What Isn't Dead Gives You Its Wishes
150 · 11 December 97
Mecca Normal: Who Shot Elvis?
I observed Buy Nothing Day this year. Most of you probably didn't. Most of you probably never heard of Buy Nothing Day; I wouldn't have, myself, if I hadn't subscribed to Adbusters, the journal of the activities and world-views of the Vancouver cultural-awareness organization The Media Foundation, and bought the calendar that goes with it, which reminded me that the day was approaching. It was, naturally, November 28th, the day after Thanksgiving, arguably the biggest shopping day in the free world (where by "free" we mean, tellingly, that part of the world that revolves largely around shopping). The premise was simple: don't buy anything. Get through a whole day without spending any money. Presumably one is allowed to incur costs, of a certain unavoidable sort, so you aren't expected to shut off your electricity and running water, or temporarily default on your mortgage or rent. Just don't spend anything. This is tokenism of the most blatant sort, obviously; if everybody did it, the chief result would be that the Saturday after the Thanksgiving, which my sister says is really the worst day of the year in retail, would just be 1.9 times as unbearable. It's a useful exercise, though, at least if your lifestyle is anything like mine. Getting through a whole day (a work holiday, at that) without spending money was harder than I expected. I had Thanksgiving leftovers to eat, so I didn't need to go buy food; but this was luck: my parents always seem to have several weeks of random edible things in their refrigerator and pantry, but even after I've just been to the supermarket I'm rarely more than four or five days away from being once again reduced to linguine with garlic and olive oil, and a tall glass (if they're not all in the dishwasher) of cold (if I've remembered to refill the Brita pitcher) water. I spent most of the day reading, which seemed safe, but checking my email reminded me of two CDs I meant to order (Anton Barbeau), another magazine I meant to subscribe to (Yes! A Journal of Positive Futures), and three movies I wanted to see. But I was strong, if "strong" is the right word for realizing that I only had to wait six more hours. I thought of several free places I could go, but they would all have involved either buying a subway token, or driving my car, and while my CRX isn't coin-operated, there's a hierarchy of social malice, and driving a car on Buy Nothing Day would be a little like killing your neighbor in the early morning of No Adultery Day, in order to have as many hours left in which to legally covet his widow. So I stayed home, and tried to spend some of the time I would have spent spending thinking clearly about my relationship to our consumerist society. This made me very depressed, and in no mood at all to confront the encroaching holiday gift-buying season.
If the holiday gift-buying season hasn't depressed you, yet, there's another exercise you can try, which you don't have to wait until next November for. Turn on your TV for an hour (if you don't have a TV you're exempted from this exercise, and may spend the hour doing whatever you normally do with an hour, such as administering free medical care to homeless AIDS victims, writing letters in support of political prisoners, chaining yourself to the gates of chemical factories or military bases, etc.), switch it to some ordinary TV channel, and try to keep track of how many valuable human emotions, genuine experiences and noble urges are coöpted, in the space of an hour, by somebody trying to sell you something whose purported value nobody in the world seriously believes. Virtually all television commercials fall into this category (as do most developments, frankly, on most of the programming in between the commercials). Coke is not the real thing, no matter how many levitating athletes, smiling multi-cultural children's choirs or cuddly computer-animated polar bears contend otherwise. Creativity, at least in this hemisphere, has sold itself out to corporate avarice so thoroughly that it's no longer strictly accurate to refer to where you go when you sell out as "out". Art is cannibalized into advertising so quickly that in some cases it's difficult to be sure it wasn't invented by advertising first. An alarming amount of current art, the Spice Girls being only the most obvious example, seems to exist solely to be coöpted. Perhaps this was always true, but that makes it no less odious.
