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I Know That You're Tired
112 · 20 March 97
Art in America: Art in America
For each phase of my life, since I've been old and self-conscious enough to see them as phases from the inside, I've had a phrase to carry around with me, like a mental talisman, something that seemed to me to summarize, or at least represent, the core of my worldview. Actually, I suppose I had precursors even before a high-school bout with Nietzsche left me pretentious enough to claim a "worldview"; I remember being in the driveway of my grandmother's house in Dallas, playing this interminable one-player game I'd invented in which you (or, more accurately, I, since I don't recall ever soliciting companions for this pursuit) used a frisbee to whack a superball against her garage door, trying to particularly avoid hitting an errant shot high and to the left, since this would send it over the fence into the murky, vine-choked backyard of the spooky house next door -- I remember, while doing this, improvising my own libretto to go along with the tune from Jesus Christ Superstar, whose real words I didn't know, and wouldn't have wanted to, since I'd declared myself an atheist some time in elementary school. As I recall, the phrase "Jesus Christ, Superstar" in my version became "Superstar, Regular", with the stress in "regular" on the last syllable, and some syzygy of the word's synesthetic associations, whatever Revolutionary War history books I'd been reading in which "regulars" were soldiers, and the general fantasy-prone nature of my childhood (like Jim Shepard's novel Flights, only without the airplanes, and I always dreamt about invented sports teams, not real ones) produced a vague conception of strangely inconspicuous world-saving superheroes, one of whom I hoped to be. Over the years I developed intricate plans of the tiny one-seat spacecraft my character piloted, which I remember as being like a cross between a VW bug, a landspeeder and a large plastic Easter egg, and which featured a refrigerator under the seat for carrying pizza, and the whole scenario eventually culminated with the idea that the Regulars would capture Antarctica and form a new nation and then, although there were only about a dozen of us and presumably fighting worldwide evil kept us all thoroughly occupied, enter the Olympics.
But we grow, and presently I reached the age where rock-band logos begin to supplant dark-leaded schematics of armament-bristling battlestations on one's schoolbook covers, and somewhere around 1983, inspired by the Art in America song "Sinatra Serenade", I found my first phrase-of-self, "Sinatra Task". As painstakingly explicated in a distended and musically inept song I wrote in 1984 (sung, which I couldn't do, while accompanying myself on the piano, which I couldn't do either), this stood, to me, for the idea that weaving beauty out of existence's rough cloth was life's most sacred work, a theory that harmonized encouragingly with Nietzsche's paeans to Joy, Stranger in a Strange Land, Jonathan Livingston Seagull and whatever else formed the holy texts of my awkward teenage years. "Sinatra Task" lacks the grammatical structure to be a decent mantra, so it became in my mind first a pseudonym, and then later the name of the band I knew I'd eventually form.
Sinatra Task served me well; it lasted for about five years, a philosophical anchor securing me against the gale of nerdy SAT-prep last years of high school, the part of college where I decided to be a philosopher and then a filmmaker, the part where I irrevocably destroyed my Circadian rhythm, the part where I fell off a ceiling and broke both wrists, and the part where I adopted an iridescent orange mohawk and bought my first pair of combat boots. With combat boots, though, came a particularly virulent strain of cynicism, and when Game Theory, in 1988, sang "Entertain me once, and then change my life, but don't entertain me twice", I realized that "Sinatra Task" was no longer viable. Its replacement, which this time was a band name from the very start, was "Sentient Weapon", which no dictionary was ever able to dissuade me from pronouncing with a hard "t" in the middle of "Sentient". My new idea, born of way too much science fiction and some intense seminars with Professor Stilgoe about how the built environment not only reflects society but constrains it, was that the only hope for humanity lay with technology, which could somehow have enough moral judgment encoded into it that our tools would be constitutionally incapable of evil. If we can't teach Oswald not to shoot, which by that age I'd concluded was systemically impossible, then perhaps we can build him a rifle that will not allow itself to be fired.
