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Firepower
Aimee Mann: Long Shot
My guilt about buying singles is primarily numeric in nature, as if I will arrive at the gates of eternal reward and there be confronted by the final accounting, which will take the form of an average dollar amount which I have paid per song in my music collection. The presiding Associate Saint will consult a laminated lookup table tacked to the cloud beside his rostrum, and as his finger tracks further down the left hand column, his frown deepening, it will become painfully clear that I have not lived my life in the fashion to which I was intended to become accustomed.
Aimee Mann's Long Shot single would appear to be a particularly damning example, as I'm pretty sure I paid $9.99 for it, and it contains, in addition to the album versions of "Long Shot" and "You're With Stupid Now", only one new song, "Driving With One Hand on the Wheel". Since album song-rates work out to about a dollar per track, this is clearly exorbitant, and one might reasonably ask whether any single sub-three-minute pop song, no matter how cool, could justify such a disproportionate rate. Remove the question from the domain of pure economics however, and it quickly ceases to be rhetorical. Consider what else you might do with ten dollars, and weigh the lasting impact each use would have in your life against the power of one great song. Two extra-value meals? One and a third viewings of Supercop? A parallel printer cable? One trip through the automatic car wash? Yes, you could also feed an entire Indonesian village for a month, and the line of moral argument necessary to justify trading villages for pop songs is somewhat hard to follow (to put this in even more horrifying perspective, looking through my Dorling Kindersley Reference Atlas I discover that if my yearly CD budget was a nation's per capita GNP, that nation would be ranked 40th out of 192 countries, just edged out of 39th place by Taiwan), but if we are allowed to affect sufficient myopia that it becomes meaningful to talk about b-sides again, I don't have the slightest reservation about what I paid for this one. Please don't tell this to anybody who works for a record label, but this song might be worth another factor of ten to me.
It's an unassuming song, with chirpy guitar, dry drums and some cheesy electric piano laying the foundation for Aimee's unadorned one-take vocals and a persistent rattle from some maracas that appear to have misplaced the larger part of the beans or bug carcasses or whatever it is they usually have inside. The lyrics have a few trademark Mann touches, but nothing I'd inscribe over the seal of a letter. There is "production" only in the sense of getting the levels roughly balanced, and surely the first order of business in "finishing" the track would be converting the undignified end, where everything just sort of expires as if the players all ran out of ideas at about the same time, into a fade out. Yet I believe I would trade this song for the whole of I'm With Stupid if I had to. Next to it, everything on the album (which, mind you, I loved) seems overproduced and indistinct. This, I feel myself yearning to believe, is what Aimee's musical self is in its natural state, and the urge to mess with it any further is understandable but misguided. Why must a song be a production? Why can a song not be merely a notion, an inspiration of a moment that we no more insist resolve itself neatly than we would rehearse a smile?
Tori Amos: Professional Widow
The obverse point about quantity/quality ratios is made, for me, quite convincingly by this seven-track, forty-minute remix convocation endorsed by Tori Amos in nominal service of her harpsichord-punk diatribe "Professional Widow". I know a lot of artists are very concerned about being properly credited when their work is sampled, but to me the "proper" level of Tori credit for these six remixes, three each by Armand Van Helden and MK, would be a bibliographic entry that you had to buy the disc and take it out of the shrink wrap to find. Snippets of her vocal part from the song are scattered throughout these tracks, but her presence doesn't turn these into Tori Amos songs any more than a child's glue-drenched cut-up-magazine collage is a Vermeer painting by virtue of a few torn bits of a picture of one having made their way into the glop.
