Shoot Less With More Care
158 · 5 February 98
Mary Lou Lord: The Pace of Change
I'm going to like Mary Lou Lord's major-label debut and first full-length album, Got No Shadow, just fine, I think, but at the moment I'm having a problem getting to it, because I keep playing this free four-song promotional disc they handed me when I bought the album, instead. How the "promotional" aspect is intended to function isn't clear, as none of these songs are on the album. All four are acoustic recordings, too, and the album involves a full band on all but one track, so what you think of this has potentially little bearing on whether you'll like the album. I have no idea what the distribution situation is, either; maybe you'll get handed one of these, too, or maybe you'll search fruitlessly for it forever, and wish I never mentioned it.
Two of the four songs will seem familiar enough to anyone who has heard Mary Lou's first EP. She did a busker's rendition of Bevis Frond leader Nick Saloman's "He'd Be a Diamond" there, and does his lilting "Book" here; the EP had Jimmy Bruno's "I'm Talking to You", this disc has his jittery "On the Avenue". These are pleasant enough, but the other two songs are the ones that monopolize my attention. I haven't heard the original of "Ontario, Quebec and Me", and when I put the disc on the first time I didn't notice that the songwriters' names are only printed on the CD face, not the sleeve, but the phrasing of "We'll dance in the town 'til the sun comes up, / And push our beds together", at the end of the chorus, is unmistakably Billy Bragg's, and in fact the song turns out to be a Don't Try This at Home-era Bragg b-side. Bragg doesn't get covered that often, and this slow, breathy, halting interpretation, Lord's tapping foot distinctly audible as she attempts, only partially successfully, to keep the rhythm, is nearly the polar opposite of the only other Bragg cover by a woman I can think of offhand, Kirsty MacColl's hilarious bubblegum-pop translation of "A New England".
Richard Thompson, on the other hand, is probably the writer whose songs I own the most covers of, and since I own no Dylan or Beatles records, certainly the writer whose covered songs I'm most familiar with in their original guises, as well. Of my two favorite Thompson songs, "From Galway to Graceland" received what I consider to be the definitive alternate treatment on the tribute album The World Is a Wonderful Place, where Plainsong rearranged it for four-part a cappella. Mary Lou takes on my other favorite, Rumour and Sigh's "1952 Vincent Black Lightning". Her version endears itself to me even before she starts singing. Thompson is one of the world's most proficient guitarists, and Lord, though she's extremely practiced at accompanying herself, is not; rather than attempt to bluster over this problem, though, she opens the song with three determined passes at the song's twinkling central hook. No gasp of relief is literally audible after the third one, when she relaxes and lets the song ebb back into manageable strumming, but the feeling is palpable. "That song", she seems to be saying, and having made her point, settles down to concentrate on singing it.
And it's her singing of this song that renders me unable, so far, to concentrate on her album. It's certainly not that unusual to hear a woman sing a male songwriter's song, but I've only heard a few where it seems to me that the song's soul has been fundamentally altered by that detail, changed much more deeply than a superficial gender frisson. Kate Bush's lush synthesizer remake of Elton John's "Candle in the Wind" is like that, for me, a star-struck posthumous fan-letter transformed into a friend's consoling eulogy. Thompson's own version of "1952 Vincent Black Lightning", though it's one of his more unabashedly pretty songs of recent years, still seethes with caustic vitriol. In his hands, for me, this is a song about the terrifying shallowness of James Adie's life. When Richard sings "Red hair and black leather, my favourite colour scheme", I take James to be leering at Molly, mocking the entire concept of color schemes as being pointless for anything other than sexual preferences, and by extension dismissing the whole spectrum of life styles in which color schemes might figure in any other way. He downplays the ring he gives her, preempting "'Til death do us part" by predicting his own imminent demise. Handing her his keys, as he completes the self-fulfilling prophecy, is intended to be a poignant gesture, passing on the one thing he truly loves in the world, but it sickens me that a life could cling to nothing more substantial than a motorcycle and a trophy girlfriend. Little is actually said about Molly in the song (her entire script reads "That's a fine motorbike; / A girl could feel special on any such like"), but Thompson lets us assume the worst. Lord's voice, frail and earnest, changes everything for me. She delivers Molly's greeting with such precise elocution that the rhyme in it seems like the character's, not the writer's, and the line becomes a cute challenge, not an uneducated come-on. The setting, "corners and cafés", in Thompson's weary sneer are the dingy haunts of bikers and