Reading Me Under the Table
162 · 5 March 98
Tommy Keene: Isolation Party
There is a part of me -- the same part, I suspect, that would, if left in charge of my life for even a moment, probably contrive to have me spend the rest of it drinking solely cherry soda, or just driving my CRX back and forth over the short stretch of the McGrath-O'Brien highway that resembles an extremely benign roller coaster, a part hopelessly susceptible to the well-intentioned, but foolish, delusion that the shortest route to eternal happiness is the endless repetition of any arbitrary happy moment -- that wishes Tommy Keene would just, once a year or so, put out another album of songs exactly like "My Mother Looked Like Marilyn Monroe", from his 1986 album Songs From the Film, which remains my favorite one-song summary of his qualifications for pop immortality. Plaintive yearning and tragic loyalty are two of the emotions American guitar-pop expresses the most eloquently, I think, and there are few songs that synthesize the two as smoothly as Keene's aching ballad of lost potential and second-hand nobility.
But happiness, in the complex, durable sense I mean, is not a transient chemical syzygy, it's the conclusion of a long series of contingencies, transitions, contrasts, causes and effects. The emotional hold "My Mother Looked Like Marilyn Monroe" has on me is not a simple product of its chord structures and timbres, reducible to a formula if you could only find the right notation, it's inextricably entwined in a network of details, some as shadowy and general as Keene's concurrent mastery of pop inflection and enduring commercial obscurity, some as specific and seemingly trivial as the way the printing on the back of the LP's jacket is upside down, so that I always end up reading the track list with my head and arms at odd angles. The song would not be the same if it didn't share an album with the wistful "Places That Are Gone" and the skeptical "Paper Words and Lies", and certainly wouldn't be the same if it didn't follow Keene's tortured, but unfailingly melodic, rendition of Lou Reed's "Kill Your Sons". The fact that the album remains unavailable on CD, twelve years later, is part of the song's history, as well. Each new chapter in Keene's career adds to the song's legend and status, in my mind, and a large part of Keene's genius is exactly that he has not tried to recreate that one song over and over again. Perfection can be ruined by dilution as surely as by neglect. And so a component of my fierce pride, every time I find an opportunity to bring up "My Mother Looked Like Marilyn Monroe", is that Keene is still around, still writing breathtaking pop songs of a different sort, twelve years later. The new songs don't compete with the old one, they extend its legacy; another great album is that much more that "My Mother Looked Like Marilyn Monroe" was the beginning of.
Listening to Isolation Party, then, for me, is like reading another installment of a slow serialized novel that, while I don't know how it will end, I sense in my heart will end happily. The infrequent publishing schedule makes every chapter impossibly precious, and I devour them the moment they appear, half to satisfy my leftover impatience from the last episode, and half to maximize the deliciously tantalizing wait for the next one. In the past these gaps in Keene's career have been much too long, and have resulted in slightly jarring stylistic transitions, as if parts of the narration had been skipped and we rejoined it to find that new characters had infiltrated the story in our absence, but Isolation Party comes only two years after 1996's Ten Years After, apparently without any of the logistical catastrophes that have previously plagued him, and he takes advantage of this unprecedented continuity by making what seems to me to be his first album that is derived directly from its predecessor. Ten Years After began to morph the sweetly hesitant jangle of Songs From the Film and textural swirl of 1989's Based on Happy Times into something more elemental and propulsive, and Isolation Party continues the transformation, adding a touch of metal guitar crunch to the pop formula. The tightly controlled roar with which "Long Time Missing" opens the album sends me spinning through a crazed, dream-like series of associations that will probably stop making sense when I expose them to the air, but include referents as varied as the melancholy buzz of UFO circa Mechanix (an album that always sounds to me like the distilled aural essence of a hazy, restless teenage summer night), Roxette circa "Sleeping in My Car" (walls of guitar noise shimmering giddily like a stack of Marshalls made of gingerbread reaching to sparkly cotton-candy clouds) and Del Amitri circa Twisted (solos sighing with an elegant mixture of weariness, wisdom and affection). The credits don't say exactly which tracks part-time producer Jeff Murphy was responsible for, but I'm guessing this is one of them, as the understated production treatment given Tommy's voice here reminds me quite a bit of the sound of Murphy's own band, Shoes (power-pop legends in their own right, in my book). The production on Based on Happy Times, in particular, fought against Keene's nature, I thought, and while the unflinching intimacy on Songs From the Film was appropriate to that album's mood, Isolation Party is after a different effect, emphasizing the resonance of the music and pop's sense of magical suspension. Overdone this can easily turn cartoonish, but there's a subtle middle ground that smoothes out a voice the way a slow motion replay exaggerates the natural fluidity of an athlete's movement.
