When You Want Something So Badly You Learn What You're About
98 · 12 December 96
Smart Brown Handbag: Monkey in the Middle
Early in "Green Room", the fifth song on Smart Brown Handbag's third (and thus David Steinhart's tenth) album, and therefore approximately David's one hundred and fourth oddly warped fractured-relationship song, he says, half to the girl and half to himself, as his narrations almost invariably are, "I have photographs / I could someday use; / I wouldn't say 'compromising', / As much as I'd say / 'The best of you'". It is as if he's threatening, it seems to me, not to reveal a past embarrassment, which could be disavowed, explained or forgiven, but to expose the thinly disguised bleakness of the present, which permits no such easy remedies. And in that one line is captured both my fierce faith in David's songwriting and storytelling integrity, and also my lingering disappointment, not so much with this album, but for it.
The photographs, in my meta-case, are some of those nine other albums. Steinhart's back catalog begins in times shrouded from our view by the fog of no-CD-reissue, with the 1984 debut EP by he and his brothers Jeff and Rich's jangly and unassuming California guitar band, Pop Art, who I usually describe either as a more brittle Translator, or as Los Lobos without the Hispanic influences. After the EP came the 1985 full-length A Perfect Mental Picture, 1986's Long Walk to Nowhere, their 1987 masterpiece (in my opinion) Snap Crackle Pop Art, and one somewhat uneven CD, Later On...In the Same Life, in 1989, after which the group disbanded. Steinhart then put out two slightly Costello-ish solo albums, Everything She Says (1992) and The Almighty Nest (1993), before returning to bandhood with Jeff and Pop Art alum Lyn Norton, as Smart Brown Handbag. SBH's self-titled debut came out in 1993, followed in 1994 by the spellbinding Silverlake, which only seven years of personal history keeps from supplanting Snap Crackle Pop Art in my affections. If you've heard of none of these records, I'm not surprised (the label they all appear on, Stonegarden Records, is Steinhart's own, and distribution, at least here on the coast opposite from its base, has been token at best), but I am sorry.
All three phases of Steinhart's career have been distinguished, for me, by three things. First, the first time I heard it, David Steinhart's singing sounded like me. That is, his voice on the radio sounded like my voice sounded to me in my head. Why this would matter to you I can't imagine, and since then I've had more opportunity to compare my recorded voice to his, a scrutiny under which the similarity does not stand up, but the chill the first time I heard him was unmistakable. Second, the way in which his voice winds around its words seemed, and continues to seem, subtly unique to me. Where most singers sing as if their text has become second nature, and their attention is on the notes to which they've set it, Steinhart's singing seems like the reverse to me, like the melody is something that guides his movement of its own accord, like a road guides a car, and thus leaves him free to concentrate on the story he's telling. When the score calls for a held note, whatever syllable he was in the middle of gets held, but when the music moves on, he finishes the word and continues with the rest of the sentence. I know of no singer who seems, as he sings, to relive his own narratives as vividly. And third, not unfittingly, David is one of the three lyric writers in the world who I think most brilliantly capture the nuances and truths of relationships. If each of the three have their own niche, then Del Amitri's Justin Currie finds hope in dissolution, Mark Eitzel finds dissolution in everything, and Steinhart's genius is in the telling details that explain why people compromise and settle, the facets of inescapable situations that explain their inexorable pull. David's songs are anatomies of equilibria that draw you in and show you the one easily-overlooked perspective from which a relationship's impossible stability seems rational, and what looks like paralysis turns out to be an unwillingness to move, not an inability. This doesn't sound cheerful, and in fact Pop Art's songs rarely were, but a story doesn't have to be cheerful to be moving, and in the same way that Raymond Carver's short stories are uplifting even at their bleakest, Pop Art songs always left me feeling, if not exactly better, then at least less imprisoned by my world.
