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Kiss Me Once Before Your Summer Fades
Tanya Donelly: Pretty Deep #1
I'm sure my musical upbringing was a long, slow continuum, but in retrospect it seems to consist of totally discrete segments separated by turning points that all seem to revolve around specific pieces of stereo equipment. I use "stereo" in the general sense, I guess, since the first one was the radio in my parents mucus-green 1970 Toyota Corona (was that really what it was called?), which only ever had a single functioning speaker during my conscious experience of it. My parents played records in our house, but virtually never put on the radio there, so my initial exposure to mainstream pop came entirely in the car. Amidst the rush of the traffic and the fuzzy cling of the terrycloth seat covers, it all sounded amazing to me, a heady blur of songs like Paul McCartney's "Band on a Run", Elton John's "Island Girl", Paul Simon's "Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover", no longer what I'd associate with a "heady blur", surely, but I didn't turn ten until 1977, and small children are easily disoriented in moving vehicles.
The next life-changing device was my first own stereo. I mean, I called it a stereo, because it had two speakers, and a knob that could make the sound go from one to the other, but it was really a thinly glorified record player. There was no tuner or tape player of any kind, just a turntable, the kind with the four-inch spindle in the middle, on which you piled five albums and slapped down the changer arm, and then sat back to listen to five side-ones in a row. I can't decide which prospect horrifies me more, looking back, the damage the LPs must have taken from this treatment, or the aesthetic abomination of always listening to albums a half at a time. I presume I got the player for Christmas 1976, as the two 45s I received with it to start my record collection were Walter Murphy's "Fifth of Beethoven" and the Starland Vocal Band's "Afternoon Delight", and by the end of 1976 they would have been collecting dust in a sale-priced remnants bin, which is the only explanation I have for why my parents included these two singles in particular, as I'm sure neither they nor I liked the songs then or subsequently. I believe the first album I spent my own money on was Hotel California, the following year.
My first radio didn't arrive until a couple years later. Everybody has to live through the painful fruition of at least one ludicrous parental-warning cliché in their lives, and mine came in sixth grade, during a surge in the popularity of school-hallway rubber-band-slingshot wars. I was small for my age, and being pelted by high-speed paper wads was an entry for my long catalog of adolescent indignities anyway, but a particularly insufferable child hit me square in the eye with a firmly-packed wad, which is just as undesirable as your parents say it would be. It broke a blood vessel in my eyeball, and I spent a week in bed, the bad eye swaddled in gauze, and the good eye covered by a huge patch with a tiny hole in the middle, in the hopes that I would be more successful in not moving my wounded eye back and forth if the other one had no incentive to drag it along. As moving, reading and building things out of Legos were all among the many things I wasn't supposed to do in this state, my parents turned to music in desperation, to keep both them and me from losing our minds. They bought me the Bee Gees' Spirits Having Flown, but quickly realized that a week of bed rest could not be confronted eighteen minutes at a time, so they went back out and got me a radio. A clock-radio, mind you, so it had a practical use, as well. They brought up one of the TV trays to set it on, by my bed, until some more-permanent housing could be devised (the tray stayed there for years), and thus began my first experience with a radio whose dial I was allowed to adjust according to my own whim. There was no headphone jack, so some of my formative musical experiences of this period, listening to the rise and fall of "Accidents Can Happen" and "Rock and Roll Fantasy" in the weekly countdown, which came on after my bedtime, occurred with the radio turned down to the brink of inaudibility, my ear literally pressed to the speaker.
