Held Up with Anticipation
23 · 6 July 95
China Forbes: Love Handle
Man, does this CD look like it's going to be awful. The cover is a blurry black-and-white photo of China, with her hair up in an unruly pseudo-beehive, wearing a stiff, old-fashioned dress of no-longer-in-favor fabric and pattern. The nausea-inducing title, Love Handle, appears in ghastly pink bubble-type. Flip the thing over and you get another yearbook-style photo of China, beside a handwritten note that includes a hand-drawn heart. Peering down in the corner, I'm almost surprised to find that the label isn't called "Saccharine Anachronism" (which is, come to think of it, a kind of cool name for a label). The whole design looks like a rejected rough layout for a discount-price Doris Day retrospective. There's only one reason I can think of why anybody would pick up this CD. Well, okay, two reasons. One would be if they were looking for cut-rate Doris Day.
The other reason would be if they knew China Forbes' name. This was my reason. I actually went to college with China's sister Maya, and while I don't think I met China more than once or twice, I always knew of her as "the sister who sings". And, being a sucker for any album I have even the vaguest personal connection to, I immediately grabbed a copy, cover notwithstanding.
It's clear from the first song, "Labor Day", that the cover doesn't reflect the style of the music. First time through, though, I was actually disappointed by this. "Labor Day" sounded to me like discouragingly mundane alterna-pop, the sort of low-key, standard-arrangement, underachiever guitar languor that Boston seems to be leaking uncontrollably these days, and I would have rather heard a bizarre exercise in retro-Fifties-isms. "Yo Yo" wasn't bad, though.
Then the third song, "Star Tramps", hit, and everything changed quite suddenly. The band snapped into focus, with shuffling drums and a buoyant bass line supporting a chiming guitar, some nice subtle piano, and airy backing vocals. Over all this China's voice finally took flight, soaring into an intriguing narrative about stars, love, and a frozen glove, with complete confidence. This changed my attitude toward the album entirely, and I went from disinterested to fascinated fast enough that if there had been muscles involved, I'd be strapping an ice-pack to something about now. "Star Tramps" proves to me not only that China has at least a few lucky hooks in her, but more importantly, that she's capable of tasteful arrangements and lyrics worth scrutiny. It's still a long time until the end of the year, but if I had to make my top ten song list now, this would make it. With my mind thus reoriented, I started the thing over.
The second time through, "Labor Day" is still a little underdone musically, but the lyrics, about the season winding down on, I think, either Nantucket or Martha's Vineyard, are non-standard enough to hold my attention. With the low, breathy "I'll Be Around" backing, it reminds me of a lot of Liz Phair's more muted songs. "Yo Yo", which alternates between quiet moments with just acoustic guitar, and the raging chorus, is also pretty cool. "Star Tramps", though, remains the album's centerpiece to me, even many listens later. It's got some of the quiet power of Unforgettable-Fire U2, mixed with some 10,000 Maniacs folkiness. China's singing voice has a bit of Natalie Merchant flavor at times, but doesn't strike me, as Natalie's does, as being forever a quarter-tone flat. She also reminds me, both vocally and in overall musical style, of Laura Hubert from The Leslie Spit Treeo, a now-defunct Canadian band I liked.
"Best Dress", next, is Maya's token appearance; she wrote the song and sings backing vocals. The song is a touching scene from a disintegrating relationship, with the narrator showing up for the breakup she knows is coming wearing her sexiest dress, hoping it will somehow change the other person's mind, but realizing how wrong this is almost instantly. "Phase" is a rolling mid-tempo rock ballad, again benefiting from a light touch of piano by producer Andrew Bush, and fluid drumming from Michael Barsimanto. "My Baby" starts out in gentle acoustic mode, and then picks up into an easy, almost country-esque, gait.
The mood switches noticeably for "Rival", a jangly low-fi pop jab at either an imaginary rival, or somebody real whose identity I'm not picking up on. When the smoother production returns on the mournful "Tuscon", next, I finally spot the asterisks in the production credits, and realize that "Labor Day", "Yo Yo" and "Rival" are all from a different session, with a different band, than the rest of the album. Now things really start to make sense. The other nine songs, to me, sound much better, in production, performance, and even writing. Starting the album with two of the lesser tracks is kind of strange, but then no more perverse than the packaging.