whores, but in Lord's clear indie-pop whisper could be coffee shops and commuter bus-stops, and the Vincent could, except for the logistical problem of getting two people on it at once, be a skateboard. The color-scheme line, delivered with a trace of self-conscious embarrassment, could be an art-school allusion, and the offhand explanation of the ring seems less like a defiance of social convention than a product of the inevitable post-modern confusion about whether that's how relationships are still supposed to be advanced or not. James' deathbed speech, which in the original seems to me to outline the boundaries of a distressingly claustrophobic universe of possibility, in Lord's version seems like a desperate attempt to block out the very dizzying profusion of alternatives that Richard's narrator seems oblivious to. Like the subject of Suicidal Tendencies' "Institutionalized" screaming that all he wants is a Pepsi, Lord's James reduces the world to a motorcycle and a redhead in the desperate hope that if he can cope with that small part of it, first, perhaps the cliff can be scaled one small foothold at a time. And although now I realize I'm stretching, and my Gen-X day-job characters have inexplicably become teenagers, if I hold my head at the right angle I can almost imagine that James is not killed by a shotgun blast incurred during an attempted armed robbery, he's dying, slowly, over the course of an interminable summer, from some gradual incurable disease whose lack of emotional drama is almost as debilitating as its physiological effects. Molly, his childhood best friend, and now first love, sits with him, and to fill the hours between the futile rituals of his treatment, and block out the blank, impassive walls of his hospital room, they invent a make-believe world for themselves, of which the robbery is part, and surround his bed with its scenery. The characters of its epic mythology, perhaps due to a few too many obsessive re-watchings of Heavenly Creatures, sever the heads of passing nurses, sweep the trays of tasteless institutional food aside with derisive swipes of their halberds, and kneel reverently at the foot of his bed, awaiting their commissions. And when the disease finally claims him in the real world, and the shotgun blast leads the thread of his dream life, too, to a hospital bed, the convergence turns denial into a method of understanding, and a form of acceptance. And thus, if we can suspend our disbelief at just the correct level for long enough, the thing he hands her as he dies might be not the keys to an oily, clattering motorcycle she will drive back, alone, to the same hunting grounds where she found him, the bait for her next conquest, but the keys to the imaginary and undying kingdom they have fabricated together, the strength of their love transcending the weakness of his frame, and the obtuse literalness of time.
Sleeper: Romeo Me #1
I don't necessarily condone the practice of buying $10 import singles. For not much more than the price of two or three songs that, generally, even the band responsible allows are not up to an album's standards, you could buy some other whole record of songs that are. Taken individually, the economic and personal-growth equations involved in each such dilemma are simple to solve. The experience of following a band through a body of work that sprawls out unwieldily around the fringes of their album catalog, however, can have a holistic value that one-by-one calculations do not capture. Like human friendships are made out of five-minute phone calls to ask which witch Dorothy's house landed on as much they are out of Big Chill weekends, so some of my most complex and emotional relationships with bands (and I know, all too vividly, what it says about me that I call them relationships, despite their apparent unidirectionality) are products, in no small part, of attention to these footnotes. My collections of Del Amitri and Manic Street Preachers singles, for example, are significant to me in ways that itemizing their contents does not address. There are other ways to form the same bonds, obviously, since there are plenty of bands who don't release singles at all, but buying a single is an expression of commitment to a band; even in the days before I discovered the software industry, when a severely constrained music budget meant that each single was an album foregone, I still bought singles. Some of the most satisfying singles to buy, then, are the ones that seem conscious of this dynamic. The row of Everything Must Go-era Manic Street Preachers singles, with their coordinated packaging, a noticeable little recess midway across my first M shelf, produces a little flutter of pride every time my eyes pause on it. The singles from Radiohead's The Bends, conversely, a monotony of banal white slimline cases, fade into their surroundings, and unless I concentrate, my eyes, and with them my thoughts, tend to jump from the rough paper spines of the three Rachel's albums over to the oversized spine of Steve Reich's The Cave without pausing. (Even now, when I went to pull the set off the shelf to look through it, I accidentally came away with Rainbow's adjacent Straight Between the Eyes, as well.)