The first piece of equipment I bought for myself, I believe in 1982, was a Panasonic boom-box that I think still exists somewhere in my parents' house. It took me months and months to earn the money for it, during which time it was very nearly my only topic of conversation. I carried radio-cassette-player brochures and catalogs with me at all times, constructing elaborate feature-comparison charts, scanning newspaper ads for minute fluctuations in price. My parents finally either took pity on me, or just lost patience with the process, and hired me to help my mother with an epic spring cleaning, paying me enough to buy the model I'd selected (the RX-5150, with three bias settings, phono inputs, soft-touch tape controls and an "Ambience" switch that made anything sound twice as cool). I loved that boom-box like I have loved few other inanimate objects in my life. It had a headphone jack, and I had headphones, and this combination ended up being my entry into previously uncharted realms of nighttime radio programming. The most important two hours of the were late Sunday nights, when George Gimarc took over KZEW for The Rock and Roll Alternative, which was, at the time, Dallas' only alternative-music show. The footprints of this program are indelibly inscribed on my record collection and my mind. He played U2, and the Alarm, and the Three O'Clock, and the Red Rockers, and Let's Active, and the Furs and the Bunnymen and a hundred other bands that were unlike anything else I ever heard. For two hours, there in the dark, magical and unreachable worlds poured into my head.
At least twice a year, though, George would miss a week. He'd abandon us, for the only reason we would ever have accepted, which is to go to England and find more music to play us. I suppose I knew, intellectually, that George Gimarc's personal trips to England were not the sole form of trade between Dallas and London (and probably half of what he played was American anyway), that the Big Country singles in the bins at Metamorphosis Records didn't get there in George's luggage, but that's the way it seemed. In my vague conception of world order, England was the place where good music lived, and George was our ambassador to it and our conduit. I learned to equate "import" with "good". Now I am older, and the subtleties of this relationship are clearer to me, but a jolt of the old thrill still tickles my hand every time it picks up a CD from the UK. The globe has shrunk, though, and there's far less need, these days, to send a pilgrim across the water to receive wisdom from the font. Q magazine gets mailed to my door, and I can buy most of what I find in it without leaving Boston. But not quite all. I don't need to fly to London every six months, but every two or three years the backlog of things I just haven't been able to locate reaches a critical mass, and I find some excuse for an expedition. As you read this, in fact, if you get to it the day it appears, I am there, inching down the aisles of Tower Records, no doubt, trying to see how much of the contents of the bins I can transfer to my arms at once.
One of the odd convolutions of the world, however, is that often the things I get from England aren't even English. Tanya Donelly is from Boston, as am I (now), and she recorded "Pretty Deep" in Cambridge, no more than two blocks off the route I drive across the city to and from work each day. How many natural resources were consumed in flying her music to England, pressing it onto singles, and flying the singles back to Boston for me to buy them, I don't wish to know. It's bad enough that I drive a car back and forth across Cambridge. There's room on this CD for lots more music, if they were going to go to the logistical trouble, but the industry doesn't work that way, so what all this petroleum and ozone buys us is another copy of "Pretty Deep" itself and two other songs. "Spaghetti", the first b-side, is a jubilant approximation of High Noon Western eeriness. Tanya is hardly Maria McKee, though, so while the ominous whistling and shuffling drums are genre-authentic, the rest of it sounds more like a pop reworking of the Geraldine Fibbers and Thin White Rope than an avant-garde reinterpretation of country aesthetics. "Morna", the other track, is much slower and darker, snares ringing hollowly behind a murky veil of vibe-like guitar echoes and Tanya's banshee sighs. "Pretty Deep" is one of my favorite excuses for a single this year, but these two songs are from other idioms entirely.
Tanya Donelly: Pretty Deep #2
The second disc of the set seems much more interesting to me. "These Days", its second track, is a jagged, lurching waltz, waves of distorted guitar and crashing drums shattering themselves against unseen rocks while a plaintive, string-like keyboard murmur hums obliviously, and Tanya swoops from terse muttering to flights of falsetto delicacy. "Influenza", the third track, is as steady as "These Days" is spasmodic, swaying with an amiable lilt reminiscent, to me, of "Feed the Tree" and some old Cowboy Junkies song accelerated to a pop trot as a demonstration of some new gadget marketed for the purpose. The first disc I can't seem to make anything coherent out of, but this second triptych seems to me to function as a revealing dissection of "Pretty Deep", "These Days" isolating the song's strength and "Influenza" isolating its charm. I'm normally opposed to filling singles with remixes, but I think Tanya missed a unique chance to end this single with a remake of "Pretty Deep" that showed some other side of the song, as if it had been taken apart and reassembled in a different form.
