All the Wasted Motion Fate Allows
102 · 9 January 97
The Puddle Jumpers: Out of the Shadows
Like all truly compulsive record collectors who have computer jobs in their civilian lives, I keep a large and ludicrously over-detailed database of the records I own. As an outgrowth of a previous reviewing project, my database happens to be indexed by my own personal ideas of genre, in addition to the usual metrics, and as a result, it's straightforward for me to inventory each year's acquisitions by style. Unsurprisingly, 1996 was a very productive year for punk, or approximations thereof, and for defiant young women. Folk did okay, as did most flavors of pop. My heavy metal section, on the other hand, grew by only a dozen entries, and the classification I reserve for progressive rock got used a grand total of seven times. Of these seven, four were live albums by genre titans Marillion, Magnum, IQ and Yes, and two were the new Rush album and Alex Lifeson's Victor side-project. Which means that in 1996 I only discovered one new progressive rock band I liked.
Listening to Out of the Shadows, that seventh album, it's immediately evident why the Puddle Jumpers have so little stylistic company: they are plainly and painfully uncool. In an era of music that lingers in the shadows of Nirvana and Alanis Morissette, where shabby low-voltage humility and therapeutic vitriol are the default attitudes, anything that aspires to galloping syncopation, swirling keyboards, melodic acrobatics and unapologetic optimism will seem unavoidably anachronistic, whether that is its intention or not. Rick Vartian's dramatic organ swells remind me of nothing more contemporary than Boston, Deep Purple and Kansas, but what else can they remind me of? We are living in the second coming of punk, and although Keith Emerson has really done little to merit continuing censure since the excess that made him the scapegoat of the first coming, the new punk tends to imitate the old one whenever it's at a loss, and so anything that smacks of formal training is still the enemy. It was stuff like this, the reasoning goes, that led to us watching terminally twiddly laser light-shows from extremely bad seats in the back of extremely large arenas, and after nearly two decades of sustaining bruised ribs in minimum-capacity nightclubs, close enough to our new heroes to spit on them, if that seemed appropriate, we have no desire to relinquish our hard-won intimacy. If the song is so complicated that you can't pause to dodge a beer bottle or a handful of festival mud while you're playing it, then perhaps it ought to be simplified.
The flaw in this reasoning is that complex arrangements, by themselves, don't inherently lead to that bad Styx concert when you were ten. The Puddle Jumpers are not exactly Social Distortion, but there are several notable differences between their version of progressive ambition and the old one. Vartian spends almost as much time playing mandolins as he does playing keyboards, and this helps give the band's sound both an organic immediacy, and an almost Celtic flair that reminds me of Wolfstone nearly as often as other guitar figures remind me of early Rush. The Puddle Jumpers are also not much inclined to extended instrumentals, prolonged noodling or other expressions of purportedly expanded consciousness, so where Rush and Yes made forty-minute records that consisted of only three or four songs, Out of the Shadows fits fifteen songs into its hour, none of which will try your patience. And where Geddy Lee and Jon Anderson can be acquired tastes you never acquire, the Puddle Jumpers' friendly, slightly nasal singing voices fit firmly into the modern conception of a vocalist as a member of the band who just likes to sing, rather than a specialist you audition separately, trying to find one whose voice most closely approaches the limit of human high-frequency tolerance. And lastly, and if the commercial disfavor for progressive rock was rational this would be the decisive difference, the Puddle Jumpers' version of complicated rock is not elitist or alienating. Although these songs are complicated, the riffs require no classical training to appreciate, and the individual players' parts, when you isolate them, even sound manageable. For every detail that reminds me of echolyn, there's one close behind that reminds me more of Dave Matthews. It's possible this will simply strand the Puddle Jumpers in between factions, insufficiently abstruse for the progressive community but a little too effete for everybody who bought Sixteen Stone, but if we're ever going to get back to the state in which all approaches to music are allowable again, we have to start somewhere.
Wilco: Being There
The one completely acceptable form of unbridled ambition, in the mid-Nineties, seems to be the long album. I'm not sure there was anything natural about the forty-minute running time of most LPs, but the increased capacity of CDs has led to a lot of 74-minute albums that if it were twenty years earlier I think they'd have edited more aggressively. And between Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness and Emancipation, even multiple-disc albums have become common enough that most people at least know how to open them. Being There is a little deceptive, since the nineteen songs on its two discs would have fit on a single disc that all but the most officious CD players could have accommodated, but it's still a double-album by the standards I learned growing up, and there's something welcome and forthright about the fact that it doesn't attempt to masquerade as a shorter record.