Monkey in the Middle adds fourteen more songs to Steinhart's collection of empathic tableaux. "Half Right" is a meditation on a woman I'm not sure the narrator actually knows, and when he says "The curb by the car, / Allison's kneeling, / Purging the night / And my fickle love", I'm not sure whether she's rejecting him or just shattering his illusion. "This Dance Is Free" is like a later scene from the same story, and when he admits that "Love is the closest thing I know to hate", everyone is implicated. "Green Room" is at once a confession of enduring friendship and an unsettling plan for betrayal. "Thin Shoulders" is a relationship that simply expires under its own weight. "Sabrina" might be a father's touching ode to his daughter, but it also might be a desperately lonely factory worker obsessing over an underage girl. The narrator of "Stones Throw" can no more manage to fill his relationship than ("Living in a house so empty / The ghosts are afraid for their skin. / The first time she came to visit / She asked when I planned to move in") he can fill his own home. By "Superstar" he's transferred his dreams to a celebrity, which only serves to deepen his depression ("If I flinch at my reflection / How much would you see in me?"). When the chorus of "I Know You" can only manage those three words, it's because its subject's failure of nerve is too painfully familiar. And "Give You That" finds the narrator's hopes worn to such bare realism that the best he can think to ask for is "One night of sleep, / Ten hours with no dreams; / I could give you something / If I could give you that". Of the three songs that aren't about stifling or hopeless relationships, one is about loneliness so oppressive you long for a stifling, hopeless relationship ("It's Sunday morning, / And my first conversation / Is ten hours away"), one seems to be about preparing to commit suicide ("Twenty-eight floors up he thought, / 'With all the things I'll never know, / I'm certain now how far down / I have left to go'"), and the last one is a snapshot of an apartment building that seems like a claustrophobic half-sentient warren of human misery ("The air's alive and tense / Traveling through these vents"), and possibly one the narrator has been consigned to because of drug debts (though since there's nothing in the song to support the drug part of this hypothesis, I suppose it's just as possible that the narrator's penury is due to twelve years of financing his own record label).
Where Pop Art records never left me feeling depressed, though, to my dismay I find that this one does. For one thing, on previous records even the grimmest songs would have had clever narrative touches that deflected part of my attention from the material of the stories to the skill displayed in telling them, like the narrator of "Unholy Union" revealing that his blithe confidence that the woman will return is due to his having stolen her car keys, the odd landlord-tenant tension of the unrequited love story "Roommates", or the disappointment in "Almost Lost Her" being the "Almost". Here, though, these consolations are harder to find, and on several of these songs I drop my guard expecting a release, and only when the songs end before it arrives do I realize how much they've hurt me. The music also seems to have crossed its own line. Pop Art's songs always had a pervasive stiffness to them, as if the music had been derived so closely from the lyrics that it never quite took on its own life, as if the band was a juggler's illusion held up by David's voice, forever on the brink of clattering to the stage if he ran out of words. This kept the songs' lyrics always in sharp focus, and made his precise observations that much more cutting. Monkey in the Middle finds Steinhart at the helm of a new incarnation of SBH, Jeff's bass part taken by Cindy Albon, drummer Steve LePatner replaced by John Glogovac, and Lyn Norton's organ demoted from band to guest. Perhaps inspired by this trio format, David has turned up the distortion on his guitar, a circuit that in Pop Art days almost never felt current, and this is by far his rawest, loudest, and most energetic album. Therein, though, lies some of my regret. I have no shortage of raw, loud, energetic albums. New ones come out every week, many of them excellent. But as much as I like rawness, volume and energy, they are not the extent of rock, and every time a band with a unique style of their own relinquishes it, I feel like I've lost something. It seems worryingly like all of rock is converging. Metallica makes raw, loud rock records, Rush makes raw, loud rock records, the Posies make raw, loud rock records. Who are taking their places? Who will play byzantine heavy metal, or convoluted prog, or breathless pop? Who will play the sort of quiet, composed, uncluttered pop music that Smart Brown Handbag used to play, now that they don't? I don't think anybody will, and I miss it. Even more importantly, though, however distorted and fierce (by Steinhart's standards, at least) this album's music is, distorted and fierce are two things that David's stories exactly never were. His music, like his storytelling, was always painstakingly clear, and the musical clarity of his songs made them easier to take lyrically, because the coherency of the song vouched for the state of the narrator's mind even when the story itself left it in doubt. And so when these songs, in particular, resort to the obfuscation of rock bluster, it feels disturbingly like a flinch, and I start to wonder whether we all aren't miserable after all.
Vent 414: Vent 414
Lest I ever mistakenly think I've discovered a general principle, though, we segue straight to a counterexample of someone giving up another style to make a raw, loud rock-trio record that actually makes me very happy indeed. Miles Hunt, Vent 414's singer and guitarist, was previously the singer for the Wonder Stuff, who made the bewitching 1991 market-square Celtic-folk-pop album Never Loved Elvis, and then seemed to me to get lost in their own anger and never delivered the follow-up masterpiece that it suggested they were capable of. I was hoping, then, that the band's disintegration was related to this failing somehow, and that after the split one of the pieces would turn out to be the piece that believed in buoyant Celtic-folk-pop records. Previous singles have demonstrated that We Know Where You Live, the band the rest of the Wonder Stuff started, wasn't the one.
