A Disengaged and Almost Worthless Endeavor
73 · 20 June 96
Dave Allen and the Elastic Purejoy: The Clutter of Pop
There was a series of TV commercials a year or two ago that revolved around Michael Jordan and Larry Bird playing an unusually complicated game of horse, and refusing to let a persistent Charles Barkley join them. The commercials are glimpses of an alternate universe in which success and fame are contained phenomena, where the lives of famous people, outside of the medium in which we know them, are basically like ours when we aren't being their audience, just somewhere else. There's a spare high school gym there where Michael Jordan just whiles away his spare afternoons shooting baskets, where Larry Bird might stroll in with his lunch in hand. When Michael Jordan's ordinary suburban doorbell rings, Jordan himself opens the door to see who's there, and neither he nor Charles regard Charles' beseeching presence, on his doorstep, as unusual. The spots suggest that people who share an apparent community in our experience of them also share a real community, and this is a pleasing fiction.
Now, one has to go at the word "fame" with a large pair of blacksmith's tongs and a great deal of pent-up animosity in order to mangle it into any shape that could vaguely apply to a music reviewer, and even on the constrained scale of music reviewers, I barely qualify as obscure (it's possible that I am responsible for adding more words about music to the Web on a weekly basis than any other single individual, but all it would take is somebody who could afford one more monkey and one more typewriter, and I'd lose even that distinction). Still, you've heard of me, even those of you who aren't relatives, and so I am, in some sense, a part of the illusory community of music reviewers. If people fantasized about music reviewers the way they do about basketball players, then our version of those commercials would probably have a whole clamor of us going to the record store together, bickering in the aisles about whose last album sucked more convincingly, and trading pompous self-serving metaphors while cuffing stray members of the actual music-buying public in the head for emphasis. Our writing, though, if we did it right, would represent the public record of our collective ongoing conversation about, and explorations in, music. But if there's such a thing going on, nobody has invited me. My personal experience of the virtual community of music reviewers amounts to Canadian critic Roch Parisien and I exchanging emails in which we ridicule the other's grammatical errors, shudder at lapses in judgment and taste, offer largely unsupported suppositions about what new records the other one might enjoy, and occasionally even reluctantly admit that the other one was right about something. It's not exactly the Algonquin or anything, but we've each badgered the other into some new discoveries our lives would be poorer without. Dave Allen is one of my recent favorites in this category. Roch's review sounded intriguing, and The Clutter of Pop is the sort of enigmatic title that I am defenseless against, so despite Roch having unnerved me in recent weeks by liking both the new Cracker and Rancid albums, I decided this one was worth risking.
Dave Allen's history, in case his name means nothing to you, as it did to me, goes approximately as follows: bassist in Gang of Four for their first two albums, Shriekback with Barry Andrews from XTC for four albums, King Swamp with Shriekback drummer Martyn Barker for a couple albums, Low Pop Suicide with Rick Boston for their first, the reunited Shriekback for their seventh album, and one prior Elastic Purejoy album credited just to the Elastic Purejoy. Somewhere in there he also started World Domination records, which is home to several of these incarnations. So now do you feel as stupid about not knowing his name as I did? To put musical styles to those names, Gang of Four's rhythm section was an angular and austere foundation for perhaps the original evocation of overthought post-punk (of which "Anthrax" is probably the one example if you've heard only one; the more accessible "I Love a Man in Uniform" came later), Shriekback was a cacophonous dance band (Oil and Gold's surging anthem "Nemesis", with the immortal lines "Big black nemesis, / Parthenogenesis, / No one move a muscle / As the dead come home", would be the most obvious reference), King Swamp I've never heard, Low Pop Suicide play extremely loud guitar rock (and continue to, without Allen), and the first Elastic Purejoy album is a dense thicket of writhing guitar tentacles.
Its title notwithstanding, The Clutter of Pop is actually a much simpler and more straightforward album than almost any of the above. Cracker, as much as I dislike them, are not a bad comparison point. Both bands' musical core is bass, firm but not showy drumming, raw guitar and an uncomplicated voice, wrapped unfussily around solid, if standard, compositional skeletons. Allen and Lowery have similarly nasal vocal timbres, and Allen's slightly-Devoto-esque English accent produces some of the same effect as Lowery's perpetual sneer. And both Lowery and Allen seem to be angry about various things.
