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Nobody Has That Much Time
Scarlet: I Wanna Be Free (To Be with Him)
New album releases have slowed down a little for me in the last few weeks, but I have a backlog of singles worth mentioning, so here's a round-up of a dozen of them. I've been looking for something by British duo Scarlet ever since Q compared them to T'Pau and the Beautiful South. Their album Naked still eludes me, but I did run across this single. On the basis of these three airy, slightly jazzy songs, the more obvious point of comparison seems to me to be Everything but the Girl, but I see where the other references come in.
The lead track, despite a frankly appalling title, is a gorgeously buoyant pop jewel, mixing crunchy guitar, soaring synthesizers and shimmering piano with near-perfect vocals from the band's two members, Joe and Cheryl (who, Everything but the Girl nod aside, appear from the picture to both be female). Unapologetically commercial, this song has the makings of a Roxette-scale international mega-hit, though it doesn't sound as much like Abba as Roxette tends to. Mind you, they'll need to get it to the US in some form substantially more accessible than a $10 import single before it'll get anywhere, here, but that appears to me to be the only significant obstacle. If it happens, I'll be there cheering wildly. Unabashed pop, done with spirit, can be magnificent, and Scarlet have all the drive without any of the studio-hack overkill or trend-blinded shortsightedness.
The liner offers no clues as to which of them is singing on which of these songs, but it appears to me that one has a voice with a hint of country twang, while the other's voice is a little huskier, more like Tracey Thorn's. The former takes the lead on "I Wanna Be Free". The latter handles "So Big", a slow piano ballad that could have come straight off of one of Ben and Tracey's quieter albums.
The last track on this too-brief single is an acoustic version of "Independent Love Song", which I gather was previously a Scarlet single in its own right. What the original sounds like I have no idea; the song sounds blissfully comfortable in this arrangement, anyway, though I'd bet that where this song swells up with strings, the other version brings in some drums. A nice Cocteau Twins-like vocal pirouette at the ends of the chorus lines is the last little hook that anchors this already-persistent song to outside of my brain.
Does Naked consistently offer this quality of fare? If so, it's going to be a strong contender for my year-end top ten list, and I'm normally reticent about saying that when it's still only May, even about albums I've actually heard.
Sleeper: Inbetweener
Though, come to think of it, I've already implicitly nominated several albums in the course of these columns, one of which was Sleeper's debut, Smart. I'm the kind of music buyer, in case this somehow hasn't become obvious before, that rushes out and buys up everything else I can find by any new band I discover I like. I've thus accumulated a small pile of Sleeper singles, the two most recent of which I'll share with you.
Not every good band really understands singles, even bands who get their start with them. For example, I've bought several Elastica singles on the strength of their album, and have yet to find anything on them that merits much in the way of repeated listening. Sleeper, on the other hand, have singles down cold. First of all, you need a stable of killer songs that can stand on their own, away from an album. "Inbetweener" could be an archetype of this form. Next, though, you need some b-sides that should exhibit one or both of two qualities: they should be good enough that they don't sound merely like rejects from something else, and/or they should be notably strange in some way that shows the band enjoying the low-risk opportunity of putting out more tracks without as much attention being focused on them as there would be if they were on An Album.
Sleeper's b-sides combine the two requisite qualities nicely. "Little Annie" is a little lower key than most of the songs on Smart, and it might have sounded like a lull in their company, but set apart here, I find it has an inexorable charm, and does a nice job of showing what Sleeper can do with a song without resorting to violence or novelty (not that I have anything against violence and novelty, I hasten to add). "Disco Duncan", on the other hand, with its corny tempo shifts at the bridge, and vocal "oo-oo-oo-ah-hah" glissandos, is just the sort of delightfully strange song that makes albums sound scattered, but makes singles into must-haves.
Sleeper: Vegas
Another thing you can do to make a single even more interesting is to rearrange the title track specially for the occasion. Sleeper does that with "Vegas" here, adding strings and saxophone to it, and beefing up the drums to a correspondingly auspicious scale. On the album the song reminded me of a good Faces track. The comparison seems even more apropos here, as the added instrumentation gives it a timeless, big-hearted, rock and roll flair. I think they had to do the less-adorned album version first, to be able to build to this, but that's cool.
