Not Quite Sleeping, But Still Dreaming
89 · 10 October 96
Everybody needs a week off sometimes. I don't mean from music; if there's anything that could drive me to need a week away from music altogether, I haven't encountered it. But I tend to put a lot of pressure on records, asking them to participate in my ongoing effort to understand how the world could be better, and while I feel this is basically the right approach, you can get to the point, as I think I did after two weeks of explaining how much of my belief system Interbabe Concern represents, where everything gets too intense and involved, and you start to feel like you're on the brink of a revelation that will force you to change your life in some drastic way that, probably, ought to be reassessed in a clearer and less empassioned moment. There come weeks, then, when what I need from music is not more insight but a reason to smile inanely, jump around the room making vaguely guitar-like pantomime gestures, and just be thoroughly and meaninglessly ecstatic about nothing in particular. I don't know what kind of music makes you feel this way, and indeed I can get there myself by routes as various as Thought Industry's spastic speed metal, Captain Tractor's absurdist Celt-o-bop, the Barbie-punk of Shampoo, Pallas' trebly FM-prog, early (or late) Knack or anything by Too Much Joy or Roxette. The latest addition to my list, though, the debut album by ex-Go-Go Jane Wiedlin's new band Frosted, is easily the most unexpectedly addictive example I've come across since A Boy Named Goo.
I've become a big Go-Go's fan, but it mostly happened in retrospect. When Beauty and the Beat was new my sister liked the Go-Go's, and because at the time I was fourteen and she was twelve, and the Go-Go's were quite blatantly girlish, and I was busy discovering that there were, in fact, even heavier rock bands than Toto, I was obliged to detest them. But some time early in college, somebody's inclusion of "Head Over Heels" on a Lampoon dance tape prompted me to go out and buy a copy of Talk Show, their third album, and suddenly everything changed. Martin Rushent's liberal application of production shellac worked wonders on the band for me, nine of the ten songs seemed like timeless classics (though I still can't hum a measure of "I'm With You" without putting the record on again to remind me what it sounds like), and "Yes or No" seemed to summarize a badly overanalyzed relationship I was trying to decide whether or not to be in at the time. The album vaulted into my list of seminal high-gloss pop, and before long I issued executive pardons to the other two, as well.
But then, infuriatingly, there were no more. The band split, Belinda Carlisle's solo career seemed wholeheartedly spiritless to me at the time (I've subsequently bought all her albums, albeit without necessarily changing my opinion about them), Charlotte Caffrey's album with the Graces had exactly one decent song (a great one, admittedly, the ebullient "Lay Down Your Arms", which Belinda later bled some life out of), and I never did find a copy of House of Schock, so for years I mostly forgot about the Go-Go's. Leaving Tower Records in Boston one day in 1988, though, a record-company flack foisted a promotional cassette of Jane Wiedlin's then-new single "Rush Hour" on me, and since getting music without paying for it was both more novel to me then, and more necessary, I played the tape eagerly as soon as I got home. And while the music was goofy, absurdly over-produced and unapologetically LA-ified, by that point a couple years of assiduous devotion to Fiona had radically expanded my capacity for enjoying that style, so I let the label minions win one and bought the album, Fur, which I presently discovered was Jane's second. Which led, as things tend to with me, to my buying her first and, in 1990, her third one, Tangled. All three of the albums are still plagued, in various degrees, with ill-advised experimentation and overbearing studio superfluity, but Jane Wiedlin has several songs that sound to me like less strident True Colors, Fur only loses me when it slows down and sounds too much like Madonna, and Tangled, despite the dubious attempt on the cover to channel Jane's elfin charm in a more sexual direction, still sounds to me like Jane's arrival at musical maturity, with "Tangled", "Big Rock Candy Mountain" and "Euphoria" all being worthy, in my book, of serious shiny-pop-anthology consideration. The Go-Go's then reunited, released an impressive two-CD retrospective, and seemed poised for a second life. And then, again, sadly, nothing.
Until now. Perhaps clinging to the idea of being in a band again, Jane Wiedlin has opted, instead of reviving her solo career, to form Frosted, a quartet rounded out by three anonymously grunge-ish guys who I've never heard of. This didn't, I will concede, immediately strike me as a very good idea. I'd just started to feel, with Tangled, that Jane had developed into a musician who, if you could suspend your historical sense of disbelief, you could take seriously, and I feared that setting her up with generically quasi-punk footmen was going to be little more than crass opportunism, a shameless attempt to make an ersatz No Doubt out of somebody who deserved better.
