Sell Your Soul, Not Your Stereo
151 · 18 December 97
Sleeper: Pleased to Meet You
Sadness, it often seems to me, has fallen into a regrettable neglect. Despair is still popular, as are vengeful anger, weariness and hopelessness, and drunken melancholy's appeal appears to be timeless (due more, I think, to the "drunken" part than the other half), but the elegant emotion I mean by Sadness, something like Katherine Hepburn playing Eeyore, requires degrees of empathy and comprehension that the others do not. The other forms of fury and depression are all, to varying extents, reflexes; sadness lies beyond them, and to reach it you have to understand the inevitability of all the other emotions, and thus their incompleteness. It's hard to find much sadness in our culture, even when every related emotion seems to be on display. When a plane crashes, the news anchor is somber, the families of the victims are hysterical, the airline officials are contrite, the critics are stern and the comedians are grim. All these are valid, but they lack perspective. Statistically, planes, the way we currently fly them, are occasionally going to crash. The technology is complicated, the human dependencies are intricate and intractable, the environmental variables are unpredictable. If we really wanted people never to die in plane crashes we'd need to institute more inspection redundancies, space take-offs and landings out better to cut down on the air-traffic-control risk, build more safeguards and recovery mechanisms into the planes themselves, tighten airport security, refuse to fly in bad weather, and implement a dozen other measures I haven't thought of that would, I'm pretty sure, raise the cost of airplane travel to the point where it would be an unattainable luxury for most people (and still, as the Challenger proved, wouldn't prevent disasters). Frankly, though, I'm not sure that making plane travel prohibitively expensive would be so bad. In Orson Scott Card's Homecoming series, in fact, the main peace-keeping social manipulation performed by the planet of Harmony's governing computer, the Oversoul, is to steer humanity away from any technology for long-distance transportation. When you get rid of planes (and trains, and automobiles, and missiles), you fundamentally alter the character of a society. Strangers, which in our culture constitute the overwhelming majority of the people you encounter, become anomalous. Community cohesion moves from being a commodity lobbied for in colloquia and acceptance speeches to being an unavoidable facet of the existence of communities. Your friends and your children don't all move to different cities, a large amount of low-level crime becomes basically unfeasible, and if you want to have Malaysian twelve-year-olds sew Air Jordans together, you're going to have to pay them a lot more, because they're going to be the only people you can afford to sell them to. The sadness of plane crashes, to me, lies in the fact that we have, as a culture, opted for Fed Ex and flying VPs to Chicago for two-hour sales meetings, at the expense of the sort of living environment that complements our humanity, rather than warring, irritably, against it. It's sad that large pieces of our culture effectively require, Omelas-like, that some people die in plane crashes. It's sad that the intertwinings of contingency that produce this equation seem to elude our conscious control. It's sad that we are so obsessed by money that a cut-rate airline seems like a good idea. It's sad that we've become so numb to the much larger number of people who die, for similar culturally-unhealthy reasons, in car crashes, that plane crashes seem like a bigger problem. I'm not even saying, necessarily, that this state, or the decisions that lead to it, are necessarily wrong; the saddest things, sometimes, are the inescapable consequences of right actions. It took airplanes, after all, to bring me this copy of Sleeper's third album, Pleased to Meet You. It's due out, in the US, in February, but it came out in the UK earlier this fall, and I couldn't bear the thought of waiting four extra months for it. The previous two Sleeper albums had similar trans-Atlantic lags, in fact, and I put off buying the second one until the US release, feeling virtuous, only to discover that the UK version contained an additional track, so I had to go back and buy it after all. So this is the shape of my complicity in the sad chain of micro-motives that leads to plane crashes.
