It's All Right to Feel This Good Again
43 · 23 November 95
The Boo Radleys: Wake Up!
This will initially seem irrelevant, but I took this trip to Texas back in September, to go to my ten-year high school reunion. The reunion itself was only a two-day thing, but I stuck around for a week, visiting friends and indulging nostalgic urges. Most of the friends I was visiting had to work during the week, though, so I spent most of the weekdays sitting in my friend Mike's living room, reading and listening to a pile of CDs I'd brought with me. The first book on my list was Glimpses, by Lewis Shiner. Shiner is a science-fiction writer with cyberpunk tendencies, who I knew from short stories in Mirrorshades and various of Gardner Dozois' Year's Best Science Fiction anthologies. Glimpses, however, is only vaguely science-fictional. It's about a music fanatic and circuitry nerd named Ray who splits his time between fixing stereos, contemplating his relationship failures, and trying to understand his father's recent possible-suicide death while scuba diving. One afternoon, fixing something, his mind is lost in an autopilot daydream about what the Beatles' "The Long and Winding Road" might have sounded like if the band hadn't disintegrated before they could really do anything with it as a group. And suddenly, there it is, a song that never existed, coming out of his speakers, John and George and Ringo in place of the strings that Phil Spector added to the Paul-on-piano version of the song that appeared on Let It Be. It transpires that if Ray is given enough background information to really visualize the circumstances under which great lost music failed to get made, he can mentally bridge the gap between what didn't happen and what could have, and actually conjure music out of a sort of alternate past, onto present-day tape. After the Beatles he does the Doors' Celebration of the Lizard, and then goes after the Beach Boys' Smile and Jimi Hendrix's First Rays of the New Rising Sun. It gets a little more fantastic, but aside from the one central implausible element, the rest of the events are mostly merely counterfactual.
The book deeply impressed me, for three reasons. First, the internal struggles that Ray goes through had an awful lot in common with some things in my own life, especially some details that the trip to Texas was pushing on directly. Second, Shiner has the sense (and, for a novel to be marketed as a genre piece, the courage) to treat the music fabrication as just one of many factors in Ray's life, rather than treating Ray's life as a decorative frill around the edges of the nominal premise. There are long sections of the novel where no music/magic is involved at all, and even the parts where Ray is immersed in the process of trying to imagine music into life don't lose track of his personal state of mind. It's a very well done character novel, worth reading even if you don't normally venture into the science-fiction and fantasy aisles.
The last thing about the book, though, is that it involves an incredible amount of historical detail about the artists whose music Ray is trying to make. Not being a Beatles, Doors, Beach Boys or Hendrix fan or scholar myself, I don't really know how much of this is invented, and how much is a product of exhaustive research, but to me, at least, it doesn't really matter. What's special is the sharpness of the scenes, the evocation of every bit of studio minutiae, the way the obsessive focus on the circumstances of an album's making informs both the nature of, and the appreciation of, the resulting work. This is a facet of musical appreciation that is completely foreign to me. None of my favorite bands have been mythologized and scrutinized the way these older ones have. There's no diary of every minute of studio time that went into Big Country making The Crossing. Historians haven't attempted to recreate the living room in which Scott Miller did Game Theory's Blaze of Glory. Marillion made a movie about the making of Holidays in Eden, but that's not quite the same, somehow. It's not just that these records don't have the same place in history, it's that it doesn't even seem to me like this archeologistic assiduousness would be appropriate for them. What is precious to me about them is the music they represent, not the literal circumstances of their creation. So as I read, I was vicariously enthralled by the obvious passion, but had a hard time thinking of similar examples from my own musical world, music that could only have arisen from a certain magic moment, and which any changed detail would have altered irrevocably.
