Stare Hard Enough at the Picture and You'll Get It
119 · 8 May 97
Curious Ritual: Get With It Girl
Villa Victoria is a converted church, and parochial uneasiness lingers in its posture as it greets its new life as a South End community center and occasional music venue. The stained-glass windows and quiet lobby carpet seem ill-prepared to cope with sweaty mosh-pit refugees and foundation-stressing volume levels. The bar in the corner lurks rootlessly, like a temporary structure hastily erected to host a bake sale to raise funds for stabilizing the bell tower or buying the parish softball team new uniforms. Inside the hall itself the normal accessories of a rock show can't quite adjust to the expanse of the space, much less its solemnity. Strobe lights flicker gamely, but in a room that people can't fill, the freeze-frame flashes capture mostly walls and ceiling arches, which appear able to resist, like people cannot, the temptation to gyrate stiffly, meeting the strobe halfway. Off to one side, near a fire exit, I notice a small plaster cross leaning against a wall, as if the new occupants had come across it in a spare bedroom. ("Oh look, here's something those religion people that were here before us must have forgotten." "Well, just put it somewhere out of the way, and we'll call them tomorrow and see if they want to come pick it up or we should just throw it out.") I keep expecting the speakers to cut off, the lights to come on, and an anxious priest to burst onto the stage shrieking, indignantly, that we kids had promised him this was a late-night Scrabble tournament for charity.
Things could then easily get ugly. Boston rock tends to cling to its unfinished-basement rehearsal-space aesthetic origins with a pride that borders on dogmatism, and so customarily produces shows that one can quite comfortably attend in a state of belligerent drunkenness that would, frankly, rule out most other indoor public activities short of being jailed. Most local nightclubs brace themselves for this element with either industrial structural reinforcements, or else a layer of grime so thick that even people who can barely see any more are scared to touch anything. Villa Victoria is way too nice for this. Catastrophe hovers, expectantly, like a cantilevered shelf of Ming vases in the living room of the geeky rich kid whose parents have left town just when the paths of his desperate desire to feel social relevancy and the senior class' repressed suburban-rebel restlessness have decided to cross. I can see Sam Adams empties shattering windows (there's a sociology thesis that practically writes itself for you when you find yourself dodging overpriced-beer bottles in a riot), electric guitars dashing themselves against balustrades, adrenaline-sick sixteen-year-olds tearing at cracks in the plaster on the walls, as if attempting to free compatriots imprisoned in the masonry. I can see the villagers gathering in West Newton Street, outside the church, frightened by the noises coming from within, and then, grimly and tearfully, retrieving torches and pitch-forks from their dual-income-supported brownstone condominiums, and setting fire to their beloved place of worship, sacrificing a house of God in order that the demons who have possessed it should perish with the chapel they have defiled.
This scene may yet transpire, but it won't happen tonight. A sporadically torrential rainstorm, the allure of Thursday-night television and the unfamiliarity of the venue have conspired to keep attendance well below the critical mass necessary for spontaneous insurrection. And even if the place were packed, this is not Boston rock's standard crowd. The band we are here to see, Curious Ritual, whose EP-release party this is, is the antithesis of gruff, leather-jacketed brutishness. Ethereal where the average Boston weeknight band is only barely tuned, lush and textural where most bands are blisteringly over-amped, and yet oddly goofy and unjaded where bands just barely more gothic would be cloaked in black and avoiding eye-contact like it was sunlight, Curious Ritual is a band that you ought to cluster around the stage for, sitting cross-legged in concentric semi-circles. (In a way this forces them to Villa Victoria; there isn't anyplace else where the floor is clean enough to sit on.) Linda Jung, the singer, performs the entire set seated on a gaudy fake-leopard-skin stool in the center of the stage. Guitarist Sean O'Brien bounces, as he plays, to some rhythm that is no longer evident in his playing by the time it makes its way through his labyrinth of effects pedals. Bassist Carolyn Corella and drummer Joel Simches' parts are frequently less like the rumble of machinery than like the equations of architecture. A slide show of cheerfully crude drawings plays against both the room's front walls in no particular relation to anything going on on the stage. Curious Ritual's music flutters between atmospheric reverie and pop artlessness in a way that makes this transitional space, in fact, almost perfect. The open areas in the room are right; Curious Ritual's songs have none of the anonymous throb that packed crowds pulse with. This isn't music impatient for arenas and contract riders, it's music for friends. The person I'm there with works with one of the people in one of the opening acts, and once lived with another. I see several people I know, and almost everybody else I recognize from previous shows. Even the food (another sign that this is a gathering as much as it is a show), a haphazard mixture of ambitious self-catering and huge plastic bowls of budget tortilla chips and store-bought cookies, is friendly and unpretentious, and I later find out that the person who made calzones for the event, roommate of somebody in the band, works for my sister at the store she manages. Record-release parties are frequently just ordinary concerts with a table in back where somebody is selling CDs, but this one actually feels celebratory, like the people there have come because they genuinely care. Someone's parents are sitting at a table next to where I'm standing, and although I'm sure they're getting looks, I suspect more of them gleam with "You must be very proud" than sneer "What are you old people doing here?"
