The World Is Cruel and the Moon Remote
157 · 29 January 98
I don't think my rubber plant is going to make it. I water it often enough, but it's all roots under the soil, so the water goes right through, and I refuse to take it out and re-pot it when it's twenty-nine degrees outside. It also doesn't get much sunlight, where I have it, but it's no use to me anywhere else. I keep plucking off the dying leaves, hoping that will allow it to focus its life-force on the steadily decreasing population of leaves that have yet to sense their impending doom. I don't think the dust and cobwebs are doing it any good, either, but dusting a plant seems pathetic to me; if it can't protect itself from dust and a few harmless spiders, how has its species avoided extinction until now? I bought it for companionship and mutual support; if I'd wanted a needy dependent, I'd have bought one of those LCD-screen virtual pets, and buried that in half a bag of potting soil. It won't be the first plant I've killed, by any means, but in a bizarre spell of optimism, perhaps brought on by a little too much hot sauce in a lunch-time burrito, I thought things would be different this time. I'm a home owner now, and everybody else I know who owns a home appears to be able to keep plants alive; are you telling me this is a coincidence? I'm torn between two emotional approaches to confronting this failure. On one hand, if I focus on the superficial calculus of the situation, I only spent eight dollars on the plant, and far from improving the quality of my life, it's never been more than a small nuisance, and is now a source of a varying amount of depression, depending on what angle I look at it from. I should throw it out, and move all the furniture a foot towards where it used to sit, and then I'd have enough space at the other end of the room for a foosball table. On the other hand, though, the plant is a living being. If I can't care for a simple plant, even one as tolerant and undemanding as this, I feel like I've flunked an extremely basic course in human adequacy, and should go back to cultivating ear infections or something.
CD singles exist in a similarly unsteady suspension between ephemeral and precious. There is next to no concept of a back catalog in single retailing, so the singles from bands I like are either the gravitational center of collecting itself (and I'm as good at collecting as I am bad at cultivating) or the black hole of it, depending on whether they're coming out right now and I can find them, or they came out a year or more before I knew or cared, in which case they have probably fled irretrievably from the face of the earth. I used to think this was just an importing problem, due to so many of the singles I wanted being British, but the situation is no better in the UK. After about a year most CD singles must get melted down and reprocessed into sneaker treads (possibly this is how platform soles staged their comeback) or sports drinks, because the only luck I've ever had tracking down old ones is in moldy Berwick Street basements filled with unsorted, unlabeled boxes that appear to be indifferent to whether they're about to be browsed or pulverized, watched over by a surly man on a metal stool who doesn't seem to have realized that at clearance-sale prices you'd need a wheelbarrow to carry out enough discs to register as a loss, and there's no way a laden wheelbarrow is going to get up those stairs. Possibly I've misunderstood, and he's watching to make sure other stores aren't dumping their discards here, too. With this kind of life to look forward to for them, it's breathtakingly inexplicable that bands ever even focus their eyes on a single, much less invest it with attention or love.
Longpigs were more than a year old before I discovered them, so I've only managed to reconstruct a part of their singles history. The earliest one I've come across is this one for their plaintive, spiraling anthem "Far", an obvious standout, to me, on their debut album, The Sun Is Often Out. Why this song wasn't a single in the US, too, where I'd think it would be more than capable of holding its own against comparatively dour and wooden Verve and Oasis competition, I do not know. The "London" version that opens this disc (which, as best I can tell in a cursory A-B comparison, is the album version trimmed of a few coils of coda) is practically a case-study in the proper composition of a modern British rock single, with dense, roaring guitars, semi-psychedelic leads, an inexorable but elusive rhythm, a singer balanced between angelic rapture and existential exhaustion, and waves of artlessly earnest backing-vocal harmony. The "Sheffield" version, at the other end of the single, with the bass line cranked into ragged distortion, seems like an unredeemed mistake, to me, right up until the last ten seconds, when the instruments suddenly vanish and the song ends in a heady a cappella skid that makes the "London" version's pro forma fade-out seem cowardly and pedestrian, and the wordless farewell guitar chord of the album version seem well-intentioned but backwards.
"Blah Blah Blah", the first of the two b-sides here, would have been cut from the album, if I'd been responsible, because it sounds a bit too much like an assortment of other things, from the guitar coughs of Radiohead's "Creep" to Longpigs' own wolfish "She Said" to Surfer Rosa-era Pixies, though in this case the things that militate against its inclusion on the album are probably also the core of its novelty appeal as a b-side. The other one, "Amateur Dramatics", is breathy and restrained, somewhat like a slightly quicker and marginally more cheerful unplugged rendition of something from OK Computer.
