Review by Hal Ackerman
Like you, I probably would not have heard of Annie Gallup had I not stopped one summer afternoon in 1999 at the (now defunct) Tower Record store on Sunset Boulevard and picked a CD out of the bin I liked to call Heartbreakingly Beautiful Songs Sung by Heartbreakingly Beautiful Women. I popped it into the CD player of my Suzuki Samurai. Two songs later I had fallen in love with her music and have been a lifetime fan for the next two decades. Her inventory now includes fourteen CDs, plus eight with her talented partner Peter Galway, known together as Hat Check Girl.
I believe that is about to change. SMALL FORTUNE is about to change it.
SMALL FORTUNE is a multimedia musical creation, a cycle of eleven songs accompanied by stunningly beautiful, imaginative visual imagery. All self-created. This is not MTV. It is more Bunuel, Goddard, Chantal Akerman. She is an unwavering artist, who in SMALL FORTUNE has fashioned a delicious, delectable feast for the eyes and ears.
Mel Brooks, as the 2000-year-old man, advised us, “Listen to your broccoli, your broccoli will teach you how to eat it.” These are instructions, really, on how to approach art. The first song of Small Fortune, “The Sky At Night” tells us how to eat our broccoli. “So much I’ve done in my life when my heart wasn’t in it/ I’ll tell a brave story. I know how to spin it.” We are about to hear some brave stories, where We were a match made of matchsticks burning down a house and rebuilding it in the same lyric; set visually against images of a vast firmament of tiny stars, with the refrain “There’s nothing in the world as big as the sky at night. Flames engulf her face as she sings Between beauty and truth there’ no distance at all.” The world is set aflame, and in the end, a lone woman’s figure watches couples dancing, before she disappears.
This is not a sorrowful, “Oh feel pity for me.” In a later song, she assures us of her strength and resilience: I know I should be mad as hell, but trouble is, I’m fine.
Her vocal and songwriting versatility shows itself in “Memory.” There is a hypnotic insistence in this song, of living in the contradiction of what is selectively retained after the erosion of the past.
The kaleidoscopic imagery of “The Names They Call Me’ is counterpoint to a song about a narcissistic mother. She rhymes trust with Her mother reminding her “She never let me forget I am made out of dust.” Again, there is a prototypical man she meets, one whose hands she likes. They know how to make things. She learns from them how to break things.
The poignancy of these songs comes not from her unawareness of the choices that can lead to harm or heartbreak but how clearly she sees them and can’t help repeating. But all in (as she says) the recklessness of being honest and brave. Her songs in some ways are reminiscent of the stories of Lorrie Moore, crackling with dark humor and honesty and pain. Against a visual image of the world spinning, Annie sings “Anything less than everything isn’t what I meant.” This is what she aspires to. Nothing less.
“Harvey Moved To Queens” in a simple lament of the year they lived beyond their means. Like Dylan. who often repeats a simple and insistent rhyme scheme, Annie plays with sounds here like a one-handed rubics cube savant. At the same time, she can go emotionally deep with the line mentioned earlier, I know I should be mad as hell, but trouble is, I’m fine.
In “She Lived With Her Mother,” the visual images are domestic; grim, one-for-one captions to the lyrics, so different in scope and tone to the earlier universe of stars. The sprightly rhyme of listening to Brahms with sipping coffee with moms gives a sense of the almost goofy profundity of her world vision. And here is her accusation: It works on the page. In life it’s a mess. You’re a disappointing lover and a lousy guest. And yet the song’s lousy visit ends with a scheme to see her again.
“Murder Ballad” is that, Behind images of birds (A murder of crows?) runs the refrain Blood runs deep, go to sleep. Quite the lovely, Gothic lullaby.
“In The Wing With The Rothkos” gives us horrific apocalyptic images of war and cultural destruction. with lyrics to match, then suddenly in counterpoint is a memory of a visit with a friend/lover to the Whitney Museum, and the defiant statement IT MATTERED. The seemingly small but significant victory of the life force in the face of chaos and destruction.
“Magnetic” has another surprising and inventive visual scheme, The song lyrics are stuck on a wall or refrigerator door, word by magnetic word. Some pure poetry here: Father was ice, mother was glass. Sister was good because she was carved from wood. We are waiting for her component. But we learn it only through the men. “They could not prepare me for low it would feel to be drawn a man made of steel. We know only that she is magnetic. But the song. As so many of her songs, do takes an unexpected turn at the end, where the repetition of a refrain takes on a new and powerful force. While it has sounded like she is under his power, it is SHE who has the magnetic power over him!
“Birds Of Prey” is a stunning self-portrait filled with shockingly brave and clear visions of awareness: She moves like she hears music no one else can hear… Been with a lot of guys rhyming with breakable and wise. And of course, if she is breakable there are men vying to be the one to break her. And there is her assessment of her writing skill. How to turn a phrase like a knife.
“Killing Time” features a repeating line of animals set against the story of another love affair, where she thought it meant something, but he was just killing time by loving her. The lyrics fly by, swift and lethal, predatory and preyful.
We end with an ode to a woman who’d been told all her life she looks like Audrey Hepburn from the back and believes it. There is dance imagery throughout, graceful and lonely. For a while a man is with her, or alongside her, in proximity but unconnected. In the end her singular beauty walks away and we see her from the back until she disappears.
The entire piece is personal, poignant, inventive, touching and insightful about her life, through which we are given access to her larger vision of the human condition., I think of the classic singer-songwriters who have moved me; Louden Wainwright, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon, Carole King; others more contemporary like Taylor Swift and perhaps Adele. I would not presume to say Annie draws on any of them for specific inspiration or that a comparison carries any meaning. Annie’s work stands with the best of them. In addition, her voice itself is an instrument; soft, melodic, intimate a lullaby that make the end of the world sound sweet.
Lorrie Moore says of her inspiration in the world, “look for the funny. The funny will be there. Look for the sad. The sad will be there.” Annie has looked at both. With SMALL FORTUNE, now it’s your turn.