No Rest at All in Freedom
74 · 27 June 96
The Blue Nile: Peace at Last
If I were setting out to return the Ring to Orodruin, I would probably be inclined to take an army with me. If I were Gandalf I'd want X-wings for air cover, that tank from Empire of the East for Frodo to ride in, the last of the V8 Interceptors running interference, and the entire cast of Braveheart extras for the anti-orc detail. But there are two great problems with mobilizing armies for personal quests. First, arranging to keep them fed is an enormous logistical pain in the ass, and when you feel like the fate of your world is balanced on the bridge of your nose, having to orchestrate large-scale canned-pudding distribution is probably not going to improve your mood. And second, as Trent and Arthur understood, but army ants, those communal-brain creatures in Invasion of the Body Snatchers and the generals of Desert Storm (on both sides) all did not, the quality of the story of the victory is the quality of the victory, and "There were just too many of us for 'em" is not going to keep any twelve-year-olds up at night burning through flashlight batteries to see how the heroes triumph in the end. And so when I find myself, tonight, still confronting a host of problems of my own (which were you me I assure you you'd find fascinating, too), I pass on the battalion of Leo Buscaglia clones and assemble a fellowship consisting of me, Jane Siberry, Stona Fitch and the Blue Nile.
"The journey forward", Jane Siberry says towards the end of "Oh My My", "includes movement into despair". If we rephrase this without the emotional value-judgment, we could easily be talking about Jane's musical evolution. In order for her to get from The Walking to When I Was a Boy, she had to go through Bound by the Beauty, in which she rejected her previous compositional and recording strategies almost completely. In order to make progress, it is sometimes necessary to disassemble almost everything you thought you had built. This principle should be familiar to home remodelers, surgeons, and anybody who ever played Canasta with my mother. In addition to this idea being a comfort in depressing times, implying that adversity is a necessary step toward deliverance, it also presents a useful tactic for coping with chaos (or stasis, which sometimes is hard to distinguish from chaos): change things. When in doubt, quit your job, or break up with your girlfriend, or move, or get a different haircut, or give up vegetarianism, or start writing a weekly music column (just to give a few random examples, not drawn from my life, specifically, of course). Hopefully, the thought goes, one of those agitations will reveal an important detail that wasn't visible to you from your previous vantage point, and then you can reassemble your life in better order than before.
Back in the mid-Eighties, Stona Fitch was the electric banjo player in one of Boston's most irrepressible local bands, Scruffy the Cat. My sophomore year in college, my introductory filmmaking class decided to do our group documentary project on the band. With the unstructured enthusiasm of people who have not yet had to try editing their own footage into anything cogent or watchable, we filmed rehearsals, we filmed the band playing oldies at a high school reunion, we filmed the bass player putting price tags on backpacks in the stockroom at the BU Bookstore, we filmed the drummer cooking dinner for an MIT fraternity while explaining gleefully how he'd been beaten up and left for dead in a gutter over the weekend, we filmed Stona sitting in the quiet office of his corporate report-writing job. We sat in the corner of the members' apartments while they tried gamely to ignore us and just be normal, and later we discovered that there are few things more tedious than watching reel after underexposed reel of rock musicians and their girlfriends sitting on their beds, watching cartoons, and never laughing. Most of the band put up with us in the sort of bemused way you might let a neighbor's terrier growl at your new ACGs, tolerating the display only as long as you don't think the dog is going to actually bite your ankle or drool on the shoes. Stona, on the other hand, we quickly grew fond of, and vice versa. He was a Princeton graduate, and a creative-writing major, and the cultural gap between our troupe of Harvard filmmakers and him was not only smaller than the gap between us and the other band members, but was actually smaller than the gap between Stona and the other band members, none of whom had gone to college or ever, I think, held a job that required previous experience, or provided it. The gap between Stona and the others abruptly widened, just as we thought we were ready to start editing, when they decided, without any apparent warning, to kick him out of the band. The film's most moving scene (which isn't saying that much) is the interview with Stona that we rushed back out to shoot, in which he explains that he was ostensibly fired because he was holding the band back, musically. "How well do you have to play to be in a rock and roll band?" he asks, incredulously. For me, Stona's banjo and other odd instruments were the one detail that made Scruffy the Cat special, and getting rid of him seemed like the worst possible thing they could have done, an opinion that their subsequent work and eventually dissolution did nothing to disabuse me of. But I can understand what the other four members must have thought, looking around at their dead-end day jobs, wondering what was going to make the difference between a life of sweaty Friday nights at the Rat and something more dignified and self-sustaining. They needed to make a change, and firing Stona was the biggest one that presented itself.
