Times When I Was Enchanted
169 · 23 April 98
Here is the kind of arbitrary association that derails me. The trilogy I just finished reading, Michael Kube-McDowell's Trigon Disunity, features a mysterious alien race, which the humans call the Mizari, bent on merciless galactic extermination. No guide to pronunciation is provided, so for all I know Kube-McDowell meant "Mizari" as a simple pun on "misery", but I insisted, page after page, on misreading it as Mizrahi, as in Isaac Mizrahi, the ebullient fashion designer portrayed in the film Unzipped. The motives behind the Mizari's black stars (sort of like the Death Star without the goofy built-in weaknesses and inanely impractical interior design) aren't revealed until the end of the series, and although the books have been out of print for years I'm still reluctant to spoil the ending for you, but it is enough to know that it wasn't poor clothes sense that offended them. But imagine if it were. Imagine a universe in which Draconian military judgmentalism was the province not of blunt, narrow-minded ideology, but of dizzy, expressive flamboyance. Imagine Isaac Mizrahi, at the helm of an Imperial Dreadnought, looking down at the Earth in his cross-hairs, and condemning it, with a single distasteful shudder culminating in the depression of the Fire button, not for the hubris of existing, or our appalling disdain for our own biosphere, but for our inadequately developed sense of personal style. It's not, and I think I found Mizrahi so appealing in the film, despite having a decided aversion to high fashion in general, because this is how he seemed to evaluate the world, that we fail to adhere to any specific codes of dress and comportment, it's that we don't seem to have given the matter any thought at all. It isn't a certain juxtaposition of fabric patterns for which he will destroy us, it's a failure to take the projection of our personalities into our appearance and behavior seriously (or else perhaps, in some cases, there is no personality to project).
Rock and fashion have had a tumultuous relationship, punctuated by acrimonious dissolutions and tearful subsequent reconciliations, but currently they seem to be going through an extended period of estrangement. One of the most striking differences, in fact, to me, between Kurt Cobain's iteration of punk and the Sex Pistols' original one is the character of the rebound. The Sex Pistols eviscerated the theatrical pretensions of progressive rock, but while it's tempting to call torn leather jackets held together with safety pins and bits of flags an anti-fashion statement, the "anti-" is semantically misleading. Punk's image, as Malcolm McLaren would be the first to admit, made sense only in conscious opposition to existing fashion. It was dissent couched in the vocabulary of its enemy, much like teenage Satanism is rebellion expressed entirely within the parameters of organized Christianity, and no matter how much superficial destruction this kind of defiance can wreak in the short term, in the long term it tends to actually reinforce the belief system, by constraining even insurrection to its internal logic. And so it should not be surprising that the echoes of first-wave punk turned so quickly into New Wave, which was in many ways (Culture Club, A Flock of Seagulls, Adam Ant, etc.) even more theatrical than anything punk displaced. Nirvana's incarnation of punk, on the other hand, was completely oblivious to fashion. Ad agencies did their best to derive a movement from Kurt's attire, but the truth was that the Sex Pistols were intentionally dressing up, and Kurt and Krist were just wearing the clothes they always wore. Nirvana didn't just reject the prevailing fashion (which was, Janet Jackson videos notwithstanding, already largely unraveled by that point), they rejected fashion itself. And the visual imagelessness of Nirvana, no doubt to the glee of the executives at the Gap, lives on in Hootie, and the Wallflowers, and Oasis, at least as strongly as the effects of their music. Fashion has ended up temporarily (and not for the first time: remember the Eagles and disco) the property of dance music, and its allied forms of pop like the Spice Girls, which are really fashion constructs first and musical ones only incidentally.
And I don't mean to suggest that this was not, on the whole, a positive development, but if intelligent nostalgia consists of collecting the noble impulses of the past, not to relive them but just to have learned from them, then a part of me is certainly nostalgic for New Wave. I had a bleached Mohawk in the mid-Eighties, and wore floppy, elfin boots and bandannas tied around limbs, and learned to dance to the Cure without moving (or looking up from) my feet, and I have a great fondness for the memory. We cared what we looked like. You can argue that we wasted a lot of valuable time getting dressed, and that we basically looked silly, despite the effort, and that finally streamlining things to black jeans and oversized T-shirts was an overdue simplification, but it's hard to deny that the world is less interesting, now, to look at. And to the extent that our visual attitudes affect our musical ones (and all forms of artistic expression modulate each other, I think), much of contemporary rock music can seem, when this is what I'm looking for, to be missing a piece. Sure, there's always Marilyn Manson, but it used to be that everyone set out to be gods, and I miss that sense of pervasive wonder, when I was fifteen, when every new band sounded like they wanted to live forever. And not, like Oasis, by just standing still and waiting for the world to encase them in a protective sheath of congealed saliva.