Sleeper is, appropriately, my current choice for the world's saddest rock band -- the one, I mean, that understands and evokes true sadness the most compellingly. In a world short of it, this is a noble vocation. Del Amitri used to be sadder, I think, but they've been slowly cheering up, shedding pieces of their sadness while Sleeper matured into theirs, and Pleased to Meet You, for me, finds the curves having crossed. Del Amitri are at their best, I think, when their music throws itself most wholeheartedly into harmony-drenched catharsis, relying on the lyrics to qualify the rapture. The structure of "Stone Cold Sober", still my favorite of their songs, for example, could easily have accommodated a generic exhortation like "march for freedom" or "no surrender"; Currie's genius was in yoking the pulsing verses and soaring chorus to a complex and sympathetic social self-assessment. In Sleeper's case, the center from which all things seem, to me, to emanate, is the combination of Louise Wener's aching voice and the telling, unflinching details of her lyrics. So the climactic refrain of "Please Please Please", after several verses of basically generic yearning, is "You know it's hard for your mother and me", a parents' lifetime of disappointment and determination suddenly registering in their child's eyes, tangled in apology, candor, warning and promise. "She's a Good Girl" compresses the burdens of expectation and the way other people's regard can alienate you from yourself into the flashed image "Make-up on green skin", summarizing the way the good girl's life feels from inside. "Rollercoaster" replaces the romantic ideal of vanishing into the sunset with the more cogent promise of a half-thrilling, half-nauseating ride that goes nowhere in particular. "Miss You" admits that relationships can end not because of some internal flaw, but just because one of the participants came to need an end, and then, as "I will certainly miss you" fades to "I will miss you", to "I will probably miss you", strips the breakup of exactly the illusory eternal significance it was done for. "Romeo Me", the emotional flip-side, is a relationship starting for similarly self-contained reasons, and the way Louise sighs through the chorus' role-call of tragic romantic archetypes seems infused, to me, with the awareness that we all share the poignancy of their fates, as much as the star-cross'dness. "I'll drink like you, think like you, when everyone else is wrong", she promises in "You Got Me", as if interpersonal relationships are zero-sum, and the only way to be in love is to hate everybody else. "Superclean" searches for a grand vow to express desperate need, and can only come up with "I won't make you change your hair style", as if love lies in declining to exercise trivial powers over each other. "I never was a fan of the winter", goes "Because of You"'s parting line, as if seasons are as inevitable in relationships as they are on off-axis planets, and fighting them is as pointless. "Motorway Man" and "Traffic Accident" even conspire to make my digression into the cultural implications of transportation seem tenuously relevant; the motorway man is driving sixteen miles an hour, mocking everybody else's frantic haste, and "Traffic Accident"'s admonition not to call unless you're in one seems, at least if this is what you're expecting already, like empathy grown too weak to register anything but gruesome shock.
Sleeper's songs work best, musically, in my opinion, when they wrap these moments of tragic awareness in accompaniments that capture the way sadness can, briefly, tear you loose from the world that produced it. Sadness can be a positive force, where anger and despair usually cannot, because it reconciles the tension between you and the ongoing catastrophe in which we are usually immersed, and my favorite of these songs swell, however tentatively, with that power. Minor-key guitars creak warmly, like a comfortable wooden house shifting in the wind, keyboards purr with a worn intimacy, the rhythm tracks carry songs along unhurriedly, not a beat quicker than necessary. You'll never mistake Louise's clipped singing voice for Jane Siberry's, but it's improved noticeably since Smart, and once or twice here she even manages a plausible trill that reminds me, passingly, of Tanya Donelly. "Romeo Me", with its clattering percussion, ringing arpeggio leads and churning rhythm-guitar buzz, is the album's biggest rock flourish, but the measured piano and shimmering horns of "She's a Good Girl" (sounding much less self-conscious in the context of the rest of the album than they sounded on the advance single) are uplifting, the dense chorus of "Rollercoaster" is plaintive and composed, and "Breathe" clicks from drumless, muted-guitar verses to charging choruses and sailing falsetto bridges in a distant echo of Nirvana's soft-loud-soft explosions. The processed drums on "Superclean" sound, for about two measures, like the opening of Blur's "Song 2", and the choppy guitar stabs sound like some of the moments when Blur wasn't feeling heavy metal. "Motorway Man"'s analog synthesizer warbles and slow flanging are distinctly Numan-esque, and "Traffic Accident" marries more retro synth hooks to slashing guitars, hissing hi-hats, rhythmic hiccups and Louise singing like she's saying goodbye to a lost life even as it dawns on her that it's something she will miss. If sadness depresses you, and that's certainly a reasonable reaction, then this album may well seem too pale, to you, like Sleeper are starting to lose the edge they had back when it seemed impossible to mention Elastica or Sleeper without the other. But for me, the sadness is affirmation, and depth, and this quality is why I preferred Smart to Elastica, and why, with each album, Sleeper sounds to me more and more like a band with a lifetime of music in them.
Echobelly's third album, Lustra, is an even guiltier product of my reliance on airplanes; it came out in the UK the Monday I left London (what Sony's domestic plans are for it, I have no idea), and my flight was too early for me to make it to a real record store on the way out, so I spent the half hour before boarding trudging from one Heathrow duty-free HMV cubbyhole to another, carrying a crushing weight of CDs in my carry-on bag already, feeling like a pathetic music geek for thinking, even for a second, either that a tiny airport CD booth would bother to get new releases the day they came out, or that a tiny airport CD booth would carry an Echobelly album of any age, when their valuable shelf space could be devoted to more copies of Spiceworld, which even the music-ignorant tourists who buy CDs in airports might actually have heard of. But my smug disdain turned out, for once, to be unwarranted: in the booth at the far end of the terminal, in a corner behind the display racks of Wallace and Gromit videos, I found a few shelves packed, almost lovingly, with real music, including Lustra. With a bark of triumph, I bought it.