The similarities run out quickly when you get past this basic level, though. For me, that is, Cracker never does get much further. Their songs brandish predictable structures and chord changes as if they were inherently virtuous, and Lowery's underachiever lyrics make me cringe and glower simultaneously, which is how I found out that it is medically possible to sprain your forehead. Allen, on the other hand, uses the central chord changes as a scaffolding on which to drape buzzing keyboards, misfiring hand-claps, staticky radio samples, acoustic guitars, banjo, violin, jangly piano, synth accordion and a host of happily erratic background vocalists. Cracker albums sound like they were made in a garage, and this one does, too, but where Cracker sounds to me like some half-stoned burnouts standing in oil spots in their torn Converse high-tops, breathing a little too much lingering exhaust, The Clutter of Pop sounds like it comes from a garage that has been given over permanently to an ongoing friends-and-neighbors project of model-railroad-like complexity, nerdishness and constant incompletion. One gets the feeling that liberal use was made of duct tape during the album's construction, and that not a lot of time was wasted on optimizing signal paths and color-coding patch cables, and I suspect that the phrase "Hey, let's wire that in somewhere and see what it sounds like" was spoken more than once during the recording. Neither the production nor the eclecticism obscure the appeal of the music, though, and the overall effects, for me, are a charming improvisational vitality and a pervasive unpretentious good humor, something like the Penguin Cafe Orchestra's best friends' bar band playing a late-night jam in a barn they've just raised.
And lyrically, there's no comparison. Gang of Four's political agenda could fill a book (namely Ranters and Crowd Pleasers, by Greil Marcus), and while Allen wasn't their lyricist, it's clear that he paid attention. "A Life in the Priesthood?" is an oblique attack on rock critics (or a denunciation of certain fishing practices, I'm not totally sure which). I like the aphorism "Our thoughts can change direction / 'Cause our heads are round." The title track is a searing and frantic vote of no-confidence in all of modern music ("How can we all stand by and let nothing move a generation"?), "Talk Radio" is an even more vitriolic excoriation of the American airwaves' other chief product ("When do you find time to breathe / With that idiot wind whistling / Through the gaps between your teeth?" "With all the crap you're spouting / It's a wonder you can eat."), and "The Last of England" balances the national distribution of venom with the weary line "If it were on fire / I wouldn't piss on it". The booklet (labeled "Read", lest you misunderstand its use) attempts valiantly to resurrect the lost art of liner notes, with both a critical introduction by Fred Mills, and a long autobiographical explanation from Allen.
I do, however, strongly recommend that you stop this disc after track eight. The first eight songs compose a kind of short record (a little under half an hour), but not every album has to be 72:57, just because a CD can hold that much. Stop the disc, take a breath, and let that be The Clutter of Pop to you. Once you've done that, and you're ready to listen to something else, you're certainly welcome to decide that the rest of the disc is that something else, but I suspect that your experience of the music both before that point and after it will be much more sensible if you think of the halves separately. A bizarre stylistic shift suddenly occurs at track nine, introduced by the long, sinister and heavily mechanized song "That Disgust Will Allow", which leads to a proudly-billed minute of silence, and then three long and rather repetitive untitled instrumentals. This second set might serve as good soundtrack mood music, particularly for those parts of movies where some time-consuming and not very visual narrative stretch from the book is compressed into a montage of indicative highlights, but in the context of the organic pop songs that open the album, these grimly static later pieces seem foreign and, to me, unwelcome.
Michael Hall: Day
I'd never heard of Michael Hall, either, until Roch reviewed him (describing him as "strange", a word which I think Roch has learned to encode with the subliminal directive "glenn, you must buy this"). But own a stack of reference books and you, too, can become an apparent expert in any subject in less than five minutes. Apparently, then, Hall was in the apparently-great (according to the often-accurate Trouser Press) Austin band the Wild Seeds, and later in the Setters with Walter Salas-Humara (of the Silos) and Alejandro Escovedo (of the True Believers), and members of Poi Dog Pondering and the Mekons help out with this, his fourth solo album. Except for the Mekons, these seem like ingredients well-suited for a rather traditional Austin singer/songwriter record, but the Mekons turn out to be more indicative of the album's overall feel than any of the others. Hall's singing sounds like an amalgam of Arlo Guthrie, Jonathan Richman, Jackie Leven and Brian Dewan, and the music reminds me of Laurie Anderson, Scott Walker or They Might Be Giants as often as it makes me think of anybody likely to turn out for the next Threadgill's Super Session. There are moments of rootsy Texas guitar rock scattered around the disc, but very few songs sustain that style throughout their length, and the minimalism of the strange interludes that surround them definitely dictates the fundamental character of the experience.
The album opens invitingly enough. Except for the fragile voice, uncertainly poking at the melody, "Los Angeles" could almost be a demo from an upcoming newly-laid-back Michael Penn album, complete with a "Babylon boys" reference to go with Penn's "Bedlam Boys". The text is an oddly reverent portrait of the city that I suppose might be ironic, but which seems to be doing a pretty careful job of appearing sincere. Things quickly turn dark, though, on "Their First Murder", a creepily poetic narrative of random killing that is perhaps most creepy because it's not clear who "they" are, or even whether there are three of them or a million. The tale, and the spare piano chords played through a Leslie, both suggest Brian Dewan's album Tells the Story strongly, though where Dewan tends to play things for ghoulish humor, Hall ends with an ambiguous but suggestive verse intimating that the narrator believes in his own ability to cheat death as much as he believes in either the mysterious killers or God, if indeed they're different.