A glance at the credits for Vent 414 was sufficient for me to ascertain that Miles wasn't going to carry the torch, either. Not only has he failed to secure the services of a new violinist, but there are no mandolins, banjos or accordions at all. Even less auspiciously, Miles himself plays guitar in this new trio (rounded out by bassist Morgan Nichols and drummer Pete Howard, both rescued from other expired British bands), and the album was recorded by Steve Albini who, never mind the dubious wisdom of an ex-lead-singer hiring a producer gleefully disinclined to disguise the slightest performance inadequacy for his album debut as an only guitarist, is hardly anybody's first choice to produce a sparkling, reeling, kaleidoscopic pop record.
But what I hoped this record was going to be is even more crashingly irrelevant in Vent 414's case than usual. The first thing that floors me about this album is Miles' voice. I liked his singing quite a bit in the Wonder Stuff, too, but the Wonder Stuff's music was so ebullient that nearly anybody would have sounded good singing over it. It's quite another thing entirely to sing over dark, surging, bass-heavy rumbles, and it's quite a third thing to do it under the harsh glare of Albini's audio-veritae microphone arrays. Miles transcends both these factors, and at times on this album fleetingly reminds me of both School of Fish's Josh Clayton-Felt and Dream Theater's James LaBrie, two of, in my book, rock's more impressive vocalists. He hasn't LaBrie's range or Clayton-Felt's effortless melancholy, but rock was never about vocal range, and melancholy is strictly optional. He swoops, snaps, wails, trills, and flits in and out of falsetto with a confidence that only an unshakable faith in his own rock-star stature can adequately explain, and a flair that converts me to his faith as well. If I were fourteen, this performance would have me buying Miles Hunt posters for my bedroom walls, and purchasing magazines I hate in order to cut out three-paragraph interviews with him that say nothing I didn't already know in worrying detail.
The second arresting detail is Miles' guitar playing. I believe, from evidence elsewhere, that Miles is a passable conventional guitar player, but he does very little conventional playing on this album. Instead, it sounds like some guitar tech played a strange prank on him by turning the sustain on his amp way down, and retuning his guitar to some odd combination of notes that can't easily be convinced to generate the usual chords, to which situations Miles responds by slashing viciously and frenetically at the instrument to compensate for the lack of sustain, and inventing new chord progressions to replace the ones that the tuning doesn't lend itself to. The playing is at times furiously noisy, though never fuzzy and rarely discordant, and at times plaintively hushed, and reminds me a little in both modes of David Lester's in Mecca Normal. Melodic flurries swirl through the roar like errant kites taunting a hurricane, and if there's a single stock blues or rock riff anywhere on the album I've missed it. The musical impetus of these dense, geometrically constructed songs comes as often from the bass as from the guitar, Nichols bass playing alternating between melodic runs that wouldn't be out of place in Ned's Atomic Dustbin and pounding rhythm lines that could have gotten him into Living Colour. Howard's drums clatter and crash impatiently around both instruments, as if the studio is being fitfully shelled by a small gang of irritable teenagers who dropped out of a Kodo percussion class to get a little extra street crime in before dinner time. On the songs when all three players are at full intensity, this results in an interwoven intricacy that can sound almost progressive, though at any moment one of them is apt to suddenly drop out of the mix entirely, leaving the band sounding momentarily like Gang of Four, Voivod, Everclear or Matthew Sweet. How this would fit into any one existing musical genre I don't know, but fortunately it doesn't have to. In a week when Smart Brown Handbag prodded at my periodic fear that the shrinking world will crush music inside its dome as surely as it will crush us in every other way, Vent 414 resuscitate my faith that even the simplest rock-band format is still easily capable of generating new music that thrills me in ways every bit as unmistakable as they are inexplicable.
Gary Myrick & Havana 3am: Texas Glitter & Tombstone Tales
When we last met Gary Myrick, the apex of our next unexpected trio, he was in Havana 3am, not "&" it. Havana 3am, in fact, circa its self-titled 1991 debut, derived most of its press notice from the presence of ex-Clash bassist Paul Simonon, and with Nigel Dixon handling lead vocals, Myrick was only the guitarist. I was happy to see Myrick back making music in any form, and playing with someone from the Clash earned him more street credibility than his previous gig backing up John Waite, certainly, but the album I thought was dreadful. The over-accented snare sound gave me horrible headaches after only a song or two, the lyrics were abysmal, and I didn't find the cartoonish quasi-Latino, semi-rockabilly machismo endearing in the least.
