Driving With One Hand on the CD Changer
95 · 21 November 96
The Blue Nile: Happiness #1
"Blue Nile b-side" is, very nearly, an oxymoron. The band's three albums are so meticulously crafted that I react to the idea of outtakes from them approximately like I would to a man in a grubby trenchcoat and three days of stubble offering me a few square inches of canvas "that Picasso left off of Guernica". It's not that I'm not interested, it's that I don't want to believe such a thing could come about. Blue Nile albums are close to being my archetypes of auteurial seamlessness, and the idea that they, like everything else in the world, are constructed by trial and error, saddens me. I want to believe that the reason Peace at Last took seven years to make is that Paul Buchanan sat in an armchair on a porch somewhere in Scotland for about four of those years, composing the album in his mind, in every detail, and the band then spent the next three years painstakingly transcribing the completed work out of his head onto some medium that the rest of us can hear. There is no room in this vision for b-sides. There shouldn't even be a-sides.
Back in the world of facts, though, the one that stubbornly refuses to realign itself to accommodate the beliefs I wish to not have rendered untenable, there are such things. The single I have for "The Downtown Lights", from Hats, has two non-album tracks. And these two singles for "Happiness", between them, have three more.
This disc, part one (with the red cover), has "O Lolita". This song is practically a textbook example of what a Blue Nile b-side, if it must exist, almost has to be: it is unmistakably theirs (slow, insistent minor-chord piano; tiny, chiming bells; whirring synthetic strings; a few stray sound effects), and yet there is something vaguely but unmistakably wrong with it, some way in which it is patently unsuitable for the album. The vocal melody is a bit too Lennon-like in a couple phrases, perhaps, or the band's trademark drum-machine loops are notable in their absence and it's not clear where they could be put in. Maybe it's that the typewriter noises toward the end sound a bit too much like a cascade of infant marbles who haven't yet learned how to bounce correctly. Or the lyrics are a bit too straightforward, as if Buchanan had a complicated thought whose intricacy didn't make the transition to his notebook. Sometimes, apparently, even Blue Nile songs just don't work out. I think I'd rather have not known this.
The other song on this disc is an alternate version of "War Is Love". This one is more intriguing. There are some minor differences in the instrumentation (the ticking hi-hat is much more prominent on the album version, and the acoustic guitar feels closer), but the reason for this version's release, I think, is the vocal track. On the album, "War Is Love" is sung in an eerily frail, spine-chilling and unprecedented falsetto, as if the band has somehow contrived to record the nearly-inaudible noises Buchanan makes while dreaming that he's an elf prince or some sort of Jovian blimp-creature. On this version, the singing is merely Paul's usual, haunting, crystalline voice. My guess, based on no actual information at all, is that this is the version they initially recorded, and thought they were going to use, before, late one night, gripped by a strange fever, Buchanan produced the other vocal take. Embarrassed about having to go back on their word to the old version, they put the weird one on the album but promised this one that it would go "on a single".
The Blue Nile: Happiness #2
Part two, the white one, has "New York Man" and "Wish Me Well". Both songs are Paul's, the credits assure me, but "New York Man", to my ears, could easily be a cover. Its desultory bongos and lethargic acoustic guitar sound like mostly unsuccessful attempts to apply Blue Nile arrangements to a forgotten old Billy Joel song, as if this is documentary footage from the cover-band career the Blue Nile tried to have before they resigned themselves to writing their own material. "Wish Me Well" sounds more in character, but is still a little too predictable. Part of the Blue Nile's aesthetic is the elemental restraint whose aura haunts even their warmest moments, and on this song that reserve cracks. Only once or twice, but the shell's delicate translucency is simultaneously its essence and its vulnerability, and it only takes a few seconds of mainstream heartstring bombast to shatter the egg.