Stona's first novel, Strategies for Success, published in 1992 by Putnam (and I guess this would be a better story if I hadn't discovered its existence in a musty pile in a neglected corner of a Buck-a-Book), presents an even more disturbing version of "movement into despair". It opens with its humble-Southern-upbringing, Harvard-grad narrator happily married, profitably employed, comfortably ensconced in a beautifully remodeled condo in Watertown, the next town over from Cambridge, and otherwise doing as close to fine as one could reasonably expect. His life then proceeds to unravel at a harrowing pace. He has an affair, his wife leaves him (not even over the affair), the affair ends with the woman pregnant with his child but refusing to see him, he wrecks his career and loses his job, he beats up a neighborhood kid and a vengeful mob torches his car and threatens to kill him, and by the end of the book (skip the rest of this sentence if you don't want to hear how it ends), he gives up completely on the accomplished life he worked so hard for, skips town on the eve of his assault trial with only a change of clothes in a backpack, gets on the first train he can find headed South, and by the last page is washing dishes in a grimly anonymous diner in Louisiana somewhere.
It's quite possible that if you aren't me, you won't react to this book anywhere near as strongly. Large parts of it are set here in Harvard Square, where I live. I grew up in Dallas, I went to Harvard. I had a job washing dishes, once, and I'm not sure I lasted a week. None of the narrator's situations are exactly like mine, but an alarming number of them are close enough, and when, towards the end, he has retreated from reality so fully that all he can stand to do is drag his one comfortable chair out into his backyard and sit in it, staring at nothing, I can empathize. I don't pretend that my personal dilemmas are very impressive on the scale of human suffering, but they're real to me, and they interconnect in a way that makes them hard to address individually and wearying to contemplate, and the idea of blocking them out through sheer force of denial is certainly not without visceral appeal. I actually have two comfortable chairs, but this is a thin margin to be separating me from asocial collapse.
Which is where the Blue Nile come in, or almost. Music, as I've remarked more than once before, is the stable center of my life. Whatever mental lap pool I find myself flailing back and forth across, I've always been able to put on a good record and let the music release me from whatever obsessive cycles I otherwise feel trapped in. Putting this one on, one night recently, though, after a particular taxing bout of fretting at the Gordian knot that my housing and job predicaments seem to have wound themselves into, I found myself suddenly relaxing not because the music had temporarily drowned out my other concerns, but because, for just a moment, I had somehow become convinced that this album was literally the solution to them. "Ah!", I thought, frighteningly incoherently, "I can stop worrying about all those other options, because I suddenly realize that the correct life-choice is this Blue Nile album." I think I was really tired at the time, and maybe I hadn't had as much protein that day as I should have. Whichever, it took me several seconds to spot any logical flaws in this revelation. For a moment my reality rearranged itself so that "buy a condo", "quit my job", "find a new girlfriend" and "Peace at Last, by the Blue Nile", were all parallel, valid and complete answers to "What should I do with my life?", one of which I'd just realized was more practical than the others. As delusional as this is, it was an amazing relief to think, ever so briefly, that I'd hit upon a workable solution.
