Repeated Blows to My Feathered Little Head
154 · 8 January 98
The Upper Crust: The Decline & Fall of the Upper Crust
I hate joke rock. It's not a reasoned hatred, it's a visceral, reflexive one: music that trades primarily on gimmicks or sophomoric cleverness almost invariably enrages or nauseates me. I don't have this problem with movies, or books, so I've never been entirely sure why it occurs with music. The explanation has some McLuhanesque character, I suspect. Books and movies are mainly narrative forms, so they get processed on the way in, and I can recalibrate my standards according to the context, while music, which is largely abstract, affects me directly, and so by the time I spot incoming insincerity its clammy touch is already upon me. I can laugh hysterically, this theory suggests, at Dave Barry columns and Rowan Atkinson slapstick, because the attitude of (mildly) analytical reserve required to understand them in the first place serves, in itself, to orient me with only the appropriate vulnerabilities forward. Listening to music involves an emotional pivot, to proffer the possibilities of catharsis and rapture, and it's the incompatible valences of speechless joy and glib mockery that cause my reaction.
The exceptions, as is often the case, are much easier to understand than the rule. I bought this second Upper Crust album, like I bought their first one, because I know drummer Jim Janota from the Bags, and guitarist Ted Widmer from college. I will buy pretty much any book or record that somebody I know was involved in (though in the case of books, this leads to some odd acquisitions; it remains to be seen what will happen when I actually get around to trying to read Intimate Commerce: Exchange, Gender & Subjectivity in Greek Tragedy). I'll buy things, even, that I'm pretty sure I'm going to dislike, because I'd rather know than wonder. I didn't like the first Upper Crust album, Let Them Eat Rock, very much, and I didn't expect to like this one any better.
Indeed, the single joke on which the band is based is wearing very thin. It's not much more complex than their name: they are a hard-rock band pretending, about one-third-heartedly, to be Victorian aristocrats. They dress up in vaguely period costumes, and sing songs that have some tenuous relation to class stratification or royal history. Their lyrics, however, which on record, where their costumes are relegated to booklet photographs, bear the burden of responsibility for the premise, substitute incongruous word choices for any kind of actual sophistication, so instead of repartee or genuine satire we get songs that are basically one buzzword away (usually the one in the title: "Beauty Spot", "Boudoir", "Rabble Rouser", "Versailles", "Persona Non Grata", "Ne'er-Do-Well", "Highfalutin'") from banal rock drivel. The closest thing to cultural parody on this album is the slight undertone of incest in "Tell Mother I'm Home", and the closest thing to a courtier's wit is the inevitable conflation of linguistics and fellatio, "Vulgar Tongue", which only serves to remind me that Deep Purple essentially did the Upper Crust's whole joke, rather more adroitly, in a single verse of "Knocking at Your Back Door". The rhymes are the thudding, obvious sort that require a couple measures of wind-up to deliver, and by the end of the record they've run so low on anachronisms that they're left with a song called "Gold-Plated Radio", whose only concession to antiquity is spelling "rock" "rocque".
My usual practice with records like this is to listen to them once, twice if there's any lingering doubt about the diagnosis, and then shelve them and get on with my life. This one, though, refused to go quietly. As much as I hated the lyrics, there was something about the music that I couldn't quite shake. On their first album the Upper Crust might as well have been an AC/DC tribute band, but this one is slightly different. They still sound like a tribute band, to me, like they're playing chords they love, but claim no credit for, but this time it's as if they were raised by burn-out fugitives whose music collection consisted of a bunch of unlabeled bootleg cassettes, so that the band grew up under the misapprehension that a whole bunch of AC/DC albums and one or two by the Raspberries were the work of a single band. "Cream of the Crust" is undisguised "Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap" stomp, but "Beauty Spot" sounds like a vaguely psychedelic "Pictures of Matchstick Men", "Boudoir" has some cherubic falsetto vocals and dizzy Leslie-speaker guitar, and if it had a little less distortion "Rabble Rouser", even without the Beatles allusion, would be pure power-pop. The glossy guitar tones in "Tell Mother I'm Home" make it sound like a Frankensteinian attempt to construct bar boogie out of Tom Scholz samples, and "Versailles" would need to be only a little more reticent to sound like Shoes. "Vulgar Tongue" is plodding and oafish, and "Persona Non Grata" sounds like musical comedy set to a Thin Lizzy accompaniment, but the thick, artless "Ne'er-Do-Well" sounds a little like a cross between the Ramones and BTO to me, "Gold-Plated Radio" could easily be a late Buzzcocks b-side, and "Highfalutin'" has enough defiant glam strut to feel at home silhouetted against a four-story flash-pot KISS logo detonating across the back of the stage. The things I liked about the first Upper Crust album actually made me sadder than the things I didn't like, because they forced me to think about how much better a record the band might have made if they'd ditched the inane gimmick and taken themselves just a little more seriously. This time, though, I think they've managed to make exactly the better record I wanted, despite the infuriating smirks. I could circle back again and wonder how much better, yet, a third album would be, if they'd junk the wigs and write about unrequited high-school crushes, like a normal rock band, but being able to find the inadequacy at the heart of every small thing you enjoy is a singularly pointless talent.
