Lord of Overstock
62 · 4 April 96 (my birthday)
Everclear: Heartspark Dollarsign
I write reviews because I have to. I try to make them at least sporadically amusing and/or useful for the rest of you, and I don't always attempt to distill anything universal out of music that is its own justification, but the thing that really keeps me writing is that it's the only way I know of to make sense, for my own purposes, of how popular music is participating in art's ongoing intellectual exploration of the human condition. We are trying, all of us, some more explicitly than others (though in this pursuit intent and efficacy are not always linked), to understand ourselves, and one of my beliefs is that popular music is, or at least can be, as much a part of this process as any form of art. When Neil Postman says, in The End of Education, that it requires a higher level of sensibility to appreciate classical music than it does to appreciate popular music, it makes an enormous amount of difference what you take him to mean by "appreciate". Classical music, and other "serious" forms of art like philosophy and literary fiction, because they usually participate in the existential discourse overtly, tend to present a more imposing facade to the casual audience, so that reaching a point of minimum understanding, where the work ceases to be merely a cipher to you, takes a substantial combination of attention and context, in varying measures. Postman goes on to conclude that the serious forms are more worthy of study because of this, however, and this to me is as misguided as estimating the height of a mountain based on the difficulty of the terrain on the first day's climb. In fact, I could counter that serious study of popular art forms is an even more important thing to teach than the study of the usual topics, because it's the only thing that keeps our trivial culture from the abyss. It is, after all, relatively easy to read Nietzsche intelligently. That is, it's next to impossible to read him any other way, so anybody who gets through an entire book of his has probably gotten something significant from the experience. The gap between merely experiencing Also Sprach Zarathustra and appreciating it, in the sense that I think Postman means, is thus small; the real problem with Nietzsche's books is not that people don't understand them, it's that they don't read them, and so never get the chance.
Popular art, on the other hand, and in the interest of steering this theoretical discussion slowly toward the review nominally before us I will use Everclear's song "Heartspark Dollarsign" as an example of it, presents a very different problem. Appreciating it, in the sense of vibrating in vague sync with its rhythm and having some basic idea of the text Art is singing, is pretty easy, particularly for anybody who has existed in the context of rock music for the last thirty years or so. For the purposes of this CD single, the task has been made even easier by a remix that makes the song brighter and punchier than on album, and cover art that depicts a white boy and a black girl, just in case you couldn't follow the rather straightforward romance-vs.-racism scenario in the lyrics. What's harder, though, is connecting the song's simple surface message with all the far more complicated facets of its context and character. What does it mean that we know so clearly what's going on in the song from just the line "Because I walk with pride with a black girlfriend"? There is an essay there about how we instantly know, or assume, that the narrator of this line is himself white, an essay that reaches deeply into the links between ethnic culture and music, into assumptions about racial homogeneity, and into narrative convention. There is another essay there about the fact that it is Everclear singing this song, a band that has sold T-shirts at its concerts that say "White Trash and Proud of It", that discusses how they can simultaneously criticize and endorse their ethnicity in the space of a single tour, and the contradictions inherent in the very act of adopting the term "White Trash" (and how this relates to the co-opting of the word "nigger" by black culture and musicians), and the implications (both for the band and their audience) of selecting this song as a US single. I would contend that writing these essays well, whether just in outline form in your mind, or actually on paper, depends on the exact same mental skills and attitudes that writing papers about Nietzsche does. The problem here is not that people don't listen to Everclear songs, it's that they don't think to treat them seriously. Even some people who could do so, like Postman himself, do not, because they regard popular music as outside of the domain of art to which their critical thinking ought to be applied (and they thus miss, among other things, the experience of discovering the sublime concealed in the apparently mundane, which can be more exciting than finding it where it's labeled). The result of this is that popular culture is effectively, in large part, abandoned as a setting for meaning, and the creation of "serious" art becomes an exercise in elaborate preaching to the dwindling membership of an already thoroughly converted choir, heedless of the increasingly insensate condition of the hordes outside the walls of the temple. I am entering blithely into a long-standing educational debate here, but it seems to me that teaching critical thinking via popular-art examples holds the potential for making people both capable of critical thought and inclined towards it, whereas teaching it through The Scarlet Letter just makes people associate the practice with unpleasantness.
