Radio, and It's So Hard to Reach You
76 · 11 July 96
Primitive Radio Gods: Rocket
If you live in the Western Hemisphere, and pay any attention at all to commercial radio or MTV, then you have probably heard Primitive Radio Gods' "Standing Outside a Broken Phone Booth With Money in My Hand" by now. If my statistically insignificant sampling of my friends is indicative, half of you are nodding your heads now, and the other half of you are looking at me blankly until I put the disc on and B.B. King's sampled voice sings "I've been downhearted baby, I've been, I've been downhearted baby, ever since the day we met", and then you are saying "Oh, is that what that song is? Can you tell me that name again? Or better yet, write it down for me." Well, if any A&R department recruiters are reading this, here's my claim to genius: the first time I heard this song, I knew it was going to be huge. This would be more impressive, I admit, if everybody I talk to about it hadn't had the exact same reaction the first time they heard it. (And A&R department recruiters would be more impressed if I didn't admit that I also thought that the Knack's 1991 "comeback" album Serious Fun was going to be a huge hit the first time I heard that, even though the disc was already in the cutout bins in quantity by the time I bought a copy.) Regardless, I fully expect to hear this song as many times in 1996 as we heard "You Oughta Know", "One of Us" or "Fake Plastic Trees" in 1995, and when the floodgate of "Remember the Rockin' 90's?!" TV compilations opens up, at about 12:03am on 1 January 2000, I predict that this is one of the tracks they show in yellow, and play while the list scrolls by. Failure to appreciate it now will jeopardize your ability to be nostalgic about it later, though only a little bit.
It's a surprisingly simple song, when you examine it closely. Except for a subtle cymbal variation in the second half of the song, the drum track is a single one-measure loop, crinkly with strange digital editing artifacts. The basic bass line is a one-finger, four-note piano part that makes "Walk on the Wild Side" sound like Vince Clarke on two liters of Jolt. There are a few muted bells here and there, a little piano solo in the middle, and some other strange noises and a little bit of guitar in the coda, but that's about it. The bulk of the song is just the drum loop, the bass loop, the single B.B. King sample, and Chris O'Connor's own languid vocal track. If there's been another hit song this simplistically structured since "Da Da Da", by Trio, then I can't think of it. The lyrics are a rather oblique whole, and you're unlikely to do much more than pick out a few phrases: the reference to flying from Baltimore to Bourbon Street (which fits the bluesy sample), the bit about Mother Theresa joining the mob (which fits a cynical view of free-market morality), and maybe the line "bathe yourself in zebra flesh" (which I decline to explicate). I haven't timed the version they're playing on the radio, but the album version is more than five and a half minutes long, which seems like quite a while to presume on our tolerance for such a technically monotonous song.
But one quirk of the lips has kept a painting of a woman we know nothing about on the flyleaves of art textbooks for the last 493 years, and "Standing Outside a Broken Phone Booth With Money in My Hand" has, I think, three touches of genius. The first is the line in the sample itself, "I've been downhearted, baby, ever since the day we met." I don't know the rest of the lyrics to "How Blue Can You Get", the original song, but isolated this way, the admission is evocatively ambiguous. The familiarity and affection implicit in "baby" seem to contradict "downhearted" (and suggest that the narrator hasn't simply fallen in love with a girl who is involved with somebody else), and "since the day we met" makes me wonder if O'Connor has invented the concept of remorse at first sight. The narrator seems to cherish his sadness, and in my current mood that seems like an eminently sensible thing to do with it.
The second exquisite detail is the juxtaposition of vocal parts. B.B. King, in the sample, sings the way B.B. King always sang, which in today's technological and stylistic context sounds like he's trying to pack a lifetime of anguish into a single conflicted confession, his howling emphasis on "ever" distorting the sample like his grief is tearing loose from history itself. The slight stutter-manipulation of the sample for rhythmic purposes gives the impression that B.B. King may have watched a few too many Foghorn Leghorn cartoons, but doesn't fundamentally distort it. O'Connor, on the other hand, for most of the song, barely raises his voice over a vaguely tuned mutter. This paradox, that the singer distanced from us in time strains so hard to reach us, while the one who is our contemporary seems so introverted, is mesmerizing enough, at least for me, that I could contentedly just sit and listen to it cycle. But then, as the song ends, there's the third transcendent detail, which is the moment when O'Connor, suddenly, sings the line from the sample. As the words jump across the voice and media barriers, it is as if King and O'Connor have fused, King's passion waking O'Connor up and O'Connor's reality pulling King out of the newsreel screen into the world of the living. This is the payoff and the justification for the stasis of the rest of the song, the perfect resolution of the simple tension that the two singers' styles presents. They merge, and something new is created. And then the moment is gone.
