What You Will Write a Book About
92 · 31 October 96
Here's all it took to sell me a copy of Pet: it is the first release on Tori Amos' new label, Igloo. I knew no other information about the band, and Tori is only the executive producer, and the idea of Tori starting a label to release other people's music struck me as strange, and taste isn't reliably transitive anyway, so I had no tangible idea of what to expect on the disc, but I trust Tori, in the way that you can only trust somebody who regards her own songs as independent living creatures.
And if songs can be creatures, then it's no less reasonable to say that spirits are real, as well, and that some spirits, too animated to be contained in a single human life, make their homes in between us, in the things we create, like Jane in the ansibles, and Trent's Images dancing in the InfoNet. This sounds more mystical than I'm usually inclined to be, but I don't have any other good way to explain what, by the end of the first minute of the first song on Pet's debut album, I'm convinced is true: There is a spirit that lives in the songs Tori creates, that shares their identities with what Tori gives to them, and is part of Tori, but is also not a part of her, and that spirit lives in these songs, too. There is a larger whole that Pet's songs and Tori's both are a part of, which both invoke, but which neither circumscribes. Whether Tori had the idea to form this label before she heard Pet or not I don't know, but if it hadn't occurred to her yet, hearing any one of these songs would have been sufficient to outline the necessity of its creation. If this record had come out without her name on it somewhere, the fabric of reality would have suffered a tear, small and unobtrusive perhaps, but one out of which important manna would have immediately begun to leak.
Pet is, at least before you begin to discuss spirits, an edgy post-punk trio who manifest a set of relatively unsurprising influences heavy in Sonic Youth, the Pixies and Gang of Four, only with, since this is the Nineties, louder guitars and abstracted polyrhythms that resolve encouragingly into infectious grooves just often enough to keep from scaring everybody away. Alex LoCascio's quick, sharp drumming and Tyler Bates' blaring guitar are capable of circling warily around each other while the tension builds, but can also twitch without preamble into a writhing clench in which the two become a single snarling kinetic knot. If there is a middle ground between For Love Not Lisa and Throwing Muses, or between Magnapop and Mecca Normal, where surging power and diffident disharmony strike a provisional truce, Pet are crashing through the brush just feet away from stumbling into it, making enough noise that animals who wish to avoid being on hand for the encounter have plenty of time to seek alternate refuge.
For the first thirty-four seconds of the album, it's possible to take these elements just on their own merits. The dry, ticking drums of "360", though they'll quickly start to echo the loops of "Cornflake Girl" in my mind, at first just remind me of Sonic Youth's "Bull in the Heather". The wiry guitar noises in the first eighteen seconds could easily be Thurston Moore's, and the compressed, churning, buzz-saw riff that joins them for the next sixteen or so sounds like Bob Mould just testing his systems. About second thirty-five, though, singer Lisa Papineau opens her mouth, and this is where the Tori-spirits storm over the wall and fan out into the streets of the town.
The most obvious such breach is that Papineau's voice is in many ways strikingly like Tori's. Her inhalations, her wrenching jumps from breathing to howling, the unflinching close-focus recording in the quietest passages, and even some of the unhinged fluttering are straight out of Tori's expressive grammar. As with Happy Rhodes and Kate Bush, on some of these songs you could probably convince party guests, perhaps as part of a wildly misleading ruse that this is what Y Kant Tori Read sounds like, that Lisa is actually Tori. But just as is also the case with Happy and Kate, for me, I sense nothing contrived about the resemblance. This is what Lisa sounds like, and if somebody else happens to sound that way, that's hardly her doing or problem.
The infusion of Tori-ness goes well beyond just the timbre of Papineau's voice, though. Where Tori's imperceptible caresses guide every movement of her piano, Pet's speed-shifts and fractured transitions exert similar tempo mastery. Perhaps Tori's songs are more like ballets, and Pet's more like kite-duels, but the sense of control is much the same. The songs are similarly intense, Tori's by turns riveting and uplifting, Pet's ominous and then cathartic. There are flaws woven into their cloths with the same deliberateness, making irregularity part of the structure, rather than a break in it. And even in the lyrics, Pet's songs, like Tori's, careen in and out of private codes and unsettling personal detail with little apparent concern for how well the listener can keep up: the vindictive mourning of the family in "360", the press of sin in "Lil' Boots", the elliptical innuendo of "Otherwhere", peaches and gender tension in "Fatherland", self-negation in "I've Been a Gaylord", personalities as inner population in "Seed". "Words are easy, / So you say / You love me, / But I don't think you'll write a book about it" could easily be a Tori line. "Hero Life"'s "small apocalypse" could be Pet's "little earthquakes", "Skin Tite" their exegesis of pink, only Pele's volcano unaccounted for.