Five years later, Simonon gone and Dixon dead, Myrick, who here takes over vocals and songwriting in addition to guitars, is the only remnant of Havana 3am mark one. The band that accompanies him here is merely a new rhythm section, stand-up electric bassist Tom Felicetta and drummer Jamie Chez. Retreating from the imaginary Cuba of the first album back towards Texas, Myrick's state of origin, this version of the band sounds much more at home with their genre influences. The twang intro to "Imaginary Western" still sounds like the anticipatory soundtrack for a barrio gang skirmish, but "Tex Pawnshop & the Tremelos" sounds more like Thin White Rope gone rockabilly, "Innocent Man" is a straightforward mid-tempo ballad, "Teenage Mafia" sounds like desert surf rock, "Mexican Girl" could be Marshall Crenshaw after a tour leg that spent a little too much time in the South, and "Tejas Queen" sounds like a Texan version of Don Henley's "All She Wants to Do Is Dance". The real thing that keeps this album from ever descending into parody for me, though, is Myrick's voice. There is simply no rockabilly in it. Clear, and slightly nasal, in everything it sings I hear at least a trace of "She Talks in Stereo" and the rest of Myrick's New Wave, LA-pop heritage, and somehow that balances the silly movie-Mexican swagger enough to keep it from irritating me. I'm not sure there's enough of interest here for a general audience, but Myrick fans, if there are any of these left other than me, ought to at least touch base.
Shampoo: Girl Power
And while we've wandered afield into goofy music, I finally got an imported copy of the second album by the ever-dubious English gimmick-girl-band Shampoo, who fit this week's trio theme in an inverted sort of way, since producer/multi-instrumentalist Con seems to handle most musical aspects of the band's simplistic synth-dance-punk program, leaving Jacqui and Carrie the critical responsibilities of wildly amateurish singing and posing petulantly for endless image photographs, in which they have thankfully begun looking less like Nabokov models and more like unhealthily dedicated Miki Berenyi acolytes. I started dreading this album last August, the minute after I posted my review of their debut, in which I called them the greatest unapologetically female punk band in history, and the dread deepened to dangerous levels after my year-end write-up, in which I gave them #8 on my album list, and called We Are Shampoo the year's only true punk record. Because although I still defend all those claims, Shampoo was practically the definition of a one-joke band, and the overwhelming likelihood was that a second Shampoo album would be odious beyond belief, and threaten to sour the whole Shampoo experience in the way that Jonathan Livingston Seagull went from timeless to ludicrous for me after I unwisely trudged through the malodorously syrupy swamp of The Bridge Across Forever. The surprisingly plausible cover of Gary Numan's "Cars", on a single b-side, gave me momentary hope that the girls might, incredibly, transcend themselves after all, but their appallingly garish version of the Waitresses' "I Know What Boys Like", the following single, put me back to feeling that doom was inevitable.
I suppose this fatalistic build up helped to even the odds a little, but even so I think Girl Power turned out much better than anybody had a right to expect. In my taxonomy of second albums, this could have been an ...And the Little Girls Understand, but instead it managed to be a very respectable Don't Look Back. It's a virtual clone of We Are Shampoo, of course, but Shampoo were no more likely to make an Indigo Girls album than Mattel is to come out with Weight-Problem Barbie and a Ken modeled on Wallace Shawn, so it wasn't stylistic variance we were holding our breath for, it was to find out whether this imitation would be plausible or pale. "Girl Power" has the giddy stomp of "Viva La Megababes", the shimmering "News Flash" has some of "Shiny Black Taxi Cab"'s sparkle, and "Bare Knuckle Girl"'s excitable whoosh echoes "Trouble". "Zap Pow" could be the sequel to "Game Boy", "War Paint" to "Glimmer Globe", the buzzingly infectious "Boys Are Us" to "Delicious", the easy "We Play Dumb" to "Shampoo You", "I'm Gonna Scream" to the simmering "House of Love", and "Don't Call Me Babe" to, well, "Viva La Megababes" again. There's even a nearly deadpan pop song, "You Love It", though it will be a while before Shampoo are ready to compete with Scarlet or Voice of the Beehive in this arena, and although I still think "Cars" would have been a much better single and album choice than "I Know What Boys Like", I'm even warming to that. For both historical reasons and the classic yelps of "Viva!" on "Viva La Megababes", I think I still would recommend We Are Shampoo as the sample to use if you want to determine whether you detest or adore an album that consists of cheerily trashy smurfettes singing worse than you do in the shower over backing music that already sounds like a cheesy karaoke version of itself, but Girl Power would also serve, and that's the highest possible compliment I could have dreamed of giving it.