About halfway through the book, Mike's CD changer flipped to the Boo Radley's Wake Up!, an album which at the time I'd only just purchased, and listened to perhaps twice. Just then I was reading about Brian Wilson orchestrating the sessions for Smile, and the perky, brassy, harmony-drenched pop of the opening track, "Wake Up Boo!", seemed an aptly Wilson-esque accompaniment. By the time the tectonic bass, regal trumpets and giddy handclaps of "It's Lulu" kicked in, though, I realized that it wasn't just that this album has a bit of Beach Boys sound to it, it's that it's precisely the sort of album that the book made its subjects out to be. I might not have noticed or thought this if the book hadn't attuned me to it, but this album is filled with the sort of inspired touches that really could have been the unique products of exact conditions. I didn't have the liner with me on the trip, but looking at it later, I discovered that its contrasty low-light photos of the band in the studio are also perfectly in keeping with this notion. I don't intend to become a Boo Radleys scholar, but this album makes me think that one could, which is very cool.
It opens with an airy vocal round of "Wake up, it's a beautiful morning", into which the exuberant, jazzy, late-Jam-ish jump of "Wake Up Boo!" bounces. A breathtaking pastiche of roaring guitars, shiny horns and ringing piano, the song is perfectly matched to its lyrics, a charmingly romantic morning exhortation from an invigorated lover to his sleeping companion. "I shouldn't be up at this time, / But I can't sleep with you there by my side". "I know I was up all night, I can do anything". It's as if surviving the night without sleep is cheating death. I know the feeling.
Next is the gentle interlude of "Fairfax Scene", which gives way to the slow, atmospheric entrance of "It's Lulu". This song quickly proves to be anything but slow and atmospheric. Imagine a happier, poppier Housemartins, singing with affection instead of withering scorn. The girl in the song is retreating from the world into her music, and whatever is actually playing, this is the song she's hearing, the band calling her onto the stage where she knows she really belongs. If you know My So-Called Life, this song reminds me strongly of the scene where Angela dances around her bedroom to the Violent Femmes. I like this a lot better than the Femmes, myself, but it's about the scene, not a part of it, so it couldn't have been substituted even if they'd wanted to (and the song had existed in time).
"Joel" is a long song with two distinct moods. The first couple minutes is a very Beatles-like psychedelic pop ballad. A couple minutes into the song, though, it suddenly turns into a simmering club track, with a Manchesterian (I know, a native of Manchester is a Mancunian, but I meant like the city, not of it) groove, clamoring guitar and loud, fuzzy bass. It flips back and forth between these a couple of times, and then trails off into an odd coda of reverb, meandering hi-hats, odd sonics and some distracted bass noodling, out of which another couple lines of coherency emerge right before the end. Then we're back to snappy, charged pop, with "Find the Answer Within", and from there to softer moods again for "Reaching Out from Here". The fast/slow oscillation then finally breaks down a bit, as the samples, buzzing sound effects, languid flugelhorn and slick synthesizer of "Martin, Doom! It's Seven O'Clock" lead to the dark guitar and breathy falsetto voices of "Stuck on Amber". Then there's the cheesy keyboards and silly life-in-the-band lyrics of the first half of "Charles Bukowski Is Dead", followed by the chattering studio manipulations of the second half, in which the echoing line "You never touch the magic if you don't reach out far enough" weaves around strange background conversations like the Future Sound of London flirting with pop.
The quietly majestic "4am Conversation" then brings in strings, keyboards and some orchestral percussion, and a text that reminds me of Alanis Morissette's "Not the Doctor". "Twinside" returns to pop, this time with some rock drive. The throw-away lyrics, about being of two minds, nonetheless produce a chorus well suited for sing-along: "Make way for the end of frustration, / Make way for the united front, / One thought for a new situation". And the album ends on the graceful swells of the stately piano-ballad "Wilder", its confidently unforced coda of low-key instrumental jam and a few well-placed sound effects, and a slight return too short to be called a bonus track.
The synergy between Wake Up! and Glimpses is what first made me really pay attention to this album, but now I've listened to it enough that it's become its own justification. Its glorious pop is a delightful mixture of old and new influences from both sides of the Atlantic. If you've wished that the Beautiful South weren't so retrained, Crowded House weren't so somber, Guided by Voices weren't so cryptic and deliberately low-fi, and the Beatles and the Beach Boys weren't so marooned in the distant past, this just could be your album. Or mine.
