Stronger Than Fairy Tales
113 · 27 March 97
Splendora: In the Grass
Everywhere I go, I buy records. It's not the only reason I travel, but if I'm going to go somewhere where CD shopping isn't likely to be interesting, my mental calculation of how long I can spend there before I start feeling anxious starts with "Well, how long could I stand to be in a coma and not resent the stolen days of my life?" So: Thanksgiving with my parents, fine; two weeks on a boat, not fine; anything involving "portage" or "baboon spiders", not very fine at all. Not, let me be clear, that spending Thanksgiving with my parents is like being in a coma. For one thing, the food is better. Also, I don't think people in comas spend much time arguing over the proper site orientation of imaginary garages. And in a way this has nothing to do with traveling, since I'm rarely able to go more than three or four days between record-store visits when I'm at home, either. I do at least, when I'm somewhere else, try to make at least a token effort to buy things with some local cultural relevance. I bought my first Runrig album in the gift shop at the Clan Donald Centre on the Isle of Skye. In Austin last fall I bought a pile of old Two Nice Girls vinyl. I bought Producers and Gary Myrick albums in LA (spiritually correct, if not geographically so). But such is the nature of my want-lists that geographic anomalies are just as common: Big Country singles in Amsterdam, a stack of obscure Boston albums for $.99 each in LA, an album by New Zealand's The Mutton Birds in Austin, the Vixen CD I was missing in London.
My favorite thing I found in Austin last time, though, was the 1989 album Honyocks in the Whithersoever, by the Wygals, which I picked up on vinyl solely because it was produced by ex-dB's bass-player Gene Holder. Many of these tenuous connections turn out to be useful only as steps in the musical equivalent of the Kevin Bacon game, but this one gave my neglected turntable the delusion, for a few weeks, that it was young and vital again. The album is dense, glorious post-Athens guitar-pop, perhaps closest in spirit to the pretty parts of early Swimming Pool Q's records, Janet Wygal's leads and the band's ecstatic harmonies set deep in reverb that at times threatens to overwhelm them (listening to it I feel like I must be hearing it in a dream, else how could it be so difficult to pick the individual instruments out of the swirling production?). It reminds me of happy times that perhaps never really existed, back before things got so noisy and irritable. But the group disbanded after it, and I lost their trail.
But we are entering the age where there will be no lost trails any more. Finding music used to be a talent, by which I mean, as is usually the case with "talent"s, that it involved nothing more complicated than dogged persistence, which the impatient invariably mistake for genius. Much of the interesting stuff I know about music comes from accumulated years of my life spent flipping through record bins, reading thank-you lists, buying albums thinking they were something else, following the see-also links in music guides, wringing leads out of friends and strangers. This remains, to me, the honest, just way of educating yourself in music. Part of the thrill of being able to list dozens of Big Country b-sides was that every entry on the list was a little trophy for my dedication. Sure, if you liked the Beatles, instead of Big Country, there were shelves full of books to read, and pathological minutiae could be gleaned second-hand. But nobody was writing books about Big Country.
The web, however, has changed that. As of 1997, Warhol's quarter-hours have been converted to HTML, and everybody gets theirs at once. Between Alta Vista and the Entertainment/Music/Artists section of Yahoo, there now effectively is a book about nearly every band in the world. So as much as I wish that there was a complicated, personal, labor-intensive, implausible-coincidence-fraught story behind my tracking of Janet Wygal to her new band, Splendora, or even just that it was the first practical use I put the new Trouser Press book to, the truth is that I typed her name into Alta Vista and hit Enter. I should be thankful, but I'm plagued by the sinking suspicion that Clarke missed the point, and that our technology is killing magic, not creating it. If you'd handed Columbus a sheaf of satellite photos, what would he have done with the rest of his life?
But that way lies madness, quitting my computer job, and taking up sprout farming in Manitoba, and I bought too many CDs this week for that to be a good idea, so let us pretend, for a few weeks more, that the ends justify the means. Never mind how I found out about it, then, after the Wygals disbanded, singer and songwriter Janet Wygal recruited a different sibling (Doug played drums in the Wygals, Tricia plays bass, percussion and flute here), added drummer Delissa Santos, cellist Cindy Brolsma and violinist Jennifer Richardson, and formed a new band called Splendora, who in 1995 released their first album, In the Grass, once again produced by Gene Holder. The predictable title, the goofy curlicue font on the cover and the classical instruments suggest that drastic changes have occurred, and in fact they have, but not the ones you'd probably surmise. Far from turning quiet, studied or psychedelic, Splendora is as deliriously noisy as the Wygals were polished. Compared to this, Breeders arrangements sound like the Indigo Girls. On "Bee Stung Lips", the album opener, the guitars roar so hoarsely that it sounds like the speaker cones have been slashed, and Holder seems to have found the one way of sullying Janet's pristine vocals, which is to record them with part of the signal chain mis-leveled in some way that causes it to complain shrilly. Brolsma and Richardson's strings are detuned, distorted and distended, and retain no vestiges of chamber-music discretion. Harmonies that on Honyocks in the Whithersoever would have glimmered gauzily like a lunatic's daguerreotype of assembled angels here are exposed in forensic-textbook clarity. Even the pull-string talking child's toy sampled at the beginning of "Rat Fink" sounds like it's been subjected to rather more abuse than the manufacturer's guidelines stipulate.
