All Advice Is Ways of Saying 'Let It Go'
87 · 26 September 96
The Loud Family: Interbabe Concern
It's only September. Or conversely, it's not very impressive to bet on your own actions. Either way, though, I am going to make a prediction: this coming New Year's Day, some time in the evening, when I finally stop obsessively rearranging my best album list for another year, it will be my claim that, all the breathless things I've said about other albums in other weeks notwithstanding and not retracted, the Loud Family's third album, Interbabe Concern, is the greatest music this twelve months of humanity was able to devise. I make a very conscious effort, when drawing up these lists, not to simply fill the top slots with whichever of my five favorite artists had albums that year. This is at least half because I publish the lists, and what little objective credibility I am able to maintain can scarcely handle the additional strain of my claiming, January after January, that Big Country has again made the year's best record. The other half of the reason, though, is that because I empathize so strongly with my favorites, and expect, self-fulfillingly, to react so positively to their work, it's hard for a new album by Big Country, or Marillion, or Kate Bush, or even Tori, now, to astonish me the way somebody can about whom I have few or no expectations, like Alanis last year, or Cyndi Lauper in 1993, or Tori in 1991. In fact, discounting #1 votes for albums by people who were only thus on their way to becoming my favorites, like Little Earthquakes and Marillion's Seasons End, only once since I began making formal lists have I found myself unable to avoid giving the slot to a preexisting favorite. That once was 1994, when my #1 was the Loud Family's The Tape of Only Linda. If you feel obliged to write off my judgment based on my voting, twice in three years, for a band that nobody else you know has ever heard of, then, well, that's why I only allow myself the conceit of list-making mock-rigor once a year. Leave yourself a note to skip issue #101, and we should be able to still get along. If you're willing to consider the case, though, at least here in advance, then I will try to channel my future self, and explicate the factors that will have led me to this conclusion.
First, Interbabe Concern is almost certainly Scott's most uncompromising and inaccessible record. The last few albums, from Game Theory through the name change, have set up a pattern of alternating simple and complex, with the labyrinthine architecture of Lolita Nation, Plants and Birds and Rocks and Things and now Interbabe Concern spelled by the relative straightforwardness of Big Shot Chronicles, Two Steps From the Middle Ages and The Tape of Only Linda, but even with the precedents to prepare me, Interbabe Concern was a shock. After the fifty-eight minutes of the first pass, I couldn't have told you if the record consisted officially of 200 songs or five. The torrent of brilliant noises was electrifying, but as the changer moved on, implacably, to something else, I had to wonder if it wasn't speaking for more than machines. The experience of trying to apprehend this bewildering edifice is at first the unshakable sensation of mistaken scale. Trying to read along in the liner notes, hoping that they'll proffer a hand or a guard rail, you quickly go from intimidated to overwhelmed. There is too much going on, on too many levels, to grasp it at full speed. Fortunately, this league allows replay. And the more I listen to this album, including now, as I write this, the clearer it becomes. There are songs in here, there just isn't necessarily one per track listing, starting and ending at index points. As much as Scott jokes about how opposite the Loud Family and Guided by Voices' approaches to music are, the composite effect of Interbabe Concern is not that different, to me, from that of Bee Thousand. Both albums' fanatical internal-logic intertwinings are so dense that either you can't penetrate the thicket at all, or else you do and your head emerges into a totally different world. Lolita Nation used to be my standard for recondite pop mad-genius, but tonight only the thread of my abiding love of "Mammoth Gardens" keeps Interbabe Concern from displacing it off of my DID list.
