Great Joy in the World's Past
117 · 24 April 97
Savage Garden: Savage Garden
God I need a new Roxette album. There has been too little giddy, uncritical happiness in my life lately, and while new Roxette albums aren't the only things that produce it, they seem less ambitious to ask for than most of the others. "Why", you might be about to ask, in the tone of voice that parents use when they ask their teenage children any question about haircuts, "don't you just listen to some old Roxette records?" Yes, yes, listening to old Roxette albums makes me feel very nice, like there has been great joy in the world's past, but pure, unambivalent, world-wearinessless bliss requires the sense that happiness is still going on today, undimmed by viral malice, pipe-bomb rhetoric, pre-millennial cult-suicides or browser incompatibilities. Although part of art's power is its immortality, that is part, too, of what weakens it, for age turns fervor to respect, and thus art to archeology. I don't want this all to petrify into cave paintings, meticulously photographed under special limestone-preserving lights, surround by grave note-taking graduate students wearing special anti-static boots. What good is art that makes you want to pogo and carom, and then crumbles spitefully at your impact? The resiliency of life is a power only we hold, here, living, and we must reach back across elapsed time to keep the past alive with our touch. And new albums are the best conductors.
But Per and Marie have lives of their own, far away from my apartment, and they deserve the freedom to attend to them without the weight of my need pulling at the shoulder straps. And so I try to free them, in my own way, by projecting the things I love about them onto whoever else is handy. This is particularly easy to do when a band has the anachronistic temerity to make a song that actually sounds like Roxette, like "I Want You", the lead single from the self-titled debut by Australian studio-duo Savage Garden. Mercilessly sequenced and quantized, with synthesizers burbling perkily, guitars roaring with all the cuddly menace of animatronic lion cubs, a racquetball-serve snare drum sound purloined from "She Drives Me Crazy" (do different cultures hear snare drums differently, like dogs don't "arf" in French?) and a breathy vocal personality concocted from nine parts Per Gessle and one Michael Hutchence, this is about as close to "The Look" as you're recommended to come without having retained prior legal council or mentally accepted the idea of halving your publishing royalties. The brief, scratchy, hip-hop drum-loop break might fool a dour career police-sergeant or a jury of Seattle fourteen-year-olds, but not the rest of us.
The rest of the album does little more to ward off the comparison. The ballads are awash in syrup and sincerity, the dance tracks throb with the regimented power of guard robots patrolling the perimeters of Versailles lawns, the lyrics wear familiarity like fatigues (the couplet "I want to stand with you on a mountain; / I want to bathe..." can only end one way, and you can be sure the implied semicolon isn't printed in the booklet), and if stylistic irony in band-names were ever outlawed, Savage Garden and Huggy Bear would have to arrange a hasty, sheepish exchange. Enjoying Roxette requires a suspension of critical cynicism that is hard to achieve (and best managed, admittedly, by simply not having much critical cynicism to begin with, thus their chart success), and listening to Savage Garden is not appreciably less (or more) demanding. If you aren't ready to accept gated finger-snaps, insouciant tambourine rustles, keyboards that sparkle like Tinkerbell's benediction, lyrics that edge across words like "indulgence" and "resurrect" as if the Abyss howls at being so defied, and the sort of self-image that results in the first thought prompted by the classic interview question "Pick five words to describe yourself" being "Is 'sex-appeal' one or two?", then you'd best lock yourself in your bedroom with a stack of Pavement and Built to Spill records until the authorities can be sure this isn't transmitted through casual contact. "Santa Monica", to answer the one question you might tarry in the doorway to ask, is not an Everclear cover.
But for those of us who've learned to reach silly pop tolerance through Zen or exhaustion, rather than a genetic incapacity for discrimination, there are ample joys here to ameliorate our vigil. Savage Garden sounds enough like Roxette to activate most of the same receptors, but empathetic scrutiny reveals enough hints of independent will to keep the exercise from being too cloyingly slavish. Darren Hayes' dramatic warble, which tries in a way to be both Per Gessle and Marie Fredriksson at once, also seems to me to have a trace of Feargal Sharkey's frightened tenor lurking in it. "Tears of Pearls" sounds a little like a gospel techno remake of Hunters & Collectors' "True Tears of Joy" with stray Erasure choruses inserted. "Universe" could be a languid Bee-Gees slow-dance with just the falsetto edge smoothed off. "Violet" flirts with "Suicide Blonde". "Break Me Shake Me" starts out like something Gene Loves Jezebel might have done if they could ever have stopped being shrill, and then explodes into torrential guitar bluster. "A Thousand Words" undercuts its atmospheric drift with staccato guitar somewhere between Simple Minds and George Michael. "Promises" is plausible enough vintage New Wave synth-pop to get Savage Garden the still-light-out opening slot on a summer Duran Duran/a-ha nostalgia tour. And the sappy finale, "Santa Monica", which looks at the city that made Art want to swim into the ocean and watch the world die and finds no threat more serious than "You'll have to dodge those in-line skaters / Or they'll knock you down", raises the possibility that maybe, even if only through the gracious tint of obliviousness, it's still possible to see something there, and everywhere, other than an apocalypse.