Longpigs: On and On
The clear, sad ballad "On and On" was the band's first US single, and while it did, in fact, convince me to buy the album, it wouldn't, in retrospect, have been my choice as a promotional vehicle. Gliding languidly on cool acoustic guitar ripples and thick, gospel organ swells, it understates the band's tension and power, I think, and courts miscategorization as AOR. "Your Face", the first b-side here, is a strange, bolted-together thing, at its core a leering, dissolute rock stomp, but with nearly a minute of deliberate introductory crescendo that reminds me of the Police's "Invisible Sun", and a middle section where the rock song unexpectedly dissolves into a muted ambient wash for almost two minutes, before staging a belated comeback. "Dozen Wicked Words", the other album song repeated here (though in a slower, spikier form, with hints of Manchester dub that I don't sense in the album version), also feels too measured and self-contained to serve as bait. And "Sleep", the other b-side, which might almost be the Beatles doing a Simon and Garfunkel pastiche as some sort of prank, doesn't sound like Longpigs at all.
Longpigs: She Said
"She Said", with Crispin Hunt's dramatic vocal yelps and a lyrical fixation with surface deceptions, may be the most Suede-like moment on The Sun Is Often Out, and so was another relatively obvious choice for a single, at least for British audiences. It's also the first Longpigs single to get the chart-thirsty two-part treatment: this first half has the non-album b-sides, and the half I haven't found has some live recordings. The first b-side, "Flare Is Meteor", gets off to a jerky start, but works its way into a gruff, undulating chorus. "Soap Opera Credo", the second, sounds like it was intended to be a lullaby, before the singer drank himself into an incoherent stupor, in which the straight lines of the melody prove evasive, and whatever the soothing lyrics were supposed to be are replaced by a stream-of-conscious rant that only occasionally aligns with the song's meter. "Tendresse", the final track, is a solo performance by second guitarist Richard Hawley that sounds, in both production and song-structure, like one of the slow, unsteadier moments from an obscure Guided by Voices EP. Except in GbV's hands it would have been thirty seconds long, and then something entirely different would have crashed in.
Stereophonics: Local Boy in the Photograph
Which happens quite bracingly, as a matter of fact, if you load a changer in the order I'm going through these. "Local Boy in the Photograph", the song I was introduced to Stereophonics by, opens at a pounding sprint and never relents. Like Longpigs, Stereophonics have some experimental inclinations and no fear of slower, more oblique arrangements, but none of them are in evidence on this song, which is desperate longing distilled to its most violently cathartic essence, Kelly Jones screaming his vocal part like the power-trio surge of his accompaniment translates the insufferable silent fury of global indifference into the audio spectrum. The second song on this reissued single is the album track "Too Many Sandwiches", Jones' bleak wedding-scene freeze-frame, which contains one of the least generous and most unsettlingly memorable lines I've come across recently, "You bought a sequin dress for your chicken breasts". Its frustrated yearning for something grander leaks into the galloping, defiant "Buy Myself a Small Plane", whose chorus, tellingly, turns not on "Land it on the South Lawn", the nominal climax of the plot, but the wistful "Just big enough for me", which manages to explain both the escape and the loneliness that the flight represents.
Stereophonics: More Life in a Tramp's Vest
"More Life in a Tramp's Vest", already the other half of an earlier double-a-side single with "Looks Like Chaplin", makes a return appearance on the studio half of its own single. The two b-sides, this time, are the gentle, snappy "Raymond's Shop" (about the consequences of robbing a favorite store, hinting at far more dead-end-town pathos than it has time to examine) and the churning, elegiac "Poppy Day" (which, with lines like "Lived through the war for what?" and "Smiled until she's robbed of all she's got", may well be the most terrifyingly unflinching song ever written about the death of a grandmother). Jones' lyrics contain some of the harshest social observations you'll easily find in rock songs, and I can imagine people recoiling from them, like I do from Thom Yorke's, but the difference, to me, is that Jones channels his energy less into exploring the depth of his anger and more into itemizing its causes. Also, for me the unmistakable passion in Jones' singing suggests that even his bleakest narratives are born of hope, in a way that Yorke's, passionless however angelic and beautiful, does not. But I'm sure some people's impressions of the two will be exactly reversed.
