Iridescent and Strange
63 · 11 April 96
Curious Ritual: God Hilliard
There was a time, as hard as this sometimes now is to credit, when my experience of music wasn't nearly this deliberate. As a sophomore in high school, just discovering that there was more to rock and roll than Double Vision and Glass Houses, I still spent as much time as I could manage listening to records, but I didn't analyze them and I didn't collect them, I just listened. The primary tutors in my nascent New Wave education were the illicit post-bedtime two hours, Sunday night, during which George Gimarc's The Rock and Roll Alternative interrupted what seems in retrospect to have been Dallas radio's otherwise impregnable wall of Foghat and Molly Hatchet songs, though intellectually I know that there must have been a few later-day Moody Blues interludes thrown in, else how would I remember the chorus to "Gemini Dream" so vividly after all these years? Lying there in the dark, trying to sink my head far enough into my pillows that my parents, if they decided to audit my state, would not notice the comically enormous headphones I was wearing, as each new song began my heart would leap towards it, in love with every foreign sound, and with newness and foreignness themselves, talismans that ever hold sway over suburban youth in whose lives a lack of real physical danger leaves a void.
As I approach 30, I find that music doesn't make me feel that way nearly as often. The kind of music that George would play for two hours a week is now playing 24 hours a day on two different radio stations here in Boston, but listening has lost its innocent thrill. The instinctive gesture with which I now greet a new song is a hand motion toward the station presets, a maneuver practiced from long experience that teaches us that 80% of WFNX's playlist will always consist of incessant repetitions of some small set of songs I quickly come to abhor. Hearing a new song that I like is now unexpected, and a relative rarity. Probably it was then, too, especially during the months when George became obsessed with rockabilly and cowpunk, but memory glosses over those, and the edited version of my youth that I now hear in rewind is a not-available-in-stores collection of Gardening by Moonlight remixes, Alarm b-sides, the Bangles' theme song, 999's "Homicide", Rupert Hine and some songs -- "101 Damnations"? "Ghost Shirt"? -- whose authors' names are lost to me now. My current experience of music is in many ways richer, else I would quickly find another use for the hours each week this column takes me, but there's still a piece of me that misses that old feeling of receptivity, when each fadeout could be the world inhaling to tell me something earth-shattering or uncanny.
I dreamed about having my own band back then, too. I couldn't play anything (well, cello, but it would never have occurred to me to use that in a rock band, ELO notwithstanding), and my singing, which is none too good now, was then firmly mired somewhere in execrable, but that was not only not a deterrent to my daydreams, it wasn't even relevant. I didn't dream of the activity, or even of the result; I dreamed of the effect. I'm sure I couldn't have explained this at the time, but I now understand, I think, that what I hoped someday to do was to be the agent of somebody else feeling the way the records George spun made me feel. I wanted to sound like nothing in particular, to be somebody else's late-night alienness. I wanted to be involved in something that sped hearts. And I still do, even more passionately now that I see how hard it's become for music, filtered through my layers of analytical armor, to speed mine.
Despite the long periods of musical- and self-analysis I indulge myself in (and burden you with) weekly, this thread of realization only occurred to me recently. I can pinpoint the exact moment, actually, and the precise catalyst. I was driving back from somewhere, late at night, listening to Juanita the Scene Queen's local-music radio show, Boston Rocks, and just as I pulled into my building's parking lot, she put on "Filigree", the opening track from Curious Ritual's first full-length album, God Hilliard. I edged into my space, shut off the headlights, and started to switch off the ignition. Halfway into the motion, though, the song reached my brain, and my hand twitched involuntarily off the key. Providentially, owing to the way ignitions are designed, the timing of this twitch meant that the engine shut off, but the radio kept playing. And so there I sat, in my car in the dark, while the song finished. The next day I bought the album.