And with it, perhaps, the Primitive Radio Gods' moment is also gone. This song and this album have "one hit wonder" scrawled over them in such an empathic hand that it's a wonder all the jewel cases don't ship in splinters. It's not that the album is bad, just that "Standing Outside a Broken Phone Booth With Money in My Hand" is not representative of it. It's hard, really, to imagine an album that "Standing Outside a Broken Phone Booth With Money in My Hand" would be representative of. It's too singular a song, too serendipitous a combination of elements and effect for either to be sustained over the course of nine more. If you buy this album for this song, what do you expect the rest of the disc to be filled with? I can't imagine.
What you'll find it filled with, if you investigate, is an oddly anachronistic brand of stiffly one-man-band guitar rock that kind of feels like David and David prefiguring "We Care A Lot". The drum programming has the unapologetic mechanical snap of somebody who never quite understood why Echo and the Bunnymen fired Echo, the keyboard parts chatter and hum like their player once uttered the phrase "'Jefferson Airplane'? You mean 'Jefferson Starship', right?", and the songs start and stop jerkily like they've never seen the inside of a bpm-indexed dance-club DJ booth, even in a magazine. "Women" surges and undulates like a garage-demo John Waite. "Motherfucker" starts off reminding me of the Run-DMC/Aerosmith version of "Walk This Way", and then suddenly flips into a soaring pop chorus. "Who Say" sounds like Billy Squier trying to keep up with some anxious robots. "The Rise and Fall of Ooo Mau" could be an Adrian Belew cover, and "Where the Monkey Meets the Man" could be Faith No More with all the Jane's Addiction leeched out of them. "Are You Happy" has the sunny vocal disposition of Howard Jones, with the sound-effect cross-talk of Jesus Jones and some "chacon" crunching noises borrowed from Gene Loves Jezebel. "Chain Reaction" manages to make a song, somehow, out of little more than a simmering rhythm track and one guitar chord played over and over again. "Skin Turns Blue" sounds like a English Beat remix, perhaps done by Too Much Joy. And "Rocket", the finale, needs only a full-band reworking and a vocal octave-transposition to be the song that pries an arena full of Winger fans out of their seats to start the first encore.
Whether you'll enjoy these gusts of forgotten odors I can't predict. I liked the Eighties, and I like this, but I'm sure it's possible to have liked the Eighties and yet not want to hear the decade reanimated this way. I'm less sure that the converse is also possible; I think if the Eighties struck you as a waste of instrument cable, then this rearrangement of its components isn't different enough to merit a reevaluation. And the thing I'm surest about, not that my confidence is significant, is that, commercially speaking, none of the rest of these songs stand a chance as singles in the Nineties. If you still have that graph you made charting EMF's career trajectory, I suspect it's going to come in handy again. And I say that ruefully, as somebody who still listens to Stigma.
Magnapop: Rubbing Doesn't Help
The other song that I think I'll forever associate with this precise point in my life is Magnapop's new single, "Open the Door". I nearly dismissed this album after one listen. Actually, I don't drink coffee and I never throw away CDs, but if I did and I did, I'd be brushing damp coffee grounds off the cover of this one about now. The day I bought Magnapop's second album, Hot Boxing, I thought it was genius. The second day, when I went back to the store and bought their first album and all the singles I could find, I thought the second album was still genius, and the first album was not nearly as inspired. By the third day, I was having buyer's remorse over the singles, and starting to think that even the second album was developing weak spots. By a month or so later, Magnapop was sinking, in my mind, into the mire of bands like Velocity Girl, the Fastbacks, Veruca Salt, Bettie Serveert and everybody on Kill Rock Stars, all of whom tend to just make me miss Salem 66 all the more. I bought this new one because, well, look at all these Magnapop singles I have; I must like them. I listened to it once, it did nothing for me, I filed it away. I don't mind buying albums I only listen to once, what I'm trying to cut down on is albums I listen to four times. Either a record is good enough to play ten or twenty times, at least, or else I just don't have time for it.
In the middle of a bad day at work, though, I turned on the radio, and "Open the Door" was playing. As friend after friend came by to tell me they'd just given their notice, despite the rosiest optimism of our senior management, the song's opening lines felt painfully appropriate to me: "Everything is good these days, / But all of my friends are dying. / Davy may and Lisa may, / But nobody else really wants to stay ... / Open the door, / I can't stay here anymore". I began singing the song to myself as I walked around the emptying building, a talisman that leant the mundane dissolution a little much-needed poignancy. And when I got home I dragged the album back out of the vault.
My opinion is both changed and not. If you have no reason to care about this album, and no desire to, it's easy enough to write it off as not notably different from the mass of female-led guitar-heavy bands plying their trade squarely in the middle of what we still call Alternative music because nobody's thought of a better word for it yet. The noisy parts aren't really sufficiently discordant to qualify as aggressive in the punk sense, enough of the songs kind of drone on without melodic justification to undermine the album as a pop whole, and even the high points don't quite have the giddiness of Letters to Cleo, the demented edge of the Breeders or the romantic naivete of Belly to recommend them (though perhaps if I lived in Atlanta, not Boston, I'd have a version of this equation balanced in the other direction).
