Tiny People Whirl Around in the Rain Their God Sent Down
81 · 15 August 96
Kevin Salem: Glimmer
I realize that, to the extent I am known for anything, it isn't brevity, but here is a bit of uncharacteristic descriptive efficiency: Kevin Salem's new album, Glimmer, sounds to me exactly like what you'd get if you mashed Tommy Keene and Dave Pirner together so firmly that their musical tastes merged, but they themselves suffered only some minor nasal damage. Those of you who know and love both Keene and Pirner, then, can skip the rest of this entry, because it will either be inexplicable or redundant, and possibly both.
For those of you who don't know Keene and Pirner that well, or have mixed feelings about them (or can't imagine Neil Young singing Jules Shear songs, which would be roughly similar), I will try to elaborate. Keene is, to me, the best solo pure pop songwriter this country can claim. He writes seamless odes to human aspiration and fallibility, and manages to polish them to a flawless translucent luster without imparting any tacky excess of gloss. If you don't know Tommy Keene, and you care at all about American-style guitar pop and its associated compositional idioms, then you are missing an important element in your life. Like Keene, Kevin Salem writes simple, surging pop songs that derive their sustenance from uncluttered guitar, a sturdily unassuming rhythm section, and the singer's plaintive voice. Salem's songs substitute a little bit of anger for some of Keene's pervasive melancholy, and while there's plenty of wistfulness left over, Salem's combination of the two emotions thus ends up seeming a touch defiant where Keene's usually settles for introspection. The two writers' lyric styles are also similar, though they both seem to me to be of the just-make-it-sensible-enough-that-nobody's-embarrassed-to-sing-along school.
Dave Pirner, on the other hand, is the songwriter and lead singer for rehabilitated (or lapsed, depending on your perspective) punk scions Soul Asylum. In Soul Asylum's early days it was gracious to call his role "singing", and somewhat disingenuous to call Soul Asylum's spastic noise-drills songs, but by their 1992 commercial break-through album, Grave Dancers Union, they'd mellowed and matured rather drastically, and these days Pirner is an expressive, if still ragged, singer, and the band has slowed down and incorporated enough folk and country influences for their music, if not their rather disheveled selves, to travel in civilized company. Salem shares both some of the roughness of Pirner's singing style, and some of the mournful country flair that informs Soul Asylum songs, but he rarely overextends himself, either lyrically or vocally, the way Pirner habitually does.
The album opens with "Run Run Run", a song with a Keene-ish title and Pirner-like vocal bleats at the ends of the verse lines. A four-step guitar-chord descent cycles imperturbably behind hesitant snare bursts and some sighing harmonica, and Salem's sung melody seems to swerve into careful reserve at just the moments when it might have taken flight, though some vocal harmony and lyrical lead guitar compensate at least partially for this denial. "Innocence", next, with its steely acoustic guitar arpeggios and sinuous bass hooks, reminds me strongly of UFO's "Back into My Life", perhaps after a chorus transplant from the Replacements' "Merry Go Round". "Pray for Rain"'s measured drum stomp and detailed little guitar flourishes carry a frayed vocal that is shored up a little by earnest backing singers. The album doesn't really bring me to my feet, though, until song four, "Chemical Night Train". After a slow, deliberate first minute, with backing vocalists Jules Verdone and Lois Isaksen adding another ghostly layer to Salem's fragile delivery, this song suddenly explodes into a barely-contained riot that only the withering crash-cymbal detonations overhead can keep from escaping the tempo. "We ride on a chemical night train, / Going out in overdrive" is not quite as sophisticated or sensitive as I would, all other things equal, prefer choruses to be (and this seems more of a shame to me when I think how easy it would have been to turn this into an anthem of restless youth by using a literal train instead of a metaphorical one), but if you can sing "Knockin' me out with those American thighs" with gusto, then I imagine you'll be able to adapt to this, too.
And then, as if "Chemical Night Train" has only just fully woken up Salem and his band, the album makes an immediate jump in intensity in its wake. "Underneath", with its roiling bass and wailing lead guitar, is a charged stampede whose tagline, "With an idiot's grace I'm going underneath", seems particularly appropriate to me, even if I'm not quite sure what it's supposed to mean. "Sleep" starts slow, somber and muted, but the inertia built up from the previous two songs makes its pace seem menacing, and I'm unsurprised when the slide-guitar break in the middle leads to an increasingly passionate crescendo in the second half. "Number Seven"'s verses play reverberating guitar blasts against another dry, insistent drum track, and its choruses find everybody in the band playing and singing their heart out, as if sheer volume of noise can fight off whatever debilitating relationship disease the narrator is suffering from.