The Bobs: I Brow Club
The one gimmick band I have nearly infinite tolerance for (except when they do Christmas songs, but I have no tolerance for anybody other than Loreena McKennitt doing Christmas songs) is the Bobs, who are still, fourteen years and nine albums on, the world's greatest a cappella pop group. Calling them a gimmick band, actually, while technically correct, misses the point, and this is probably why I like them so much. They make instrument sounds with their mouths, which has an undeniable component of absurdity to it, but the key to their demeanor is that they are completely unselfconscious about it. They sing vocal drum tracks as if they're drum tracks, do vocal guitar solos like they're guitar solos, and so on, almost as if they didn't know that other pop groups don't generally produce those noises with their mouths. They are a cappella, it seems to me, as a means, not an end, and so where the Upper Crust, after two albums, appear to me to have reached the end of their premise's potential, I fully expect the Bobs to keep making an album a year until the sun goes nova.
Which is not to say that the Bobs haven't settled into a formula. Anybody familiar with their previous albums will find nothing remotely surprising on this one. They've experienced the second personnel change in their history, with Lori Rivera replacing Janie Scott in the important role of the one female Bob, but Lori and Janie's styles are close enough that there are only a couple places where it might have occurred to me to suspect a switch, had I not known about it in advance. There are no covers, this time around, and the past experiments with heavy vocal processing (on Plugged) and real drums (on Shut Up and Sing!) are not repeated, so I Brow Club is the most straightforward Bobs album since 1988's Songs for Tomorrow Morning. The lyrics reuse a number of proven Bobs formulas: "Hey, Coach, Don't Call Me a Queer" and "Leisure Suit" are in the geeky culture-clash tradition of "(First I Was a Hippie, Then I Was a Stockbroker) Now I Am a Hippie Again", "Lady Cop/Take Me In", and "Bus Tour to the Outlet Malls"; the style pastiche "Swingers" is a descendant, in a way, of "Prisoner of Funk", "Bulky Rhythm" and "Naming the Band"; "Late Model Love" is another in the long series of extended relationship metaphors that includes "Be My Yoko", "My Shoes", "Share a Load" (from "The Laundry Cycle"), "Drive By Love" and "Café"; "Bongwater Day" comes from a line of hopeless-crush songs like "Valentino's", "Boy Around the Corner" and "Spray"; the disgruntled-postal-worker ode "Is It Something That I Said?" and the Heaven's Gate elegy "The Gate" share their tabloid tableaux with "Bus Plunge", "Mopping, Mopping, Mopping", "Killer Bees", "Spontaneous Human Combustion", "Kill Your Television" and "Andy Always Dreamed of Wrestling"; the gleefully tasteless "The Vapor Carioca" (musical farts) and "There's a Nose Ring in My Soup" (self-explanatory) follow in the unflattering footsteps of "Trash", "Something in My Ear" and "When We Start to Sing".
