My Nights Are Occupied with Lighting These Damned Lamps
31 · 31 August 95
Long Fin Killie: Houdini
Some weeks it seems like popular music has devolved into a stream of serviceably catchy, but ultimately undistinguished, guitar-rock. This isn't one of those weeks. This is one of the weeks when it seems like a pack of renegade demons from some long-forgotten and esoteric mythos have come to earth, stolen the first dozen or so musical instruments they ran across, and set in to see what sort of serious damage they could cause with them. Why demons would choose to trade under a name as inane sounding as Long Fin Killie is beyond me, but if you think I'm going to argue the point then you don't remember the combat stats in Dieties and Demigods quite as vividly as I do.
Long Fin Killie, like much of the music I seem to find arresting these days, inhabits some shadowy intersection between stylistic catwalks that previous geometrical calculations had virtually convinced us would never meet. Imagine how Penguin Cafe Orchestra might sound if its chamber-player staff was suddenly replaced wholesale by Hunters and Collectors. Imagine what you might get if you assigned an amalgamation of the Beautiful South and Dexy's Midnight Runners to play as many King Crimson covers as they could get through in an hour, using only whatever instruments they found strewn around a Chieftains rehearsal room. Imagine the Fall doing an imitation of Camper Van Beethoven performing Spirit of Eden. Imagine if Morrissey had a brother who was known as "the gloomy, disillusioned one". You still have no idea what Houdini sounds like, I assure you, but don't let that deter you. You should go out and buy this album for the same reason that you should occasionally go into a restaurant you know nothing about and order the most dangerous-looking and incomprehensible thing on the menu. The last time I tried this I got a Korean dish that involved skate prepared in a style that apparently considers "removing the cartilage and cooking it" to be adequately replaced by "marinate it for a while, and then place it on top of a congealed softball of cellophane noodles spiced hot enough to cope with the hopefully unlikely event that the ray isn't quite completely dead by the time it must be served". I believe it's the only time I've ever seen a waitress offer to cut an able adult's food for him without any fear that this will be taken as an affront, and certainly the only time I've seen industrial scissors used for the purpose. I highly recommend it, but you do have to enjoy the texture-experience of chewing something unusually resilient, such as rubber-band fettucine or perhaps a very clean tire.
In terms of risk-taking ventures for the timid, Long Fin Killie is probably somewhat preferable to whatever that skate thing was called, in that if it gets to be too much you can hit stop and be done with the experience, whereas with the skate the spices produced a powerful enough residual effect that just not eating any more was a bit like jumping out of a moving car in order to escape the troop of incensed yellow-jackets whose home you had just unwittingly agitated by activating the air conditioning fan to which it had until recently been attached. And, my fondness for flogging an analogy into drooling incoherence notwithstanding, probably neither this album nor that dish are really as frightening as they sound. But if you start out afraid you'll be that much more pleased if you actually manage to like them.
Long Fin Killie is a four-person band whose instrument list is here given as "drums, assorted percussion, bass, guitars, bouzouki, violin, mandolin, saxophone, hammer dulcimer, thumb piano and voices", without the list of players and the list of devices cross-referenced in any way. (They are only the second rock band in my awareness to use the dulcimer as a routine instrument, though it really must be pointed out that the other one, Attacco Decente, was known to use three of them at once.) The songs on Houdini range from dissonant, repetitive instrumentals that might be cubist renditions of Irish folk tunes; to tiny bits of near thrash-metal (imagine Thought Industry with somebody tuning a ukulele in the background); to interludes that sound like wind-chime symphonies re-arranged for small abandoned early-Industrial-Age factory apparati; to surging, vitriolic, elliptical anthems like "The Heads of Dead Surfers" (with the unnerving chorus line "We drove the Moors back into the sea / And now we ride their waves", and Mark E. Smith making a guest vocal appearance via a bad telephone connection or something); to surreal deconstructed-Smiths misanthropy like "The Lamberton Lamplighter" (which teaches the valuable lesson that if your album cover is an antique woodcut, and you use suitably old-fashioned title fonts and oblique song titles, the PMRC goons with the advisory stickers will pass you by without ever noticing how many of your songs are either about pornophiles or say things like "turn off that nigger mugger music" and "send the slack-jawed bitches on their way"; a useful trick given how hard it would probably be to explain to them why these inclusions are artistically justified in context, never mind explaining the very concept of "artistically justified" to begin with...); to subtle passages of quiet obscure-instrument calm. The ensemble acousticity of the whole affair is insidiously disarming, and falsetto vocals drift over the entire melange like gentle gusts of tear gas blowing around a crackling late-summer campfire. The noisy parts aren't half as scary as the quiet ones. Which, come to think of it, is sort of true about campfires as well, and much of the rest of life.