Tori Amos: Hey Jupiter / Professional Widow
The contemporaneous UK single claims to be a "double a-side", which is an odd anomaly given that most of the rest of the UK single industry has gone to two-part singles that amount to "half an a-side". The version of "Professional Widow" here is "Armand's Star Trunk Funkin' mix (radio edit)", which is a fine choice of mixes in the same way that a lung is a fine vital organ in which to be stabbed. "The Dakota version" of "Hey Jupiter", however, is another matter. On Boys for Pele, "Hey Jupiter" is one of the most straightforwardly old-Tori songs, just her and her piano and oceans of silence parting at a twitch from the corner of her lips. This version jettisons the piano almost entirely, inserting a muted industrial static-drum track and humming synthetic cello as the primary musical elements. Tori's vocal, however, is preserved in unnerving intimacy, and the result of this human/machine juxtaposition for me is that the frailty and emotional menace of her performance are even more vivid than in the original, where the elegance and uncanny articulation of her piano playing keep me from focusing as exclusively on her singing. After hearing things like the "Professional Widow" remixes I often find myself wondering whether I ought to just outlaw the whole practice of remixing once I take over the world, but this one reminds me that songs can have more than one quality, and that there can thus be more than one worthy way of playing them.
The other two tracks on this single are live versions of "Sugar" and "Honey", both of which were actually b-sides to begin with (the Little Earthquakes-era "Sugar" from the UK single for "China", and the Under the Pink refugee "Honey" from either the US single for "Cornflake Girl", or the UK one for "Pretty Good Year", your choice). For those of you who have not experienced what it's like to see Tori play live, hearing a recording is not quite a substitute (nor is seeing her on TV, for that matter), as it doesn't communicate her seemingly transubstantial ability to occupy the entire airspace of an auditorium, nor her gift for infusing every gesture of hands, body or voice with significance so that no matter how fleetingly she can make eye-contact with each person in the audience specifically, each one receives their own special message all the same. Still, even without these phenomena, hearing her play is as close to direct apprehension of divinity as I expect to be granted in this life. I object to bootlegs on artistic and moral grounds (homework exercise: are art and morality different?), but there are days when I feel an almost physical longing to go out and buy every Tori Amos recording ever made, just so I can lock myself in my apartment for a month and hear nothing but her voice and my own breathing. Given how afraid I am that I'd forget to eat, though, it's probably just as well that there is only ten minutes of it here.
Tori Amos: Hey Jupiter
Bouncing back to the US, the domestic single for "Hey Jupiter" leapfrogs the UK one by dropping the "Professional Widow" remix and adding two more live recordings. A hushed, sketchy rendition of the old standard "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" will be familiar to anybody who has heard her stylistically similar reconstructions of "Home on the Range", "Little Drummer Boy" and "Amazing Grace" (or, for that matter, "Smells Like Teen Spirit"), but the real prize addition is the live version of "Professional Widow", labeled "Merry Widow version" with what I assume is meant to be droll irony, since once you get past the few seconds of banter in the intro there's nothing remotely merry about it. It is, in fact, as radical a reworking of the garrulous original as the Dakota remix of "Hey Jupiter" is of that, and the presence of both on this disc means that if you don't buy this, I don't want to hear that you have ever again purchased a CD-single. From her comments to the crowd before beginning it, I'm guessing that Tori is playing a real pump organ, which she has to think hard to remember how to operate effectively, instead of her usual piano or harpsichord, and in doing so she provides some alert music professor with a primary text for exploring the difference between a sustained keyboard instrument and a percussive one. Her legato vocal performance here is as in keeping with the elegiac arrangement of the keyboard part as her biting vocals on the album were with the maniacal drive of the drums and distorted harpsichord there, and as a bonus, the open-mouthed howl she unleashes on the "selling his baby" section is a noise I don't think I've ever heard out of her before.