And so somewhere in there is why I feel compelled to write about the music I listen to. I write to document what I think I've learned, I write to settle arguments with myself, I write to take what otherwise would be an endless and featureless stream of debris, like a sort of cultural Asteroids game, and turn it into a supply of raw material for constructing hammers, beacons, boats, non-stick skillets, rear-window wipers, and other things of some tenuous use to us in our efforts to put a few more hard-won feet between us and the caves we all too recently crawled out of. I care about music too much to let it be treated as noise. I live my life as much in books as in records, but the books tend to assert their own contexts and significances much better than rock songs do, and so I'm trying to do my part to redress the imbalance.
Part of this process, too, and here is where I slip out of cultural criticism and into life-style advocacy, to the extent that there is a difference between the two, is making connections between art and life that are not implicit in the art itself. My happiest intersections with music are ones where both of us bring rich associations to the encounter. Art is to be engaged, not enshrined (and therein we find another advantage to using popular art as our subject, rather than something historically more precious). And so a large part of my subjective experience of Everclear's music has to do with my friend S- (not enough Victorian narrative conventions in contemporary music criticism, if you ask me), who originally insisted I buy World of Noise, and with whom I drove from Dallas to San Antonio the day after our ten-year high-school reunion in order to see Everclear for the second time in three days (having skipped our high-school's football game in order to see them in Dallas the first time). Hearing their cover of AC/DC's "Sin City", on this single, reminds me of S- and I seeing them use it as their set finale in San Antonio, in a club located in a strip mall whose parking lot was so filled with oversized pickup trucks that I had to drive through it in a zig-zag pattern to avoid clipping protruding bumpers festooned with confederate-flag decals, with some friend of theirs who was either their roadie, or from the Toadies (mmm, rock-club acoustics), singing the vocals. I remember us standing around after their set, hoping they'd hurry up and come out into the club so we could talk to them before Filter started playing and rendered conversation impossible. I remember the delirious glow on S-'s face when the band actually did appear and we got to introduce ourselves, and how afterward her smile seemed to light the highway all the way back to our friend D-'s apartment in Austin. And forever intertwined in my experience of both of these singles will be the memory of finding them, rushing home, calling her, and playing them into her answering machine, breathless with the news that there was something new in our canon of Everclear experience. And I tell you this not because I expect to somehow transfer these memories to you by relating them, but because I hope you have associations like this of your own, if not about Everclear, then about something.
It's a small addition to the Everclear canon, this single, but it's a significant one even on the comparatively mundane level of the music it contains. The remix of "Heartspark Dollarsign" doesn't change anything major, but it's thrilling to hear in the same way that it's exciting to find a print in a new art book of a painting you'd seen a hundred times in an old one, and see how subtly different color separation in the two reproductions changes the character of the work. The acoustic version of "Heroin Girl" is necessarily more radical, especially in the bluesy re-entrance after "just another overdose". And the furious "Sin City" cover will be a revelation to anybody who wondered whether the band could play in any style other than their own.
The most important track on this single, though, has to be the demo of "Happy Hour", just because it's the first new Everclear song we've heard since the release of Sparkle and Fade. It's rough, and Art says "Hey" in several places where I hope he'll think of something more interesting for the final version, but the tension between the chorus, which sounds like much of the material on Sparkle and Fade, and the verses, where a jangly and deliberate guitar-cycle spins around Art's quiet resolution, bodes well for the future.
Everclear: Santa Monica
The Australian single is half the same, half different; ah, how happy I will be when the global music industry finally acknowledges that it is a global music industry, and stops doing this. The acoustic version of "Heroin Girl" and the cover of "Sin City" are the same tracks as on the US single. Here they are matched with the album version of "Santa Monica" and then, just when you think you might be able to get away with not buying this, a mind-bogglingly brilliant cover of the old INXS song "Don't Change". I know I am getting older, because we're finally reaching the stage where the "old" stuff, the songs people cover because they grew up with them, are slipping into my own childhood. "Don't Change" is a classic New Wave anthem, and the quasi-band I was sort of part of in high school used to play it. It was one of the few songs that Marc (oops, I mean M-), the keyboard player (the band's instrumental arrangement consisted of keyboards and, basically, "other"), insisted on singing himself, and so I sang backing vocals on it, and no matter how many times we did it, I could never get it through my head that the phrase "Don't change the Earth" simply does not appear. And here, a decade later, I'm still doing it. As Art and Craig translate the song from its original synthetic sheen to a raw, battered-amp howl, I'm reaching instinctively for the harmony, and I never once get the line "Don't change for you" right.