Stereophonics: More Life in a Tramp's Vest (Live EP)
I get the distinct feeling that V2's appetite for Stereophonics singles outstrips the band's capacity for writing songs, as this four-song second part, recorded at a March, 1997 BBC session, reruns "Looks Like Chaplin", "More Life in a Tramp's Vest", "Too Many Sandwiches" and one more Word Gets Around album track, "Last of the Big Time Drinkers". To be fair, the performances are raw and incendiary, and the point of a live EP is usually to offer different versions of familiar songs. In Stereophonics case, though, their studio versions already sound like the band believes they have three minutes left to live, so there's not much space for the live versions to be any more intense. The breakdown in the middle of "Too Many Sandwiches" is nicely restrained, and the freak-out at the end of the song is reassuringly frenetic, but otherwise I guess I don't see the point.
"Traffic" (included here in album and slightly-edited radio lengths, in case you want to hear it 1.9 times) turns out to be Stereophonics' lead US single, which puzzles me even more than Longpigs' "On and On". Jones' harrowing wail and their furious three-piece roar, their two best weapons, are both uncharacteristically subdued on this song, and though there are several trenchant turns in the lyrics, the chorus, "Is anyone going anywhere? / Everyone gotta be somewhere", sounds like a throwaway Oasis platitude. "Tie Me Up Tie Me Down", the second track here, almost overcompensates, stripping down to a stark two-chord oscillation that sounds like a cross between Social Distortion and the Meat Puppets. "Chris Chambers", though, the third, is more interesting, a methodical guitar/synth-flute/voice piece in which I can hear, it seems to me, the seeds of a monumental full-band epic they've chosen, for undivulged reasons of their own, to forego.
Stereophonics: Traffic (Live Festival EP)
Four more live recordings, this time from a French festival appearance: "More Life in a Tramp's Vest" again; drums mixed too low on "A Thousand Trees", robbing it of much of its propulsiveness; a long, slow "Traffic"; and the disc's saving grace, for me, a clattering blast through "Local Boy in the Photograph".
various: You'll Never Walk Alone
Two more renditions of "Looks Like Chaplin" and "More Life in a Tramp's Vest" open this album assembled from performances at the 1997 benefit/vengeance concert for the Hillsborough Family Support Group, in memory of the ninety-six people killed in the Hillsborough stadium disaster in 1989. I might have passed on it, but in addition to the Stereophonics tracks (which, if for no reason beyond a strange mix, do sound different than the other versions) the compilation also includes Manic Street Preachers doing "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head" (which I thought was a joke when they turned a cover of it in as their contribution to the Bosnian benefit album Help, but they've turned it into a concert standard, played without a trace of condescension or irony) and their blistering crowd-directive "You Love Us"; the Beautiful South doing an elegant and affectionate "Lean on Me"; the Lightning Seeds ripping through their frothy "Sugar Coated Iceberg", my favorite song from their last album, Dizzy Heights, and then backing up Holly Johnson for an atmospheric performance of "Ferry 'Cross the Mersey"; and a massive, "We Are the World"-style ensemble rendition of the stadium anthem "You'll Never Walk Alone".
Del Amitri: Some Other Sucker's Parade #1
The second single from Del Amitri's fifth album, Some Other Sucker's Parade, was supposed to be "Medicine", but after Princess Diana's death they apparently decided that the line about moving to another country to escape your past made it an insensitive choice, and traded it for the album's title track. It makes little difference what the nominal purpose of these singles is, as their real reason for existence is to constitute a three-part nine-song virtual live album. The first installment begins with the mournful "Driving With the Brakes On", from the fourth album, Twisted, eases into the sparkling (but also sad) "Move Away Jimmy Blue", from album two, Waking Hours, and then perks up for an invigorating romp through the giddy party anti-anthem "The Ones That You Love Lead You Nowhere", from album three, Change Everything. The remarkable thing about seeing Del Amitri live, in the old days, when their albums were extended meditations on the complexity of melancholy, was how much zealous fun they managed to have with what were essentially somber and depressing relationship songs. It was a little surreal, actually, dancing to haunting romantic failure, but the illicitness of it was part of its charm; it felt like the band was sharing with the audience the secret truth that these somehow weren't sad songs, though it was never specified how. The effect isn't as dramatic any more, now that their studio albums have lightened up considerably, and it really only works on the last of the three songs on this disc, where they build up enough speed for elation to unfurl its sails, but it doesn't take much to remind me of the feeling.
Del Amitri: Some Other Sucker's Parade #2
The middle trio begins with a quick, chirpy version of Twisted's US hit, "Roll to Me", but this one was upbeat to begin with, so the live version can't transform it much. "Here and Now", also from Twisted, is better material, and this performance is patient and open-hearted. But the third song, Waking Hours' "Hatful of Rain", is a near-paradigmatic example of the contrast; the sequence of chords at the end of the choruses, which on the album sound like an elaborate sigh, on stage turn into an excited wriggle, and the chorus itself, one of Justin Currie's trademark moments of firmly managed expectations, turns into a blithely hoarse crowd sing-along and a lead-in for an epic Iain Harvie guitar solo.
