We Can Walk to the Curb from Here
20 · 13 June 95
John Waite: Temple Bar
I've always had a weak spot for John Waite that I can't adequately explain. He is, it pretty much has to be admitted, relentlessly mainstream. In a world of aggression, pain, angst, dance clubs and nacho cravings, Waite's mellow soft-rock is about as cutting-edge as a three-foot neon-blue styrofoam vibraphone mallet. Yet where most of this regrettably corporate sub-genre leaves me feeling bloated and irritable, Waite somehow always calms me down and makes me smile despite myself. Perhaps it's that he knows better than to overreach himself into Bolton/Marx histrionics, or cloying Henley-esque over-sincerity. Perhaps it's that he almost invariably sounds to me like a male Patty Smyth, and there aren't nearly as many Patty Smyth albums in the universe as I'd like. Or perhaps it's that the music world seems to have mostly passed Waite by, and yet he gamely soldiers on in relative obscurity, not giving in to the urge to essay something more commercially ambitious. It's possible, of course, that this is simply all he can do, and what I perceive as artistic integrity is really more imposed on him than upheld. His lack of visibility isn't helped by his label, either, as Imago seems to be hovering on the verge of extinction. I'm surprised they actually managed to get this album out, and the cynical nine tenths of my brain notes the absence of any sort of date on the liner for this album, and wonders whether the artwork was done with the explicit understanding that shipping delays could easily stretch over a calendar boundary.
Not that boisterous promotion would necessarily make much difference with this album. It's not the sort of thing you're likely to get particularly worked up about, even if you like it -- even if you like it a lot. If music were food (and, now that I think of it, isn't it?), John Waite would be a soothing bowl of chicken noodle soup, warm, comforting and wholesome. Unchallenging and bland, certainly, but leveling those as criticisms assumes that you always want challenge and spice in your sustenance, and I find that, at least for me, this isn't the case. Wild variations lose their sense if there isn't a baseline to compare them to.
All of which makes Temple Bar sound rather unexciting, or perhaps like something you'd only want to consume if you were ill. It may be worth a little more attention than that. Waite has two fortes, and both of them are displayed admirably on this solid album. First, he shows an effortless mastery of the good-natured mid-tempo American-standard rock song. "Missing You", his biggest hit, probably remains his crowning example of this form, but there are at least four more plausible contenders here, my favorite couple being "Price of My Tears" and "The Glittering Prize". This is music for calm night driving, music for state lines rolling unceremoniously by an open driver's-side window, soundtracks for unhurried journeys to nowhere in particular, accompaniment for untroubled moments, or for moments you only wish were untroubled. The rhythms are steady enough to tap along to, but not so aggressive that you're likely to get carried away and swerve out of your lane. The melodies are interesting enough to keep your hand off the radio controls, but simple enough that, if you're traveling alone, you can sing along without being made to feel painfully inadequate. These are songs for moments where your world is at peace, and you'd like it to stay that way for at least four minutes.
Waite's other small skill is for timeless, but personal-scale, ballads. This albums has two beautiful ones, "Downtown" and "More". "More" is a little duet between Waite and Shane Fontayne's dobro. "Downtown", from which the album title comes (a New York reference, not a Dublin one, in case you were wondering), begins with just piano, and eventually adds strings and some subtle guitars. The lyrics are a reflective, lonely self-portrait. Waite is no world-scale issue poet, by any means, but he does pretty well with little moments of genuine human emotion. "It's down to cigarettes and rosaries", he sings. "Christ I wish someone would call me." It's not Carver or anything, but it does the job for me. I see him sitting on a fire escape, watching people pass, listening to the noises rise up from the street, feeling momentarily adrift. I know this feeling. "Do you remember me? / I sang that song you like". Yeah, John, I remember. I remember, I'm here. Let the world thrash on it's own for a bit. There's a ton of big stuff to be done, but if it waits another forty-three minutes I don't think anyone's going to be that much worse off.
(Mindlessly trivial postscript: I don't like the plain cursive-type-on-white cover to this album much, but if you put the liner into the jewel case the other way around you get this nicely unadorned sunlit photograph of John that I think suits the music within much better.)