And to tie this scattered digression back together, at least as much as I plan to, the Blue Nile have another approach to coping with chaos that may provide a useful alternative to Jane's and Stona's for me. For one thing, they do not hurry. Their debut album, A Walk Across the Rooftops, came out in 1983. Coming up with another seven songs for their second record, Hats, took them until 1989, and Peace at Last, just released, is still only their third. If an album every six and a half years is an acceptable pace, then life-changes can't be due much more frequently, and I've still got some time before I'm late for the next one. More importantly, the Blue Nile demonstrate that coherency and poverty are not synonymous, that silence is not the only cure for clamor or soundtrack for peace, and that it is possible to cope with the chaos by sculpting it, instead of hoping that if you run far enough you'll reach a place that it hasn't spread to yet.
This album uses more acoustic instruments than the first two, but the key elements of most arrangements remain synthetic string pads, bells and plucked strings, and song structures that cycle with mathematical precision, over which Paul Buchanan's ethereal voice gauzily drifts. If you can imagine what Gary Numan would sound like with all his cyborg affectations removed, that's sort of the Blue Nile, like calculus as an elegant articulation of human grace instead of the remorseless stamp of pistons, like the equations of a sea-shell or a coastline, not the expressionlessness of skyscraper facades. These songs are like puppets that move like they're alive, like paths that seem to know where your next foot will be placed, like da Vinci ornithopter blueprints and Mondrian test geometries. Machines, this music reminds me, fabricated with love and care, can be the ultimate creation of human inspiration, not the denial of it. And the smallest pieces of these machines have been placed, it seems to me, with the steadiest of hands and the most engaged of hearts, like the Shakers might design microchip circuit. No drum hits an instant off its beat, no note wavers where it can be held, no instrument glares where it could sparkle. These songs are like Faberge eggs designed by Buckminster Fuller, exquisite and indestructible, that could outdraw the Crown Jewels on exhibit and fly probes into the heart of the sun with equal equanimity. If Buchanan, Bell and Moore can make this many noises coexist so harmoniously, I think to myself, then surely I can manage to arrange the rather less complex blocks of my life into some configuration in which they don't grind horribly against each other in the slightest breeze.
It is possible, I think, to listen to Blue Nile records as if they were pop albums. Certainly "Stay", on their debut, and "The Downtown Lights", on Hats, were engaging and upbeat enough to be singles. Here "Tomorrow Morning", "Love Came Down" and "God Bless You Kid" all have infectious beats that you could dance slowly to on cool summer nights, "Body and Soul" and "War Is Love" have passages of angelic falsetto, "Holy Love" has a sinuous synth-bass line and "Sentimental Man" has vibrant orchestral stabs. The touches that make these songs magical, though, I think, require closer attention. The perfection of "Happiness" for me lies in the sighing accordions in the background of the chorus, the way the bell sounds that open the song seem to reverberate without ever having struck, and the intimately unprocessed close-miking of the acoustic guitar. In "Tomorrow Morning" I love the little "Heh!"s that seem to escape involuntarily from Buchanan's lips as the song picks up momentum for the coda, and the fact that he even claps after one of them, half unaware that he's done so, moved by the tiny rhythms of his own song. In "Sentimental Man" the bass rumbles sparingly, just enough to remind you that it's there. The dry smack of "Love Came Down"'s snare reminds me of the charmingly awkward drum programming on Michael Penn's first album. The soaring falsetto on "Body and Soul" is complemented perfectly by the little harp-like pecks that follow it down its glissando. The stiff drum-machine loop, robotic funk-bass and whispered vocals on "Holy Love" peer perplexedly at each other, as if their parents tossed them in a rec room together after raising them on completely different planets. "Family Life" is a riveting ballad, like Peter Gabriel alone in his studio, after all his globe-trotting collaborators have gone home for the night, covering a Tori Amos song softly to himself. "War Is Love" finds Buchanan's voice fluttering at the ends of lines like a tendril of smoke drifting unexpectedly into a draft just before it dissipates. "God Bless You Kid"'s chattering percussion loop and surging synth strings are a complicated version of the tranquillity in the lyrics, and I love the measured delivery of the line "It feels like Memphis / After Elvis". And in "Soon" I fixate on the way the nearly-inaudible closed-hi-hat click uses the other instruments for cover when it steals over to the ride cymbal every few measures.
