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The Same Stars That Killed You Will Bring You Life
141 · 9 October 97
Helium: The Magic City
To continue the train of thought I intended to finish last week, before a My So-Called Life digression and encroaching dawn convinced me to postpone the rest of it, Helium is another Boston band I've always been ambivalent about, for much the same reasons that I could never wholeheartedly endorse Throwing Muses. I appreciated Mary Timony's distinctive, breathy voice, and the band's willingness to play crooked pop songs without unthinkingly ironing them all out beforehand, but the part of me that reacts viscerally to such things, instead of nodding thoughtfully with a pipe clenched in its teeth, had to admit that it liked Helium's straighter pieces a lot more than it liked the dissonant, angular ones. The previous Helium album, The Dirt of Luck, had a number of intriguing twists and surges, but just when I could almost bring myself to think I was fully enjoying them, the effortless chorus of "Superball" would come around again. "Oh, wait", I'd say, to nobody in particular. "You mean the other songs could be like this? Hmm." But I don't give up easily, and I try to give Boston bands at least one extra benefit of the doubt, as well, so I would probably have bought The Magic City just on general principles. Mitch Easter produced it, as well, which is good for even more points than usual in the wake of his work on the Slingbacks' stirring All Pop, No Star, but he already produced Helium's No Guitars EP, earlier this year, and that didn't particularly inspire me. It helped a lot, though, that I read an advance review of the album that called it "prog rock". The last album I heard called "prog rock" was Radiohead's OK Computer, which bore no detectable resemblance to anything I think of as prog rock -- I can't abide noodling, and mostly missed the Seventies, so my quintessential progressive band is Marillion, which isn't what I think the critics in question meant -- but my rough translation of "it's prog rock" was "it's complicated", and I'm a big fan of complication, even when it doesn't resemble Marillion.
It's a very sad sign to me, in fact, that complexity has become so anomalous and unexpected in rock that everything with denser arrangements than Cracker gets lumped in with Yes and ELP. It seems to me that punk's second coming, in the wake of Nirvana, made exactly the same logical error that the first wave was guilty of, and confused "You don't have to play as well as Keith Emerson to be in a rock band" with the similar, but unwarranted "If you play as well as Keith Emerson you can't be in a rock band". Reuters, earlier this week, ran a story in which they reported that Penn State aesthetician Crispin Sartwell had developed a mathematical formula by which the quality of rock bands could be objectively determined. This was such an absurd suggestion that I adopted the preliminary hypothesis that the reporter was a complete imbecile, and punched Sartwell's name into HotBot to see what I could find out about him. This quickly led me to the source of the Reuters piece, a clever, whimsical editorial in the Philadelphia paper The Inquirer in which Sartwell offers some largely satirical spurious math to quantify his enthusiastic belief that the Rolling Stones are, as he puts it, "the greatest freaking rock band in history". The Reuters article, which does not cite or acknowledge the material's editorial origin in any way, was written with such a breathtakingly obtuse literal-mindedness that I suspect the author thinks "nuance" is a shampoo, and if I hadn't tracked the piece down in Yahoo's Reuters feed personally, I'd have assumed it came from The Onion. I still have my suspicions, frankly. A few deliberate logical elisions for humorous effect notwithstanding, however, Sartwell's editorial did have a serious point. He puts forth two laws, the First being "The quality of a rock band is inversely proportional to its pretentiousness", and the Second being "The quality of a rock song varies inversely as the square of its distance from the blues." Since there is, for practical purposes, no such thing as pretentious blues, the two laws can really be collapsed, as Sartwell effectively does when he explains his "formula" for quantitative assessment of a rock band, which consists merely of dividing its artistic accomplishment by its artistic ambition. He gives several examples in the editorial, blithely assigning numbers to the two variables without making any attempt to justify them (one of the many clues that this is not intended to be an exercise in academic rigor): the Ramones (accomplishment 8, ambition 1) are good, as is Nirvana (accomplishment 9, ambition 3), while ELP (1, 10), Yes (1, 9) and Pearl Jam (3, 9) are bad, and the Talking Heads (7, 7) and Bach (10, 10) just break even. The Stones fare well by this measure, while the late-period Beatles, obviously, do not, and this is how Sartwell reaches his triumphant conclusion.