Runrig: Rhythm of My Heart #1
Fellow Scots Runrig have no particular aversion to b-sides but, on the other hand, I've never had major occasion to quibble with their album-vs-single decisions. Still, a Runrig song is a Runrig song, and I buy anything I can find. This single was particularly important, as "Rhythm of My Heart" is the one new song on the band's best-of, Long Distance, which I didn't otherwise need. To my surprise, "Rhythm of My Heart" is not a new Runrig composition, it's the Marc Jordan / John Capek song that Rod Stewart had a minor hit with a few years ago. This seems, for the first few bars, like an odd choice for Runrig in any form, much less a single, and much much less a single audaciously included on a greatest-hits album in advance of any commercial justification for doing so. As with "Loch Lomond", years before, though, the band's performance utterly dispels my skepticism. There is no mistaking Runrig's belief in a song. They could do "Safety Dance" or "Aqualung" or "Ice Ice Baby", and if they really believed in what they were doing, somehow it would come through. The wooden thump of Iain Bayne's drums, the unfamiliar roll of "I got my eyes all over you baby" in Donnie Munro's mouth, like slang he only knows from books, the peals of guitar that stretch out under the sky as if skimming the ocean to the next island, the fluttering whistles and pipes that wheel and swoop around everything like flocks of unaccountably airborne seals, these things combine to take what seemed to me, when Stewart sang it, to be a fundamentally ordinary love song, and make out of it something awkward and genuine, as if rock is an idiom that, no matter how much they admire it, remains somehow foreign to Runrig, and thus forever fresh.
This first disc supplements the song with an orchestral remix of "The Mighty Atlantic/Mara Theme", from Mara, the band's most recent studio album. Orchestral versions of rock songs are always a questionable proposition at best (perhaps rarely more ill-advised than Symphonic Music of Yes, for example, but even the recent yeoman effort of Eddie Rayner to make something of Split Enz songs, ENZSO, felt to me like a laudable execution of a fatally flawed idea), but "The Mighty Atlantic" had enough of an orchestral component to it already that this version feels to me like just another way the song might have turned out on its own. The third and final song here is a live version of "Canada", from Amazing Things. Runrig's live versions are always stirring, and this moody, unhurried, compassionate performance is especially gracious and mesmerizing, even if it does sound, in parts, oddly reminiscent of Pink Floyd.
Runrig: Rhythm of My Heart #2
Why do bands put "radio edit" versions on singles? Other than ad salesmen anxious for the next commercial break to arrive, who begrudges a good song the minute the edit removes? Writers don't try to sell collectors' editions of books from which a chapter in the middle has been ripped; you never hear people clamoring to see the version of Four Weddings and a Funeral that only has three weddings; why pretend that, as on this single, including both the whole version and the edit counts as two tracks? If there's anybody who would prefer the shorter version, surely hearing the song 1.8 times on one single misses the point entirely.
The two other songs here are old ones. "Cum Ur N'Aire" was on Runrig's first album, Play Gaelic, a record that, in relation to even their second, The Highland Connection, can be safely termed embryonic. The sumptuous version here, a new a cappella rendition with the Glasgow Islay Gaelic Choir, is dense and awesome, and bears almost no resemblance to the wheezy folk-rock original. Convenient contrast is provided by the second b-side, a 1978 demo tape of "Cadal Chadian Mi", complete with "jazzy" electric piano and faux-expressive sax that went thankfully out of style along with whisk-broom mustaches. Runrig has come a long, long, long, long way.
Crowded House: Don't Dream It's Over #1
I see a scene in my mind. It's late evening, and Neil and Tim Finn are in a car, somewhere desolate but interesting (the road to Skye, perhaps), on the fifth hour of a drive with a few more remaining, yet. They were talking, earlier, but have long since lapsed into a comfortable brotherly silence. Neil is at the wheel, and Tim has halfway dozed off, still technically awake but lost in his own thoughts. Suddenly Neil smacks the wheel with his hand, inadvertently half-hitting the horn, and barks "Damn!" Tim jerks upright, alarmed, twisting around to look out the back for what they must have hit.
"Sorry, no, it's-- nothing's--", Neil says, subsiding quickly. "It just occurred to me that for Crowded House's farewell single, we should have reissued 'Don't Dream It's Over'." "Just because of the title, I mean", he amplifies, when Tim fails to comment
"Don't Dream It's Over" is from the first Crowded House album, which is still a sore era in their relations. Tim grunts, and then, to acknowledge the suggestive irony, says "So, put it out now. Use the rest of those BBC tapes." And though neither of them says anything further, Neil knows Tim means, more specifically, the tapes of songs from Woodface, the one Crowded House album both brothers participated in, none of which made their way onto the singles for "Not the Girl You Think You Are".