Echobelly were actually up to their second album, On, by the time Elastica and Sleeper were releasing their debuts, and might well have been into their fourth by now if they hadn't encountered label problems, but they seem, nevertheless, to always be the band left out when someone mentions only two of the three. When I do this, myself, it's either because I'm remembering the ambitious edginess of Elastica's music, and thinking that Echobelly's has much more conventional rock goals, or because I'm thinking about the observational acuity of Louise's lyrics, and remembering that Echobelly's tend to sound like a rhyming dictionary has been too intimately involved. Of the three bands, Echobelly seem clearly the most superficial, to me, and thus are the easiest to dismiss as unimportant, if for some reason this is necessary. The advantage of superficiality, though, and it's my assumption that this is, at least on some level, intentional, is that Echobelly's surfaces benefit from the attention, and I'm pretty sure that they're the most accessible and immediately engaging of the three bands. If you prefer glorious blasts of giddy, roaring pop to Wire homages and existential sadness, I suppose there's no reason to think you wouldn't continue to prefer Echobelly, as well. And, of course, affection isn't a constrained resource, and you don't have to evaluate every band with the same criteria, so you're allowed, at least in my system, to enjoy all three.
On its own terms, then, Lustra seems no less accomplished a third album than Pleased to Meet You. No individual track here can displace "Insomniac", in my mind, as the band's finest single moment, but the overall level of excitement they produce is increasing auspiciously enough that I wouldn't be surprised if their fourth or fifth album ends up inducing "Insomniac"'s level of delirium throughout. Echobelly's stocks in trade are Glenn Johansson's crashing waves of frenetic guitar and Sonya Aurora Madan singular voice, which at times rolls words around like she's only learned to simulate human languages phonetically, after being raised by trees. The band sounds a little like the Divinyls might if you could peel everything sultry or morbid off of them, like Catherine Wheel might if they spent more time listening to arias, even a little like Oasis might, if earnest, noisy impatience derailed their songs before the Beatles reverence and ponderous vainglory could swallow them. Echobelly are sonic heirs, plainly, to My Bloody Valentine and Curve's legacy of dense, textural, gale-force guitar, but they treat it as a conveyance for shinily vicious melodic hooks, not an end in itself. The occasional incursion of other musical inclinations, like the murmuring strings on "Bulldog Baby", the staccato, clockwork verse cycles of "Here Comes the Big Rush", the fuzzed acoustic guitar on "O" and the mock-country slide on the mournful "Bleed", are fleeting distractions from Echobelly's standard approach to song arrangement, which is to pick an elusive, mid-tempo beat for the verses, a faster, steadier one for the choruses, and enough towering, arena-quality power-chords that no moment of the song need be without one, and then string an airy, enthralled Madan melody line over it all. I suspect that this music could make Leonard Cohen sound like a pop singer, and Madan could make three minutes of vacuuming sound like a pop song; together, the two elements produce a sugar rush worthy of Calvin's breakfast cereal.
The Wannadies: The Wannadies (US)
Put Echobelly together with Sweden's the Wannadies, whose name made no sense to me for months until I realized that it's a pluralized contraction of Want to Die, not a meaningless rhyme for "quantities", and you have the makings of a small but voluble underground revival of noisy and unapologetic pop glee. (Though why you'd need a small underground revival of noisy and unapologetic pop glee, when there's a large mainstream revival of it rapidly acquiring momentum, I don't know.) The Wannadies' defining pop inspiration, to me, is that they have somehow contrived to trace their roots, simultaneously, from both the Pixies and Roxette, without any hint of awareness that this isn't the most logical synthesis in the world. Of course impish pop songs should be played with fitful, thrashing guitars; of course you sound happy when you're playing loud and fast. Country-mates the Cardigans have similar pop instincts, but the Wannadies' rendition replaces every instance of coy jazz-pop reserve with manic fuzzbox abandon. A couple songs remind me, with a geographical obliqueness, of the Connells, but without their bluegrass reticence, and others of Weezer, but without their clean-cut Buddy-Holly nerdiness. Lead singer Par Wiksten's chirpy voice might sound sneering and threatening compared to Per Gessle's, but by English standards of withering scorn he sounds charming and childlike, which, along with the glossy chart-smash production sheen, makes these songs sound far too endearing to qualify as punk, even according to the post-Green Day redefinition of the term. "Chances are we might be stars and live forever", they sing, excitedly, and I get the feeling that the images cart-wheeling through their minds in this dream are Leif Garrett and the Bay City Rollers, not John Lennon and Jesus Christ.