If people still made singles the old fashioned way, with one album track on each side, I'd use "Crazy Angel" as "Star Tramps"' b-side. The lyrics take two well-worn themes, coast-to-coast separation and "you called me your crazy angel", and entwine them winningly. Let major-label executives choose the single, though, and I'll bet whatever you say that they glom onto the surging "Ode" with tractor beams. It's got the pounding drums, distorted guitar and half-dissonant vocal harmonies that appear to be the feature of the Boston sound that MTV is currently latching onto. That it's the most atypical song on this album, and one of the ones that shows the least of China's talent and taste, is hardly likely to deter them. You've been warned.
The album then starts to wind down with the one solo-China song, a very nice guitar-and-voice lullaby called "Doorway". She should do more of these (unless that's the only guitar part she knows). I think if the album were mine to sequence, I'd end it there, going out on a quiet note. China chooses instead to conclude with "I'm Just a Girl who Can't Cry", which unfortunately reminds me too much of a ill-advised cross between Juliana Hatfield and the musical Oklahoma. It's a pity an album this accomplished has to both begin and end with tracks that aren't nearly its best. The part in the middle, though, is more than good enough to compensate.
Provided you aren't too self-conscious about the cover to buy it.
Carol Noonan: Absolution
Carol Noonan was the co-lead singer for Knots and Crosses, a Boston-area folk-rock band that broke up a couple years ago, just when it seemed they might get somewhere. I liked their first album, 1991's Creatures of Habit, a lot, and the vocal harmonies between Noonan and Alan Williams were often close to breathtaking. They seemed to lose their spark a bit on the second album, Curve of the Earth (1993), which I thought was a disappointingly perfunctory retread of the first record.
Out of their remains, though, clamber two solo albums. Carol's was in a way the one I anticipated more eagerly, and in a way the one I was the most apprehensive about. On the one hand, her voice was so much of what made Knots and Crosses that I was excited to hear more of it. On the other, relieved of the creative tension of the band, I feared that she might make an even blander album than the band's last one.
Once again, I was unnecessarily cynical. On her own, Carol comes up with an album more varied than either of Knots and Crosses'. At times, as on "Sacrifice", when bassist Paul Bryan joins in on harmony, she sounds like the old days. Elsewhere there are traces of Celtic mysticism (including a nearly a cappella rendition of the Irish standard, "She Moved Through the Fair", that makes me think somebody's been listening to Kate Bush's "Handsome Cabin Boy" and "My Lagan Love" quite a bit), wisps of bluesy guitar (courtesy of Duke Levine), hints of country swing (though Carol's throaty, quavering voice takes to "twang" a little oddly), and some dark Richard-and-Linda-Thompson-ish drama. The album reminds me a little, in its scope, of Loreena McKennitt, though the influences aren't nearly as eclectic, and Carol doesn't have Loreena's academic range, ambition or approach.
And, unfortunately, it's precisely these missing qualities (or the lack of something comparable) that leave me without any strong emotions to attach to this album. It's not bland, but neither is it thrilling in any particular way. Loreena McKennitt's music avoids being background, for me, because she brings a fascinatingly studious air to it, and because she is, I think, currently the reigning master of setting epic verse to music. Absolution needs something like that, some quirk, some reason to want to listen closely. Without it, all the songs just merge in my mind, even while they're playing, and while the whole thing is never unpleasant, none of it sticks in my mind, and after it's done I don't feel the urge to hit Repeat that is usually the sign of a disc that made a real impression on me.
Alan Williams: Evidence
In Knots and Crosses Alan Williams was the other singer, the keyboard player, and the producer, but he didn't write much of the material, so it was rather an open question to me what his solo album would be like. If I hadn't already read a review that warned me, I would have been quite surprised to find that this is a rousing Southeast-style guitar-pop album, with almost no traces of Knots and Crosses' careful grace. Evidence reminds me more than once of Guadalcanal Diary and the Swimming Pool Q's, two of my favorite post-REM alternative bands, though Williams doesn't slip as far into either goofy joke-country ("Binaural Girl" possibly excluded) or aching atmospherics as those bands (and now-solo GD singer Murray Attaway) were sometimes wont to.