Musically, the songs flit from one style to another with the Bobs' customary blissful equanimity. The sparkling "Hey, Coach, Don't Call Me a Queer" has a drum-and-bass-style percussion loop and muted guitar-solo wails. "Why Not Try Right Now" sounds like the Muppets doing jazz, "Swingers" is pastel polyester lounge-groove, "Late Model Love" is slinky and old-fashioned, and "The Crow" combines Barry White basso rumbling, hip-hop cadences and New Wave flash. "Change of Heart"'s three-part harmonies are dense and textural, but "Bongwater Day"'s are spare and circling. "Is It Something That I Said?" alternates Lori's plaintive questions with Richard's deadpan narration of the rampage. "The Vapor Carioca" is a jittery bossa nova, "There's a Nose Ring in My Soup" is elegant and atmospheric, "Bumps in the Baseline" boppy and light, "Leisure Suit" slow and solemn. The one non-vocal intrusion is a spare, mournful piano on the grandly morose finale, "The Gate".
My two favorite songs, though, are the album's most and least serious. "Like a Parrot", the least, is a four-line bird's autobiography that has the great sense to simply stop after it's done with the words, as if there's nothing strange about a song that's only thirty-two seconds long. (It and the Leslie Spit Treeo's similarly succinct "The Single" will probably occupy the gaps at the end of every mix tape I'll make from now on.) The thing that changes my experience of this whole album, though, is "The Waiting Song", reprised here from the soundtrack to the movie For Better or Worse. The one silly one-liner about Godot aside, this is actually an uncharacteristically earnest love song, and the music, like Prince doing "On Broadway", is as pristine a pop composition as the Bobs have ever written. A Bobs album composed of nothing but songs like this would be bizarre and, probably, ill-advised, but one or two per record will keep me buying them long after I might otherwise have considered my appetite for their style sated.
Four Bitchin' Babes: Gabby Road
Original star attractions Patty Larkin and Christine Lavin are gone, and the word "bitchin'" is even more firmly out of vogue now than it was in 1991, but my affection for this tag-team folk series has an odd resilience to it. The four, for this fourth volume, are original members Megon McDonough and Sally Fingerett, volume three inductee Debi Smith (who replaced volume two's Julie Gold, who herself replaced Larkin), and newcomer Camille West, who gets the decidedly unenviable task of filling the hole left by Christine Lavin, the soul of this, and, frankly, most modern folk projects. The original Four Bitchin' Babes structure, as demonstrated on volume one, is a four-person live show in which the performers are all on stage at once, singing and playing on each other's songs in rotation. McDonough is the purest singer of the group, and her material leans toward the cool, traditional and Celtic; Fingerett is the most emotional, mining suburban pathos in a manner somewhat like that of Beth Nielsen Chapman; Larkin's original role was funny songs punctuated by her intricate guitar playing, and although Smith doesn't try to match Patty's instrumental virtuosity, her songs fill a similar niche. Christine Lavin was the most exclusively comic presence in the original quartet, her segments the most like stand-up and the least like songs, and Camille West assumes this mantle as if she's been watching from the wings as an understudy all along. Volumes two and three were studio records, but four, I'm happy to find, returns to the live format of the first one. The stage banter in between songs doesn't wear as well as the music, admittedly, but the core of the group's appeal, to me, is their ensemble coherency, and it's much more vividly apparent in these self-reliant live recordings than in the session-player augmented studio tracks.
None of the Babes' albums are over-long, and there are four players, so there's only ever time for a few songs each. Camille sings three here, the spelling-joke-riddled "Dyslexic", the urban-woman-on-a-boat-outing saga "The Nervous Wreck of Edna Fitzgerald", and the anti-thong anthem "L.A.F.F. (Ladies Against Fanny Floss)", all of which could easily have been written by Christine Lavin. Megon sings a sad requiem to her father ("My Father"), one ("Zensong") that with a band behind it could be rousing country-rock, and a reverent Patsy Cline impersonation (Patsy's standard "Crazy", written by Willie Nelson). Debi contributes the online advisory "Cyberspace", the graceful love song "Intertwined", and the Larkin-ish girl-power car-song "Chevy Impala". Sally, who has a history of taking on extremely intense material and reducing me to helpless sobs with simple observations, sings one about a mother coping with her young daughter's first understanding of mortality ("When I Wake Up From This Night"), an uncharacteristically frizzy a cappella number about kitchen clatter and morning food ("Breakfast Dishes") and one ("Wild Berries") about an adult picking up a young hitchhiker that could literally be a gender translation of Steve Earle's recent "N.Y.C.", were it not for the fact that Sally's was written in 1983. And where the first volume ended with a delirious group rendition of "These Boots Are Made for Walkin'", this one wraps up with a radiant country-twang version of "Wild Thing" that is now easily my favorite version of that song, and a striking interlaced vocal final-trick in which they sing four different lullabies simultaneously.
