125 · 19 June 97
Abra Moore: Strangest Places
The guitar stutters uneasily, but of course I know that nothing will come of it. The drums sound like a white-noise generator firing on only half of its cylinders (ah, the days when specialized audio gear was powered by piston engines), and on anybody else's record we'd get about forty-five seconds of this, and then a big, solid ensemble would roar into action, but it's not going to happen here. Abra Moore is the patroness of muted discipline. Her 1995 solo debut, Sing, was one of the year's quietest treasures, a delicate, restrained record in a year when a scattering of leftover waifishness was about the closest anybody else came to delicate or restrained. Alanis Morissette's urgent rage and Glen Ballard's fuzzy guitars hung thickly in cultural suspension, and appreciating the nuances of Abra Moore and Mitch Watkins' elusive, intimate songs and arrangements in that climate was a bit like trying to discriminate between coastal tuna variants in a mouthful of sushi where somebody has replaced the ball of rice with that much wasabi. If you could adjust your scale, though, and stop wanting Abra's uncanny reserve to give way to violent fury, then you might have, since I did, found Sing mesmerizing. Each time I listened to it, it seemed, another little piece of it was converted from potential to self-sufficiency in my mind, and a record that, the first time through, left me searching for a suspended-release metaphor which wasn't inappropriately obscene, came to be a sort of touchstone for musical patience for me. Expecting every suspended fourth in pop to resolve promptly into an overdriven-Marshall catharsis is the aesthetic equivalent of watching every movie on earth like its screen-writing, dialog and cinematography are merely inefficient transitions from one nude scene or car chase to the next. Which isn't, let me hasten to assure you, that I'm in any way devaluing the central role of nude scenes and car chases in our society. But there are other kinds of transcendences, too, other pure moments in life that don't rely as rawly on involuntary chemical surges. And Sing was a soundtrack to some of those.
Which is why, forty-five seconds into "Four Leaf Clover", the opening track on Abra Moore's second album, Strangest Places, when the big, solid ensemble I knew enough not to expect shows up after all, I'm first taken aback, and then thrilled, and then horribly guilty about being thrilled, and then bemused about how guilty I feel, and then some other melange of emotions that I can't help but suspect would be easier to make sense of if I wasn't always so sleep-deprived. The guilt and the thrill are inextricable. I'm thrilled because the moments in songs when anticipatory guitar introspection and oblique drum loops erupt into rock effusion, with a bass-pulse agitating the supporting walls and guitars shimmering in curtains of distortion, are electrifying in the same reflexive way that a goal pulls you out of your seat, or like how the way a figure twists, getting into a car, can make you stumble and wonder. But I'm guilty about being thrilled, because I don't like the baseness of my reaction. If, in the middle of The Designated Mourner, Miranda Richardson suddenly had an auto-erotic shower scene (and I don't think I'm ruining too much of the film by revealing that she does not), I'm sure I'd exhibit a certain initial acceptance of that, too, but what the electrodes register is not approval. It's real, but it's not significant. I am the sum of my decisions, not my impulses. But in an ideal world, wouldn't they be the same? It would be simpler, surely, if the parts of the brain that control my automatic reactions could sit down with the parts that handle the rest of my life, and establish some ground rules. Process the stimulus, then react. For example, the likelihood that a gum-chewing seventeen-year-old girl with a carnival-taffy hairdo wearing mesh-seam spandex pants from Frederick's of Hollywood is my destined soulmate is decidedly remote, so an erection is a pointless diversion of valuable blood. But, obviously, this is all over-thinking of the silliest sort. If I like this album, I like it. I adore Jagged Little Pill, and it doesn't pretend to be anything it isn't. I'm pretty certain it wouldn't even occur to me to question my reaction to this album if I hadn't heard Sing first. Then again, would I like West if I'd never heard Engine or San Francisco? Perhaps. But it's hard enough figuring out what you think of the life you do lead, without also having to imagine what you would have thought of the lives you didn't.