Sentient Weapon lasted until I'd spent enough years in the computer industry to decide that the idea of transferring moral responsibility into technology was not only an idiot's pipe dream, but in a way the invisible idiot's pipe dream that animates almost all technological utopianism, under which heading falls almost all technological effort, and leads to almost all the deranged social developments that keep the Luddites from dying out. The problem with technology's superficially appealing fable is not even just that it's horrendously difficult to codify wisdom, it's that it would be profoundly meaningless to do so, even if we could. The point of building machines is to have them do the parts of our lives that are machine-like, so that we're left with more time and spirit for the parts that are distinctly human. And moral reasoning, however badly most people do it, is to me one of those things that make life more than a biding of time 'til it isn't. Like singing, or laughing, or screaming silently because you swear you can feel the individual strands of the fraying rope connecting effect to cause parting, one by one, building a machine to do it is, as Wittgenstein's translator put it, "without sense".
And thus, having entered the phase of my life after technological optimism, in which things in general seem dauntingly irremediable, but things in particular glimmer with just enough hope and suggestion that suicide and serial killing seem premature, I belatedly realize that the title of this column, The War Against Silence, and the name of my web site, Furia, have together taken over as my new compound talisman. They aren't band names, this time, because I've made enough demo tapes to suspect I won't soon be needing one. "Furia", my portmanteau of "furious" and "Narnia", is the magical realm inhabited by everything about which you care passionately enough to get angry. If I won the lottery tomorrow, perhaps it would be the non-profit foundation/think-tank/eco-terrorist organization I'd start; perhaps eventually, even without the lottery, I'll think of something other than maddeningly digressive music reviews to put on it. "The War Against Silence", then, the phrase, is my truce with myself, my resolution that, no matter how lost I feel, and no matter how ill-prepared, there is inherent value, even if some weeks only for myself, in words. That the darkness (to switch senses), even in a universe without candles, must be cursed. (And in a way, in fact, a lit candle is the strongest expletive in the darkness' tongue, in the way that a great song is the most searing indictment of all the mean ones.)
One of these weeks, I fear, I will start into one of these self-image retrospectives and never emerge, but for at least one expedition more, there is a musical occasion for it. Art in America, the obscure 1983 album that marked the beginning of my Sinatra Task phase, was reissued recently by the Franklin, Tennessee (the Franklin Mint is in Pennsylvania, to allay the first fear that occurred to me) label Renaissance Records. I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, this is one of my favorite albums in the world, and I would have put very long odds on it ever taking digital form, so I'm pleasantly astounded to find it convincingly compressed from twelve inches to five. For both of these same reasons, though, Art in America was very close to the head of the list of albums I planned to reissue myself on the record label I'd start (as a division of the sprawling foundation/think-tank/eco-terrorist/reissue-boutique conglomerate) if I ever won the lottery (if I ever played the lottery), and I resent Renaissance's pre-empting my plans (RPM beat me to the Comsat Angels, too; if the promised Big Country b-sides collection really comes out, and David Steinhart decides to put out a Pop Art box set, my flagship-release list will be down to the Primitons, Attacco Decente and Time UK/Sharp, whose three entire catalogs would probably fit on a single CD...). I hope Renaissance has a lottery victory in its corporate history, too, because I can't imagine that resuscitating albums this obscure and anachronistic is going to be profitable. Issuing them in the first place was commercially dubious enough. But the disc is spinning in my player as I write this, the music is coming out, and I've locked my turntable's tonearm down just to make sure no convoluted deception is involved, so I guess whatever becomes of Renaissance, I at least have this CD as a memento of their brief, foolish existence.
Art in America, actually, occupies a strange place in my musical world. Years of obsessive completism have heavily biased my record collection, at least numerically, towards bands that reward obsessive completism. My collection database, to pick only the most obvious example, lists 69 Big Country items. Numbers are usually the result of mania, not its cause, but I won't pretend that there isn't a feedback loop. The more of a band's work there is to collect, the more attention I pay to the search, the more of my thoughts the band occupies, and thus the more chances they have to worm their way deeper into my affections. I date Big Country becoming my favorite band not from the moment I heard "Wonderland", but from the day, on an inexplicably extravagant whim, I bought the twelve-inch single for "Chance". Two of my other five favorite artists, Kate Bush and Tori Amos, were the occasions for the only two bootlegs I've ever purchased (in Kate's case a compilation of b-sides, which I atoned for as soon as I could afford to by buying the This Woman's Work box set, and in Tori's case a counterfeit CD of Y Kant Tori Read, which I excused on the grounds that I'd already bought, at considerable expense, a copy of the original LP, and just wanted to preserve it). Looking through the 100 albums in my recent Desert Island Disk issue, I find that Art in America is literally the only one of the hundred for which I have no supplementary material. I've never run across its members in other bands, I've never heard these songs covered, I've never even met anybody who knew of them. Until this reissue, Art in America had held its position in my pantheon without benefit of any factor outside itself. Listening to it repeatedly again, prompted by its reissue, I'm struck anew by how seamless, unfaltering and uncontrived its charm seems to me. I don't think I've ever been tempted to claim for this album any objective immortality, yet I know these nine songs like I know the route from the house I grew up in to the schools I attended, like I know the snap of the wrist that makes a boomerang (a Windcheater, preferably) come back to me, like I know where the two moles I had removed as a kid used to be.