Get With It Girl, the five-song EP we are here to welcome, to me makes a much better case for meriting celebration than most sub-album-length discs. Co-produced by ex-Sugar drummer Malcolm Travis, it is substantially more direct than the reverb-drenched elixir Kramer blended for the band's 1996 album God Hilliard. O'Brien's guitar stills swirls into the air like blood fanning out through water, but Simches' oblique, evasive drumming and Jung's fragile, bell-like singing are both moved up to the front of the arrangement, rather than spiraling out of its depths, and somewhere in the process the surface tension of the dreamlike suspension that suffused God Hilliard has been broken. I liked God Hilliard a lot, and I never assumed there was no substance behind its production, but I'm still surprised that Curious Ritual transcend its murkily otherworldly sound this readily, and pleasant surprise is a sensation I always cherish. EPs tend to just fill the space between full albums in my life, but this one seems to me like a real step in the band's evolution that just happens to be only twenty-three minutes long. The stuttering drums and ragged chanting in "No Safe Bet" sound like the band is trying to follow Fugazi sheet-music mislabeled as This Mortal Coil. "Travelogue" floats wispily over cycling bass figures, off-center drums and some winding and vaguely Middle-Eastern guitar. The hesitant "Queen for a Day" teeters tantalizingly close to stalling, but always manages to convert falls into forward motion at the last second. The cover of the Guided by Voices obscurity "Volcano Divers" (off the Fast Japanese Spin Cycle EP) turns an eerie Robert Pollard fragment (its one-take improvisational loose-ends reproduced with surreal meticulousness) into a slow, haunting lament.
The most revelatory piece here for me, though, is "Get With It Girl" itself. Circa God Hilliard, Curious Ritual's lyrics seemed to be less composed of coherent thoughts than of individual words selected for atmosphere, and then strung together with an unapologetic bead-necklace-ish eye for striking color combinations. There may be sophisticated stories hidden in songs like "Filigree", "Iridescent and Strange" and "Crayons and Panthers", but there might also be seven Waldos wearing bondage harnesses in every Jackson Pollock painting; they aren't works that seem like you're supposed to study the details. "Get With It Girl" is practically a pop song, though, and I listen to pop songs, if only so that I don't slip and start singing "Vegetable! Veg, Vegetable!" in public later, obliviously, and get mercilessly ridiculed for it. In this case Linda's odd, elongated, wavering phrasing makes singing along a bit of a challenge, but I discover, unintentionally, that the song is actually a compelling, compassionate and angrily frustrated admonition to a friend to recapture her independence. "How does it feel in the circus when he leads you / Around by the nose?" "You are so much more than your body." "You're not wholly sold-out, girl." It's not quite "Silent All These Years", but coming from a band prone to using words for the patterns in the lines of the letters, it's as if I suddenly squinted at a Pollock just right and discovered a hidden Magic Eye picture of dolphins getting snared in tuna nets.
