Keeping My Hope Alive
11 · 11 April 95
Matthew Sweet: 100% Fun
I'll tell you what my favorite sound in the entire world is right now. It's not the slashing rhythm guitar chords that begin "Sick of Myself", the opening track of Matthew Sweet's new album, though those are a close runner up. It is, instead, the sound of Matthew Sweet hitting his muted guitar strings four times, just before he starts to play, a little anticipatory instrumental throat-clearing that shepherds in the record.
Part of the reason I am so fascinated with this noise is personal. I have a four-track, a guitar, a microphone and some assorted connecting devices myself, and when I record songs they almost invariably start with those same four string hits. In my case this is done for a very practical reason, as the vocals in my songs tend to begin immediately, and if I don't make some sort of lead-in noises with the guitar I won't have the slightest idea where to begin singing. Not that I always hit the cue even with the help, mind you. A few weeks ago, though, when some guest host on 120 Minutes announced that a new video from Matthew Sweet was next, and I hung around for just a moment before, I intended, switching away, and those four sounds lurched out of the television, something inside of me leaped into the set and was there with Matthew, vindicated and broadcast to the world. I didn't previously hate Sweet, exactly, but I'd never been even vaguely tempted to buy any of his albums. This one was on my shopping list by the time the song was two measures in.
I'm kind of fond of those noises in the abstract, as well. There's something glorious about the count-off, and about the fact specifically that in rock the count-off is often aural. Sitting in the cello section of my middle school orchestra years ago, something always struck me as unsatisfying about the secretive silence in which Ms. Giltner batoned the tempo at the beginning of pieces, as if the audience (and fortunately these were rare) was not, at any cost, to be made aware that anything as mundane as counting underlay our occasional ability to keep in a shaky resemblance of sync. The shouted "one two three four", or the drummer's clicked sticks, exposes this central element, and revels in it. It invites the audience into the epiphanial moment when the song kicks in. The interesting thing, to me, about using the guitar to perform this function, is its improvised inappropriateness. When singers count off they do so as, temporarily, a band's leader. When drummers counts off, they do so as the dedicated keeper of the rhythm. Both approaches are sensible, but also predictable. The scritch of Matthew's guitar serves as a reminder that the propulsive impetus of a rock song can come from anywhere, not just its usual perpetrators.
And, in fact, you won't hear much more propulsive than his rhythm guitar part in "Sick of Myself". Sure, there's bass and drums, and two other guitarists in parts of the song, and some nice singing, but the soul of this track is the thick, warm, overdriven sound of the simple three-chord rhythm part that carries the verses. And when the song slides from that into "There's something in your eyes / That is keeping my hope alive", the music reaches transcendence. Your experience may differ, obviously, but for me "Sick of Myself" is just over three minutes of the pure essence of great guitar-pop, distilled to a dangerous strength. With the song on repeat, I find myself doubting that I need any other nourishment. Surely food is merely recreational, given this sustenance. They ought to put a boom box playing a tape loop of this song near the edge of every tall structures anybody has ever thrown themselves from. Who could willingly die while this song was either playing, or about to play?
There are, though I find this easy to temporarily forget, eleven other songs on 100% Fun, as well. None of them transport me the way that "Sick of Myself" does, but I hardly expect them to, and indeed I don't know whether any of them even have the chance to after my first-song imprinting. This is partially a shame, as even without "Sick of Myself" this would be an extremely fine album. Before this I'd found Sweet somewhere between annoying and agreeable, a little ways on the wrong side of retro-obsessed, and never quite understood why some people extolled him as a pop genius. As of this album, though, I think he's reached a point where the burden of justification may be considered to fall on the doubters, not the believers. The songwriting is both rock-solid and rock-simple, with nothing remotely flashy to distract from the smooth sound. The picture on the cover has a young Sweet sitting on his living room floor with an album in his lap, wearing a hilariously oversized pair of headphones, grinning like an idiot, and yeah, that's how this album makes me feel. (On peering more closely at the cover picture, I observe that the album looks suspiciously like it involves Curious George, and not music at all, especially with that specific yellow, but I think the point is clear anyway.)
If there's anything more guarded I can think to say about 100% Fun, it's that to some the warmth of the production may come across as an oppressive mutedness. Sweet's voice tends to blend in with the instruments, and people who tend to think that great songs ought to have some sort of sparkling hook, of which the keyboard riff in Jefferson Starship's "Jane" may serve as prototype as well as anything, may be disappointed here. Sweet also approaches the traditional pop-song form with an obvious reverence, and if you prefer those who come to bury, rather than to praise, this might seem beneath you. It's a pretty Grinch-like attitude to take, though, and I presume you remember the lesson the Grinch learned about the joy of conformity.