The Magnetic Fields: Get Lost
The Magnetic Fields are sophisticated pop of a different sort. Stephin Merritt has even more intricate compositional ambitions than the Boo Radleys, incorporating such apparently disparate elements as goofy disco drum-machine lines, an endless parade of unconvincing synthesizer patches, arpeggiated keyboard runs that sound like robot banjo, and his own dolorous singing. A number of musicians assist here, but are mostly lost in the swirl of Merritt's own rococo flourishes.
As I said in reviewing the single "All the Umbrellas in London", included here, when it came out on vinyl back in May, the Magnetic Fields are most powerful to me when Merritt combines his propensity for busy, trebly arrangements with something slow, somber and bass heavy for contrast. Frequently this second element is his voice, though the effect is more powerful for me when there's musical components of both sorts, as well. Honestly, what I really want from Merritt is another album's worth of music just like The Charm of the Highway Strip. Not unreasonably, he declines to retread his steps just to please me.
And so the result is, for me, only partially successful. Many of these songs seem just slightly wrong for one reason or another. There's too much noise in "Famous". "The Desperate Things You Made Me Do" and "The Village in the Morning" are a bit too busy. "Don't Look Away" and "Why I Cry" don't have quite enough motion for me. "Love Is Lighter than Air" isn't dark enough. And "When You're Old and Lonely", with no keyboards at all (!), could be by some other band entirely. When everything comes together, though, it's pretty amazing. "With Whom to Dance?" and "Save a Secret for the Moon" are nearly perfect. And "Smoke and Mirrors", "The Dreaming Moon" and "All the Umbrellas in London" are perfect. "Smoke and Mirrors" combines an elastic bass line, sinuous, string-like synth drones, a thin, ticking drum-machine and Merritt's resonant voice. "The Dreaming Moon"'s choppy crowd-noise sampling almost sounds like low-budget Gary Numan, but Gary would never have included the delicate chimes. And the way "All the Umbrellas in London"'s resolutely mechanical rhythm batters ineffectively against Merritt's imperturbable vocal part is everything that makes the Magnetic Fields awesome to me.
I just wish I could stop trying to force all their songs into my preconceived mold. I'm sure I'd enjoy this better if I wasn't sniping at every song for how it's not quite what I wanted. The one ray of hope in this regard is "You and Me and the Moon". On the surface it would seem too fast and perky to satisfy me, but actually I find myself liking it just fine. So maybe I'll come to terms with all of this yet.
The Bobs: Plugged
Speaking of perky, you'd be hard pressed to find a perkier band than the Bobs. For those of you unacquainted with them, the Bobs are the world's greatest a cappella pop band. Put another way, they are one of the world's finest pop bands, and it so happens that they mostly perform without instruments. I say this because I'm not generally an a cappella fan. My impression of a cappella was forever tarnished by the constant presence of amateurish vocal groups around me at college. At times it seemed like you couldn't get from any point at Harvard to any other without encountering at least a flyer for either an a cappella ensemble or a peer counseling group, and then you counted yourself lucky to have avoided running into one of the groups in person (and believe me, even if you like a cappella you don't want to get cornered by an earnest over-educated peer-counseling group if there's any way you can avoid it). At one point I contemplated forming a group called Trouble Clef which would have combined the two functions.
The thing that turns me off to a cappella the fastest is the singing of nonsense syllables. I like musical instruments, and I like people singing words, but get too many people singing "doo wop a-doo wop a-doo bah bah bah", and I become very irritable, very quickly. The Bobs do two things that minimize this effect. First, they do a lot of conventional harmony. There are only four of them, so it's not like there are dozens of members who need to be given vocal busywork. And second, their non-language vocalizations usually have the cadences, and sometimes even the timbres, of instruments. If it takes considerable effort to decide whether a given noise is coming from a mechanical device or a human body part, then you might as well write the question off as unimportant, and just listen.