My faithlessness apologizes. It's true, I guess, in a densely literal sense, that the band here is somewhat generic. They aren't credited with helping to write any of these songs, and they play loud, surging, big-guitar power-pop that, isolated chemically, probably is composed of the same elements as Green Day or nine thousand other bands currently misunderstanding what punk was originally constituted from. Instrument lists are not the music, though. To me, Frosted is the band Jane has been searching for her whole career. The Go-Go's, for all their erratic zeal, were restricted to a rather limited palette, and the studio entourages that cluttered Jane's solo albums overcompensated with technical expertise, but scattered focus. Guitarist Brian Waters, bassist Sean Dermott and drummer Lance Porter are capable enough to obviate the need for musical compromises, but show no inclination to encumber these songs with trickery or ornament. They take Jane's potentially lightweight bouncy pop songs and give them a destructive exuberance that makes me think of what you might get if you invented a new superhero cartoon whose protagonist combined Tigger with a teenage Joan Jett. This is not punk, and nobody is laboring under the delusion that it might be, but punk has no monopoly on crashing drums, roaring guitars, pounding bass and sloppy backing vocals. Make irrepressibly cheerful pop out of those elements and the effect, for me, is something like filling torpedos with chocolate cheesecake. I sing along involuntarily. I hop around my apartment, the vibration toppling several of the more precarious plastic dinosaurs lining my bookshelves, and knocking the cover off of the thermostat in the hall again. I make incoherent falsetto babbling noises in an attempt to harmonize with Jane's Smurfoid squeak. I scream "Where does that leave me?! Disintegrated!" as if fragmentation is triumph. I loudly pretend that she's saying "My heart is hummus", though "My heart is homeless" is only slightly less silly. I collapse in a helpless crush when Jane stutters "C-cold". I immerse myself in the ringing roar of "I would never write a song about you", and wind the sparkling threads of "Bed" around me like tendrils of an enchanted forest. The band sounds alternately like Vixen has been infiltrated by radiant girls from teenage skin-care commercials, like Everclear has been overrun by the 101 dalmatians, or like a dozen cattle-prod-armed Toni Basils have flushed the Buzzcocks out of their glum adolescent stupor. It's not innovative or profound or evocative or challenging, or anything else either that concrete or that abstract. Instead, this record hooks into some receptor in my brain that bypasses every explanatory context and produces, directly, whatever enzyme it is that implements thrill. This is what me being happy sounds like. Listening, I feel that kind of insane conviction that makes you think, for just a moment, that you could spend the rest of your life this way, playing air hockey, shooting bottle rockets, drinking Fresca, driving up empty spiral parking garages at 45mph, or lying on a cool, slightly damp porch, fifty miles from the nearest streetlight, watching the universe idly tossing matches at the world.
Rush: Test for Echo
I don't encounter that kind of visceral escapist perfection very often. Musical escape, for me, more commonly comes from bands whose serious intentions have become so familiar to me that I no longer even process them. There was a time when Rush, for example, was about the farthest band from mindless diversion in my cosmology. Circa 1982 Rush was not only my favorite band but also philosophers in my intellectual pantheon of comparable moral stature to Nietzsche, Heinlein and Mr. Day, my sophomore English teacher. This has more to do, undoubtably, with the pervasive aura of breathless naivete that one tends to find thick in the air around what passes for a male suburban high-school existentialist's intellectual pantheon than it does with Neil Peart's studious familiarity with Ayn Rand, but there was a time, I think, when Rush represented, both lyrically and musically, one edge of what rock and roll deemed possible. Test for Echo is Rush's sixteenth studio album, and of the preceeding fifteen the meta-message of at least ten of them is "No matter who you are, our band is better than yours." Alex Lifeson and Geddy Lee wrote lavishly multi-tracked music that managed to be too complicated for any other humans to accurately reproduce without ever diffusing into prog-rock aimlessness, and Peart sandwiched it between drumming so intricate that drum magazines took to asking about players' second favorite drummers in their annual polls just so they'd actually learn something, and lyrics that merged eternal themes and emergent technology. The body of work from the Anthem retelling of 2112, to the Apollonyion/Dionysian synthesis of A Farewell to Kings and Hemispheres, to the individualism of Permanent Waves, to the dystopian shadows of Moving Pictures, to the technological ambivalence of Signals, to the uneasiness of Grace Under Pressure, to the Big Science awe of Power Windows, at least, I consider on par with any comparable span in the history of music.
By the late Eighties, though, either I was losing interest, or Rush's wheels were losing traction, or both. Hold Your Fire, Presto and Roll the Bones all had classic Rush virtues, but the band's unvaryingly maximalist style began to sound more than a little dated, and the appallingly funkless attempt at rap on "Roll the Bones", especially, made them sound like somebody's clueless dottering uncle. As the rest of rock caught up to Peart's willingness to write about serious topics and forged ahead in the direction of Nirvana and Pearl Jam, his imperturbable positivism started to sound unresponsive and anachronistic. And as software took over more of the complexities of production and neo-punk took over more of the airwaves, Rush's talent for monumental arrangements began to seem both less impressive and less relevant. The band's response was 1993's regrouped and reinvigorated Counterparts, an album driven by guitar, not sequencers, and deliberately less obtuse lyrical concerns, including, for the first time, more songs about relationships than about machines or elaborate metaphors for metaphysical human struggle. Although part of me felt that the album squandered Lee, Lifeson and Peart's abilities on a sort of music already satisfactorily represented by a plethora of existing bands, it did prove that the trio could still rock, and it was hard to argue with the contention that without this comprehensive stylistic overhaul Rush was on the verge of imploding.
