The Translators Aren't Sure They Understand This Language
65 · 25 April 96
2 Foot Flame: 2 Foot Flame
The Middle East, in Cambridge, doesn't look like a rock and roll venue. From the outside, it looks like a Middle Eastern restaurant. Actually, because there are several entrances, it looks like several Middle Eastern restaurants. It continues looking like a Middle Eastern restaurant after you go inside, too. There's something about the tables everywhere, and the waitresses bustling around with plates of falafel and baba ganouj, that gives an elusive restauranty quality to the space.
If you go in the leftmost front door, though, and push your way past the diners, you will eventually locate a little alcove at the back where a slightly bored-looking person will take a small amount of your money, stamp something indelible and unintelligible on the back of your hand, and then sit there silently, waiting to see whether you're enough of a regular to know that your next move should be to open the grimy white door to your right and go through it. Once you pass through, there's a bar ahead of you, the restaurant's kitchen to your right, and an alcove to your left that leads to the small windowless room known as Upstairs at the Middle East, to distinguish it from the rather larger converted bowling alley that is Downstairs at the Middle East (also reached by pushing past diners, but you have to begin at a different front door). The mismatched wall and ceiling segments make this space look less constructed than implied, as if this was what was left after the construction above, below and on all sides of it was completed, only discovered by the puzzled tenants when somebody accidentally punched a hole in a connecting wall and discovered the inexplicable dead space behind it.
It was here that, last week, I experienced a defining rock and roll moment. 2 Foot Flame had just taken the stage, such as it is, for their opening-act set. The crowd greeted them eagerly. Yes, admittedly, the crowd contained only six people, and yes, from overhearing conversations later I was able to discern that the other five had personal connections to the band, and I should admit that even I, the sixth, hadn't actually heard any 2 Foot Flame music prior to my arrival, but we all greeted the band eagerly, just the same. They started to play. About halfway through the second or third song, a piece that consisted of a single subtly throbbing synthesizer note, over which a woman recited some disjointed text that formed neither a narrative nor a melody, while a guitarist coaxed seemingly random squeaking noises out of his guitar, one of the cooks came out of the kitchen, bound on some restauranterial errand. Just as he turned to open the grimy white door, the noise from the stage seemed to reach him for the first time, and a look came over his face that combined quizzical and terrified in the way that a perfectionistic ballistics expert might regard a bullet of unknown type speeding toward his own forehead. He didn't say a word, but as countless other faces have asked about countless other bands in countless other spaces, his asked, in honest confusion, "What the hell is that?" And there, in that question, something vital is revealed about the soul of rock and roll. Any music that can't make at least somebody say "What the hell is that?", to me can hardly be rock. And vice versa, anything that makes people grimace uncomfortably has got to have at least a little of the spirit of rock in it.
As 2 Foot Flame demonstrates amply, though, there's a world of difference between "a little of the spirit of rock" and the playlist of your local Classic Cuts station. 2 Foot Flame is a side-project of sorts for Mecca Normal singer Jean Smith, and occasional Mecca Normal drummer and producer Peter Jefferies. On the album they are joined by guitarist Michael Morley, but for the purposes of efficient touring Mecca Normal guitarist David Lester stands in for him, making the live incarnation of 2 Foot Flame identical, personnel-wise, to the current touring version of Mecca Normal. Mecca Normal songs can be rather abrasive and inaccessible, but they are practically Abba compared to 2 Foot Flame songs. "Lindauer" consists of a relentless droning noise that is only barely pitched enough that you can tell when it jumps up or down a note at widely separated intervals. "To the Sea" sounds quite a bit like a recording of somebody vacuuming that was made with the mic gain cranked up way too high. "Already Waiting" mixes its bursts of arbitrary noise with some simmering guitar feedback, a slow and monotonous drum booming, and a piano part that sounds like a learning exercise out of volume one of "Teach Your Child Not to Just Bang on the Piano With Closed Fists". "Mr. H" takes a death-march drum tattoo and pairs it with a rumbling ambient hum. Over all of these Jean speaks oblique texts in a deadpan monotone.