And so, or not so, after what seemed to be the last notes of Crowded House's existence, we get two more singles in welcome encore. This first one pairs the band's first, and in a way defining, hit with relaxed takes of Woodface's "Weather With You" and Temple of Low Men's "Into Temptation", both meandering through expansive acoustic jams, and a correspondingly abrupt and brutal blast through Together Alone's "Locked Out", which skids to a preemptory halt as if the band decided to break up right there mid-chord-change.
Crowded House: Don't Dream It's Over #2
Part two adds another Woodface track, "Four Seasons in One Day", which I always thought of as a sequel to "Six Months in a Leaky Boat", though I'm hard pressed to think of non-numerological supporting arguments. The performance is hushed and melancholy, with just enough music for mood leverage when the choruses arrive. The encore then concludes with spirited takes of Together Alone's "In My Command", animated by choppy guitar, stutter-step kick drums, squalling solos and a fierce coda, and "Pineapple Head", which sounds initially like Squeeze covering the Doors, but resolves to its own cycling, atmospheric self before very long.
And then, far too quickly, this reprieve is over, and Crowded House are, once again, no more. I miss them, and though I didn't require it, I'm glad for this reminder.
Manic Street Preachers: Kevin Carter #1
Following the pattern established on the singles for "A Design for Life" and "Everything Must Go", the third single from the Manic Street Preachers' new-beginning fourth album, Everything Must Go, has three non-album songs on part one, and three remixes on part two. MSP b-sides have covered the gamut from wildly-out-of-character to among-their-best, and the span is spun again in the course of this one disc. The jazzy "Horses Under Starlight", the first track, is, until a sudden outburst of guitar right at the end, nearly Cardigan-esque, or like the Cardigans might sound if they had grown up somewhere bleaker and more depressing than sunny Sweden. The organ-ish sounds at the outset of the second song suggest that it will be in a similar vein, but as it turns out the rest of "Sepia" makes it about halfway back to the band's usual territory, a steady mid-tempo (for them, which would be fast for most other bands) gallop with the album's grace, but not the epic sweep of "Australia" or "Enola/Alone". The song that makes the single for me, though, is the last one, "First Republic", a brash, blaring, churning guitar anthem that seems to marry Everything Must Go's guarded survivor's optimism with bits of Gold Against the Soul's rock panache, Generation Terrorists' raw venom, an unexpected snatch of piano-bar strut and, as the song frays in the final seconds, just a hint of The Holy Bible's unraveling. "Words themselves -- the very material of our discourse increasingly take on masks or disguises", the sleeve quotes from Dennis Potter, and appropriately, after several intent listens I haven't the slightest idea what Nicky Wire's lyrics are about. Which means he's mastered at least one of Richey James' trademark writing skills.
Manic Street Preachers: Kevin Carter #2
The remix halves of these things I've learned to expect little from. This one's better than it could have been. The "Busts Loose" mix turns "Kevin Carter" into a Seventies Bond theme, or maybe a Seventies studio hack's idea of what a Nineties retro-Seventies theme would sound like. Or maybe vice versa. "Stealth Sonic Orchestra Remix" has some nice rumbling timpani, and "Stealth Sonic Orchestra Soundtrack" has, well, the same nice rumbling timpani, but I'm afraid that while I liked "Kevin Carter" fine on its own, I don't find its rather simplistic three-note hook compelling enough to derive much enjoyment out of having it drilled into my head for twenty-five minutes straight.
Sleeper: Statuesque #1
Sleeper adopt a similar non-album/remix strategy for "Statuesque", the third single from their last album, The It Girl. Part one (blue cover, yellow disc) has two non-album tracks. "She's a Sweetheart" is languid and echoey in the verses, but breaks into a razor-edged chorus whose "Ah-woo" exultations sound escaped from Cactus World News, followed by a jarring end section that could easily pass for Throwing Muses. "Spies", the other song, is unsettlingly methodical, with drums that sound like New Order at half speed, but broad gestures of guitar and Louise's unmistakably weary, but hopeful, voice.