Alanis Morissette: Ironic UK
Alanis Morissette continues her own episodic live chronicle on this British single for "Ironic". I noted in reviewing Alanis' last batch of singles that she was well on the way to her b-sides being a complete live replication of her album, and these two singles nearly complete the cycle. This one has her doing "You Oughta Know" live at the Grammy Awards, and "Mary Jane" and "All I Really Want" at a March 6th show in Kalamazoo. "You Oughta Know" is clearly the centerpiece here, for the sensationalist because she sensibly declined to censor either of the song's well-known transgressions against the TV profanity taboos, and for the fan of music because for the occasion her touring band is assisted by a string quartet (all four of whose members are credited solely with "strings", which makes me think somebody forgot to write down which person played what) and Jagged Little Pill producer/co-writer Glen Ballard himself on piano. This large-ensemble version may not be quite as astonishing a departure from the album version as Tori's reinterpretations, but it's pretty impressive all the same, I think. The version of "Mary Jane" here is the least adventurous, staying pretty close to the contemplative original, but the version of "All I Really Want" is raw and charged, and in my experience lends itself very well to being turned up extremely loud.
Alanis Morissette: Head Over Feet
The European single for "Head Over Feet" comes one song short of filling in the last three live gaps. It provides versions of "Hand in My Pocket" and "You Learn", but where a live version of "Ironic" would have finished the collection, the single falters and instead gives us another "Right Through You" (which appeared as a b-side on "Hand in My Pocket" already, albeit as an acoustic radio session, not a full-band performance). All three recordings are from the same Kalamazoo show that the versions of "Mary Jane" and "All I Really Want" on the "Ironic" single are from, but for some reason these three sound much better to me. "You Learn" is explosive, "Hand in My Pocket" majestic, and "Right Through You" venomous and cathartic. The really remarkable thing about all three recordings, though, is the participation of the audience. As much as I support Alanis, personally, I've been very cynical about the reasons for her immense popularity, attributing most of it to the album's timely production style, a few eminently exploitable lyrical themes, and her own provocative image and personality. Listening to the Wings Stadium crowd respond to and sing along with her, though, I'm having a hard time defending my disdain. Sure, "Right Through You" has the line about "wine, dine, sixty-nine me", which you'd expect people to latch onto, but they're reacting to the less incendiary points in "You Learn" and "Hand in My Pocket" with the same degree of enthusiasm and awareness. Maybe the crowd mics have just been strategically place near clusters of especially conscientious fans, but the crowd I hear singing is not giving in mindlessly to rhythms or catch-phrases, it's singing along with words it clearly knows and understands. You're welcome to your own opinions of Alanis, naturally, but to me these three live tracks constitute a persuasive argument that her popularity actually comes, in large part, from the content of her songs. I really do think that she has reached people, that people are drawn to her because they sense that she has expressed something about their lives as much as her own. Now, that was my own reaction, the first time I heard the album, so I'm not puzzled in principle, but the thought that a whole stadium full of anonymous Michiganites could share my tastes through more than coincidence is something I wasn't prepared for at all.
Everclear: Heartspark Dollarsign UK #1
Live versions also grace the UK singles for Everclear's "Heartspark Dollarsign". This first part has, in addition to a punchy single mix of the title track, a trebly and accelerated "Pennsylvania Is" and a choppy rendition of "Nervous & Weird", both songs from their debut album, World of Noise. Everclear is explosive in concert, but I've yet to hear their live energy successfully transmitted in any other way than coming out of four-foot-high club monitors ten feet from your head. On their SNL appearance Craig's bass appeared to be tuned to a whole different scale than Art's guitar, and the sound on their Letterman visit was only slightly better. These recordings at least get the instruments in tune and basically in balance with each other, but the roar of Art's guitar (and, for that matter, of Art), the boyish abandon of Greg's drumming, and the ferocity with which Craig hammers at his bass strings all totally fail to come across.
Everclear: Heartspark Dollarsign UK #2
The second disc adds performances of "Loser Makes Good" and "Sparkle", two more World of Noise tracks. The bit of "Loser Makes Good" when Art leans into "you stupid college fuck" is fun, but "Sparkle" seems deliberately underplayed. In addition to these tracks not representing what Everclear actually sounds like when you're there, they also completely omit the presence of the crowd. Now that I really think about it, it's probably not the noise of the crowd I'm really remembering, since the music would drown that out pretty thoroughly, but the sense of being in it, how I could feel the whole room coil as songs built toward release, and then flail ecstatically when it hit. Rarely have I had as strong an awareness of the flow of energy back from the crowd onto the stage as at Everclear shows. Live tracks ought to capture that feeling, somehow, but in Everclear's case I get much more of it from the album. There, the songs are a communication between the band and me. Here, where I know they aren't playing to me and I can't sense who they are playing to, the songs seem to fall into a void.