"Hymn to Her", second, is a quiet waltz. The catchily titled "It's Wrong of You to Breed" turns out to also be quiet and understated. And "Close", the concluding instrumental, starts out slowed nearly to stasis, but accelerates over its course to keep the EP from just grinding to a stop. The first time I listened to the disc, the slow b-sides seemed like odd matches for the rousing opener, but I'm starting to feel like the four songs actually form an impressive musical progression, which is something of enduring merit that you don't often get from a lowly single.
Cold Water Flat: Magnetic North Pole
"Magnetic North Pole" was on the This is Fort Apache compilation, as well as Cold Water Flat's eponymous major label debut, but that didn't stop them from releasing it as a single, as well. This is understandable, as it's a solid song, and one that's favorably representative of the band's style. Still, to make me feel less self-conscious about having purchased a third identical copy of it, the band needed a couple of good b-sides.
"What Day It Was" sounds like it could have easily been on the album, its omission probably less a matter of quality than of just not wanting the record to seem overlong. It's good, but it's also redundant. "So Tired", the third track here, is a somewhat different story. More than seven minutes long, it's slow and tries to be epic, and to me it doesn't quite succeed. Cold Water Flat's forte, like Buffalo Tom's, I consider to be their ability to achieve emotional transcendence at full speed, their knack for seeming to buoy up your emotions at the same time as they're causing your apartment structural damage. Here, where they try to let the music slow down to the level of the overall mood, they hover at the outskirts of losing me. It's an interesting experiment, but it feels like it was relegated here, not featured. Stick to the album.
American Music Club: Hello Amsterdam
American Music Club, though I adore them, hasn't had a great singles history. They tend all too often to put out stuff like three-track singles where two of the tracks come from the album, and the last is just a demo version. Their b-side output perked up a bit on the UK releases from last year's album, San Francisco, though. This domestic release conveniently reprises a few of the best moments from those, and adds a couple covers, all in support of the deliriously silly (if typically rancorous) title track, which hardly needed much help to begin with.
The two non-album originals are "I Just Took My Two Sleeping Pills and Now I'm Like a Bridegroom Standing at the Altar", and "The President's Test for Physical Fitness", which appeared on the two parts of the UK single for "Wish the World Away". The title of the first of these is a little more impressive than the actual song, but Mark Eitzel is such a good lyricist that AMC always struggles with this danger. The other, though, is a captivating excoriation of an unnamed other rock star, mixing self-loathing with other-loathing in a way that perhaps only Eitzel really can. The EP is worth its price for this track alone.
The two covers are of Lerner and Lane's standard "On a Clear Day You Can See Forever" (AMC's titles are long even when Eitzel doesn't write them), done deadpan with just piano and voice, and "Elbow Deep", written by an M. Pankler (whose name I should probably know, but don't), which is done in churning, bass-heavy rock fashion. "On a Clear Day..." doesn't do much that Eitzel's own material doesn't do better elsewhere, but "Elbow Deep" is an enthralling chance to hear AMC performing wholly outside of their usual style, which you don't get very frequently.
The other track, sandwiched between the two covers, is an alternate version of the album track "The Thorn in My Side Is Gone", which I believe also appeared on the UK single for "Can You Help Me". It adds some chamberlain-sounding strings to the arrangement, which I find interesting, but distracting, and not necessarily an improvement in a song whose harrowing simplicity on the album was part of what made it so arresting. The combination of surging strings and spare guitar makes me think I'm watching a movie directed jointly by Jim Jarmusch and Howard Hawks, without either director being aware of the other shouting conflicting directions from the opposite side of the set.
On the whole, though, this is an eminently valuable EP, and if you don't mind missing out on a demo version of "The Revolving Door" (and believe me, you probably don't), it gets you out of buying three imports. Unless, like me, you've bought a couple of them already...
Del Amitri: Here and Now
Del Amitri have an excellent single resume, with several of my favorite of their songs appearing only as b-sides ("April the First", "Don't I Look Like the Kind of Guy You Used to Hate?", "The Heart is a Bad Design" and "Angel on the Roof"). This first disc of a two-part single, the second disc of which apparently contains some live versions, superfluously repeats the album track "Crashing Down", but atones by remixing the title track and including two new songs, "Long Way Down" and "Queen of False Alarms".
