What We Call Beautiful Is Just Something On Sale
136 · 4 September 97
Marillion: Man of a Thousand Faces
My parents came up, last weekend, to see my new home for the first time. Mom did a lot of weeding in my garden (it's not that I'm unwilling to do the work weeding entails, it's just that I have such a hard time with the fine distinction between "plant" and "weed", and so I generally run into an impasse as soon as I'm done yanking out all the stuff that's obviously dead), and while she did that my father and I amused ourselves by trimming the bottoms of my closet doors, which had been on strike following my replacement of the previous owners' bedraggled old pink and powder blue carpet with new material that is, I insist, much nicer, but which is also, it must be conceded, thicker than its predecessor, and thus wont to intrude on the doors' airspace. The project was not, perhaps, accomplished with anything too like professionalism (just assembling the sawhorses on which to prop the doors during trimming nearly used up my DIY stamina for the week), but all my doors are now attached to closets, rather than leaning against nearby walls, and neither the doors nor my father and I suffered any major wounds during the operation, so I've declared it a rousing success. Among other things (such as: drywall anchors do not work in 1/8th-inch plywood; before trimming the bottom of a door, make sure it is the bottom you're about to cut; if the electric planer blows wood splinters directly into your eyes, you're holding it the wrong way), this experience taught me a valuable lesson about proportion, which is that the length of a door can be adjusted with virtually unlimited flexibility, as long as by "flexibility" you always mean that you want it shorter than it is now.
Songs, conversely, can be made longer or shorter. The possibility of this, however, doesn't necessarily make it desirable. In fact, the "radio edit" of "Man of a Thousand Faces", which opens this single, has been truncated with approximately the same instruction-following obliviousness, it seems to me, that led to Spinal Tap's midget Stonehenges, and would have led, if my father and I had been afflicted with it, to my doors being chopped off about three inches below the knob, like some obscene Benny Hill Show props. The line of reasoning is not hard to recreate: radio programmers prefer songs to be around three and a half minutes long; the beginning of "Man of a Thousand Faces" is the most accessible part; the song has an obvious half-stop about 3:35 into it; therefore, fade out gracefully there and call it a single. The problem with this expedient gesture is that the pivot in the middle of the seven-and-a-half-minute album version is not a stopping point, it's the song's fulcrum. The deadpan chord-change strumming in the first half of the song is almost certainly Marillion's most normal three-minute stretch, not too far removed from a Bon Jovi unplugged session, but the second half, where the song seems to implodes and vanish into air, and then coalesce back out of it like a web of shadows turning into a phantom cathedral, transforms the song completely, and the first half becomes merely a preface, its rather ordinary structure not intended to support a whole song by itself. The first half states the song's themes, the second half explores their emotional impact. Cut short at what should the midpoint, the radio edit is blunt, expository and obvious, in exactly the ways that Marillion is actually involved, evocative and oblique. As a device for attracting the uninitiated or swaying the undecided, this is woefully obtuse. I don't think I would buy an album based on this edit, and Marillion is one of my favorite bands. The single attempts to compensate, with the grapeshot finesse of someone who hasn't the slightest idea what they're doing, by ending with an extended version of the song, which both restores the missing second part and adds a forty-five second intro to the beginning. Unfortunately, this intro sounds uncannily, to me, like Steve Hogarth idly setting some of the song's existing lyrics to what would be the tune of "Let It Be" if he didn't keep forgetting every third bar of it. I don't think this is an improvement.
In between these two ill-advised corruptions, however, are a pair of acoustic versions of old Marillion songs that, at least for dedicated fans, might make the single worthwhile. Aching, yearning ballads are one of the Hogarth incarnation of Marillion's grand arts; Fish, for all his distinctive skills, lacked the necessary frailty and languid grace. Although I think Holidays in Eden's "No One Can" is still my personal favorite of this sort, "Made Again", the everything-washed-clean finale of the dense concept album Brave, and "Beautiful", the plaintive centerpiece of Afraid of Sunlight, are two more of the best and clearest examples, delicate, tentative, restrained and, finally, heart-rending and unabashedly sentimental. The acoustic versions of "Made Again" and "Beautiful", here, showcases for Hogarth's eerie quaver and mournful choirboy falsetto, strip the songs down to their essential elements, as if this is what's left after the songs are filtered through years of memory, and everything extraneous about them has been forgotten. "Made Again" even contrives to insert a little impish 3/4 wriggle, as if it's been long enough since Brave that the song's original solemnity seems in retrospect overwrought. This, to me, is how songs should be redone: looked at with new eyes, and rebuilt with the benefit of new knowledge, not hatcheted apart at the first available seam, or clumsily "improved" with duct tape and scraps.
