Rare on Air, Vol. 1
By John McAlley
"The most precious things are always in disguise," Peter Himmelman sings on the unlikely treasure trove Rare on Air Vol. 1, a benefit record whose proceeds support KCRW, National Public Radio's flagship station in Southern California. The album—which compiles 16 startlingly intimate live performances by X, Beck, Lindsey Buckingham and Natalie Merchant, among others—is suffused with the kind of searching music and hushed immediacy that defined, in the pre-MTV glory days of rock radio, the solitary late-night FM-listening experience.
Actually, Rare's spellbinding tracks (most of which were performed live on the air, in solo or small group settings, in KCRW's basement studio, in Santa Monica) were born in the light of day on Morning Becomes Eclectic, the station's popular drive-time broadcast and a favorite promotional stop for touring and Los Angeles-based musicians.
Leonard Cohen establishes the record's confessional agenda with a spoken prelude, "Poem," the first he ever wrote and evidence that, at 15, he'd already known the terrors of emotional nakedness. Just such paralyzing vulnerability stops Tori Amos' heart in the painfully austere "Silent All These Years" and informs Lindsey Buckingham's cracked genius and tremulous acoustic rendition of "Never Going Back Again."
Slightly more sober but no less affecting is Natalie Merchant's search for self in the beguiling "How You've Grown." Beck's road to self-discovery, not surprisingly, takes a whacked and brilliant turn in "Mexico," the Bildungsroman of a modern-day blues-folk bard bred on Big Macs and airplane glue.
If romantic desperation is the common thread of much of this material (and finds its haunting quintessence in Lucinda Williams' emotion-choked cover of Nick Drake's "Which Will"), the beautiful tangle and tango of male and female voices suggests that the struggle is fated. Juliana Hatfield and the Lemonheads' Evan Dando lapse into serenely torpid union on "My Drug Buddy." John Doe's strained shadow vocal lovingly seconds Exene Cervenka's fractured emotion on "Arms for Hostages." And Himmelman—whose gifts have gone largely unrecognized—has his humility bolstered by Kristin Mooney's clarion background vocal on the transcendent "Always in Disguise." Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds' rowdy "God's Hotel" shatters all this solemnity, only to have the jazz instrumentalist and film composer Mark Isham's 10-minute mood indigo, "The Moderns," deepen it.
In an age characterized by irony, cool detachment and arrogant superficiality, Rare on Air—the first in what will be a string of annual releases from KCRW's extensive performance library—dares to let honesty, musicality and deep feeling have its day.