"Mammoth Gardens", helpfully, brings up my second point, which is Scott's ability to make good use of his collaborators. He does go through a lot of them, but they all seem to come back and help out later, so I assume personal animosity isn't the primary instigator of personnel rotation. Donnette Thayer, Game Theory's second voice on Lolita Nation and Two Steps From the Middle Ages, was perhaps his most prominent foil, but Nancy Becker played the role on earlier Game Theory albums, and in a way Paul Wieneke is playing it now. Guitarist Zach Smith was a major factor in the increased aggression of the first two Loud Family albums, and Wieneke's samples and synthesizers bring much of the noise and the jump-cut instincts. The Posies' Ken Stringfellow and Three O'Clock/Permanent Green Light's Michael Quercio (who was even in Game Theory briefly, just long enough to play on some remakes for their best-of) have been intermittent physical presences and constant spiritual ones. And the most influential collaborator of all was probably Mitch Easter, who produced every Scott Miller album from Real Nighttime to The Tape of Only Linda. Interbabe Concern is the first Scott album not to be produced by Mitch since Quercio handled 1984's Distortion EP, and a large part of why it sounds different is probably just that. Though, actually, no one Game Theory/Loud Family line-up has ever lasted more than two albums intact, and one could as plausibly attribute the difference to the departures of Smith, bassist Rob Poor and drummer Jozef Becker (also formerly of my second-favorite Davis, CA band, Thin White Rope), and their replacement, in the new one-guitar quartet, with bass player Kenny Kessel and ex-Four Non-Blondes drummer Dawn Richardson (who has since also departed).
The flipside of the lineup fluctuations is that it's remarkable how well Scott has managed to persevere through them. As much as each of his bands' incarnations have their own flavor, his own unmistakable personality holds them together. Changing the name from Game Theory to the Loud Family must have had personal rationales, but the difference between Two Steps From the Middle Ages and Plants and Birds and Rocks and Things is at most barely more dramatic than that between Distortion and Real Nighttime, or between The Tape of Only Linda and Interbabe Concern. Whatever else goes on in the band, at its center is always Scott's songwriting (the Game Theory/Loud Family canon features only ten songs, in ten albums, written entirely by other band members: three early, goofy ones by Fred Juhos, one each by Thayer, Shelley LaFreniere and Gil Ray on Lolita Nation, Zach Smith's "Isaac's Law" on P&B&R&T and "For Beginners Only" on TTOOL, and Wieneke's "Better Nature" on TTOOL and "Uncle Lucky" here) and, for all his reliably withering self-deprecation about it, his plaintive voice, for which a similarly short exception list applies (the only example here being Wieneke's lead on his own "Uncle Lucky").
One of the most uncanny things about Miller's songwriting, to me, especially now, is his refusal to recognize the ordinarily sharp boundary between pop and conceptual experiment. Songs are arrested prematurely, or transform without warning. Bizarre production tricks, jarringly mismatched dynamic levels and guitar noises that in any other hands would be incidental invade the quietest moments. Sampled drills, marbles, voices, spastic drum programming, anachronistic synthesizers and overall sonic perversity swarm insistently around Alex Chilton chord changes and teleport-button style-switches alike. Miller has incorporated tape-splicing collages on albums before, most famously in the extended Lisp macro on side three of Lolita Nation, but Interbabe Concern finds him weaving the experimental elements into the weft of the music. The marble on "Don't Respond, She Can Tell" is the song's intro timekeeper. The electric guitar hiccups on "Screwed Over by Stylist Introverts" are as much part of its structure as the circling acoustic. The tumult of background conversation on "Hot Rox Avec Lying Sweet-Talk" is not a joke like on the Cardigans' "Cocktail Party Bloody Cocktail Party", it's the song's atmosphere. The leviathan sighs and burbling synthesizer sparkles of "Where They Go Back to School but Get Depressed" are integral to the fog of the dream. The spilled-drum cacophony of "Where They Sell Antique Food" and the breathy synth-strings and mock-reverse singing of "Where the Flood Waters Soak Their Belongings" are this album's sequels to "Spot the Setup".
For all the musical convolution, though (and this is the fifth thing), Miller can wield viciously barbed pop hooks when he needs them. "Sodium Laureth Sulfate", for all its ungainly lurch, unexpectedly breaks into open, jangly verses, and the obsessive coda develops nice two-part harmony before finally winding down. "Don't Respond, She Can Tell" shifts fluidly in the verses, ringing piano leading to the vocal rounds on the last chorus. The slow "Rise of the Chokehold Princess" has some elegant synth cello and a lilting vocal line. "Screwed Over by Stylish Introverts" sounds to me like Nick Drake experimenting with new studio gadgets. "Top Dollar Survivalist Hardware" breaks out of its halting opening gait into an exuberant pogo, and then into a noisily electrifying full-out gallop. The undulating, partially acoustic "Not Expecting Both Contempo and Classique" is delicate and pretty, with some of Scott's trademark melody lines that seem to continue on whole measures after their phrases should have ended. "Just Gone" is full of expansive, early Big Star grace. "Where They Walk Over Saint Therese"'s strutting bass and piano sounds like Ben Folds relaxing at the end of a long set. And when Scott puts his mind to it, as on the buzzing "I'm Not Really a Spring" (which features a cameo from LaFreniere, Game Theory's Big Shot Chronicles-era keyboardist), the crunching "Such Little Nonbelievers" (with Jozef Becker), and the drumless, multi-voiced "Where They Go Back to School but Get Depressed", he can construct songs that seem to be nothing but melody, three-minute-straight hooks where his vocal line never once seems to settle or retrace itself.