Echobelly: The World Is Flat #1
I like both of Echobelly's first two albums, Everyone's Got One and On, but unless I watch it carefully, my love of Echobelly will invariably collect around one song, the Everyone's Got One single "Insomniac". I'm an album-experience purist, so the repeat-one setting on my CD players almost never gets called upon to perform its office. There may only be two songs in the world that I am willing to listen to on infinite repeat for whole hours at a time: Too Much Joy's "Crush Story" is one, "Insomniac" is the other. There's nothing profound about it, but it fits into a groove in my brain, somehow, like wireheading without surgery. I'm not sure it's good for me to listen to it over and over again, but hopefully I indulge rarely enough that I'm not doing myself permanent damage. Still, although I anticipate new Echobelly material, intellectually, hoping that their third album is the culmination of the rapid evolution and promise the first two showed, the wordless, growling part of me hopes they're going to make another song that can shut out every other noise in the universe.
"The World Is Flat", either sadly or fortunately, strikes me as merely a good song, not an opportunity for mania. Musically, it sounds surprisingly like Tanya Donelly; take out a little flanging and it could fit in on Tanya's Lovesongs for Underdogs, sand off some of the distortion and it might be a lost Belly track. Sonya Madan and Tanya are nothing alike as singers, though; Tanya's voice is brusque and robust, while Sonya's is like that of a nightingale whose mouth is larger than its head, her words so deliberately enunciated that you might suspect her of having a hearing disability, except that producing her unwavering tone control without hearing it would be like trying to play Rachmaninov through one of those sets of carnival claws designed for a lifetime of scrabbling at the proffered left legs of shabby stuffed rabbits. She is most effective, to me, when she abandons any thought at all of rock grit and launches into soaring heart-out passion with all her might. On the verses of "Holding the Wire", this part's one real b-side, she lets her voice bleat a little, and it just makes me impatient for the chorus. The third track here is an edgy semi-techno reshuffle of "The World Is Flat" by Greg Brimson and Peter Coyte that does a better job than most techno remixes of retaining the song's original character, I think, and inserts some deft drum tricks of its own, but still seems basically superfluous to me.
Echobelly: The World Is Flat #2
Part two backs up the title track with the b-sides "Drive Myself Distracted" and "Falling Flame". "Drive Myself Distracted" I might even like better than "The World Is Flat", a driving rock stomp with a bit more Divinyls strut than Smiths sulk. Echobelly songs usually sweep into their choruses with deliberate flourishes, but this one pounds through them almost without looking up from the churning verse patterns, and this leaves Sonya in the unfamiliar position of having to tread water while she sings the chorus, rather than being carried through it on a pedestal, and the strain appeals to me. "Falling Flame", on the other hand, is a shameless homage to Johnny Marr, languidly strummed guitar borrowed straight from the Smiths and mixed with a hint of outlaw twang stolen second-hand from one of Marr and Matt Johnson's albums.