Everclear: Heroin Girl
And for completeness, since I've covered everything else Everclear has done, this UK issue was actually the first single from Sparkle and Fade, released on Fire Records before Capitol realized that there might be a return for promoting Everclear themselves. Besides the album version of "Heroin Girl" there is a crunchy alternate mix of "Nehalem", a reprise of Everclear's cover of "American Girl" (from the Tom Petty tribute album You Got Lucky), and the wistful "Annabella's Song". The "Nehalem" remix is expendable, and the rumor is that "Annabella's Song" will be remade for Pure White Evil, their next album, but their version of "American Girl" is inspired and wonderful, and the rest of You Got Lucky didn't do much for me, so if you didn't buy it already this might be a good alternative.
Tracy Bonham: Sunshine
I sent in a response card from my copy of Tracy's album The Burdens of Being Upright, and some time later this promotional single arrived in the mail. Maybe they have more. "Sunshine", the a-side, is a track from Tracy's 1995 pre-major EP The Liverpool Sessions, which I recommend heartily to anybody who liked the full album. The thing that makes the single notable, though, is the flip-side (and it's a vinyl single, so I mean "flip" literally for once), a live recording of Tracy covering PJ Harvey's "50 Ft. Queenie" as a berserk violin jam. The one time I saw Tracy and her band in concert, I was underwhelmed by the bulk of the show, which seemed to me too often to leave off its casting about for melody prematurely, in favor of uninspired rock-dude riffing. Tracy herself is supposedly a violin virtuoso (and despite Lisa Germano's comments about the impossibility of this, is actually able to sing while playing), but for most of the show the violin sat on its stand, and she played merely-competent guitar instead. For the encore, though, she ripped into "50 Ft. Queenie" with an electrifying zeal that would make Polly seem seriously repressed. The experience is a little less astonishing at home than it was in person, but I'm very pleased to have any semblance of it in permanent form.
various: The Craft
Compilations, I've come to feel, are actually singles, it's just that somebody decided it was more cost-effective to put the two or three songs that compose my single on the same physical disk as the two or three different ones that compose yours. If overlapping isn't allowed, the songs I'm not using are Our Lady Peace's murky "Tomorrow Never Knows" (which sounds to me like a School of Fish intro that never reaches the song), Sponge's bluesy "All This and Nothing", Tripping Daisy's jerky "Jump Into the Fire", All Too Much's sly retro "Warning", Elastica's churning "Spastica" (which I like, but have on another single somewhere), Spacehog's beepy "The Horror", and Graeme Revell's innocuous world-dub piece "Bells, Books and Candles". We can haggle over the ones I have mixed feelings about, which are Heather Nova's somewhat brittle cover of Peter Gabriel's "I Have the Touch", Matthew Sweet's relatively standard (for him) "Dark Secret", Juliana Hatfield's unusually un-waif-like "Witches Song", and "Under the Water", which though it's credited to Jewel, is unmistakably her singing over somebody else's music. The two I'm keeping for myself, which you'll have to buy your own copy to hear, are Boston's Letters to Cleo doing an impishly faithful style-updating of the Cars' "Dangerous Type" and, best of all, Love Spit Love doing a reverently revved take of the Smiths' "How Soon Is Now?". Hearing Butler, who predated Morrissey in the music scene by several years, singing the Smiths' anthem of gender tolerance with the same knowing love you hear in other people covering Bowie and the Beatles makes me feel like my plan of improving my musical knowledge by waiting out my areas of ignorance may be working after all.