And when he puts those melodies to use, Scott Miller is, to me, the greatest rhyming lyricist in the history of the world. (My individual rationales aren't necessarily any less outrageous than the overall conclusion, but they are more specific.) There have been many very adept lyric writers, from Gilbert and Sullivan to, in his own blunt way, Billy Bragg, but where even Gilbert and Sullivan's rhymes to me occupy the same artistic category of accomplishment as a correctly-formed limmerick (albeit, I hasten to qualify, lest this week's angry letters all arrive in machine-gun verse, at as far extremes of the genre as The Times crossword and Where's Waldo? in theirs), Scott's strike me as a wholly different sort. If Gilbert and Sullivan transform spoken language into intricate choreography (in which case Billy Bragg's writing is a form of particularly blocky modern dance), then Scott inverts the metaphor and makes the most ornate flurry of arabesques and cabrioles seem like simply the most natural and utilitarian arrangements of human joints. When his lyrics rhyme, whether in the twisted snarl of couplets like "Tendon-slash dimension crash entropica, / Cryogen magenta kevlar ebola" or the more roundabout congruences like "We're fighting smiling Irish, they say that we look good in uniform, and mais oui! /So good you couldn't pry the cold dead fingers of the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders free" (which does scan, though you'll never deduce how by reading it), it feels to me not like Scott has been clever, but like what he says rhymes because the structure of the language insures that any true thought, however cryptic, must. The twists he leads his lyrics through seem to me to expose some intrinsic spatial variables in the thoughts themselves, as if not only is this the only way these lines could be sung, but on some level this is only way they can be properly said. It is one of the most incorrigible paradoxes in my life (though perhaps I'm revealing too much about my overintellectualized personal hierarchy of values by admitting this) that form and function are, or often seem, separable, even more so in music than in some other avenues of endeavor. How is it that you can so easily rewrite "Biko" to be about Hitler (preferably not aloud)? Shouldn't the fabric of the song rebel at being put to evil use? Why do strings thrum as readily for Coors Light as for nations as for hearts? How can music, which I believe fervently to be the thing that our species is best at, not possess an inherent nobility of purpose? Days when I scrutinize this question too closely threaten to undermine pillars of my existence. And so, conversely, anything that, even momentarily, seems to assert the opposite, a sort of linguistic Right Makes Might, is desperately welcome, no matter how fleeting or illusory the impression.
Seventhly, Miller's lyrics are also easily the least constrained by genre conventions that I know of. The bulk of rock lyrics are constructed out of large prefab rock-lyric molecules that few people ever bother to disassemble. Turn on the radio and see how many times you can finish lines of songs you've never heard before, just because you know that "twice" is going to lead to "advice", or "light" to "sight", or "part" to "heart", or anything about a girl to something above love, an open road, or the cloudless summer sky. Rock trades in familiar lyrical tropes even more than it does in musical ones. I once played a musician friend a song of mine I was really proud of, about a visual artist frustrated by the weight of history trying to defy it by editing out the quirk in the Mona Lisa's smile in Photoshop, and after listening to it he told me, like he was letting me in on a lesson I'd simply missed learning by not spending my song-writing adolescence playing weeknights at the Rat, that you can't write rock songs about pixels. In this context, Miller's wilfully and unapologetically abstruse collages of shampoo ingredients, cult figures, massively overthought relationship dilemmas, offhandedly trenchant social criticism and the residual thought patterns of computer programming are manifest impossibilities. You don't need to look at the front of the CD case to know that with a song list that includes "Sodium Laureth Sulfate", "North San Bruno Dishonor Trip", "Don't Respond, She Can Tell", "Rise of the Chokehold Princess", "Screwed Over By Stylish Introverts", "Top-Dollar Survivialist Hardware", "Not Expecting Both Contempo and Classique", "Hot Rox Avec Lying Sweet-Talk", "Where They Go Back to School but Get Depressed", "Where They Sell Antique Food" and "Where the Flood Waters Soak Their Belongings", either Scott Miller is responsible, or else Pynchon, Warren Zevon and They Might Be Giants have teamed up in a failed bid to relocate their temporarily misplaced ironic detachment. The liner notes are even more complicated, with unglossed references, just counting the ones I got, to Lou Reed, Yes, the Posies, Brian Eno, Nine Inch Nails, Peter Frampton, Ben Folds Five, the Who, Harold and Maude, Unix and calculus.