Things then pick up just a little. "Reinvention" has a piano part with several different notes in it, no bursts of noise, and Jean nearly singing her words. This isn't quite "Happy Phantom", but it does at least sound like what might result from somebody inadvertently sitting on most of the console's mute buttons during mix-down for a This Mortal Coil song. "Compass"' piano is even less lethargic, and Smith switches out of her buzzsaw-against-your-temple vocal mode for a few uncharacteristic minutes. On "The Arbitrator" Jefferies plays a recognizable kick-snare pattern (calling it a "groove" might be stretching things) and the churning synthesizer part has a certain gothic danceability, even though the howling static that pervades the song renders the whole piece decidedly unsuited for club use.
But then, just when you think glimmers of light might be peeking through, you hit the ten-minute "Cordoned Off", in which bursts of white noise reassert their preeminence in the arrangement, and Smith works her deliberate way through a sinister, disjointed and practically Dhalgren-esque semi-narrative about, well, if I could explain concisely what it is about, I wouldn't have called it Dhalgren-esque. There's a fire of some sort, and some swans, but I can't quite tell whether the swans are being rescued from the fire, or being held by the police on the suspicion that they are arsonists. And then the album ends with "Chisel", in which an unvarying descending four-note guitar line provides the only context for, oddly, Smith's most Mecca Normal-like vocal part.
What you will make of this album, I don't know. But let me not be coy, I do have a strong suspicion. I suspect that you, most of you, will think it is awful. You will point out, and on this particular you're unlikely to get much argument, that calling the creative process that went into these recordings "songwriting" is like calling the gluing of a pair of combat boots to a microwave oven "sculpture". Having quickly abandoned hope of finding anything catchy here, you will scan the disc for something even remotely approachable, and when this proves fruitless, you will calmly remove the CD from your player, calmly replace it in its tray, and calmly pitch the whole assembly either into a waste bin or out of a window, whichever is closer to hand. Searching for a positive spin to the experience, you will come up with nothing better than "Well, at least that's one less of those damn Matador cardboard CD-cases that I have to deal with", and you will resolve, the next time you're in a Middle Eastern restaurant, to buy the falafel chef a case of whatever he likes best. That, statistically speaking, is my prediction, so if you buy this and hate it, please remember how I thought you might, in such astonishingly accurate detail, and please don't stop reading my reviews out of disgust at my execrable taste.
Because actually, I like this album quite a bit. To me, gluing combat boots to a microwave oven is sculpture. The genius in this record is not in its craftsmanship, it's in its nerve. It is in the moment when Peter, Michael and Jean first played it for somebody, listened to their reaction, and then said "No, it's supposed to sound like that." This is not pop music, it's a piece of conceptual modern art that just happens to be in aural form. Mecca Normal are personal heroes of mine partially because they insist that a song can be made from many fewer ingredients than most recipes require, and 2 Foot Flame extend this hypothesis past band composition to musical structure.
Mecca Normal: The Eagle and the Poodle
The other reason I like 2 Foot Flame is that the project seems to have had an intriguing effect on the new Mecca Normal album. This is solely my own speculation, but as I listen to The Eagle and the Poodle it seems to me like Mecca Normal have let 2 Foot Flame drain off some of their pricklier tendencies, so that their own new album can be more musical without the balance of nature being upset in the aggregate. In concert, certainly, the contrast between the two sets is breathtaking. An outsider observing the 2 Foot Flame set might plausibly have speculated that the appreciative audience were engaged in an ironic bit of performance art, but Mecca Normal played like a rock band.
The album parallels this development. Jefferies, who also produces, plays drums on most of the songs, and this in itself gives the record a very different feel than earlier Mecca Normal ones, which mostly consist of just Lester playing guitar and Smith singing. The most dramatic examples of this are "The Revival of Cruelty", "Now That You're Here" and "Drive At", where Jefferies leans into propulsive drumming in the classic hi-hat/kick/snare mold. Lester's guitar progressions, when he gets in the right frame of mind, have a driving early-Jam-like intensity, and when Smith wants to stay on notes her preternatural wail is a potent musical force. The band is also quite willing, once they've found a passage they like, to just hammer it into the crest of your skull over and over again, and while this can be wearying if they settle on something whose appeal eludes you, when they do it with a rock hook it makes for songs that are all chorus or, even better, wholly constructed of those electrifying moments right when the chorus crashes in. When I play guitar I find some cool chords, but I always seem to have to play some less cool ones in order to set the cool ones up. Lester has learned, somehow, how to circumvent this requirement, and some of these songs consist entirely of the cool chords. I watched him closely, in concert, but still couldn't figure out how he does this. Maybe he tunes differently.