Hidden among the sensational numbers, though, is this paragraph, which explains Sartwell's real observation: "Rock is a traditional, as opposed to an avant-garde, art form. The authenticity of a work of traditional art is measured by the way it venerates and explores the tradition. The authenticity of a work of avant-garde art is measured by the way it destroys or transcends the past. Avant-garde rockers have profoundly misunderstood their form." (This is quite similar, in practice, to the general rule I reverse-engineered out of Robert Christgau's books, which is "If you can't play it while drunk, I don't like it.") Sartwell's metrics, then, are a way of representing the degree to which a rock band adheres to the form's traditionalist roots. The numbers, particularly the ones for "accomplishment", are subject to dispute, but I doubt many would argue with the contention that the Ramones and Nirvana were truer to rock's blues roots than Bach, who predated them by several centuries, or the Talking Heads, who simply didn't care. The sly misdirection is conflating "true to blues roots" with "quality", in an overall artistic sense. Bach's music is not bad art, it's just not very good blues-based rock. Saying that avant-garde rockers have misunderstood the form is either a statement of taste ("I don't like complicated rock"), a semantic quibble ("I like it, but it's not 'rock'"), or both. Personally, I like complicated rock, and while I don't much care what you call it, a broader, more inclusive definition of "rock"'s borders seems more interesting to me than a narrow one that limits itself to the blues. We already have a term for music that obeys the rules of the blues: "blues". Why not let "rock" mean something more than that? I like ambition. Certainly many bands have failed through overreaching themselves (though I'm of the opinion, even accounting for my aversion to noodling, that Yes pulled off most of their stunts pretty well, and while I do also hate Pearl Jam, it isn't because I think they were too ambitious), but just as many have failed through apathy and artistic cowardice masquerading as cool. The Stones and the Ramones wrote a few truly timeless songs, but they also wrote dozens of pointless thuggish retreads of those few timeless songs, and a pointless retread is a pointless retread no matter how much blues it's got.
Helium isn't quite the last band I'd expect to lead a charge against the stultifying dearth of ambition in circa-1997 rock music, as the weird incongruities of The Dirt of Luck are intricate in their own way, but I certainly never expected the scale of The Magic City. If you can imagine Liz Phair enlisting Trans Am to help her make a record that combines the baroque melodic flourishes (and some of the basic arrangements) of early Game Theory with the mechanical cadences of Gary Numan (more than once I think they're about to break into a warped cover of "Everyday I Die"), then you have some mental facsimile of what this album sounds like to me. Buzzing guitars and bright, harpsichord-ish synthesizer slither through skittish, circling hooks, at times coaxing Timony's voice along like they have it limply in tow, at times whirling away on errands of their own while she spins into pirouettes of her own devising. Sharp metric shifts, somewhere between Game Theory's abrupt right-angle evasions and Liz's distracted introversional lapses, are the primary structural elements in most of these songs, Shawn King Devlin's drums lurching and spasming in an uncanny barely-controlled free-fall. Mary, Shawn and Ash Bowie are still the core trio, but in addition to their usual roles of guitar and bass, Mary plays chamberlain and keyboards, and Ash plays more keyboards and percussion and "the viceroy", whatever that is (something to do with butterflies? but how would you mic them?). Mitch contributes mandolin and several varieties of guitar, Andrew Emmett adds violin to one song, and Ken Wilmot adds trumpet to another. The result is never remotely lush, as no two instruments ever seem to band together for more than a moment, but the dizzying interweave of parts gives the music something of the stark tensile integrity of a net woven out of barbed wire and bungee cords. There are a few short pop songs, like the humming "Vibrations", the fitful "Leon's Space Song", with its awkward synth whines and growling bass, the dense "Lady of the Fire", with keening sitar-like guitar, and the jerky, ominous "Clementine", but these alternate with odder, slower interludes like the elegant, dignified strings of "Ocean of Wine", the flamenco guitar flutter of "Lullaby of the Moths", the falsetto lilt of "Ancient Cryme", the syrupy crescendos of "Cosmic Rays", the measured Liz-ish reticence of "Walk Away" and Ash's busy, half-electronica instrumental "Medieval People". There's also an episodic eight-minute mini-opera in the middle of the album, called "The Revolution of Hearts Pts. I and II", and eight-minute songs are themselves sometimes enough to get an album branded "prog rock". Another possible explanation, I suppose, is that somebody is equating prog rock with space rock, and reacting to the smattering of eerie sci-fi noises and lyrical references to the stars and the future. One inescapable characteristic of progressive rock, however, to me (and I'm aware that I'm being as arbitrary about this as Sartwell is about blues-derivations in rock), is that it is meticulously and professionally produced. There is no such thing, in my taxonomy, as low-fi prog rock. Arrangement convolutions, UFO blips and lines about the twenty-third century, outer space and astronauts can no more transform thin, cheaply amped guitars and a waifish singer into rococo progressive bombast than "long before the colonies were planted in the stars" can make Fiona's "The Nights We Spent on Earth" into a forgotten chapter of Rush's "Cygnus X-1".