Underneath the noise, though, there still lie Janet's seemingly effortless, melody-drunk pop songs, and it would take a lot more production obfuscation than this to fully occlude them. The chorus of "Bee Stung Lips" has my favorite party-rock stutter since Too Much Joy's "Stay at Home". "Rat Fink" makes the phrase "You big rat fink" seem like an anthemic salute. "Breeze" surges like a relative of the Pixies "Gigantic" that can't quite decide whether it would rather be a Josie Cotton song. The diffident country squawk on the verses of "Rocker" gives way to dB's-like chorus harmonies and a turbulent road-grader sludge-guitar bridge. "Beautiful" sounds to me like a cubist rearrangement of "Walk Like an Egyptian". "Pollyanna" could bookend the Breeders' "Cannonball" on a retrospective of soft-loud-soft in the Nineties. "Shirt On" has a little Throwing Muses obliqueness, and its cello and violin parts remind me of Nirvana's. "Sever" almost drops the noise entirely, and with two or three fewer instruments and a little less self-confidence might be a Blake Babies song. "Rattle" is halfway between Belly and Tracy Bonham. I'm guessing it's Tricia taking a rare lead vocal on the heavily processed "Cover the River", sounding a bit like Donnette Thayer. The stiff drums and tinny guitars of "No Place" make me think of the Magnetic Fields. The kaleidoscopic, flanged "It's Great" is the one moment on the album that matches the packaging. And "Bursted", the finale, with its rumbling drums and circling guitar line, could be a Feelies cover. Pop is alive and well, and if it sometimes seems like it's wearing an uncomfortable disguise, I'm sure some of my wardrobe choices are just as inexplicable.
Amy Rigby: Diary of a Mod Housewife
The other thing my too-easy Wygals search turned up is this 1996 album by Koch label-mate Amy Rigby, on part of which Doug Wygal plays drums. Although none of my reference works addresses this seemingly obvious question, my guess is that Amy's Rigby and housewife components are from ex-dB's drummer Will Rigby, who contributes percussion on a couple tracks. I'd actually read a bunch of stuff about this album last year, but all the articles tended (as do the liner notes) to focus on the novelty of it containing pop songs about domestic concerns, and this bothered me for some reason I couldn't quite place. After hearing the record I realize what it is: it's really not novel. I suppose if the poles of your lyrical experience are "Skidmarks on My Heart" and "I Love Rock and Roll", songs about sober reconciliation and staying at home at night might be a revelation, but nobody who also listens to folk music will blink at these topics. Neither living a normal life nor writing songs about it are new ideas. And while a heavy metal concept-album about the importance of periodically sterilizing pacifiers would probably be disturbing, there's easily enough folk humility to these chiming and often largely acoustic pop songs to ward off cognitive dissonance.
Which is all fitting, frankly, I think, because Diary of a Mod Housewife doesn't set out to be groundbreaking musically, either. "Time for Me to Come Down" opens with a picked guitar figure only a couple notes away from "More Than a Feeling", and the rest of the album follows unself-consciously in suit, suspended between Amy's graceful acoustic playing and slightly strained singing and Cars guitarist Elliot Easton's mainstream production instincts. Greg Leisz adds pedal steel and dobro to a few songs, Ira Kaplan plays organ on two, John Wesley Harding duets on one, and Easton's slapback treatment on Amy's vocals throughout lends a subtle urgency to the songs that keeps them just one or two tensed muscles away from settling. The songs span the range from solo folk to country-blues stomp, reminding me in turn of Gordon Lightfoot, X, Maria McKee, Pete and Maura Kennedy, Sara Hickman, Patty Larkin, Patsy Cline, the Beatles, Roy Orbison, Bonnie Raitt, Romeo Void and Texas. In the DIY, new-simplicity mid-Nineties, in fact, this album seems to me like as plausible an American archetype as Boston was in 1976, if not of the commercial state of the art, this time, then of the creative one. Thoughtful, catchy and unhurried, this is the music that, as the last handful of days of my twenties drain away, feels the most familiar to me, that charms me without needing to startle, that seems after two listens like I've heard it a hundred times, and after ten like I've only heard it twice -- that is, maybe, the geometric center of my musical taste. This doesn't, I'm aware, necessarily make it a tourist attraction, but who wants tourists where you live? (Says a person who's carried his laundry through his share of Asian tour-bus ejecta.)
