I Should Use a Different Alphabet
71 · 6 June 96
Jill Olson: The Gal Who Would Be King
My practice of purchasing albums based on the most tenuous connections possible is not a particularly reliable way, in statistical terms, of finding things I like, but I keep doing it because every once in a while an innocuous lead unearths something surprising and remarkable. I bought this Jill Olson album when I ran across it because I thought I remembered somebody on the Loud Family email list mentioning that Scott Miller produced it. A less compulsive person than I have become would have put the disc down, backed carefully out of the store, gone home and looked up the exact connection (and the woman's exact name), and discovered that while Jill Olson was the one, Scott only mixed the album, a tie-in that might have been just too remote even for me. But I've found through painful experience that anything I do not buy will immediately begin to consume my mind, and I will ruin a day or two oscillating between guilt that I'm obsessing over something with no proven consequence in my life, and desperate paranoia that I'll return and somebody will have bought the last copy of whatever it was and I'll wonder for the rest of my life if it was any good, before I finally cave in and go back and get it. Rather than subject myself to this cycle again, and because I'm worried that if I go into Newbury Comics more than twice a week the staff will catch on to my addiction and arrange an intervention, I made the inductive leap of assuming that the fact that Jill's album was on pure-pop haven eggBERT Records (home of the sing HOLLIES in reverse tribute album that the Loud Family appeared on) was sign enough that this was the record in question.
On the cover of this CD, Jill looks like Lisa Loeb. Okay, if you put a black and white picture of her wearing those glasses on a CD cover, Demi Moore would look a bit like Lisa Loeb. And the song-title list doesn't have quite Lisa's earnest solemnity. And the goofy clip-art illustrations and groovy mid-Seventies shade of orange aren't very New York. But Pagan Kennedy doesn't make records, so what conclusion am I supposed to leap (ow -- limp, currently, after some weekend paintball exertions and four soccer games in two days) towards? If only it were possible to accurately deduce the nature of a CD from its cover art on a more consistent basis, I could save all the countless hours I spend actually listening to music. Which would be an optimization akin to throwing condoms directly into the garbage without even tearing the package.
Making a cover that accurately implied the contents of this album would be a royal pain, anyway. You could put some big, well-worn Rickenbackers on it to imply the jangly Byrds-y flair and ghostly harmonies, and you could put Jill in cowboy boots (to imply the infusion of country shuffle) that are painted in some bizarre way (to imply her jokey exuberance). And a nice old-fashioned diner jukebox in the background could have an America record poking through its window, to tip off the cover of "Sister Golden Hair" and Jill's general reverent fondness for traditional heartland pop values. But how would you really indicate the blend of Translator straightforwardness, "Passionate Kisses"-like harmony and Gin Blossoms-ish dry Arizona guitar that infect "Conquer the World"? The way "I Don't Really Know" sounds like some Velvet Crush harmony, a Casio drum pattern and a stray Grant Lee Buffalo slide guitar? The use of Nanci Griffith vocal figures in "Right Words" to deliver a not very rustic meditation on what writer's block means if life is primarily conducted through language? The easy lope and twang of "I'm Not Done"? The infectious tinniness of "Oh My God", and the way it sketches a relationship dissolution by focusing not on the emotions themselves, but on the surprise the narrator feels at discovering them, and the whimsy of the turns of phrase used to describe them (like "sold my heart off for parts")? And may a river of pity run to the door of the artist asked to depict the Hawaiian-mariachi-band-playing-reggae-Jimmy-Buffet jump of "That's What You Say".
And capturing these details in an illustration wouldn't even accomplish much, because the charm of this album, for me, is not isolated by disassembly. After a few weeks in which the bland sameness of too much current music was starting to get to me, this album is like a prescription-only breath mint wrapped around a Mexican jumping bean. By which I mean that it's both refreshing and surprising, not that it tastes okay for a while and then you bite into an angry bug. There is a healthy sparkle to this music undimmed by poetic reserve, overproduction cloyingness, generation angst, retro-fanaticism, fashionable aggression, confrontational vulnerability, gender-politics vitriol (even the arguably unenlightened text of "Sister Golden Hair" is played for its bouncy "I do, I do, I do" sincerity), Dust Brothers meddling or the big soft-rock mildness resistor that people keep wiring into their circuit boards, and it is almost totally free from disaffectedness, melancholy and indignation, which I would otherwise credit as music's three current ruling mind-states. This is intelligently uncomplicated and understated American guitar pop made by somebody who manifestly enjoys making it, and demands no other rationale with which to proceed, and there is precious little of that being made here since Mitch Easter turned solipsistic, the Posies dyed their hair, the Leslie Spit Treeo retreated over the northern border and Susanna Hoffs convinced her agent to start phoning casting directors. I'm not sure exactly what the balance is between this album defying a decade and it just suiting a week of my mood, but I certainly won't resent having to check back periodically to monitor how it's faring in my affections.