About half the songs on the album are hybrid pop/rock anthems of approximately this sort. The core trio, this time out, is Keene, long-time drummer John Richardson, and moonlighting Wilco bassist Jay Bennett, and they stomp through the simmering "Getting Out From Under You", the pounding "The World Outside", a tense but heroic rendition of Mission of Burma's angular "Einstein's Day" and the growls and slashes of "Love Dies Down" with an easy power-trio confidence that has graduated, perhaps, over the years, from a friend's garage to a friend's home studio without ever learning to take its own competence for granted. The other half of the record, intermingled with the pensive fight songs, is glowing, enchanted pop: the bright, ringing "Take Me Back"; the languid, earnest "Never Really Been Gone"; a pensive, lurching "Happy When You're Sad"; the sunny "Tuesday Morning", brimming with hand-claps, organ whine and breathy, wordless harmonies; the raw, pretty "Weak and Watered Down", like an emboldened Elliott Smith crossed with a less-psychedelic Three O'Clock; a swirling, Jules Shear-like "Twilight's in Town", lined with sentimental (but not maudlin) cello hum. The two songs that best encapsulate the album's charming, expansive compromise between youthful candor and tempered maturity, though, for me, are the resigned romantic ballad "Waiting Without You" and the channeled fury of "Battle Lines". "Waiting Without You" reminds me strongly of John Waite's "Missing You", and it cheers me to think that glossy mainstream balladry and cult-figure poise could be part of a single continuum. "Battle Lines", on the other hand, bends fiery guitar harmonics and slabs of distorted guitar to the service of timeless pop rapture like an inspired truce between Velvet Crush and Helmet. It is a quiet kind of genius, more a craftsman's eye and touch than a lunatic inventor's fitful passion, but music needs columns to hold up the center as much as it needs the guy wires from the peripheries, and Tommy Keene, to me, is one of the pillars that defend the unruly sprawl from collapse.
The Caulfields: L
The Caulfields could either be another pillar, or an especially jagged fragment of the maelstrom, depending on how closely you examine them (and depending on whether the rumors of their demise are accurate). I came across them when they opened for Del Amitri a couple tours ago, and although they had a few engaging choruses (the one that went "Is there one girl, / Just one girl who says / I'm bigger than Jesus now?", in particular, seemed like the kind of ingratiatingly glib refrain that would end up getting drummed into my head via incessant radio repetition), the record they were playing songs from wasn't out yet, and they sounded just a little too standard for me to make the effort to keep them in mind until it appeared. In the end, though, that song ("Devil's Diary") escaped overexposure (that's the kind way of putting it), and eventually I forgot that I'd made up my mind about the band already, and just remembered that I knew them from somewhere, so when I came across both their albums in the $.99 bin during my traditional January trip to the used CD store to buy anything I heard of but didn't know enough about to justify spending $15.99 on during the previous year, I bought them both.
The first one, 1995's Whirligig, sounded to me (and still sounds, even when I try to re-listen to it with hindsight) like disposable brat-pop. It's energetic, in the Green Day-like way that all bands whose members grew up in the suburbs after punk are energetic, but the songs, at best, seemed indifferently executed to me, draped limply over one hook apiece, like it was only by carefully rationing their small supply of good ideas that the band managed to fill a record. I didn't pay much attention to the lyrics, but the vague impression I got, through peripheral awareness, was that the band was another in the currently crowded field of groups staffed by jaded middle-class kids who skimmed through liberal-arts college picking up vocabulary words and cynicism but no real gravity. Records I buy for $.99 get exactly one chance to win me over, and this one went straight to the shelf. If I hadn't already spent a dollar on it, I would never have listened to the second one.
Once I've invited an album into my home, however, I feel a host's obligation towards it, and so they all get at least that one chance. L made the most of it. "Figure It Out" and "Skeleton Key" cartwheeled dizzily like Jason Falkner out-takes, "President of Nothing" sounded like Gin Blossoms possessed by the spirit of XTC, "Waiting to Cry" was like Verbow trying to impersonate Jellyfish, "Once Upon a Time" could be Joe Jackson singing with the Grays, "Invincible" seemed like what a sincere Ben Folds Five might sound like, and "Book of Your Life" and "Kitchen Debate" both reminded me vividly of the early Posies. "All I Want Is Out" was dark and muscular, "All Things to All People" glittery and bouncy, "Atlas Daughter" squalling and anxious, "Heaven on the Moon" churning and shiny, "Beard of Bees" throbbing and distorted, "Tomorrow Morning" heart-wrenching and "Born Yesterday" surging and enraged. I fully expected to find, when I checked the credits for the two albums, that there'd been drastic personnel changes between them, but the cast is exactly the same. I've gone back and forth between them a few times, trying to isolate a quality or two that explains my divergent reactions, but so far I haven't come up with anything beyond the simple observation that the first album mostly bores me and the second one refuses to let me go for even a measure. I'm going to assume, because giving up and calling it subjective is frustrating, that the band just got better. But whether it's me or them that changed, L sounds to me like a minor pop masterpiece, and one of the few albums to combine the Falkner/Grays/Jellyfish/Posies/XTC school of melodic excess with the post-grunge/indie axis of straightforward rock arrangements without sounding either precious or apathetic.