And this seems to be the year for course changes, anyway. Unlike Pollard and Eitzel, Moore executes hers without changing personnel. The songs are still hers, as is the voice, and piano and acoustic guitar on a couple songs each. Producer Mitch Watkins again provides most of the guitars and keyboards, with additional help from bassist Chris Maresh, drummers Chris Searles and Brannen Temple, and cameo appearances by almost a dozen others. This time, though, everything is louder, quicker and brasher. If the points of reference for Sing were Edie Brickell, Lisa Loeb, Rickie Lee Jones and Eddi Reader (and Abra's voice still slips into a child-like twang on occasion here), then Strangest Places is sure to prompt comparisons with Jagged Little Pill. The similarities are apparent, but superficial; both albums set a singer/songwriter-ish woman in a surging rock band context, and out of this contrast extract an intensity that is based more on resolve and empathy than testosterone or bravado, and a kinetic energy that comes from infusing dance insistence and rock squall into acoustic poise and confessional intimacy. Both the sense and style of the two albums, though, are vastly different. The twelve songs on Strangest Places seem to me to fall into three rough categories. At the new extreme are the loud ones, the ones that bristle with guitar noise and snap with rhythmic solidity: "Don't Feel Like Cryin'", with its wailing choruses; the strident "Never Believe You Now"; the galloping (and vaguely Sheryl Crow-ish, ironically) "All I Want"; the dense, swirling "Keeps My Body Warm". At old end are the softer, quieter songs: the slow, swaying "Happiness" is centered on Abra's piano, guitars drifting through the background as if on their way to meet Robbie Robertson somewhere for a drink; the beginning of the brittle "Your Faithful Friend", with a few more antiquated instruments, wouldn't have been out of place on Milla's debut, and when the backing vocals come in it reminds me a little of Jane Siberry; the hauntingly elegiac "Summer's Ending" tolls a single wistful piano chord through almost its entire length, the violin, bass and keyboards circling around the chord as if taking the positions of a ritual farewell. The ominous "In Light of It All" and the self-descriptive "Guitar Song", which projects an unresolved relationship into the state of repair of an acoustic guitar, then swells breathlessly into electric roar toward the end, are quiet and loud in the same song. And in the middle are a few songs that find a compromise between the two extremes: "Four Leaf Clover" is bouncy and cheerful; "Strangest Places" itself is a mutant r&b stomp; and "Say It Like That", with a few more geographical references and a treble boost, could almost be Nanci Griffith. Where Alanis leaps impatiently to conclusions, always searching for better ways, Abra is more content to observe, trying to see peace in how things are. Where Jagged Little Pill is manifestly a product of LA, and its music as much a product of Glen Ballard's confident pop instincts as of Alanis' striking personality, Strangest Places makes no attempt to disguise its lineages from Texas songwriting (Nanci Griffith and Sara Hickman come to mind more than once, for me, and Bohemia Beat label-mate Jimmy LaFave sings backup on a song) and Abra's former life in folk gypsies Poi Dog Pondering (tambourines, shakers, washboard, slide and steel guitars, harmonica, organ, melodeon, clarinet, hurdy gurdy, timbales, violin). Compared to Ballard's warm guitar buzz on Alanis' album, Watkins' howling parts here often have more in common with Maria McKee's on Life Is Sweet. Even John Treanor's "industrial" percussion feels more like the argot of a lost tribe than the machinations of devices.
In fact, it seems to me that in a way Strangest Places is what Jagged Little Pill might sound like if its music was made by people, rather than extruded by formula. This is a strange equation, I think, because in Alanis' case I believe the generic music is an essential feature of the album, as it shifts both the focus and the burden of identity squarely onto her presence. Ballard served as an extremely expensive Casio preset for her, a kind of karaoke for songs nobody had heard before, but that's exactly why her animation of it was so breathtaking; redo Jagged Little Pill with Steve Earle playing guitar, Tony Levin on bass, Jim Keltner on drums and Mitchell Froom producing, and you'd get a vastly more competent record, but you'd also probably sap most of the life out of it, and make a colossal mess. The qualities that make a personality riveting in isolation are not the same ones that equip it to lead an army, and burdening a siren with a navigator's task list is a good recipe for a ship that makes some really ugly creaking sounds right before it slams into the cliff face. How Alanis will avoid this happening to her second album, I can't imagine. Jewel runs the same risk, I think, and I fear a little less for Joan Osborne's next record only because in my opinion the Hooters already ruined Relish in exactly this way, so I'm hoping that now they'll leave her alone and go rescue Patty Smyth from Don Henley. Abra, on the other hand, can both lead and stand in front. In my taxonomy, this is what makes Sarah McLachlan great, also, and Cyndi Lauper, and Robert Pollard and Scott Miller, for that matter. The ensemble becomes an extension of the artist, enabling them to do more than their own hands could manage. This is the difference between clutter and capacity. Strangest Places isn't less like Abra Moore, I've decided, it's more. I still flinch, just for a moment, but it no more signifies dislike than the sneeze when I walk out into the sunshine means I hate the daytime.
2 Foot Flame: Ultra Drowning
If I didn't expect Abra Moore to change, then I certainly didn't expect anything different from 2 Foot Flame. To be honest, I didn't even expect a second album from them. The merciless minimalism of their first one, combined with the fact that two of their three members, Jean Smith and Peter Jefferies, are also in the rather better established (if only marginally less obscure) band Mecca Normal, seemed to me to indicate that 2 Foot Flame was a one-off project, not an ongoing band. But here's their second album, which means they've been as productive in the last two years as Mecca Normal has.
