Kiss Only the Important Ones
50 · 11 January 96
Liz Phair: Juvenilia
Quick, before 1996 gets underway in earnest, I've still got one more pile of singles left over from 1995. This Liz Phair EP, in fact, I bought back in August, and it's been sitting patiently beside my tape deck and box sets ever since, waiting for me to accumulate enough short-length material to accompany it. Ironically, at twenty-eight minutes long this could almost have been an album if Liz and Matador had chosen to market it that way.
But that would be wrong. This is a single. Or actually, it's four things. First, it's a single for "Jealousy", a track off Liz's 1994 album Whip-Smart. I adored Liz's first album, Exile in Guyville, and she got one of my Best New Artist awards for 1993. Whip-Smart, however, I thought was very disappointing, and as a whole lost sight of almost all the things that made Liz special. But "Jealousy" was one of the good songs.
The second thing this is is a cover of the Vapors' classic 1980 ode to masturbation, "Turning Japanese", performed with the services of Material Issue as backing band. Now admittedly, "Turning Japanese" is not the hardest song in the world. You need somebody with some semblance of manual dexterity to play the mock-Asian guitar bits, but the rest of it can be steamed through on enthusiasm alone, without much fear that anything substantial will go wrong. I wouldn't claim that Liz's version breaks any new ground, musically, but it's agreeable to listen to, and it's at least passingly significant as a gender reversal. Much of Liz's own material is much more audacious than this, and there've been a few other notable female incursions into the otherwise male territory of masturbation songs (Cyndi Lauper's "She Bop" perhaps foremost among them), but still, this is probably one of the ones that Liz grew up around, and asserting its gender neutrality is a nice political touch as well as a welcome plug for a great pop song.
The third thing this is is a radio-session recording of an otherwise unavailable Liz original, "Animal Girl". The credits don't explicitly say, but my assumption is that Liz herself is playing the sole piano that accompanies her here. The song is a haunting one, akin to much of the starker, slower stuff on Exile in Guyville. And since surrendering to the pressure to have "a band" was a large part of what I thought sunk Whip-Smart, I am glad to hear this evidence that Liz isn't afraid to perform by herself.
The fourth thing this is is a five-song collection of excerpts from Liz's legendary demo-tape, Girlysounds. The last glimpse of this we got, the b-side "Combo Platter", on the Supernova single, was pretty underwhelming, I thought. This set is much more interesting. It opens with "California", a song on which a cycling guitar pattern runs behind a sardonic, accented narration of a somewhat surreal joke about two bulls contemplating their afternoon's possible diversions, into which the unrelated chorus periodically interjects itself. Structurally, the song is a lot like "Alice's Restaurant", with the same feeling of waiting until the chorus "comes around again on the guitar". Of course, it's not nearly as long as "Alice's Restaurant", it makes no mention of civil disobedience or the group W bench, and it contains rather more occurrences of the word "fuck".
"South Dakota" continues both the geographical theme and the theme of sexual liaisons with livestock. The instrumentation is still only a single guitar, but Liz essays a dual-track vocal part, which gives the song some additional energy. And the laconic grunts with which she punctuates her quasi-triumphant "Dakota!"s are perfect evocations of the Phair persona. "Batmobile", third, adds a second guitar to the two voices, tries a little more harmony than just vocal doubling, and jangles through a charming pop song not undermined by jokes or silly mock-ruralisms. "Dead Shark" is a little more oblique, with a more muted vocal and less melody to redeem the limited guitar part. The thin, reedy timbre of the guitar is fascinating, though, and it was a good touch to not eliminate the tape hiss from the recording. Liz is probably the most prominent popular musician who is willing to not be anal about production quality (either way), and it gives these songs an unassuming authenticity. The vocal track on the last song, "Easy", sounds like she ran it through a guitar amp to get some cheap spring reverb, but the song is all the more arresting for the feeling it has of Liz recording it, alone in her basement or somewhere, for no other reason than she felt like it. Reason enough for me to listen.
