58 · 7 March 96
Abra Moore: Sing
You will appreciate this album best, I think, if you are patient with it. The shuffling drums and simmering accordion on "Sweet Chariot", the opening track, seem, if this is the sort of thing you are anticipating, to be ever just another two or three beats from exploding into something vigorous and anthemically cathartic, and the song is in this way something of a microcosm of the whole record. But I'll go ahead and eliminate the suspense: it never happens. There is dancing here, and jubilation of a sort, but it is the kind of dancing that people do alone, slowly, in front of snowy windows, in soft clothes and thick socks, in commercials for instant hot chocolate and comfortingly flavored teas, and the kind of jubilation that makes you smile inwardly and, at most, bounce just slightly, not howl and leap upon your teammates. This is not a bad thing, at all, but it may require you to adjust your expectations. Which is good practice, anyway, of course.
Fittingly for a record that is best appreciated patiently, Sing appears to have been made patiently, too. Abra's languid voice has the faerie delicacy of a porcelain Edie Brickell replica, with some of Edie's tendency to slide into notes, but without quite as many of her mannered poetry-reading cadences. Her auto-harmonies are elegant, but restrained. There is something angelic about her, something between the unearthly rapture of Jane Siberry, who I continue to suspect really is an angel, and the deceptive frailty of Juliana Hatfield, who merely played one. Her phrases end on almost subliminal baroque flourishes, like Victorian signature adornments done with a pen almost too fine to transfer any ink to the surface, so that when you look at them directly it's hard to distinguish them from the grain of the paper, but as you turn away they glint ever so fleetingly in the periphery of your gaze. Traces of her breathing give her vocal tracks some extra immediacy, without obtrusive compression turning the breathing into something aggressive and animate, as it does with Sinéad O'Connor and Tori Amos.
Spare guitar parts from her and producer Mitch Watkins provide the frames for most of these songs, with Abra adding some piano and accordion, Mitch adding keyboard ambience, and various fleeting guests providing muted drums and an assortment of extraneous acoustic instruments. There is some Poi Dog Pondering connection in Abra's past; my working assumption is that she was once a member, but that's just a guess. Whatever it is, PDP leader Frank Orrall contributes one song ("Step Without Looking"), and "Ku'u Ome O Kahalu" alludes to the band's Hawaiian origins. Despite this and Abra's Austin residence, however, anything remotely regional or ethnic here has totally escaped my notice. These songs sound to me only like themselves. They inhabit some abandoned interstices between folk and rock, between pop sirens and Ry Cooter soundtrack diffidence, between Shawn Colvin and the Penguin Cafe Orchestra -- middle countries whose inhabitants have long ago forgotten that theirs is not really a place, and in this forgetting have made it one. It is music I can't imagine ever being commercialized. You can't dance to it, but it's too individual to be much good for office filler, and not only will nobody play it on the radio, but you probably won't be able to get any of your friends to sit still long enough to understand why it's wonderful, either, and if they try to talk over it you'll get irritated. It is, then, an album you will simply have to buy for yourself, and listen to when you're alone. A neglected genre, and perhaps a neglected facet of your life, as well. Neither of which should be.
Angel Corpus Christi: White Courtesy Phone
Hey, remember New Wave? At the beginning, I mean, when the term was being created by the music, rather than vice versa? One of the things about New Wave that I loved and love best, both at fourteen and now at twice that, was the sense of physical experiment. Gary Numan started playing synthesizers when the people from the recording session before his left one behind in the studio, and you could hear that in his playing, not amateurness so much as just a sense of adventure, the feeling that the players were conjuring heretofore unknown things from the machines, rather than using them to instantiate existing tropes and preconceptions. The joy went out of drum machines, for me, the day somebody made one that sounded like real drums. Give me back big clacking 2001-looking Simmons kits, I sometimes pine. Give us back synthesizers where you stored settings by making position marks on Xeroxes of the panel diagram from the manual. I want whammy bars that don't recenter well, the first echo box that made you feel like you were on Mr. Microphone, and the day somebody realized that when you put a four-track cassette into a regular player with the b-side out it plays tracks three and four backwards. Perhaps, tonight it seems to me, we are too often tool users, grimly set on accomplishment, and too seldom toy users, just playing with stuff to see what sort of interesting noises we can make come out. New Wave was a artistic movement defined by its lack of an agenda, ushered in by the noisy arrival of a bunch of kids with no plans at all, who valiantly (and, at times, successfully) attempted to substitute curiosity for ambition.
