Songs From A Marriage

Joyce Millman reviews Amy Rigby's album "Diary of a Mod Housewife".


Joyce Millman
November 26, 1996 1:00AM (UTC)

Country music has always readily acknowledged the kinds of lives real people lead. From Loretta Lynn's "One's on the Way" to Tammy Wynette's "D-I-V-O-R-C-E" to George Jones' "A Good Year for the Roses" to Mary Chapin Carpenter's "He Thinks He'll Keep Her," country elevates to monumental the subjects rock 'n' roll might rashly consider mundane the hard work of raising kids, supporting a family, and keeping a marriage going as romance falls farther down the list of priorities. Maybe it's the music's inherent populism or maybe it's the premium it places on storytelling, but a lot of country sounds like music made by grown-ups who've been there and back.

Amy Rigby is just such a grown-up. Rigby's debut solo CD "Diary of a Mod Housewife" is country in sound as well as spirit, and it doesn't even matter that she's an old punk from New York's East Village on this record, she's goddamn Loretta Lynn. Rigby, who's in her late 30s, put out previous records with the New York cowpunk band Last Roundup and the Shams, a "post-modern girl group," as she describes them in her self-penned press bio. She has a spunky, wobbly voice like Carlene Carter and a way with a pop hook like Nick Lowe, which is why she's on an indie label she may be too rock for Nashville and too Nashville for rock.

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The type of mundane/monumental domestic vignettes Rigby lays out on "Diary of a Mod Housewife" have been attempted by a few brave married rockers before: X's "Wild Gift" comes to mind, with its harrowing tales of a couple, a vow and every kind of temptation imaginable. ("Wild Gift" is a country album in punk clothing.) Rigby doesn't go in for such doomed heroics, though. "Mod Housewife" is homey homespun, even and without a trace of studied rock-star glamor. Rigby sounds like a woman past the point of caring whether or not she's cool. She's got more important things to worry about a kid, a stack of bills. She's real, and many listeners will find her plenty familiar.

In her liner notes (more like a liner manifesto), she writes, "You may be asking yourself what is a mod housewife? It is a woman being dragged kicking and screaming into adulthood... Stuck in the netherworld between bohemia and suburbia, between set lists and shopping lists. You've probably seen her at the supermarket with her kid in a grocery cart, headphones blasting Elastica while she debates the merits of low-fat granola bars vs. Snackwells. Maybe you've seen her pushing a toddler in a swing, with a fading ink stamp on her hand from some club the night before... She still wants to rock, and still knows how. She understands compromise. But she's not ready to give in ... yet."

Like the famous soccer moms, the women Rigby speaks directly to and for are everywhere, yet have long been treated as if invisible. "Mod Housewife" is as liberating as the first Pretenders record was, voicing womanly concerns with no punches pulled. This is a record that feels so lived in, it hurts. Rigby's 12 perfect, unpretentious songs about a shaky marriage (to former dB's percussionist Will Rigby) and unfulfilled ambition were scribbled between office temp jobs and bar gigs (in one published interview, she recalls driving home from her shows with her little daughter Hazel asleep in the back seat). In her bio, Rigby calls "Mod Housewife" "music to wash dishes by."

Produced by former Cars guitarist Elliot Easton, "Mod Housewife" is the kind of literate pop that could make a killing in Nashville, although her band is more elastic, her voice more wayward, than anything coming out of the Nashville mainstream. She's more in step with the eclectic country pop-rock of John Hiatt, Marshall Crenshaw, and Lucinda Williams. She does early-Beatles-type guitar raves, authentic Nashville domestic soap operas, and unplugged confessionals, and she hits the mark on all of them.

But what I love best about "Mod Housewife" is Rigby's lyrics and the world of responsibility and spouseness and momhood she illuminates, dust bunnies and all. Rigby's ironic title makes you think how, even though women's lives have changed since our mothers' time, that weird, awful word "housewife" still sometimes says it all. Oh, we know that our fears of growing a housedress and a Ray Conniff record collection when we married or became moms were unfounded. But there's still the exhausting grind of cooking and cleaning and parenting on top of the work we do for a paycheck, and it saps the generosity and good humor out of people out of couples.

You won't hear a more honest song about the never-ending mood swings of being married with children than "Down Side of Love," which has the childlike lilt of a Buddy Holly love song, if Buddy had lived to be 40 and stayed married to Maria Elena. Rigby condenses the big picture into aching couplets, sung with the hint of a sob in her voice, like a tear too proud to fall: "We have a shared history/ but we miss mystery/that's the down side of love."

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But the knock-down, straight-up highlight of "Mod Housewife" is the twangy "Beer & Kisses," a duet sung with John Wesley Harding that's a Tammy Wynette and George Jones-worthy mini-masterpiece of humor and kicked-in-the-gut realism. "Beer & Kisses" is about a couple who meet in a supermarket, fall madly in love ("We lived on beer and kisses/ all hopped up on love and foam"), move in together, have a kid and then try to live happily ever after. But the real leading character of the song is the couple's couch, where the stages of their relationship are played out.

"Come home from work/turn on the light/sit on the couch/spend the whole night there," they croon at first blush, and you imagine them making out in a beery haze. After they "grew a little couch potato," the "beer and kisses didn't flow so free." Instead, they'd come home from work and get in a fight; he'd drink his beer alone in the kitchen, she'd have the couch to herself (come to think of it, X had a song about a couch, too). In the last verse, the woman proposes that they start over and asks him to pick up a six-pack so they can "come home from work/ make it all right/ sit on the couch/ spend the whole night there." And, from your own couch, you hope that they can hang in there.

Sadly, Amy and Will Rigby didn't make it; they broke up while the album was being recorded. So now, the last track, "We're Stronger than That," Rigby's litany of things her marriage has withstood "The fairy tales, diaper pails, lack of heat, urge to cheat/ Shattered hopes, tired jokes, doctor bills, urge to kill" sounds less like a triumphant declaration than a poignant wish.

But the bust-up of her marriage doesn't make "Diary of a Mod Housewife" any less valid, or amazing. It's still a big-hearted and emotionally forthright statement about how hard the simplest things in life turn out to be. "You will never get over this, you will never get over this," goes Rigby's mantra of a chorus on "Sad Tale." "You will sometimes get over this, you will never get over this, you will never get over this, you will never get over this, you will."

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Joyce Millman

Joyce Millman is a writer living in the Bay Area.

MORE FROM Joyce Millman

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