Del Amitri: Not Where It's At #1
No such alterations are necessary to make a single out of Del Amitri's succinct, ebullient "Not Where It's At". All it needs are some b-sides. The first of these, "Sleep Instead of Teardrops", is a holdover from the days (if these ever were) when the single was on the front, and the other song was on the back, and expected to offer a contrasting mood. As smooth and reserved as "Not Where It's At" is perky and quick, with banks of sad, sympathetic strings and stern, ringing piano, this is the slow song to follow "Not Where It's At" excitable jitter. This is the one for drawing each other as close as the chaperones will allow, closing your eyes, and imagining palace walls where the gym risers are, or firelight glittering off the first turning leaves on the trees, instead of vigilant Exit signs. Perhaps even the chaperones will let down their guards for a song, and the assistant principal will dance with one of the History teachers, and lives will change, and even if only for a moment, there will be a little less loneliness in the world, and another sad song (though exactly how sad this one is depends on where you put quotation marks in the chorus) will have made the world happier, despite itself.
Artistically, there's no reason the single shouldn't stop there, a carefully matched pair of songs and nothing else. That was enough for people, for decades. But singles are more expensive now, and need quantity to justify the price. So there are two more songs. The title of "A Grimace Not a Smile" suggests a relation to "Sleep Instead of Teardrops", but the song is a brash, blaring jam, as much rock strut as pop glee. "Low Friends in High Places" is a noisy, frayed clatter, all crashing cymbals and caterwauling theremin-ish howls. I'm not sure I think they increase the disc's value.
Del Amitri: Not Where It's At #2
I must not be the only one who likes like the pairing of "Not Where It's At" and "Sleep Instead of Teardrops", because the same two songs open the second part of the two-part single. I think this misses the point of two-part singles, but maybe it's a form of protest. The two other b-sides here are as muted as the first part's last two are cacophonic. "Spare Pair of Laces", musically, is spare and studied, and reminds me of Waking Hours' "Empty", but the central metaphor ("A cautious man don't care / What kind of shoes he wears, / As long as he has / A spare pair of laces") seems to me like an idea that didn't quite pan out, and I'm not very fond of how much Justin Currie sounds like Elvis Costello as he sings "spare". "Before the Evening Steals the Afternoon", a swirling mid-tempo piano rumination tinged with harmonica, feels more complete, but still strikes me as a song that just hadn't the necessary intensity to earn a place on the album.
Stereophonics: Looks Like Chaplin
Every few months Q magazine comes with a CD taped to the front. These samplers are extremely valuable to me, as they invariably contain at least half a dozen songs that I don't like at all by bands I'd heard great things about, and thus save me substantial amounts of money I would probably otherwise eventually break down and spend. The money I "save", however, generally finds its way to record-stores anyway, because for every six bands I find I can dismiss, there's a new one whose overpriced import singles I have to run out and buy. The last Q disc had two bands I became instantly fascinated by. They both seemed like blatant Radiohead clones, which made me a little suspicious, but once I discovered that Radiohead themselves were no longer interested in making more songs like "Anyone Can Play Guitar", this became a virtue, not a liability. The first of the two, Three Colours Red, turned out to be less of a high-speed Radiohead than a British Green Day, and my fascination was peremptorily discontinued, but Stereophonics have held my interest better. "Local Boy in the Photograph", the song on the sampler (the actual single for which has so far eluded me), was a ragged wail with, I thought, exactly Thom Yorke's old mixture of tormented self-pity and withering scorn. This single, the band's second, offers just two songs; either the band is courageous, or they're writing slowly. "Looks Like Chaplin" itself is measured and tense, the guitar coming in choppy waves, and Kelly Jones' strained voice riding on surges of backward reverb and hollow echo. It reminds me as much of Catherine Wheel as Radiohead, and it's a small enough song that I probably would have made it the b-side here, but it does demonstrates that the band is capable of writing more than one sort of song, and isn't cowering in the lee of Oasis. "More Life in a Tramp's Vest" (it's a homelessness theme-single) is much more charged, the guitar stabbing at the hurried, off-balance vocal like an impatient predator, and ending up sounding to me like the werewolf alter ego of something that used to live a quieter life as a Wonder Stuff or Smiths song.