White Courtesy Phone takes me careening back to the dawn of the Eighties. Cheesy drum machines tick out blocky rhythms, counterpoised by sawing synthesizer noises that mimic nothing natural. Odd yelping noises squeak out of a sampler somebody just brought in. The bass player sounds like he's practicing, over and over again, the three easy measures he's learned from each song on the first New Order album. The singer can't sing that well, but nobody minds, because she's found an effects setting that makes her sound like an eerily sexy robot. And the lyrics are silly, but why is that a problem? And best of all, Angel Corpus Christi herself (whose real name involves Ross somehow, or else she doesn't write her own songs) plays accordion, which remains a rock and roll oddity despite the best efforts of They Might Be Giants and Ted Dewan's impromptu jam the night before Crispin's wedding, which resulted in a perplexed Cape Cod hotel owner telling us to stopping scaring the other guests with that rock and, uh, I mean, music, whatever sort of music that is. It's all undeniably anachronistic (the accordion too, although not from quite the same period as the rest), but it's so sincere that I can't find the will to complain. It helps a lot that this music doesn't exactly reproduce any one thing in particular. Green Day and Rancid songs make me angry about all the Buzzcocks, Clash and Payola$ records people aren't buying instead, but unless the Waitresses, Devo and Shriekback made a bunch of collaborative albums that I'm not aware of, Angel is resuscitating the spirit of New Wave, but not zombifying any specific corpses.
New Wave was punctuated by inquisitive youths discovering, delightedly, that some of these blinking boxes could actually be used to make catchy dance songs, agitpop, requiems and soliloquies, and this too is recapitulated in Angel Corpus Christi's version. "Big Black Cloud" is a paragon of goofy menace, sort of like the B-52's evil twins doing "Death Shack". "Threw It Away" sounds like VU using rayon instead of velvet. "Homeboy" reminds me of a funkless Dead Milkmen-esque rewrite of "Does Your Mother Know", without the choruses. "Candy" would have fit right in on an Our Daughter's Wedding lounge album. "Nature Girl" is an ecological "I Know What Boys Want" (would that be "I Know What Trees Want"?), and "Dim the Lights" is one to sing around the microwave campfire. "Down" and "Been There Done That" are the dance anthems to play late at night when Lydon's voice in "World Destruction" has worn out its welcome, you're tired of everything on the Blondie remix album, and you can't find your 12" version of "Jane's Getting Serious". The elegy "John Cassavetes" is good for when you want a litany of human ills that doesn't sound quite as Time-Life-ish as "We Didn't Start the Fire", and which has more Thompson Twins-ish synth-vibe arpeggios than Fugazi's entry on the same subject. "Fall"'s bass line makes me think that somebody other than me may still own a copy of that Gardening by Moonlight LP. And "Way Out West" ends the album with a surprisingly graceful slow-dance number that carries off the Big Star title-borrowing with admirable aplomb. And for any of you who are set on moving, but haven't decided where to, I note without further comment that Angel Corpus Christi and Abra Moore live in the same city with each other, Bob Mould, some very, very good sources for Mexican food and chicken-fried steak, a university that once elected a student government running on the Arts and Sausage ticket, and supermarkets that sell, without any apparent irony, an item self-explanatorily labeled Guacamole-In-A-Box.
Listening to War again, after all this time, it's hard to imagine how we got from there to here. Reading the notes on the back of the CD, which begin "U2 are from Ireland, though their music falls well outside that country's established 'showband' tradition", some Island PR flack's oddly geeky attempt at diluting the band's exotic foreignness so as not to frighten away Bible-belt Walmart shoppers, it seems like that disc must have been issued into an alternate universe just slightly different from our own, one where instead of all the "j"s being turned into "i"s, U2 just never really caught on, or did but failed to translate their stardom into musical attention paid to their home country. In this universe, though, in a rare example of trickle-down anything actually working, U2's popularity has led, quite directly, to the major label US release of this album of twenty-piece choral settings of ancient Celtic poetry. First Bono did a guest vocal on a Clannad album, then Enya got some songs on soundtracks, then the Nature Company began selling CDs that weren't produced by either wolves or whales, and now there's Therapy? and the Cranberries, and Time-Warner has its own boutique division, Celtic Heartbeat, whose slick and consistent graphic design attempts to stamp its proteges with a brand identity standing for mainstream accessibility and soothing Celtic charm.
