(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #58 – released August 12, 1997)
Track listing: Go Ahead / Getaway (February) / If I / Writing Notes / Everything / Bore Me / Love Letter / Washington Hotel / I Resign / I Don’t Need You / Around It / Under the Knife / Rang You & Ran
We value longevity in musicians—aren’t careers simply meant to span decades and contain extensive bodies of work? For example, between studio albums, live recordings, compilations and bootlegs (official or otherwise), a Bob Dylan fan has literally hundreds of discs to choose from, not to mention the option to anticipate more to come a half-century on from the man’s self-titled debut. Even living artists who have more-or-less retired (say, Joni Mitchell or Andy Partridge) still have left behind considerable oeuvres, allowing new listeners multiple points-of-entry.
And then, there are the exceptions to this rule, those relatively few artists who left the business after having briefly achieved fame or at least some level of recognition. Boston-based Jen Trynin is perhaps the best singer/songwriter/guitarist you never heard of simply because she released two albums two decades ago, and nothing else since then (as a solo artist – she was briefly in a local band in the early ‘00s.) She put out her first album, the wonderfully-titled Cockamamie, on her own indie label, Squint in 1994 (under the name Jennifer Trynin); her hooky, electric guitar-centric rock garnered enough buzz to make her the recipient of a major label bidding war. She eventually signed with Warner Brothers, which re-released the album the following year. Trynin would very nearly live up to the industry’s great expectations for her when Cockamamie’s infectious second single “Better Than Nothing” became a national Modern Rock radio hit, even briefly crossing over to pop.
Unfortunately, it rose no higher than #74 on the Billboard Hot 100 and a follow-up single flopped. By then, industry and label attention had entirely shifted away from her over to another female alt-rocker, Alanis Morrissette (signed to WB subsidiary label Maverick) after the latter had scored a genuinely massive, zeitgeist-capturing hit with “You Oughta Know”. Trynin shortened her professional first name to Jen and began work on a second album. Released to widespread critical acclaim in 1997, Gun Shy Trigger Happy sold bupkis; sensing increasing indifference from WB, Trynin concluded that she wanted both out of her contract and the industry itself. Some years later, she published a memoir, Everything I’m Cracked Up To Be, which recounted her whirlwind of a career as a temporary rock star with substantial insight and no lack of self-deprecation; the book also served as a mea culpa, detailing and making a convincing case for why she walked away.
Gun Shy Trigger Happy remains one of the great “what-if” records—had Trynin not been in the right place at wrong time or had not discovered she didn’t feel cut out for the exposure and utter ridiculousness that comes with being a rock star, it might now be perceived as either the key record of a venerable career or potentially one of many highlights of a flush oeuvre. Instead, since Trynin disappeared after it flopped commercially, only those few who knew and loved it at the time even remember it. A great leap forward from Cockamamie’s punchy power-trio alt-rock, it’s far more dynamic in sound, mood and texture; it also makes a case for Trynin as one of the sharper songwriters of her time.
“Go Away” opens the record with a blast of multi-tracked “yeah’s” owing as much to the early Beatles as to Joan Jett and the Blackhearts. It rocks as steadily as anything on Cockamamie but sounds a little tighter and cleaner, like a well-oiled machine enabling Trynin to effortlessly glide through the melody and rapid, thrilling pace without wasting a breath, tidily wrapping up in a concise 2:30. Many tracks more or less follow the same up-tempo template, piling on the hooks (the irresistible “I know, I know I know” in “If I”), fortifying them with more cowbell (“Love Letter”), metallic but melodic guitar clang and plenty of “do-do, do-do-do’s” (“Around It”).