Papas Fritas: Passion Play
Similar humility suffuses Papas Fritas's first four-song EP. Besides "Passion Play", from their self-titled debut album, there are three non-album songs. "Means" seems to have been recorded in a bathroom, with the water running in the tub throughout. The singing sounds like idle shower amusement, and the music sort of sounds like that most of the way through, too, as if we're hearing the full arrangement inside the singer's head, not the a cappella rendition that would actually have wafted out into the hallway of the apartment. Toward the end of the song the players break into some noisy interludes that drown out the water, but that too has a place in fantasy.
Next is "Howl", whose moderate-speed beat seems to tax drummer Shivika Asthana's abilities endearingly. Here Papas Fritas sound like an unschooled Let's Active cover band just starting to experiment with inventing songs that Let's Active didn't record first. There should be more Let's Active cover bands, frankly. And the EP ends with the long, bleak opus "Radio Days", whose interludes of echoey piano, faint drums and hoarse vocals are very reminiscent of Liz Phair. I am not too sure why there are what sounds like sleigh bells playing over the choruses, but they seem to work well enough. I think the litany of female names in the chorus is supposed to be a list of women with whom the narrator fell in love after hearing their voices on the radio. At least, I'd like to believe that, if only because there's an Angie on the list, which could be Angie Carlson from Let's Active, which would be nice closure.
Mecca Normal: The Bird That Wouldn't Fly
Mecca Normal's new single is stark even by their minimal standards. Both David Lester's guitar and Jean Smith's voice seem to approach the a-side with the idea that they're going to concentrate on playing only one chord and singing only one note throughout it. They don't quite succeed, but the chord progressions are much more in the realm of fingers slipping off of difficult frets than they are of actual key changes. I'm not sure when I've heard a song that sounds more like the people responsible for it have previously only experienced music by reading about it. Most musicians can't avoid sounding more accomplished as their career progresses and they become more accomplished. Lester and Smith have somehow become even more willfully naive and alien-sounding with practice. I suspect most Mecca Normal fans will enjoy this, as I can't imagine that there's anybody left following them who remains under the illusion that they're going to snap and make a Timbuk 3 record one day. Mind you, they do enlist the services of drummer Peter Jefferies for the b-side, "Breathing in the Dark", which is nearly as elegant as the a-side is spare. Jean sings a real melody almost unsullied by her trademark nasal slide into flat, David's guitar part is atmospheric and elliptical, and there's a little uncredited piano, as well. It's neither "Don't You Want Me" nor "I've Got You Under My Skin", but it's remarkable music on its own terms, and Mecca Normal are one of the few bands I know of that put some aesthetic meaning into the term "independent".
Guided by Voices: Motor Away
Guided by Voices reacted to the increased exposure given their last album, Alien Lanes, by perversely insisting on supporting it with only vinyl singles. This first one, which came out some time ago, is a rather uncharacteristically conventional affair. The front contains a version of "Motor Away" that has been somewhat self-consciously enhanced for radio playability, which consists primarily of making it a little longer (I believe; I didn't actually time it), making it end a little more gracefully, and applying enough reverb that casual listeners at least won't jump to the conclusion that their car stereos have suddenly blown some sensitive circuit. It's pretty strange to hear Robert Pollard's voice echoing away so cleanly, but it's cool to hear that GbV can pass for relatively conventional if they really set their minds to it.
The flip side is a single song, "Color of My Blade". Kim Deal is thanked for "helping with the arrangement" on this song, though judging from the sound of it this could well be a veiled reference to some unfortunate commingling, at her hands, of the tape on which it was recorded and a cup of coffee, which might explain the way the higher frequencies of this recording seem to drift out and back in a couple times over its length. Other than that, there's not a lot to this song.