There are also several songs here that are as unusually elegant as the rock songs are appealing. The guitar line in "Breathing in the Dark", the b-side of their 1995 single "The Bird That Wouldn't Fly", circles warily around Jean's vocal, and a spare piano accompaniment gives the song an almost dreamlike fade-out at the end. "Rigid Man in an Ice Age" sounds ever so slightly like a quiet Belly tune. The acoustic guitar on "Kingdom Without Weather" could be a PBS between-program interlude, and though Jean's double-tracked vocals do some of her trademark fractional detuning, the pretty resolutions at the ends of the verses come closer to nature-footage restraint. Lester's guitar part on "When You Know", a complicated finger-picked melody done with a bagpipe-like chord-root drone, is mesmerizing, and Jean complements it with a melody that also has some bagpipe-ish phrasing to it.
The lyrics on this album are also particularly impressive, I think, even for Mecca Normal. Jean Smith is a writer, as well as a songwriter (I bought a copy of her short-story collection, I Can Hear Me Fine, at the show, but I won't tell you how it is because A, this is a music-review column, not a book-review column, and B, I haven't read it yet), and many of these songs have prose touches that you don't often get in lyrics. I particularly like the details of the domestic stasis in "Her Ambition" ("He built things that other people wanted", "She finds a token of her ambition and rolls it in her hands"), the catalog of failed assaults on a closed structure in "When You Build a House Without Doors", the cries of "Socrates!" and "Write your own damn anthem" in "Prize Arm", the paranoia of "Cave In" ("Coaxing impostors to call the Rival Theories Hotline"), and just about everything in "Mrs. McGillvary" (especially "God was so tired of kicking Miss Whitely every time she let her guard down. Miss Whitely was even tireder than God."). Every once in a while, like in "Longevity starburst, anti-design, whiting out the typos, fish without arms fly around the room", she skids into verbal over-engineering, or perhaps I just lose her, but I'd much rather see people try too hard than see them not try hard enough.
And those of you who liked Mecca Normal's usual style, to begin with, need not fear either, as there are several songs of that, too. Still, it is the infusion of other modes that makes this, for me, perhaps the one Mecca Normal album that doesn't merge with their others in my mind, simply because the others are so much more like each other than they are like anything else. Perhaps bizarrely, however, this doesn't lead me to recommend this as a starting point for people new to Mecca Normal. There are too many easy songs on this album, and I worry that newcomers will focus on those, and write the others off as "not as good". If you start with Dovetail, for example, instead, you'll either have to reconcile yourself to Mecca Normal's aesthetic whole, or give up, and either way you'll then be much better prepared to either deal with the rest of their canon, or decide not to.
Guided by Voices: Under the Bushes Under the Stars
The cardboard cases Matador has taken to shipping everything in are an affectation I wish they'd dispense with. They don't wear well, they aren't replaceable and, perhaps of less consequence to most people than to me, they do not really enjoy being buried under tall piles of other CDs. While I'm liberating these cases from the lower levels of my to-be-reviewed stack, then, my other pending Matador release is the new album by Guided by Voices, the grand masters of cryptic, fragmentary, low-fi pop songs.
To an extent, Under the Bushes Under the Stars is just yet another awe-inspiringly brilliant Guided by Voices album. But that won't help those of you who haven't heard the other brilliant GbV albums at all, and even for the rest of us there's more to this record than "just another" GbV album. To explain what's different about it I'm going to have to do a somewhat detailed exegesis of what I mean by "cryptic, fragmentary, low-fi pop songs", since that phrase conflates at least six different GbV characteristics, several of which this album exhibits to different degrees than previous albums.