What keeps all this from sounding too derivative or merely a distaff version of The Ramones or fellow Bostonians The Cars is Trynin’s conversational tone and singular perspective (established back when she opened “Better Than Nothing” with the lyric, “Maybe we could talk in the shower.”) Deceptively gleeful like a playground sing-along, “Around It” is actually credible advice to a woman in an abusive relationship, while “Love Letter” lays out a compelling argument against writing one, as she pleads, “Why can’t you get it through your head / That I would just want to leave it left unsaid.” On “Bore Me”, when she asks, “You think that all I want from you / is to be friends, friends?”, she sings each “friends” in a whine so faint you may check twice to see if it’s there; the following lyric (“Oh baby, bore me just a little more”) confirms it with brute force.
Coming right after “Go Ahead”, the album’s lead single, “Getaway (February)” is the first of many tracks that refine and deepen Trynin’s sound without dulling her persona. Fading in on a soft, pulsating electronic hum until the rhythm section kicks in at the first verse, it proceeds at a steady but slower-than-usual-pace, with acoustic guitar as prevalent as her beloved electric. At the chord-changing chorus, her voice shifts into an affecting upper register (“Don’t lie / Don’t tell me that we’re leaving”) and everything begins to glisten. The lyrics equate a need to break off a romance with a desire to escape a cold, gray, gloomy environment, and the lush, tender, sad yet buoyant music is like melting snow, gradually revealing previously hidden warmth.
“Writing Notes” is a step further in this direction, with any hint of guitar barely audible. Backed by a shuffling drum machine loop and atmospheric keyboards, Trynin herself sounds equally stark, almost naked. On the chorus, she sings, “I miss the time / when life was so brand new to me / I could barely keep / anything inside,” with an almost Joni-like candor and vulnerability. Referencing a misguided affair (as detailed in her memoir), she holds nothing back: “And I miss the time when / I could never lie to you / I would never have anything to hide,” she sings, before concluding, “Do you have anything to hide?”, her directness and incisiveness much closer to Everything But The Girl’s Tracey Thorn than Alanis or Liz Phair.
On other tracks, Trynin seems to anticipate her retreat from the music industry. On the slow, sobering “Everything”, she contemplates how she arrived at her current frame of mind, admitting, “All I ever wanted to be was free,” before realizing that “trying has cost me everything.” She attempts to rectify her uncertainty with a catchy guitar riff, but it’s just not enough: “It’s not easy now to say no to everything / you ever wanted,” she concludes. The inverted blues of “I Don’t Need You” also seems like the musical embodiment of walking away from something; the mere title of another drum machine-centered ballad, “I Resign” practically gives the game away, with Trynin at one point noting, “It was fun while it lasted.”
Had it lasted, one can only imagine where her career would’ve gone, given the album’s more ambitious sonic experiments. “Washington Hotel” courses with left vs. right channel textures and treated vocals, everything managing to gel but without obscuring Trynin’s tough but blissed out scenario of wanting to commit suicide at the titular spot. “Under the Knife”, which contemplates body image and plastic surgery, is as slow as sludge at first, her vocals deeply submerged under waves of feedback. However, at the three-minute mark, the tempo gradually quickens, a guitar riff appears and the song goes out on a “Hey Jude”-like coda. It’s as if a fog has lifted, and it feels positively liberating. Closer “Rang You & Ran”, on the other hand, is a funereal, almost bashfully quiet lullaby. Her words just seem to hang there in the air: “I’m the one who ran / yes, that was me,” she sings mournfully, as if she’s apologizing for not just running away from a rung doorbell but from a rare opportunity.
Still, it’s no use either bemoaning what could have been or yearning for more. To be left with two albums, one pretty good, the other arguably great, is obviously, um, better than nothing at all. Although tiny, Trynin’s catalog is still in print at this writing and her music endures—not as something so lofty as the voice of a generation, mind you. But whenever I meet anyone who remembers Trynin, they tend to think of her as fondly as I do. In the end, good art is always measured in quality, not quantity.
Next: An oasis.*
*(that has nothing to do with the Gallagher brothers.)
My favorite album of that year. Absolutely amazing.
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My favorite of ’97 will be the next entry, but this one is a close second place.
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