Guided by Voices: Tigerbomb
The next GbV seven-inch is much more in keeping with their usual "let's see, how many tracks can we cram into how few minutes?" approach to the form. It opens with new recordings of "My Valuable Hunting Knife" and "Game of Pricks". I know these re-recordings really upset some people, and this version of "My Valuable Hunting Knife" in particular, with its rather impish handclaps, is bound to provoke howls of indie-purity outrage. But it's hard to accuse a band of selling out when the supposedly commercialized tracks are only available on a format that the average sellout-purchaser no longer owns the playback technology for. The front of the single concludes with "Mice Feel Nice (In My Room)", a short piece that, oddly enough, sounds like another Liz Phair piano thing, only with a crazed soul singer joining in via a bad intercontinental telephone connection.
The flip side starts with "Not Good for the Mechanism", a title so perfect for GbV that it seems almost overkill to actually make a song to go along with it. And they sort of don't. "Kiss Only the Important Ones" is even shorter, but it at least sounds like a song, with a guitar part and a melody and everything. Okay, the guitar part only has basically two chords, but songs have been made from less. Okay, often not good songs, but I like this one. The single ends with "Dodging Invisible Rays", a genuine, full-band composition with discernible nods to the Byrds and early REM.
Flying Nuns: Pilot
Boston trio Flying Nuns have plainly been playing attention to their surroundings. I'd be willing to bet that there are worn out copies of old Fugazi records lying around their apartment, and the latest mail-order flexi from whoever is opening for Archers of Loaf at Chapel Hill college gigs these days, but they appear to have also absorbed some more melodic lessons, perhaps from neighbors like the Pixies, Buffalo Tom and Big Dipper (and Galaxie 500, who they allude to in "Carousel of Freaks"). Pat Lynch's caterwauling guitars make a great deal of angular noise, but rarely stoop to actual discord. Bassist Kevin Sweeney's strained singing can devolve to shouting at times, but he also can carry a tune when he feels like it, even in occasional bursts of credible falsetto, albeit very short ones. Tony Velez's drumming is clattering and urgent, and he's not afraid to let the songs stagger a little while he makes some extra-rhythmic point or other.
The one thing Flying Nuns aren't is prolific. I have a two-song single they put out in 1991/2, which is frankly abysmal. That held them until 1994, when they put out an excellent three-song EP called Yard. 1995 saw them double their previous output, as this EP contains all of five songs. Then again, all five are good, so if that's how long it takes them, so be it. "Submarine"'s pulsing bass drum rumbles under a touchingly unsteady vocal howl and a nice chiming guitar. "Frank" is insistent and jerky. "Shades" isn't funky, exactly, but its brittle verses are some distant white-art-punk relative thereof. "Carousel of Freaks" is calmer and more conventional, and might be the obvious choice for a single if the whole disc weren't basically a single already. "Life on the Ground" is pained and resolute. Edgy, melodic punk that doesn't sound exactly like some English band from eighteen years ago, and doesn't have any personnel relation to Sebadoh. Odd, but welcome.
Soul Asylum: Misery
The teeming masses don't seem to have taken to Soul Asylum's last album as well as they took to Grave Dancers Union and "Runaway Train". It's a shame, because I really think the songs on Let Your Dim Light Shine were even better. But when was that ever the criterion for success? At any rate, Columbia's dreams of dollar signs at least got us some singles. The domestic one for "Misery" adds a generous four more tracks. "Hope", judging from the Butch Vig production credit, is almost certainly an outtake from the album sessions. It's loud, fast, short, angry and uncomplicated, a wall-rattling reminder that Soul Asylum still at least vaguely recall their origins. "Fearless Leader" is at the other extreme of Dave Pirner's songwriting range, a sweeping modern heartland folk tale, filled with ringing piano, country guitar and too many words to sing comfortably. Pirner has an uncanny knack for songs that in one verse sound like he might be the next generation's Bob Seger or John Mellencamp, and then in the next trail off into some odd diatribe about the privacy rights of obese transvestites, sung with the same air of timeless populist authenticity. I can't decide whether this is his genius or his downfall. Not that those are necessarily different.