Radiohead: Street Spirit (Fade Out) UK #1
The curiously delayed commercial success of The Bends probably means that Radiohead will be busy touring and releasing singles from it for some time yet, so as with Everclear, those of us who hunger for the third album will have to content ourselves with these morsels for a while. This pair of singles is Radiohead's fourth set released in the UK, and the first whose b-sides consist entirely of original songs, rather than alternate versions of album tracks.
This first part adds the songs "Talk Show Host" and "Bishop's Robes". "Talk Show Host" is a bleak, minimal piece, with whirring atmospheric sonic washes and a distorted clatter of drums drifting behind a distracted minor-key guitar riff and Thom Yorke's desolate moans. "Bishop's Robes" is only marginally more energetic, but its orchestral synth fills and baleful slide guitar give it a grander presence, even if Yorke does little to leverage this.
Radiohead: Street Spirit (Fade Out) UK #2
The second part adds "Banana Co" and "Molasses". "Banana Co" is a trippy, Beatlesque glide that breaks soaringly into a biting, noisy guitar solo midway through. "Molasses" is darker, ending with a coda of thundering timpani and slithery quasi-Indian synthesizer, but its nonsense lyrics don't complement the ominous mood very well, and in the end "Banana Co" is the only song of the four on this set that doesn't seem to me to nominate itself for throwaway obscurity on its way out of the player.
Radiohead: High and Dry US
US audiences fare a bit better this month, though we're really just catching up with earlier UK singles. This five-track US release supports the gorgeous "High and Dry" with "India Rubber" and "How Can You Be Sure?", both from the first UK Fake Plastic Trees single; "Maquilladora", from one of the Planet Telex singles; and a new live version of "Just". "Maquilladora" oscillates between surging verses reverberating with canon-shot drums and warped violin-like guitar lines, and choruses that seem to combine some tense Manic Street Preachers-like falsetto with little echoey half-Celtic guitar figures that wouldn't be out of place in a Big Country song. The live version of "Just" is explosive and grandly messy, with guitar spilling out of the lines all over the place. In reviewing Fake Plastic Trees #1 back in September I said that the edgy "India Rubber" and the magnanimous "How Can You Be Sure?" were enough to recommend a single, and adding two songs and subtracting a few dollars from the price doesn't hurt their appeal a bit.
Del Amitri: Tell Her This US
More cross-Atlantic catching-up occurs on this Del Amitri single, their second in the US after four two-part releases at home. Besides the album version of "Tell Her This" this pulls the crisp "Life by Mistake" from the first UK "Driving With the Brakes On" single and the sad "In the Frame" from the part-one for "Roll to Me", and adds a stunning, and enthusiastically received, Chicago live recording of "Tell Her This" from September that UK audiences will have to get imported back across the ocean for a change. Del Amitri is another band who really ought to release a real live album, instead of forcing us to assemble one ourselves from scattered b-sides. And the UK bonus EP that forced me to buy an imported second copy of Twisted is not what I mean at all.
The Smashing Pumpkins: 1979
Quite an unusual number of domestic releases on the pile this time, actually. Smashing Pumpkins' entry is a four-track EP that promotes the bewitching "1979" with three worthy non-album tracks. "Ugly", the first, is a meditative bit of self-loathing on which Corgan's whine sears through a pulsing bass line and percussion that for most of the song consists of nothing but a menacing clicking that sounds like it's being produced by a nervous robot praying mantis. "Believe", a James Iha composition, opens with a gentle acoustic-guitar arpeggio, and builds with an elegantly sighing cello into a soaring, exuberant song that sounds to me, oddly, like a musical welcome to spring. "Cherry", the final track, returns to Corgan's oeuvre for a plaintive and lonely mini-epic complete with shimmering keyboards, splashing cymbals, and some eerie guitar creaking. Any non-album tracks may seem baldly excessive after everything that the band didn't leave off of Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, but if your tolerance isn't totally used up these are three more good ones, and they make a nicely coherent and compact set, for when you want to have something like the album experience again, but only have fifteen minutes before The Simpsons starts.