Martin Page: In the House of Stone and Light
Your tolerance for mainstream will have to be a little bit higher to put up with Martin Page. I'm sure he has some story, but you won't hear it from me, because I don't know it. I bought this album solely because my sister mentioned the album title to me and I liked it. Page thanks Robbie Robertson and Phil Collins in the notes, so I expect he's got some songwriting or studio background (and indeed, when I check the credits to Robertson's first solo album I find that Page gets co-writing credit for two songs there). Actually, this album sounds to me a lot like a middle ground between Robertson's rootsiness and the intricate atmospheres of another of Robertson's collaborators, the Blue Nile. It's far warmer and less electronic than the Blue Nile's ethereally synthetic opuses, but it still has some of that feel of super-intentional assembly. (And, now that I've said that, I just noticed that the Blue Nile's Paul Joseph Moore plays keyboards on several of these songs, and the band gets a thank-you in the credits, so I guess that means I'm right about the resemblance.)
Page produced and arranged the album himself, and plays several instruments on most tracks, and the resulting music shows an impressive attention to detail. If this musical precision had been married to stock "Girl you are so beautiful to me" lyrics, though, its craftsmanship might easily have seemed soulless. Indeed, as I listened to it the first time through, paying only sporadic attention to the words, I came close to turning it off and tossing it into the spare-jewel-case pile as "not my sort of thing". The song that stopped me was "In My Room". The music to it is almost terminally mellow, the kind of arrangement that sounds like it could be turned into Muzak with only a little re-equalization. The lyrics, though, are a harrowing child's-eye view of an abusive marriage, and the contrast of these two elements struck me as incredibly bizarre. "What did she do to suffer you? / Her tears bleed through the walls in here, / And I'll stand in your way, / Father, / You won't hit her ever again." Still, overwrought social consciousness is hardly hard to come by these days, so while I decided to hear the album out, it had yet to secure a place in my active collection.
The song that swayed me, finally, was the closing track, "The Door". It's about an old woman remembering escaping from a concentration camp as a young girl. I know, some of you are shuddering at this, sick and tired of shallow studio hacks latching onto easy heartstring-plucking topics like this in pathetic bids for "intellectual" credibility. I'm hardly going to defend the practice in general (and I agree it's a problem), but I think Page does a good enough job with his subjects that I, at least, am going to give him credit for trying. There are lots of much easier ways to exploit a good concentration-camp-escapee hook, for example, than setting it as the reminiscences of a grandmother watching her grandchildren play. The tale begs to be turned into a stirring epic of courage and the importance of not forgetting history, but the understated arrangement and the playing children cast it almost in reverse, the triumph being not the survivor's radiant courage, but the oblivious good cheer of the children. The greatest victory is not the physical destruction of the camp, and the escape of its inmates, but rather the historical destruction of the camp's ideology, and the fact that children can grow up in blissful ignorance of it. I know, this is an idea not without its reactionary objectionableness (those who don't know history will reenact it, they say, but then again, so will those who live in it), and I'm not sure I totally buy it myself, and I'm certainly not sure whether Martin Page really meant as much as I'm reading into the song. But he made me think, and he surprised me, and the more I listen to this album the more I like it, and those are enough reasons to earn him a plug here.
Sonia Dada: A Day at the Beach
Sonia Dada is another band with a story behind it, and as usual I really couldn't tell you what is. Mom, who gave this disc to me, thought that maybe there was a band called Sonia that met up with another band called Dada, and decided to merge. That would explain how there came to be so many people in this band, but that's really about all I can tell you on the subject. In case this hasn't been made abundantly clear before, this column isn't the place to come for reliable background information. I just sit in my apartment listening to music. If you want reporting, there's no shortage of it elsewhere.
Anyway, Sonia Dada is a big group who combine near-gospel vocals with low-key folky acousticity and a little bit of alternative-rock technology to produce one of the few examples I can think of where cross-cultural collaboration actually sounds cross-cultural. They make Hootie and the Blowfish sound like Toad the Wet Sprocket. Some of you may object that Hootie and the Blowfish already sound like Toad the Wet Sprocket, but perhaps that's my point. Music, circa 1995, remains an incredibly racially homogenous world, despite the fact that lots of people of all colors are alarmed by this. We all seem to want a unified new world, but there's still an painfully clear market schism between "white" music and "black" music. There are exceptions, like Living Color playing hard rock and Anthrax hooking up with Public Enemy, but the fact that these collaborations are so exceptional when they happen is just a reminder that, in general, they're very much the exception. Body Count getting played on Yo! MTV Raps, Alternative Nation and Headbanger's Ball is interesting, but it's not the new world order.