Sleeper: Statuesque #2
I find remixes (green cover, blue disc) rather more interesting for a change. Steve Lamacq's "The Boxed Off Mix" of "Statuesque" takes as much liberty with the song as any remix, but does so mostly by extreme manipulations of the song's existing elements, rather than the addition of unrelated filler, and so I'm kept busy trying to figure out what got stretched, pulverized or inverted to produce that noise, or that one. The "Wubble U Mix" of "Atomic", the Blondie song Sleeper covered on the soundtrack to Trainspotting, is a more typical house reconstruction, all pulsing synth-kick and broadly flanged junk patches, but I guess the fact that this is a remix of a cover, and so a reworking of a reworking, allows it to bypass my normal antipathy for this remix style, and I put up with the predictable monotony long enough to get to where the vocals finally come in, at which point the remix takes a sharp turn for the better, letting the dynamic structure of the original guide the remix for a while, before reverting regrettably to genre for a meaningless last couple of minutes.
In between these two remixes, though, is a cover, left mercifully alone, of Elvis Costello and Aimee Mann's "Other End of the Telescope", which she did on 'til tuesday's final album, Everything's Different Now. The second Aimee Mann cover I've come across in as many months (after Scarlet's b-side version of "Stupid Thing"), this one reaffirms my conviction that covering her material is an excellent idea. The verses of Sleeper's tense, textural rendition sounds almost nothing like the ones on Aimee's Costello-ish original, Louise and Aimee's voices frail in distinctly different ways, but the stately chorus melody could be nothing else, and the merciless lyrics seem even better suited to Sleeper's penchant for unblinking realism than to Aimee's predilection for private-reference encryption.
Curve: Pink Girl With the Blues
Returning to the subject of bands I thought were dead, I'm quite sure that Curve disbanded some time ago, and Q hasn't said a word about a reunion since. Yet here is a new Curve single, credited to Halliday and Garcia at least, with a 1996 copyright. I'm sure there's a story to it, but they neglected to inscribe it on the liner, and although I could have tried to find it out some other way, that would be perilously close to journalism. The music, at least, is self-explanatory. Curve were the masters, in my opinion, of dense, surging, ambient-metal dance-goth, halfway between 4AD and Ministry, Tony Halliday's clipped voice buffeted by massive industrial percussion loops and relentless waves of guitar noise reverberated into a cacophonous roar devoid of any of the instrument's native nuances. Stylistic variability was not among their virtues, however, and it was only after more study than I suspect most people would devote to the topic that I convinced myself I could tell the difference between Doppleganger and Cuckoo, their two studio albums (and even then I don't think my test observed proper scientific-method controls).
Nothing seems to have happened to either trait over the course of whatever leads Curve to these three songs. "Pink Girl With the Blues" is a maniacal stomp with a little burbling synth effervescence for relief from the sonic assault. "Recovery" is slightly slower, Tony's voice stepping in front of the din instead of swimming in it, siren guitar howls punctuating the shrieking gale. And "Black Delilah" harks back to Curve's early, slightly sparer EPs, with a simmering bass line that Björk is probably missing about now, a recent-Numan-ish drum loop, chattering sound effects and abusive-elf vocal multi-tracking from Halliday. If this single presages a new Curve album I have no confidence that it'll be any easier to disambiguate than the other ones, but I'll happy to make the attempt again.
Everclear: Santa Monica #1
Sparkle and Fade came out a good long time ago now in the US, but overseas audiences are apparently a little behind, so they get one more single (the second for "Santa Monica", actually, this time with the helpful parenthetical subtitle "Watch the World Die" on the cover to reassure people that this is that song) before the band retreats to record the next album. Excluding the AC/DC cover "Sin City", which I've already got two copies of on other singles, the b-sides on both parts of this are all radio sessions, and since I didn't think much of the radio sessions on the "Heartspark Dollarsign" singles, I initially decided not to buy these. I'm not sure who I thought was deceived by this preposterous bluff. Of course I broke down and bought them. Because, I don't know, these radio sessions might be really cool somehow.