The retrograde phase enters a different house with the debut by another machine-bred two-person band, Pulsars. Synth-pop has been making a slow critical comeback, you could argue (although when I start listing examples I get to the Rentals and then not a lot further), but it's been a very long time since a new band set out to recapitulate quite as much of the Eighties as Pulsars attempt to absorb, reorient and update. Imagine the pixelated flutter of New Order and OMD translated through the noisy swirl of Polara, the geeky power-pop clomp of the Cars run through the feedback wash of the Jesus and Mary Chain, or maybe the awkward, preening elegance of Split Enz spread across an angular early-Game-Theory frame. Synthesizers pulse and whistle, drum tracks clatter and spin with geometric precision, vocals wheel through processor pirouettes like the Buggles trapped on a whirligig, and melodies lurch fitfully toward their destinations like enthusiasm will preserve them where semi-circular canals fail. If snares ring with a hollow thwock in British and Australian ears, then in the cold of North American city winters they whoosh like a computer dreaming of snow-muted car wrecks. "Wisconsin/Tunnel Song" opens in a distracted, lilting haze, before snapping decisively into an anthem for pistons, doorbells and claustrophobes. "Suffocation" is like the Kinks and Whipping Boy simultaneously refracted through an aural Nude Descending a Staircase. "Owed to a Devil", with pastel trumpet flurries and vocals flanged as if they're banking in formation with the pealing guitars and pinched synths, is like an endless chorus that verses can barely interrupt, and "Technology" is an "I Melt With You" sung to outdated computers like they are dying friends. "Silicon Teens" reminds me of both "You'll Dance to Anything" and "Long Haired Guys From England", "Lucky Day Part I/II" is like GbV leading into Devo, and "My Pet Robot" conflates broken hearts and drained batteries. "Runway", with its plaintive bleats, turbine whine and eye-of-the-storm pacing, could be halfway along a morph from "Bizarre Love Triangle" to "Dig for Fire", and "Tales From Tomorrow" might be a dance club remix escaped the building through a back window wearing Camper van Beethoven's clothes. The melancholy, orchestral "Das Lifeboat" sighs like a slow overture from the ballet of Major Tom's past.
It seems like synth-pop has been defined, in retrospect, perhaps more in contrast to what we find ourselves surrounded by in its wake than because it was this way, by the Yaz-Gary Numan-Devo axis, music in which synthesizers took over for guitars, and in which mechanistic nuances and personalities, even more than the literal instruments, took over pop's spirit from organic ones. A lot of music I like got made that way (Yaz, Gary Numan and Devo not least among it), but the polarization of history, even while it is occurring, means that bands who fail to epitomize their era are liable to get swallowed by it. A Drop in the Gray, Europeans, the Expression, Flesh for Lulu, 4-3-1, Freur, Gardening by Moonlight, Peter Godwin, the Lucy Show, Minor Detail, Our Daughter's Wedding, The Tubes, Zerra One -- parts of my old record collection read like a roll-call of bands that, had they been born a decade earlier, would probably have sounded like Foghat, a decade later the Pixies, bands for whom synthesizers were not a lifestyle, just the contemporaneous cool toys that you started a band to justify playing with. There is a pure, vat-grown, synth-rock bloodline that you can trace through the Human League, Thomas Dolby and the Blue Nile, but for much of the Eighties it was also possible to make synth-heavy pop music without the sheer presence of synthesizers determining the style any more than the presence of guitars, or drums, and this is the tradition Pulsars invoke, hoping to reclaim a few tools on pop's behalf. In the wake of Nirvana, and the mass return to guitar-bass-drums purism, keyboards have been ostracized from garages with the free-market thoroughness of planned obsolescence, but the point of planned obsolescence is to clear the way for new spending, and synthesizer makers, right on schedule, seem to have awoken from a decade of sedate workstation variations on the D50 blueprint to the realization that knobs and flashing lights and levers and whizzy noises are much cooler than banks of nylon-guitar multi-samples and stoic exteriors marred only by chiclet keys labeled "Parameter" and "Value". The Korg Prophecy I bought last year is only a Modulator Grip less cool than an SH-101, and doesn't take half an hour to re-patch. Of course, it's also so much fun to simply play with that I haven't extracted a productive measure from it yet. But the toys, at least, have a new life, and lack only new heroes to brandish them.