And thus my fierce pride in the little collections of old-fashioned ambition I periodically accumulate. We don't have to mindlessly recycle the Eighties, but it's nice to think that some of the decade's spark outlived the digits. Elements of the music of the Scottish quintet Geneva, notably the busy, churning drums, the measured loud-soft dynamic shifts and the jagged edges of the guitars, are marks of lineage continuity through Manchester rave, Blur/Oasis Britpop and American post-Nirvana guitar rock, but these don't seem to me like the details by which they define themselves. Holding the austerely-designed cover of Further up to the garish, willfully ugly cover of Nirvana's Incesticide, for example, outlines the magnitude of the difference. The rich, swirling, reverberant space their guitars inhabit is, like the cinemascope picture of the single tree on the cover, simultaneously an expression of emptiness and elegance. Nirvana's cut-and-paste typography resembles Kurt's voice, unpolished and unadorned; the thin, clean lines and simple faces of "geneva" and "further" are the incarnations, in type, of Andrew Montgomery's aching, ethereal falsetto. The dense strings sweep in, like the winter fog on the back cover, to wrap a layer of gauzy obscurity over the bare skeletons of the songs. Dreams of Echo and the Bunnymen and the Smiths spiral through these arrangements, atmospheric hush and airy melancholy. The most obvious recent point of reference is Suede, but Suede's languid androgyny was a form of glam decadence, and Geneva's seems more naïve, less omnisexual than asexual. On the slower songs, to me, the effect is a bit like standing in front of a dry-ice fog machine on a hot night: the air is cool, and the isolation is eerie, but after a while I start feeling a little claustrophobic.
But this chilly calm is like white space, necessary for the showpieces to be presented correctly, which too many people haven't the discipline to avoid scribbling in. Geneva's defining moments, then, for me, are the ones the slow songs provide a setting for, in which the group's crystalline composure cracks, just a little bit, and the nervous ghost of some forgotten rock band infiltrates their metabolism. "Into the Blue" is a roiling four-way duel between burbling, insistent bass runs, spiky, slashing washes of guitar, machine-gun snare tattoos and Montgomery's drifting, angelic voice. "Best Regrets" combines heavenly-choir strings that might have made the Walker Brothers self-conscious, a quick, crisp drum track, a fiery, pealing guitar hook and a vocal part that finds Montgomery straining at the limits of his reserve. "No One Speaks", half orchestral effusion and half violent, blurting guitar noise, could be their tribute to the Manic Street Preachers. The halting crescendos of "Worry Beads" (in which, at length, and disappointedly, I've realized Montgomery is saying "playing mind games", not "playing Mayan games") have some of the textural contrast of the Rose Chronicles, or a blearier Curve. And the muttering sequencer lines, cymbal crashes, guitar cacophonies and distended verses of "In the Years Remaining" sound more than a little like a younger, less-bitter Radiohead. It's an unapologetically frothy record, but there's room for those, too, and when they get the balance between ambience and resolve just right, it makes me think we might be able to live on ice cream.