Sleeper's early singles were where I first noticed this phenomenon. Swallow, Inbetweener and Vegas came in trayless, folding cardboard cases, like miniature gate-fold album sleeves, that I had not encountered before, and while their lack of structural support is probably why I haven't encountered many of them since, either, the very fragility of the package was part of its charm. There are clear pragmatic advantages to jewel cases, which can be used as coasters, door-stops, mid-air moth-swatters, etc., but a part of me misses the way a love for music was manifested, physically, in the careful handling of vinyl 45s in their flimsy paper sleeves. My experience of oddly-packaged CDs begins when I take one off the shelf, not when the first notes actually reach the speakers. This first stage of the experience isn't always good (I'd like to throttle the people responsible for Son Volt's album Straightaways, whose CD is nearly inextricable, and their EP Switchback, whose disc I have inadvertently flung out of the sleeve more than once), but at least it's distinctive. The two singles for "Romeo Me" are thus bad packaging and good at once. After a series of jewel-cased Sleeper singles, these are cardboard gatefolds again, and I find the combination of the material, the blurry cover photograph and the elegant typography extremely appealing. At the same time, the pocket into which the bottom half of the CD slips, in this part-one (a stratagem I first saw in Joni Mitchell's Hits and Misses), possesses the tragic flaw that when you hold it upside down, the disc falls out. Part two solves that problem by turning the two flaps of the gatefold into pockets that open into its inner spine, but this means that to get the disc out you have to execute a Freemason-like hand contortion that holds the empty flap at a 270-degree angle while you simultaneously squeeze the edges of the flap with the disc in it so that it will pucker open and the disc will drop out into your waiting (third) hand.
It's possible that I could contentedly take these discs out and put them back in again, griping happily, for some time, like Eeyore reveling in the possibilities of his deflated balloon and his empty honey jar, but it turns out there's music on them, too. Part one, in addition to the bleary, expansive title track, adds two new songs and a remake. "This Is the Sound of Someone Else", the first new one, is a choppy, menacing stomp, with low, gruff, buzzing guitar and languid synthesizer drones, Louise Wener's voice hissing as it spins through the flanger. "What Do I Get?", the second one, is a quiet mostly-acoustic ballad, not a Buzzcocks cover, and though it makes its way up the intensity scale as it progresses, it never gets much further than the level of the Sundays or Eddi Reader. The remake here is a Peel Session recording of "Nice Guy Eddie", the lead single from their previous album, The It Girl. The original relied heavily on a square-wave synthesizer skeleton, and this performance does an admirable job filling the synthesizer's role with guitar, even, it seems to me, smoothing over some of the hesitancy of the album version to shift more of the song's emphasis to its plaintive choruses.
Sleeper: Romeo Me #2
Part two has one new song and two remakes. The new one, "When Will You Smile?", is arrestingly bare and tense, just insistent acoustic guitar and echoing voice, exactly the sort of b-side revelation that keeps me buying these things. The first remake, a BBC radio-session version of "What Do I Do Now?", fascinates me simply because it's my favorite Sleeper song, and it sounds different here than on the album, but the second one, an eight-minute Steve Osborne remix of Pleased to Meet You's "Motorway Man", is a succinct example of what I, personally, like in remixing. Osborne radically restructures and extends the song, but he does so not to turn it into something against its nature, but rather to bring out the eerie, mechanical Gary Numan-esque qualities that are, by contrast, only latent in the album version. Far too many remixes, these days, seem to me to stem from agendas that have no relation to the song under the knife, and develop no affinity for it during the process, either. This remix sounds like Osborne actually listened to the song first, and only after hearing it started thinking about what other creature it could conceivably be the larval form of.
Tanya Donelly: The Bright Light #1
Like the first pair of singles from Tanya Donelly's Lovesongs for Underdogs, and most of the Belly singles before them, these two for "The Bright Light" stick to the format of the title track and two b-sides. "Bury My Heart", the first part's first one, is an inspired waltz that flickers back and forth between roaring 6/8-sprint verses and disarmingly old-fashioned 3/4-swing choruses. "How Can You Sleep", the second one, seems a bit more unresolved to me, like the long, quiet, This Mortal Coil-like section of a longer song whose dramatic catharsis hasn't come to her yet.
Tanya Donelly: The Bright Light #2
Part two's first b-side is "Life on Sirius", a gauzy, atmospheric construction of sputtering, quasi-disco drum-machine loops, close-formation falsetto vocal chords, airy keyboard washes and diffident, reverberating guitar cycles. It's either missing a chorus, or it's all chorus, I can't quite decide. The other song, "Moon Over Boston", is smoky, straight-faced lounge jazz, competently done, as best I can tell, but not a style I seek out.
Linoleum: On a Tuesday
Linoleum's one-part single for "On a Tuesday" (catalog-numbered 003, so I must have missed a couple earlier ones) sticks to the conservative three-song format, as well. The first b-side, the unsteady "This Game", feels to me like a Dissent album track that has been partially disassembled for the purposes of some sort of routine maintenance, and then left lying around in that inoperative state. "Swim", the other one, is similar exposed, but this time I find myself hypnotized, watching the revealed gears grind slowly through their rotations.