The lyrics are disturbingly misanthropic when you can make them out. "(A) Man Ray" is a weird tableau of a photographer somehow constructing pornography out of routine subject matter ("I'm just a little faxinated by the female form / But sadly you're as near as I'll ever get ... Just keep your shirt on"). "How I Blew It with Houdini" finds the narrator awkwardly turning down a date with an ancient woman, though what makes him decide she's Houdini I can't quite discern. "The Heads of Dead Surfers" is an ugly character study of vapid youth just reaching the brink of decline. "The Lamberton Lamplighter" is an even uglier study of confused misogyny. "Corngold" and "Idiot Hormone" form a seething diptych of empty dreams. Beyond that, it gets hard to say. The lyrics to several of the songs don't appear in the liner, and while I can decipher "Homo Erectus" pretty well (a nice, self-contained sneer at people in general that I would have loved to have had around to quote during my high school nihilistic phase (as distinguished from my other nihilistic phases)), about all I can extract from "Love Smothers Allergy" and "Hollywood Gem" is that they are probably not showtunes. And by the time the album gets to the concluding trilogy, "Rockethead on Mandatory Surveillance", "Flower Carrier" and "Unconscious Gangs of Men", the aura of menace has gotten so palpable that it's no longer necessary to even parse the syllables to follow the progress of the mood.
That said, though, I don't find the album particularly depressing as a whole. The rich interplay of instruments in the music partially counteracts the lyrical malevolence, and the noise partially reinforces it, but the combination is so intriguing and unusual that I'm far more fascinated than anything else. I worry sometimes, when I find myself enjoying something because it's strange-sounding, whether I've worn out my music-appreciation senses by overuse, so that it takes some bizarre extreme to excite me any more. Could I be driving myself out of music entirely? For a moment I'm frozen in abject terror. But then a flood of Big Country and Del Amitri songs comes back to me, and I realize I'm going to be okay, after all. Weird is fine. So is not-weird. And played right, a hammered dulcimer can rock.
Shampoo: We Are Shampoo
From the soft-booted-elves-with-poison-dart-blowguns aesthetic of Long Fin Killie to the shiny plastic Killer Barbie pout of Shampoo is one enormous leap for music, and one small series of clicking noises for the Next Disc button. Shampoo is two impish teenage girls from England, which is something like saying Woody Allen is "Jewish, and balding a little". Their names are Jacqui and Carrie. Their producer obviously did a lot of the work on this album. They apparently trash hotel rooms on tour with a vengeance. They were once the joint presidents of the Manic Street Preachers Fan Club. Their song "Trouble" was featured in the Power Rangers movie. If the five Power Rangers ever face Shampoo in combat, I'd advise you to bet on the band. Especially if they're within earshot.
The most obvious thing to say about Shampoo, and I expect many people will, obligingly, say it, is that they are terrible. As musicians, by any stretch of that word, they are execrable. They can't sing, and they couldn't produce harmony if you strapped them to D50s from which all the keys but Cs and Gs had been removed, and rolled them down a hill. The "guitar" parts on this album sound like they were one-finger keyboard lines played with the factory-preset guitar sound on a Casio sampler the size and approximate timbral sophistication of an apartment-dwelling dachshund. Their lyrics sound like penmanship exercises for the academically retrograde. Their apparel appears to have been stolen from a charity clothing drive conducted by 1970s sitcom costumers on behalf of the Humbert Humbert Day Care Center. They have the worst blond dye jobs I have ever seen in my life (and this includes a couple of self-administered ones I've observed in the mirror, mind you). And their infuriating fondness for peering over the tops of their sunglasses at you in every single fucking picture on the CD liner will provoke you to the point where you'd like to suffocate them with their own vinyl pants, as an emphatic warning to all the rest of their sickening pseudo-rebellious empty-headed future-oblivious consumerist generation.