In fact, these radio sessions are really cool somehow. The earlier set I disliked because they fell, for me, in between the power of Everclear on album and the power of Everclear in person, without capturing anything important from either, and so felt to me like songs crippled by ignorance of their audience. These are again partially acoustic recordings with neither concert intensity or album polish, but they substitute a riveting immediacy I didn't feel in the others. Either the band has gotten used to playing in radio studios and projecting to their disembodied listeners, or else the KDGE/Dallas studio audience was better than the first one, or else maybe there's just more low end on these and I'm imagining all the rest. Whichever, this quiet "Heroin Girl" is edgy and conflicted where the one on the first "Santa Monica" single sounded like a parody, and Art does an excellent job on "Summerland" of adapting the song to the acoustic guitar's sustain behavior.
Everclear: Santa Monica #2
Even in the original version, "Strawberry" is the slow, quiet side of the band that "Heroin Girl" and "Santa Monica" don't display. This acoustic version, with only a little hi-hat hiss for percussion and Craig Montoya's bass in careful lockstep with Art's guitar, is almost an Art solo piece, the lyrics' harrowing battle with addiction all the more affecting with nothing to distract from it. "Fire Maple Song" isn't as different in this form, but I love hearing Greg and Craig's ragged background vocals on the chorus drifting into Art's mic from across the studio. And their cover of Tom Petty's "American Girl", available in electric form on the tribute You Got Lucky, as well as the European "Heroin Girl" single, lends itself to acoustic performance much better than I would have anticipated. I think the band is still hearing Petty's version in their head, and trying to do it justice, and the fact that they don't have their usual instrumental arsenal to employ forces them to compensate with enthusiasm. By the next single I expect them to have it stripped down to an a cappella version that will raze barns.
Guided by Voices: Sunfish Holy Breakfast
Given how much other GbV material has been released of late, the beery bar-audience pleas of "One more, man, one more" that open this EP seem a little misplaced. After the bad experience of Robert Pollard's pithless solo album, though, a good, minor, catchy, brief, cryptic GbV EP is precisely what I need. I put this on one apprehensively, worried that I might discover, as it played, that Pollard has given up on songwriting for good, and decided to release random lengths of demo tape for the rest of his life.
Nope. Never mind the solo albums, GbV are still demented geniuses. Sunfish Holy Breakfast is like Not in My Airforce never happened. The band's EPs have never set out to revolutionize anything, and this one is no exception, but I didn't need to be revolted, I just needed to be reassured, and all my favorite GbV qualities are on display here, in cunning miniature. Tobin Sprout's "Jabberstroker", with only a single guitar and two voices, is easily as cool as anything on Carnival Boy. "Stabbing a Star" is a punk thrash like the Bevis Frond covering "50 Ft. Queenie" on a malfunctioning Silvertone with garbage cans for drums. "Beekeeper Seeks Ruth", drumless again, executes intricate vocal counterpoint with the recording levels set so badly that it's a wonder the tape caught anything at all. The dark, solid "Cocksoldiers and Their Postwar Stubble" was professionally produced (at least, I assume Kim Deal got paid for doing it), and does have a whole band in the arrangement, but sounds even muddier than some of the home recordings. "A Contest Featuring Human Beings" is bouncy and sharp, like Pollard's answer to early Billy Bragg, while "If We Wait" sounds like an XTC impersonation that suddenly sprouts a crazed metal-freakout conclusion when the band's attention wanders. And the infectious "Trendspotter Acrobat" is a rare writing appearance by Jim Greer, perhaps in anticipation of Sprout not being around to spell Pollard on future GbV records. Ten songs, twenty three minutes, lyrics from the random phrase generator that doubles as Pollard's brain, insanely catchy melodies tossed off like Grape Crush cans in a state with no deposit, inclement tape hiss, and scarcely a second not bathed in the glow of analog distortion; all is well.
Jason Falkner: Miracle Medicine
Wow, a gatefold seven-inch! I don't think I've bought one of these since "One Great Thing". Falkner even goes so far as to revive the time-honored (and un-GbV-like) practice of putting one song on each side of each disk, though I suspect this was mostly to set up the line "4 tracks of 4 tracks" in the credits. All four are home demos. "Miracle Medicine", which was redone for Jason's album Author Unknown, is sloppier and noisier here, but clearly recognizable. The slower, drifting "The Hard Way" is a bit more like a Grays track than one of Jason's solo pieces. "Kidz Without a Curfew"'s splashing cymbals and ornate melody remind me of Jellyfish, though the fidelity is of course completely wrong. "They're Coming to See Us" is the only one of the four that feels like a throwaway idea for which demo status is probably as far as it deserved to get. You do still have a turntable, don't you?