Linoleum: Marquis #1
Two more b-sides await on the first of two parts for "Marquis" (004). "Flawed" starts out as what passes for a Linoleum ballad, the usual slabs of guitar noise traded for a distracted, ticking drum pattern, tentative, chime-like guitar and a muted Caroline Finch narration, but eventually accelerates to a noisy surge that reminds me of a slightly more clipped Sleeper. The verses of the hushed "Shine Brightly" flirt with country pathos vaguely in the Cowboy Junkies vein, but the choruses hum like a music-box connected to a vacuum cleaner.
Linoleum: Marquis #2
Part two trades the b-sides for three live recordings, from a concert that I'm assuming took place in France, unless Finch is speaking French as performance art. The pensive verses of "On a Tuesday" sound great, but the choruses fall apart completely, for me, in the live mix, the tidal wave guitars arriving more like a small wading pool being emptied onto ones ankles, leaving the drums to crash on in awkward isolation. The trebly guitar squall of "Smear" holds up much better, and the song ends up revealing some Wire-era punk lineage I didn't discern in the album version. "Twisted", the last song, is the most ambitious performance, building from a becalmed drift to an aggressive, if unhurried, howl.
Echobelly: Here Comes the Big Rush #1
"Tesh", the first b-side on the second single from Echobelly's album Lustra, is not only up to album quality, it's closer, I think, to "Insomniac", for me their finest moment, than anything they did include. I enjoy "Insomniac"'s verses a little more, but the point of the verses, in both songs, is to set up the suspended resolution that the choruses then derive their anthemic grandeur from, and the soaring climaxes in "Tesh" are as resplendent as anything Echobelly's done, sinuous guitar writhing under Sonya Aurora Madan's angelic wail. "Mouth Almighty", the other b-side, exchanges some of "Tesh"'s swell for a quicker tempo, and so sounds more like an exhortation to drive faster, rather than a spirit hand on the tail of your car making the decision for you.
Echobelly: Here Comes the Big Rush #2
Just when it seems like the b-sides are really getting somewhere, though, the second part gives up on them and resorts to half an hour of tedious remixes. The "Dave Angel Vocal Mix" plays some interesting sampler tricks with Sonya's vocal track, but then grafts the result, inelegantly, onto a generic techno rhythm track. I'd have loved to hear the vocal parts of this mix by themselves, but instead we get the "Dave Angel Instrumental", which, perversely, is the generic techno rhythm bed without anything I can identify as coming from Echobelly. The "Midfield General Vocal Remix" and "Midfield General Dub" are basically the same two experiments done with a dub backing instead of a techno one. If they're simply going to glue on unrelated styles, I wish they'd pick different ones every once in a while; why do we never get to hear Sonya over death-metal thrash, industrial noise, Celtic jigs or an empty cistern full of trombones?
Curve: Chinese Burn
Even more mindless-remix bloat afflicts Chinese Burn, the advance single from Curve's upcoming reunion album. I'm both eagerly awaiting this album and dreading it. On the anticipatory side, I loved Curve, and they disintegrated at the worst possible point, after they'd helped to start a minor sonic revolution and before that revolution began to make commercial progress. There's a long list of propulsive, noisily atmospheric, female-led bands, Garbage being the most prominent, who owe Curve an enormous debt, and this ought to be Tony Halliday and Dean Garcia's chance to finally benefit from their groundwork. Unfortunately, a Curve comeback album runs the risk of reintroducing the problem from which their previous records suffered, which my indignation on their behalf has tended to gloss over in their absence, namely that it is extraordinarily difficult to tell any two Curve songs apart. I once believed, after a period of extended scrutiny, that I'd learned to, but it's a party trick I could not now perform without doing the whole immersion course over again from the beginning. Given how hard it is to tell two different Curve songs apart, stringing together forty-one minutes of six mixes of the same song seems, to me, self-destructive. If you program this disc to play just tracks one, seven and eight, though, you get a normal three-track single. "Chinese Eyes" itself is strangled, kinetic and relentless, in classic Curve style. "Robbing Charity" seems to be missing its noisy part, but I can't tell whether this is an anomaly or a new direction. "Come Clean", though, sounds like Cub shouting along to the drum track from Blur's "Song 2", and Curve never sounded like that before, so perhaps there's hope, yet.