Del Amitri: Some Other Sucker's Parade #3
The concluding third finally gets around to the live version of "Some Other Sucker's Parade" itself, but the song seems too young to me, like it hasn't had time to develop a distinct live personality. I endure it, though, because the last two songs return to my favorite period in the band's history for Change Everything's "Always the Last to Know" and my favorite Del Amitri song of all, Waking Hours' "Stone Cold Sober". Both of these have aged magnificently, it seems to me, relaxing into comfortable concert slouches with the accommodation of old jeans or a mountain stream. No revision can displace the original versions of these songs, which may as well have been tattooed on the inside of my skull, but it's inexpressibly uplifting to know that their lives continue outside my head, as well.
The Frank & Walters: Indian Ocean
There is almost always a long list, somewhere in my mind where I ought to be keeping track of whether I have any sources of protein in the house, of miscellaneous minor British bands whose names I encountered in Q or some discography cross-reference and thought, for some reason, I might like. Often by the time I run across some of their music I've basically forgotten what lead me to suspect this, and buy it in the hope that I'll remember when I hear it. I think the Frank & Walters got on the list when somebody compared them to Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine, but that was a very long time ago, and if they ever sounded like Carter, they've gotten over it. (Which is fortunate, because I don't like Carter as much as I used to, either.) These days the Frank & Walters belong to the stubborn (and dwindling) fellowship of bands who can still trace their roots back to early Eighties British New Wave. I hear hints of U2, the Skids and Big Country, the Cure and Echo and the Bunnymen in parts of these songs, touches of Billy Bragg in the vocal delivery, elements of the Icicle Works and Cactus World News in the rhythms and guitar tone, and of the Lightning Seeds (themselves perhaps the movement's current leaders) in the twists of melody, with some of Ned's Atomic Dustbin's buzz and Teenage Fanclub's jangle. The Frank & Walters should team up with Adrian Borland (who is on the same label, at least in the US) and Mexico 70, and do a grand nostalgic tour. It probably wouldn't make any money, but I'm pretty sure there's a small band of unreformed thirty-year-olds in most major US cities that would show up and put on a thoroughly endearing display of fifteen-year-old dance styles.
Mokka: When the Cold Wind Blows
Former Icicle Works leader Ian McNabb, ex-Icicle Works and sometimes McNabb bassist Roy Corkhill and current McNabb drummer Daniel Strittmatter all show up to help out Liverpool compatriot C. M. Hutchinson with his debut single. Musically, the billowing "When the Cold Wind Blows" sounds, unsurprisingly, a lot like a McNabb track, one of the shorter, pop ones ("These Are the Days" or "Available Light", for example, as opposed to the long Crazy-Horse-fueled rock jams). Hutchinson's striking voice, however, like a young falsetto Roy Orbison, attempts gamely to wrest the spirit of the song from the players and fly away with it. I can't quite tell how the battle ends with the first song, but by "It Rains on Our Love" Mokka sounds more like Marillion sung with the soul of a long-haul trucker, instead of an impish choirboy, which I assume means Hutchinson's own personality is taking over. The bloopy "If You Go Away", though, could easily be an Icicle Works b-side, and the demo version of "Where the Cold Wind Blows" with which the single ends, though it's assured enough to make me wonder why they bothered to redo it, doesn't resolve the question one way or another. But I guess, since I'm happy if Hutchinson sounds like McNabb and happy if he doesn't, I don't need it to.