More pertinently, this album sounds more like a band album than an isolated conceptual art experiment. It would be idiotic to say that 2 Foot Flame, too, have made a rock album, but if you cushion the idea in enough caveats, and remember that everything is relative, there's a tiny sense in which it's true. These songs still take "stark" to an extreme that most bands reserve for tuning their instruments, Jean Smith's vocals still have the mannered eeriness of a fevered Patti Smith MCing a poetry reading in a nightmare where you get there and then realize you're naked, Morley's guitar still sounds a lot of the time like he's not necessarily still in the room with it, and Jefferies' keyboards and drumming still proceed with a deliberateness that suggests that he's never entirely sure where the next finger will fall until he's finished dealing with the previous one. The bulk of "Simple Stars" sounds like an recreation of a minute and a half spent standing at a railroad crossing while a slow train passes; "I Think You're the Weird One" finds the band's droning arrangement fighting for attention with a rather dim conversation about relationships excerpted from some old movie I don't recognize; "Everwilling", totally rhythmless, could be the soundtrack to an Expressionist remake of the children's-story reading in What Happened Was...; "Ultra Drowning" sounds like a perfectly good Aube track ruined by somebody muttering the title over and over again through a walkie-talkie that needs new batteries; "The Dance Alone" sounds like what's left of a Yaz song after a month without food and a year stretched on the rack. But "Resin Box", despite the unarticulated guitar-feedback instrumentation, finds Smith doing a demonstrative two-part vocal that mostly eschews her usual tendency to sing pairs of notes that are not from the same tuning, and in some passages is genuinely pretty. The guitar part to "Peacock Coal" sounds like a surf instrumental from after an explosion on the far side of the moon sends it hurtling out of Earth's orbit, and there aren't any tides any more. "Pipeline to Vertigo"'s piano is stately, and actually modulates through keys, rather than playing the same three notes over and over. "Salt Doubt", with the addition of some syrupy strings, could be an epic dirge, sort of 2 Foot Flame's answer to Guns 'N' Roses' "November Rain". And "Lunar Intuition", with its rototom-like drum part, could be their version of Kate Bush's "Running Up That Hill".
On an objective scale, though, 2 Foot Flame are still only tangentially a rock band. Smith and Morley manipulate guitars, but almost never actually play them. Track lengths seem to be determined more by the band's attention span than by any internal structure of what they're recording. Smith is a disturbing poet whose approach to setting her verses to music is less adaptation than imposition, and many of her ominous intonations (for example, the album ends with her muttering "Fate floated on its back") make Kafka sound like Ogden Nash. But, conversely, she's one of the only lyricists in rock whose writing is poetically credible on its own, and while there are plenty of bands that write dissonant songs, and plenty of bands that make industrial noise, there are not that many that conflate the two.
Aube: Cardiac Strain
And since I've gotten onto the subject (and going from Abra Moore to Aube has to be my worst segue ever), Aube has a new album, too. It's called Cardiac Strain; it's a limited edition of 666, on some label called Alien8 from Quebec; everything on it was made from only the sound of a heartbeat. Aube albums are invariably difficult to listen to, and this one isn't an exception to that rule, but on the scale of Aube recordings, this is about as accessible as they get. If you don't like listening to slowly evolving periodicity without any trace of musical structure, this one will still bore you as thoroughly as all the other ones, but the heartbeat is a much mellower sound source than wires, metal, magnetic resonance spectroscopes or analog synthesizers, which means that much less of this sixty-six minute (and six second) piece is physically painful to hear.
One might ask, reasonably enough, why I keep buying Aube recordings. One might also ask why I bought any in the first place, but the "try anything once, twice if I like it" defense is available for at least the first couple. Subsequent additions are harder to justify. No matter what the sound source, all Aube pieces follow a pretty uniform logic: mash the sound through some processors until you have three distinctly different noises, play them all at once, and then over the course of about ten minutes slowly speed up or slow down one of them, slowly increase or decrease the noise level of the second, and slowly pan a filter of some kind over the third. As the piece progresses, "solo" by cutting a fourth noise in and out at random intervals, while running it through some similar ongoing modification. This is no more formulaic than Matthew Sweet songs, but no less, either, so any meta-lesson should have been learned a while ago. Matthew Sweet songs also have the advantage of being appealing and tuneful, while Aube's albums consist of noises that, were they coming from any other source, would qualify as a household emergency. Yet this album has now survived at least one more turn in my CD player than Matthew's last album did before I shelved it. The most obvious explanation is that I'm hopelessly jaded, and only raw sensory overload can make an impression on me any more, but if that were true, I doubt I could also appreciate the new Lightning Seeds and Prefab Sprout albums. So it must be that I like the sensation of having somebody scrape a rotary saw back and forth over a titanium helmet for an hour while I'm wearing it. (Which, now that I think about it, may mean that it's time in my life for me to take another stab at reading Finnegans Wake.)
And, actually, Cardiac Strain does stray slightly from Akifumi's formula. In several places, most notably in "Cardiotonica", one of the source patterns is quite nearly a hook. It repeats incessantly, of course, and gradually dissolves into static, but for a few stretches it is a bit like an electrocuted robot Tony Iommi has joined the cast. Whether having an electrocuted robot Tony Iommi scrape a rotary saw back and forth over a titanium helmet for an hour while you're wearing it strikes you as a significant improvement over having it done by a stranger, you'll have to decide for yourself.