How Can Skin So Thin Keep All That Blood In?
131 · 31 July 97
Smart Brown Handbag: Lullabies for Infidels
At first it seems strange to me that just the presence of my belongings, still in boxes even, can make one space home and another alien. But then, I suppose a house is really the ultimate Thing, and so you must speak to it in its own language. The living room in my new home started feeling like my living room the moment I stood my hat rack in it, and unpacked the collection of preposterous hats that resides thereon. I set my cutting board on a counter in the kitchen of my new home, and suddenly it felt like my kitchen. I lay down for a nap on the futon in the bedroom of my new home, and two hours later I woke up in my bedroom. A modem cable, plugged into the wall, took possession of the study, and only the studio, the one room in my new house that isn't a direct descendant of one from my old apartment, still feels like an unfamiliar space. I lived in that old apartment for six years, my longest stay in one place since my childhood, six years thick with presence and emotion, and yet by the time I went back there to vacuum, only hours after the move, there wasn't a shred of feeling left. After six years, you'd think that the walls would still be warm from my breath, the carpet still sighing where my feet no longer pressed it down, the low, uneven ceilings staggering at their sudden release from my baleful glare. The light fixtures in the kitchen, grown so accustomed to my touch, would crack their own bulbs in a final petulant bid for my attention. But maybe this is egotistical of me. As I grew to resent the dark, stuffy rooms, the tiny porthole windows, the cement porch, the grim brown industrial carpet, perhaps they fell out of love with me, too. As I simmered impatiently, these past few weeks, eager to leave, perhaps the apartment's irritation with me mounted in parallel, so that my departure was a release for us both. And so as I ran the vacuum cleaner through anonymous rooms that left even the faintest nostalgia untriggered, maybe the rooms tolerated my ministrations with the same profound indifference, regarding a certain level of lintlessness as their birthright, and its agent beneath their regard.
As I unpack, it becomes clear how the aura I expected to find haunting my old apartment effected its escape. It must have known, all along, what was permanent and what was temporary, and so known what to soak into and what to ignore. It seeped into the books and the bookshelves, the gargoyles and dinosaurs, the giant painting of kidneys (or a coral atoll, seen from above; nobody has ever been certain), the furniture and the piles of stray shoes and sweatshirts, and never reached the walls or the floor at all. It followed my gaze in idle moments when I wasn't even aware of what I was looking at, and saw what my eyes lingered on and what they didn't register, and adjusted its flow accordingly. As I reassemble the bookshelves along one of my new walls, and begin to line them with books and dinosaurs again, the aura pours out of the boxes into the air, spinning up into the heights of my vaulted-ceiling living room in delirious eddies, and I am home before I have time to wonder what it would take to feel that way. And how tenancy and ownership are even concepts to an aura, I don't know, but it can tell that the apartment was a camp site, and this house is a home. I realize already that the next move will be much harder. I have taken the beams and tiles and railings of this place into my heart already. These walls are mine. If I could train the aura to dislodge inaccessible cobwebs, I'd really have something.
And if the soundtrack for the other end of this move was Sarah McLachlan's Surfacing, an album for the close of an era, and for looking hopefully towards the next one, then Lullabies for Infidels, the fourth album by Smart Brown Handbag (and David Steinhart's eleventh if you don't let his band-name changes disrupt your sense of continuity), is my score for the joy of moving in and beginning. The last Smart Brown Handbag album, Monkey in the Middle, less than a year ago, was a shocking disappointment to me, a raw and edgy album from a songwriter whose high place in my regard had nothing to do with raw- or edginess, so this one, which I anticipated, despite the one before, with almost as much unreasonable expectation as I did this move, had the potential to be an anticlimax to go along with the anticlimax that moves usually are, as well. New places, when they're filled with boxes, before you find places to put everything away, inevitably feel cramped, and the expanses of cardboard dim their luster; new albums from favorite bands, the first few times you hear them, often sound more new than favorite. But in defiance of tradition, both the house and the album feel instantly perfect to me. In the case of the house, there's probably an unmysterious equation involving square-footage and room dimensions that explains why my new place, twice as big in every direction as my old one, could absorb quite a bit more clutter without seeming filled.
