Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (April 1, 2005)
Geez, has it really been 10 years since Alanis Morissette released her megasmash Jagged Little Pill? As old as it makes me feel, I can’t deny that Pill indeed hit the shelves in 1995, and it maintained a place high on the album charts for much of that year and well into 1996. Eventually Pill would move an amazing 16 million copies, which leaves it tied for 12th place on the all-time bestsellers list. Actually, it’s higher if you ignore the RIAA’s system, as they count multi-unit albums more than once; that means a double-album like The Beatles gets credit for two sales instead of one, so Pill moved more copies than some of the titles above it.
(Amusing personal footnote: when Meredith Brooks put out sjadlkjsaldsa in early 1997 - with the Alanis-sounding hit single “Bitch” - my then-girlfriend was convinced that it would sell at least as well as Pill. I told her that this was extremely unlikely since Pill was a record-setting hit. She stuck to her guns so we bet on it. Yes, I eventually collected on that wager; dshakdhsak clocked in with about one million copies sold, which left it only 15 million or so short of Pill. The ex refused to admit defeat until the end, though; we’d set a deadline by which Brooks had to sell the requisite number of albums, and the ex wouldn’t acknowledge her erroneous prediction until that date passed.)
Alanis followed up Pill with 1998’s Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie. It pushed a lot of CDs out the door off the bat but quickly petered out and ended up with about three million units moved. Since then, Alanis has continued a respectable professional career, but she’s not remotely approached the glory days of 1995/96. Word is that she’s re-recording Pill in an acoustic version. I’m not quite sure it that’s intriguing or sad.
Whatever the case, we head back to the tail end of Alanis’s influential years with her appearance on VH1’s Storytellers. In this setting, notable musicians would play their tunes and tell us about the songs. Half concert and half documentary, it makes for a potentially interesting piece if you get a performer with the right combination of chattiness and introspection.
Alanis definitely qualifies in the latter category, but I wondered if she’d manage to yak it up enough to make the show work. Happily, she proves quite gabby in this solid program.
Shot in 1999, this show features seven songs, most of which come from the two albums Morissette had released to that point: Pill and 1998’s Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie. We get “Hand In My Pocket”, “You Learn” and “You Oughta Know” from the former, while Junkie provides “Thank U”, “Unsent” and “That I Would Be Good”. Finally, “Still” comes from the soundtrack to 1999’s Dogma
(Geeky footnote: yeah, I’m aware of Alanis’s teeny-bopper music career in Canada prior to 1995. That really exists as a separate life for her, as she never acknowledges those tunes as part of her canon. For all intents and purposes, her musical life began with Pill.)
Whereas Rod Stewart used his Storytellers mainly to shake his ass and look like an idiot, Alanis takes good advantage of the format. At the start, she notes that she usually lets her lyrics do the talking for her, but she manages to open up here and offer some nice details.
No, she doesn’t divulge the identity of the ex she berates in “You Oughta Know”, but she tosses out many good comments. Alanis offers comments about “You Learn”, “Unsent”, “That I Would Be Good”, and “Still”. In addition, she takes questions before she plays “Thank U” and “You Oughta Know”. This means “Hand In My Pocket” is the only song for which she offers no information. (Annoyingly, it’s also an edited version; the tune starts in progress and lasts less than two minutes.)
In many ways, this episode comes across like a combination of Storytellers and Unplugged. Alanis can rock when necessary, but this show usually goes for a more subdued vibe. Though a few songs kick into higher gear, most of them stick with an acoustic feeling. Alanis does none of her patented “having-a-seizure” dancing; she paces during “You Oughta Know” a whirls around a little on other occasions, but she’s not as out of control as usual.
Musically, Storytellers sounds good. Some of the songs get mild reworkings to match the quieter setting, but they still show fire when necessary. I think she was in the middle of a tour when this performance occurred, and that shows via the tightness of the concert.
It’s consistently amusing to see the deeply-involved Alanibes in the audience. They’re subdued, richly earnest 20-something women who look near tears as they sing along. Occasionally we see a male Alanibe, which offers a much more disturbing sight.
Those scary moments aside, Alanis Morissette: Storytellers provides a quality program. Alanis mixes nice introspection about her work along with good performances of her work. It’s a solid piece.