The Posies: Ontario
Speaking of covers, this seven-track Australian Posies single finds them, among other things, paying homage to three of their pop ancestors. "Leave Me Be", their track from the Zombies tribute album World of the Zombies, is pretty and tastefully understated. "King Midas in Reverse", from the Hollies tribute sing HOLLIES in reverse, is ebullient and rousing, seemingly less constrained by the precise idiom of the original than "Leave Me Be". And the dire, noisy "Every Christian Lionhearted Man Will Show You", a Bee-Gees cover that for me easily outclasses everything on the Melody Fair tribute album, is even further removed from its precursor. Perhaps to compensate, the one new original here, "Every Bitter Drop", despite hissing cymbals and heavily fuzzed guitar, has a timeless pop structure that wouldn't have sounded out of place in the Gibbs' own early catalog. And "Going, Going, Gone", reprised from the soundtrack to Reality Bites, hides its power-pop roots under only a thin layer of ragged guitar processing and a somewhat indifferent vocal performance. A swirling Amsterdam live recording of "Hate Song" and the album version of "Ontario" itself are, for me, actually the single's low points.
McRackins: Short and Sweet
A more hyperactive interpretation of power-pop is on display on yet another single from Vancouver's unflaggingly prolific masters of thoroughly uncomplicated punk-pop gems, McRackins. If Green Day and the Ramones are just a little too burdened by petulance and angst for you, McRackins provide a purity of inane glee that should restore your faith in garages and songs that don't take much longer to write than they do to play. As much fun as every new song of theirs is the first few times, though, they are all blindingly simplistic, and after about the fourth listen to any given song I find that "charming" begin a rapid transmogrification into "annoying". But as long as they keeping writing and releasing new songs at their current clip, providing a constant supply of fresh ones to replace the ones I've worn out, I guess the disposability of any individual composition isn't really a problem.
Mecca Normal: Paris in April
I have exactly the opposite reaction to fellow Vancouverians Mecca Normal, whose songs I can never seem to focus properly on until about the fifth playing. The three songs on this, their most recent seven-inch, are taking an even longer time to make their impression on me. "Paris in April" is uncharacteristically gentle, David Lester playing reserved acoustic guitar and Jean Smith's singing only slipping into her trademark dissonance for a couple syllables here and there. The brief "Tower Island" uses the same arrangement, but Lester's pulsing guitar part is more reflective of his usual penchant for making the instrument do things that it doesn't seem designed for, and Jean's oblique and fragmentary poem, which she sings like a robot slowly beginning to understand torch songs, is a better example of how her strange delivery usually complements her rigorously minimalist lyrics. And the even shorter "Invisible Weapon" finds Lester playing like an eight-year-old flamenco prodigy who suffers from regrettable momentary seizures every few measures, while Jean solemnly intones a character sketch that's only barely too long and too clear to be a koan.
The Magnetic Fields: The House of Tomorrow
The Magnetic Fields are as maximalist by temperament as Mecca Normal are minimalist, and this 1992 EP, subtitled "Five Loop Songs", and just recently issued on CD, could be a musical reply to Paris in April, particularly since one of the songs is "Love Goes Home to Paris in the Spring". According to the credits these songs are the work of a bass/guitar/guitar/cello/drums quintet, but these players do an uncannily accurate impression of the rickety, solipsistic Casio mini-symphony style that Stephin Merritt resorts to when left to his own devices. Evaluated according to conventional criteria for ensemble dynamics or the fluency of individual parts, these songs are almost incomprehensibly amateurish, but criticizing them for conventional failings is a bit like Olympic diving judges penalizing a diver for having temporarily halted his descent, cartoon-like, three feet above the water, in order to correct his angle of entry. Where Mecca Normal's songs seem only peripherally aware that the whole idea of music isn't some private invention that David and Jean came up with between themselves, the Magnetic Fields don't appear to be satisfied with any song until its level of theoretic complexity is comparable to a Bach fugue, but it's as if they've only read about fugues, and thus have no idea that there's more to performance than just the simple mechanical act of playing the parts they've written, using whatever cheap instruments are handy. In both cases, the effect is songs that are bad music the way Cubism was bad painting.