Things then calm down a little for "All on Trial", which to me relies just a little too much on vocal lines that seem to struggle against their melody, and "Always", whose conventional ballad mannerisms seem to me to miss the important point that Salem's songs are already heartfelt and dramatic without their having to telegraph the intent this way. The album regroups for the final stretch, though, with bass and guitar switching musical roles for the dense "Damned", Salem's lyrics finding timeless country anguish ("To the town of no return", "Long gone sons and hidden daughters", "Time turns tears to ice water") to go along with the sad "Trouble", and then the whole band mustering their last reserve of exhausted end-of-the-night elation for the tattered elegance of the extended album closer, "Destructible". Keene's albums are virtually without lull, and I don't think Salem has quite achieved that here, but on the other hand, even Soul Asylum's most accessible albums have been willfully erratic, and this one has a much more confident sense of its own identity. This is pop starting to age, and what it gives up in exuberance and playfulness, it more than makes up for in wisdom and experience. May we all do as well.
Cheri Knight: The Knitter
I guess the theme for this issue is "albums I can summarize succinctly", because I've got a one-sentence capsule for this one, too. Cheri Knight sounds like a female Kevin Salem. Since she sings backup on two of his songs, he's thanked on her album, and his drummer used to be in her band, I'm assuming this isn't completely coincidental, but the comparison occurred to me before I noticed the supporting evidence, not after.
This is Cheri's first solo album, following many years and a few albums with perennial Boston neo-country-ites Blood Oranges. I only know Blood Oranges in Cheri-inspired retrospect from their final (I think) album, 1994's The Crying Tree, on which they seemed to be suffering from songwriting schizophrenia, as Cheri's tight, balanced songs clashed glaringly with the goofy cow-punk romps of their other singer/songwriter, Jim Ryan, who seems to have been graduated from some experimental therapy program that involved playing Thin White Rope into one ear and a compilation tape of Guadalcanal Diary's sillier songs into the other, both at top volume for just a little bit too long. Left to her own songwriting devices here, while retaining the assistance of The Crying Tree producer Eric "Roscoe" Ambel, as well as engaging Ambel's services on electric guitar and those of bassist Ray Mason and dB's drummer Will Rigby, Knight picks up exactly where her Blood Oranges tracks to me seemed to leave off. If you can imagine Melissa Etheridge run through a filter polarized to reject Bryan Adams, the Cowboy Junkies on speed, or the S.F. Seals with Leslie Spit Treeo and Maria McKee tendencies substituted for Barbara Manning's resemblances to Helium's Mary Timony and Throwing Muses' Kristin Hersh, then you are either exactly the reader I'm writing for, or else, statistically speaking, you are actually me.
Where Salem, to me, starts from Tommy Keene's pop purity and unravels it a little, Cheri Knight seems to start from a country/folk-rock base more like Knots and Crosses or even Mary Chapin Carpenter, which she then bends back towards Salem-ish rock by plugging everything in, cranking up the drums, and trying to watch that nobody accidentally turns the overdrive pedals off in between songs. Where Salem's songs owe a sizable share of their tension to the way their intensity and noise strains at the frame of their square pop structures, Cheri's use electricity and her own deep voice and odd sense of timing to push similarly against sturdy country skeletons, with the result that both albums channel my attention into themselves, rather than turning into theme music for some other pursuit. This is a rock album with the soul of a wistful pop record, the mind of a folk album, the hands of tiny nightclubs and long drives, and the feet of a square dance.
It starts out in very close to full rock mode, with blaring guitar hounding the measured gait of "The Knitter", which would make a good flipside to a New England traditional-occupations single that had Kevin Salem's "Lighthouse Keeper" on the other one. Where the lighthouse keeper in Salem's song was merely an image, though, the knitter in Knight's is a substantially more ambitious and mythic metaphor, winding and unraveling lives, not just yarn, and straining to not lose herself into the pattern. Her threads and country extend into the next song, too, the edgy "Megalith", where the rain and the sun are "dropped by tethers", and the worshipping dancers are "strapped to the beast of the pasture". And though "Down by the Water" on first glance (or whatever you call a glance you do with your ears, not your eyes) might appear to be a relatively standard country jaunt, inspection reveals the unmistakable traces of genuine life in its details, like the machinery of the dam beside which the song's passionate clench transpires, and the way the man leaves the woman there, or perhaps it is her who stays, so that the repetition of the song's title in the chorus is not just a conventional device, but a reflection of the way the narrator calculates the values of the components of the evening's experience. "Light in the Road" is even more ambivalent, a mother singing a soliloquy to her errant daughter in which her chief regret is "Shouldn't have given you my own name", because she can no more hold her daughter back from making the same mistakes she herself made than she could keep herself from making them in the first place.