Everclear: Everything to Everyone
Two months ago I said that I think Everclear is currently the best rock band in the world. This single reminds me that I believe they are also currently the best cover band in the world, a distinction I would previously have assigned to Anthrax (circa "Bring the Noise" and their manic version of Joe Jackson's "Got the Time") and later the Bobs (circa their two whole albums of covers, but especially the a cappella surf-punk remake of Leonard Cohen's "Bird on the Wire"). Everclear moved into contention on the strength of their versions of Tom Petty's "American Girl" and INXS' "Don't Change", and this single adds three more points of reference, covers of the Go-Go's' "Our Lips Are Sealed", the Buzzcocks' "What Do I Get" and the Ventures' surf classic "Walk Don't Run". The genius of the best Everclear covers, here particularly "Our Lips Are Sealed", is that there's nothing strange about them at all. The band slams through songs from styles superficially little like their own with the earnest gusto of sincere fans who can't imagine that the connections between their music and these other songs won't be self-evident. Of course Jane Wiedlin (their reverence doesn't extend, sadly, to spelling her name correctly in the credits) and Terry Hall's prototypical 1981 LA girl-group romp (and there's no doubt that this is a cover of the Go-Go's version, not Fun Boy Three's) is part of the ancestry of Everclear's emerging pop buoyancy. Of course Petty's nasal American drawl is inextricably intertwined in the way Art hears music in his own head; of course AC/DC's metal bluster is integral to Craig Montoya's percussive bass playing. Everclear are integrators at heart, not innovators; they are a rock band in the end, not a punk band, to me, because their gift is for fitting things together, not tearing them apart. "Our Lips Are Sealed" bridges genders, the convincing "What Do I Get" (with Montoya singing) bridges an ocean and two decades, and "Walk Don't Run" not only unites California beach-culture swank with flannel Portland thrash, but nods across the continent at the Pixies' intermediary surf-punk synthesis as well. Please tell me that on their next single they're going to do "Fields of Fire" and "Understanding Jane".
Future Bible Heroes: Lonely Days
If Everclear extend a bridge back to the Eighties, Stephin Merritt and Christopher Ewen's Future Bible Heroes are moored to the decade by skyhooks, and hover without touching the decade they're actually in at all. "Lonely Days" and "Hopeless", the two tracks here from their album Memories of Love, twinkle like the result of a long sun-drenched and champagne-soaked French weekend liaison between the Dream Academy, the Pet Shop Boys and Jacques Brel. Of the three new songs on this EP, the cover "Love Is Blue" sounds like an attempt to turn the Sisters of Mercy's "Temple of Love" into a Christmas Carol, the wispy "How to Get Laid in Japanese" bears a perhaps not-coincidental resemblance to Japan (the band) and to Ryuichi Sakamoto and Thomas Dolby's collaboration "Field Work", and the only thing that keeps me from thinking that the title of Ewen's ringing, glassy instrumental "Berlin on $10 a Day" is a deliberate joke about doing synth-pop with cheaper keyboards is that surely if he'd wanted to make fun of Terri Nunn's band, Merritt would have insisted that the jibe involve something with a bit more snarl than just doing a much prettier piece than anything Berlin would have essayed. Future Bible Heroes songs are explicitly fluffy and disposable, but as anybody who ever collected bottle caps or gum wrappers or the like will hopefully recall, the line between trash and treasure is drawn by what you cherish and what you discard, not any intrinsic property of the material.
The Gothic Archies: The New Despair
Stephin Merritt's fourth project (after the Magnetic Fields, the 6ths and Future Bible Heroes), alluded to in liner notes but not otherwise represented in print until now, plays like he came up with the name, and then made just enough music to explain why he thought it was hysterical. The Gothic Archies are more or less a cartoon exaggeration of the Magnetic Fields, their baroque keyboard counterpoint rolling-pinned into a squashed, noisy racket, and Merritt's usual lugubrious lyrics and singing extrapolated until the lyrics cross over into preposterous absurdity, intoned in ominous moans. "It's Useless to Struggle" is a spurt of raw chaos; "City of the Damned" is a lilting carnival trifle as performed by a menacing gang of feral circus robots; "The Abandoned Castle of My Soul" is like a Siouxsie & the Banshees song after the Banshees got caught up in their enthusiasm and accidentally killed Siouxsie, and are now sitting around the body, uncomprehendingly, wondering why she won't wake up and play with them again; and "Your Long White Fingers" (an intentional reference to Theodore Sturgeon's creepy short-story "Bianca's Hands"?) is like This Mortal Coil's murky ambience without its mystical glow. The one genuine song here, "Ever Falls the Twilight", seems like a stray Magnetic Fields piece, included because otherwise this disc would be spineless and only twelve and a half minutes long. The soul of this EP, though, is not musical, it's the story in the brief, skeletal "The Tiny Goat", which itemizes the miseries in the existence of a miniature goat, untroubled by the necessity of inventing the poor beast in order to pity it. The key to understanding the New Despair is realizing that it is artificial, manufactured for sale and donned for effect. It is depression repackaged as entertainment. The punch line, for me, comes in the finale, "In a Cave", whose lyrics are an indistinguishable blur in the song itself, but are helpfully identified in the booklet: "We're in a cave at the end of the world cooking and eating our friends." All it would take is replacing "We're" with "You're" and "our" with "your", and the addition of "There are doors to the east and west", and you'd have the beginnings of a nihilistic misanthrope's edition of Zork.