I'll Dream If You Will Sing
107 · 13 February 97
Leslie Spit Treeo: Chocolate Chip Cookies
The first thing that struck me about the Leslie Spit Treeo, sometime in 1991, when they walked onto the stage at the Paradise in Boston to open for the Alarm, was that Leslie herself was wearing the single most appalling outfit I've ever seen displayed in public. The specific details, thankfully, have concealed themselves in a corner of my mind where I will not run across them by chance; I think there were track shoes, there must have been a hat, and I vaguely recollect that her top looked liked something a Vegas showgirl might wear in a universe where the only material available for fabric was swaths hacked out of the hide of a dead, rotting King Kong. Despite five years in which to ponder, I still haven't thought of a human activity for which she was properly dressed, but certainly the maniacal, high-impact onstage flailing she undertook in the course of her duties as lead singer was not one.
After a few songs, though, my sartorial incredulity faded to a confused numbness, and I began noticing some other things. First, for a band announced over the PA as a trio, they seemed to have a couple too many members. Second, even their most straightforward folk-rock songs were apt to skid off into sound effects, cartoonish mock-country twang, sudden science fiction references or furious hard-rock bluster. Third, they did a rousing cover of the old John Denver song "Angels From Montgomery", which endeared them to me irremediably. And fourth, they said they had an album out. The next day, when I went to find it, I learned some more things. It's "Treeo", not "Trio". They began as street buskers in Toronto. The lead singer's name is Laura Hubert, and nobody in the band is named Leslie or Spit. The Treeo's folky, upbeat album, don't cry too hard, was on IRS, thus the label connection to the Alarm (although the inanity of the pairing on any other grounds had already led me to expect this). And even on disc, without Hubert's hyperactive stage presence, they still sounded pretty good. (And "Angels From Montgomery" is actually a John Prine song, but my parents didn't have any John Prine records when I was growing up.)
This promising artistic start, however, must have failed to translate into anything commercial, because that was the last I heard of the Leslie Spit Treeo for a good long time. They went back to Canada and made a denser, less-whimsical 1992 second album, Book of Rejection, which didn't get distributed in the US, so I didn't find out about it until later. In 1994 they shortened their name to The Spits, released a third album, Hell's Kitchen (highlighted for me by the great line "I put the 'y' in 'apathy'", but otherwise a little disappointing), again only in Canada, then changed their name back, recovered their rights, and reissued the album on their own label, still without copies reaching the regions below the Parallel in anything like quantity. And eventually, some time last year, they decided to capitalize on their creeping obscurity by releasing a sprawling, monumental anti-epic of a double concept album which, evidently unsatisfied with just not distributing copies in the US, they decided to further marginalize by packaging in a parody Chips Ahoy bag realistic right down to a red-triangle logo that got them promptly threatened with legal action by Nabisco unless they recalled and destroyed all the offending labels. To go along with this inauspicious start, add the details that the band's core membership has dwindled to three again, one of whom is their dog, Tag; that Tag is also the president of the band's record company, and writes all the liner notes; that they refer to the two discs of this 44-track, 113-minute set as "cookies", more than once; and that the whole thing is a recursive exercise in self-referential autobiography, complete with the narration of the adventures of a cartoon alter-image band who talk like Smurfs on speed, think like Disney-ized infant reindeer and, thankfully, rarely actually perform. Few albums have set themselves up this temptingly for disaster since Jethro Tull's Too Old to Rock 'N' Roll, Too Young to Die, and at least in Jethro Tull's case record stores have just about all finally learned not to shelve them under Tull.
But all these ill omens are necessary, because they are part of the setup for one of the most astounding chronicles of DIY in-obscurity-we-are-free enthusiasm I've heard since They Might Be Giants. Lolita Nation notwithstanding, probably no label the band didn't own themselves would have ever let them make this record, packaged this way or any other. If there can be an opposite to both Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness' bleak, alienated, deadpan nasal grandeur and Emancipation's endless parade of slickly impersonal funk, mangled grammar and sex-cliche censor-baiting, then this welcoming, compassionate, focused, plainspoken, hopeful, unassuming and ecstatic album is it. Rather than trying to press every song on the album into the service of the narrative, the band has instead woven the narrative around the songs, like movie flashbacks intermingled with the scenes from the present. And while the songs are rarely small, the production is so uncluttered and natural that I feel throughout like this is something I'm participating in, not something I'm restricted to observing. Two and a quarter hours is a long time for a record, but a short time for an evening with friends.