Not that any of this tells us what you'll make of this album. Where Tori's songs can be breathtakingly exquisite, Pet's by comparison might often seem unpleasantly brutish. Bates' guitar-playing, while adept, is no match for the way Tori's piano becomes an extension of her hands and body. Papineau has her own harrowing variations on her and Tori's shared vocal style, but she doesn't have Tori's range, so her blistering wails miss Tori's precise delicacy as counterposition. And although there are many superficial similarities in the lyrics, Pet's songs lack for me the sense, which Tori's have, of all being part, in some way that you can't always exactly isolate, of one big overarching argument that Tori is as much trying to settle amongst herself as lay out for the rest of us. So I'm sure it's possible to like Tori and not like Pet, or vice versa. But if part of your devotion is, as mine seems to be, to the spirit they share, if indeed anybody but me perceives such a thing, then pitting the avatars against each other is of no interest or consequence.
Speaking of starting labels, I've said before that if I was in a position to start one, I would sign Scarlet to it for US distribution in a heartbeat. The laborious import procedures I was forced to go through to finally get a copy of this, their second UK album, just strengthen my hypothetical resolve, and as the stack of things I've bought but haven't listened to clacks unnervingly higher behind my unwillingness to take this one off of Repeat, the inexplicable embargo seems more unjust than ever.
Chemistry is not a whole lot different from Naked, the band's debut, but as I consider Scarlet one version of my idealization of pop, to me this doesn't constitute a criticism. I used to qualify this proclamation a little back when they only had one album from which to generalize, and I should still leave myself some retracting room in case they run out of inspiration before achieving critical mass (which is, by my rules, at least three albums), but life is too short for rapture not to beat prudence. There are several axes along which variants of pop are located, but if you take the manipulative axis all the way out, to where the string swells could upend lighthouses, music boxes puck directly at your ligaments, guitar blasts are like blacking out during orgasm and drums crack like police barricades splintering under your wheels as you pull away from the pursuers, and then follow the related axes of scale and personal presence away from the all-embracing blandness of arenas toward stories populated with individuals rather than archetypes, and exultations you don't have to share with 50,000 strangers, you find a corner of pop where songs sparkle conspiratorially like diamonds tossed on the bubbles of champagne at the first perfect picnic after the thaw, where voices are silk and silver and magnesium flares, where guitars are the sound of angels' wings strumming the bars of the mortal cage. Parker and Youle write songs with Per Gessle's tireless craftsmanship but without Roxette's dance mannerisms or goofy Swedish awkwardness, with Beth Sorrentino's effortless poise but without Suddenly Tammy's frailty or self-censorious humility, with Jane Wiedlin's irrepressible enthusiasm but without her Smurf-ish squeak, with Scott Miller's melodic fearlessness but without his Joycean involution, and with the Finns' timeless grace but Elvira draped over a couch in the background. Cheryl Parker's voice goes from the catch in Sinéad O'Connor's throat to Tracey Thorn and Eddi Reader's measured calm to the brink of Cyndi Lauper and Dale Bozzio's manic squeals. Visitors Jolyon Dixon and Stuart Ross's ringing guitars and crisp drums keep the songs from ever veering into staid EbtG jazz-pop, and Joe Youle's soaring keyboards shore them up against any semblance of Frosted's grunge raggedness on the other side. And together they make another whole record solid of songs that, any one of them, could have been the moment of fortuity that fuels a lesser band's three or four album tailspin of futile attempts to ever write a second song as good as the first.
With music this irresistible, the lyrics hardly matter (that's always been Roxette's theory, anyway), but part of why my Scarlet elation seems so durable is that their lyrics do matter. Although all ten of these songs are relationship monologues, every one of them has at least one twist that you only get when the author is writing what they believe, not assembling plausible scenarios from the stock of standard motifs: the sincerity with which the woman in "I Can't Save You From Yourself" says "I'd kill myself if it would help"; the self-awareness that cracks the starry revisionism of "I Feel a Little Sentimental", and yet doesn't dispel the feeling; the way "Do You Think of Me" negotiates an emotional compromise between "You Oughta Know" and Del Amitri's "Empty"; turning disapproval on itself in "Bad Girl"; obsessive rejection in "You're Not Him"; "Chemistry" providing the second great chorus this year to revolve around the element sodium; the sex-role diptych of "The Man in Me" and "Take It Like a Woman"; and the matching pair of commitment-imbalance songs, "Understand Me Too" and "Fantasy". Each of these barbs is a reminder that songs can be communication, not just the reaffirmation of convention, and so they raise the possibility that my enchantment with this immaculate pop music could also be not just chemistry. Which is an idea I cling to, because I disapprove of drugs, but I love the way this album makes me feel.
The Cardigans: First Band on the Moon
Last September, when I reviewed Naked and the Cardigans' Life, both albums were obscure imports. The Cardigans, at least, have made some geographic headway in the meantime, and not only did Life eventually get released here, but their third album, First Band on the Moon, even escaped the quarantine period.
The Cardigans have a hard task following up Life. Although I don't think it's actually fair to characterize them as a gimmick band, I suspect that much of the success of Life is due to people taking it that way, extending the bright awnings of neo-lounge music and retro in general out to include the Cardigans in the subgenre's ongoing tent party. It would be difficult, though, to do that particular trick much better than it was done on Life, so this album risks, on the one hand, losing the attention of fair-weather fans, and on the other hand, boring everybody else.