What this album might be, though, is a bridge between indie humility and progressive fervor. Whether this is what you mean by progressive or not, the album is undeniably, I think, a vast leap of faith into the unknown for a band that was previously content to sound like the Juliana Hatfield Three with stranger tunings. Rock's instrumental and compositional palettes have been repeated streamlined over the last few years, or perhaps eroded is the right metaphor, to the point where just adding a keyboard part is a gesture fraught with regressive political import, but if more indie rock can be grounded and weightless at once, like The Magic City seems to me to be, then maybe there's a way out of this mess, after all. If this is somebody's idea of "prog rock", and it's still cool, then maybe my idea of prog rock has a chance at rehabilitation, as well. If Helium can make a sprawling concept album that makes Exile in Guyville, 2001 and Peter Pan seem like parts of a single coherent artistic tradition, then maybe Hole can tie together Rumours and The Plague Mass, Joni Mitchell can do some NIN remixes, Beck can start hanging out with Vangelis, and we can all finally stop carrying larger and larger flags into smaller and smaller cul de sacs.
The other bristling, intense, female-voiced punk-crossover record I've had on heavy rotation lately is Dissent, the first album by the British quartet Linoleum (produced, oddly, by Paul Q. Kolderie and Sean Slade at Fort Apache here in Cambridge). If Throwing Muses and Helium are descended from the Talking Heads and Sonic Youth, then Linoleum are approximately the British equivalents, derived in parallel from Wire and the Au Pairs. Sleeper, Elastica and Kenickie are their obvious contemporary peers, but you'd have to extract the frayed Rod Stewart-ness from Sleeper, the Buzzcocks' anxious twitches and the Pretenders' sultry scowl from Elastica, or the Shampoo impetuousness from Kenickie to get bands with comparable merciless reserve. Other than singer Caroline Finch's accent, there is nothing Britpop about Linoleum. Their distinctive trick, which I don't recommend as a general purpose strategy, but they make work, is changing chords and rhythms as infrequently as possible. At points in the three-chord verses of "Marquis" the main guitar line repeats a single chord forty-eight times in a row; the chorus uses a different three chords, but sticks to the eighth-note regimen, eight-eight-sixteen in a loop until the verse returns. Rock bass parts are frequently this minimal, but guitar parts almost always vary the articulation, if not the notes as well. "Dissent" uses a few more chords, but blurs them together in a continuous My Bloody Valentine-like flow. The drifting verses of "Dangerous Shoes" have a circling, distracted finger-picked accompaniment, but the choruses are a thick, pounding roar. "On a Tuesday" opens with muted picking reminiscent of Split Enz' "I Got You", but flips into more stun-gun repetition. The bulk of "Restriction" saws back and forth between just two chords. "Ray Liotta" is like a version of the Pixies' "Gigantic" that never reaches Kim Deal's wild catharsis. "She's Sick" has a hook, but seems to guard it jealously, as if each use drains a battery they don't think they'll be able to replace. "Beds", without the drums and bass, could almost pass for Mecca Normal. "Smear" is like robots trying gamely to play an Everclear song. Of the quieter moments, "Stay Awake" is like a Cowboy Junkies reverie threatening to mutate into a Pixies instrumental, "Twisted" sighs with 4AD languor, and "Ether" sounds distinctly like Tanya Donelly. What keeps this all from becoming unbearably monotonous and claustrophobic, at least for me, is that the band, in an inversion of the usual practice, uses the guitars as the static foundations of the songs, and relies instead on the rhythm parts to keep the songs moving. Drummer Dave Nice's playing is in keeping with the band's overall minimalism, but he outlines transitions as effectively with sudden silences and single sharp snare-hits as Neal Peart would with twenty-one-drum rolls. Bassist Emma Tornero and the second guitarist, either Finch or co-writer Paul Jones, circle around the central guitar drones in a close formation that makes the composite three-part chords evolve in pieces, rather than switching from one to another all at once. And Finch's voice, clipped and accusatory, admitting little vulnerability, negotiates this rectangular howling like she's trying to read confessional poetry with the insistent confidence of a megaphone-wielding politician passing his audience on a flatbed with a shot muffler.