Musical minimalism continues on "The Ache for Fame", with a simmering accordion drone (Hall's; why does everybody from Austin seem to have accordions lying around?) , a slowly pulsing violin, some distant rumbling percussion, and a few judicious notes of slide guitar. The haunting vocal tells a fragmented crisis-of-faith story of, I think, a priest, and possibly a lover, possibly now dead, in which the narrator's confusion is as clear as the details of the situation are vague. "I Can't Make You Happy Anymore", which alternates a two-note violin dirge with dry recitations of the title and start-stop bits of full-band accompaniment, could be the priest's words to the dying woman, if indeed there is a priest or a woman or dying. "One Was Coming My Way, One Was Going the Other Way" finally kicks into a square, twangy groove for its entire length, but even here Hall's rushed broken- and missed-meter vocals refuse to adhere to genre conventions. The verse structure, with halves of lines interpolated into repetitions of the halves of the title, would make a great campfire song, but I'm not sure that this grimly apocalyptic horseman/locust/wrath/blood/savior/lake-of-fire imagery is what you'll be in the mood to sing with dark woods surrounding you and the sudden realization that after seven beers and eighty rounds of Kumbayah, you're soon going to have to venture beyond the firelight to placate nature.
Then, while you're still blinking from rock and brimstone, there's "Red River", a simple love poem accompanied by a loose handful of acoustic bass plucks and perhaps half a dozen bending guitar notes. This leads to the odd arrangement of what might once have been a gospel blues song, "Sweet Train", where the low grind of muted guitar and a steady banging of a glass bottle on cement march stolidly along, totally unfazed by the occasional stabs of pedal steel, trumpet and high vocal harmony above them. "Rise" begins with a quiet synth-fill like breathing, as if it's going to continue in this restrained vein, but about a minute into it a bouncy drum track suddenly appears, and the song, despite lyrics that read like a Lord's Prayer alternative for people with a better understanding of their own mortality, turns out to be an unhurried pop gem that falls somewhere between the Feelies and Guadalcanal Diary. And "Heaven No How", next, is a virtually straight-ahead country song that only seems to have misplaced its hoedown chorus somewhere, and traded it for a section near the end where the song seems to spontaneously, and temporarily, expire. Its easy shuffle and nasal triviality, though, just make the transition to the ominously paranoid "The Museum of Giant Puppets, PA" more jarring. A cycling bass line and a percussion part that alternates between a bass drum and a large piece of scrap metal, without any attempt at articulation, give a pair of heavily fedback guitars a groundwork to play against, and Hall's lyrics build to a frenzied litany of deranged warnings ("The red beast and the fat, naked dancer are rolling in blood, vomit and excrement") before resolving, disconcertingly, into a peaceful concluding chant of "One world, / One love, / One heart, / One blood".
Hall then switches effortlessly from prophet of doom to amoral outsider for the accordion/violin/tambourine/voice requiem "Las Vegas", which has the arresting lines "Women and children: / First we'd rape 'em, then we'd bayonet 'em" and "Your country, you disgust me. / You lose your innocence like you lose your car keys." And the album concludes with "Ghosts", which aside from a last few bent-note guitar interjections, features only a bass line that sounds like it had to retire from "Walk on the Wild Side" because it could only manage the song at quarter speed anymore. "Oblivion, oblivion", Hall sings. "Been there before, don't scare me none". If you've been to musical oblivion before, and liked it, I recommend this return trip, but the mass of Cracker fans will find it hard to follow.
Glass Tiger: Air Time (The Best Of)
Roch didn't recommend Glass Tiger to me, I saw an old video of theirs on VH-1, but they are Canadian, and when I went to look the song up in the All-Music Guide to find out which album I needed to buy, I discovered that Roch had written this 1993 disc's review. The song VH-1 is recycling is "Don't Forget Me (When I'm Gone)", a syrupy vintage-mid-Eighties synth-arena-rock ballad that makes Duran Duran and a-ha sound like Huggy Bear, and "We Built This City on Rock and Roll" seem like Tales From Topographic Oceans. The bass line is ripped off from Simple Minds, the keyboard hooks are plainly one-finger, and the strained (and stray) Rod Stewart impersonation that one of the band members inserts in counterpoint is epochally shameless, but the production is flawlessly smooth and you could follow the melody out of the Labyrinth, and if the whole thing smacks of Then Jerico's minor-league team, I guess I'm willing to cheer the uniform and the effort. This is awful music, I will not pretend otherwise, but it happens to be one of my favorite sorts of awful music. Glass Tiger remind me of being nineteen in 1986 just vividly enough that I can slip quite happily into nostalgic tolerance for at least an album's length, and if you cut this disc off at around forty minutes, you can even pretend, as perhaps the band themselves ought to have, that their dreadful third album never happened.