God Hilliard, though I realize how hard it will be to figure out what this reaction of mine should mean for anybody else, is the record that the band in my uncodified teenaged dreams would have made, had they existed. They would have searched for foreignness, that band, and not actually being foreign (an unfair advantage that I'm sure explains my Anglo- and Celtophilias), they would have had to find it in themselves. At that age there would have been little danger of our falling into genre cliches, my imaginary bandmates and I, because we would have been far too incompetent to reproduce anybody else's style even if we'd wanted to. And so, out of our inexperience and our sincerity, something awkward and, because this is dreams, charming, would have emerged.
And that's what this record sounds like to me. If you approach it with a hammer, a grim expression, and a large collection of neatly labeled square holes, you could probably manage to pound it into some of the ones in between Curve and the Cocteau Twins, where gothic fascination weaves intricate designs into thick ethereal ambience, and intense reserve duels with cathartic electric drive in a struggle that leaves the distorted guitars churning at about half speed, the drums crashing like the expiration of something that never could dance, and the singer wailing in a voice that drifts across to us from a universe that does not always share time-sync and scale-tuning with our own. The atmosphere is dense, the tempo that of a furious dream in which you are constantly overtaken, though you yourself cannot run. Guitar feedback and resonance swell like the breathing of a beast long thought mythical, perhaps not least by itself. The words, like "filigree", are more ligature than glyph, but in the artless way that you or I might become cryptic from having to concentrate too hard on singing the right notes, not the deliberate way Elizabeth Fraser turns her lyrics into an invented language. Songs move with an unhurried lava-lamp-like fluidity, yet never lose their forward momentum. Kramer's production treats disharmony and incidental sonic clashing with as much reverence as the melody, with the result that the moments of pure harmony rise out of the wash as if natural forces have suddenly aligned of their own accord. And at times you can even hear the subconscious legacies both of Boston's cohesive goth-purist subculture and of the Allston-basement-rehearsal aesthetic of the city's mainstream local-music community.
But none of that is why I love it. Described in this dissected way, it doesn't sound magical, but then you never do find magic that way. I love it because it speeds my heart, it reawakens some parts of me I'd forgotten about, and, while it's playing, it makes me stop thinking about a whole bunch of things that I badly needed 41 minutes away from. Will anybody but me hear this album like I do? I don't know. Your move.
Curious Ritual and Elixir shared a split seven-inch a few months ago. Elixir's song, "Rev", appears on this, which I believe to be their first full album, as well. Sickwell doesn't plunge me into a reverie the way God Hilliard does, but maybe that means I'll be able to say something more coherent about it.
The two bands, while different, share enough that they make a sensible double bill. Kramer produced some of this album, too, and I attribute a certain common aural distance to him, as well as some of the texture of the guitar roar, even if Elixir's version is much more direct than Curious Ritual's. Where God Hilliard seems a product of its own world to me, though, Sickwell's mortal antecedents seem more obvious. The charging guitars, breathy female backing vocals and some of the instrumental drop-outs all remind me strongly of the Pixies, especially in combination, as in the explosively mumbled choruses of "Suckerpunch", though Elixir are generally far less demented about it. Michael Gaita's lead vocals strike me as an odd cross between Black Francis, the stentorian howl of Catherine Wheel, and the plainer vocal style of Big Dipper, and perhaps a tiny bit of Bauhaus' Peter Murphy. There's a sort of animating awkwardness to the proceedings that helps the band transcend their influences, and perhaps that's why I keep thinking that this record may be the one that I wanted Smackmelon's Blue Hour to be, even though this one is substantially less ambitious, technically, than Smackmelon's, and Elixir's lyrics also seem basically space-filling, which was the thing that, at the time, I thought bothered me most about Blue Hour. If I have a reservation, and I guess I do since I'm mentioning it, it's that I half suspect that this is one of those records that every city with a music scene generates by the dozens, and although I like and support Boston music that's this good, I know that if Elixir were from Chicago I'd be hard-pressed to find time for them. If you don't have a local music scene of your own, though, you could do worse than to adopt Boston's. And if you do, there's probably a conversion chart somewhere on the Web that explains what you should buy instead of this.
