Break Up With Your Boyfriend
132 · 7 August 97
The Dambuilders: Against the Stars
The fable of the evolution of "alternative" from a word in English to a marketing label takes approximately this structure: once, around the beginning of the Eighties, after punk had woken everybody from a long sleep, some people began making strange music that wasn't punk any more, exactly, but didn't revert back to Jethro Tull and Credence Clearwater Revival, either. The span of styles represented by these experiments stretched from Stray Cats retro-greaser strut to eerie Gary Numan mechanism, and as far again along a dozen other axes, but because there are only so many slots in the radio spectrum, and because for a while these bands found audiences as much by the openness of the listeners' minds as by their predispositions toward any idiom in particular, they started being collectively referred to as "alternative". The term, originally, cleaving to its literal meaning as all labels do in their infancy, defined a group by exclusion; "alternative" wasn't a way you sounded, it was a way you didn't sound. But time passed, and the kids who bought Clash records grew from a mob you levied curfews to control to a demographic you hired consultants to court, and somewhere along the way, after "This Charming Man" but before "Shiny Happy People", "alternative" became Alternative, a genre with clear borders and rigorous internal rules just like anything else you can stock a listening station to represent. The battle of "alternative"'s many impulses, fought and won without most of the participants fully realizing it was going on, ended with the shiny new label affixed, not coincidentally I suspect, to the easiest of the new forms, a sort of straightforwardly melodic guitar rock, played mostly by middle-class white kids, laced with lyrical irony, if by irony we mean the ability to spend most of your time watching television but still think of yourself as capable of independent thought. This segment of the popular music market is now a large, productive factory, stamping out an effectively endless line of semi-clever three-minute pop songs worth listening to no more than three times, meant for people, self-fulfillingly, with approximately nine-minute attention spans. I buy a lot of these songs, after hearing them once or twice, because it's often hard to immediately tell the difference between a mediocre band with one lucky hit, a great pop band capable of filling albums with songs this good, and a great band of some other sort entirely, swept up, briefly, in a rush to which they don't really belong.
As of Ruby Red, their last album, the Dambuilders were the third of these types to me, an intent and often abrasive band whose style intersected Alternative, obliquely and more coincidentally than anything else, I thought, in the single "Teenage Loser Anthem" (which is what nine other singles that month ought to have been called, if they'd been honest or self-aware), but not in many more places. I filed them, in my mind, beside such bands as Long Fin Killie, the Geraldine Fibbers, Mecca Normal and Fugazi, less because they sounded especially like any of them (the Dambuilders, Long Fin Killie and the Geraldine Fibbers do all have violinists) than because listening to them required a similar willingness to stop whatever else I was doing and concentrate. These are harder bands to love, because you don't (and can't) decide to play their records as casually. If a record comes to pieces in your hands, as shiny pop records are designed to, you can carry little bits of it around with you, reminders of the experience, encouraging you to have it again. When the key to an album's appeal isn't in isolated hooks and choruses, though, but in the way the band seems to hear itself play, or how the record can refract your gaze, or the talismans someone found to face their pain with, it doesn't leave you with mementos, it changes you, and you don't play an album that changed you again the same way you put on an album that made you dance again. I don't actually remember the last time I played Ruby Red, or Scott Walker's Tilt, or Fugazi's Repeater, or Laurie Anderson's Bright Red/Tightrope, but their value in my life is not measured by calculating how long it's been.
There may be something I'll learn from Against the Stars, too, that will earn it a similar position, but I'm not going to figure it out until I get through this period of just playing it over and over again for the sheer joy of it. Where Ruby Red made only a few reluctant concessions to pop, Against the Stars is immersed in its charm, and of these thirteen songs, six are pop anthems I would hold up against anything else you care to nominate. After a brief, Sonic Youth-like introduction, the achingly earnest "Break Up With Your Boyfriend" eases from spare, galloping verses to surging, fuzzy choruses, guitars pealing and ringing everywhere, like Velvet Crush and Catherine Wheel trying to impersonate each other. The sighing harmonies and cheery guitar and plucked-violin hooks give the song a curiously sunny demeanor, as if dumping a boyfriend is no more emotionally onerous than buying an adorable sweater, something easy you can do to make your life better, but Kevin March's dry drumming supplies an undercurrent of menace that keeps the song from ever turning into Weezer. "Burn This Bridge" is built similarly, with light, snappy verses exploding into roaring, nearly Smashing Pumpkins-like chorus turbulence, but singer Dave Derby has none of Billy Corgan's whine, and the song switches in and out of overdrive too readily to grate on my nerves the way Corgan's songs often seem to want to. The little processed-vocal transitions into and out of the noisy parts ("Sit back and watch me--") keep them from unbalancing the song, tying them to the falsetto bridge, the opening verse's Bruce Cockburn-ish spoken intro and loose guitar jangle, the insidious little vocal "cha"s and the echoing patter of the drums. "Herstory", with jittery stick rattles and keening guitar interjections skittering through the opening, sets out more mechanically, but by the chorus, where the rest of the drums kick in, violinist Joan Wasser sets up a cycling hook, and Derby leans into a heartfelt "You can't reduce the past to a memory", the song has acquired enough timeless rock warmth to remind me of the Michael Stanley Band's "My Town". The strained "You Might Want Me Around", with thin, trebly guitar, slithering hi-hat and a breathless duet between Derby and Wasser, is frail and eager in its conviction that the subject will eventually come around, but the insistent chorus suggests that this belief is as important for the sense of self-worth that asserting it produces as it is for any likelihood it has of coming true. The slow, wistful "You'll Never Know" acts as a first-half finale for me, Wasser's tentative violin just skirting the edges of Derby's melancholy lament for all the things he'll never say, and all the things the woman he's singing to will never hear.