Sleeper: She's a Good Girl
Sleeper has a few songs that can suck me in pretty effectively, too, notably "Inbetweener" and "What Do I Do Now?" This whole cohort, though, Elastica, Sleeper and Echobelly and half a dozen other bands I don't follow as closely myself, is reaching the point where it must evolve or perish. Elastica has put off facing this truth by just not making another record, but that is the coward's route. Sleeper's tentative, exploratory steps, here on the advance single for their third album, Pleased to Meet You, are mostly in the direction of fuller arrangements. Perhaps this is inevitable; Louise Wener's voice is unlikely to ever sound another way, and the band's core sound is sturdy, but pretty consistent, and amply documented on Smart and The It Girl. For "She's a Good Girl", then, they bring in organs and a brass section, which blare cheerfully in the background of the choruses, as if hoping the song will turn into "Beat Surrender" any moment now. Where "Beat Surrender" seemed to me like a massive mobilization of Paul Weller's frantic dreams, though, a burst of period exaltation that was credited to the Jam because that's how the record contracts were written, not because three people could ever play such a thing by themselves, "She's a Good Girl" seems distrustful of its own new sounds. The members of Sleeper appear a little alienated by the crowd in the studio, and perhaps a little resentful, and seem to me to play the song a little too slowly and stiffly, as if unconvinced that the trumpeters could keep up if they went through it at speed. New directions are particularly hard to judge on the basis of isolated songs, but if this were my band, I think I'd have written this off as a sensible experiment that just didn't quite work. The first b-side, "Come On Come On", does little to elevate the mood, beginning gloomily, and picking up its pace a little without lifting its spirits. "Sick and tired of this", Louise intones, and it sounds like writing a song about the weariness hasn't banished it. "I'm a Man", however, locates a reserve of strength the other two songs didn't know about, and lashes into a song that combines impish Breeders-like verses, a catch in Louise's voice at the turn into the chorus that reminds of Leslie Spit Treeo's Laura Hubert, a defiant chorus that reminds me at once of Chrissie Hynde and Terri Nunn, caterwauling guitar bridges and a burbling outro that sounds like the band almost decided to tack their own ambient remix onto the end. We'll see what the album's like, but "I'm a Man" suggest to me that Sleeper's way forward involves trusting themselves, not learning to give orders.
Kenickie: Nightlife #1
One of the reasons that Sleeper need to solve their stylistic dilemma quickly is that generations, in pop, are incredibly short, and Kenickie, the next one, are already breathing down their necks. To me "Nightlife" captures exactly the excitement of the Jam's final days that "She's a Good Girl"'s horns seem nostalgic for, and dovetails it into a torrid punk thrash as if that's what it was always supposed to lead to. "Kenix", the first b-side here, is a theme song for the cartoon movie in which the band are superheroes. Concussive, robotic drums rumble like tank treads running over your head, and the band flip from an ominous vocal chant and growling guitars to a shouty chorus sprint and back with the restless indecision of heroes who get punchy if there's been no evil to fight for more than 1:42. "Skateboard Song", the third track, slows down to 2:30 to tell a story of dreams shattered and rebuilt, innocence misplaced and rediscovered, and a gang mentality that is as insular as Alex's, in A Clockwork Orange, but as supportive as his was back-biting.
Kenickie: Nightlife #2
"J.P.", the first b-side on the second part, lays aside the punk guitars for a whole thirty-four seconds, opening with a few gentle acoustic changes, clicking wood-blocks and some dreamlike girl-harmony. Shattering this reverie is too much fun to resist, though, and the band explodes into a clattering dervish-whirl that still has the composure to recapitulate the opening verse's blocks as cowbell thwacks, and the harmony sighs as anticipatory swells. "Eat the Angel", which sounds in places like Belinda Carlisle with a sadistic streak, steers scattered verses into a chorus round that the Bangles would be proud of.
Kenickie: Punka (reissue) #1
"Punka" was a single once already, but now that the band has a higher profile, for which "Punka" was not insignificantly responsible, they've decided to grant it a second life, decking it out in new b-sides for the occasion. "Lights Out in a Provincial Town", however, a slow, beepy lullaby to people you despise (almost a Spice Girls parody), is a strange choice for the first one. The same soul does animate this as moves "Punka", I think, but it takes patience to see how this song's glossy chirps and hints of Trio and the Dream Academy derive from the same demented awe as the anarchic brigade-charge of "Punka". The connection to the piano, acoustic guitar and distant drum thumps of "Waste You" is even harder to spot, and I'm not sure I've identified it myself.