There are only a few artistic qualities that resist appropriation. Explicit offensiveness is the traditional favorite, but the set of things too offensive to broadcast is rapidly losing members. MTV's 120 Minutes only aired the video for The Prodigy's "Smack My Bitch Up" at 1:00am, after a sober Kurt Loder viewer advisory, and blurred out its egregious genital shots, but they left in enough breasts, domestic violence, drug use and vomiting to merit an R rating if the clip was shown in theaters. Short of explicit child pornography and, apparently, crucifixes in jars of urine, there's not a lot left that's offensive enough to buy you reliable immunity. Which is fine if you'd planned to incorporate child pornography or urine anyway, but not much use to the rest of us.
A second way, artistically more useful, to stave off the ghouls, is to be strange enough that your audience stays too small for anybody to care about trying to sell anything to it. This, whether for this reason or something else, is Mecca Normal's approach. They are, these days, a three-piece, but Jean Smith's measured, moaning vocals sound more like a banshee muttering to itself between performances than like a person singing, David Lester's guitar playing sounds, at times, more like the guitar is caught in something than like he's playing it, and newcomer Charlie Quintana's drumming, even at its most conventional, sounds like he's playing along with some rhythm that we aren't hearing, perhaps one that David and Jean aren't sure they're hearing, either. Half these songs also feature Jean playing what the credits describe as electric slide guitar, but which sounds more like the plaintive wails of a wounded animal. This is either the eighth or ninth Mecca Normal album, depending on whether you count Water Cuts My Hands/Calico Kills the Cat as one CD or two LPs, and though last year's The Eagle & the Poodle made a few noticeable concessions to rock form, Who Shot Elvis? retreats into the band's characteristic bristly obtuseness. "Medieval Man" combines a monotonous single-note guitar drone with a menacing Smith monologue about guns, suicide and small-town claustrophobia. The cryptic "Who Shot Elvis?" sounds like the Big Bad Wolf attempting to extend the grandmother masquerade into a bedtime lullaby. Lester's low, glassy guitar sighs on "The Orbit" make Eno's Music for Airports sound like Erasure, and the torn-paper distortion on Smith's vocals will make you think your speakers are damaged, until you realize that it persists no matter how far down you turn the volume. The chorus of the musically elegant "Step Into My Sphere", "Don't send your sphinx to town" sounds like a pragmatic admonition from another universe. The distended, repetitive "The Way of Love" sounds like a Grateful Dead jam on a day when the drugs just weren't working. "All About the Same Thing" sounds like the result of somebody unwisely betting David that he can't get through the next song without tuning his guitar first, and the dissonant surf-metal-rave instrumental "OK Here We Go" sounds like he's emphasizing the point by playing two before stopping. The echoey, abstract "Don't Heal Me Like a Dog Just to Break Me Like a Horse", in fact, has the missing tuning sounds, but they stubbornly refuse to resolve, and I begin to suspect that this is what they meant their guitars to sound like.
Now, as it happens, I enjoy Mecca Normal's relentless, abrasive caterwaul. I hesitate to recommend it to anybody, as most people only have a few inexplicable weaknesses for specific willful musical uglinesses, and the odds of this being one of yours is low. Mecca Normal distinguish themselves, though, in my mind, in two ways, each demonstrated succinctly by one song here. First, Jean Smith may be the best poet and storyteller in rock. Sometimes this means small things, like a deftly misplaced preposition that turns a cliché into a new thought, or a statement that turns into a question when it hits an unexpected uncertainty, or a razor-sharp metaphor that pares all the flesh off of some comforting fiction. When she lets herself transcend the form, though, her songs can turn into astonishingly compact short-stories. The best of these, here, I think, is the album's conclusion, "In Canada", a brutal portrait of romantic failure, the borders of small worlds, and the perplexing contrast between history's grandeur and life's exhausted squalor. There are many writers who can do romantic failure justice, and even draw the cause-and-effect connections from romantic failure to general failure in life, and vice versa, but I don't know of anybody else who could weave in the world's longest covered bridge and the courage of unarmed insurrection so seamlessly that personal betrayal and casual inconsideration amount to an indictment of the idea of nations.