Three years later, Test for Echo picks off exactly where Counterparts left off. A few more synthesizers have crept back in during the intermission, but the musical core is again Lifeson's blistering guitar, with Peart and Lee contributing what, for them, is an extremely understated and straightforward rhythm foundation. Compared to, say, Kiss songs, Rush's at their simplest are still hopelessly convoluted, but held up against the sort of album-side concept epics and soaring synth-bank symphonies that Rush used to write, these succinct guitar-rock pieces are exercises in noble self-restraint. Lyrically, though, Peart seems to be slipping toward the precipice of inanity. Although several of these songs flirt with meaning, they all retreat skittishly, in the end, into the shelter of cheap rhymes and unexplored juxtapositions. Ten years ago "Driven" would have spun out an extended metaphor about how choosing life directions is like driving on slick surfaces, but here the song can't quite get out of the orbit of cars. In the old days "The Color of Right"'s intertwining of physics and morality would have been instructive, rather than just suggestive. "Totem" would have sounded less like a grade-school social-studies report. "Virtuality" would have been about a technology Peart actually understood, and "Dog Years" would have concentrated on how fast human lives seem to move, rather than lingering on pointless canine particulars. Whether I'm outgrowing his ethos or not, I just don't think he's trying as hard any more.
If there's any band that deserves to coast the rest of the way to the apocalypse, though, it's Rush. Perhaps the band will never make any more music that makes my heart swell and skip the way "Red Barchetta" or "Subdivisions" or "Closer to the Heart" do, but I'm still going to buy every record they make, and if this is sort of their pension I'm funding by doing so, then I'll send the checks without fail, and every visitors' day will find me pushing them around the grounds in their chair, listening to them tell disorganized annecdotes that I'll cherish as much, in their own way, as the books that made them famous.
Mike Peters: Feel Free
Speaking of bands that ran out of life force before they ran out of albums on their contract, not many of the bands I like ground to as ignominious a halt as, to me, the Alarm did. If Rush has become like an aging family member whom you love but don't expect strangers to take to as readily, then by their last album, Raw, the Alarm had become the kind of relative you hand over to professionals and try to simply forget about. Alarm songs were always more about conviction in the abstract than any one belief in particular, but Raw to me was completely empty bluster, an album of mechanical and inept retracings of paths that really merited no further exploration.
Mike's first solo album, Breathe, didn't leave me feeling as embarrassed for him as Raw did, but it fell a long way short of establishing a new identity. Induced catharsis was always basically all Alarm songs had going for them, and while this is something, and some of their early work is as rousing, I think, as songs ever get, and thus excellent for weeks when you want to feel stirred and never mind why, there's only so many times you can leap to your feet and wave your fist before you start getting self-conscious and begin to ask that the act have some extra-calesthenic purpose. And Breathe didn't offer any answers.
Feel Free doesn't offer many, either, but I was ready for a few more Mike Peters songs regardless. And actually, the album partially dodges the questions by, for a change, experimenting with its musical idioms. Some of these songs will still sound familiar to you, particularly "Breathe" and "The Message" (which are reprised from the previous album for no good reason), the "Message"-like drum loops of the similarly verbose "Shine On (113th Dream)", the galloping choruses of "Regeneration" and the plainly Dylanesque "Psychological Combat Zone". Elsewhere, though, "Feel Free" starts out with a drum loop and half-spoken narration like it's going to be another half-rap, but in the chorus a throttled torrent of distorted guitar swarms in. The kick-drum whomp and pensive wah-wah guitar of "All Is Forgiven" give it a slow, undulating groove. "My Calling"'s gentle acoustic guitars and Harrison-esque chorus melody, and "Broken Silence"'s harpsichord-ish 12-string and sighing organ, which in Alarm songs would have inevitably given way to hoarse screaming at some point because that was the only tactic for empahsis and dynamic range Peters knew, here stay within themselves, relying for contrast on subtle shading instead of spots and smoke machines. And on the edgy, pulsing "What Is It For?" Peters plays everything but drums himself, and comes up with an intriguingly awkward song in which he and the music seem to alternate barely being able to keep up with each other. These things show Mike discarding some of the ingrained tactical assumptions that used to go into his songs, and that's got to be a good sign. I don't know if anything on this album really constitutes firm groundwork for future embellishment, but this week I didn't need it to.