And perhaps the most remarkable thing about this album is that when you examine the songs, if your experience is like mine, you discover that there is no filler around these meticulous details. There are no routine pieces, every detail is meticulous, every interaction planned. If a single sound draws me into a song, the sounds around it carry me back out to the whole again, I spot another glitter, and the tour repeats. Given seven years I suppose they had time to construct this album one bit at a time, with the cover of the ADAT off and the tape stretched out under a microscope and a magnetic needle, but if that's what it takes, I'll gladly wait another seven for the next one. Hats, to me, picks up right where A Walk Across the Rooftops left off, and if I didn't wish both of them were eight times as long, and they weren't so mesmerizingly flawless, and the universe of records that aren't weren't so vast, I might feel a twinge of redundancy. This one, though, feels distinctly less guarded than the first two. There are real instruments, and moments that even seem playful. The grandeur of the first two records, in a way, was precisely their distance and reserve. This one manages an expanded palette without losing any sense of control, and brings the Blue Nile's elaborate sense of drama closer to mortal lives. At this rate, by 2023 they'll probably be up to power chords. Hopefully by then I'll have all this personal stuff worked out, so I can concentrate on playing air guitar to it. I'm optimistic. Who knows, perhaps this record is the answer.
Briana Corrigan: When My Arms Wrap You Round
It's hard finding musical peers for the Blue Nile, but if I had to catalog them under pop, they would end up on my shelves in the vicinity of Everything but the Girl, the Cardigans and the Beautiful South. They aren't nearly as jazzy as EbtG, as retro as the Cardigans, or as acerbic as the Beautiful South, but the four bands share a sonic clarity and an awareness that pop doesn't have to be overblown to be dramatic.
Briana Corrigan was a guest vocalist on the first Beautiful South record, and a full band member on Choke and 0898, before being replaced by Jacqueline Abbott for their final album, Miaow. While she never seemed to factor into whole Beautiful South albums as fully as I'd have liked, the songs on which she appeared were almost invariably my favorites of theirs. Her elfin quaver and Paul Heaton's oddly flat voice complemented each other nicely, and their pristine, contained duets were about as far as you could get from Joe Cocker and Jennifer Warnes without leaving the audible spectrum entirely.
For her solo debut, though, she leaves behind both the balance of Heaton's voice and the emotional hooks of his bitter lyrics. Beautiful South fans are the most obvious initial audience for this album, and its overall musical style is generally compatible, but I can't help wondering if these songs' failures to take morbid twists is going to leave them feeling unsatisfied. If these were Heaton's songs, the title phrase, in "Love Me Now", would probably have turned out to be a loving description of a strangling. "Light a candle to my heart", in "Fool", would have become "Light a candle to my drapes"; "Now You Talk" would probably have involved jail somehow; the offer to cash in the narrator's jewellery in "I Put My Arms Out For You" would have been taken more literally (I imagine Heaton itemizing her entire collection, pairing each tawdry bauble with an even more worthless piece of the man's petty life, until it's clear that zirconium is a much better investment). His vitriol is most powerfully missed on "The Back of My Hand", where a jab at "lies of the church" turns out to be little more than a feint, and "Miss America", which sets an entire nation up on the target stand and then slinks away to plead for an unremarkable unrequited love somewhere out of the carnival lights.
The music doesn't quite have the Beautiful South's crisp definition, either. Briana's host of collaborators acquit themselves plausibly, but the Beautiful South had a nearly airtight ensemble dynamic that owed more than a little of its efficacy to the hints of Housemartins hyperactivity that glittered occasionally through the restrained facade, and here the playing is mostly as guileless as the lyrics. There are neither the breathtaking flights of "I'll Sail This Ship Alone" and "Let Love Speak Up Itself", nor the impish pop glee of "From Under the Covers" or "I've Come For My Award".