And so now, thirteen years and an unexpected reassessment later, perhaps I am ready, after all, to nominate this album for something bigger than itself. I don't think I was old enough, when I discovered it, to recognize consciously how special it is. When you're sixteen, everything is amazing. My parents, to this day, insist that I returned from every movie I saw until I left for college breathlessly declaring it the greatest thing I'd ever seen, and perhaps if you've read this column for a few weeks you've harbored similar suspicions about my impressionability even now. But in my defense I point out that in 1978 I was eleven, and Capricorn One probably was the greatest movie I'd seen so far. And if I refuse to spend an hour writing about any album I couldn't spare another ten minutes to finish listening to, that shouldn't be held against the ones I could. One difference between sixteen and twenty-nine (and I haven't detected many others) is that while at both ages you find things that instantly bring you joy, at sixteen you expect it. By twenty-nine, between the slow descent into perpetual irritability that will one day culminate in some variant of "You kids get off my lawn!", and a larger pool of antecedents to dismiss the new as retreads of, you become inescapably harder to thrill (and, perhaps also, more ridiculous in your ecstasies), harder to surprise, harder to intrigue.
For example, Art in America had a string harp player. Not counting the session keyboardist and bassist, they were a trio of family members, Flynns, Chris writing and singing the songs and playing guitar, Dan drumming, and Shishonee (wife? sister? ancestral mansion's resident banshee?) playing the harp. As far as I'm aware, they are the only pop-rock band (and no, Clannad doesn't count) who ever used harp as a regular element. That they did so both without trying to make the harp sound like something else (it isn't run through a Marshall, pitch-bent or sampled), and without letting it determine their songs' genre (like Beth Sorrentino's piano doesn't in Suddenly Tammy, for example, while Ben Folds' does in Ben Folds Five), is itself worth at least a footnote in rock's Book of Life. I knew, even in 1983, that having a harp player was unusual; what I didn't know, at sixteen, was how unusual unusual was. Sure, Art in America had a harp player, but .38 Special had two drummers, and that guy in Jethro Tull played the flute, and somebody in April Wine was bald, and BOC toured with a gigantic motorized fire-spouting (or, on the later tours, fire-squirting) Godzilla-head. It has taken me some time to grasp that these are not equivalent.
The album opens with the jerky, biting "Art in America" (by Art in America, from Art in America; thus the band's other chance at trivia immortality, alongside other triple eponymisms like Living in a Box and, er, all the other ones I can't think of right now). Shishonee's harp, in case you missed it in the credits, introduces the song with a shower of glissandos, but any misapprehension that this is going to be power-trio Andreas Vollenweider is dispelled around second nineteen, when the rest of the band comes in, and the song firmly establishes its breezy rock intentions. The splashing cymbals and missed-step syncopations of Dan's crisp drumming remind me of Big Country's Mark Brzezicki; Chris' guitar tone uses distortion primarily for warmth, not abrasion, but doesn't shy away from it; T. Lavitz's unapologetically synthetic keyboard fills remind me of concept-album era Rush; Chris' voice, clear and strong, with just a touch of quaver and a subtle, endearing sweetness, is a holdover from the day when "Well, you sing way better than me" didn't seem like a dishonest way to pick a band's singer. And Shishonee's harp duels with the other instruments on equal terms, as if it's never occurred to any of them that this plucked string instrument is less well suited for the style than the other ones. The chorus, "Art in America: / It's different in my eyes, / So welcome to new times, / I know that you're tired", is probably a little more profound if you first encounter it during the same period of life in which your high school sophomore English teacher spends an hour of your weekdays pacing agitatedly around his classroom, barking "But! Is. It. Art?!", but where my sixteen-year-old self greedily digested the litany of popular art's hypocrisies, now the "I know that you're tired" part seems more apropos and far more revealing.
