Can't Contain the Joy
70 · 30 May 96
The Walker Brothers: The Collection
You will have a hard time finding somebody with a firmer faith in the state of modern music than mine. Yes, I was too young to experience the Beatles as anything other than history, and readers over thirty may shudder at the thought that anybody whose joyful musical adolescence consisted primarily of Boston, Rush and Blue Öyster Cult would have the temerity to write about music at such interminable length, but such is the transience of popular culture that every year that vanishes leaves me at least a year and a half wiser. Every year another few million sixteen-year-olds get their driver's licenses, which allows them to make trips to the record store without their prudent parents being aware of exactly how much dubiously acquired money they are consigning to the world's never-sated music industry, and with every sixteen-year-old who lingers by the listening station for half an hour trying to decide whether this week's overtime pay from the late shift at I Can't Believe It's Yogurt should go to Dookie or Sixteen Stone, my own now-twenty-nine-year-old's erratically assembled collection of musical knowledge begins to look that much more comprehensive. The more my span of musical awareness extends into the past, however, the more firmly I usually hold my conviction that the period in music we are currently living through is as vital and significant as any that have passed. I've been buying Who albums as MCA re-releases them, and I just got the first four Byrds albums (to pick a couple random examples), and there is some amazing music there, but I saw Jewel play the weekend before last, and I listened to Little Earthquakes and Solace again on a beautiful summer drive this past one, and I don't think we need to look back with envy. There is plenty of immortal music both being made, and still unsung.
Which all makes it that much more depressing for me when my belief in the relevancy of the present wavers for whatever reason. And scanning my stack of unreviewed releases this week, that's what I found happening. I hate the bleak singing on Richard Thompson's new album. I hate the muddled lounge-swing on Mark Eitzel's solo record. Pete and Maura Kennedy's new album left me empty, I filed Ani DiFranco's latest without a second listen, and everything on the new Killing Joke record sounded alike to me. I'm still trying to work up the enthusiasm to give the new Soundgarden disc a second chance. Maybe one of those will be Sgt. Pepper to you, but they bore me, and when music, which is usually the most reliable source of joy in my life, fails me, things are bleak in my world indeed.
And so there I was, sitting in my office, idly working a stack of extraneous CDs I'd just bought through the player while scouring the Net for a definitive policy statement about whether ampersands were allowable in HTML file names, when a friend who was resigning dropped in to say farewell, and in the middle of giving me his new email address, stopped, looked over at the CD player, and said "Wow, this is really good! What is it?"
What it was was this odd compilation, put together by German budget-reissue opportunists Karussell, of old Walker Brothers hits interspersed with some post-Brothers chart entries by John and Scott Walker. I only know of the Walker Brothers at all as the distant origin of Scott Walker, whose otherworldly 1995 album Tilt was number two on my year-end top ten. This album of gushingly sentimental, string-laden, overproduced mid-Sixties teen-idol show-pop is a world away from the unnerving, atmospheric, post-Industrial art-song style that Scott has arrived at, and until my surprised co-worker said "Wow", I wasn't really even processing this album as something I would like or dislike, but just as an footnotable bit of historical background that one day when I'm old I might think of a reason for knowing.
Once he broached the subject, however, I suddenly realized that, yeah, this is pretty cool. By modern standards it's preposterously melodramatic, unfashionably sincere and hilariously mannered, but melodrama, sincerity and poise are not necessarily qualities that mid-Nineties rock is wholly better off without. The goofy bittersweet farewell grandeur of "(Baby) You Don't Have to Tell Me" would, in the Nineties, lead to some violently recriminatory knife-twist comeback. The thundering timpani of "Everything Under the Sun" today would get swapped out for endless trebly techno loops by some North London DJ with a name like an E.E. Doc Smith villain. The lugubrious liturgical fanfare of "Archangel" would embarrass not only the Academy members who voted Grammys to those loathsome Lion King songs, but even the people who choreographed their awards-ceremony dance routines. But are we better off without them? Who today would have the nerve to do songs like "The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Anymore", "Land of 1000 Dances" or anything by Jacques Brel without their tongue jammed through the spindle hole of a sardonic mock-tribute album firmly implanted in their cheek? I'm not sure whether it's that no performers today would be able to release their irony tethers for long enough to essay songs like these, that the current media-glare environment in which pop music is made simply doesn't allow it, or perhaps even that how I experience music now prevents me from perceiving music this way without the cooperation of thirty years and a thick russet brocade curtain of obscurity draped over either it or me, or more likely both.