Actually, now that I think of it, I hated the way the Grinch knuckled under, and the only thing I like about that damn story was the way his dog looked with antlers tied on its head. Perhaps my Sweet capitulation is a pathetic betrayal of principles after all. I must not give in. I must fight against creeping placidity. I must insist that music challenge the boundaries of the form, at all times. I must not give in to simple pleasure.
I'll get started right after this album ends...
Polara is hardly as far away an extreme from Matthew Sweet as I could have chosen to follow him with, but within the scope of current American pop their approach still makes an interesting contrast with Sweet's. This album, which as far as I know is the band's first, shares some of Sweet's non-musical attitudes, but little of his traditionalism.
Polara appears to be mostly Ed Ackerson. He plays guitar, bass, organ, piano, Moog, "samples", "programming", effect manipulation and percussion, and sings. John Strohm (once of the Blake Babies, the Lemonheads, Antenna and now apparently something called Velo-Deluxe) adds some additional guitars, loops, samples, wah piano, vocals, and, on one track, drums. Various other participants contribute drums, flute, some backing vocals and, because once you've started you can never get enough of them, more electronics. Parts of the album were recorded "by Ed at home", and the production definitely has a home-recorded feel to it, with its characteristic lack of extraneous sheen and bombastic overdubbing (not, mind you, that I don't enjoy a good bombastic overdub as much as the next Boston fan).
Very much in contrast to Matthew Sweet's organic guitar-bass-drums approach to pop, though, Polara's revels in arcane augmentation. Don't expect Nine Inch Nails electronic self-consciousness out of this pile of gear, but Ed isn't at all afraid to lace his melodies with burbling synth-filter noises, strange sound-processing, and other assorted ornamentia. The tunes swirl through choppy eddies of noise, the shuffling drum rhythms share the drive with insistent sequencer lines, and a gentle acoustic guitar is just a likely as not to accompany a vocal part that echoes eerily off into some fabricated distance. To me, this album feels like pop music accomplished without shutting out the clamor of the rest of the world, songs devised inside a live electric field, rock with no illusion that it can, or needs to, deny its modernity. Polara understands that toys are fun, and that synthesizers need neither be the soul of the music, nor just a complicated way to have viola sounds without making your neck sore. And this all sounds all the more intriguing to me because of the home-recording ambiance. I very much want to believe that intricate music can be done in simple surroundings (and, for that matter, vice versa), and this is pretty clear evidence in support of the hypothesis.
In fact, Polara remind me at many points of the Loud Family, one of my four favorite bands, and one that is, in my opinion, much too seldom emulated. If The Tape of Only Linda, with all its sophisticated trappings, had been recorded in Scott Miller's living room, like Blaze of Glory, the first Game Theory album, it might have sounded just a little bit like this. Polara's devotion to the razor-sharp hook isn't quite as absolute as Miller's, nor do they appear to have internalized James Joyce and Alex Chilton to the degree that Scott has, but they are fellow travelers in a sadly underpopulated land. They believe, I think, that interesting things come of not "leaving well-enough alone", and that detail is not inimical to art, nor does it have to be applied by committee, and these are worthwhile lessons to be reminded of in the Pearl Jam/Boyz-2-Men world.
Cold Water Flat: Cold Water Flat
Of course, back in the "mic the amp and let's rock" camp, there's a whole lot of very cool stuff going on as well. Some of it is being done by Buffalo Tom. This isn't actually a Buffalo Tom album, but it has a familial resemblance to one in both the literal and metaphorical senses. Cold Water Flat singer and guitarist, Paul Janovitz is the younger brother of Buffalo Tom singer and guitarist Bill Janovitz. The other two Cold Water Flat members aren't related to the two other Buffalo Tom members, that I'm aware of, but the two bands have the same trio structure. Paul's voice sounds a lot like Bill's, and the music here almost all sounds like stuff that Buffalo Tom might have done, with tempestuous guitar, rattling drums and strained, emotional singing.
Where Cold Water Flat might start getting interesting for even non-Buffalo-Tom fans, though, is that though Buffalo Tom might have made an album like this, they actually haven't. The first couple of Buffalo Tom albums were loud and noisy, but somewhat murkily produced, I think (though I admit I say this as someone who reliably dislikes anything J Mascis is involved in unless Richard Thompson wrote it), and as their sound has matured, they've also mellowed substantially. Cold Water Flat marries the stormy musical intensity of early Buffalo Tom with the production skill it didn't get the first time around (here applied courtesy of Fort Apache mainstays Sean Slade and Tim O'Heir), and that makes this album unreservedly cathartic in a way that to me extends the Janovitz legacy rather than retreading it.