The mood smoothes out a little for the chirpy, steady "If I Could Fly", Shishonee's harp hooks chiming over Jim Kuha's rumbling bass line, guitar swirling gauzily in the space between the two. My heart leaps ahead, though, to "Undercover Lover", one of two tracks here that would have pedestals near the promenade in my bestiary of ageless love songs. The harp in the opening verse twinkles like a music-box lullaby, Shishonee joins in on muted harmony vocals, the chorus slides smoothly through its notes like the score has been drawn with Bezier curves, the dry drums stutter and scuff anywhere the song needs a lift, there are keyboard runs borrowed from the Call, a sinuous guitar solo from before anybody ever heard of Yngwie Malmsteen, and harp fusillades to punctuate the bridges. The chorus, "Hey there, lover, / I need to see your eyes. / You're undercover, lover, / Please give me a sign", would hardly make Byron fidget, but the words soar along the melody with such grace that "Hey there, lover" feels heartbreakingly earnest to me, a thousand inarticulate emotions poised just behind the composed facade. As in many of these songs, the vocal line is unwaveringly chromatic, and tends toward long held notes rather than acrobatic flourishes, which makes improvising your own harmonies around it particularly inviting, probably to my upstairs neighbors' displeasure.
The LP's first side ends with "Sinatra Serenade" itself, probably its tour de force of harp integration. The pizzicato rhythm guitar part, the thin little synth-violin and the drifting solo guitar (E-bowed, maybe) all borrow from the harp's idiom. Its expansive, cinematic guitar solo falls somewhere between Ry Cooter and Steve Rothery. The lyrics invoke Sinatra on behalf of the world's pain, and compared to Cracker's boorish "Teen Angst", which attempts to summon him as a utilitarian aphrodisiac, "Fear and doubt are shacking up in our minds" is almost hopelessly quaint, and "The world out there is run by laser light" sounds like a conception almost too outdated for there to have been lasers then.
Side two opens with the album's angriest moment, "The Line", in which Shishonee's harp flickers and spins like the Sharks and Jets massing for battle under streetlights, Chris works himself into such a vocal frenzy that a few of his notes flip out of range into a flute-like squeak, and the guitar slices through in wide, Alex Lifeson-like swaths. The lyrics, which I can't completely follow, seem to skitter from prostitution to irresponsible parenthood to unrestrained consumerism, and I'm sure a couple of these things are metaphors for the other, but the chorus' solemn repetition of "the grocery line" now blocks out any sense the rest of it could make for me, as it sends me spiraling off into a nostalgic sidetrack about this enthusiastically naive and culture-shocked Romanian girl I met in college, who used to regale us with breathless soliloquies about how overwhelming she found the choices in American supermarkets, which we absorbed with eager noble-savage envy, thinking to ourselves that the brochure writers hadn't invented all that crap about diversity, after all. Later we found out that she'd been living in Iowa since she was eight.
The record's most straightforward rock song, "The Loot" (more consumerism, though this time I'm not sure Chris is being sarcastic), is next. Brash guitar, throbbing bass, rattling drums and cymbals crashing like warning salvos drive this one, the harp filling a minor, keyboard-like role. It returns quickly, though, sketching firefly flurries around the upper reaches of the bouncy, stagy "Won't It Be Strange", one couplet of which I persist in hearing as "And if there is, someday, / Sumatra for change". Then we're to my other favorite love song here, the alternately ebullient and wistful "Too Shy to Say", which rolls with a big-song bluster like Yes (whose accomplice Eddy Offord produced this album) and the Cowsills combining to cover something co-written by Carol King and Warren Zevon, harp scales taking the place of what would have been, in an LA studio rendition, banks of tremulous rented (or, later, simulated) strings. And the album ends with one more intense harp song, "Brett and Hibby", sort of an abstract yuppie answer to Steve Miller's "Take the Money and Run", which even includes what sounds like an autoharp, though it may just be an oddly-strummed twelve-string with the bass roll-off cranked up.