Kenickie: Punka (reissue) #2
The incongruous streak continues on the second single, with the poised mid-tempo stretch "We Can Dream", which sounds to me like a stately slow song that "Punka" audiences will never call for. By "Brighter Shade of Blue" Kenickie seem to wake up to their surroundings again, though, and tumble through a song that, while still slower, sends flashes of other great punk-pop bands past my eyes like an out-of-control zoetrope, Too Much Joy and the Go-Go's the only faces I can make out unambiguously. Young bands like this are the ones I forgive most easily for being unable to fill b-sides with material of the same richness as their albums, but in Kenickie's case I'm not sure that the fact that they can afford to discard inspirations of this caliber isn't even more impressive.
Slingbacks: All Pop, No Star #1
Compared to the Slingbacks, Kenickie have already had a long, full life. They may not be multi-millionaires or tabloid mainstays, but they got to put out ten singles, their album actually got released in the US, and they're famous enough for Q to mention them as if everybody knows who they are (though admittedly you don't have to be very famous for Q to do this to you). The Slingbacks, on the other hand, expired almost before they'd begun. I'd have to get out a calendar and a plumb line to be sure, but it's possible that the Slingbacks had actually already dissolved and been dropped by the time I heard their album. A part of me is relieved that the record, which I've never seen a copy of in a US store, came out in 1996 in the UK, because if it bore a 1997 date it would have easily made my year-end top-ten this year, and there's something powerfully depressing about giving an album-of-the-year vote to a band that didn't even last out the year you're claiming they were among the best sounds of. They made five singles before their demise, technically, but even the stores here that got the first three never heard of this last pair, and trailing box-toting Newcastle radio-station flunkies to the Music and Video Exchange is probably the only way anybody will find any more copies of them. The one new song on this first (the yellow Barbie) part, "Chainletter", is a frothy quasi-country canter that belies Shireen's Arizona roots, but the two alternate versions of All Pop, No Star album tracks end up functioning, sadly, more as retrospective than promotion. The melancholy live recording of "Trashy Broken Heart", just Shireen Liane, an acoustic guitar and a whining Theremin-ish background drone, is appropriately eulogic, but the artless living-room demo of "Autumn Teen Sound" (much farther toward the Partridge Family than the Rolling Stones, along its own axis of attitudes) ought to have been an occasion for fond nostalgia, not a final breath.
Slingbacks: All Pop, No Star #2
Part two (the red Barbie) adds one cover, one new song, and one more acoustic version. The cover, of Lennon and McCartney's "Two of Us", turns it into a delirious punk rout I'd have never recognized as a Beatles song without the credits. "The Waltz", the new one, could be "Chainletter"'s alter ego, a campfire lament whose lonesome harmonies seem designed, if not to keep the wolves at bay, then at least to remind them of their own insecurities. And the acoustic version, actually labeled "campfire", is a rousing rendition of "Whorehouse Priest", which sounds utterly timeless to me this way. Tambourine hiss and the natural percussive pulse of the guitar strings more than compensate for the absent rhythm section, and the open-hearted vocal and two-part harmonies provide all the passion that amplifiers could ever have imitated. There should have been a hundred more songs like this. It's less morbid than I make it sound, as the players aren't dead, only the collective fiction of a band, but in a just world they would find themselves having to explain the difference.
Veruca Salt: Benjamin
Legalized gambling on rock bands' single-release plans would do my financial situation no good at all. Even including the melodramatic power-ballad "Benjamin" on Eight Arms to Hold You seemed like a risk to me, and I would never have bet (or recommended) that it would be the follow-up single to the storming "Volcano Girls". Eight Arms to Hold You is a subversive album, and "Benjamin" is too obvious. You can't lead people on a piper's march, The Road Warrior notwithstanding, by showing them brochures of the promised land itself. You have to coax them along, making sure that they never feel they're making a big decision until after they've made it. "Volcano Girls" disguised its pop reverence behind enough steamroller guitar antics to let people believe it was a logical extrapolation of L7, if that's what they needed to believe. "Benjamin", however, is a shameless throwback, a blast of gushily romantic rapture that acts like nothing much has changed in music since the Bangles, if not the Shangri-Las. I don't know what they were thinking. I won't complain, though, because the single comes with "The Speed of Candy", now one of my favorite Veruca Salt songs. They've written songs that reminded me of Game Theory before, but this one has to be intentional. The music is like an overdriven pastiche of half-a-dozen early Game Theory EP tracks, and the chorus hook is almost lifted whole out of Lolita Nation's "Andy in Ten Years". I only wonder why they didn't drop the pretense and cover "Mammoth Gardens". The other two b-sides seem hollow and indifferent by comparison.