And even if Amy isn't the first to set civilian life in lyrics, she does do a particularly evocative job of it. "Time for Me to Come Down", a combination life-decision/imminent-reunion/highway song, balances its emotional monologue with nicely observed details of the drive, something like a cross between Thomas Dolby's "Flying North" and Anne Hills' "Follow That Road". "Beer & Kisses" (the Harding duet), the airy "Down Side of Love" and the jazzy "We're Stronger Than That" are rare love songs that focus on the substance and challenges of a relationship, rather than the initial thrill of it, and "Didn't I?" is an unusually realistic portrait of post-fight confusion and reluctant perspective. The workers' lament "The Good Girls" is like "Nine to Five" after the digits of the workday have almost flipped and the existential dimension has started to sink in. "That Tone of Voice" is a clever, if slight, meditation on body language and silence.
My favorite track here, though, both lyrically and musically, is the one solo voice-and-guitar song, "Knapsack". It revolves around just a crush on a guy in a bookstore who checks her bag, but into this simple scenario Amy weaves an alarming amount of urban impersonality, self-doubt, yearning and sadness. If Nick Hornby's novel High Fidelity captured enough of the emptiness that lurks around my life with music that I was reluctant to recommend it to my friends, then it's appropriate that a song should expose some of the same nagging incompletion that I read books to defy (or perhaps just deny). And while it's not necessarily pleasant to be reminded, in a song or a book, that neither songs nor books are sufficient, I didn't ask for this to be escapism.
Sloan: One Chord to Another + Live at a Sloan Party
Which isn't to say that I don't also need escapism occasionally, too. It's best for me, personally, though, if it's a little difficult. I feel guilty about listening to the Knack's Serious Fun, no matter how much I enjoy it, and the guilt gives the experience a small sour taste that, after only the fifth or sixth consecutive repetition, forces me to take the disc out and listen to something else. Better if a candy-pop album puts up a little initial resistance, so I feel like the mindless joy of listening to it is a reward for something.
In the case of the Halifax band Sloan, I don't think initial difficulty is any part of the band's intent, but I keep imposing it somehow. I discovered them with "Underwhelmed", the simultaneously abstruse and slacker single from their 1992 major-label debut, Smeared, which at the time I described as a cleverer Ozzy Osbourne backed up by the Primitives with a better drummer. On my first few exposures, though, I found the rest of the album so dizzying derivative (at various points in the album it reminded me vividly of Nirvana, the Pixies, Teenage Fanclub, Smashing Pumpkins, VU, Dinosaur Jr., Sonic Youth, the Jesus and Mary Chain and the Blake Babies) that after listening to it I wanted to just sit quietly and sip ginger ale for a while. What eventually redeemed it, for me, was that after listening to it a few more times I began to feel both that the resemblances were not calculated, and that the sheer profusion of them in a way transformed them from imitation to naivete. I began to hear under the erratic style-hopping a unifying sense of outsider wonder, an earnest reverence that may only be fully possible for a band from the edge of the world, raised on whatever they could glean, from afar, from the centers of it.
I had similar trouble with their 1994 follow-up album, Twice Removed, whose breathless gush of retro innocence I only came to terms with it once I decided that it wasn't that they had traded a dozen heroes for three, it was that they'd finally managed to digest everything that the first time they'd only barely been able to chew (yuck; must remember to take metaphor machine to shop), and so were just becoming a band that sounded like themselves on every song, not just in retrospect after the album ended. But if you learn your lessons too quickly, you miss most of the fun, so when I bought an import copy of One Chord to Another some time last year, when it was new in Canada, I once again put it on, listened to it a few times, and couldn't stand it. Knowing this had happened before, I persevered, but days are shorter now, and albums are longer, and I ran out of patience before I could make the breakthrough. The mock-Beatlemania crowd hysterics at the beginning of the album made me cringe, and I never did get my face straightened out afterwards. There are too many bands in the world who don't have to be quarantined at immigration, I told myself, and I moved on.
But doubt lingered, stubbornly, waiting for its chance, and it got it recently when the New York label The Enclave finally picked the album up for proper US distribution. Domestic release prompted another spate of enthusiastic articles, which on its own could have either weakened my resistance or hardened it, but The Enclave knew the touch that I couldn't resist: they put the album out with a bonus disc of covers and live versions. I have to fight the urge to buy albums with bonus discs by artists I hate; staying away from one where it was only that album itself I couldn't stand is utterly beyond me. And maybe hearing Sloan cover an April Wine song would win me over where One Chord to Another itself had failed to.