Everything but the Girl: Walking Wounded
Everything but the Girl made an album called Idlewild in 1988 that enjoys the inconsequential distinction of being one of the few albums that I adore, and yet that didn't make me buy anything else the band did. On it Tracey Thorn and Ben Watt perfectly captured, for me, the Platonic Form of an idyllic early Sunday afternoon, complete with a cool breeze, something light and refreshing (strawberry shortcake, perhaps) served to us in a gazebo by an immaculate butler, and not a single pressing obligation troubling the mind. The album seemed so perfect to me, though, that I felt absolutely no motivation to buy another of their records, because either it would sound the same, and dilute Idlewild's incomparability, or else it would sound different and I'd be disappointed.
It's been a while, though, and I was starting to feel a little bad that Tracey and Ben had given me such a significant little piece of my life, and gotten only an LP and a replacement CD's worth of royalties back for their trouble. So, tentatively, I bought this new album, hoping that by now they would have found some whole new direction to pursue, which I could experience without disturbing the peaceful clearing Idlewild represents in my mind. This cover, actually, does a pretty good job of implying that they are up to something different. In the picture on the front Ben looks scruffy and irritable, slouched in his limo seat in a tracksuit, peering blearily into the photographer's glaring lights, and Tracey is either lost in adjusting her makeup, or else is receiving messages from the aliens on a very small cellular videophone. There are some unexplained Japanese characters throwing off the alignment of the band's name, and the bar code intrudes garishly into the top corner of the front cover. The track listing on the back (at least of this US version) also emphasizes the presence of two bonus remixes, and remixing Idlewild tracks would have been about as sensible as New Coke.
I don't know what, specifically, I would have imagined for the music based on this cover, but the album turns out to be almost entirely about drum loops. They're interesting drum loops, made more intriguing by the implicit contention that they're significant enough to set an album around, but if you aren't into drum loops, this should go right up there with Gary Numan's last album on your aversion list. There's not literally nothing else to this album, but there might as well be. Tracey's voice, never known for being forceful, could here be profitably sampled for use in the next multimedia dictionary's explication of the word "languid". The music, what there is of it, sounds like Ben decided to see if he could score an entire EbtG record with only one finger (and not Vince Clarke's Tasmanian-Devil-on-speed version of one-fingered synth composition, either) and a minimum of sequencer passes, or else possibly he was using rented equipment, feeling stingy, and paying for it by the note. There are some interesting passages in the lyrics, like the particulars of the hotel setting for the breakup narrative in "Single" ("I called you from the hotel phone. / I haven't dialled this code before.") and the over-literal anthropomorphization of "the inner child" in "Big Deal", but Tracey's lyrical forte to me was always the universality that just skirts cliche, and my dedication to Jagged Little Pill notwithstanding, it's hard to carry an album on that.
But as it happens, I like drum loops. And I like these drum loops quite a bit. The technical evolution of drum machines has coincided, historically, with divergent aesthetic trends away from artificiality on the mainstream side, and toward heavy style standardization on the dance side, with the result that if there's a vital subculture of drum-programming innovation laboring away somewhere, it has escaped my notice. The rhythms on Walking Wounded, with only a few exceptions, could only be programmed. Snares spray and stutter rather than roll, the bass-drum sounds resemble switches making contact more than felt on drum heads, hi-hats tick mechanically and chop off electronically, accents arrive in spaces as if navigated there by mathematical interpolation, not human muscles, and a variety of unearthly noise artifacts substitute for such organic regulars as tom-toms and cymbals. And while several of the sounds are suited for techno, Watt's stubborn reluctance to allow them to settle into square grooves very often will keep at least the nine originals here from making much club-DJ headway. Yet for all the mechanical nature of the sounds and the individual measures into which they are arranged, the overall effect is distinctly personal, even more so, I think, than Gary's loops on Sacrifice. Although these songs are rigorously patterned, the composite signal evokes an authorial presence clearly, in a way that House monotony never has for me. Like FSOL do, Watt seems to me to be operating his machinery as if it is itself an instrument, just one a level higher on the tool-chain than a drumstick or a kick pedal -- like a conductor, not a player. The sparing and patterned use of other musical elements in the space between Watt's programming and Thorn's voice feels like a direct and carefully limited extension of the drums, and this all makes the duo-ness of this album much more evident than on Idlewild or on any other two-person record I can think of offhand, with the possible exception of the first two They Might Be Giants LPs. It's a reserved, conceptual sort of admiration this album prompts, but there is time in life for sitting and considering, and there's no reason that has to be done in silence.