Shatterproof: Signal Flare
Shatterproof's mixture of effortless pop instincts and noisy Ed Ackerson production approximately reverses the Magnetic Fields' ratio, so that instead of your first reaction being "What the hell is that?", your first reaction is happily tapping along, and about your ninth reaction is "And what are those odd sounds in the background, anyway?" The three songs on this between-albums single are even more upbeat and accessible than most of Slip It Under the Door, their debut, something like the drive of the Loud Family painted from the sonic palette of Buffalo Tom. "Helicopter" is airy and dreamlike, and "Signal Flare" and "Going Nowhere" are bouncy and infectious. A Gin Blossoms antidote for people who can still remember when they used to actually listen to their Hüsker Dü albums.
Cold Water Flat: Gun, Laughter, Cries
Shatterproof's Fort Apache labelmates Cold Water Flat only manage to pull together two songs for their single, the tense "Gun, Laughter, Cries" and the slashing "Sick". They're both fine songs, which on one level ought to be enough, but to me they sound just like the songs on last year's album, and although there's no law that says bands must continuously evolve, a part of me clings to the notion that in this album-centric era, a stand-alone single ought to have something more notable to say than "Oh, here's a couple more we forgot about".
The Smashing Pumpkins: Tonight, Tonight
For example, the seven songs on the Smashing Pumpkins' single for "Tonight, Tonight" (on one disc if you get the cost-effective European version, or spread over two in the chart-minded UK incarnation), if you can believe that there are still more songs left over after Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, actually form a coherent little twenty-one-minute suite. Following a stylistic thread of the title song's haunting orchestral grandeur that the album didn't really pursue, the new songs here are quiet and acoustic, graceful and gentle. "Meladori Magpie" has a slow, mournful lope, "Rotten Apples" finds a legato cello dueting with picked guitar , "Jupiter's Lament" is nearly a lullaby, "Medallia of the Grey Skies"'s guitar, piano and vocals seem to be coming from the back of an empty room you can only see when you close your eyes, "Blank" sounds like a forgotten Radiohead demo, and "Tonite Reprise" sounds like Corgan singing into a dictaphone in his dressing room at 3am after the orchestra from the album version has finally drunk all his champagne and gone home, reclaiming the parts of the song that he had to temporarily let go of in order to share it.
The Smashing Pumpkins: Zero
If the six more new titles listed on the back of this single were merely six more outtakes, this would be just more evidence for the section of the Smashing Pumpkins expose that argues that Billy Corgan must be receiving contraband sheet music from a race of overworked aliens. It's much too hard to explain the sheer numbers any other way. And five of the six are just more Pumpkins songs. They aren't of a theme like the ones on Tonight, Tonight, or remarkable in any other new way, so either you have enough Pumpkins songs already, or else you don't, and there's not much to be gained from my describing these. The last track, though, is a twenty-one-minute medley that includes fragments of sixty-nine more Smashing Pumpkins songs you've never heard, and now probably never will, followed by seven straight minutes at the end during which a three-note Sabbath-ish riff is repeated over and over and over and over again. I say all that calmly, but only because I've been sitting here for half an hour typing sentences that attempt to convey what listening to this makes me feel, and then erasing them. After about the eighteenth fragment, or the third minute of that endless guitar line, my mind locks up. I can't process it, the scales are too overwhelming. They are defying us to listen to the whole thing. They are defying us to believe that they can write songs so effortlessly that they can afford to throw away sixty-nine of them just to hear how big a crash it makes. I can't put myself into a mindset in which you do this for any reason other than to express how little you care what your listeners think, or what they struggle with in their own lives. I can't understand how a person could stay in the frame of mind necessary to make this medley without killing themselves, or opening fire in the nearest public space. I can't understand how the impulses are different. I think this is most contemptuous and nihilistic thing I have ever heard, and I think I will never joke about being a nihilist ever again.
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