Trans Am: Surrender to the Night
My freshman year in college, for some sort of talent show whose rationale I can't recall, about a dozen of my friends and I registered as an a cappella group called the Monotones. Our act, performed while wearing obscenely wide ties, consisted of singing, in a disorganized, unrehearsed and tone-deaf manner, whatever fragments of inane Seventies and Eighties hits anybody could half-remember. Somebody would start one ("In the navy, / You can sail the seven seas!...", "Jenny don't lose that number, / I need to make you mine!..."), we'd all chime in, or try to, and the song would immediately begin degenerating into gibberish. While this was unbearable to listen to, I maintain that it had a certain cultural authenticity. It is an inherent characteristic of disposable pop music that you remember only pieces of it. Our recital, then, was very nearly a literal transcription of pop memory, and thus was true to our fragmentary human sense of nostalgia in a way that the whole songs couldn't be, because whole pop songs are history the way vinyl and plastic remember it, not the way we do.
If you can imagine inverting every detail of this scenario except the sense of history, you understand what Trans Am's first album, which I came across last year, seemed like to me. Instead of an incompetent a cappella tour through shards of unavoidable pop shrapnel, Trans Am is like a concise instrumental encyclopedia of every riff I've forgotten to a rock song I once loved. Except "encyclopedia" sounds long and methodical, and Trans Am was so short and haphazard it nearly disappeared. The whole disc is less than half an hour long, several of the tracks are only a minute or two, and even the longer ones tend to be based around short riffs that are repeated, with such subtle variations that it does seem like the band basically forgot what was supposed to come next, until they finally lose interest. It's hard to even say what style they play in, because though a no-frills informality unites the fragments, parts could be Fugazi or Helmet, parts could be Brian Eno or sombient, and parts could be Deep Purple or King Crimson. On paper it sounds like it ought to come off like an imaginary soundtrack, but at no point while listening to it can I imagine anything but the band playing. Nothing is as ornate and epic as Rush, or as busy, jump-cut and entranced as the Orb, but the album strikes me as halfway between "La Villa Strangiato" and "The Box" all the same.
By Surrender to the Night, their follow-up, the traditionalist guitar-bass-drums bits that dominate the first album are relegated to the minority. "Motr" is a long synth whine that turns into Chameleons-like guitar roar, then reminds me of a Marry Me Jane song, then takes flight in a soaring Ry Cooter-like guitar solo before subsiding into a disconcerting Smashing Pumpkins-ish calm; "Rough Justice" is a trio sprint that smashes headlong into about a minute of unnavigable turbulence and machine noise messy enough that the album bears a warning sticker with the assurance that the distortion is intentional; and "Carboforce" is a nearly eight-minute jam that plays like a furious thirty-second instrumental break stretched out to thirty-two times the number of notes in sixteen times the length. Elsewhere, the instrumental palette has shifted heavily toward synthesizers. "Cologne" is an eerie analog-synth collage, like the theme music to an abandoned Expressionist spy thriller that trails off when the hero falls asleep in a humming power plant. "Illegalize It" is loping, atmospheric and jazzy, propelled by toy-drum-machine shuffle and jittery synth-vibes, and "Love Commander" is practically the same song redone with live (but heavily flanged) drums and a different synth patch. "Zero Tolerance" is like a drum solo played on a kit assembled entirely out of white noise. "Tough Love" brings back the cheesy drum-machine and some gradual swelling synthesizers, before turning into a sort of lounge-jazz for Koyaanisqatsi, and then combining the two. "Night Dreaming" sounds like Music for Airports with a beat-box, and in "Night Dancing" the beat-box goes solo. The title track, all rattling percussion, murmuring and glassy bell tones, and some tasteful minor-key whines, is the album's closest thing to a straight techno song. If Trans Am balanced in the middle of a cord stretched from Rush to the Orb, then by Surrender to the Night the Rush end has been reeled in nearly to Brian Eno, which means both that the influences in evidence aren't as disparate, and that the space between the band and their influences is no longer that great. So while this album is longer, more substantial, and easier to categorize, it is a product of its culture, not a map of it. And I can never see cartographers turn into salesmen without hating the world a little more afterwards.