The remixes, as a moment's reflection and an eighth of a teaspoon of genre awareness would lead you to suspect, totally gut these songs for me. Replacing Watt's oblique percussion structures with these pathetically generic dance presets is like scanning a Motherwell into Photoshop and filling all the big black splotches with badly-dithered fractal clouds. EbtG has been issuing remix-laden singles for both this album and the last album's hit "Missing", so they must support the practice on some level, but to me these are artistic abominations, and part of the mounting evidence that remixers are wrecking the planet.
Slayer: Undisputed Attitude
When I write these reviews I put everything I'm discussing into my changer, in the order I'm covering it. In the case of this week's column, I don't recommend that you attempt this without professional supervision. Switching from Everything but the Girl to Slayer without the special protective apparatus that we reviewers wear while plying our trade (sic) is likely to cause stylistic whiplash, and stylistic neck-braces are not well-suited for the summer months. Slayer is no longer the most extreme band of its sort by a long ways (one skill the music industry has honed to a STM-needle's sharpness is the ability to take a new idea, quickly misunderstand three-fourths of it, and exaggerate the last quarter into a laughable parody of its former self), but they are noble elders of the play-so-fast-that-your-head-gradually-unscrews-itself cult, and they are still the only band whose name you are mispronouncing if you are not grimacing and yelling as you say it. This puts them in an uncomfortable position, though. Circa 1996, playing metal by itself has kind of become uncool, and commercially limiting. To stay out of the fringe-culture backwaters, you've got to provide some kind of "alternative" hook for the demographers to impale themselves on, or else you're looking at spending a lot of time either in Belgium supporting Saxon, or in Norway getting knifed by your own bass player.
And what better gambit for genre leaders like Slayer than to presumptuously ally their whole movement with the credibility standard of early American punk (which most people admire, even though virtually nobody listens to it, which is just as well since most of it is intolerable garbage, which was sort of the point)? Never mind that Anthrax essentially made this same album five years ago, nobody remembers anything they did other than that PE thing, anyway. And so we get three Verbal Abuse covers, two Minor Threat songs, two D.I.'s, one D.R.I., one T.S.O.L., one Dr. Know, one Stooges, two exhumed relics from Slayer's own fortuitously rediscovered punk past, and one new song, included just to make sure you don't miss the point that Slayer are the living heirs of the great punk tradition.
If you feel like disliking this album, I'm not going to get in your way. Here, I'll even help a little: you might want to start with scornful comments like "Verbal Abuse? Who the fuck were Verbal Abuse?", "You know, there's more to punk than just getting through the song in less than two minutes", and a sarcasm-drenched "Oh, now I get it, Minor Threat were trying to express that they were angry, they just didn't have enough spiked wristbands and L.A. Kings logo-wear to communicate the emotion properly." Then you can praise the band for coming up with a clever way of dealing with the problem that all the songs they write themselves have sounded indistinguishable since South of Heaven or so (somebody, possibly me, will protest that they don't, but pay them no mind). And for a parting comment, something about how uncanny it is that Slayer learned to play these songs without ever managing to listen to them should do nicely, unless you prefer the more obvious, but still worthwhile, rhetorical tactic of reversing the rather hopeful "undisputed" in the title.
After you stomp off feeling satisfied with yourself, though, people who want to hang out are welcome to listen to this album again with me. As much of a calculated image-facelift ploy as it seems, and as little empathy as it displays for its material, its basic premise, marrying Slayer's pneumatic-drill approach to rock to some songs that are more concise and less mired in splatter-punk imagery than the band's own usual fare, strikes me as a fine idea. The first eight songs (the Verbal Abuse, T.S.O.L., Minor Threat and early-Slayer tracks) are over in less than fourteen minutes, and this stretch is as bracing a speed-metal-punk sprint as I can think of. The next five are a bit long by punk standards, but without the five-minute new song at the end, the whole album comes in under half and hour, so you're unlikely to get too bored along the way. The second longest song here, the D.I. cover "Richard Hung Himself", is clearly my favorite piece on the album, Slayer's lead-footed stomp suiting the song's agitated chorus lament perfectly. And "Gemini", the new track, is comfortingly gruesome and turgid after the thirteen strafings that precede it. I have a hard time imagining that this record will change the minds of anybody who gave Slayer a fair trial before and dismissed them, but it will probably get them played in contexts where their earlier albums haven't been, and thus could make a lot of converts to the old religion under the guise of preaching to them in their new one.