The other great skill I think Mecca Normal has, however concealed they usually keep it, is they can be as electrifying as any band in rock. Seeing them in concert is probably a prerequisite to understanding how I could think this, as the stage brings out their capacity for incendiary fervor in a way that the studio rarely seems to. I suspect the effect is also complexly reliant on context; much of the intensity of the catharsis, when Lester finally tears into a recognizable chord-change, is a function of the albums full of evasiveness and discord that precede it, and the few accessible Mecca Normal songs, taken in isolation, couldn't possibly make you feel the way I do when I arrive at them in the course of their history. With eight (or nine) Mecca Normal albums to set it up, though, "Excalibur", the one unapologetic rock song on Who Shot Elvis?, strikes me as this year's most elemental exposition of rock's essential power. Lester plays just two chords for most of it, Quintana drums a simple, time-honored hi-hat/kick/snare groove, and Jean wavers, unsteadily, from talking to howling. There's no harmony, barely any melody, no bass, none of a dozen things I might think, listening to one of rock's other masterpieces, constitute genius in the form. Mecca Normal haven't Everclear's pogo-inducing volatility, or Veruca Salt's glorious bombast. But, I discover, as I begin to pulse to this song in a seizure-like dance that I'd probably rather not be seen doing, none of those omissions matter. Rock and roll, it suddenly seems clear to me, however many ingredients it admits, requires only three things: drums, crashing; an overdriven electric guitar, slashing against the drumbeats; and a voice that doesn't care what you think of it, saying something frightening from which it has learned to draw power.
Low: Songs for a Dead Pilot
Another way to avoid commercialization, if you're cataloging them, is to play really slowly. Advertising relies on urgency; if you're calm and content, there's a very real danger that you'll fall asleep, instead of dutifully driving to the mall, like you're supposed to. 2:30 is a sprint in pop terms, but an epic on the scale of TV commercials. In the accelerated time-frames of advertising, then, a band who move as slowly as Low are effectively invisible. Low songs are lucky to make it through an entire measure in thirty seconds, much less a tag-line-elevating chorus. They play soundtracks for glaciers melting, or friendships evolving, or hope draining out of lives, or slowly consuming the oxygen in a sealed room. Their songs are meditations, and interludes, and surrenders, and these are all anathema to economic frenzy. Songs for a Dead Pilot, then, a six-track, thirty-five minute EP recorded at home by the band, I take as a breathtakingly well-chosen Christmas present to a world that needs, more than anything shiny it will think to ask for, or get elsewhere, a moment of perspective. "Will the Night" is the song the winds would play, if you gave them guitars. "Down by the Wires" is a lament scored for clock towers, or statuary. "Be There" is the sound of an empty house's appliances, singing softly to each other, to ward off the dark silence. "Landlord" is an apologetic exit march for trees, grown finally too sad to share our contaminated lands. The two songs that approach human dimensions, the withering, ethereal "Condescend" (with an elegiac string trio, and a baby's crying left in as if her opinion is no less valid than anybody else's) and the fragmentary, judgmental "Hey Chicago", are barely quicker, but perhaps, they seem to me to suggest, we can find the words to say to buildings, and oceans, and the sky, after all, that will keep them from abandoning us as a lost cause. We need thirty-five days of this, I fear, a Buy Nothing Season, to really convince the planet that we are more than a buzzing distraction, but perhaps a day is what a minute can become, if you have the patience to nurture it properly.