Then, just to remind you that the Dambuilders are not Fountains of Wayne, the album launches into a very strange three-song stretch. The angular, off-kilter "Itch It", sung by Joan in a voice that can't quite decide whether it wants to be lilting or bracing, could at some points be Jale trying to do a double-speed Berlin cover, and at others a misguided cross between the Tom Tom Club and the Clash. "Discopolis", with its slinky bass groove, rattling percussion, abstract guitar wailing and persistent beepy keyboard cycles, sounds like a Talking Heads song remixed by the Gang of Four. And "Luster", with an imperturbable dub beat and ethereal Wasser vocals that remind me of Kate Bush as they round a few of the song's corners, sounds like Jah Wobble reworking something from an early Lush album. Pop poise returns for the impassioned apology "I Was Wrong", which manages a rare bit of in-song rethinking, as Derby lets "How could you have misunderstood?" slide into the chorus admission "In other words, I was wrong", but the choppy "On the Slide" is back to harsh angles, unison guitar harassing the vocal lines and the drums sputtering fitfully around the rhythm, refusing to settle into it. "Seek and Destroy" strikes a truce of sorts between the two sides, letting the verses careen and burble freely, but soaring into an unapologetically cathartic and streamlined chorus, guitar and vocal lines twining sensuously. And the album ends back on a slow note, with the muted "Wished on the Wrong Star", halfway between Robbie Robertson and Radiohead, weighing Robertson's warm-hearted embrace of life against Thom Yorke's desperate yearning to escape it. I haven't decided how (or whether) I think the Dambuilders reconcile these urges, but as mainstream guitar rock is overtaken by Wallflowers/Dishwalla listlessness, this is an album that for me gathers up all the good things still left in Alternative and assembles them into perhaps one last great album before the genre grinds to a halt completely, and that's easily good enough to keep me listening to it long enough to find out.
Dambuilders completists will also want to track down this pseudonymous Dave Derby solo album from a few months ago, whose evasive refusal to mention his name on the cover (or his first name in the liner, at all) was kind of undermined by Newbury Comics shelving it in the Dambuilders bin with "Brilliantine (Dambuilders)" on the price sticker. Cramming seventeen raggedly self-played and -recorded pop songs and fragments into exactly half an hour, Vainglory sounds like nothing to me so much as an attempt to prove that Robert Pollard isn't the only person who can knock off a sloppy low-fi pop record in a week. Pollard's own albums are better when he takes the time to think them through, though, and I suspect this one could have led to better things, too, if it had been given the chance. "Goodbye to St. Bishop's Park" has a neat time-doubling flip as it enters the chorus, but that's its only trick. "At Least That's the Way" hints at an inclination to be a garage-band answer to Split Enz's "I Got You", but a leaden drum-machine groove doesn't give the chorus the inspiration it needs. "Credit Card Effigy" has some Wire-ish edginess, but gets swallowed up in its own distortion. "When the Curtain" doesn't seem to have worked out its melody yet. "Crash" is an aimless snippet, "Mistaken"'s messy production seems designed to conceal its appropriation of the hook from "Pretty and Pink", and "Vainglory" can't find anything for its intriguing falsetto twirl to lead to. "Idigame!" is two minutes of vocal muttering over a random guitar groove. "Moving Forward" needs a few more words, "Motel 5th" a few more rehearsals. "Ulrike" would be much easier to bear without the cheesy fake cymbals. And "Control Le Freak"'s retro synth noises are amusing, but not enough, to me, to justify a song that seems to have been derived entirely from its title. On the other hand, "Your Star Might Fade" reminds me fondly of REM's "Gardening at Night", "Weakling" is pretty and poised, a genuine song despite the sketchy two-guitar/two-voice portastudio arrangement, "Indefinitely" seems about to break into something by Winter Hours, and "Destiny" and "Lying Around" have nuance-free Magnetic Fields drum-machine loops, but lay blasts of noise and some nice guitar jangle over them. And my portastudio demo tapes sound far worse than this.