If bands were created by twisting knobs on an enormous band-making machine, like a console in Willy Wonka's chocolate factory, Puressence (whose second album is due out soon, but I only just tracked down an import copy of this 1996 debut) could be what you get by taking Geneva's settings and turning the intensity up a notch or two. Singer James Mudriczki's falsetto is a bit less innocent than Andrew Montgomery's, a bit more apt to slide into emotive trills at the ends of words, trading a little angelic purity for a bit of mortal frailty. The band, a quartet, is fonder of propulsive guitar roar than Geneva, and less intrigued by strings, and so ends up resembling the Chameleons more than Echo and the Bunnymen or the Smiths. Puressence's slow songs are tense, not becalmed, and tend to coil into themselves not as a gesture of retreat but in preparation for springing into some noisy display of animosity. "Near Distance" hangs on a dark, cyclical guitar-echo frame that sounds a bit like the Edge shifted down two or three octaves. "I Suppose" hints at My Bloody Valentine and Killing Joke, oblique contrapuntal verses giving way to a furious guitar howl. The sinister "Mr. Brown" sounds to me, musically, like a cross between the Chameleons and Whipping Boy, but Mudriczki's unearthly wail, levitating over the clamor, refuses to be enveloped by its accompaniment. The mordant "Understanding", with its weird, bleating, Gene-Loves-Jezebel-ish harmonies, could be a Carly Simon song mangled by Thom Yorke. If the bouncy, chattering "Casting Lazy Shadows", with its chiming acoustic-guitar core and wandering reverse-reverb hooks, were a little faster it might sound like early Wonder Stuff. "You're Only Trying to Twist My Arm", perhaps the most Radiohead-like moment here, snaps back and forth between a crashing, uneasy drum line and a harrowing guitar catharsis. "Every House on Every Street" is Puressence's gentle pop song, though Mudriczki's tendency to alight on unexpected notes manages to undermine most of its pop nature, which leaves the song's unsettling conception of "gentle" somewhere between Tori Amos and Bauhaus. And "India", the seething, epic finale, with a hammering kick-drum foundation like the heartbeat of the monster that swallowed you, and enough guitar turbulence to make you think the monster is undergoing re-entry, is a fierce conclusion to an album that could be the blizzard to match Geneva's after-storm stillness.
And as with Further, my favorite moment is in the middle of the album, both physically and conceptually. For one short song, "Traffic Jam in Memory Lane", all Puressence's disquieting tendencies seem to me to put aside their differences and line up to imbue the melody with enough drama and heartbreak to tear an island free of the ocean floor. The guitars surge like a flight of swans wearing jet packs, the drums snap into hi-hat double-time for the frenetic choruses, and Mudriczki lets a perfect, glittering melody lead him through its own graceful turns, for once, without trying to bend it out of the way right when the hook is supposed to actually sink in. "There's a traffic jam in memory lane. / I'm going to try to drink myself out", he sighs, and while I have no sympathy for drinking as a method of denial (nor, for that matter, for denial), the song itself is exactly the immersion in sense memory, for me, that the narrator seems to fear. This is how every song used to make me feel. All of them. There was a time when even "Hold the Line", by Toto, made me feel like the future held nothing but electrifying potential. Songs that can do that are rarer now. I think this resistance to instant euphoria is called "taste", and my life would be an unruly mess if I hadn't developed some, but it's immensely reassuring to be reminded, occasionally, that it's a filter, not a shell.
The Frank & Walters: Grand Parade
The other explanation is that it's the songs that have changed, not me. This theory is patently egotistical, and smacks of "music was better when I was young", which is a warning sign that you're in danger of aesthetic petrifaction, the thing of which those of us who ungraciously refuse to give up on new music when we turn thirty live in mortal fear. But however swiftly I reject this idea, intellectually, it's difficult to argue away my reaction to albums like Grand Parade. No matter what the copyright dates say, the Frank & Walters belong in 1984. This is the album you'd make after long afternoons closeted with The Crossing and Too-Rye-Ay and the first Icicle Works record and the Teardrop Explodes, with Prefab Sprout's Swoon and Echo and the Bunnymen's Porcupine and Billy Bragg's Life's a Riot With Spy Vs. Spy and the Smiths all wrestling in your head, with the Housemartins and the Dream Academy still in the future, yet, and the musical impulses that would eventually settle into Crowded House and Oasis and the Mighty Mighty Bosstones still in their Split Enz/Squeeze/Madness infancies. A decade of sampler splatter hasn't complicated Ashley Keating's drumming, Curve and Nirvana haven't warped Niall Linehan's guitar noise away from its jangly folk roots, and Paul Linehan still sings with the open-mouthed earnestness of a twenty-year-old caught between the punk realization that anybody can be a singer and the New Wave impulse to try to sing as well as he can, all the same. If the Undertones had, instead of breaking up after The Sin of Pride and splintering into That Petrol Emotion and Feargal Sharkey's solo career, been able to hold those two urges together, forget about soul, and make a leap like the one from the Skids to Big Country, or later from the Housemartins to the Beautiful South, the Frank & Walters might have been their next band. There is room here for them to mature, ringing pop songs free of their jittery punk adolescence, strings to absorb experiment, everything bigger and more confident. But so is there that spirit, of all the subsequent things that haven't been done yet, that I can't believe they've lived through the ensuing fourteen years without losing. Literal nostalgia, in the age of CD reissues, is a commodity; but "were we ever this young" amazement is a wholly different treasure when you get a chance to re-experience it, not just remember it.