Tower Records sometimes slips random promotional cassettes into the bags they put your stuff in. My first reaction, upon finding this one there when I got home from a record-shopping expedition recently, was that if I wanted to hear random crap, I'd just turn on the radio. Flipping through the little stack of stickers, gig-announcements and other assorted promotional material that shared the ziplock bag with the cassette, though, I came upon a breathtaking detail: amidst all the other contact info, related as if there was nothing unusual about it at all, was a sentence inviting readers to join Fledgling's email list by dropping an email to, and here's where my jaw dropped, an address ending "@ichange.com".
Now, quite possibly, that domain name didn't affect you the way it affected me. If that is so, it is probably because, unlike me, you haven't spent most of your weekdays for the last four years of your life designing Interchange, the proprietary online service to which that domain name is attached, which is in the process of collecting epithets like "ill-fated", "mistimed", "over-ambitious" and "well-conceived, but...", on its way to being shut down later this year, without ever really having gotten convincingly underway. For my own part, I've kept these two phases of my existence about as separate as I can manage, and though my life with music, as it's largely indistinguishable from just my life, period, seeps unavoidably into my life with software design, this is a decidedly unusual example of the reverse process, my work life leaking into my music life through no action of my own. All of which probably means nothing to you, but it got me to listen to the tape.
And once I'd put the tape on, the song, the somewhat inauspiciously-titled "See Dick Drown", took charge of the situation. Muted guitar harmonics count off the intro, after which an irresistible (at least, I couldn't resist it) guitar hook over a bed of surging rhythm guitar, bass and slow, whip-crack drums ushers in Eileen Rose's possessed wail. A quizzical expression came over my face, and I had to go find an Eve's Plum CD to make sure that these weren't the same people. They aren't. So I bought their record.
After listening to Fledgling a few more times, I don't think I'm likely to mistake them for Eve's Plum any more, but the two bands are certainly close enough to constitute the nucleus of an embryonic subgenre, if there sort of wasn't one already. Fledgling are darker and a little slower than Eve's Plum, perhaps substituting a little more Curve into the recipe, in place of some of Eve's Plum's cheerier pop urges, and some Boston raw-guitar-centricity, in place of Eve's Plum's more processed guitar sound. In addition to the obvious Toni Halliday and Colleen Fitzpatrick comparisons, Rose also reminds me of Throwing Muses' Kristin Hersh at times, of Christina Amphlett at others, and even of an early Kate Bush for a note or two, and in the slower stretches the band even sounds a little like Four Non-Blondes.
All of which would tell me where to put this CD on my shelves, but so far it hasn't got past my heavy rotation pile. Where my love for Curve is almost entirely textural, Fledgling balances their overall sound with a talent for details that I'm not sure I'd call songwriting, exactly, but which serves a similar purpose. The vocal octave shifts in "O.C.D."; the slow crescendo of "Cold Here Now"; "Red Messiah"'s roiling bass line; the way Eileen, in "Red Messiah", shifts the stress on the word "better" to the second syllable, rendering "We deserve better" almost unrecognizable; the deliberate rumble of "Well Read Boy"'s drums; the delicate evocation "From Jimi to Jesus"; the wild release of "What If I'm Right": these things distinguish songs in my mind, and make this an album I return to for more than merely its atmosphere. "See Dick Drown" remains my favorite song, and perhaps the only one I like so much that I stop picking it apart, but if you can build a house on a frame, you can certainly make an album out of moments like these.
Tracy Bonham: The Burdens of Being Upright
The Boston album I'd been looking forward to, before Curious Ritual, Elixir and Fledgling inserted themselves into my life, was this one, Tracy's major-label debut and full-length follow-up to last year's CherryDisc EP The Liverpool Sessions. This is where I expected to find out whether her buoyant and muscular hit "The One", from 1994's Girl compilation, was an aberration or a portent.