For the truth is that Being There feels like a much longer record to me than many I have that comfortably outlast it. Harlan Ellison once introduced a story collection with the injunction that you shouldn't try to read it all at once, because it might do your head in. I don't know whether Wilco split this with the idea that you'd listen to only one disc or the other at a time, but I find that I like both halves much better when I don't listen to them back to back. I think part of the reason is that Wilco's individual songs are rarely very epic. A 74-minute Meat Loaf album, for example, feels proportionally correct to me, because each song is swollen and portentous on its own. The songs are big, and they sweep you along in the hems of their capes, so on one hand the album has to be big, or it wouldn't be true to itself, and on the other hand you rarely feel like you're doing that much work, yourself, to cover the ground. Wilco's songs, however, are small, contained, and intense, and the styles change drastically from song to song, with the result that each minute of Being There places a much greater strain on your listening muscles than the corresponding minute of Bat Out of Hell II, and so fatigue sets in much more quickly. One disc is probably just the right serving size.
Even taken half at a time, though, Being There is an impressive work, recapitulating enough other distinctly American (whether native or naturalized) post-punk, folk/country-ish styles to serve very nearly as a national gazetteer of musical idioms. The opening track, "Misunderstood", sounds to me like an uncannily accurate Big Star homage, circa Sister Lovers, that incorporates enough atmosphere and unsteadiness to be the version of Big Star you get if you merge Chilton's original with the This Mortal Coil covers. Tiny incidental amplifier noises buzz against the concussive backdrop of rumbling, muted bass drums; snares and cymbals crash in on their own schedules, unable to muster the discipline required to sync up exactly with the other instruments; Tweedy's vocals waver in and out of focus as if no amount of remonstration from the producer could get him to face the microphone for the entire song. "Far, Far Away" is morose lounge-country, sighing with harmonica and slide-guitar, halfway between Hank Williams and American Music Club. The rousing, hoarse sing-along "Monday", seething with horns and slithering tambourine, sounds like a big-band merger of Del Amitri and the Allman Brothers. "Outtasite (Outta Mind)" is like late-period Replacements that drops its cloaking device to reveal the Plimsouls at a few critical moments. "Forget the Flowers" is unabashed country-folk, banjo and steel guitar weaving around each other with the ease of childhood sweethearts who met at a square dance, but a touch of the stiffness from having grown old since. The elegiac "Red-Eyed and Blue" hides its traces of Dramarama amidst quiet piano and peaceful whistling, but "I Got You (At the End of the Century)" is brash, exuberant rock and roll, rife with fiery guitar barbs and giddy handclaps, more than a little reminiscent of the Stones in their "Honky Tonk Woman" mode. "What's the World Got in Store" could be a Paul Westerberg solo number, if Paul could play banjo, and arrange to have the Jayhawks back him up for part of it. "Hotel Arizona" brings back some of "Misunderstood"'s crackling resonance for a dense, noisy song that keeps threatening to break into Soul Asylum, Game Theory or The King and I. And "Say You Miss Me" closes out the first disc with what could also be a Soul Asylum song, if only Tweedy's voice would crack earlier, and the backing chorus wouldn't put so much girl-group zeal into their "ooh ooh-ooh ooh" parts.