Whatever the reasons, this album ends up seeming strange and wonderful to me. The gentle trumpets, reindeer-harness tambourines, pealing church bells and sawing strings of "The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Anymore" are uplifting and solemn, and the heartfelt belief that love can change the fabric of the cosmos is, even stated as an apocalypse, incredibly encouraging. Scott's earnest reminiscence "Joanna" is all the more perfect for the glittery showbiz touches he graces it with, turning it into a pickup song for the next girl even as the words linger over his last one. The hilariously stiff rendition of "Stand by Me", closer to the Hardy Boys than Ben E. King, is endearing for precisely its clumsiness. John's "Annabella" sounds like somebody who can't really read sheet music attempting to perform "Eleanor Rigby" after a traveler from the future tried unsuccessfully to describe Big Star to him. I half suspect that just replacing the Urge Overkill songs in Pulp Fiction with increasingly strident versions of "Love Her" could have single-handedly turned the film into something in which John Travolta and Uma Thurman would have had to perform a synchronized swimming routine while costumed to look like enormous magnolia blossoms.
"Here Comes the Night", the Walker's version of edgy hot-rod menace, is about as frightening as the guy in the Wienermobile revving his engine beside you in a long toll-booth line. Their version of "People Get Ready" sounds like "Reunited", by Peaches and Herb. Scott's "Lights of Cincinatti" (that's how they spell it, twice; perhaps there's another one somewhere?) is as incongruous as the title sounds, and his florid Brel number, "Jackie", sounds like a misguided experiment in inserting Leonard Cohen songs into Neil Diamond's The Jazz Singer soundtrack. The brothers' "Land of 1000 Dances" is lost in an era where dance cards were not yet consigned to metaphor. John's "If I Promise" is such a clueless anticipation of solo Paul Simon that I just want to track the hapless mutt down today and hug him, and his "I'll Be Your Baby Tonight" so manhandles country guitar and Roy Orbison vocal tension that I quickly call back and cancel the plane tickets. "Living Above Your Head" sounds like somebody's old-country uncle doing "Queen of Hearts" karaoke. "In My Room" presages Yaz's song of the same name like Gregor Samsa prefigures the Incredible Hulk. And the pizzicato delicacy of "Stay With Me Baby" would be about as effective in restraining a departing woman today as tying her to the fence of your condominium complex using the strips of leftover paper from a de-paged spiral notebook.
It is music from a vanished era, and yet, through the miracle of back-catalog recycling, it can be our music, too, if we want it. The chances are that "we", in general, would rather sign up for enema research, but if the inexorable sludgetide of Cracker sound-alikes has sucked away your shoes and is working its way towards parts of your body you care more about, I offer you this unlikely escape.
Ian McNabb: Merseybeast + North West Coast
And once I regain enough equilibrium to reexamine my contemporary surroundings without quite as much presumed gloom, I discover that anachronistic salvation is also right here to hand (or is, at least, if your flailing hand makes contact with a diligent importer). Ian McNabb, for those in the audience impressed by my detailed firsthand knowledge of the early Eighties, was once the leader of the Icicle Works, a vastly underrated British band whose 1984 debut album produced a minor US hit in "Birds Fly (Whisper to a Scream)" (or, as helpfully translated by their US label for those of us not educated in the Queen's schools, "Whisper to a Scream (Birds Fly)"). The Icicle Works went on to make two of my favorite albums in the world, 1985's The Small Price of a Bicycle and 1987's If You Want to Defeat Your Enemy Sing His Song. Many critics would have rather they stopped there (if not sooner), but they continued with the loud and erratic Blind in 1988, and after McNabb sacked the other two thirds of the band the name expired with a 1990 album called Permanent Damage that I have to this day never seen a copy of on sale in the US. A good 1992 compilation, which I still see around, collected sixteen of the band's best moments on one disc, and a like number of their numerous, if more questionable, b-sides on another. And a 1994 release of a brilliant 1987 BBC concert recording (at least, I liked it a lot) provided a gratifying closure to the band's history.