Guided by Voices: The Official Ironmen Rally Song
The Official Ironmen Rally Song continues Guided by Voices' slow process of capitulating at least partially to the conventions of release that the rest of the world follow. So while this disc squeezes four songs into less than nine minutes, one of them is an excerpt from their new album (Under the Bushes Under the Stars, which I'll get to in an issue or two), making this, at least in format, a pretty normal single. "The Official Ironmen Rally Song" itself was produced by Kim Deal, and it finds the band restraining their usual perverse low-fi tendencies just long enough to get through a three-minute pop song. The other three songs, predictably, compensate for this deadpan compromise. In the first half of "Deaf Ears" the guitar and vocal parts sound like they were recorded through a cheap clock radio, and the second half of the song improves things only by sounding like the band is playing at the other end of the cavernous appliance store in which the clock radio was purchased. "Why Did You Land?" is merely thin, a general wash of saturated-tape distortion permeating a song based around some insistent one-note guitar drones, and asking the good, if generic, question "You were always so in love with the truth, / Why did you change? / Why did you land?" And "June Salutes You!" has Byrdsy twang and bounce that fade into an acidic guitar storm, which mostly obscures Kim's backing-vocal performance. Given how many GbV songs you get on their albums (24, this time), you're to be forgiven if you choose not to dig for these extra ones, but for those of us who have signed up for the complete catalog, this is one of the more rewarding footnotes.
Guided by Voices / New Radiant Storm King: The Opposing Engineer Sleeps Alone / I Am a Scientist
Somewhat less significant, I think, is this vinyl split-single, on which GbV performs a song originally written by New Radiant Storm King, who return the favor by covering "I Am a Scientist" on the flip side. "The Opposing Engineer Sleeps Alone", despite a GbV-sounding title, doesn't have nearly the pop punch of Pollard's material, while NRSK, in their turn, don't impress me by doing anything extraordinary with "I Am a Scientist" other than demonstrating that it holds up about as well under out-of-tune singing as it does under deliberate low-fi aural obfuscation.
McRackins: Life, Hey Mikey
McRackins are a Canadian punk-power-pop trio who sound a lot like Too Much Joy might if they weren't quite as overeducated, or like the Ramones might have if they had been a lot more hyperactive and cheerful. I've intended to review their album, In on the Yolk, in two different recent columns, only to run out of space, but I'll get to it yet. In the meantime, you can probably guess whether I liked it or not based on the fact that after hearing it I rushed out to buy whatever else I could find of theirs. This seven-inch single, from late last year some time, features a prototypical goofy McRackins sprint on the a-side, and two irrepressible covers on the reverse. Their version of Cheap Trick's "Surrender" is performed in a flat-out panic that turns the histrionic original into an invitation to shout yourself hoarse and pogo like a madman until somebody elbows you in the mouth. The cover of Scandal's "The Warrior" (another sign of public nostalgia catching up with my own version) is very slightly slower, but uses an even more demented call-and-response rendition of the vocals that makes the end result sound more like "City Baby Attacked by Rats" than like Patty Smyth's ultra-polished studio-pop.
Permanent Green Light: You Are the Queen of Market Street
The last thing on my pending-vinyl pile, again from last fall, is the latest single from Permanent Green Light, the band that Michael Quercio formed after the demise of The Three O'Clock and his short tenure in the final line-up of Game Theory. Quercio's squeaky voice tends to either captivate people or make them wince dramatically, so while Permanent Green Light's charged power-pop-trio musical style doesn't have a whole lot to do with The Three O'Clock's baroque neo-psychedelia, I rather suspect that the two bands' fan bases aren't going to differ much. In a sense PGL can be thought of as Quercio's parallel to Scott Miller's post-Game Theory course with the Loud Family, with the instrumental simplification that you'd expect from PGL only being a trio. "You Are the Queen of Market Street" is strained and earnest in Michael's inimitable fashion, while the b-side, "Together", is rawer, louder rock, with even a bit of guitar-solo jamming.
We Know Where You Live: Don't Be Too Honest
Speaking of post-, We Know Where You Live is the resurfacing of three fifths of the Wonder Stuff (minus magnetic frontman Miles Hunt and impish violinist Martin Bell) with the addition of new vocalist (I presume that's him singing, anyway) Ange Dolittle. "Don't Be Too Honest", the lead track, is a dark, bruising, bass-heavy workout that, except for the catchy "too too too" bits in the chorus and the half-rap bridge in the middle, doesn't sound entirely unlike Stone Temple Pilots. The third track, a demo called "Excuse Me?", is a storming thing whose guitar riff reminds me distinctly of Jane's Addiction. Lest there be doubt here, I do not like Stone Temple Pilots or Jane's Addiction, so these resemblances are not exactly welcome.