I'll start with "pop songs". "Pop" is a widely abused term, routinely applied by different factions to artists as unrelated as Michael Jackson, Ace of Base, Roxette, Big Star, the Beatles, the Ramones and the Style Council. We're all reluctant to back away from it, I think, because in some way it seems to represent something critical and central in Western popular music, and nobody is willing to surrender their claim to it. At some point in the dim past it was an abbreviation for "popular", but it has long since taken on more shades of its onomatopoeic and soda meanings, and come to represent the crisp, effervescent, refreshing element of music. "Pop", the way I use it, is the fun part of our musical spectrum, just as "art" is the part that seeks to instantiate the universal, "rock" is the part that attempts to shake you, "punk" is the part that tries to shock you, "folk" is the part that tries to sit you down and tell you a story, "agit-" is the part that tries to make you salute something or put a torch to it, and so on. Infectious melodies, cheerful lyrics and general impishness are all quick routes to "pop" in my mind, though they don't have to be combined. When I say that Guided by Voices does pop songs, I mean that they do songs where catchy melodies are the most prominent elements. This is a different sort of claim applied to GbV, where there are a bunch of other elements competing for the "most prominent" distinction, than it is applied to Roxette, where just about everything about the music is focused explicitly on the melody, but the word means the same thing to me in both cases. The pop levels on Under the Bushes Under the Stars, then, are as high as on anything else the band has done, though perhaps not much higher, if only because Bee Thousand, at least, showed a mastery of melody-crafting that history itself will be lucky to surpass.
The hidden converse of calling GbV pop, though, is that it's a simplification that obscures GbV's rock tendencies. This hasn't been of paramount importance in discussing their recorded work up until now, but people who've seen the band play live have discovered, often to their surprise, that GbV can drink themselves halfway to oblivion, play loud as hell, and tear the walls off a place as effectively as anybody. Under the Bushes Under the Stars marks, for me, the first effective and substantive translation of this component of GbV's personality to a recording, particularly in the slow stomp of "Lord of Overstock", the dense surge of "Your Name Is Wild", the steady bass throb of "Underwater Explosions", the thick distortion of "Big Boring Wedding", the rattling drums of "It's Like Soul Man" and the slashing guitar of "Sheetkickers".
The other overloaded term in my one-phrase summary of GbV is "low-fi", which is shorthand for two different things. First it refers to the audible effects of GbV's choice of recording technology. Their previous albums have been almost entirely recorded on home-studio gear not normally thought of as sufficient for commercial purposes, and although some of the tracks on this one were done in real studios, still many of them weren't. GbV have turned this from a liability to a trademark, and used the cheap gear both as part of their sound, and as inspiration to make their songwriting and performances as defiantly spontaneous as their technology.
The other thing I mean by "low-fi", though, is that GbV have often intentionally exaggerated the imperfections of their recording devices. They've mixed songs in strange ways that their gear didn't necessitate, intentionally distorted parts that could just as easily have been recorded cleanly, and kept takes that could have been redone, all of which has had the effect of taking the production of music, a component that people usually try to make invisible, and making it as much a part of the final work as the writing and the playing. And this sense of "low-fi" is much less applicable this time around. There are still some very odd-sounding bits, but there's not much perverse mismatching of volume levels, recording of vocals through stomp boxes, drastic amplification of tape hiss or deliberate juxtaposition of wildly different production styles within the course of a single song.
The GbV trait least in evidence on this album is their fondness for song fragments. On some of their previous records, if they had ten thirty-second ideas, they did ten thirty-second tracks and moved on. This time they've been much more diligent about developing ideas into coherent songs before recording them, with the result that most of these tracks are two or three minutes long, and only one is shorter than a minute. I'm a little sorry to see this, as the collage-ish nature of Bee Thousand, in particular, was one of the coolest things about it to me, but probably the more albums they made like that, the less cool each one would be, so I suspect this development is for the best.
My sixth GbV trait, Pollard's fondness for lyrical impenetrability and scientific allusion, survives totally unscathed into the current era, from the convoluted way he pronounces "aerodynamics" in the opening track to whatever it is he's saying about dirigibles in the concluding one. He can, admittedly, sometimes make songs sound like debugging output from a automatic Zen-koan generator, but even the inane ones are usually more interesting than pop's usual trysts and reconciliations, and I'd much rather have lyrics that, after thinking hard about them, I have to admit are meaningless than lyrics whose pointlessness is patently apparent the moment you hear them. If I have to go nowhere, at least give me a fast car and a twisty road to get there with. And a CD player.