And so this album's "Plugged" premise (some of the vocals are, gasp, processed), which to the band clearly feels like a radical departure, to me just means that the record sounds even more like normal music than the Bobs usually do. A cappella purists will be happy to hear that the experiment of inviting in a real drummer, which the Bobs did on 1993's Shut Up and Sing, isn't repeated here, though there are credits for "toy drums" and "cardboard boxes", and whatever they're using on "Meat on the Moon" and the little bonus snippet at the end sounds pretty real to me.
As Bobs albums go, this one is as good as the others. The Bobs basically make two sorts of records. The first sort are collections of their clever pop songs, done in their inimitable style. The second sort are collections of other people's songs, again done in the Bobs' inimitable style. You ought to have one of the second sort, if for nothing other than novelty value, or playing at parties as a conversation piece. Sing the Songs Of... has "Purple Haze", "Helter Skelter" and "Psycho Killer", among others; Cover the Songs Of... includes "The Wind Cries Mary", "Strawberry Fields" and an incredible surf-punk rendition of Leonard Cohen's "Bird On the Wire". Take your pick. If you actually like the band, though, you should start buying the original albums. Any order is probably fine, as there are classic moments on every one. This one has a song whose lyrics are constructed entirely of bumper sticker slogans ("Kill Your Television"), the beautiful memorial "Elwood Decker" (a long-time live staple), a romantic paean to coffee-shop culture ("Cafe", with the nicely observed line "They had to share a table by the window / Backpacks sitting like hounds at their feet"), an ebullient graffiti love song ("Spray"), the shoppers' anthem diptych "Bus Tour to the Outlet Malls" and "In the Halls of the Malls of America", and an answer song of sorts to REM's "Man on the Moon", called "Andy Always Dreamed of Wrestling".
20/20: Four Day Tornado
And lastly, something for those of you who prefer your pop played by scruffy Americans with guitars. In their first life, 20/20 were one of the many fine power-pop, New Wave, skinny-tie bands that made albums around the turn of the last decade, and then couldn't figure out why the Knack were able to retire on the royalties from "My Sharona", while they had to go back home and get day jobs. Their two albums, 1979's 20/20 and 1981's Look Out!, have just been reissued on one CD by Oglio Records, who are rapidly establishing themselves as the digital saviors of the forgotten parts of the genre. In addition to the reissue, though, 20/20 have actually reformed, original chief songwriters Ron Flynt and Steve Allen joined by new producer/drummer Bill Belknap (whose last name sounds backward no matter which direction you say it), and in the brief burst of energy to which its title refers, have made a brand new album.
The product of this effort is enough to make anybody in a decade-plus retirement consider emerging from it. Flynt and Allen have aged well. Four Day Tornado's expansive guitar-rock sounds truer to their Oklahoma roots than the jerky, LA studio-heavy sound of their first two albums, but their knack for power-pop has held up nicely, and as a result this album ends up reminding me much more of the dBs or the Swimming Pool Q's than of the Knack or the Cars. "Song of the Universe" is rousing and twangy, "Nothing at All" bouncy and old-fashioned, "My Tuesday" solid and raw. "State of Grace" is countryesque, "Watching the Headlights Burn" elegant and "For All Our Time" touching.
The churning instrumental "Well, Frankly..." is also nice, and forms the soundtrack to the CD-ROM component, which requires a multimedia PC but doesn't affect the audio portion of the CD. The CD-ROM interface lets you play any of the songs over your computer, should you want to do that for some reason. It also has three rather underwhelming videos, the same background information you can read out of the booklet, and some short interviews with the band members that you won't need to watch more than once, if that often. It's actually very nicely done as these things go, and if you've got an appropriate computer handy you might as well check it out, but if right after you finish fiddling with it a vengeful deity crashes through your ceiling and demands that you forever renounce either computers or stereos, I trust you'll make the right decision. (Send me a stack of SASEs and I'll make sure you keep getting my column.)