It was only when I started listening to singer John Faye's lyrics, though, that L really began to sink its teeth into me. In fact, when I get out the booklet for Whirligig and read through it, I discover that I underestimated even the first album's songs, and almost all the bits that seemed merely clever in isolation seem genuinely smart to me in context. Behind the romantic longing of "Devil's Diary" is a bracing realization that to get meaningful affirmation from another person you have to find somebody whose opinion you care about. The slacker's rejoinder in "Awake on Wednesday" is "Decaying is believing in this town". "Alex Again" is a creepy story about what abuse can do to even somebody who appears to have survived it. "The Day That Came and Went" is a song to a departed father that can't quite muster the unambivalent recrimination of Everclear's "Father of Mine". "If we all seem petrified / It doesn't mean we're hard", warns "Fragile", a sort of inversion of any number of "Dear God" songs that isn't so much interrogating God as trying to explain humanity to him. "Hannah, I Locked You Out" is as candid an acceptance of the blame for a failed relationship as any Mark Eitzel or Justin Currie song.
L is, if anything, even more poignant. The narrator of "Figure It Out" talks himself out of every tentative conclusion he ever draws. "President of Nothing" is a bizarre anthem of empty triumphs, "Waiting to Cry" a similar anthem of failed empathy. "Once Upon a Time" is a haunting autopsy of a relationship that could never get past its own storybook preconceptions. "Invincible" points out that the inescapable flip-side of invincibility is loneliness. "The Kitchen Debate" pines for youth's refusal (or inability) to mistake complacency for fulfillment. "Atlas Daughter", a sequel of sorts to "Alex Again", juggles the mythological and geographic meanings of "atlas". "Heaven on the Moon" is the Caulfields' version of "My Generation", a song about not the difficulty of living but the difficulty of dying correctly. "Beard of Bees", a perversely mixed metaphor of media pressure, expired counter-culture credentials and meaningless sex, is an anti-anthem to make Too Much Joy proud. And "Tomorrow Morning" is half a beautifully plaintive plea for reconciliation and half a pathetic fixation on a hopeless dream. Mining a low self-opinion for subject matter is currently a frighteningly popular tactic, with Ben Folds perhaps the most accomplished practitioner, but I get the feeling that Faye, unlike Folds, is learning something from the introspection.
The Negro Problem: Post Minstrel Syndrome
But the Caulfields are somber centrists compared to the Negro Problem, whose florid, chaotic debut album, Post Minstrel Syndrome, is one of the most irrepressibly erratic records I've heard in a long time. It's clear enough from the outset that the Negro Problem intend to be difficult, since they've picked a name that may as well be "The Negro Problem (The Lead Singer Is Black)", because you have to cite them that way to avoid getting lynched. There's a serious point behind this dangerous gambit: jangly guitar pop is an overwhelmingly white province. White musicians have traditionally had relatively little trouble crossing over into "Black" genres, but Black musicians, especially male ones, have encountered strong resistance on the rare occasions when they try to make the reverse journey. I can only find two other examples besides the Negro Problem in my own collection (funk-metal band Living Colour, and Eighties retro-ists The Veldt), and the most telling detail, I think, is that in all three cases skin-color is such an issue that even the band's names allude to it (as well as the titles of the Living Colour album Stain and the Veldt album Afrodisiac). Yes, admittedly, Hootie and the Blowfish have sold a lot of records, but so did Vanilla Ice; this doesn't change the fact that it's much easier to name white hip-hop artists than it is to think of Black bands that sound like REM or Cracker.
Musically, though, skin color is wildly irrelevant. Post Minstrel Syndrome is a reeling, hallucinatory experience, something like Kool-Aid spiked with Essence of Superball. Chirpy falsetto harmonies, abrupt meter-shifts, Let's Active/B-52's-style early New Wave twang, late-Beatles experimentalism, melodramatic string swells, spacey prog-rock keyboard flourishes, goofy pop-cultural references, sly quasi-Beach Boys cheer, folk-pop restraint, Randy Newman-ish piano-strut showmanship, wide-eyed show-tune literalness, low-fi production quirks, a deadpan cover of Jimmy Webb's "MacArthur Park" that sounds more like Joni Mitchell than Donna Summer, a little unselfconscious jamming and song titles like "If You Would Have Traveled on the 93 North Today" and "2 Inch Dick Mobile" coexist with what I guess has to be equanimity, in that it all sounds about equally bizarre to me. On some passes this moiré-pattern cacophony is overwhelming, and I wish the band had made up their mind what they wanted to be. The five bonus tracks (three that might pass for early Simon and Garfunkel songs, one aggravating tape collage and one chiming boy-girl duet) are symptomatic, I think, of the band's stylistic indecision, and I have a feeling that if CDs could hold more music this album might easily have meandered on for another hour before the band ran out of ideas. On my tolerant days, though, this seems like as good a way to make an album as any. If I wouldn't want to listen to just one kind of music, why should a band be restricted to playing just one? This album is infectious in a more viral sense than I usually mean, but given how much human effort is expended in the quest to simulate fevered delirium, and the cost and side-effects of most of the other methods, a $16 CD that makes you think for an hour that you might be losing your mind could be music's version of an Everlasting Gobstopper rolled in peyote.