The first thing that impresses me about Chocolate Chip Cookies is how good the band sounds. Founders Hubert and guitarist Pat Langner remain the guiding spirits, despite an accomplices list that takes up an entire page of the zine-ish explanatory booklet, even with the backing-vocal credits trailing off into ellipses (though not before mentioning Lorraine Segato, formerly the lead singer of another of my favorite obscure Toronto bands, the Parachute Club). Hubert's fierce, borderline-hoarse vocal style is like a cross between Christina Amphlett, Exene Cervenka, Maria McKee and Natalie Merchant, and she can turn nonsense into anthems, anthems into confessions, or adversity into a defiance somehow wholly free of bitterness. On the previous albums the tone usually went with the contents of the lyrics, but here she rearranges moods so that she sings about flying warthogs, the album itself and cancer with the same close attention to nuance, and it's impossible to dismiss anything as trivial. Langner steers the music agilely from roaring metal guitar noise to ingenuous folk twinkle as if it's never occurred to him that these extremes should be incompatible. As befits its length, the album effectively recapitulates just about the band's entire history, here not only in the stylistic scope of the new songs, but also more literally in live versions of don't cry too hard's quasi-honky-tonk lament "Talkin'" and its plaintive deliverance plea "UFO", and a hushed and introspective end-of-the-night rendition of Book of Rejection's harrowingly honest title-track. About half the album is stormy, buoyant rock, from the opening "Overture" to the accordion muttering and stentorian yelps of "Average Joe", "Falling Down Again"'s shiny, sighing brass, chirping guitar, relaxed harmonies and the chorus "Is there no sight in end?" to the cathartic and wonderful "Lonely Only (Book of Rejection II)". "Bus to Nowhere", "Chocolate Chip Cookies", "Hell or Heaven" and the Jefferson-Airplane-ish "Soup Line" all swagger with classic-rock strut. "Bad Omen", "A Way In" and "Sheila" spark with metallic charge. "Too You" and "Bystander" are jangly and Byrds-like, the slower "All on Myself", "Pretending", "Moderation" and "So Close Yet So Far Away" are drifting and eloquent, and Tag's song, "It's a Dog's Life", makes me think he's been playing Laura and Pat's Hunters & Collectors records while they've been out. At the folkier end of the spectrum, "Nebulous", "Moth to a Flame", and Bob Snider's "Ancient Eyes" are haunting, uneasy and acoustic. "Happily Ever After Again", "Mole" and "Still Talkin'" are smoky, spasmodic and strange. "Second" is wheezy, nasal bluegrass gospel, "Can't Stop" bouncy country-pop, "Stuck in the Middle of a Song" 10,000 Maniacs whirl. "Oh Canada", "Rolly Poly" and "Warthogs" are sing-along folk standards (or, in the case of "Warthogs", should be). And in between these two poles, with no fixed affiliation, are the spoken-word and organ-grinder interlude "Pirates", a heartfelt "How Much Is That Doggie?", the spoken-word and random-static piece "People", Cathy Nosaty's accordion and background-noise collage "Cathy", the flute/mandolin/thunderstorm instrumental "Serendipity", the Smurf-Spits' inescapably Chipmunk-like "The Keep On Moving Jig", and a few other jokes I won't spoil for you. The album ends, weary but triumphant, with a half-empty-club concert version of "Hold Strong", a lone resonating guitar beating against spare piano chords, Laura singing like she has a full orchestra behind her, and the massed population of Argentina in front. Folk-rock bands don't usually rock hard enough to satisfy people to whom the "folk-" half isn't already appealing, roaring rock bands seldom manage to gear down to acoustic intimacy without the whine of impatient engines being audible somewhere in the background, and both usually have a hard time interspersing abstract experiments that don't seem token, but the Leslie Spit Treeo does all three styles well enough to satisfy the styles' own fans. Of course, you'll still have to like all three to put up with the whole album.
Even more inspiring than the music, though, is the passion and commitment the band pours into it. The cookies of the title, which serve surprisingly well as a central metaphor, do multiple duty as the Smurf-Spits' only real conception of material reward, as physical tokens of kindness and the Treeo's version of Carver's small good thing and, when suitably doctored with a normally-controlled substance for medicinal purposes, in the title track, as Hubert's arrestingly emotional attempt to mitigate the pain of chemotherapy for her brother Martin, to whom the album is dedicated. It's hard to write a rock album about cookies. The form lends itself readily to soaring anthems on generic themes like "Don't stop believing", "Don't look back", "Never surrender" and "Fight for your right to party", but these are not advocacy, they are merely endorsement by association. Or, in fact, the reverse: generic anthems aren't trying to change your attitudes at all, they're trying to attach themselves to what you already find stirring, so that this song will become the soundtrack of whatever makes you feel powerful. A seventeen-year-old wearing a Journey t-shirt (I know, anybody who's seventeen years old today would be wearing some other band's shirt, but bear with me) is really only saying "I am not insignificant"; the band collects a commission for helping him express this hope. But this would be pointless for a rock album about cookies. Few people are passionate enough about cookies for there to be any advantage gained from becoming the band you think of when you eat cookies. You don't think of anything when you eat cookies, you just eat them. What this album attempts to do, then, or what I've decided to consider its purpose, at least, is to change your life so that the small, ordinary acts of, and like, baking and eating chocolate chip cookies are done consciously, and so take on deeper significance. I'm sure the label's graphic design was all Nestle ever knew about this record, but its message is actually far more dangerous than the trademark infringement, since if cookies were a personal expression of care, buying Chips Ahoy would be crass and meaningless. "Chocolate chip cookies are good for you", Laura says simply, at one point, as if she can will it to be true. And probably she can; all it takes is redefining the context to be at least as much social as chemical.
