Not a Work of Art or Anything
10 · 4 April 95
I came into music during one of those periodic intervals when it seems like the entirety of Britain has quit day jobs they probably never had, redeemed their government-issued vouchers for musical instruments, and set out to redress their cultural trade deficit by running the rest of the world out of rock and roll. I've thus gotten various potentially-questionable ideas lodged deep in my mind: that British music-press hype is worth keeping up with, that the coolest section of the record store is always labeled "Import", that some types of music just never quite sound right without an English accent. This caused me a great deal of confused dissatisfaction during some bleak years when the Brits decided to put their usual discriminating taste into cold-storage, relocate to Manchester, and attempt a national aesthetic and chemical brain-cell purge.
That phase, thankfully, seems to have passed, and there have been recent signs that the largely unopposed appropriation of punk by various North American factions has finally goaded the collective UK musical consciousness into generating a coherent response. Elastica and Sleeper constitute, to me, the latest miniature invasionary force.
Of the two, Elastica seems to have experienced (to say "benefited from" might be imprecise) more anticipatory promotion. None of what I'd heard about Elastica described their music very well, though, and I will here do my part to continue this trend. To me they are a punk band not exactly in the old British style, but very much in the old British sense. There are elements of their sound that remind me of Penetration, the Buzzcocks or some Wire, but mostly these sound to me like heritage, not emulation. There is a confident familiarity in many of these songs that comes not from trying to imitate other bands but from the feeling that you're making music yourself that is as real as the records you've grown up listening to.
The principal music forces in nearly all the songs here are the ragged, trebly, distorted guitars of Justine and Donna Matthews. The choppy rhythm work and thin, repetitive solo lines are the most Wire-like components of Elastica's sound for me. They rarely venture far into genuine discord, but the chord progressions and phrasing are edgy even when the individual notes aren't. There's little sustain and virtually no layering, which gives the songs a bright, aggressive punch. Annie Holland's bass-playing and Justin Welch's drumming provide energetic underpinnings that seem more comfortable lurching and stomping than cleaving to a steady pace, and rarely succumb to anything remotely resembling a groove. Frischmann and Matthews share the vocals with an untutored confidence, and complement the usual straightforward melodies and raw shouting with frequent harmonies. The band is very evenly balanced, in the sense that each of the four players (and, on a few songs, an extra keyboardist) appears to attack their parts as if they're the arrangement's center of attention, and thus bear the burden of making each song succeed. This tension seems to give the songs a confrontational complexity, which is like a "rich depth" except that all the elements that would have been "depth" hit you simultaneously (sort of like what kept happening to Troy Aikman in that Dallas-SF championship game, though I suspect I'm the first person to use an American football joke in an Elastica review).
The punk element, and punk at heart was always a political stance, not a musical style, is the band's raw, noisy sincerity. The musical style they apply it to is actually more akin to New Wave than to three-chord punk. There's nothing approaching the gimmickry level of "Don't You Want Me?" or "Tainted Love", but Elastica is much closer to Magazine than to Green Day, closer to Siouxsie and the Banshees than to Joan Jett. The odd rhythms and non-obvious musical structures are skillful and original, and, even more, show the band's unselfconscious willingness to take themselves seriously (another admirable British national trait, not to be confused with the self-righteous Stipean variant practiced here, in which taking yourself seriously is confused with thinking that you should be taken seriously because you've allied yourself with a series of serious issue that you really have nothing to do with). One might reasonably expect a 16-track debut album to contain at least a little filler, but either I'm too easily won over, or there isn't any here. The songs that couldn't support themselves for three minutes the band has the good sense to end after 1:12. There are a few songs, like "Connection" and "Car Song", that rely mostly on delivery, and might get old quickly on their own (is it just me, or does "Connection" remind you ever so slightly of "Mickey"? I think it's just me), but there are plenty more songs, like "Stutter", "All-Nighter" and "Waking Up", that are completely musical, and the mixture of these types makes the whole album, to me, a lot more enjoyable as a whole than any one Human League or Magazine album ever managed to be. Also, Elastica rocks, and the most the Human League and Magazine ever managed was more of a tense jitter.
The thing about Elastica, though, is that whenever I put it on a part of me feels like I'm just listening to it to earn the right to listen to Smart again. Though Elastica and Sleeper are undeniably peers, the two bands differ significantly in several respects. Sleeper, for one, is a slightly more conventional rock band. There aren't any songs here nearly as close to novelty as "Connection", nor any as abrupt as Elastica's short ones. The production and arrangements on Smart are more customary, as well, without the everything-at-once brashness of Elastica, and even the songs tend to be less complicated, on the whole.