China Forbes: Ordinary Girl
"Ordinary Girl" is the theme song to the TV show Clueless. I tried to watch the show, but I liked the movie too much to see it all rehashed in between commercials. I adored China Forbes' debut album, Love Handle, though, and if I ran a major label she'd be signed to it by now. My fond hope is that Columbia has snapped her up, and that her presence on this shameless, anonymous attempt to merge Liz Phair with W.G. Snuffy Walden is just a favor she's doing them while she works on her real music.
Tori Amos: In the Springtime of His Voodoo
Tori, please stop doing this. You and your songs are precious to me, too precious for me to not buy every new package that appears with your name on it, but much too precious for me to stand hearing them abused. Please, no more of these soulless, execrable remixes. If you don't feel like making any more songs right now that you, yourself, are personally involved in, we'll be okay for a while listening to the ones we've already got.
various: VH1 Crossroads+
This VH1 compilation has Tori covering Springsteen's "I'm on Fire" (complete with a CD-ROM video for it, actually), so I had to buy it, too. VH1's taste and mine do overlap, sign I guess that I'm getting older, but not so much that I don't have to skip nearly half of this. I can't abide Blues Traveler, Hootie, Gin Blossoms or k.d. lang, I'm plenty embarrassed about having bought Deep Blue Something's album without having to hear "Breakfast at Tiffany's" any more, and if I'd been picking from Melissa Etheridge's Duets tracks the one with Joan Osborne would have been my last choice, as Joan and Melissa's voices are too close in pitch to work together very well, and both Paula Cole and Jewel are much better at harmony than Joan. Still, it's hard for me to argue with a live album that has: "Somebody's Crying", the one Chris Isaak song I like, where he goes "So plee-eeeeee-ee-eeeease"; a nice nasally acoustic rendition of Son Volt's "Drown"; Goo Goo Dolls doing "Name" against a frightening amount of crowd shrieking; Del Amitri skittering through a succinct "Roll to Me"; Tori subjecting Bruce's song to her trademark piano deconstruction; and Jewel's phenomenal performance of her new folk standard "Foolish Games".
various: Safe and Sound
Lots of compilations have a few good songs, though; what's much rarer is to find one with a personality that makes you want to listen to even the tracks you didn't already like before you bought it. Safe and Sound, a benefit for several charities in memory of two Brookline, Mass., abortion-clinic workers killed by an anti-choice sniper two years ago, is the first of these I've come across in many months, and has a musical coherency that many other cause albums have proven is not an outgrowth of political or moral positioning. The track list is practically a Boston roll-call: Letters to Cleo and Charlie Chesterman covering his old band Scruffy the Cat's "You Dirty Rat", the sax-bass-drums trio Morphine, a Belly obscurity called "Think About Your Troubles", Tracy Bonham doing "Navy Bean" live, Lou Barlow in his Deluxx Folk Implosion guise, Aimee Mann's flawless UK b-side "Driving With One Hand on the Wheel", peripatetic ska-thrash icons The Mighty Mighty Bosstones (on whose Big Rig label the album appears), Jennifer Trynin's pointed "Don't Take It Out on Me", noisy Big Dipper-esque pop from Gigolo Aunts, a hushed Mary Lou Lord doing Shawn Colvin's "Polaroids", a hoarsely acoustic Scarce, a Juliana Hatfield song called "Waves" that could easily be an a-side, Buffalo Tom's Bill Janovitz foreshadowing his upcoming solo album, a live version of Fuzzy's "Severe", and the impressive Kevin Salem dirge "Ghost Town". But the significant thing is not that these fifteen artists are all from Boston, it's that assembled on this compilation, despite widely varying musical styles, they sound like a community. It's one thing to share the same streets in fact, but it's quite another to share them in spirit and in voice, and that makes this both a better album and a better memorial.