Perhaps simultaneously to its credit and its detriment, it sort of does both and neither (irrespectively). About half of the album earnestly continues to implement the band's incumbent persona. "Your New Cuckoo"'s thin, crunchy drums, giddily swirling strings and "la"-heavy backing choruses are unapologetically anachronistic. "Never Recover" is sugary and hyperactive, "Happy Meal II" has washes of wavery organ and vibe-like guitar, and lead single "Lovefool"'s mellow mallet figures and airy vocals beg to be performed in matching sequined suits. "Iron Man", the obligatory follow-up Black Sabbath cover, deftly strips every ounce of menace out of the original. "Great Divide" is a court orchestra's lullaby for their toddler sovereign. And "Choke"'s instrumental break sounds like the sort of pre-Rock-era groove that would have been cannibalized for a mid-Seventies TV-show theme. In between these, though, other songs begin to experiment cautiously with new elements. "Been It"'s drums and guitar riff are solid and round, their slow stomp an interesting contrast with the song's lilting melody. "Heartbreaker"'s evasive and processed percussion figures and wraithlike whistling keep it from turning into a languid ballad. "Step On Me" toys with stick rattles, Radiohead-like guitar initializations and analog-synth warbles. And "Losers"' intermixture of sliding chorus harmonies and verse intimacies dances between post-punk confessional and "Strawberry Fields" psychedelia.
The result of this stylistic ambivalence is that I don't think this album will be nearly as satisfying as Life was for anybody who buys it as a lifestyle statement. Its aural palette isn't mapped into Technicolor with quite enough rigor, its beehive coiffure isn't as gravity defying and unironic, and it sounds a little too much like the band exists in the real world, not some fictionalized quadraphonic bachelor-pad Atlantis. For me, though, this is nothing to mourn. Genres, like the town you grow up in, exist to be escaped.
Lisa Germano: Excerpts From a Love Circus
And speaking, in turn, of genre escapes, Lisa Germano also essays one on her fourth album, Excerpts From a Love Circus. In this case, though, the genre she has dug herself out of was something like solitary confinement. As of her soul-chilling third album, 1994's Geek the Girl, her spare, battered, desperate aesthetic had reached the point where "Victim rock" had become a perilously appropriate categorization. An epic diary of frayed awkwardness, emotional subsistence and the oppressive claustrophobia of abuse, Geek the Girl makes "Me and a Gun" sound like "Amplifier". The real-life 911 tape that plays in the background of "...A Psychopath" is one of the most disturbing things I've ever heard on record, and after hearing it I'm not sure I'll ever be able to hear Simon and Garfunkel's "Seven O'Clock News/Silent Night" as anything but hopelessly quaint. Whether you think the album implicates itself morally or not (and I go back and forth on this question myself), I don't think there are very many works of art that portray a state of mind as vividly.
I saw Lisa perform live on her post-Geek the Girl tour, though, and it became quickly clear to me that as a set of music to sustain a career on, Geek the Girl was almost totally nonviable. "Me and a Gun", for all it bares, is essentially a song of strength. The point in Tori's concerts when she sings it is tense for both her and the audience, but it is a dramatic tension, and one that both parties can survive and even derive sustaining energy from. Lisa's songs lacked this redemption, and what made them so arresting on record, where you could play them by yourself and feel the inexorable pull of her magnetic hopelessness, rendered them pitifully unsuited to live rendition. Who comes to a rock club in the mood to hear songs that make you disinclined to ever see another human again? How do you stand on stage and perform music that makes eye contact with your audience taboo? She was the night's opening act, and I would be extremely surprised if she made a single convert during the course of her set.
She can hardly have failed to notice this dilemma, and so I'm unsurprised (and more than a little relieved) to find that Excerpts From a Love Circus represents a concerted attempt to inject a little mitigating levity into her ethos. Mostly this consists of some songs about her cat, and a few between-track interludes that appear to be recordings of the cat, but the travelogue "Baby on the Plane", the snappy Froom/Vega-esque "I Love a Snot", the inquisitive "Victoria's Secret", the dancehall bounce of "Small Heads", the cartoonishly mournful accordion and stately piano on "Messages From Sophia", and the sonorous cellos of "Big, Big World" all participate in trying to displace psychic heat-death as Lisa's trademark and self-image. And to the extent that I'm not tempted, like I was with Geek the Girl, to go back to the store where I bought it and affix suicide-counseling phone-number stickers on all the unsold copies out of fear for the impressionable, I'd have to regard the project as a resounding success. The problem, however, is that the lyrical and musical concessions here don't seem like enough to me to alter Lisa's overall musical style appreciably, and so even when these songs purport to be about cats, to me they still feel like they're about lifespark-extinguishing despair and a numbness too thick to breathe through. This impression was hard enough to take when it was accurate; here, where the lyrics don't explain or support it, I find the palpable atmosphere of existential unraveling to be even more unbearable. This album is like talking to a new Prozac patient in their ICU bed; if they're really as optimistic and even-keeled as they pretend to be, why are there bandages on their wrists, what are the IVs for, and why do the nurses keep finding excuses to drop in and check on us every ninety seconds? If we're not going to talk about the one thing that hovers so malevolently between us, then this is not a conversation, it's charades. And charades is supposed to be a lot more fun.