The cast for this album is a familiar one. K&C's other guitarist, Rick Harris, plays on every song here but one, and the old band's sometimes rhythm section, Greg Porter and Ben Wittman, play on much of it as well. On the couple songs when nothing but a woman's harmony voice would do, Alan recruits another of my Boston favorites, ex-Face to Face singer Laurie Sargent. In fact, in spirit the album reminds me very much of Laurie's solo debut, Something with the Moon, which came out last year. Both albums are appealingly humble, but show unusual care and professionalism for what are essentially self-released records (Laurie's was explicitly so, and though this disc bears the label name "Shadowbox", I have a feeling this doesn't amount to much between Alan Williams and boxes of CDs in a trunk on the way to the post office). The instrument credits for each track on this album reveal at least half a dozen guitar parts on most songs, but they never sound overdone in the slightest. My favorite song, "Anniston", is a deliriously catchy escape-from-small-town anthem built on a steady snare snap and a jubilant trebly rhythm-guitar hook. The hushed solo closing track, "Keepsake", does a marvelous job of not cluttering its moment of quiet power.
But, as with Carol's album, I'm not sure how active a life this CD is going to lead in my collection. I've listened to it several times in anticipation of writing this review, hours I don't resent, but without this excuse I fear it's going to have a hard time getting my attention again. Why would my hand stop on this, when it could reach a couple feet further and touch Attaway's In Thrall, or even slip over to the LP cases and grab the Q's Blue Tomorrow? If your music-acquisition rate is lower than the frankly pathological one I've been frantically maintaining lately, though, maybe this earnest, deserving disc will fare better with you.
Swank: Gutless Crap for Drunk Teens
Swank is the second life of the bruising all-woman Boston metal band Malachite, which ground to a halt a while back. This is another case of a disc I wouldn't have purchased if I didn't know the band, as the meticulously retro cover (complete with silly explanatory notes and a description of the "Miracle Surface", "713X") offers no hint to the casual observer that there's crazy destructive rock and roll herein. Admittedly, when you look closely, and read the titles of the EP and the songs (including "Slack Ass", "Corrosive" and "Suck Me Dry"), it's clear that something strange is going on, but unless you have a thing for overdressed prom queens, it's unlikely you'll get that close to begin with. On one level this deliberately obtuse approach to packaging really bothers me, as it smacks of exclusionary scene-elitism: if you don't know enough about the band to not be fooled by the cover, you don't deserve to have a copy. Then again, this is probably not an unrealistic outlook. Who was going to buy this without having heard the band, no matter how representative a cover they came up with?
Anyway, Swank has come quite a ways from the turgid death-metal that was Malachite's niche in the world. The death howls were jettisoned along with the singer responsible for them, and though the new band still exposes its metal roots proudly (especially in Janet Egan's low, crunching power-chord guitar parts, and the way the songs frequently change tempo with no warning at all), the songs now come with genuine melodies, courtesy of Egan and bassist Justine Covault. At their best, which, in my opinion, they are on three of these five songs, "Where I Live", "Corrosive" and "Suck Me Dry", Swank come off like a cross between Black Sabbath and Salem 66 (which sounds more reasonable when you just read the names than it does if you know the music), or like you tried to cross the Bags and Throwing Muses, but couldn't figure out how to reconcile Kristen Hersch's dissonance with Crispin Wood's Hendrix devotion, so ended up throwing out both elements as a compromise.
This EP is still just preface for Swank, as far as I'm concerned, but I'm looking forward to seeing what they do next. I think they've already improved significantly since the self-consciously vulgar b-side "You Piss Down" that originally accompanied "Superfly" when it came out as a seven-inch a few months ago, and with a little more attention to lyrics, perhaps at the expense of cover-shot staging, they could get a really glowing review from me next time around. (Cash value, 1/20 of a cent.)
Sextiles: I Hope You Die
Sextiles' had a song on the Boston compilation Girl, put out by Curve of the Earth last year ("Curve of the Earth" is a local label (Swank is on it too, incidentally), as well as a Knots and Crosses album, though as far as I know the two things aren't related), and the combination of the band's fast, semi-metallic instrumentation with singer Carla Havener's high, classical-sounding voice struck me as very intriguing. I've been idly monitoring the S sections ever since, watching for some sort of Sextiles recording, and my vigilance has finally yielded this seven-inch single.
Whatever else you say about Sextiles, you can't argue that they don't have a distinctive sound. "I Hope You Die" sounds a little like Maire Brennan fronting a less-atmospheric Chameleons. The flip side, "For You", where the band attempts to set up a groove of sorts, isn't as successful in my opinion, but it's still great fun to hear Havener's lilting voice delicately pick its way through lines like "I'm the man that reads the porno mags, / And I locked her in the house". I have a feeling that the instrumentalists in the band need to work out a more coherent fundamental identity before the composite effect will really hold up over the length of an entire album, but if they can get that detail worked out they've got the potential to really scare some people.
And frankly, there's rarely any shortage of people who could stand some good scaring.