Stereophonics: A Thousand Trees #1
"A Thousand Trees", the third Stereophonics single, is the one that resolves any lingering doubt over whether I'm going to buy their forthcoming album, Word Gets Around, as soon as I find a copy. It's a great big, hoarse, discontented, ultimately warm-hearted anthem (a bit like a histrionic British version of Buffalo Tom's "Taillights Fade", a combination I like), and the lyrics are an intriguing critique of uninformed judgment and a bitter explication of how much easier it is to destroy than build ("It only takes one tree to make a thousand matches, / Only takes one match to burn a thousand trees"), but the real reason I love it is that I think it may be my salvation from "Semi-Charmed Life". I bought the Third Eye Blind album after hearing "Semi-Charmed Life" once, because the sing-song semi-rapping reminded me pleasantly of Madness, and I thought any band whose spoken rhythms owed more to Madness than Rage Against the Machine couldn't be all bad. Since then, of course, the song has been everywhere, and I've grown to violently detest and resent it. It's taken over for "Macarena" as soccer-game PA fodder; people sing along with it with exactly the same blissful ignorance of the lyrics, and it doesn't even have a pattern-dance to redeem it. The band is featureless, the album is painfully bland, the song is a misogynous drug fantasy and a morality tale whose moral is totally lost on its protagonist. When the guitars pause, coyly, I want to quickly strangle the guitarists so they won't start up again. And the worst part is that through all this headache-inducing hate, I still find myself hooked by the dancing cadence of the words. He's singing about sipping the world into his nose, as if that's the only way he knows to appreciate something, and yet my disgusted fury is impotent to keep my head from lolling back and forth, cheerfully, in time with the between-beat groove. It's simultaneously cloying and offensive, but still irresistible.
Or it was irresistible. "A Thousand Trees" is hardly the same sort of song, and an anthem against rushing to judgment is hardly going to flood a medium based on rushing to judgment, but the song has the same barbed-hook quick-step patter, the same way of letting the words skim over the beats like a skipping stone. Whatever "Semi-Charmed Life" does to me, "A Thousand Trees" does, too, so now all I have to do is memorize the words to this, and be willing to put up with strange looks at Foxboro when I begin singing along wrong. If they'll even notice.
The b-sides, here, are an impassioned live version of "A Thousand Trees" and the new song "Carrot Cake and Wine". "Carrot Cake and Wine" is steadier than "A Thousand Trees", its drums firm and square, its guitar slashing in bold strokes and peeling away in cascading runs. The lyrics are a nice study in encounter dynamics, but I admit that the cultural significance of the carrot cake is entirely lost on me.
Stereophonics: A Thousand Trees #2
The second disc for "A Thousand Trees" is a four-song acoustic EP. "A Thousand Trees" survives the reduction in means surprisingly well, I think, the quieter arrangement underscoring the song's essential sadness, and bringing out the Smiths resemblance a little more. There's also an acoustic take of "Looks Like Chaplin", though in both these cases "acoustic" just means that the electric guitar parts in the trio arrangement are replaced by acoustic guitar, so the chief difference is only a lack of sustain. "Home to Me" is what I think of as a real acoustic version, just a single guitar and voice. Perhaps fittingly, it feels uncertain and incomplete to me, like a soaring ballad trying to retrace its route without the wings it came on. The dark, scary version of the Gershwin tune "Summertime", on the other hand, makes full use of its minimal construction, Jones' invincible wail a stark contrast to a plodding, sketchy accompaniment, and if I were assembling a compilation of frightening remakes of old songs, this would be right up there with the Psychedelic Furs' "Mack the Knife" and Thin White Rope's "Town Without Pity".
Guided by Voices: I Am a Tree
Robert Pollard shows his belief in the new staff of Guided by Voices by ceding the title slot of the latest single in the endless GbV song parade to Doug Gillard's "I Am a Tree", the only song on Mag Earwhig! that Pollard doesn't at least share credit for. Nobody is likely to mistake the charging "I Am a Tree" for "Motor Away" or "I Am a Scientist", but then you're equally unlikely to mistake Mag Earwhig! for Propeller or Bee Thousand, so picking a single that emphasizes the band's new cogency makes sense. Of course, Pollard then indulges his penchant for perversity by filling the rest of this single with three songs that are obviously culled from his enormous archive of unfinished old impromptu experiments. "Do They Teach You the Chase?" is a meandering minute-long collage of interwoven guitar echoes and Pollard singing distractedly through a cheap spring-reverb amp. "(I'll Name You) The Name That Cries", half lullaby and half electrified stomp, could easily have been a last-minute excision from Alien Lanes. And "The Ascended Master's Grogshop", which I'm amazed isn't a GbV album title, is a disembodied verse of a thoughtful piano song that literally seems to decide, with Pollard's hands on the way down to the first chord of the chorus, that it hasn't sufficient energy for one after all.