The other way of putting this, of course, is that Shampoo are totally, amazingly, brilliantly marvelous. Never mind Hole and Bikini Kill, this is the most breathtaking album of unapologetically female punk music I have ever heard. Compared to Shampoo, the difference between the Sex Pistols and ELP quickly starts to sound like round-off error. Joan Jett begins to sound like Motörhead run through a little pitch-shifting. Every time I listen to this and then remember the Jesus Jones/Thompson Twins-castoff mush that was Traci Lords' album earlier this year, I shake my head in disbelief. Traci looked like this back when these two needed parental assistance to eat their birthday cakes, and she even sang on a Manic Street Preachers song; all this could have been hers. We've been listening to sloppy bar-chords for so long, or at least I have, that I'd almost forgotten that the point of punk was just that you could play it however you want, with over-quantized synthesizer pawings just as valid a shortcut as cranking the distortion on your amp up until you can't hear the missed notes. This may be the first wholly original bit of youthful rebellion in fifteen years. It may be the most bracing evocation yet of just-post-adolescent sexual power cloaked in obviously-faked innocence that social taboos force you to credit despite its flagrant taunts. It may be the ultimate synergy between all the Shannon Dohertys of the world and all the Dale Bozzios they won't eat lunch with. It may be the thing that finally makes scientists realize that you can't just show a world Linda Blair re-runs and catwalk footage of bulimic hair-trigger-temper supermodels for decades without expecting some kind of terrifying mutation to eventually crawl out of somebody's back yard. This might be the album where the men who usually rule rock finally realize that their crafty plan to just not explain power chords to the girls may not be quite crafty enough to keep them out of rock music until they're too old to be dangerous. The album might also just be terrible. But I really don't think so.
Whether you like them or not, the list of open-mouthedly astonishing things on this album is almost too intimidating to construct. Where could you even begin to argue with an album that yelps, gleefully, "We want our fifteen minutes and we want 'em now!"? What rebuttal wouldn't wilt in the face of the chirped little "Viva!"s in "Viva La Megababes", never mind the total self-assurance with which the girls refuse to correct even the smallest mock-French plural article? With what do you fight the delirious hooks of "Delicious", and the rhymes whose ridiculous pink hats you can see coming from at least three miles away? How do you withstanding the withering scorn of "Dirty Old Love Song" and "Skinny White Thing" (especially given the way you're likely to start stammering uncontrollably when you hear Shampoo accuse somebody else of being "tacky and cheap, sickly and sweet")? What will you have to say when you realize that Shampoo's idea of "the olden days" is Adam Ant, Steve Strange and Gary Numan? (And how will you take that back when they prove, in "Game Boy", that they really do know what those guys used to sound like?) If they can't sing, what's that little vocal pirouette buried in the chorus of "Shiny Black Taxi Cab"? (Well, okay, it's probably some background singer their producer hired, but still...) If they can't rock, what's that churning feeling I'm getting from "Me Hostage"? (Er, I just thought of an alternate explanation for that one myself, possibly going back to that skate from earlier.)
What it comes down to, I think, is that this album is simply too perfectly integrated to disassemble. From the pink CD tray to the screwed up color scheme on the cut-off Union Jack T-shirt one of them is wearing in a liner shot, every detail is witheringly faithful to the unerringly self-sufficient "when you planned your fortifications you didn't take into account cake throwing or shopping as an attack form, so it's a good thing we don't want to come in, anyway" elan. You could just throw the CD out, of course. The pink tray doesn't feel any stronger than the usual black ones, so I imagine you could smash it with a couple well-placed jumps (or easily less than a minute of fury-blinded random stomping in its general vicinity). And with any luck the girls will become gigantomungus stars in Japan and never come to carry away your precious daughters, who you played your Joni Mitchell records for so lovingly when they were too small to understand, who you bought all those copies of Amanda Has Two Mommies for, who you played math games with so they wouldn't perpetuate the gender stereotypes of the last generation, who you carefully didn't brainwash into your religious traditions so they'd be able to make up their own minds when they were old enough. Yes, with any luck this whole Shampoo thing will just never catch on here in America, where girls have more sense, and your beloved daughters will never come clattering down the stairs from their bedroom in high heels you didn't even know they had, wearing tiny T-shirts with babies' faces over their breasts, chanting "We don't care because we're young / And our time has just begun!". Yes, I'm sure that'll never happen to you.
Except-- Unless-- Wait, what song is that you hear the strains of? What's it saying? That's not coming from upstairs in your daughters' room, is it? Is it?! Well, no, as a matter of fact it's coming from my car, as I drive past on my way home from yet another failed suburban quest to locate more of those good folding, stacking wooden bookshelves like the ten I already have and need several more of. No, this copy of We Are Shampoo is safe in the hands of a 28-year-old software designer whose hair is too short to put into pony tails if he wanted to, and who never wears sunglasses at all, much less pushed down his nose so he could peer over them. Although, on second thought, I'm not sure that's not even more frightening than what you feared first. I reach for the volume knob. I pull onto the Mass Pike and head back towards Cambridge. My sap-encrusted CRX pulses. Passing salesmen roll up their windows and fumble in their glove compartments for a Phil Collins tape. "Having the most fun you ever had", the girls sing. The city is spread out before me, and I have exact change. This will do, I think to myself. And then, with a broader smile, to nobody in particular and everyone: Viva.