Glued to the Past
51 · 18 January 96
I sometimes remark to myself, in the course of internal dialogs about how reviewing should be done (dialogs conducted internally primarily because I have a hard time finding anybody but myself who's that interested in my thoughts on the subject), that I'm attempting to be more of a music evangelist than a critic. Possibly you've noticed that I tend to write positive reviews. It might be tempting to assume this is because my critical facilities have the acuity of something you microwaved that you ought to have toasted instead. It might even be accurate to assume that. But if it's any consolation, I am at least both sincere and diligent. My explanation for my reviewing proclivities is that it's not that I'm easily impressed, it's that I put a lot of effort into trying to appreciate things for what they are. It takes hard work to be this excitable.
In reviewing, then, what I'm usually trying to do is not say whether something "is" good or bad (which is why I don't give ratings), but explain what there is about it that is potentially likable. To me a review is an attempt, however successful, at answering your unasked, but implicit (in the fact that you read reviews at all), question, "Am I one of the people who would like this?" So, usually, evangelist isn't really the right term. Advocate, in the legal sense, is probably closer. You are the judge (no jury in this trial, unless you live in some communal dwelling where new music purchases are arrived at by consensus, an idea that makes me shudder violently), and I'm trying to present the case for. Any time I end up simply blubbering "But I know he's honest!", I'm not doing a good job.
Which brings me to Runrig. I can't adequately explain why I respond to them so strongly. Yes, true, they are a band led by two MacDonalds from the Isle of Skye, my Scottish clan's spiritual homeland. But the other half of my family is Sicilian, and I think the only Italian record I own is this bizarre pop/classical hybrid called Rondo' Veneziano, the cover of which features a painting of two guys in wigs and knee socks playing a flute and a cello while sitting on the outside of a spaceship, and the music of which features about the same thing. So either genetic roulette has given me only the Italian genes for pasta, or else it's something else. I persist, probably because I studied probability too intently at too impressionable an age, in believing the latter. I want to think that Runrig taps into something universal and quintessentially human, not just something tied to a tiny British island populated primarily by shaggy cows, some guy who sold us a nice batik shirt and was crushed to learn that Cheers wasn't actually shot in Boston, an Audi dealership, and some vehicle-attracting ditches. Elsewhere I have called Runrig's last album, Amazing Things, not only the single most life-affirming album ever recorded, but the most life-affirming art work I know of. In fact, I went even further, and said that while I couldn't guarantee that you'd like it, if you didn't that meant that you should change your life. If this isn't evangelism in its most irritating and patronizing form, I don't know what is. I heartily disapprove. Yet, despite my own disapproval, I can't seem to retract the contention. As somebody once said (possibly just me, just now), there's nothing more terrifying than a scientist who thinks he's seen God.
As well as undermining my already-tenuous credibility, these feelings about Amazing Things were also a potent prescription for next-album disappointment, and Mara is that next album. I was prepared, then, to be disappointed. I almost hoped to be disappointed; Amazing Things means so much to me that I would have been very upset to feel like I had to take it off my DID list. At the same time, though, I expected that Runrig would find something new to do. None of their eight studio albums and two live albums have been retreads of any of the others, at least in my ears, and there was no reason to think they'd abandon this laudable practice now.
And so, in fact, they haven't. Mara is, to me, an album about adulthood, both in the individual sense and the collective. In a way Runrig's 23 years have been a recapitulation, in music, of the archetypical entrance of the noble savage into civilization. Their early records, particularly the first one, Play Gaelic, were alien and astonishingly naive. Towards the middle, with albums like The Cutter and the Clan and Searchlight, they began to take on characteristics of their hosts, producing a synthesis that you could either take as provocative or preposterous, depending on your mood. Only lately, with The Big Wheel and Amazing Things, have they really come to understand their new environment. Musically, though their trademark anthemic highland grace and stomp are still in evidence, Mara is the first Runrig album that sounds to me like it not only understands its larger environment, but is actually operating within it. A shuffling, vaguely techno-esque beat underlies "Nothing but the Sun". The surging strings and delicate pipes on "The Mighty Atlantic/Mara Theme" would be perfect film-score material. The slashing guitar and percolating synthesizer of "Things That Are" drive an eminently salable pop song. The thick Gaelic choir of "Meadhan Oidhche Air an Acairseid" and the ethereal keyboards of "Thairis Air a Ghleann" are perfectly placed to take advantage of the current fleeting public fascination with Celtic music (supplanting the previous novelty fondness for Gregorian chants, and possibly about to give way in turn to Vanessa-Mae). "The Wedding", with its soulful backing vocals and perky accordion and, I think, hurdy-gurdy and Jew's Harp, could be the key to selling copies of this album to old Hooters fans.