What became of original rhythm section Chris Sharrock and Chris Layhe I have no idea, but McNabb reemerged in 1993 with an extremely band-of-one-ish solo album called Truth and Beauty. Instead of trying to reproduce the Icicle Works' percussive exuberance, McNabb opted to begin his solo career with a renewed emphasis on careful songcraft and uncluttered arrangements. "Great Dreams of Heaven" and "If Love Was Like Guitars" are classic pop songs, but the album's highlight for me is the twelve-minute finale, "Presence of the One", which manages to last that long without ever becoming boring or ostentatiously epic.
The first sign that the 1994 follow-up Head Like a Rock was going to be a different sort of album than Ian's previous work is the fact that four of the songs on it find him backed up by Crazy Horse. Yes, as in Ralph Molina and Billy Talbot, previously known to collaborate only with Neil Young. This culture clash (in an interview about the recording that I read somewhere, Ian described his astonishment, after a decade of painstaking multi-tracked studio work, to discover that Crazy Horse's recording methodology consisted of just playing the song a few times until it sounded okay, without even a click track) could easily have been disastrous, but instead it produced an album that I find simply breathtaking. In my 1994 writeup I called it "the year's most expansive, redemptive, big-hearted rock and roll record", and I can't think of any way to improve much on that description. The songs are unhurried, organic, sincere, generous and welcoming. It's difficult to believe they occupy the same universe as "Connection", "Lump" and "Give It Away".
Crazy Horse weren't around to help on McNabb's new album, Merseybeast, but his new backing duo The Afterlife, with Russell Milton on bass and Daniel Strittmatter on drums, appear undaunted by the potential for comparison, and the ensuing record is, if anything, even more expansive, redemptive, warm and open-hearted than Head Like a Rock. There was an element of obstinacy to Head Like a Rock, I think, a bit of Ian aware that this wasn't the sort of record one was expected to make, but determined to make it regardless. Merseybeast has absorbed its own context so thoroughly that no sign of that self-consciousness remains. More than anything this album strikes me as good-humoredly reverential. McNabb understands the power that rock and roll, used for good, can have, and takes his responsibility to so use it seriously, but at the same time playing this music is too much glorious fun for the burden of potential to ever become wearying. There's a bit of Scott Walker's oratorical drama to his rich-voiced delivery, distinctly uncool in its technical polish and ambition; a little of the Walkers' deliriously overblown pomp in his rousing guitar catharses, never lured astray into Green Day jitteriness; and a lot of Neil Young's plainclothes unpretentiousness in his willingness to let songs proceed along their own natural courses, at their own paces. Lyrically, McNabb treads a path between the Walkers' sugary inanities and the Icicle Works' mythic and old-fashioned wordplay, and so we get choruses as sing-along as the roaring "Don't Put Your Spell On Me"'s "Hey! Ho! What do you know? / Let the rain fall, let the wind blow. / Oo! Ee! What do you see? / Do what you will but don't put your spell on me.", and passages as studied as "They Settled For Less Than They Wanted"'s "They were young and keen, / Now they sip root beer on the mezzanine" and "How many people are making plans / That no one else can understand? / How many times can a joker beat an ace?" And along the way we get the mournful harmonica of "Merseybeast", the choppy guitars and metallic backing vocals of "Affirmation", the quiet elegance of "Beautiful Old Mystery", the easy-going summer swing of "Love's Young Dream", the offbeat canter of "Camaraderie", the lyrical slide guitar of "Heydays", hushed piano in the still ballad "Little Bit of Magic", soulfully articulated bass and simmering organ on "You Stone My Soul" (reminding me again of "Reunited", actually), chiming acoustic guitar and airy strings on "Too Close to the Sun", and the solemn magnificence of "Available Light".