But this isn't intended to be a Beautiful South album, and it might fare better with people who don't even know the connection. Briana is less waifish than Lisa Loeb or Juliana Hatfield, peppier than Eddi Reader or Tracey Thorn, more musically adventurous than Natalie Merchant, less shrill than Dolores O'Riordan. Her bouncy songs aren't as comprehensively anachronistic as the Cardigans', but they incorporate enough gleaming Bakelite flourishes, like the trebly electric piano on "Love Me Now", the snappy drum shuffle on "Some Big, Big Truth", some pedal-ish guitar on "Miss America" and "The Leave Taking", and stand-up bass, wah-wah guitar throat-clearing and some scratchy strings on "Grounded", to support comparisons. Conversely, other facets like the sturdy bass and open guitars of "Fool", the Bruce Hornsby-esque piano on "Come to Me", mournful accordion on "I Put My Arms Out For You", quiet maracas and a muffled bass-drum heartbeat in "Simply Beautiful", the whirring strings and wounded guitar of "Now You Talk", the legato cello of "Back of My Hand", weird backing-vocal harmonies on "The Leave Taking", and the stark Nick Drake-like guitar and voice arrangement of "The Man Is Dead", keep the album from ever becoming a mannerist exercise. The Beautiful South were always a much bigger deal at home than here in the US, where two out of three people polled think that "nuance" is a deodorant brand, and it's similarly hard to imagine that Briana Corrigan will be the focus of a sudden public gestalt shift away from Alanis Morissette, Shirley Manson and No Doubt (particularly if this album isn't actually released here), but if you wish to do your part towards fueling the obscure cultural countertrend toward jazzy pop sophistication and earnest anti-Lollapalooza charm, your shopping list needs every entry it can get.
Jan Garbarek: Visible World
My own tastes in "jazzy" rarely ditch the "y" and lead me to the Jazz section, but I loved Officium, Jan Garbarek's inspired sax-over-early-music-choir collaboration with the Hilliard Ensemble, and a review I read of this album made it sound like a similarly singular cross-genre experiment, combining Jan's lithe saxophone with African and Native American percussion heritage.
I'm sure it's just another manifestation of my fundamental inability to fathom jazz, but it's totally mysterious to me how anybody could think this music is strange. Possibly my sensibilities are just so blasted from a lifetime of listening to Minor Threat and Beth Nielsen Chapman records back-to-back that I've lost the capacity to appreciate disciplined cultural synthesis. I had the same experience with a Cassandra Wilson album that a friend gave me in his ongoing effort to convert me to jazz; he picked that particular album (New Moon Daughter) with the thought that its radical flouting of jazz conventions would appeal to me, but listening to it I feel like a gladiator watching a novel chess opening: after you've seen them nudge those tiny people from square to square on that little board a dozen or two times, and realized that a move as obvious as standing up and ramming one of the ones with the pointy little hats into the opponent's eye is simply never going to occur to either of them, it becomes hard to keep from dozing off. My friend tried to explain to me exactly what was strange about the arrangements and tunings on New Moon Daughter, and I'm sure somebody could deliver an informative lecture on the clash of traditions present in these New Age-y ensemble pieces, but it still all basically sounds like nature-special soundtrack music to me (and noticing in the credits that many of these tracks did, in fact, originate as soundtracks, doesn't make me any more receptive to other ideas).
Which isn't to say that I don't like it, mind you. "The Creek", with Manu Katche drumming and Jan's silky sax lines gliding over airy synth atmospheres, sounds pleasantly Celtic to me. I like the elegant interplay between Jan's sax and Eberhard Weber's fretless bass on "The Survivor". The rain-like piano, pattering hand drums and wind-blown chimes on "Desolate Mountains" evoke that scene quite convincingly, "Pygmy Lullaby" has a kind of cool groove to it, and I like the strange Indian scale and breathy tone of "The Scythe". But "The Healing Smoke", "Visible World" , "Giulietta", "The Quest" are just background ambience to me, and the long finale, "Evening Land", with Mari Boine singing in some unspecified foreign tongue, seems like generic world-music-sampler fodder. Not that there isn't a place for that, and I can report from personal experience that this album makes excellent reading music, but I can't find anywhere on it where holding down the forward-scan button for a minute produces any feeling of loss, and it's hard for me to work up much passion for music where that's the case.