"Long Way Down" is a straight-forward mellow rock number, agreeable and insidious in the way that I always find unassuming Del Amitri songs to be. The tense "Queen of False Alarms", though, is another clear addition to my b-side honor roll, with an explosive chorus and a riff that reminds me of the one in the Replacements' "Merry Go Round". It's easy to forget, when you're listening to Del Amitri cruise through one of their many impeccable smooth songs, that they can also rock. I don't think I've bought a Del Amitri single yet that didn't have something remarkable to recommend it. Putting this single on gives me a twinge of pain, though, as it reminds me that I haven't been able to get copies of its other part, or the two for "Driving with my Brakes On", and so I'm probably missing yet more songs I'd love. Anybody reading this in Scotland, by chance?
Simple Minds: Hypnotised
While we're in Scotland, actually, the Simple Minds continue to pay commendable attention to the Colonies with their second single from Good News from the Next World, the first of which I covered in my last singles roundup (The War Against Silence #3) back in February. This one is similarly generous, at least time-wise. Besides the album version of "Hypnotised", it includes an "extended remix", a "malfunction mix", a live version of "And the Band Played On", and another non-album instrumental, this one called "Women and Ghosts".
The "extended remix" looked pretty suspicious to me on the track listing, as it's only 26 seconds longer than the LP version, which is already nearly six minutes long. It turns out to be a extended remix in the old fashioned sense, though, with the emphasis on remix and the extended part largely incidental. It mutes the drums and rhythm of the original to begin with, opting instead for a thick first-half atmospheric drift with the vocals and synthesizers brought to the fore. The drum machine faders get pushed up for the second half, and the rest of the arrangement gets chopped up to emphasize the rhythm. They resist the temptation to turn the song into an industrial dance track, though, and so end up with a musically very interesting version that doesn't seem to have any obvious commercial motivation. The "malfunction mix", on the other hand, is clearly intended to have techno potential, with chattering background loops, obtrusive machine percussion, and lots of effects-driven repetition. It would probably be worse if Jim or Charlie had the slightest idea what a techno song is supposed to sound like; as it is, it's kind of an interesting hybrid, retaining too much of its original nature to be a particularly plausible example of what it appears to be aiming for, yet too little to disguise the attempt.
The live version of "And the Band Played On" is well-played, but I'm not sure it adds much to the album version. Perhaps this is why this is the only live track carried over to domestic release from the UK version of this single, which includes several. The last song, the instrumental, is very pleasant. This is the third instrumental on this album's two singles, and while She's a River's "E55" is still my favorite of the lot, they all have things to recommend them. This one is a classy piano song filled out with simmering synth accompaniment, reminding me of both Joe Jackson and Vangelis at different times.
The Go-Go's: Good Girl
Jumping genres for some more remixing and live tracks, "Good Girl" is the second of the three new songs from the Go-Go's two-CD retrospective Return to the Valley of the Go-Go's to see single release. The first one, "The Whole World Lost Its Head", was one of my favorite songs of 1994 (#5 on my song top ten, in fact). This one didn't excite me nearly as much on the album, and a remix hasn't changed my attitude towards it noticeably. It's too limp for my tastes; the Go-Go's don't do "limp" very well.
The single is essential, however, for the four additional live songs it includes, all recordings unavailable elsewhere. The takes of "Our Lips Are Sealed" and "Vacation" are from the 1981 Palos Verdes High School gig that provided several of the cuts on the compilation and its first single. Both are endearingly rough and sincere, and demonstrate amply what originally made the Go-Go's so great. The version of "Beautiful", which was the other new song in the box (does this mean it won't be a single itself?), is a 1994 recording that, reassuringly, isn't much more polished than the tracks from thirteen years before. Belinda Carlisle still has a winning way of losing track of the tune for the occasional split second, and the band still plays like it's a source of unending amusement to them that realistic-sounding rock-and-roll guitar noises are this easy to produce. The last song, also a 1994 taping, is a cover of "I Wanna Be Sedated". As the Go-Go's are sort of punk-pop's anti-Ramones, this is hilariously appropriate, and it's probably the only song the Go-Go's have ever played that's even less challenging, technically, than their own material. Fittingly, the recording quality of this track is awful. Non-stop fun!