And if you act quick and snap up a first-pressing copy of Merseybeast, you also get a six-song live album, called North West Coast, recorded at King's College in 1994, with Crazy Horse along for the tour. Trust me, you want to act quickly. The explosive live versions of "Evangeline" and "Understanding Jane", my two favorite Icicle Works songs, are easily worth urgency (the drunken crowd chorus on "Evangeline", particularly), the versions of Permanent Damage's "What She Did to My Mind" and the post-Small Price single "When It All Comes Down" are revelatory, whichever Crazy Horse member sings the hoarse duet vocal on "I Don't Want to Talk About It" is riveting in a Joe Cocker-like way, and the sly allusions to Echo and the Bunnymen's "Rescue" and Ian's own "(I Go) My Own Way" in "Pushin' Too Hard" are amusing period counterpoints to the song itself and the James Brown bit that Echo also quoted in their time. And for fans of closure, this Echo allusion brings us back to the Phony Maroney, which the Walker Brothers also discuss in "Land of 1000 Dances".
Julian Dawson: Travel On
The third album rescuing me from my short-lived depression during this uncharacteristically unchronological week is this 1995 product of a fortuitous feedback loop I accidentally set up with my parents. It began a couple Christmases ago when I gave them a Richard Thompson album, figuring that they like folk music, and he's a pivotal folk figure, and so they'd probably like him. That theory proved false, but in talking to my mom about it, she admitted that she liked Thompson's songs when other people sang them, and mentioned that she'd once heard somebody doing his "Galway to Graceland", and enjoyed it tremendously. Spotting a gift opportunity, I made a note to myself, and when I got home I checked my copy of the Thompson tribute album "The World Is a Wonderful Place", found that the amazing a cappella version of "Galway to Graceland" there was done by some group called Plainsong, and went out and bought Mom their album Voices Electric, which contained it.
The bad news was that this turned out not to be the version of "Galway to Graceland" that she'd heard, at all. The good news, though, was that she and my father both took to Plainsong instantly and passionately all the same (an identification that became more uncanny when we discovered, much later, that songwriter Iain Matthews' real last name is the same as ours). This lead to their also getting the other Plainsong album and Iain's 1994 solo album, The Dark Ride, and they enthused about these three discs so incessantly that I was eventually forced to buy Voices Electric just because it was intolerable that my parents would hold some musical advantage over me.
The bad news was that I was never able to fathom why Mom was so sure that the songs "The Rat and the Snake" and "Cristoforo's Eyes", in particular, would appeal to me. The good news is that I loved the album anyway, and before long I too had both Plainsong discs, a few Iain Matthews ones, and another by Matthews' Austin side project, Hamilton Pool. And the last time my parents visited and we went to HMV (important family ritual), Mom mentioned that Julian Dawson, Plainsong's second songwriter, was also supposed to have a solo album or several. We checked, and found this 1995 release. Mom wrote down its title, but didn't buy it. You can tell she isn't descended from me.
Objectively, it's a pleasant and unassuming record, but perhaps not that much more. Dawson writes nice pop/country/folk songs, and he has a nice voice and way with them, but there's an element of Howard Jones-ish processed homogeneity to this album that I could understand if you found boring, and drummer Vince Santoro has an oddly square approach to time-keeping that for me makes many of these songs sound a little strange and mechanical. If there were the slightest hint of computerese in these liner notes anywhere I'd be tempted to accuse Dawson of having produced large chunks of this album via a computer simulation of Bruce Cockburn and Don Henley locked inside Threadgill's for a week. Which wouldn't sound like such a stupid idea to you if you heard all the other computer proposals people espouse with straight faces in my day job.
For some reason, though, these ostensible drawbacks turn out to be precisely what I'm looking for this week. The application of clean synth-pop production and the slightly machine-like rhythms to the folk- and country-esque material produces a synthesis of the two tendencies that I like for its very oddness, Jules Shear, Curtis Stigers and the Roches add some tasteful backing vocals, and Dawson himself lends the proceedings enough individuality and presence that I don't resent these songs like I do Henley's, while simultaneously skirting the poet-centric self-consciousness that often bothers me in Cockburn's. "And all he keeps are photographs of faces", Julian says of one of his characters. I feel this way myself some weeks, like I rush through albums, keeping only these reviews, too anxious about finding something earth-shattering for next week's column to enjoy this week's discoveries properly, much less the odd jewels perhaps lost forever in my shelves, and thus ending up with pictures of people I never really knew in person. This week, though, I feel better about it. I have paused for albums that require, and reward, calm. There is time enough for slow joys.