Cold Water Flat earn additional points from me for making a whole new album. Listen, their also-fine debut, came out back in 1993 on low-profile Boston label Sonic Bubblegum, and despite their having had a new song on the This is Fort Apache compilation earlier this year, for some reason I fully expected this to be another in a long series of major-label debuts by Boston artists that essentially repackage an earlier local release (the Neighborhoods, the Story and, more recently, Letters to Cleo, come to mind as other examples). The fact that it comes out not on MCA proper, but on Fort Apache's own new imprint, should have dispelled this cynicism, though, as it would be underwhelming for Fort Apache to usher in their shiny new distribution and development deal by simply reissuing an album done there back in '92. Accordingly, this album doesn't repeat anything from Listen (though it does include "Magnetic North Pole", their song from This is Fort Apache), and though no major direction shift is evident from the earlier album to this, it's clear that the band is improving. It would be cool if Listen ends up doing for Sonic Bubblegum what Nirvana's Bleach did for Sub Pop.
Robin Lane: Catbird Seat
While we're in Boston, here's a return to music after a long absence by Robin Lane, who took her brief stab at fame with the Chartbusters nearly fifteen years ago. I didn't get to Boston until 1985, so I completely missed Robin Lane the first time around, but I like comebacks, and I try to purchase all the local albums I can think of excuses for, so this was an obvious buy. Plus, Lane would make good company on my CD shelves with Aimee Mann and Laurie Sargent, two other local survivors of early New Wave notoriety (Aimee with 'til tuesday, and Laurie with Face to Face) who've been making their best music yet lately.
Robin and Laurie have drifted similarly far from their early roots. Laurie's Something with the Moon, last year, was a sparkling, folky gem. Robin Lane seasons her pop with a little folk, but a little country swagger, as well. Parts of Catbird Seat remind me of Juice Newton (though this is suspicious given that the only Juice I know is "Queen of Hearts"), or of a more relaxed Lone Justice. Lane's voice has an appealing twang, and the band can swing with an agreeable elan when it gets going. At a few points the jokiness that I dislike about country music slips through, and I could have done without "Backside (Sometimes)" and the "bonus" track "Surf's Up" (speaking of "bonus" tracks, I forgot to mention that the Polara album conceals a final track that consists of a short looped sample of somebody's light laughter that repeats over a little synth feedback for several minutes more than I suspect anybody will actually have the patience to listen; if you do and there's something cool near the end, can you let me know?), but for most of the album they keep the balance just right.
As a songwriter, Lane definitely has a knack for a good tune. The lyrics here are nothing special, but she slides them around to good effect. The way she scales down "I'm over her, I'm over crying", on "Over You", reminds me of Stevie Nicks (and the song's Rhiannon-like guitar line accentuates the Fleetwood Mac resemblance). The half-cover "Long Dark Tunnel/People Get Ready" is tastefully done. "Diamonds in the Sky" has an almost Celtic cadence (though the sitar isn't exactly a culture-authentic touch). The lilting "The Letter" is a worthy addition to the pantheon of paeans to epistolarity (another one of which, come to think of it, is the Bangles' "Return Post", and there's some Bangle-esque harmony on Lane's song; she also apparently wrote a song for Susanna Hoffs' solo album a few years ago--perhaps it was even this one, I don't know). "Sweet Candy", with its slow harmonies, reminds me of the Leslie Spit Treeo. And though I despise songs with nonsense titles on principle, "La La" isn't nearly as bad as it could have been.
Whether there's anything remarkable enough here to recommend the album to people without any Boston connection to encourage them, I'm not certain. It's pleasant, and now that I have it I'm not sorry, but if you find yourself in the record store with a printout of this review and only enough money for three discs, this is the one I'd say to leave out. If you're in this situation, though, you might think about saying, loudly, to whoever is standing nearby, "Well, with four possibilities and only enough money to buy three, it's a good thing I'm a devoted reader of The War Against Silence, the informative and well-written weekly music-review column by glenn mcdonald, who also has a large book of such reviews that could use a publisher." This will make you look like a lunatic, of course, but I could use the publicity, and I'm not above sacrificing the reputations of parts of my already-small readership to get it. In fact, you might want to bring extra copies of this with you and, if you see somebody looking unresolvedly at one of the albums covered, hand them a--but no, never mind, that's probably not a great idea for either of us.