But all that makes it sound like Runrig has become like one of us, and I don't believe that's what has happened. In part it's the obverse; in many ways the mainstream has come to Runrig. When they put out The Highland Connection, in 1979, its combination of Celtic reel and electric guitar was basically unprecedented. Their insistence on singing in Gaelic about half of the time was idiosyncratic and seen as commercially misguided. By 1996, though, cultural appropriation has become so commonplace, and the music business so global, that there's no longer anything surprising about it. Really, though, it's not that either Runrig or the mainstream have become each other, it's that they've joined into something slightly larger. Runrig hasn't become like one of us, they've become a new one of us, an extension to what, formerly, constituted "us".
You can read it in their lyrics as much as you can hear it in their music. The reference to "Three women in a kitchen in Chechnya / Staring at the world with frightened eyes", seen on TV, is very different from the wide-eyed child in "Hearthammer" (from The Big Wheel) piecing together an impression of a mysterious outer world from enigmatic clues drifting in through his radio. When they sing, in "Day in a Boat", of the brink between the other world and this, for the first time they're singing as one who has crossed it and seen both sides, not one who has just arrived at the divide, and whose men are exchanging wild surmises and settling bets behind them. "Midnight on the Anchorage" is hardly their first tableau of small-town revelry, but before this those songs were told in the present tense, as if that way of life was still a viable alternative to the cities in the distance, while here the line "Turning the recording back" makes it clear that though they still hold the same values, they realize that the old way of expressing them is, just that, old. "Tonight I'm sticking to the past like glue", goes "The Wedding", but as the song weighs memories of childhood play with the singer's own children today, and as he admits that what led him to recall the quaint village wedding in the first place was that it was the first time he heard a guitar, it's obvious that gluing yourself to the past isn't done to keep you from moving, it's done so that some valuable elements of the past will be dragged with you on your inexorable trip into the present.
Big Country: BBC Live in Concert
While I'm on the subjects of Scotland and time travel, this is another product of both. A 1995 release, it's actually a BBC recording of a 1989 concert at the Hammersmith Odeon, in London. You might think that another reissue of old Big Country material is the last thing the world needs. Actually, you probably wouldn't think that, because you probably haven't thought about the band since 1983, or wouldn't have if I didn't keep on stubbornly finding reasons to mention them every three or four weeks. Still, let's recap. In the eight years since Peace in Our Time, Big Country's fourth album, they have released three studio records. In the same period they, or their labels, have also released: Through a Big Country, a nauseous-green box set from Japan that adds b-sides and live tracks to each of the first four CDs; another Through a Big Country, this one a chart-literal one-disc UK singles compilation; The Collection 1982-1988, an alternative European best-of mixing some singles with some album tracks and a couple of b-sides; The Best of Big Country, a US repackaging of the UK best-of with a few minor track differences; Without the Aid of a Safety Net, a 1994 half-acoustic/half-electric live album; Radio Sessions, a 1994 collection of BBC studio sessions from 1982 and 1983; and In a Big Country, a 1995 German budget compilation that reprises a handful of singles and a surprising number of b-sides. And on top of all this, rumors are about that 1996 will see with-bonus-track UK reissues of their first four albums, as well as a long-hoped-for CD release of their soundtrack to the film Restless Natives, which was previously available only in two parts on the back of a pair of 1986 twelve-inch singles. So, as you see, another live album seems possibly excessive. Mind you, I would buy anything, but is there a larger audience for this disc than me? As it turns out, there is, or at least could be.
Far from superfluous, this album actually fills in an important void in the recorded documentation of the band's career. 1988-89 is the band's strangest era. Peace in Our Time was the album on which they hired an American producer (Peter Wolf, though not the J. Geils Band singer of the same name), and tried to see what mixing their songwriting and drive with glossier production and airier arrangement approaches would accomplish. Commercially, critically, and most other ways according to lots of people, it was a disaster. I, of course, love it, but who listens to me? Anyway, by their next liner notes even the band was already repudiating the album, and while there are two Peace in Our Time songs on Without the Aid of a Safety Net, they are both done in the acoustic portion, and thus avoid confronting the question of whether their original incarnations were worthwhile or not.