On the other hand, what Sleeper gives up in abrasiveness and raw drive, they more than make up for in pure songwriting acumen. To Elastica's mixture of first-generation punk influences Sleeper adds a substantial dose of Pixies-esque guitar roar over a solid bass/drums foundation, and some of the mainstream rock polish of Baby Animals (or, to pick a better-known example, the Pretenders), and they put this supple musical ability to the service of totally engaging songs, sung by Louise Wener with a marvelously undisguised English-accented lasciviousness.
"Inbetweener", which opens the album, is easily one of my favorite songs of the year so far. Sung with a glorious lack of affect, it strikes me as any one of a number of dreary Paul Weller narratives, told from the other side for once. "He's not a prince, he's not a king. / She's not a work of art or anything. / It makes no sense, another year, / What kind of A to Z would get you here? / He's nothing special, she's not too smart. / He studies fashion, she studies art. / I think I told you right from the start, / You were just my inbetweener." The bleak relationship is deftly depicted (or perhaps I'm simply a sucker for A to Z references), and there's even something vaguely touching about the feeble protests that this is a transitional state, when the couple is so clearly locked in it for the duration, that can either be the element of hope that contradicts the apparent domestic gloom, or else the final detail that prods you onto the railing of the bridge. Louise's unwillingness to conceal her accent also reminds me of Billy Bragg, and though she's neither political nor as into blatant wordplay or brain-curdling forced rhymes as he is, there's a degree of council-home observational acuity that they share. "Amuse" and "Alice in Vain" both revisit this oppressive milieu, "Amuse" offering the intriguing opening couplet "Locked inside of a prison of my own construction, / I wish the walls wouldn't run around so I can't touch them." "Vegas" switches gender, but is just as hopeless.
Most of Smart is a good deal creepier than any Billy Bragg album, though. "Swallow" is an exercise in sinister innuendo ("He's been through your pockets / And sucked out your secrets. / He stole all your best lines, / Seems just like the old times."). "Delicious" is an exuberant invitation to iniquity ("We should both go to bed / Till we make each other sore", straightforwardly), as is "Bedhead" ("Got an open mind just for show"; make your own list of people whom this is true of), though its exuberance is partially qualified by the cautionary "Made a note to leave you alone; / I'm too drunk to read, aren't I?". "Hunch" and "Twisted" both seem to involve disturbing escapees from wherever it is that the Air Force keeps captured aliens. "Lady Love Your Countryside" hammers on the incompletely explained, but undeniably compelling, tagline "I want to see you boxing naked to the death." And the album ends on the uplifting arson anthem "Pyrotechnician" (whose opening line, "Throw me your matches, 'cos I like to burn stuff", is one of the album's most sultry, which is a little disturbing, especially given the competition).
Musically, the songs vary from a couple that could almost be Pixies covers--"Swallow", "Bedhead" and the chorus of "Pyrotechnician" especially--to the chorus of "Vegas", where a double-tracked Wener somehow manages to sound remarkably like Rod Stewart, and the band contributes a correspondingly lithe groove. There are some quiet moments, like the openings of "Hunch" and "Poor Flying Man", and the gentle guitar-and-voice ballad "Amuse". "Lady Love Your Countryside" could even be an Elastica song, though they would have found a shorter title. Throughout, though, the band is solid and dynamic. Wener's voice fascinates me, and the little catches in it that pop up in between notes at times (and actually form part of the chorus of "Twisted") are perfect demonstrations of the principle that artless doesn't mean Artless. I can now name all the songs on this album from memory, and while this isn't exactly a parlor trick on par with juggling your host's porcelain or extracting dented subway tokens from the ears of irritated household pets, it does show that I've paid the record an unusual amount of attention for something I've only had for a couple weeks. If Sleeper doesn't make lots more albums, I'll be very disappointed.
But if Smart continues to hold up under repeated listening like it's been doing, I at least won't be disappointed in silence.
Lida Husik: Joyride
It's not all Hole and Lisa Loeb for women on this side of the Atlantic, either. I bought this album because a review of it I happened to read in the Utne Reader began by mentioning My So-Called Life, my favorite television show ever made, whose second-season fate hangs in the balance even as I write. Having heard the album I don't understand the connection at all, but the reference deserved to be passed on, just the same.