And yet, finally, behind the polysyllabic camouflage nearly every Miller song harbors some glowing shard of pained failed-romantic Kryptonite. The breathless implicatory roar of "Sodium Laurel Sulfate" crashes over the narrator's sincere uncertainty about what his relationship means, or even consists of. In "Don't Respond, She Can Tell" he strings theories around rejection, looking for the array of explanations that renders it inevitable. The protestations of "I'm Not Really a Spring" keep threatening to turn inward; the chafing of the fabric of a woman's gown in "Rise of the Chokehold Princess" betrays her wishful costume. The narrator of "Such Little Nonbelievers" doggedly deconstructs a woman's reasons for leaving him, even though he seems to know that this is merely a defense mechanism, and she was right to go. The glib historical name-dropping of "Top-Dollar Survivalist Hardware" gives way to the singer's ambivalence about the immortality of art and the evocative (and in this context, perversely hopeful) ultimatum "This is when the slow horse thieves get hung". "Not Expecting Both Contempo and Classique" concedes, distressingly, "I'm not expecting that I'll end up with you just because I need to". "Just Gone"'s response is "I'll take it well, / Find quiet ways to gather / Close around me what I'd rather / That there would have been". "Asleep and Awake on the Man's Freeway" renders the narrator's world cubist, causality itself unwinding in the glare of loss. And "Where They Go Back to School but Get Depressed" could be Scott's version of Jim Croce's "Operator", except where Croce has a number on a math book, and a phone he can't bring himself to dial, Scott's lost loves, or at least his diagnoses of them, are all too sharply etched in his own memory for him to need physical mementos, and though it's her he's nominally singing to, in reality, as is usually the case, he's his own audience, and the song is much more about cherishing what makes painful memories sting than about dispelling them. In some alternate universe where My So Called Life cared even less for its survival, and this album came out a couple years earlier, it's Scott (who could easily be Brian, older) onstage at Let's Bolt, not Buffalo Tom. The spirit of microscopic self-examination and hyperawareness is both exactly what MSCL was really about, and also probably exactly why it got summarily canceled.
And yes, there's no reason for all that to have changed your mind about anything, if it was already set one way. If you like your pop songs to telegraph their intentions more plainly, or you're allergic to synthesizers, or to guitars that sound five different ways in the same song, or you find Scott's voice an unacquirable taste, or you believe, with Crispin, that rock songs can't be about pixels, or listening to other people's self-analysis doesn't fit your definition of entertainment, then somebody else will make your favorite album this year. Statistically, you'll be in the majority; Scott's is not a mass medium, and his commercial obscurity is likely as intentional as it is self-perpetuating. His reaction to not selling a million records is to make new records that couldn't conceivably sell a million copies, and the longer he goes without selling millions, the more he writes songs to satisfy nobody but the only audience he can count on. I'm never completely sure if this target audience includes me, or if it consists only of Scott himself, and the fact that anybody else ever likes his records is purely a matter of our intractably obscure tastes happening, implausibly, to coincide. If so, though, the odds against their aligning as closely as they have this time must be astronomical. Empathizing with a solipsist violates some Godelian meta-logical principle, but as somebody, perhaps Godel again, once pointed out, knowing that a thing is unprovable doesn't mean you aren't sure it's so.