Ironically, I didn't even get to the bonus disc before surrendering to the album's spell. I put the first disc on first, because I can no more listen to a bonus disc before the one it supplements than I can leave a movie theater before the credits finish. And I find that I cannot for the life of me remember or deduce why it is I ever hated this album. The humbling lesson of getting dumped by Geffen seems to have been completely lost on the band, and if the first time around they were out of their depth, this time they sound like there's no such measurement. One Chord to Another is an uncanny pastiche of the Beatles, Cheap Trick and the Posies, and few wider-eyed professions of pop-song faith have ever been made. All traces of underachiever reticence are long gone; this is the sound of a band who believes that they could be the next Beatles, Cheap Trick or the Posies (and there's a trace of endearing provinciality in the fact that they don't seem to be more or less awed by any of the three), and whether you find this justified or presumptuous, I'm pretty sure confidence only improves the music.
The record opens, after the goofy MC introduction, with the jerky "The Good in Everyone", exuberant hand-claps, rattling tambourines and spiky little guitar solos animating a song that is only a few production tweaks away from the That Thing You Do soundtrack. "Nothing Left to Make Me Want to Stay" flips over to a darker, noisier, late-Posies churn, but the bass doodles and the rattling drum rolls fail to conceal happy smirks. "Autobiography", musically, is heavily Beatleseque, but the self-deprecating lyrics sound more like They Might Be Giants toward the part of the cycle where they've started developing a resistance to their surrealist pills and haven't upped the dosage yet. "Junior Panthers", quiet and smoky, with moody piano and rustling wire-brush drums, is a slow song for a Happy Days prom.
The proceedings rev up again with the frenetic, crashing "G Turns to D". Probably the gimmick of having the chorus of a song narrate its chord changes has been done before, but it's new to me, and it seems like a stroke of self-referential genius, making the point that in a great pop song it doesn't make any difference what the words are, and then recursively refuting it by the fact that that very comment is an insight exactly where it says none is needed. "A Side Wins", with its "Eleanor Rigby" lurch, continues the meta-musical train of thought, and enters my sentimental pantheon of songs that mention "b-sides" fondly (along with such odd company as BOC's "Burnin' for You" and Joe Jackson's "Hit Single").
The album then takes an unexpected turn with "Everything You've Done Wrong", a sunny blast of horns and dry, galloping drums bursting out of a time warp. The same discontinuity disgorges some keening reverse guitar and thick falsetto harmonies for "Anyone Who's Anyone". Beatlism turns explicit for "The Lines You Amend", but the horns return for the buoyant "Take the Bench", which launches itself from blues march to a reeling coda worthy of a Velvet Crush/Hunters and Collectors merger. "Can't Face Up" turns some clipped "Cold as Ice" guitar into a bit of jangly pop worthy of Failure. And "400 Metres", the album closer, sounds like the Grays jamming with Scott Miller, who for some reason has decided to do all his parts in a wildly unconvincing Lou Reed impersonation.
And then, a comfortable minute-and-a-half short of the forty-minute mark where simple pop albums turn into Smashing Pumpkins, it ends. But the Zen riddle of how you make a seventy-four-minute pop album has a simple solution, and so we're on to the bonus disc, a nine-song live set recorded at what the credits describe as "a Sloan party". After nearly two and a half minutes of room ambience to establish the context, the band finally eases into the amiable sway of "I Can Feel It", the end of Twice Removed, with Jennifer Pierce (from Sloan's Halifax sister band, Jale) reprising her frail backing-vocals. Then it's on to the covers, beginning with Jonathan Richman's "Dignified and Old", performed with enough ramshackle awkwardness to satisfy the composer, but enough pop poise to not annoy me the way Richman's own performances of his songs do. The harmonies on the Everly Brothers' "Glitter and Gold" are earnest, but perhaps a little unsteady for a song that relies so heavily on them. More intriguing to me is Sloan's jangly rendition of Roxy Music's "Over You", which they nearly succeed in setting to the music of "Save It for Later". Pierce gets up again for a haunting acoustic duet on Smeared's "I Am the Cancer", but the band seems to sense that this isn't really good party fare, and so the rest of the ensemble is retrieved for a spirited romp through the Hollies' "I Can't Let Go" that proves sing HOLLIES in reverse didn't exhaust the world's supply of power-pop Hollies remakes after all. They segue from this to the edgy, half-Jonathan Richman half-Greg Kihn broken-date elegy "Stood Up", by Halifax neighbor Matthew Grimson, the crowd joining in. An oddly straight slog through Canned Heat's "On the Road Again", after a mid-recording out-of-body experience, mutates into Stereolab's "Transona Five", and the April Wine cover, of the sappy power ballad "I Wouldn't Want to Lose Your Love", is saved for last, an endearingly sentimental end to what sounds, from the couple minutes more of it the tape is left running for, to have been a pleasant evening for all involved. Which, as I realize I haven't had an existential thought in over an hour, I guess includes me.