This self-titled album, their first US release, takes a little explaining. At home in Sweden they have put out four records, The Wannadies, Aquanautic, Be a Girl and Bagsy Me. I haven't heard the first pair, but the other two have been available as imports for some time. As happened with the Cardigans, though, somebody apparently decided that Americans' attention spans wouldn't support two albums sprung on them at once (or perhaps Indolent, their label, also home to Sleeper, is simply incapable of leaving these things alone), so the US album takes the packaging of Bagsy Me, drops two of that album's lesser tracks ("Bumble Bee Boy" and "Combat Honey"), and substitutes the three singles from Be a Girl, "Might Be Stars", "You and Me Song" (which also appeared on the Romeo and Juliet soundtrack) and "How Does It Feel". And although I object to this sort of album-scrambling on principle, and probably would have gone back and bought the Swedish albums myself, if I hadn't already had them, my advice to all but the most obsessive is that the US version represents the period pretty effectively. There are several good songs among the ten you'll miss, but they are songs of the same type as the ones you'll have, and the thrill you'd get from listening to the two original albums, at a cost of $50-60, is probably indistinguishable from the thrill you'd get from buying the US version on sale for $11.88, and listening to it twice.
Letters to Cleo: Go!
Which has the other advantage of leaving you with enough money to buy several other albums of joyous, candy-coated pop from elsewhere in the world. Boston's current entrant, Letters to Cleo, got a commercial jump-start from having their semi-novelty hit, "Here & Now", with one of those choruses sung so fast that nobody can figure out what the lyrics are (though they seem to invariably turn out to be inane), played over the credits to Melrose Place. Unfortunately, I think, they tried to capitalize on this exposure by reissuing their erratic Cherrydisc debut album, Aurora Gory Alice, on their new major label, and touring behind it, rather than immediately making a new one. The second one, when they got around to it, Wholesale Meats and Fish, was much more consistent, both internally and with the stylistic implications of the hit. It is also as unmistakably 1995 as anything 1995 had to offer, a perfect snapshot of alternative rock sinking the last few inches into the mainstream. Two years later, fittingly, Go!, the band's third album, sounds just as archetypically 1997 to me. Letters to Cleo join the long list of bands to defect, this year, from any notion of alternativity, in favor of pure, unadulterated pop. If what you liked about Letters to Cleo, then, were the moods in which they sounded a little like Throwing Muses, Go! will almost certainly be a disappointment. But I am, I'll admit, caught up in this eager resurgence of melody. There was so little left of "alternative", by the time Veruca Salt's American Thighs came to embody it, that putting it out of its misery seemed like the only humane option. If you want confrontational strangeness, there are bands that do a much more thorough job of it, so why not let the bands that can make sunny pop records make them uncloudedly? Go! is, for me, the record I wanted that dog's Retreat From the Sun to be. "Never Say Never", Retreat From the Sun's dizzy single, instantly seduced me, but it also set my expectations, which mean that when the rest of the album failed to produce the same reaction, I felt obscurely betrayed. Letters to Cleo don't have a violin player, which is too bad, but they make up for it with raw guitar power, fluttering leads, beepy synthesizers and vintage New Wave exuberance. "I Got Time" reminds me of an accelerated version of Greg Kihn's "The Breakup Song", the galloping 3/4 "Because of You" is like Weezer playing Bush (or vice versa), "Find You Dead" is a thinly-disguised power-ballad. "Veda Very Shining" reminds me of Frosted, "Co-Pilot" of Nick Lowe's "Cruel to Be Kind", the slithering organ in "Sparklegirl" of Elvis Costello, "I'm a Fool" in parts of Julian Cope's "World Shut Your Mouth", Juliana Hatfield and Everclear, and "Disappear" of Jen Trynin. And "Anchor", the lead single, with ex-Cars keyboardist Greg Hawkes providing his trademark whooshes and swirls, provokes the exact same set of responses, in me, that "Never Say Never" does, namely an idiot grin and the propensity to fall over from windmilling one arm around too wildly. It's a long way from Sleeper's inspiring compassion to Letters to Cleo's puppy-dog wriggle, but happy and sad are a powerful opposition, and there's not much you can't crush in between them, if you can only line them up correctly.