The album's explanation is a little more involved. My favorite Steinhart albums, Pop Art's Snap Crackle Pop Art and SBH's Silverlake, were spare, quiet, introspective records, meticulously simple jangly pop with a good deal more folk restraint than rock bluster, lined with bleak relationship still-lifes redeemed by a sharp eye for nuance and a clear understanding of the tension between seductive inertia and intolerable despair. The ones I don't identify as strongly with, like Monkey in the Middle and his two more Costello-like solo albums, have either attempted to complicate the music, or failed to rein in melancholy with wit. Lullabies for Infidels, at least when you break it down on paper, seems to do both of these things. The trio lineup from Monkey in the Middle (Steinhart, bassist Cindy Albon and drummer John Glogovac) is supplemented here by second guitarist Bernard Yin, and on four of the ten songs by cellist Nina Piaseckyj, and while Pop Art had a second guitarist, too, and earlier SBH incarnations had a full-time organist, the new ensemble doesn't show nearly as much of earlier ones' penchants for playing only the notes that seemed absolutely necessary. The album's production also adds an unaccustomed processor sparkle to Steinhart's normally-unadorned guitar, reverb to his usually-dry voice, and dozens of swirling little flourishes in corners that would before have been clean and empty, which makes this a more intricate and more polished album than its predecessors. What I discover, though, is that the essential charm of Steinhart's songwriting, at least to me, isn't the Shaker simplicity after all. It's the careful balance between melody and accompaniment, so that if a guitar must solo, its theme recapitulates a verse or a chorus, and if the drums must dig into a turn, rather than waiting it out, they echo a vocal cadence or underscore a hesitation. It's the way guitar distortion here finds vocal tension to mirror, where on Monkey in the Middle it seemed to me to push in the wrong places, trying to impose rock tropes on songs where they weren't needed or welcome. Monkey in the Middle sounded to me at least partially like a repudiation of the nine albums before it, which, since two of those are among my favorites in the world, was not what I wanted to hear; this one sounds to me, at least caught in the thrill of new spaces, like the record that all the others have been rehearsals for. "Solid Gold" has fluttering guitar trills, long cello slides and uneasy backing vocals, but Steinhart's voice echoes out to meet them, and Glogovac's steady, light-handed drum snap holds the song on a straight course. Kick-drum tattoos and rhythmic shifts help demarcate the borders between "I Forgot to Call"'s surging choruses and nervous verses, and the fiery arena guitar solo (Yin, I assume, or could Steinhart do this all along?) is a coda, not a bridge. "Brightest Star" is fuzzed and growling from the outset, but bright hi-hat patter and chiming guitar chirps counterbalance the roar. "No Decision Yet" almost sounds like Mexico 70, hints of New Wave glitter peeking through the calm. "Cucumber Vodka", with a different guitar amp and voice, could easily be a Cavedogs song. The denser "So What's Wrong" reminds me faintly of what Catherine Wheel might sound like half-unplugged. And "Force Field", with its clattering drums and Piaseckyj's upper-register cello, a little like Joan Wasser's violin playing in the Dambuilders, builds to a yearning last-song catharsis. Along the way Steinhart even finds room to intersperse a few songs in his old styles: "Stretching Out" is by turns drifting and sorrowful, "Diminishing Returns" is hushed and elegant, and "Cleo in Her Sputnik", with longtime collaborator Ethan James supplying some wheezing hurdy gurdy, is ringing and ominous.
Lyrically, Lullabies for Infidels continues Monkey in the Middle's trend of letting songs make the point they started out to, rather than diverting them with clever wordplay. And several, unsurprisingly, tread the familiar terrain of romantic failure. "Solid Gold" seems like Steinhart's version of Billy Bragg's "Mother of the Bride" to me, the unsuccessful suitor in this case channeling his grief into feigned predatory gusto and a trace of bitterness. "I Forgot to Call" suggests "Let's meet where the snow falls / On Christmas morning, so it's not / Just another day gone by", as if tragedy is at least preferable to emptiness. "Brightest Star" (with perhaps the album's definitive Steinhart couplet, "There are moments when we fall so together, / But they're worlds away from where we are.") is torn between potential and circumstance. "No Decision Yet", nearly an anthem to irresolution, is the opposite inclination in the same situation: "But after all that we've been through, / What's another year or two?" "Cucumber Vodka" is, I believe, a love song to a stripper (or maybe she's just a woman at a bar, I may be reading too much into "On display"), but it is the story of the narrator letting go of his obsession, releasing both the woman and her next drunken admirer from guilt for their actions, an asymmetrical triangle that Justin Currie would be proud of.
The two songs whose lyrics I've fixated on, though, are the final pair. "So What's Wrong?", which opens "Well my friend, settled in, / The house is warm, bed is cold", touches a dangerously vulnerable nerve of mine, as I try gamely to pretend that my buying a house and so many of my friends getting married are life-steps of equivalent significance. I don't spend nights sobbing (or if I do, it's due to the last hundred pages of Corelli's Mandolin, not self-pity), so the song loses me for a verse or two, but then it suddenly snaps back into focus with "And I see myself finally, / And it's not as bad as I expected it to be", which I hear as a reassurance, from David himself, that the frighteningly unmitigated depression in his lyrics on Monkey in the Middle wasn't terminal, after all. The music sounds like a recovery, and the line suggests that this isn't a coincidence. (Of course, he's careful to add "That doesn't mean you can stop worrying about me", not that I was going to.) And the album then ends, with "Force Fields" and the admonition "I think it's time we got over ourselves", which feels like a note to both of us. I'm not sure where "over myself" takes me, but I can't deny that it sounds like the right direction.
The Mutton Birds: Envy of Angels
Lullabies for Infidels really ought to have been the first album I played in this new house, and it would have been if I'd stopped to consider the symbolic import, as I'd honestly planned to, but in the end the logistical details of setting up my main stereo took my mind off the subject, and in the psychological tumult of hurriedly pressing my auxiliary stereo into service when I realized that my main one wasn't going to make any useful noises until I got an extension cord to power it with, I completely forgot that I had a plan, and put in the import copy I just found of the new Mutton Birds album, Envy of Angels, instead.