The thing this live album provides, then, is not so much further documentation of Peace in Our Time (after all, there is the album itself for this), but a fascinating record of both how the band translated their interest in more ambitious production into a live setting, and moreover how they incorporated their earlier material into this phase. I'd had brief glimpses of the latter before, as the Japanese box includes among its bonus tracks two live recordings from a 1988 Moscow concert. Hearing a whole album of it, though, is much more overwhelming. "Wonderland", the lead track of an EP they put out between their first and second albums, is probably, to the extent that I could ever settle on such a thing, my favorite song in the world. I couldn't begin to guess how many times I've listened to it. Many hundreds, surely. Thousands? Anyway, easily enough times for it to be permanently imprinted on some part of my brain that evolution probably intended to have a more practical use. So when this version of the song hits the quiet part and synthesizers come in--! Synthesizers! How can I describe what happens? Has your mind ever actually boggled? I think mine has, now. I suppose I could be outraged, but I'm too dumbfounded to muster anything that focused. Hearing the song done differently is so affecting, just by itself, that trying to apply some sort of judgment to it is not only impossible, but irrelevant. The contrast between the insidious keyboards and the Mark Brzezicki's trademark drum strafing on "In a Big Country" produces almost the same open-mouthed astonishment. And the shimmering synth fills in the epic seven-and-a-half minute finale version of "Fields of Fire", combined with the extended Celtic jam in the middle, give those fields a surreal infrared heat-haze that they never had before or since. If you haven't invested as much in the original versions as I have these probably won't seem nearly as remarkable to you, or at least not remarkable in this way.
But there are other reasons to recommend the album, if not to random civilians, then at least to the tiers of fans a notch or two below fanatic. For one thing, the presence of those last two perennial inclusions notwithstanding, the selection does a pretty good job of not overlapping with other releases. The four songs from Peace in Our Time are "Peace in Our Time" itself, whose balanced, introspective air serves as a fitting opener for the set; the under appreciated album track "River of Hope", which they charge through with manic gusto and more than a little venom; "The Travellers", an instrumental bonus from the CD release of the album whose inclusion as a mid-set interlude is a particularly surprising and inspired touch; and "King of Emotion", the version of which here emphasizes the song's rigid cadence, and doesn't play up the "Honky Tonk Woman" resemblance nearly as much as I would have expected them to do in concert, choosing instead to concentrate attention around the dark, atmospheric passages just before the choruses. Steeltown is represented not by any of its singles, but by the haunting Stuart-as-female-narrator war-widow lament "Come Back to Me", which they do with only an acoustic guitar or two (proving that they know better than to slather synthesizer on everything). They even forego The Seer's hit "Look Away" in favor of that album's rousing anthem "I Walk the Hill" (which could easily have been the band's theme song if that office hadn't previously been filled), and "The Seer", with Stuart and bassist Tony Butler sharing the daunting task of taking over Kate Bush's extra vocal part from the original version.
The between-song banter is also charmingly uncliched, and there's an amusing medley of random cover snippets at the beginning of "Fields of Fire" ("Roadrunner", "Should I Stay or Should I Go", the Jam's "The Boy About Town", and Aerosmith/Run-DMC's "Walk This Way", interspersed with some riffs from, I think, either Bowie, the Stones or Led Zeppelin). But now I'm definitely rambling.
Happy Rhodes: The Keep
Speaking of alternate versions, and not of Scotland at all, Happy Rhodes put out another album late last year, too. For those of you to whom the name is new, and possibly nonsensical, Happy Rhodes is actually a woman, with the last name Rhodes and the first name Happy. She's from upstate New York, and she's put out a pile of records that most people haven't heard of because they're on Aural Gratification, the label that her companion and producer Kevin Bartlett operates, or did until pretty recently, out of their kitchen. Of course, if you're reading this on the net, the chance of your having heard of Happy is an order of magnitude greater than otherwise, as she has been one of the prototypical beneficiaries of online word-of-mouth. Ecto, the mailing list devoted nominally to her work, has become a remarkable general-purpose forum for the tracking of a whole subgenre of music that can be roughly characterized as "female vocalists with vaguely atmospheric music", and so forms a sort of ant-lion's pit that lures in fans of Kate Bush, Tori Amos, Jane Siberry, and dozens of other women, and sends them tumbling down the slope into the waiting maw of -- but now the analogy has veered out of control. What I meant was that Ecto, by discussing so many artists other than Happy, has attracted a lot of people who didn't previously know her, and surrounded them with so many breathless associated references to her work that eventually you must break down and send off for her albums, or go insane. (Actually, in the old days (you know, 1992: "the old days") you had to mail order them, but these days with AG's improved notion of distribution you might be able to find copies in stores, at least if you have good ones nearby.)