Disc two opens quietly, too, with "Sunken Treasure", a languid, acoustic dirge that I hear Mark Eitzel around the edges of, both in the calm that fills most of it, and the cathartic cacophony in the middle and at the end, though Eitzel would never bow out on the mantra "I was maimed by rock and roll". The loping "Someday Soon" throws in every old-fashioned instrument on hand, from banjo to a gospel-sounding organ, but somehow ends up sounding like an uneasy confederation of cardiganed crooners and the Stray Cats. "Outta Mind (Outta Site)" is boomier and goofier than its title-inverted cousin, and I notice the resemblance between the song's piano riff and "Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head" more here. The elegant "Someone Else's Song" uses nearly-inaudible accordion and flamenco guitar to sketch in the spaces in its bare acoustic-folk frame. "Kingpin", with its sledgehammer rhyme schemes, square gait and boingy bad-funk bass noises, feels a little like Camper Van Beethoven, though more "When I Win the Lottery" than "Take the Skinheads Bowling" or "Eye of Fatima". The mournful, showy "(Was I) In Your Dreams" has a little Warren Zevon in it, perhaps, and a little Lou Barlow, and "Why Would You Wanna Live" has a gritty violin and some "Eleanor Rigby" strut, Tweedy's half-spoken vocal dipping toward VU before the twinkling piano flutters to its rescue. "The Lonely 1" is the second disc's showpiece for me, or perhaps its anti-showpiece, as focused and restrained as "Monday", on the first disc, was abandoned and expansive. Violin and steel guitar play cautiously, as if afraid to disturb Tweedy's reverie, and his voice clutches the melody unsteadily, as if he hasn't quite learned the song completely, but wants to record it before the mood in which it was conceived passes. The second disc then scorches to an end with the blistering, if bizarrely mixed, "Dreamer in My Dreams", in which howled vocals and a Jerry Lee Lewis-esque piano-boogie fight to be heard over a querulous fiddle and a loud, brittle drum track that could have been swiped from a messy "That Thing You Do" rehearsal.
For me, then, the first disc is the more accessible of the two, as it's more upbeat and connects more directly to other things in my life. The second one is darker, with fewer concessions to pop, and so I oscillate between thinking it's more rewarding and thinking it's less well formed. On the good days, the first disc forms a bridge to the second, and I can listen to the second as the stylistic extrapolation that the first makes possible, which makes the set an especially intriguing accomplishment. On the bad days, the first disc ties together so many loose threads of American music that I can't untangle the knot at all, and so the second disc never gets out of its sleeve, and the set strikes me as a seminal album that comes with a detachable coaster.
The Future Sound of London: Dead Cities
My primary tactic for approaching styles of music about which I know nothing is to watch them leerily from afar for a while, picking up random bits of information of questionable relevance. Eventually a random catalyst will lead me to dart in and buy some specific album. If I don't like it, I instantly abandon the whole genre as a lost cause (c.f. Angelique Kidjo, Ornette Coleman, Black Tape for a Blue Girl). If I do like it, though, that artist becomes my foothold; I begin obsessive catalog back-filling, and when that runs out, I begin buying things by the same record company, or things by the same producer, or things by people who appear on compilations with the first artist, or things with similar names or cover-art color schemes. A few weeks of this usually gives me enough triangulation points that I can start reading newsgroups, or expensive foreign magazines, or pestering people I know, and have some points of reference from which to evaluate what they're saying. My current embryonic investigations into noise via Aube, into early (and neo-early) choral music via the Hilliard Ensemble, and into minimalism via Steve Reich and Philip Glass, are all of this form. In ambient music I'm a little bit farther along, but FSOL's Lifeforms was my starting point, and so far they continue to be my favorite band in the genre.
"Ambient", as a term, even without "Dub" or "Techno" to qualify it, covers a pretty wide range of aesthetics. At its minimalist extreme, personified historically by Brian Eno, it is a genre of slow, evolutionary soundscapes, pure tones morphing slowly into each other, something like the aural equivalent of watching a mood ring the size of a barn. Stuart Dempster's reverberant trombone music is like this, as, in their own ways, are much of the material on the Isolationism volume of Virgin's A Brief History of Ambient series, and parts of The Sombient Trilogy. At the other extreme, occupied by several bands whose albums will all be within reach if you go to your record store and stand right where O turns into P (except note that Orbit is a rock band you shouldn't confuse with Orb and Orbital, and The Prodigy has nothing to do with the obsolete online service for twelve-year-olds), music to meditate to begins to turn into music to dance to, and things get distinctly less relaxing, and begin to sacrifice abstraction to practicality (or if you'd prefer to pass judgment in the other direction, Eno's wing begins to sacrifice invention to monotony). FSOL falls somewhere in between these two; they aren't primarily a club band, though some of their songs could serve in that stead, but they're too fond of fiddling with arcane studio gadgets to be New Age. Since I almost invariably prefer listening music to both meditating music and dance music, this suits me well. Within FSOL's catalog, Lifeforms, which has plenty of gurgling-waterfall noises and beepy synthesizer themes, shows their relaxing side, and ISDN, a collection of live radio-transmissions, is conversely strange and unnerving.