Mistle Thrush: Super Refraction
Back when 1994's AIDS-benefit compilation Soon introduced me to both of them, sirensong and Mistle Thrush sounded like the dual leaders of an underground Boston atmospheric-goth revival that was about to finally spread past its insider scene boundaries into recorded media, where people like me who never believe anything they can't listen to at home could follow along, as well. sirensong broke up after a couple EPs, though, and while I liked Mistle Thrush's five-song debut EP Agus Amarach quite a bit, on their subsequent full-length album, Silt, they seemed to me to suddenly turn self-conscious about their gothic atavisms, opting at the last minute to try to be 10,000 Maniacs instead of themselves. This is an understandable impulse, commercially, but to me too much of the album got sidetracked in a style that was neither Mistle Thrush's forte, nor anything I really needed another album of. To be fair, when I go back and listen to Silt again, I find that there are really only a few songs that sound like 10,000 Maniacs in any meaningful way. Neither arguing away this condemnation nor two years of distance, however, make me like the album any better. Maybe if I worked harder at it I'd learn to see something special there, but the piles of albums I could say this about that litter my life could spell Atlas, and life's too short already to spend valuable hours prospecting through your own trash. I suppose one could counter, smugly, that the only qualitative difference between pawing through your own garbage and my practice of buying new albums by bands whose last albums I didn't like is that you don't have to pay for your garbage again. But I keep doing it because I keep discovering wonderful things that way, easily often enough to justify the expense. Super Refraction sounded like the title of a Mistle Thrush album I'd like much better, and several of the song titles ("Moth-Like", "51 Pegasi: Rocketship v.2", "Do You Know This Bird?", "All Mirror Thing", "Escapades in Glass" (reprised from Agus Amarach) and "Making Salt With Sunshine") were far too cryptic to be listless half-folk, so I decided to give them another chance.
And, in fact, I took to this album instantly and effortlessly. Super Refraction could almost be an apology (not that I needed any more evidence for solipsism), a complete remake of Silt that finds ways to satisfy the band's stylistic restlessness without having to sacrifice the turbulent intensity that I liked about them. "Stupid Song" is like a Chainsuck track performed entirely on real instruments. "Moth-like" is spectral and propulsive, like Enya and Curve combining to revamp an old Rush song. "It's All Like Today", jazzy and lilting, is the kind of song that, if you took the guitar feedback out of the chorus, tightened up the drifting Spirit of Eden-ish bridges, sped it all up a little, and equipped it with educational lyrics, wouldn't be out of place on Sesame Street. "Yellow Day"'s verses sound to me like Jane Siberry's "One More Colour" sung to Big Star's "Holocaust", but the choruses seethe with ragged guitar and Cranberries-ish vocal yelp. "51 Pegasi: Rocketship v.2" burbles brightly somewhere in between the Cardigans and the Rose Chronicles. The quiet, drifting "Do You Know This Bird?", with its pulsar guitar and ghostly backing vocals, could stow away on a This Mortal Coil album. "All Mirror Thing", with guitarist Scott Patalano joining singer Valerie Forgione for a duet, could be an out-take from Sloan's One Chord to Another. "Train Song" takes a while to get going, but by the end is a towering wave of guitar noise with an elfin melody somehow staying just a breath ahead. "Escapades in Glass" has been cleaned up considerably since Agus Amarach, applying guitar noise as a distinct layer, rather than piping the whole song through too much reverb, and no longer trying to deny that parts of the song aspire to sound like October Project. And the Lida Husik-like "Making Salt With Sunshine", despite using only a voice and a single acoustic guitar, manages not to sound even vaguely folky.
The other unexpected revelation I have about Super Refraction is that it's almost exactly the album that I wanted Garbage's debut to be, before I'd heard any of it. When all I knew about Garbage was that Butch Vig was starting a band with the singer from Angelfish, for some reason the band I pictured was something like a version of Curve that traded some of Curve's dance repetition for a bit more pop accessibility. Curve, to me, were masters of atmosphere, but they were so good at it that ambient roar often swallowed whole anything else they tried to put into their songs, and telling one Curve song from another frequently required complicated laboratory tests. Mistle Thrush build on top of the roar, so that it doesn't carry the rest of the music away. To this day I remain mystified and resentful that Garbage have made millions while Eve's Plum, Fledgling and the Rose Chronicles have not, but at least now Mistle Thrush have supplied the album I felt cheated of.