The first thing most people say about Happy, me included, is that she sounds like Kate Bush. But let me explain what we mean by that. Happy's voice covers a wide range of styles, not to mention octaves, and many of these sound nothing like Kate Bush. The ones that do, though, and there are a couple, sound exactly like her. There are moments of some Happy Rhodes songs that you could use to win unethical amounts of money from even the most discerning Kate fans. But, like I said, this isn't the extent of Happy's appeal at all. The resemblance not only rarely extends to whole songs, but it doesn't really go much beyond the vocals, either. Happy plays guitar, which Kate doesn't ("Big Stripey Lie" excepted), and while Happy does a lot of synthesizer work as well, her austere and often practically druidic compositions share little mood with Kate's intricate Fairlight constructions. Over the course of, now, nine albums, Happy's music has gone through a pretty steady progression. The early albums, particularly Rhodes I and Rhodes II, are very acoustic and uncluttered, often more folky than ethereal. Around Rearmament she started getting into synthesizers more seriously. I find the first stages of this a little trying, but by Warpaint she had the medium well in hand, and could begin to experiment with it more fluently. The triad of Warpaint, Equipoise and Building the Colossus is both increasingly accomplished and increasingly accessible, and the compilation RhodeSongs, released in 1993, is an enviably solid collection of her calmer moments.
The Keep, then, is a combination of a fond survey of the past, and an acoustic reinvention of it. There are half a dozen radio-session performances, a couple of acoustic remakes of older songs, two covers, one new song, and three pieces rescued from the vault. Most of the radio sessions, for obvious reasons, concentrate on recent material. The versions of Equipoise's "Temporary and Eternal" and "Save Our Souls", Building the Colossus's "Hold Me" and RhodeSongs' "Summer" are all done in a trio arrangement with Happy on acoustic guitar, Kevin playing electric and inserting tape loops and other effects, and Carl Adami playing bass and, as the credits put it, "devices". Graceful and unhurried, these takes make the most of both Happy's songwriting and her and Kevin's understated good taste in sound manipulation (the latter available in even purer form on the two Aural Gratification ambient collections). Equipoise's "Collective Heart" is included as a five-piece performance from WXPN/Philadelphia's World Cafe that, especially in the bongo-y percussion, sounds more like the typical "unplugged" sessions, but here again Kevin's heavily processed electric guitar gives the song an atmospheric depth that unplugged sessions usually don't have. "For We Believe", the earliest radio session, is a methodical acoustic-guitar-and-bass remake of a muted synthesizer original from Rearmament. And while the acoustic-quintet living room re-recording of "Look for the Child", originally released as a bonus on the CD version of Ecto, isn't actually a radio session, it was used on a radio-only promotional CD, which is close enough.
The other seven songs are either new, or new to us. "Life on Mars" is an airy remake of an Ecto-era outtake. "The Yes Medley" is a solo-acoustic assembly of parts of Yes' "I Sleep Alone", "Soon", "Endless Dream" and "Hearts" that I don't recognize even a single moment of Yes in. "Oh Holy Night" is the traditional Christmas song, done by a chorus of multi-tracked Happy's and a lone cycling acoustic guitar line. "Flash Me Up", the one real new song, is interesting, but I have a feeling it would be a whole lot cooler in a more involved arrangement. The album ends with three unearthed studio recordings from 1984, simple, appealing acoustic arrangements with multiple voices in both trackspace and time. All three are nice discoveries, but the fact that Rhodes I & II have, between them, about two dozen songs that resemble this in both style and quality makes these three less special that they might have be for an artist whose catalog doesn't already reach as far back into her past as Happy's.
As with RhodeSongs, though, the overall appeal of the album is more than just the sum of the selections. Both RhodeSongs and The Keep, by collecting bodies of stylistically related work, present Happy in a more consistent and accessible form than many of her individual albums, where stylistic diversity, though in the long run one of Happy's greatest strengths, can render the music's core appeal somewhat elusive. In the case of RhodeSongs, this made for an album that I still think is probably the best introduction to her music for the uninitiated. The Keep I wouldn't use that way, as it's not really representative in the way that RhodeSongs was, but as an extra perspective on her songwriting and material for people already familiar with some portion of it, which is, after all, how the liner notes present it, I think it's delightful and welcome. If you own more than one Happy Rhodes album, then, here's another one for you.