Dead Cities, their first studio album in a while, isn't quite as unhinged as ISDN, but continues in much the same vein, employing massive sound processing, vicious sample mutilation, jarring drum-loop juxtaposition and bits of sinister dialog in eerie, futuristic collages that tend to make Vangelis' Blade Runner soundtrack sound like Nadia's Theme. There are rarely melodies, per se, and there are often breaks within tracks that feel more decisive to me than the ones where the indices claim compositions end, but there are plenty of musical hooks, and the album as a whole has an episodic flow that keeps me feeling that some sort of progress is taking place, though I'd be hard-pressed to specify what it consists of. Tempos and rhythms tend to shift abruptly, just when you think they've established themselves, so it's rare that any one pattern, of any sort, repeats for very long. Part of the fun of FSOL records, for me, is just letting myself be buffeted by the insane profusion of sonic manipulations; their music has the one-frame-at-a-time sense of attention to detail of a Pixar film, and a similar pervasive gleam of hyper-reality too flawless to be genuine. "Dead Cities" is ominous and metallic, but with eerie whistle-like solos running through it, like survivors defying the ruins. Moaning fretless bass and chiming strings line "Her Face Forms in Summertime". "We Have Explosive" is nearly a rock song, but it unravels completely at several junctures, which no proper rock song would do. "Everyone in the World Is Doing Something Without Me" is like a computer-generated miniature of Gavin Bryars' Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet. "My Kingdom" reminds me of Jean Michel Jarre's Zoolook. "Max", with its stately piano and warbling saxophone, uses studio tricks as if the rack of processors is the third member of a trio, playing chamber-music scored for two humans and an AI. After that the correlations between titles and track numbers get a little unclear, but the music goes through some creaky synth-pizzicato, a bunch of abstract pulsing noises, what sounds like a player piano mechanism attached to a harp and then operated at length without proper oiling, a section that sounds like Vince Clarke experimenting with microtunings, some more Zoolook bits, a little flute-and-drums part that reminds me of Peter Gabriel and Laurie Anderson's "Excellent Birds", the theme song to a sleazy detective noir starring R2D2, a pulverized funeral march and then, after one of those pre-bonus-track silences I'm so tired of, the sound of a punk band being strangled.
(A consumer's note: there is a limited edition of this album, which includes the same CD, but has a 196-page book full of image manipulations, ray tracing and a story of sorts. I bought it; you don't need to. The graphics in the regular CD's booklet more than adequately make the visual point, and if I wrote like that, I'd make instrumental music, too.)
The Future Sound of London: My Kingdom
FSOL sometimes put out normal singles, with b-sides or remixes on them, but this one, which follows the form of their earlier Lifeforms: Paths 1-7 and Cascade EPs, is a half-hour-long, five-part expansion of "My Kingdom", which on Dead Cities lasts only about five minutes. If Dead Cities' frenetic style-shifting isn't to your taste, this might be more appealing, since themes recur in a more coherent fashion throughout the length of the expanded piece. For me, though, the relentless chaos of Dead Cities is almost the best thing about it, and so having the music stubbornly keep resolving back to the same motif for thirty-minutes is not an improvement.
I detested Brian Transeau's remixes of Tori Amos' "Talulah", but when she failed to disown them, and even agreed to appear on his song "Blue Skies", I started feeling guilty about my dismissal, and decided to give Brian a chance on his own. And, in fact, I definitely enjoy this album of his own work more than I did his remixes. If I can contrive to not pay very much attention to it, actually, like by turning it down quite low and reading something engrossing while it plays, then I find that by the time it gets to the end, more than two hours later, I feel oddly refreshed, like a summer rainstorm has passed through and cleaned the city out of the air. If I have to pay attention to it, though, there are way too many hopelessly cliched techno tropes for my taste. Transeau has a very nice touch with ambient atmospheres, but they are all quickly ruined for me by his insistence on cluttering them with the same synth-kick thump and machine-gun hi-hat fills used by every other techno record since time began. The only song that manages to escape this treatment is "Blue Skies" itself, which opens the "bonus" second disc. Its pounding bass and kick/snare drum loops are clearly rock, not techno, and Tori's unmistakable vocal presence is exploited, rather than extracted. Even after that triumph, though, the very next track is a remix of "Blue Skies" that strips it of all dignity, followed by a 42:45 remix, by somebody else entirely, of the whole first disc, which must establish a new standard for either self-reference or auto-cannibalism. If, in art, there's a difference.