I don't think Sonia Dada is the new world order, either, but they're a mixed-race band that sounds like they're just making the music that comes collectively to them, not acting out a marketing ploy or pandering to some existing fan niche. If there were hundreds of such bands, I bet Sonia Dada would still be one of the better ones, but they'd have some work to do. As it is, they have the category largely to themselves, and so it's hard to judge exactly how good they are at it. The players can play, the singers can sing. But the album's appeal to me is still basically novelty. Here's to a world where it wouldn't be.
The Rembrandts: L.P.
Speaking of novelty, the Rembrandts have been around for a while (there are at least two albums before this one), but they only came to my attention by doing the theme song to Friends. I really don't, as a rule, watch network television, but My So-Called Life got me into the habit of watching TV on Thursdays, so when it ended I kept watching Seinfeld and Friends out of weekly inertia as much as anything. Friends ended up growing on me. The first episode I saw, my assessment was that if I kept the sound off I could watch Courtney Cox for at least twenty minutes. Eventually I started to find the characters charming. It's never going to change my life the way MSCL did, but I like it. And in liking it, and watching it, I've also become fond of the insanely catchy Monkees-like theme song, "I'll Be There for You". So I bought this album, half to have that song (it's the "hidden" bonus track, a hiding job that a sticker on the front of the case blows), and half to see what else the Rembrandts could come up with.
The theme is fleshed out here into an actual three-minute song, with verses and an instrumental break and everything. It's great. It's got gorgeous harmonies, a snappy beat, some of the most chipper handclaps available, and while you're listening to it you can have fun imitating the goofy dances that the show's cast does during the opening sequence every week. Twenty years from now when somebody puts out a collection of mid-Nineties TV-show theme songs, this will be one of the ones that actually gets copies to cash registers (provided there are still cash registers in twenty years, and you take things to them...).
They didn't write "I'll Be There for You", though, and the rest of the album is a good deal less giddy. Left to their own material, the Rembrandts stick to a more conventional rock approach. At moments they sound a little like Squeeze to me, at other times a tad like Guadalcanal Diary. Most of the time, though, they sound like a couple of reasonably good songwriters who haven't quite found an original idiom of their own, and so have been forced to adopt one supplied by the government. It's pretty enjoyable for "normal", but I'm not sure how many more times I'll play it before I start getting impatient and skipping forward to the bonus-track payoff. Life's too short.
Avalon: Chasing Ghosts
I have one last album I want to mention while I'm loitering out near the center median. If you thought my lack of background information on these other bands was unhelpful, you'll be annoyed to discover that I know even less about Avalon. I bought this album mail-order, under the impression that it was another disc by the prog/Celtic Scottish band Avalon, whose album Higher Ground I have and like. When it arrived I discovered that this is actually another Avalon entirely. This Avalon is a one-man-band (the CD is even self-released) operated by Richard Leverone, who appears to live in Georgia somewhere. Chasing Ghosts reminds me pleasantly of Michael Penn's first album, and the first School of Fish record. All three albums use a lot of programmed drums that sound like they were done by non-drummers. This gives the songs an appealing awkwardness, I think, an originality to their rhythms that is harder to come by if the person doing the drums has familiar grooves to slip into. (I found Penn much less charming on his second album, when he got real musicians to come in a play the parts that he didn't really know how to do, and although School of Fish's second album did grow on me after a while, I really missed the drum machines.)
This isn't a long album, but it does cover a pretty good stylistic range. "Freedom" sounds it could be a lost collaboration between Dire Straits and the Eagles. "Perfect World" is especially Penn-like. "Until the Angels Cry" is a squarely straightforward mid-tempo rock song. "Chasing Ghosts" is enough like Marillion's "Lady Nina" ("chasing ghosts" sounding a lot like "making marks") that I thought it was a cover of something for a while before I realized what it reminded me of. "Dream of Love" opens with a burbling synth riff that sounds like it might have been borrowed from something by the Eurythmics, tosses in some gleefully undisguised synth-drum rolls, and continues in a jerky early-New-Wave manner that would make Gary Myrick proud. "Leather" is menacing. "All I Know" reminds me of the other half of "Lady Nina". "November 17" is a nice little piano-and-strings ballad. "Door of Light" is effervescent New Wave straight out of the archives of the Parachute Club or the Human League. Leverone is neither afraid of showing his synth-pop heritage, nor insistent upon reliving it. He's not afraid of unfamiliar instruments, and he's confident enough of his lyric-writing to pair each song with a literary quotation without fear that they'll upstage his texts too badly. It all makes for a refreshingly individual album, and certainly the best mistaken purchase I've ever made. From now on I'm going to buy anything I find from any band called Avalon, no matter who they are. Hopefully some of it will be more music by this one.