Woman as Center: Jill Sobule, California Years

By Daniel Garrett

Jill Sobule, California Years
Produced by Don Was
Engineered by Krish Sharma
Mastered by Ted Jensen
Pinko Records, 2009

“Palm Springs,” on Jill Sobule’s California Years, is about an artist’s search for inspiration, in which she travels and notes the mundane—the desert, a Prius, windmills, outlet stores, a bar band, a Sonny Bono statue—and out of these far from metaphysical observations she has constructed the song we are listening to. Jill Sobule sings in a mellow but nasal tone, and the song has a laconic humor (the observations are funny rather than the tone in which they are delivered). Jill Sobule’s still youthful voice makes it easier to believe in her stories as real occurrences, as she stumbles on people, especially women, in different situations who engage her attention, anger or sympathy, and wit. Sobule’s banjo begins “San Francisco,” followed by other instruments, in this song about going for a massage, and encountering someone else’s desire for change and creativity, for song, for movement. (The la-la-las in the song suggest the carefree, the promise of better days.) The masseuse is just one of the neglected women who move within the vision and sound of Jill Sobule’s work in California Years.

“Nothing to Prove,” with a chorus that sounds like a hearty bar song, is a woman artist’s declaration of individuality and integrity, of feeling herself beyond the need for the permission and approval of others, even if those others work in a record company she is visiting for a possible business contract; and the artist in the song later finds herself meeting the younger (sullen) record company employee who is friendlier away from work than she was in the office, suggesting how mysterious we are to each other, how difficult to judge. One woman artist, Sobule, inquires about another in “Where is Bobbie Gentry?,” a song that echoes some of Gentry’s music; and, it has a rhythm similar to Gentry’s “Ode to Billy Joe.” Of course, the search for female heroes is a now classical quest. I’m not sure that the song works entirely (it can seem rough), but it is so quirky and well-intentioned—it quirkiness may be what gives it vitality—that I like it.

“A Good Life” is a stream of contemporary consciousness, with allusions to the news we do and do not make sense of. “Let’s have a ball before we’re dead,” Jill Sobule sings in “A Good Life,” which acknowledges the disasters that might befall California—an earthquake, a bomb—yet makes a place for intimacy and personal pleasure. Sobule enters situations and notices things others might miss (one mark of an artistic temperament); and in “Sweetheart” she expresses sympathy and possibly affection for a waitress, which could be a fleeting connection or a genuine romantic speculation.

With voice and guitar, and lines strung together, “Empty Glass” follows the grief, and the sense of emptiness, that comes in the wake of an unexpected death, a grief that is angry and has its own violence. “League of Failures” could be about the loss of love or the loss of ambition or both. The narrator refers to herself as “a dreamer who just won’t wake up.” The song, with voice, guitar, and piano, creates an aura of solitude, and presents a confrontation with anger and disappointment and the prospect of peace or at least resignation.

The softly uptempo (and insanely cheery?) “Wendell Lee” is about the remembrance of an early sexual experience with a young man, followed by an encounter with a young woman, followed by a litany of other passing relationships (“the list goes on” and “these are some of the people that I thought would be the one”). The age of computer resources and searches has made the past more accessible, a door that can be opened in the present or the future. About the fear of love, following one’s own misbehavior in love, the composition “Bloody Valentine,” like other Sobule songs, places love not only in our minds or hearts but in the world, part of a larger social discourse, part of the kindness and cruelty dished out on any given day. The guitar in the song is rather restrained at first, and I found myself thinking the song could use more invention—and then the music revs up with distortion and volume, a contrast to its opening.

What might feature exploration of a pointless excursion, or the pursuit of addiction, “Mexican Pharmacy” has one of the more interesting arrangements on California Years (full texture, shifting sounds suggesting different musical genres, including rock, country, and Mexican music). Sobule’s voice rises to achieve a nearly pure tone, with lovely musical support, in “While You Were Sleeping,” a song about the (casual, simple) end of a relationship.

It is impressive how much of the world Sobule gets into her songs, how easily she creates or documents characters. “Spiderman” could be the rantings of a mad man, but it is more likely the ruminations of one more person in California trying to make a little money off Hollywood by impersonating a movie figure. California Years ends with “The Donor Song,” a song made up of the names of people who contributed funds allowing Jill Sobule to create the album California Years.

Daniel Garrett is a writer whose work has appeared in The African, AllAboutJazz.com, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Cinetext.Philo, Film International, Hyphen, IdentityTheory.com, Muse-Apprentice-Guild.com, Offscreen.com, Option, PopMatters.com, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, WaxPoetics.com, and World Literature Today. He has written fiction, poetry, drama, journalism, and criticism. He has a long and lasting admiration for the singer-songwriter tradition. Daniel Garrett’s web log at Blogger.com, focused on culture and society, is called “City and Country, Boy and Man.” His e-mail address is D.Garrett.Writer@gmail.com