And then it's over. Nine songs, less than thirty-six minutes, no rage, no lifestyle propaganda, no blasts of noise, no political causes, no sneering, no funk, no pain. No drum and bass remixes, no dissonance, no songs about "the road", no blues, no resignation. Just clear, glossy pop, from a lost age where gloss was a result of diligent polishing, not a film you tried to scrub off, a pop group wasn't afraid to have cover art that looked like a progressive rock album, and the spirit of New Wave was that no idea was too ridiculous to hear out. And if this phase of my life finds me in such headlong retreat that the only foe I can hope to fight on level terms is silence, then perhaps Sinatra is the most intelligent weapon to use, after all.
Eurogliders: This Island / Absolutely
The other album Renaissance has caused me to delete from my own hypothetical label's schedule is 1984's This Island, the first record by synth-heavy Australian New Wave sextet Eurogliders, which they've reissued in a single-disc-price double case with the band's 1985 follow-up, Absolutely, as further evidence that the whole label is a tax write-off for some oblivious gangster whose misfit son loved all the same things about the Eighties that I did. This Island, known, if at all, for the minor hits "Heaven" and "No Action", is always in my mind part of a five-album set with the Parachute Club's At the Feet of the Moon, the first Adventures album, the Eurythmics' Revenge and Shona Laing's South. All five albums have that refreshing coolness that for me made synth-pop compelling, and all, even Dave and Annie's, have an irrepressible many-things-at-once large-ensemble vitality. I think, some weeks, that I want to be Billy Bragg, but some other weeks, when my day job designing business software hasn't quite beaten all the patience for collaboration out of me, it seems to me like the greatest life in the world would be being in a big rock group, seven people, maybe ten, making busy, uproarious music whose density of inspiration you could never (unless, again, you're Dave and Annie) produce any other way. Parachute Club are the paradigmatic example of this, to me, but on their first album Eurogliders were nearly as enthralling. Guitars, keyboards, glockenspiel and sax slither over a bed of elastic synth-bass and chattering drum machines. "Heaven", with its simulated church-bell runs, humming bass line, thumb pops, verse snares that hit only every fourth measure, sudden stops, soulful vocals, assorted production tricks and boppy melody, is a New Wave classic. "Someone", with sprays of synth drums, liberal reverse-reverb, stabs of glorious synth brass and vocals that sound like Joan Armatrading after an hour with an espresso IV, is the kind of song that made just buying singles in the Eighties a bad idea. The sinister, funky "No Action" bursts into a chorus worthy of She's So Unusual. More brass and bass hiccups fire the sputtering (but slightly Berlin-like) "Maybe Only I Dream" and the poppier "Another Day in the Big World". "Waiting for You"'s spasmodic, oblique verses lead to disconcertingly muscular mainstream-rock choruses. And "It's the Way", with songwriter Bernie Lynch taking a rare lead vocal, sounds to me like an amalgamation of the best moments of ABC, A Flock of Seagulls and the November Group. Even at its lower ebbs, for me the dreary "Never Say", the early-Talk-Talk-like "Cold Comfort" and the garish "Keep It Quiet", there is enough darkness in the band's soul to keep them from turning into the Motels.
Absolutely opens with my favorite Eurogliders song of all, the monumental "Can't Wait to See You", oohing rondo vocals and rococo synthesizer interjections over roaring guitar, crashing drums, introspective horns and a high keyboard riff worth enshrining beside the ones from "Jane" and "Rainbow in the Dark". If I'd been in this band then, I'd have been content to get on stage and just play this song until sunrise. The rest of the album, however, is ghastly. All the life bleeds out of it with the somber "The City of Soul", and except for some perky synth blips in "Moving Away", the rest of the album is incapacitated by the same virus that afflicted Berlin when they did "Take My Breath Away". The thing I loved most about the Eurogliders on This Island was that they sounded like they were having an enormous amount of fun, daring each other to experiment, using their group dynamics to stir up a perpetual dynamic chaos. By Absolutely they seem to have reached the stage where they sit around the kitchen table, run out of jokes to tell, content to commiserate glumly with each other's sighs. (And just so you know, no amount of curiosity merits tracking down the other Eurogliders album I have, the 1988 Australia-only faux-disco horror Groove.) But since they're only charging you for one album, anyway, and Renaissance is bound to go speedily bankrupt, it's probably unwise to waste any time equivocating.