Chainsuck: Emily Says
We do get CD singles of our own, here in American, every once in a while. This one appears as something of a non sequitur, as Chainsuck's album Angelscore came out well over a year ago, and "Emily Says" itself dates back to 1994. It's never too late for a remix, apparently, and this single provides radio-edit and extended versions of a Paul Barker / William Tucker remix of "Emily Says", and regular and instrumental versions of Tucker and Chris Connelly's remix of another Angelscore track, "Prozac". Perhaps I'm merely establishing (again) my inability to discern the finer points of remixes, but "Emily Says" was already a half-industrial sampler riot, and the remixed version seems less powerful to me, not more. "Prozac" has a little extra muscle, but the vocals get lost in the vocal version, and the instrumental version, without them entirely, simply underscores for me how much of Chainsuck's unique chill is a product of the contrast between the band's implacable roar and Marydee Reynolds' sylphid voice. If this means new life for the band, I'm all for it, but doesn't reanimation usually only happen after death?
Sarah McLachlan: "Unchained Melody"
The disc in front of me is actually Brewed Awakening, the latest in Nettwerk Records' long series of coffee-pun label samplers. It purports to be a full album, but I was forced to buy it for Sarah McLachlan completism, and the other nine songs on it all bore or annoy me, so I'm petitioning to have it declared a common-law single. Sarah's track is a typically crystalline cover of the song better known in the Righteous Brothers' version. Her arrangements and delivery have a way of making all of her covers sound more than a little alike, but there would have to be a lot more of them for this to be a cause to complain. If I'm forced to choose two b-sides, Autour De Lucie's chiming guitar-pop ballad "L'Accord Parfait" is only ruined for me by the singer's guttural French, and Wild Strawberries' gentle, infectious "Heroine" is somewhere in between the Sundays and 10,000 Maniacs.
Sinéad O'Connor: Gospel Oak
While we're examining formats, Sinéad O'Connor deserves appreciation for assembling her six new songs onto one inexpensive domestic EP, rather than splitting them up across a two-part single. It's a particularly effective trick for me, since I don't trust Sinéad's tastes enough any more to invest in her albums, much less her import singles, but an EP seemed like a reasonable excuse to check in again. O'Connor's genre-hopping finds her, this time, going through an essentially straightforward Irish traditional period. A few drum patterns sound left over from I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got, but there's no trace of the ragged guitar and wild vocal dynamics of The Lion and the Cobra, nor the show-tune mannerism of Am I Not Your Girl? It's as if Sinéad is all too aware that many people now know her better as the woman who tore up a picture of the Pope on SNL than as the one who sang "Heroine" with the Edge on the Captive soundtrack, and so is going way out of her way to behave properly here, so that nobody will miss her sincerity. The sentiment is noble, but this simply isn't what I think of as Sinéad's forte. Loreena McKennitt would render these songs with their proper emotional nuances effortlessly where Sinéad strains, a comparison Sinéad herself encourages by doing "He Moved Through the Fair", which Loreena did on Elemental. I suspect Loreena would also have woven the musical traditions of Israel and Rwanda into the music, rather than merely dedicating some Irish songs to their people, and she would have enlisted a less featureless band. But no amount of scholarship will lead Loreena to produce another "Jump in the River" or a "Mandinka", and so I can't hear Sinéad's voice without hearing, behind the songs she's singing, the sound of the songs she isn't.
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