[A short diatribe, before I move on. It is 1997, and I believe CDs are now commonplace enough that we can quit tinkering with the form like nobody's ever seen one before. In particular, it is time to stop putting hidden bonus tracks on albums. It was clever the first time, but the next thousand times were each progressively less clever, and the cleverness curve has long since plunged below the origin. I am sick and tired of thinking that my CD player has died in mid-disc-shuffle, getting up off my couch, walking into the room where my stereo is, and discovering some idiot eleventh track counting implacably into the thirteenth minute of a three-minute song. If I wanted to listen to long intervals of silence, I'd turn the stereo off. (Or actually, in my case, I'd have to turn the stereo off and wait for the woman who lives upstairs from me to take her five children out for shots or something.) The silence becomes even more wearisome when it leads, as it almost invariably does, to an ill-advised novelty track that the band themselves only liked because they didn't have to listen to it more than once. What does the snippet of surf nonsense at the end of Get With It Girl have to do with an EP that is not otherwise inane or derivative? Why are there eight minutes of trebly quasi-Orb techno at the end of C'Est La Vie? What do the twenty-two and a half minutes of chopped up faux-Philip-Glass that drag down the end of Super Refraction have to do with an album of songs that are specifically not tedious or mechanical? Please, stop. The point of a track listing is to list the tracks. If your bonus track is good, think of a name for it, figure out where it should really go on the album, and put it there. If it's pointless and masturbatory, save it for the next Smashing Pumpkins single.]
Polara: C'Est La Vie
I didn't initially have a lot to say about Ed Ackerson's first album as Polara, 108 weeks ago, either, but by the end of 1995 it had wormed its way deep enough into my affections to squeak onto my year-end top-ten list by the grace of a tenth-place tie. Since then I've filled in his pre-Polara catalog as The 27 Various, and followed his production credits to Hovercraft/Shatterproof, and in this expanded context, Ed's noisy conception of how pop works has come to make a lot more sense. It's tempting, since he uses banks of synthesizers, to lump him in with the Pulsars and the Rentals in the nascent synth-pop revival, but even a cursory side-by-side examination of C'Est La Vie and Pulsars is sufficient to reveal fundamental differences. Pulsars' synth-pop derives straightforwardly from New Order and the Cars, retro-futurism little different, culturally, from the periodic resurgence of popularity in shiny silver jackets and freeze-dried astronaut ice cream. Ackerson's lineage is more knotted, tendrils reaching out to Allen Ravenstine's synthesizer dissonance in Pere Ubu, the Jesus and Mary Chain's waves of channeled noise, the Loud Family's bristling pop abstrusity, techno's blocky add-and-subtract compositional structures, metal's bluster, the Pixies' guitar churn, Athens jangle-pop's sighing Anglophilia and late-Big-Star disintegration. His songs invariably keep one foot in melodic pop accessibility, but each album he seems to stretch out further with the other one. The closest things here to unqualified pop songs, I think, are "Quebecois" and "Incoming", but "Quebecois"'s "La La La" choruses coexist uneasily with keening guitar barbs, shiny brass stabs, edgy "Rayon Drive"-esque verse cadences, and a series of random sounding rhymes that finds its way to "Parliament for partial paradise" and suddenly assumes a political pattern, and "Incoming"'s kinetic drum clatter, airy Jennifer Jurgens harmonies and sunny bridge fight with squealing guitar noise throughout, and collapse into a pounding drum break towards the end. Elsewhere, "Transformation" is blues cacophony for nervous killer robots, "Sort It Out"'s verses remind me strongly of Jah Wobble, "Light the Fuse and Run" twists a lounge-jazz vibe line into a careening organ hook, "So Sue Me" mixes a synthetic Nick Drake-like string section with slurred organ-grinder twinkle and a messy guitar solo, "Make It Easy" can't decide whether to break into Black Sabbath, Jethro Tull or the Jacksons, "Elasticity" is like "You Can't Have Me" performed in an electrical storm, "Idle Hands" spins and swoops like the Grays, "Other Side" is halfway between Scott Miller and Matthew Sweet, "Pantomime" is jagged and single-minded, like the bed tracks for a Jellyfish song, and the slow, tender acoustic-guitar/synth-cello lullaby "Shanghai Bell" sounds to me like a Replacements song in which earnestness is allowed to supplant disillusionment and exhaustion for once. Half of the time sparkling pop hooks are cloaked in noisy camouflage, and the other half of the time squalls of white noise are overrun by melodic momentum. Ackerson's genius, to me, is his ability to alternate these two confusing tactics at will, so that I'm never quite sure whether I like his music because it's so difficult to grasp, or because it's so easy. And while I doubt many people buy albums hoping for more confusion in their lives, for me confusion is the beacon that identifies where there's something new to be learned.