For me, at least, it's some of both. On the one hand, this album does have "The One" on it. Pounding drums and a wall of guitars carry Tracy through its soaring chorus, and then abandon her to an eerie violin whine for the verses, thus combining "Smells Like Teen Spirit"'s loud-soft trick, a little bit of sonic weirdness for spice, and a solid melody that probably has "Ways to Be Wicked" somewhere in its ancestral tree. It's a masterful pop moment, and should be enough to sell copies of this to at least anybody who owns both Nevermind and Relish.
Past that, though, things get shaky pretty quickly. I enjoy the simplistic power-pop sprint "Bulldog", and there are pretty parts in "Navy Bean" and "Every Breath", and arrestingly ugly parts in "Mother Mother", but for me the rest of it is about a half an hour in search of a musical soul. Too many of these songs feel like a series of sounds that has the general silhouette of a musical compositions, but none of the internal organs of one. Tracy herself is a violin player, and she has a tendency to sing with violin-like phrasing, as well, but not much use is made of either of these quirks on the album, as if label strategists spooked by a few too many harrowing Lisa Germano songs decided that the violin was too scary, and just kept turning up the guitars until you couldn't hear it any more. It's a loud album, and an aggressive one, and these are both traits in vogue, but I wanted something more from it. On the other hand, at least one critic friend of mine thought this album was brilliant, so in the end I think The Burdens of Being Upright and Fledgling are probably a fair match: both trade, more or less, on general presence, and while I like one, you might like the other.
I'll end this collection of Boston releases with one that, if nothing else, will be an indispensable tool for anybody trying to follow the local music scene here without actually living within earshot. Pipeline!, the radio show, is a live-music series on local station WMBR. Pipeline!, the compilation, crams in-studio recordings from 40 different Boston bands onto two discs. As is to be expected from such an effort, the level of quality is a little uneven, and I suspect many people will feel, after getting through the entire two-and-a-half hours, that one disc would have been plenty. We'd never be able to agree on which 20 to cut, though, so putting out 40 and letting the listener program out what they don't want makes a certain sense. If I'm doing the programming, I definitely keep Anastasia Screamed's long 1990 rendition of Television's "Marquee Moon", all three Duke Roth bands (King Moon Razor, Bullet LaVolta and Smackmelon), and the tracks by the Dambuilders, Lou Barlow, The Queers (a great Boston anthem called "I Met Her at the Rat"), Buffalo Tom, Flying Nuns and the Upper Crust. The most important moments for me, though, are three old ones by dearly-missed Boston bands: a 1989 visit by the Cavedogs, to do "Leave Me Alone"; the Bags, in their Swamp Oaf alter-ego disguise (convincing on the album cover, but pretty transparent on radio, it has to be admitted), doing "Wail"; and the Zulus' "High Tide".
The Bags' appearance is especially precious to me because it prompted them to reform, for a night, to play at the release party for this compilation. I've seen the Bags play live more times than I have any other band, possibly by a factor of two. Part of the reason for this is that I liked them a lot, and part of the reason is that for four years I lived with their guitarist's sister. This show, then, was both an unlooked-for musical gift, and an unexpected visit to a community of my past. As my ex-girlfriend's brother's ex-wife and I exchanged glances, and I found a place in front of the stage between the bassist's sister, herself her brother's band's guitarist's ex-wife's ex-roommate, and a dark-haired woman to whom I've never spoken a word, but with whom I've shared perhaps a dozen fronts of stages, I realized that I wasn't the only person experiencing this show in two ways. We were all, it suddenly seemed to me, present as much for what coming meant as for what it got us. We are a part of the communities we have left, as sure as we are a part of the ones we're still in. The challenge is to keep them all alive in your own mind, not to live in the past or deny it, but to live in the whole of your life, to make the person you were and the person you are part of the same being.
And then the music started, and the mosh fell, quickly, upon all the living and the dead.