolin played a little like I imagine it might sound on a gondola in Venice, and violins playing for a line or two each time the song suggests "Skating under colored lights / Touching through our frostbite / we'll make angels in the snow." There is warmth in contact here, but always touching or kissing "through our frostbite." Even the evidence of angels is created deliberately in this song. "They can have their sun, their heat / when you're with me there is no need / we'll make angels in the snow." It almost feels like love in exile. But each time the violins return there is a waltz on skates crisp and beautiful.

4. HAUNT YOU is that thanks-for-nothing father's day card for the missing man who had the gift for creating what he couldn't love. "You act as though I don't exist / but you know I do." Now, he went on to be a lousy father to 10 other children, but never send a birthday card or Christmas greeting to the lost child. Like a wounded child these lyrics report no regrets. "Don't regret a single thing / about my childhood / with you it never would have been / half as good." The rhythm stops for the true feelings and picks back up for the indifference and bravado. "I'm going to haunt you cause you know I do." I do what? I exist. I'm still here. I'm still here. I'm still here.

5. WHITE BAMBOO is a timeless moment in "Quality Inn room 233 / wondering why you left me." The headlights from cars make the shadows move. "Light on the wall like white bamboo / feels like China where I am with you." The shadows move against the wall like Plato's Allegory of the Cave: "Lights through my window, shadows move / lost in this forest of white bamboo." All is fragile, white, and mysterious. "China love so foreign and fragile / cut the skin and watch it spill / over your white bamboo." I don't know what spills when bamboo is cut. In my imagination the spill is rose red in the changing shadows of that China fragile room. This bamboo world was painted with very few strokes of a solitary brush. It means what it is.

6. NOTIONS OF LOVE is the song of a woman after love is lost. The instruments here are guitar and violin in that style might have been around a camp fire in the Civil War on a quiet night. Some arrangement, marriage or relationship has ties that will carry things along, but this wife, woman or lover has lost any shred of love. The beginning is a bit ominous. "I'll probably never tell you this / I've lied with every kiss / I've lied with every touch / I never did feel that much." Once again, Clare's character is unable to communicate something desperately important. The result in this song is a life lived as a lie. She imagines telling him, "It's all been a mean and nasty / dirty little trick." The sound of this song is absolutely Ken Burns' Civil War, with a timeless acceptance of what must never been condoned. Hard times. Somebody else may write a song. Nothing can be said.

7. ANGELS OF THE FREEWAY makes some of the simplest observations about life in Los Angeles. There are confusing freeways packed and slow in traffic. Los Angeles means "The Angels" but -- it has been said before -- there are no angels to speak of. Clare's song plays into the simplest of often repeated notions of that city like a talented tourist writing the obvious. The music here swells to give it all the drama of that first impression, first pairing of those clichéd words, first notion there are no angels, no streets of gold, no opportunity falling from the trees. I believe this song distills the most common of impressions of tinsel town in spare recitation and makes it all as real as the first realization of a visitor who may have given up all to find something in the city where everyone has given up all to find something.

8. CHLOE is the song of sweet memories when there was freedom in imagining, and the future was all it could be. "Remember Chloe / We built those spaceships / out of batteries and old radios? / . . . / We flew to the moon, and back." The repetition of this chorus is welcome each time it returns. The piano music under this story is as simple as Tom Waits' Closing Time, with that studied power of nothing extra and all that it is needed to say it all just right. "Now I waste my days away / with empty men and their empty ways / running circles with tasteless food / Saturdays used to be so good." This might be a nursery rhyme, dark and true as any story by the Brothers Grimm.

9. ASBURY PARK is a beautifully constructed enchanting story song with a hidden punch. To the child grown older: "Asbury Park misses you / carousel and ferris wheel." The twist isn't hidden or revealed later or obscured in any way. The opening lines of the song: "Hey Mr. F. how does it feel / trapped behind those great big bars / clasping cold steel?" This tender song to the child who once was seeks to describe the soul long gone from the man who has lost his freedom and his humanity. "But you threw your hands around her neck / and squeezed oh so tight / Watched her draw her last breath," and then the perfect transition, "but the little boy inside remembers . . . / Asbury Park misses you / carousel and ferris wheel." This song is charming in it's darkness. It has that feel that Tom Waits and few others ever manage. That's a holy thing. He's not a comparison I throw around. This song is that kind of beautiful.

10. GUITARS AND CHOCOLATES is another sweet song of wonder and joy with a bittersweet twist. Clare has "Guitars and chocolates and old country songs / and coffee in the morning / I find my reasons to go on / even though you're long gone." There is a sense of distance in Clare's writing that can be mistaken for a "sunny outlook" if you don't listen to the lyrics carefully. There's no virtue in catharsis for the sake of it night after night. Clare tells the story. She doesn't cry when she sings it. The story will move you. That's a good song.

Clare describes the instruments on the record:

All but one of the songs on the record, "White Bamboo", were recorded by Michael Starr and Mr. Starr also played the mandolin, violin, electric guitar, slide guitar, and bass on the songs (a very talented man indeed if any musicians are looking for someone to record and/or play on their music). Also the very talented Jason Pipkin played the drums on "Everybody's Room But Mine" and "Haunt You" and the fabulous Carl Byron played the piano on Asbury Park. The song "Angels of the Freeway" that is also on my album "White Bamboo" was produced and recorded by Derek Mok. Derek played all of the instruments on that song.