The high-powered opening quartet then gives way to "Last Barn Dance", a perfectly serious Patsy-Cline-esque country ballad about love and age, which loses one lyrical point from me for failing to insert any really surprising twists, and another one for writing "loose" in the notes where Cheri sings "lose", and a third one because "loose" would have been more interesting in context. "Wishing Well" inches back out of the traditional, with bottleneck acoustic guitar moaning at the grimly symmetrical scenes of a closing heart in the lyrics. "That I Might See" lets up on Atmosphere, and eases into a steady stride with ahhing background vocals and a chiming 12-string, which mirror the resiliency of the aging narrator, buoyed up by her memories, and then we return to ambiguity and the earth for the unhurried "Waiting for Sara", whose narrator stands by a man who she isn't sure will ever realize her motives for doing so.
The album starts gathering itself to conclude with "Spellbound"'s story of childhood dreams metamorphosing into nightmares and unwanted wisdom, where spare, hushed verses give way to the solid smack of a snare in the echoey chorus. "Paper Wings" steps back onto the dance floor for a somber country waltz, Joe Flood's uneasy violin evoking the lyrical point about the fragility of beauty nicely. And the distortion pedals come back on (I assume someone finally noticed they'd gotten turned off again) just in time for the conclusion, "Very Last Time", which would sound a bit like a Dire Straits funeral march if the music didn't share the lyrical menace inherent in the tagline "I got you in my arms / With doubts in my mind". Its final guitar chord fades away, and I am left realizing that this is another totally random purchase that I have come quickly to cherish. It is a world worth living in that hides music like this everywhere I look, and a record endowed with this much realism, insight and fairness would be too short at any length. As would be life.
David Gray: Sell, Sell, Sell
I have a short summary for this one, too, but it's even more tenuous than the other two. David Gray is, to me, what is left after I separate the Hothouse Flowers-ness out of the Waterboys. Mind you, I've already excised several other elements that the Waterboys demonstrably possessed, but which I didn't happen to care for, personally. There are, to me, only four real Waterboys albums. I count the first two, of course, where Mike Scott, Anthony Thistlethwaite and, by A Pagan Place, Karl Wallinger, work out their own stirring variant of then-new alternative. I skip This Is the Sea entirely in my mind, because though I know it's some people's favorite, I can't get through two minutes of it any more without snapping it off in exasperation with Scott for trying so hard to sing as badly as Dylan. I then count Fisherman's Blues and Room to Roam, the two neo-Celtic-trad records, which garnered mixed reactions from lots of people, myself not among them. And the appalling final album, Dream Harder, I think of as a Mike Scott solo record mislabeled, and file away with the same shudder I get from his blunt official solo debut. Most, then, of what I think of as the Waterboys' spirit, their epic spirituality, took its leave of the old casing some time in the early Nineties. Not all of it, however, is really represented by Songs From the Rain. Although This Is the Sea is the nexus of Scott's Dylan-esque folk-rock aspirations, hints of it bleed over into the first two albums, as well, and so even in the parts I like there is a stray sliver of soul that wants to bristle wordily, put on one of those neck-mounted harmonica braces and take to the streets, agitating for, or against, whatever occurs to it. It's this part that, grafted onto a whole human being for medical reasons, seems to me to explain David Gray's existence.
Not that you'd guess this from the cover of Sell, Sell, Sell. Wearing geeky glasses with number-of-the-beast price stickers over one lens, glaring intently into the camera, Gray looks like another home-recording prodigy from some neglected American suburb where nobody famous has ever played, let alone been born and lived. Flipping to the CD spine and noting that the album is released by EMI, it's tempting to guess that this is the hapless amateur's major-label debut, and he's having Unpronounceable Symbol-like second thoughts about the bargain already. As far as I can tell, though, none of this is even vaguely correct. Gray is Welsh, the album was recorded in a studio (several actually, though one of them is in Ithaca), and his prior album, Flesh (the second I know of, after A Century Ends), was released through both EMI and Virgin. The songs are about relationships and associated urban dilemmas, but none of them mention living with his parents, and none of them seem to have been written when he was fourteen.
The key element that links Gray and Scott in my mind is the precise inflection to Gray's voice, the way it seems to swell up towards notes and then away from them again, as if he's constantly undershooting the desired tone and gunning his lungs to compensate. His British accent primarily manifests itself as an oddly open-mouthed overtone when he warbles into tremolo. Instrumentally, this record is constructed like a folk album, but strategic substitution of torn-speaker electric guitar for acoustic keeps it from turning into Ellis Paul. Gray himself contributes guitars, keyboards and the harmonica, something called "Clune" handles drums, and producer David Nolte fills in the rest. This is a much smaller cast than performed on either of Gray's previous albums, and to me Sell, Sell, Sell benefits from the exchange of participant variety for greater focus. It's hard to tell whether Gray is actually getting any better at writing songs, as his style hasn't changed much over the three albums, and his odd singing style tends to kind of undermine melodies, but he was plenty good at songwriting to begin with, and if you happen to like his voice, the music will provide ample support for repeat listening. If this convincing simulation of life really did grow from a fragment of a soul, then I think the human soul may be a relative of the flatworm. But I've thought that for other reasons, too.