Then it's back to noise for "You'll Live for Now", a blaring howl of feedback that, were it not for the organ determinedly cycling from chord to chord in the background, would have almost no musical structure. If this were faster it would be electrifying, but at this speed it sounds like an impression of the life of veal, or something else distinctly unpleasant and torturously drawn out. For the last track they throw in "Summer of Drugs", Soul Asylum's contribution to the 1993 Victoria Williams tribute/benefit Sweet Relief. I have the compilation, but you might not. And since there's not much else on it that I care to listen to more than the once, this could be a good bet.
Soul Asylum: Just Like Anyone #1
The two "Just Like Anyone" singles do not clearly indicate part-one- or part-two-ness. After some consideration, I have adopted the following assignments, which I suggest the rest of you adopt for consistency's sake. The one with two live tracks I call #1, on the grounds that its catalog number is lower, and it looks the most like a normal Columbia release. The other one, with the "previously unreleased tracks", the higher catalog number, and the stylized CD face, I call #2.
This first part, then, has, as I may have already implied, two live recordings, taken from a 6/4/95 show at the Paradise here in Boston, which I would have been at if I hadn't had to be in California listening to Herbie Hancock argue with Ted Nelson at the time. The first is Grave Dancers Union's "Get On Out". On the album this had a sort of folky feel, but live it's predictably much more intense. Pirner sounds best, I've always thought, when he's on the verge of collapse, and this recording finds him perfectly in (or out of) stride. The other track is "Do Anything You Want to Do", an Edwin Hollis/Graham Douglas composition (no, the names aren't connecting to anything in my mind; somebody will helpfully provide the reference, yes?), which the band stomps through in a delightfully undisciplined manner.
Soul Asylum: Just Like Anyone #2
The other part is a good object lesson in the danger of profligate CD consumption. See where it says "Includes the previously unreleased tracks..." on the cover? Sounds good, doesn't it? Well, I thought so, too. In fact, I got it home, played it, and still thought it sounded good. Of course, it also sounded a little familiar. A little too familiar, in fact. Why would that be?, I thought to myself. Ah! -- but no, neither song is a cover. Strange. Well, life is too short to obsess about the little things, so I put the disc on the to-be-reviewed-later stack and went on with things. This evening, then, I pulled out this issue's subjects, put them in order, and began looking them over for preliminary inspirations. It was only at that point that I realized why the two songs on this disc sounded so familiar: they are "Fearless Leader and "You'll Live for Now", two of the b-sides from the "Misery" single. Record labels remain unable to fathom the idea that people on one continent could somehow get hold of round plastic things that were meant to be sold on another one. By "unreleased", here, they merely mean that the tracks haven't been released in the UK. Now, true, if I could be bothered to remember the titles of things, I could have avoided becoming a victim of this pointless duplication myself. But my inability to keep all this stuff in my mind at once is precisely what lead me to writing reviews to begin with. The moral, of course -- and you're probably ahead of me here -- is that the British can't get enough of Divine.
Radiohead: High and Dry
The last thing in my leftover singles pile is this Dutch Radiohead disc whose path to my life I find myself unable to readily reconstruct. From the "forthcoming" with which The Bends is qualified in the credits, I deduce that this single came out early in the year. It backs up the album's first single with four live tracks recorded at Melkweg in Amsterdam the preceding December.
Perhaps inevitably, the first of these is "Creep", the band's huge hit from their first album, Pablo Honey. This rendition is either perfect, or awful, depending on whether you think Thom Yorke's slurring of words is due to his singing in character or being semi-comatose. The other performances, encouragingly, lobby for the former interpretation. He sounds merely deranged on "My Iron Lung". On the aching "Stop Whispering" (also from Pablo Honey) he sounds, er, aching, and the music rises up around him like a hurricane cloak. The evening mood is perhaps best summarized in the last song, officially titled "Punchdrunk Lovesick Singalong". He's just happy and tired. Well, cheers, and may we all be.