Now that it's happened, I'm strangely pleased that the first music I heard in this house was more of an event for the music than it was for the structure. I'm unlikely to forget the house, after all, so why not attach the occasion to an album that might otherwise get neglected? The Mutton Birds, fittingly, are one of those bands forever in danger of slipping through a crack in my life and disappearing from it. Their records don't seem to get released here, and they aren't big enough stars anywhere else to produce a reliable supply of imports. The two other albums of theirs I have, Salty and Nature, have obtusely overlapping track lists, and I hate their name. I tried to use Nature as hold music at work one week, but people complained that it was too noisy (the four lessons I've learned about programming hold music in a year of doing it: 1) no music that could be mistaken for phone-system malfunctions, 2) no CDs with thirteen-minute silent pauses at the end, 3) distortion sounds great on a stereo, but terrible on a telephone, and 4) when in doubt, use Blue, by Joni Mitchell), and I had to take it off. The obvious point of reference, since the Mutton Birds are from New Zealand, is Crowded House, and because this is musically sensible, as well as geographically apt, it's easy to lose the Mutton Birds in Crowded House's shadow, even now that Crowded House aren't casting it any more.
When I concentrate, though, or remember to actually put a Mutton Birds album on and listen to it, I remember that there are some meaningful differences between the two bands. Don McGlashan, the Mutton Birds' singer and primary songwriter, neither sings nor writes as sweetly as Neil Finn, so while the Mutton Birds as a band aren't that much darker than Crowded House, almost all their songs are darker than almost all of Crowded House's. Whether you want darker Crowded House songs or not is your own decision, of course, but as much as I love the Finns I find that in certain moods "Don't Dream It's Over" and "World Where We Live" are a little too glossy and adorable. Some nights aching pop harmonies are not the aesthetic I'm after, but the anthemic pomp of Midnight Oil or Hunters and Collectors is antipodean overcompensation, and this is just the gap that the Mutton Birds bridge. Harmony, to them, is more of a chorus phenomenon than something you do throughout songs, but their melodic sense is sure, so these are songs you can sing along to both without much difficulty and without feeling too bad about what you're drowning out. The Finns also, though they're capable of writing evocative lyrics on occasion, don't always bother to, with the result that Crowded House or Finn Brothers albums are not primarily intellectual experiences. McGlashan, on the other hand, not only has a deft poetic touch, but also finds odd perspectives to write from, like "She's Been Talking"'s insecurity about how much his friends have told the woman, "Envy of Angel"'s characterization of construction as a denial of mortality, "Like This Train"'s extended simile about indecision, the burden of adaptability in "Another Morning", the conflation of a woman and a month in "April", and "Ten Feet Tall"'s mixture of conspicuousness and invisibility.
The detail I value most about the Mutton Birds, though, is that they sound just discernibly like they're from somewhere else. Crowded House and the Finns sound British, to me, even (or especially) when they work in a Maori chant or some odd instrument, but the Mutton Birds do not. I haven't been to New Zealand, and don't really know what makes it different from Britain or Australia, so maybe this band sounds like something personal, not their country, but I harbor the desire that it's the land I hear in their voices, and that guides their hands. The technology is all the same, but the people should be subtly unique, somehow, each habit different in a tiny way from my own, each mannerism and gesture bearing the faint imprint of another hemisphere, other seas, island millennia. As the world collapses in upon itself, the ability to hold yourself apart from it, however barely, is precious.
Bil McRackin: I Am the Eggman
The other disc I've had on high rotation as I unpack is this solo album by McRackins guitarist Bil McRackin. McRackins are either the most prolific band in the world, or the least, depending on whether you count a hundred totally indistinguishable songs as a hundred songs, or one, and the absence of Fil and Spot from this album doesn't cause it to turn out materially differently. McRackins songs are invariably three-chord sprints with snotty joke-lyrics, and this album has thirteen more of them. Every other McRackins album I have, though, has had an extremely short stay in my good graces, as repeat listening is pretty unlikely to reveal anything other than flaws in songs this simplistic. For some reason, I Am the Eggman has stuck around longer than the others. "Crush on You"'s inane "Boo hoo hoo" chorus makes me smile, "I Know Something You Don't" is the silliest anti-establishment rant I've ever heard, the booming acoustic anthem "Pawn Shop Love Story" completely undermines its own grandeur with inane rhymes and Bil's cartoonish sneer, but actually manages to tell a story despite itself. The giddy "Got You on My Brain" is like the Ramones' "Beat on the Brat" stripped of its thuggishness, "Scary Stuff" like their "Pet Cemetery" rescripted for humans. And "The End", despite being shamelessly self-referential (the chorus: "This is / The end of the album!"), has lodged itself quite firmly in my brain, and although I know I have the tools to get it out again, I don't have the slightest idea what box they're packed in.