Even the aspect of the generic the album does have, the Smurf-Spits' odyssey, is disarmingly fairy-tale-ish and unsponsorable. I love the determined noises they make when they "wish really hard" and the gibbering wrecks of anticipation they're reduced to by the mere prospect of soup. Big labels are more effectively flayed by Monee Records' president's smarmy marketing-mercenary soliloquies than anything in the Sex Pistols' "EMI", or the Smiths' "Paint a Vulgar Picture", but the Smurf-Spits are too good-hearted to find him anything but perplexing, and their Oz-ian revelation of self-sufficiency at the end seems implausibly genuine and heartening.
It's even palpable how dearly Laura and Pat love Tag, and before you stop reading out of disgust that I would commend an album in part because the players love their dog, think how few records conclusively demonstrate that the creators have any strong emotions. A conventionally-cased edition of this album, with wider distribution, is supposedly imminent, but if it doesn't materialize, and other aspects of your life make it impractical to track down a copy by loitering in the streets of Toronto until a band member happens by, Tag Tunes can be reached by mail at 408 Queen Street, West; Toronto, Ontario, Canada; M5V 2A7.
54-40: Trusted by Millions
At home in Canada 54-40, whose records also seem to have stopped trickling over the border, are solid mainstream rock-stars; here they are a footnote in the credits to the Friends soundtrack CD explaining that the Hootie and the Blowfish song on that compilation is actually a 54-40 cover. Why their native success hasn't translated I'm at a loss to explain, since their sturdy brand of straightforward rock stomp has no culturally specific attributes that I can identify. The path of their previous six albums veered briefly into the suburbs of New Wave around 1987's Show Me, but otherwise they've stuck doggedly to the course of four-square four-piece 4/4 verse-chorus-verse rock with admirable discipline. If you like REM's louder albums, Bryan Adams when he has the sense to avoid cloying ballads, John Mellencamp when he isn't being too rural, Tom Petty when he hasn't been hanging around Jeff Lynne too much, Sugar on the days when Mould forgot he used to be in Hüsker Dü, or Oasis after a transporter accident merges them with AC/DC, then I can't imagine why you wouldn't also enjoy Trusted by Millions. Possibly you just wouldn't need another album like this, but it works the other way, too: I own all seven 54-40 albums, but no Mellencamp, Petty, Adams or Oasis, and no REM since Document.
Songwriter Neil Osborne rarely tries any complicated departure from his familiar rock template, but for me nearly all his songs feature twists that rescue them from mundanity. "Cheer Up Peru"'s arbitrary sea-spanning appeal grounds the song's basic plea for understanding. The repeated "It's her body" chorus in the pro-choice battle-song "Stick to Milly" is unnervingly insistent. The throbbing "Crossing a Canyon", which borrows chord changes from "Femme Fatale" and the drum loop from "Jack and Diane", has intriguing details like "I'm a piece of time too small to name" and "My eyes won't tell me what to see". The churning, half-industrial blues of "Hooked on Bliss" somehow fits "My hands are bleeding like Chomsky says" into its sledgehammer rhyme scheme. "Couldn't Be Sorry", jerky and oblique, is an entry in the tradition of "Into You Like a Train", vowing "I'm not gonna save you, I'll spend you tonight". "This Is My Haircut" could be a response-song to Sleeper's "Dress Like Your Mother", and in a way the two bands might even be each others' types. The ominous "Frankl's Revenge" opens with "Boy talk, girl talk, everybody gets off / Echoing the news". "I Love Candy" isn't the same song Bow Wow Wow covered, but anything about candy gets a certain inherent cheerful bounce. And even the blunt "Lies to Me" has an odd moment when Osborne appears to forget, mid-verse, what he planned to say, and is only able to improvise "That's the way it goes sometimes / And it can also go the other way", which he totally fails to wedge into the meter.
The week's last Canadian band, Odds, is at least getting their records put out down here, albeit usually a year late. I don't really think it's going to help them, though, because Nest, their new album of immaculately infectious guitar pop/rock, like Crowded House or Squeeze with louder guitars, sounds nearly indistinguishable from Good Weird Feeling, their last album of immaculately infectious guitar pop/rock, which also sounded like Crowded House or Squeeze with louder guitars, and I don't know anybody other than me who bought that, either. I keep thinking that one of these days some DJ is going to play a perfectly written pop song like these on the radio in just the right city at just the right moment, and suddenly people across the country are going to shudder once and then walk away from all their asthmatic Pearl Jam records and we'll have the second coming of melody, and the Posies and the Connells and the Finns and XTC and Odds will get rich and preposterous like Bono, and School of Fish and Jellyfish will reform united and rule the world.
But not, apparently, this week.