Finch's lyrics mostly dispense with the empathy that Sleeper and Kenickie usually exhibit, but are no less revealing and closely observed for their distance. "Marquis" and "Dangerous Shoes" complete the disenchantment with glamour and club culture that Kenickie began in "Nightlife" and "Come Out 2 Nite". "On a Tuesday" wields the simple line "Funny how you never call me on Tuesday" like a stiletto in the back of the song's shallow, unreliable antagonist. "Stay Awhile" may be the bleakest love song on record, Finch clinging to "not alone" like a mantra, as if asking for anything other than the presence of another body in your space from a relationship is the height of foolishness. The submissive "Restriction" is no more uplifting, but at least the narrator knows what she's getting from the relationship. "Ray Liotta", which uses the actor, remorselessly, as a talisman of runaway dissolution, is a brutal exegesis of the desperate mental state of a drug addict, to whom "life's too slow" justifies self-destruction. "She's Sick" manages to indict both oblivious participants in a becalmed relationship at once. "Beds" lets a couple of traces of past happiness slip in ("all shining eyed with laughter", "she lies awake and listens to him breathing"), only to tear them to shreds with tiny, razor-sharp details ("all the while she waits for sleep", "living takes its toll upon his teeth"). "Unresolved" is a breakup song ("I tire of saying 'I don't know'", "Don't ask me questions any more") too weary to even form the decisive sentence that would end the misery. The bizarre, furious "Smear" reads like another dead-relationship anthem ("There must be vaseline on your lens. / Do you see everything in freeze frame?"), but the bits about weight-loss and blood make it seem like she's berating the subject for denying a terminal disease of some sort, which is a strange and cruel thing to excoriate someone for.
If rock must follow the blues, then, Linoleum is an abject failure. Musically, Dissent has more in common with dishwasher cycles than a twelve-bar blues progression. It doesn't foster tribal unity or recapitulate cultural themes, it reinforces alienation and details disillusionment and despair. Lyrically, the blues are about simultaneously ennobling and diffusing pain by sharing it, but Linoleum's existential misanthropy is no more amenable to call-and-response amelioration than pancreatic cancer. The blues seek to turn suffering on itself, so that the terms of your own unhappiness become the medium of your deliverance, but this music cannot be reversed like that. There is no positive spin to empty lives, and so these songs are destructive in the purest sense. The only thing to do with them is point their withering gaze at your own soul, like a vampiric X-ray, to outline the tumors you've known about but tried to ignore. Emptiness reaches out to emptiness, tearing through flesh and illusion alike between. The process is not comforting or pleasant, even to watch, but sometimes destroying is the only thing that makes healing possible. As Nietzsche said, whatever does not destroy us makes us stronger. The trick, though, is telling the difference between the things that tried to destroy us and failed, and the things that are still destroying us, slowly and inexorably, every moment we spend trumpeting our survival. Whether you want rock to be one of the forces of destruction in your life, of course, and which of the two sorts it will be, are decisions you'll have to make for yourself.