I'm a lot more intrigued by the song in the middle, though, a very Wonder Stuffian acoustic version of a song called "Confessions of a Thug", with a gorgeous melody, airy harmony, sparkling guitar, shuffling drums and a healthy dose of sneering cynicism. If I were advising this bunch, I'd encourage them to stick to acoustic versions of everything, and think about getting another violinist, too. I didn't think the Wonder Stuff exhausted the potential of their "Caught in My Shadow" folk-acoustic stage, and I'm still hoping somebody will go back and finish exploring it.
Echobelly: Dark Therapy
Echobelly continues the series of singles from their fine album On with this one-part for "Dark Therapy". The title song has been remixed and enhanced for the occasion, and is now even darker and more ominous than on album, with some especially somber cello by Audrey Riley. The three b-sides are, to me, their strongest single-set yet. "We Know Better" rides on crashing cymbals, a growling (and vaguely Western) guitar riff, and some clanging guest piano. The dreamy "Atom" finds Sonya Aurora Madan harmonizing with herself languidly, over strummed acoustic guitar, stately piano and some detached violin-sounding thing (processed slide guitar, if I had to guess). The prize here, though, is "Aloha Lolita", the concluding track, a vigorous rock stomp driven by a sawing Elastica-like guitar-and-vocal unison in the verses, and a soaring chorus that almost rivals the chorus of "Insomniac", my vote for Echobelly's most perfect moment. Echobelly's songs don't mean anything non-musical to me at all, and I feel somewhat self-conscious about that, especially in a column that began so mired in cultural angst, but every once in a while even I need to shut the hell up and play air guitar.
The Cardigans: Rise & Shine
The Cardigans second album, Life, which I reviewed ages ago, was finally released in the US recently, so even those of you living in import-deprived areas (for whom I have this concise advice: move) can now decide for yourselves whether their chirpy brand of lounge-jazz-girl-group pop is naively charming or the most annoyingly calculated cultural regression since some greedy idiot with a warehouse full of them decided that bell-bottoms ought to make a comeback. Meanwhile, elsewhere in the world, the band continues to emit a trail of singles by which to track them. "Rise and Shine" is an odd choice for the new one, since the song was one of several reprised on the for-export editions of Life from their first album, Emmerdale, but if you're going to fault the Cardigans for looking back a couple years to pick a single, then you're going to hate how far back they look to pick a musical style, and the whole question will be decidedly moot. The first b-side here is "Pike Bubbles" (yes, it does say "Pike"), a slight piece with a few more carnival noises than most of the songs on Life, but otherwise not particularly unusual Cardigans fare. The second, though, is a classic, an unselfconsciously cheesy sixteen-minute solo-piano medley of pretty much the entire Cardigans repertoire, under the fitting title of "Cocktail Party Bloody Cocktail Party", complete with the sounds of such a thing (including desultory applause, dropped glasses, and somebody threatening to sit down at the band's drums) going on in the background of the recording. I can't decide whether this explicit acknowledgment of how well the band's songs serve as easy-listening background filler should be an argument in their defense or one to the opposite end, but I do observe that after a quarter of an hour of this, I'm desperately hungry for hors d'oeuvres, and beginning to get peevish that there's nobody else in my apartment to bring me any.
Roxette: June Afternoon
And to end with pop in what I think of as its purest form, although EMI keeps delaying the US release of Roxette's greatest-hits album for reasons that I cannot begin to fathom (if Janet Jackson could sell a best-of, surely Roxette could make another small mint, yes?), they're still putting out singles out in the real world, and this one for "June Afternoon", another of the new songs on Don't Bore Us, Get to the Chorus!, has made its way from Germany to me. "June Afternoon", with its giddy references to green tambourines and totally pointless "Wah Wah!" in the chorus, is a typically ebullient Roxette song, which in my mind was only narrowly edged out by "She Don't Live Here Anymore" for last year's best-song honors. It's here in both final and 1994 demo form, accompanied by a 1990 demo for a Marie-driven eighties-arena-rock-sounding song called "Seduce Me", which as best as I can tell is appearing here for the first time. Given that Roxette songs usually sound like they spent long enough in post-production for whole civilizations of giant tortoises to flourish and crumble, you might figure that demo versions of their songs would sound quite different. The amazing and frightening truth, as these are not the first recordings to demonstrate (see their travelogue miscellany Tourism for further evidence), is that Roxette songs have that glistening studio finish from the moment they emerge from Per Gessle's head, if not before then. It's patently unfair to the rest of the music-producing world, but it makes me far too happy to care, and if nothing else at least it keeps the giant tortoise toll to a minimum.