Anuna, then, are from Ireland, though their music falls well outside that country's established 'alternative rock' tradition. Much of it falls, in fact, well outside of any tradition that originated in living memory. While a few of these songs are adaptations of relatively recent poems (and by recent here I mean Yeats and Thomas Moore), and use harp-and-whistle accompaniments that are well suited to playing while you mix up a fresh batch of potpourri, the bulk of them are real early-music choral pieces dating from back when date fields only accepted three characters. In a way this puts Anuna squarely in the path of two converging esoterica fads, Celtic music and Gregorian chants. After all the albums that Enya and those monks from Belgium or wherever it was managed to sell here to people who killed time in the CD store their kids dragged them into to get the Presidents of the United States album by listening to Chant on the store's headphones until it occurred to them that this would be good to play at the "polite" parties that they hope to have in the new house, where the living room has too many marble and glass surfaces, and fragile decorations, for rock and roll, even Hootie, to be either appropriate or intelligible, people sipping champagne out of thin glasses and enjoying the effort of pretending like they weren't screaming like madmen at the afternoon matinee of Rumble in the Bronx just three hours before, trying to discuss effete literature but realizing that primacy in these conversations goes to whoever missed the fewest episodes of whatever it was when it was on Masterpiece Theater, and opera banter quickly devolves into advising Fran about whether she should go for the factory-installed JBL 10-disc changer on the new Explorers, or have a good Alpine put in aftermarket for half the cost--
Wow, I think I was just flashing back to some bad cultural-elitism tabs I once took. Still, there's a point to be made. You probably don't know much about chants. I certainly don't, and my having purchased a Hilliard Ensemble disc other than Officium probably makes me a veritable early-music authority by popular standards. To anybody in this state, all competent chanting is basically the same as all other competent chanting. The members of Anuna could be the staff of a small insurance company, for all I know, or they could be the world choir all-stars; I'd never be able to tell. In the face of this sort of undiscerning ignorance, a way to make something interesting and notable is to combine chants with some other, more contemporary style. On Officium it's Jan Garbarek's lithe saxophone improvisations. Here, it's Celtic New Age atmospherics. Both combinations go a long way to counter the academic diligence that might otherwise beset the music, and make albums that, while they are good as sonic backdrop at sedate gatherings, also bear scrutiny once the guests have departed. If forced to pick one of the two I would probably lean towards Officium (just ask for it, don't try to find it yourself; if the people in the classical music department find you standing in front of a rack of Carl Orff recordings wearing your PJ Harvey T-shirt, they will mock you mercilessly), but what the hell, leave the Ford monogrammed floor mats out of the accessory package and you'll have plenty of money left over to buy both discs.
The Apartments: A Life Full of Farewells
The hardest thing about some reviews is not knowing what points of reference you and I have in common. If you know Prefab Sprout, and know that their best-of album was called A Life of Surprises, then this album's title explains its spirit better than anything I'm likely to add, and you can now stop reading this and go back to what you're supposed to be doing.
For the rest of you, I'll try to construct the context. Prefab Sprout's music is a delicate, jazzy, distinctively British sort of melancholy pop, of a discipline also practiced, to different degrees, by Aztec Camera, the Bluebells, Everything But the Girl, the Beautiful South, and a bunch of other bands that didn't do very well in the US either. For a while before Thomas Dolby wasn't making albums because he was doing multimedia soundtracks, he wasn't making albums because he was producing Prefab Sprout albums. Prefab Sprout songs are surprising in unexpected production touches, in the juxtaposition of motorcycle machismo with cultivated musico reserve, in bits of rock energy that occasionally erupt out of stylish pop pirouettes, or more often in the way an accumulation of individually controlled elements adds up to insidious propulsion.
Replace that element of surprise, then, with the wearying sorrow of an unending succession of unwanted leave-takings, and you've got the mournful world of Apartments leader Peter Milton Walsh. The basic Prefab Sprout stock (that really sounds like it should have a page reference to The Vegetarian Epicure after it, doesn't it?) is flavored, musically, with grains of Mark Eitzel's emotional acuity and American Music Club's slide guitars; traces of Walsh's Australian countrymates like the Chills, the Triffids and the Go-Betweens; momentary washes of Waterboys expansiveness and the Blue Nile's chilly minimalism; and just the slightest hint of Tom Waits' vocal gruffness. Lyrically, Walsh finds something to lament in just about everything: relationship compromise, unappreciated genius, existential inconsequence, missed opportunity, love succumbed to exhaustion, fear of happiness, survival through surrender and, in a subject niche especially underpopulated by rock songs, retiring and finding that without your job, even though you hated it, you are lost. At the core of every lament, though, he seems to find some essential spark of intangible nobility, exhibited wordlessly in the fact that the songs do go on, that trumpets play, that pianos stay in tune. And thus resignation becomes a kind of moral victory, and adversity a source of quiet strength. What results is, for me, an album of eloquent weariness, one that doesn't try to defuse despair by rendering it superficially comic, but rather embraces it so wholeheartedly that it ceases to be something you suffer from, and starts to be something precious that you search for. And cultivate when you find it. And write about, so others will know.