Shoes: Tore a Hole
Shoes, ICE alerts me, are due to release their first full-length live album, titled Fret Buzz, next week. This single serves simultaneously as promotion for their last studio album, Propeller, which came out late last year, and a three-song live teaser to spur sales of the upcoming concert album.
Of course, one has to wonder who's buying Shoes records these days. The sort of fuzzy, bashfully sincere, unadulterated power-pop they unveeringly produce hasn't been popular since the leading edge of the backlash made contact with the frontmost Knack member's nose, nearly fifteen years ago. Popular disregard hasn't made it the slightest bit less intoxicating, though, and the fact that Shoes continue to both make new albums and keep their old ones in print is a source of bountiful joy to me.
The faithful among you, then, will certainly snap up this single without any need for deliberation. You've heard the Shoes on Ice EP, no doubt, so you know that Shoes are splendid live. The three songs here are "Tore a Hole", "Never Ending" (also from Propeller), and "Tomorrow Night" (the opening track of their great 1979 album, Present Tense). "Tore a Hole" will be on Fret Buzz, but the other two will not.
For those of you who don't know Shoes, you've got some catching up to do. With Fret Buzz they will have eight albums and an EP, available on seven CDs. The good news is that all of them should be available relatively readily. Opinions vary on where best to start, but in my opinion the band has just gotten steadily better, so you might as well begin with Propeller and work backwards until either your appetite or their catalog runs out. There's a best-of, but I wouldn't bother with it. If you think there's any chance of the band growing on you, though, I recommend you get this single while it's still around.
The Magnetic Fields: All the Umbrellas in London
Vinyl, let's be perfectly clear, is as close to stone dead as anything can be without its next of kin actually collecting insurance money. "But, Pearl Jam put out its last album on vinyl, man!", you say. Well, you can get Richard Marx on Digital Compact Cassette, too, and I think you can follow the rest of that argument.
Still, a scattering of undeservedly obscure artists still indulge in small, fragile platters. It can be quite a task to sort them out of the mass of single releases by bands whose obscurity is eminently justified, but I have unearthed a few of late. The first one is a pair of new songs by The Magnetic Fields, nom de band of Stephin Merritt, almost certainly the greatest composer in the history of the world to record entirely using crappy Casio keyboards (or so it sounds). Merritt is pretty prolific, but I find that my reactions to his albums vary considerably, depending on whether he's singing them or not. When he's not, as on The Wayward Bus, Distant Plastic Trees, and the recent multi-singer album he did as The 6ths, I find the music intriguing, but ultimately expendable. When he kicks out the other singers and takes the role over himself, with his deep, slow voice, however, something magical and uncanny happens. The first such Magnetic Fields album I bought, The Charm of the Highway Strip, completely blew me away. A stunning tour de force of desolation, despair, open-road claustrophobia and deliverance, it sent me into an acquisitive paroxysm in a so-far-unrewarded quest for more albums as involving.
The closest anything else of his has come, as of yet, is this single's a-side, "All the Umbrellas in London". Merritt's combination of floridly intricate instrumental arrangements and blatantly low-tech synthesizer equipment is bewitching, like that scene with Mozart jamming to the auto-beats in the mall in Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure would have been, if it had been done realistically. "All the Umbrellas in London" finds this complexity supporting a sublimely morose Merritt vocal part. If this is indicative of his next album, I may find the successor to Charm... yet.
Polara: Monongahela
Polara's Ed Ackerson is another recent discovery of mine that I'm starting to feel extremely excited about. Somebody on the net helpfully directed me to his previous band, The 27 Various, whose albums I've also been slowly locating, and liking a lot. His bands remind me strikingly of Scott Miller's Game Theory and The Loud Family, and given that I count Miller's various incarnations as one of my four favorite bands, I consider that a very good thing.
This single doesn't duplicate anything on Polara's debut album, instead offering three new songs. Of these, "Puffy (Buzzcrusher '95)" is a little underdone, but the sedate "Attrition" is nice, and the rousing opener, "Scorched Youth Policy", is superb. Polara makes complicated, kinetic pop music that, like the Loud Family's, reminds you that being on a small label doesn't mean you have to sound like you're rehearsing for a high school talent show.