Jewel: Foolish Games
I bought Jewel's album, Pieces of You, the day it came out, almost three years ago, and fell in love with it immediately (and have stayed in love with it, despite her subsequent image makeover and the resulting media saturation), but for some reason I resisted buying the singles for the longest time. Finally a blurb somewhere saying that she was putting out a limited two-LP vinyl edition of the album, with five extra songs on the fourth side, galvanized me into action. The five songs, if you prefer them on CD, are spread over three import singles. This is the most sensible of the three, with two genuine song-length songs. "Angel Needs a Ride", the first one, is bluesy and wandering, with a few rough, demo-ish moments of indecision, but more than enough of Jewel's unmistakable vocal pyrotechnics to blast through them. "Everything Breaks", the other, is back in her Joni Mitchell/Juliana Hatfield folk-waif mode, and could have fit right in on the album.
Jewel: You Were Meant for Me
You Were Meant for Me has two more, but they're both short novelty songs, accounting for less than three minutes between them. The minute-long "Cold Song" could be Jewel's impression of what Patsy Cline might have performed during a Muppet Show visit, and the bouncy, slightly-longer, perhaps over-sweet "Rocker Girl" is like a cross between a Christine Lavin routine and Melissa Ferrick's acerbic "The Juliana Hatfield Song".
Jewel: Who Will Save Your Soul
This third single has only one new song left, "Emily", from the movie The Crossing Guard, which it pads out with two redundant album tracks, "Who Will Save Your Soul" and "Pieces of You". Annoyingly, this is clearly my favorite of the b-sides, an extremely spare guitar oscillation over which Jewel sketches a haunted melody and some double-tracked autoharmonies. In a world I ran, this song would not be relegated to an obscure soundtrack and a badly overpriced single that probably nobody but me will ever break down and purchase.
various: Great Expectations
Of course, in a world I ran, a number of regulations would be added to curtail some of the more offensive practices surrounding soundtrack tie-ins. The most obvious ones are 1) if it didn't appear in the movie, you can't put it on your soundtrack album, and 2) if you pepper your film with snippets of random modern-rock songs that have no relevance to the movie, in order to circumvent the first rule, then both your movie and your soundtrack will be summarily pulped. The first recent movie to go will be Welcome to Sarajevo, a promising quasi-documentary that, for me, was irreparably damaged by the persistent blaring intrusion of inappropriate rock songs into scenes that had no need of them. From there we will move on to quick eradication of Great Expectations, a prototypically egregious example of soundtrack irrelevancy. Except for the promotional stills of Gwyneth Paltrow in the booklet, this could easily be one of those sampler CDs that you find glued to the front of second-rate music magazines. If there is a thematic thread that connects this motley assortment of minor players whose labels have bigger hopes for them (not coincidentally, I suspect, half of the artists featured here are on Atlantic, the label that put out the album), even one not connected to the film, I've missed it. An argument could be made that the Iggy Pop song "Success" deserved its place in the film, and the Grateful Dead's "Uncle John's Band", while incongruous here on the album, was incidental music in the movie, but the rest seemed blatantly needless, to me, although maybe I'd feel differently if I'd liked anything about the movie other than the rococo dissolution of Miss Havisham's rotting estate. The album's only saving grace, for me, in its independent sampler role, is that Tori Amos sings some wordless sighs over the introductory instrumental, which then leads to a new song of hers, the rugged, throbbing "Siren". "Reach high, / Doesn't mean she's holy; / Just means she's got a cellular handy", Tori intones, at one point, and I suspect that there's a story clawing at the shell of the song that will turn out to be much more interesting and complex than the stylish collision of pampered petulance and personality-less beauty the film attempted to pass off as Grand Romance.
Mychael Danna: The Sweet Hereafter
The models of how soundtracks should be constructed, in my new regime, will be anything by Michael Nyman, and this, Mychael Danna's ethereal score to Atom Egoyan's disturbing adaptation of Russell Banks' portrait of a small Canadian town coping with the aftermath of a school-bus crash, The Sweet Hereafter. Not only do the wintery instrumentals contribute to the surreal serenity of the film, rather than trying to coopt it to sell solo records from half-recovered drug addicts, but the five pieces with vocals are all sung with a wispy, graceful artlessness by Canadian actress Sarah Polley, who plays the young songwriter in the movie. Polley and Danna co-wrote one of the songs, Sarah wrote her own lyrics for two of the others, and the last two are covers of songs by Canadian writers, Jane Siberry's "One More Colour" (the film opens with Polley's character's band rehearsing this song, selling me a copy of the soundtrack instantly) and the Tragically Hip's "Courage". Ironically (if my own statistically insignificant spending pattern can constitute irony), the Great Expectations marketing juggernaut won't sell me anything I wasn't already going to buy, but this soundtrack, which asks for nothing, got me to go out and buy the Tragically Hip album "Courage" came from. But possibly I'm being unreasonable; I have no idea whether Gwyneth Paltrow can sing.