Lida Husik is a multi-instrumentalist with a penchant for oddly elliptic and methodically abstruse songs. She reminds me of a cross between Lois and Tirez Tirez (I don't know who I expect to get that, other than me), or between Suzanne Vega, This Mortal Coil and the Penguin Cafe Orchestra (which isn't a whole lot clearer), or perhaps like Lisa Germano might sound if she'd been on tour with Bill Laswell, not John Mellencamp (okay, I'll stop it with those). Her songs have sweet harmonies, catchy melodies, and snappy beats, but seldom more than one of those at once. She makes heavy use of repeated, almost mathematical, musical phrases, and her vocal delivery is extremely deliberate and controlled, and these two factors combine to make most of these songs sound like the catchy tracks from Liz Phair's first album heard through the aural equivalent of a kaleidoscope (and with lyrical mentoring by e e cummings, not Henry Miller), which makes the sweet harmonies more crystalline than sweet, the catchy melodies less catchy than rewarding, the snappy beats understood, but rarely felt. The first couple listens, in fact, I found this album impressive in theory, but frustrating in practice. "Joyride", in particular, is either a singularly inappropriate album title, or a singularly ironic one, especially when this album is compared to the bouncy, instantly infectious (take "infectious" however you will) Roxette album of the same name. If there is anything on this album that speaks of wild abandon, giddy danger, or the joy of the open road, then either there is something very wrong with my stereo, or else it is intentionally withholding stuff from me (which is a disturbing notion, and a disappointing one, give how assiduously I see to the thing's feeding).
Once you get used to Husik's aesthetic, though, and stop trying to get her to slip into the grooves that this album almost perversely avoids by snapping your fingers at the CD player as if it will somehow get the idea, there's some fascinating stuff here. Lida's auto-harmonies are complicated and dense, the oscillating musical structures mesmerizing in their interplay. The lyrics combine and rearrange references and catch-phrases in interesting ways that I won't quote, as Lida's treatment gives them very different feels than they would have if just read. And, eventually, if my experience is indicative, after enough effort you can even get to the stage where this album finally works its way through the levels of intellectualization, and begins to feel like music. I'd bet that many people won't get that far with it, and many more won't even care to make the attempt, and I'm not even totally certain myself how much actual fondness I have for Joyride, even now, but I do appreciate it, and approve, and, after all, not all music has to make you dance.
Laurie Anderson: The Ugly One with the Jewels and Other Stories
Speaking of music that doesn't make you dance, this album goes out of its way to warn you that it isn't going to, writing "A reading from Stories from the Nerve Bible" right on the cover, and, on the copy I bought, affixing an extra sticker warning of the dangerous "spoken word" material contained inside, like it was some kind of contamination that would require special handling during use. The thing, though, is that the lines between poetry, prose and music have always been pretty infrequently limed in Laurie Anderson's work, and I almost think that her other recent album, Bright Red/Tightrope, ought just as well to have had a sticker on it warning that it contained singing and music, given her history. The two albums, put together, actually complement each other nicely, providing separately the musical and narrative elements that some of Laurie's albums provide together.
And, despite the "reading" warning, there is quite a bit of music on this record. Laurie accompanies herself with atmospheric keyboards throughout, and a small band (including Brian Eno on keyboards) even drops by to play during one of the stories. Even her reading is so carefully done that at many points calling it singing wouldn't be at all ridiculous. Her control of timing and timbre, and her use of repeated phrases, are musical in the strictest sense, and while this album is most devoid of melody as we're used to hearing it, the distinction between "melody" and what Laurie does with her voice here only really obtains if you don't examine it too closely.
Still, and perhaps this is what justifies the distinction after all, you shouldn't buy this album for the sound of it, you should buy it to listen to the stories. Then again, now that I've said that, I'm not totally sure it's what I mean. After all, I've read Stories from the Nerve Bible already, so I already knew all the stories she reads here. And what's more, if I bought this album just to hear the stories, why am I finding it so fascinating listening to it again, after I've already both read and heard them? Perhaps this is what I mean: these are very cool stories, worth experiencing, and hearing them is a good way to experience them, as is reading them (I also highly recommend the book, which is an intense catalogue of Laurie's work over twenty years, and features a large number of pictures which you cannot hear on this recording); an additional virtue of the audio version is that, once you've become familiar enough with the stories that you are no longer interpreting the narrative as you listen, you can begin to concentrate on the exact nuances of Laurie's performance. In my opinion, they're worth the attention.