The strangest thing about Four Bitchin' Babes records, to me, is that I clearly like Sally Fingerett better than the other three players in any of the post-Patty Larkin line-ups. I doubt I would ever buy a whole record by Christine Lavin, Megon McDonough, Julie Gold, Debi Smith or Camille West. When I've bought Sally's own records, though, even the ones that have the same songs I've loved on Four Bitchin' Babes albums, they haven't had the same effect. Although this is a common phenomenon in food (there are several things I only eat if they're embedded in ice cream), usually in music if I like a little of something, I like a lot of it even more. The effect of her seriousness, though, in the context of the other women's lighter songs and the general group dynamic, is dramatically different to me than it is in isolation. I suppose this means the other songs are filler to me, in the most literal sense, but sometimes gnawing on a bouillon cube is not the best way to appreciate a flavor.
McRackins: Back to the Crack
McRackins are another gimmick band that defies my usual patterns of taste. The gimmick, in this case, is that the three members dress in identical white jumpsuits, with guitarist Bil and bassist Fil's heads made up to look vaguely like eggs, and drummer Spot's to look somewhat more convincingly like a dog. What the point of having a band consisting of two eggs and a dog is, I haven't the slightest idea. The musical gimmick to go along with this is that McRackins write the most simplistic and disposable pop-punk songs in the known universe. Guided by Voices, by comparison, are painstaking, and Green Day are abstruse. If the 1996 copyright date on the back of Back to the Crack is to be believed, I have four full albums they put out over the course of 1995-6, on three different labels, along with two eight-song EPs and a seven-inch single, and I don't even want to know how much else I've missed. With the notable exception of Bil McRackin's 1997 solo album, though, which I only left off my best-of-the-year lists after some serious thought, I don't think I've managed to listen to any single McRackins release more than four times. The first time through I can't tell the songs apart, the second time they start to resolve, the third time they seem like the greatest songs ever, and by the end of the fourth time I never want to hear them again. I'm pretty sure that once you've played a McRackins song four times, you've spent as many minutes listening to it as they did writing and recording it. They never use more than a handful of chords at a time, they play everything at approximately the same breakneck pace, they sing everything with the same combination of sneering lead and ragged harmonies, and their lyrics are relentlessly idiotic, in the way that can be fleetingly amusing ("I'm so lonely I could puke") but gets annoying very quickly ("We had a bike fight (x8)"). The blasts of energy are unmistakable, but these songs have the nutritional content of a gumdrop the size of your foot. McRackins compensate, perversely, by producing about four times more of them than most other bands, so in the end I spend about as much time listening to McRackins as I do a more deliberate band, it just costs me four times as much. Possibly I should think of something better to do with that money, and I'm not necessarily suggesting that you follow my example, but for the time being, to me, the condensed thrills are worth it.
The Moog Cookbook: The Moog Cookbook
All-Moog versions of Alternative hits is perhaps the most shameless joke-rock idea of all. Roger Manning, though, half of this two-person project, was in the baroque-pop band Jellyfish, and the fact that Jellyfish only ever made two albums has resulted in my buying a host of related projects in search of ways to express my suddenly-discovered retroactive fondness for the band. The Jason Falkner thread (which leads to the Grays' one album, Jason's solo record, and his unmistakable presence on Brendan Benson's debut and Eric Matthews' second album) has been the most productive, but Jason only played on the first Jellyfish album, and his aura is missing an essential element of Jellyfish's rococo genius. Manning is the obvious candidate to be harboring the rest of it, but his subsequent work is so evasive it's impossible to deduce much from it. His first record was a disturbingly (or disarmingly, your pick) straight-faced retro-glam album, under the name Imperial Drag, which I thought demonstrated little other than that he was paying close attention to the first ascension of Cheap Trick. Perhaps too close attention: I found the album creepy, obsessive and irrelevant for all the same reasons that I don't understand the appeal of wax museums. Abandoning that experiment, prudently, I think, after one record, Manning then teamed up with Brian Kehew, made a couple of cheesy spaceman costumes, amassed a staggering collection of Moog synthesizers and other contemporaneous devices, and set about rearranging modern staples for his new menagerie. The victims, on this first album, are Soundgarden's "Black Hole Sun", Weezer's "Buddy Holly", Green Day's "Basket Case", the Offspring's "Come Out and Play", Tom Petty's "Free Fallin'", Lenny Kravitz's "Are You Gonna Go My Way?", Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit", Pearl Jam's "Evenflow", REM's "The One I Love" and Neil Young's "Rockin' in the Free World". The fact that I detest all but two of these songs did nothing to inflate my expectations.