I also give Polara extra credit for giving their singles unique titles, rather than simply letting the first track of the single also denote the whole disk. In writing about rock music, especially in an ASCII forum like Usenet, it's an unending citation headache trying to make perfectly reasonable phrases like "in 'Living in a Box', by Living in a Box, from Living in a Box" make sense. Polara singles, whose titles are not repeated in the song list, are a welcome change. Then again, Polara's album is self-titled. Are they toying with me?
Smart Brown Handbag: Sabrina
The single I saved for last is the one I'm most proud of. Smart Brown Handbag is the reincarnation of another of my all-time favorite bands, Pop Art. SBH's second album, Silverlake, was #3 on my album top ten last year, and Pop Art's Snap Crackle Pop Art is a frequent inclusion on my Desert Island Disc lists. I consider writer David Steinhart to be one of the finest relationship poets alive (along with Mark Eitzel and Del Amitri's Justin Currie, actually). He puts out his records on his own tiny label, Stonegarden, in LA, so the band is pretty unknown here in Boston.
In fact, as best I can tell there are exactly two SBH fans in the Boston metropolitan area. This calculation arises from the band's recent concert here. They played a tiny club (T.T. the Bear's Place, for those of you familiar with Cambridge concert venues), on a Tuesday night, opening for an incognito show by the Gigolo Aunts (appearing as "Tube Sock"). The other fan I know of here, who warned me of the band's visit, had to be out of town that night, and I'd joked to him that his absence would cut attendance in half. Depressingly, I was exactly correct. T.T.'s has a stage in one room, and a bar in the next one, and while a few people were looking over from the bar politely during SBH's set, I was literally the only person in the room with the stage who wasn't on it. In a way, obviously, this was incredibly depressing. I'd been waiting to see this band play since the summer of 1986, when WXCI, the college radio station at Western Connecticut University, helped me retain my sanity during a difficult period of isolation by playing Pop Art's song "Mark Came Home" over and over. And there I was at the show, an audience of one. It does very strange things to the dynamics of a performance when the performers outnumber the crowd. Add in the fact that I was singing along, and I suspect the observers in the bar found the event rather surreal.
In another way, though, it was intensely cool. It was as if the band had decided to reward my dedication (not inconsiderable, seeing how hard Pop Art/Steinhart/SBH material has been to locate around here) by coming and playing a show specifically for me. And they could hardly have asked for a more appreciative audience of one, anyway. After the show I somehow managed to elbow my way through the throng to introduce myself, and Dave went and fished a few copies of this new single out of a gear box for me. As I walked home along Mass Ave in a slightly cool mist, the singles carefully sheltered under my jacket, grinning like an idiot, I felt as bizarrely satisfied as I can ever remember feeling. I sang "Roommates", an old Pop Art song, softly to myself, knowing, as I'd only previously suspected, that nobody for miles around would have the slightest idea what the hell it was.
The single, returning to the nominal excuse for this reverie, runs at 33 and contains four new songs. Trying to get me to describe them objectively, under the circumstances, is probably impractical. Smart Brown Handbag is a quartet. Dave writes the songs, sings and plays guitar; Jeff Steinhart plays bass; Steve LePatner plays drums; and Lyn Norton plays organ and sings backing vocals every once in a while. They produce a sophisticated, but uncomplicated, pop, whose defining feature for me is the way Dave's lyrics twist around the music like the Mona Lisa texture-mapped onto some fractal Alps. It's vaguely Costello-like, I suppose, though with a sort of folky acousticity in place of Elvis' rockabilly leanings. The songs on this single probably aren't quite as good as most of the ones on their two albums, but the albums would be superior in any event, if for no other reason than that they go on so much longer.
Why you, my hypothetical reader, would do me an arbitrary favor, I have no idea, but if you ever feel so appreciative for something I've brought to your attention that you feel like compensating me in some roundabout way, here's what you can do: go buy a Smart Brown Handbag record. If your CD stores don't carry them, hound them mercilessly until they agree to order some. Stonegarden, if they need the address, is at 3101 Exposition Place, Los Angeles, 90018. It may be, when the discs arrive, that you won't actually like them. Then again, you might. In either case, listening to an album is a whole lot easier than helping me move, and much more rewarding than writing your Congressperson. Although, if you're writing your Congressperson anyway, perhaps they'd enjoy a copy, too?
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