The Geraldine Fibbers: Butch
The Geraldine Fibbers' last album, Lost Somewhere Between the Earth and My Home, was another one like the Dambuilders' Ruby Red for me, an album I appreciated experiencing, but didn't often return to, or, in this case, even precisely enjoy. Carla Bozulich's voice was my idea of what an open wound sings like, and while this is certainly arresting, I don't think I'd want to see a David Cronenberg remake of Fantasia. The album suffered, for me, from stylistic proximity effects, as I kept wanting it to sound more like other things it made me think of, like Maria McKee, the Leslie Spit Treeo or Thin White Rope. This is obviously my problem, not the band's, but I felt that they had a little ambivalence of their own, as well, as if they weren't quite certain yet whether their country influences were supposed to be primarily serious or camp. At times they sounded like a version of American Music Club where Mark Eitzel's romantic self-pity had been replaced by the desperate hunger of the witch who tried to eat Hansel and Gretel, and at other times they sounded like a Lone Justice that never saw city lights or rhinestones.
I'm not sure they've figured it out even now, but perhaps they don't need to. About 80% or so of Butch, the new album, is country, and the other 20% is blaring punk disharmony, which produces a composite effect something like eating a large cucumber with a small jalapeno pepper embedded in the middle of it. The punk parts are only slightly better distributed than the pepper, so while "California Tuffy"'s choruses are cacophonic, "Toybox" is withering throughout, and "I Killed the Cuckoo" bears almost no western traces at all, "Trashman in Furs" is mostly languid and mournful, "Swim Back to Me" becalmed and reverent. "Seven or in 10" could be the Feelies crossed with Sleater-Kinney, but "Folks Like Me" is a goofy lope, "Pet Angel" a slow sawdust waltz. "Butch" is drifting and elegant, and the violin in "Arrow to My Drunken Eye", despite the Brian Dewan-like title, sounds very Nymanesque to me. The cover of Can's "You Doo Right", covered previously by Thin White Rope in precisely this same strangled-country style, is either an intentional (if weirdly roundabout) tribute to TWR, or an astounding coincidence. After that the album sort of trails off for me. "The Dwarf Song" has the title and lyrics to be a Thin White Rope song, but isn't nearly scary enough, musically, and the long, wandering album-ending instrumental, "Heliotrope", I can't make sense of at all.
The Geraldine Fibbers: What Part of Get Thee Gone Don't You Understand?
I like the Geraldine Fibbers best, at the moment, when they stick to letting Bozulich's singing flay the outer layers of flesh off of straightforward country material, so I'm actually less taken with the new album than I am with this collection of old EPs and live recordings that came out just before it. Of the seven songs here from the Get Thee Gone EP, my clear favorites are the hoarse version of Dolly Parton's "Jolene", the unhurried banjo canter through Beck's "Blue Cross", and the hilariously depressed version of the pitiful Wilson/Taylor/Richie she-left-me dirge "The Grand Tour". Bozulich's own neo-traditionalist "Get Thee Gone", with its slow crescendos and sawing violin, sounds like a relic from a lost age, and only the strange phrasing of her "Outside of Town" belies its modern origins. The two tracks from the "Fancy"/"They Suck" single, Bobbie Gentry's white-trash epic and Carla's ghoulish portrait of farmyard dehydration (at least, that's what I think it's about) are markedly more confident than the EP tracks, and the unreleased 1994 demo "She's a Dog", with some particularly nice violin playing, is sort of an epilogue to the pair. The remainder of the tracks are live recordings: a lullaby cover of Bo Diddley's "Pills" (also done by the New York Dolls, not quite in this manner), a pastoral rendition of Lost Somewhere Between the Earth and My Home's "The Smaller Song" and a deadpan version of Billy Callery's "Hands on the Wheel", from sessions at KCRW in Santa Monica; a bleak guitar-and-voice cover of Beresford and Sanders' "If Drinking Don't Kill Me" and a full-band-plus-trumpet version of Allen and Hill's "Kiss of Fire" from an LA show; and a reprise of "The Grand Tour" from a Long Beach club show during which the crowd seems to be engaged almost entirely in conversations of their own.
Some days, none of this appeals to me at all. On others, though, there's a spark of genius in Bozulich's madness that I catch and nourish. Sad country songs are so often performed in a caricature of misery that renders their own predicaments laughable; the Geraldine Fibbers' insight, to me, is that punk's disgust, turned in on itself, can cut through this protective casing and get at the pain underneath. And I believe, although I wish I was a little surer, that this is part of the healing process.