Stina Nordenstam: Dynamite
The processes of slowing down, and stripping away, are depicted especially vividly over the course of the trilogy that, as best I've been able to determine, forms Swedish singer Stina Nordenstam's career so far. Memories of a Color, her first album, from 1991, is cool, delicate jazz-pop, with hints of the Blue Nile, Eddi Reader, Julia Fordham and country-mates the Cardigans. Stina's vulnerable, elfin voice sounds a bit like a detailed miniature of Edie Brickell or Abra Moore to me, their corner-turning wails becoming, at this reduction, more like squeaks. The lush instrumentation, dense with keyboards, horns and strings, attempts to situate Stina as a quiet post-Classical diva, but her tendency toward oblique Lida Husik-ish auto-harmonies, Tori-like hesitations, and intimate, unprocessed vocal treatments tend to undermine any Celine Dion-ness that the music manages. I'm sure my impressions of this album are clouded, irrevocably, by hearing the other two first, but most of it seems tentative, to me, not quite sure what it wants to be, but suspicious that this isn't it. Only at the beginning of the album (the title track, on which the instrumental Blue Nile resemblance is the strongest) and the end of it (the diptych of the Christmas-y piano/horns serenade "Soon After Christmas" and the hushed, sacred-sounding, and nearly a cappella multi-voice carillon "A Walk in the Park") does it settle into what seem to me like native idioms.
By the second album (the only one I've seen available domestically), 1993's And She Closed Her Eyes, the half-hearted quest to be the next Marie Fredriksson seems to have been completely abandoned. There are still scatterings of strings and horns, but the bulk of the music is provided by Stina herself and producer Erik Holmberg, and they seem to draw the acoustic spaces in around them, seeking security in smaller rooms. As the walls get closer, Stina also creeps closer to the microphone, and the nuances of her careful, breathy voice begin to dominate the arrangements, the instruments retreating to make way. These songs, at their most haunted, come close to Lisa Germano's at their least harrowing, though my overall impression remains more one of crystalline delicacy than soul-consuming terror. This is a coherent style, in itself, and in the absence of Dynamite you could easily conclude that And She Closed Her Eyes is the quick maturity to go with Memories of a Color's infancy, a sign that Stina has learned, in just two albums, as much about her own strengths and idiosyncrasies as many writers learn in six.
But nothing seems transitional except in retrospect, and Dynamite extrapolates far enough along the line that runs from Memories of a Color through And She Closed Her Eyes that I'm tempted to file the other two albums away as no more than rough drafts of this one. Stina herself takes over production and all guitar noises, and most of the songs here are constructed of, or around, her frighteningly small voice, her thin, ragged guitar, and sketchy, muffled percussion loops. The bulk of the songs were recorded in apartments and churches, and, perhaps for this reason, Stina's vocal delivery is reduced to a tiny whisper that, were it not for modern amplification, I doubt you'd be able to hear across the room, much less through an apartment wall. She has passed Lisa Germano, on the axis of near-silent intimacy, somewhere between records. This album sounds, musically, like the one Lisa might have made after Geek the Girl, if she'd kept pushing towards greater harrowing intensity. The emotional content of Geek the Girl, however, already teetered on the brink of being insupportably bleak, and I doubt Lisa could have bled any more energy out of her music without imploding for lyrical reasons; Stina's stories are a little less debilitating, lyrically, and so leave her a little more room for musical reduction. Even the songs on which the chamber players weigh in -- pizzicato flourishes on "Dynamite", string swells on "Almost a Smile", a mournful oboe at the end of "The Man With the Gun" (which would remind me, I wish to think, of Tori's "Me and a Gun" even without the textual congruence), icy violin trills on "Until", sawing elisions on "COD", high, underwater hisses on "Down Desire Avenue" -- are so inextricably suffused with Stina's presence that the other instruments seem to me like no more than the impassive interjections of a frozen Stockholm, glittering through her apartment window as she records. I suspect that a production error is really responsible for this album's odd anti-bonus track, a song whose lyrics appear in the booklet, but which is missing from the disc, but if there was ever an album introverted enough to contain a song that only the singer herself can hear (a Zen koan in this least Zen of seasons), this is it. Here is a third route to survival, then: hiding in the folds of silences. Commercials must shout to get your attention, to penetrate the numb complacency that they themselves are largely responsible for. There are true loud noises, of course, as well as false ones, but a lie must be carried by breath; the truth, on the other hand, hums inside heads, ceaselessly, and it's just possible, if you can shut out everything else, including the songs in your own head, to discern the vibrations of the ones in someone else's.