If you are feeling accommodating, though, and perhaps thinking to yourself "I like Scheer and Lush and the Goops and No Doubt and Tracy Bonham...", it's not hard to make the case for this album. Linda Hopper's clipped vocal style is untrained and unforced without being either waifish or out of tune, Ruthie Morris' guitars are loud and seething with overdrive, and when the rhythm section leans into the fast songs, the band do a pretty convincing runaway-freight-car impersonation. If you like the sort of surging song that is best appreciated by adopting an action figure pose and playing the kind of air guitar where you pound the "pick" hand on your thigh vigorously while grimacing at a spot on the floor eight feet in front of you ("Where the monitor would be, man."), then "This Family", "I Don't Care" and "Hold You Down" should make your next mix tape. If you like your charging metallic anthems to toss in one charming old-fashioned detail, check out the goofy Buggles-like backing vocals on "Radio Waves". If you like your pistoning guitar interspersed with isolated burbling bass, Pixies-style, then both "Juicy Fruit" and "Open the Door" are worthy additions to the corpus, and if you prefer your distorted guitar catharses implied by an exaggeratedly drawn-out and menacing fade in and out, rather than bluntly arrived at, be sure to stick around for the bonus track.
Pooka Stew: In Our Minds
Speaking both of Boston and bands that don't exactly threaten any genre boundaries, the band who gets my vote for the stupidest name in Boston, now that Miles Dethmuffen changed theirs, has just released their first full album. I only know of Pooka Stew because a year or two ago some Guided by Voices fans I used to work with told me that Pooka Stew were their favorite local band, an endorsement that stuck in my mind firmly enough that when I ran across a three-song EP of theirs some time later, I got it. Given the seriously indie predilections of the people the recommendation came from, I expected something solidly of the Sebadoh/Pavement ilk, so I was quite surprised to find that, at least on record, Pooka Stew are probably the most polished, mainstream Boston band since Face to Face.
Not, to be clear, that they sound like Face to Face. They aren't dance pop, there aren't any women or keyboards. In fact, to me they sound a lot like the Smithereens and Social Distortion, or like those bands might sound if they were raised in a college town instead of Jersey or Orange County. At Pooka Stew's rawest they sound like Green Day at their most professional, and at their prettiest they sound like Deep Blue Something at their most aggressive. They've plainly listened to their Bob Mould catalogs carefully, too, but the parts they seem to have concentrated on are not Hüsker Dü's speed thrash or Sugar's pop bounciness, but rather Mould's slower, more deliberate solo work (with the EP track "Merchants" capturing the drama of "Brasilia Crossed With Trenton" quite nicely), and the combination of this influence with their square rock instincts mainly serves to eradicate any trace of working-class rockabilly from their version of solid rock stomp. In Boston terms, this album sounds to me like the record that Smackmelon's Blue Hour wanted to be, or maybe the record that I wanted Blue Hour to be. It doesn't pretend to be anything other than straight-ahead rock, but it isn't afraid to admit that it was made in a studio, not a garage, and every song has a malevolent melodic hook or three and achingly strained Sugar-style harmonies. I don't think either Michael Barry or Derek Hayes are technically as good as Smackmelon guitarist Duke Roth, but this just leads them to resist the temptation to let every song trail off into guitar solos, which for me works out to be an advantage.
The thing that, in the end, ruined Blue Hour for me is that the lyrics were too boorish to overlook, and Pooka Stew don't have this problem. "In Our Minds" opens with "I dreamed I was a prisoner of the Archduke Ferdinand, / Locked up by his only son so I couldn't warn the man", which I suspect represents more European history than Green Day and Social Distortion combined have been exposed to, much less can recall. "Out of My Head" presents an original reason for excess alcohol consumption, and "Loving Someone Else" is either a ironic romantic realization, or else a memorial to Sugar (the particular way they sing "If you ever change your mind", echoing Sugar's "If I Can't Change Your Mind", is perhaps the only evidence for this last interpretation). The relationship scenarios that serve as the basis for the bulk of the remaining songs aren't exactly Justin Currie or David Steinhart, but they don't objectify or trivialize anything, and "Stay the Same" and "Becky Last Night" both have interesting angles on the balance of power.
It isn't the lyrics that keep me playing this album, though, plainly. In fact, I don't think it's anything I can argue for. Some albums I like for reasons I can spell out at nauseating length (and some albums I can spell out reasons for at nauseating length and still don't actually like very much in practice), and this isn't one. It's not adventurous or brilliant or complicated or startling or even that creative. It's standard, and while in a cultural climate where casual extremism and stultifying mildness seem to be the prevailing forces, standardness is unusual and in a way courageous, that's not the point, either. The point is that remembering the last time I listened to this record makes me want to be listening to it again now, and you're unlikely to have heard of Pooka Stew any other way, so I'm recommending them to you, for no better reason than I like them myself. Some weeks, that's all I've got for you.