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Present Infatuation

[whitespace] Alanis Morissette
George Sakkestad

Thank U: Alanis Morissette charmed the Catalyst with songs new and old.

Alanis Morissette proved her staying power this weekend at the Catalyst

By Gina Arnold

THE LAST TIME I saw Alanis Morissette perform live was when she opened for Bob Dylan in front of 175,000 people in London's Hyde Park. Last Sunday night, she played at the Catalyst, in front of maybe 400 fans. That's quite a difference in crowd size, but it was one that this slightly mysterious 24-year-old Canadian singer handled with aplomb. Tickets to the two shows (Saturday and Sunday) sold out instantly, but inside the club it was comfortable as an old shoe.

Morissette is touring small places in advance of the early November release of her new album, Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie. Alas, the vast scale of Morissette's success has brought her grief from critics who question her authenticity, but I have never been able to understand why people don't believe in her as an artist.

For one thing, her songs are not written in a conventional pop idiom at all. Rather than using good old verse-chorus-verse and pretty sing-along melodies, they have the kind of weird meters employed by Dylan and Elvis Costello. She tends to prefer highly vernacular phrases, and her songs are usually about bad relationships and, on the new record, personal empowerment. On "Thank U," for instance, Morissette questions her own success and ambition, finally finding peace through acceptance.

Morissette's voice is not a conventionally pretty one, but it is certainly compelling. Her interpretations are full of little flicks and turns, as people find out to their dismay when they pick them at my local karaoke bar. Indeed, it was a bit unnerving hearing the Catalyst's crowd's attempt to sing along to songs like "Ironic" and "You Oughta Know" (from Jagged Little Pill). Morissette's strong, high voice flew up and down the scale, while the enthusiastic audience doggedly tried to sing along, only to falter eventually, daunted by the swoops and turns. On "Hand in My Pocket," they easily got through lines like "I'm short, but I'm friendly/I'm green but I'm wise," but were defeated by the high notes; "Cigarette" and "Taxi Cab" eluded them completely.

For the most part, Morissette sang songs from the new album. I particularly liked "Thank U," "Sympathetic Character" and "Are You Still Mad?" The new material has distinct overtones of Indian raga and Middle Eastern music. Morissette also mentioned India once and bowed after some numbers as if she were at yoga class.

Morissette is primarily a singer, but on several songs she played guitar and also harmonica--an instrument one primarily associates with men. She plays badly, but intensely, punctuating the breaks in her songs with huge gusts of wind. She can't dance either--but then neither can Dylan or Springsteen. Instead, Morissette sways, swirls around and wiggles her hands a bit pretentiously--shades of Natalie Merchant.

But for all that, there's something quite genuine about her presence, something that doesn't seem even remotely contrived. For one thing, unlike many of today's young women singer/songwriters, Morissette is actually quite strange-looking. She's attractive, but the two sides of her face look as if they were glued together askew.

Morissette was dressed modestly, even dumpily, in high-neck black T-shirt and Chinese silk skirt that she wore over pants. Indeed, in retrospect, I think one of the reasons that male critics didn't believe she wrote "You Oughta Know" was that she didn't dress sexily enough to sing a song about sex.

But Morissette's singing style is believable. She sings like she means it, like she loves it and like what she's saying is important to her. Of course, it seems quite unlikely that Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie could have either the sales or impact that Jagged Little Pill did, but at this point that's irrelevant. All that matters is that she writes good songs and performs them admirably--whether she's in front of 400 or 40,000.

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From the October 15-21, 1998 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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