The Terrifying Experience: I'm Invisible
Tobin Sprout is already on his second solo album since leaving GbV, so fellow GbV alumnus Mitch Mitchell has some catching up to do. I could never tell the GbV guitarists apart, and credits on the band's records are generally evasive, but on Mag Earwhig!, where contributions are itemized for once, Mitchell is responsible for some of the heavy, percussive bass-playing that was always one of the few GbV traits I was pretty sure wasn't Robert Pollard's own. In taking the helm of his new quartet, The Terrifying Experience, though, Mitch switches from part-time bass to full-time guitar (which is sort of rock and roll's equivalent of castling in chess). "I'm Invisible", the a-side of this seven-inch single, is a straight-ahead low-fi rock song whose most obvious concession to Mitchell's GbV roots is the long tail of extraneous studio noises at the end of it. The flip side, "Legacy of Conquest", is more dissonant, its clamoring guitars, Mitch's listless vocal part and an aimless bass line seeming to pay no attention to each other in the verses, and then snapping into close formation for the hammering choruses. I'm not sure the band has really worked out its identity quite yet, but then that's one of the things seven-inch singles are best for. (And thank goodness some factory is still manufacturing transparent blue vinyl.)
various: What's Up Matador
Both GbV and Tobin Sprout are represented on What's Up Matador, the 2CD label retrospective compiled by indie titan Matador Records, in many ways the spiritual home of low-fi underground rock. The first disc in this set is a label best-of, and it's amazing, when I listen to these twenty-four tracks, from as many artists, all at once, what a coherent aesthetic Matador has managed to cultivate. Examined from some angles, the Japanese kitch-pop band Pizzicato Five, the esoteric Canadian duo Mecca Normal, the seemingly immortal British post-punk cynics The Fall and the Scottish fuzz-pop band Teenage Fanclub seem very different, but a pervasive strangeness unifies them. These are noisy and obtrusive bands, the bands that your parents don't understand, bands that play strangely because they hear themselves differently. Between them they constitute a movement as sweeping, in its way, as the original wave of British punk bands, and this set, to me, could well be indie-rock's equivalent of punk's Burning Ambitions, the collection that outlives all the disposable tribute albums and movie soundtracks and comes to be a historical document that stands for an entire era. I don't know most of these bands well enough to assess the songs chosen to represent them, but "Motor Away" is a reasonable GbV choice, "Water Cuts My Hands" represents Mecca Normal well, and the Liz Phair song, "Stratford-on-Guy", her rhapsody about flying into Chicago at night, is my favorite song from Exile in Guyville, but hardly an obvious choice for any other reason, so I'm inclined to give the compilers the benefit of the doubt. The set is on sale for $8.99 where I shop, and even if you listen to the whole thing only once, I'm certain there's nothing else you could spend $8.99 on that would improve your indie musical literacy more effectively. Though, of course, you're not required to care about your indie musical literacy. And, realistically, the nature of this genre is such that you may well dislike much of it. All these bands are, to differing degrees, hard to like, and unless your tastes happen to align with Matador's precisely, at least a few of these bands will probably defeat your best efforts to appreciate them. I dislike most of them, myself.
Even if you only like a handful, though, the second disc, with twenty previously unreleased tracks, is there to justify your expenditure. Of the tracks from bands I care about, GbV's "My Thoughts Are a Gas" is jangly and reassuringly whole, Tobin Sprout's "Small Parade" is gentle and lilting, Liz Phair's "Stuck on an Island" is surprisingly elegant and folkish, and Mecca Normal's "Hurricane Watch" is a mesmerizing wordless feedback blur. The pleasant surprises, for me, are Spoon's angular and twitchy "Telamon Bridge", Pavement's reverent cover of Echo and the Bunnymen's "Killing Moon", Run On's twittering "Days Away" (halfway between Low and the Magnetic Fields), Bardo Pond's muddy and haunting endless hook "The Trail" (like Trans Am with somebody singing across the room from the nearest microphone) and Pizzicato Five's sparklingly synthetic chamber-pop trifle "Happy Birthday". And the non-surprise, for me, is that I still cannot voluntarily listen to an entire song by the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. May your life have something as certain.