That said, I think this album is actually inspired, bordering on brilliant. I was prepared for cynically opportunistic, Muzak-y, reductionist interpretations, like General MIDI piped through CV converters, but there's nothing cynical or cheap about these versions at all. Quite the opposite, Manning and Kehew make most of these songs into Byzantine contraptions an order of magnitude more complex and detailed than their original guises. Snippets of other songs flit through like momentary hallucinations, and it's a rare hook that hasn't cycled through half a dozen different noises by the time the first iteration is done. "Black Hole Sun" turns into elevator bossa nova, "Basket Case" into epic TV theme-music, "Come Out and Play" into a demented melange of vocoder vocals, arpeggiator murmurs, and portmanteau sci-fi effects. "Free Fallin'" ends up sounding like a wedding march for satellite-repair robots, "Are You Gonna Go My Way?" is transformed into a hilariously funkless polka, "Evenflow" becomes vintage post-disco, early-New-Wave dance music (with a synth lead that sounds like Daffy Duck in gastro-intestinal distress), and "The One I Love" sounds like a mutant Shaft theme. Only "Buddy Holly" and "Smells Like Teen Spirit" are close enough to their originals to seem uncomfortably cheesy to me. My favorite of this set is the storming, propulsive "Rockin' in the Free World", which I think manages, amazingly, to stay true to Young's version's spirit, despite instrumentation that would probably reduce him to apoplexy.
The Moog Cookbook: Plays the Classic Rock Hits
For the second album Manning and Kehew retreat into even more frightening territory, and set out to redo Steppenwolf's "Born to Be Wild", Ted Nugent's "Cat Scratch Fever", Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Sweet Home Alabama", Boston's "More Than a Feeling", Van Halen's "Ain't Talkin' 'Bout Love", Led Zeppelin's "Whole Lotta Love", David Bowie's "Ziggy Stardust", Chicago's "25 or 6 to 4", the Eagles' "Hotel California" and Kiss' "Rock and Roll All Night", a selection that does the first album one better by including only one song I can stand. The fundamental joke is unchanged, but the specific details are just as arresting. "Cat Scratch Fever" actually sounds, towards the end, like some living cats are being tortured, I doubt I'll ever experience "Sweet Home Alabama" the same way after hearing the mechanical groove they reduce it to here, and the carefully quantized mimicry of the solo lines in "Ain't Talkin' 'Bout Love" is like the well-intentioned flattery of a machine that is totally unaware of how thoroughly it's ridiculing the very humans it's trying to impress. "Ziggy Stardust" comes out sounding like the Magnetic Fields trying to do a Boston cover, "25 or 6 to 4" ends up like dance music for short-circuited R2D2s, and "Hotel California" becomes an insane collage of Tubular Bells-like ambient noodling, carousel waltz, sprinting machine-funk, spare harpsichord-ish free-fall, bouncy oom-pah, and flashes of how Devo might sound if the Munchkins got a hold of their hats and instruments. "Rock and Roll All Night" sounds like what unsold car-alarms and telephones do when they're left alone in the warehouse. But my favorite of this batch, by far, is the cover of "More Than a Feeling", which plays the song pretty straight for the verses, only to explode into a kamikaze pseudo-techno effusion for the choruses that could be the KLF doing soundtrack music for American Gladiators. I am suddenly overcome with the desperate desire to hijack the most flagrant, cacophonous, trend-hopping dance club I can find, and blast this onto the dance floor. The sight of strobe-lit, drug-adled fashion victims pogoing senselessly to Boston's languid, soppily romantic anthem might be heartwarming enough to see me through to the millennium.