Stand With Moses
170 · 30 April 98
Tony Butler: The Great Unknown
Here, in its entirety, is the body of wisdom concerning home ownership that I've so far accumulated during nine months of it: whenever you go to Home Depot to get supplies for anything (and the first insight is that shopping at Home Depot and owning a home are two names for the same condition), buy the thing you think you need, but also buy two other things that seem wrong in subtle, and preferably opposite, ways. The main reason for doing this, practically self-evident once the precept is stated, is that the thing you think you need is always wrong. There's a mathematical proof of this principle, I feel sure, but the easiest way to convince yourself of its truth is to go to Home Depot and buy only the "right" thing a few times, and observe that invariably when you get home try to attach it (all home-ownership tasks require attaching something, usually after it has fallen off for no good or apparent reason), you find that the one you got is functionally inadequate by the smallest possible margin, and what you really needed is the other one you picked up and then put down. So don't put it down. If the thing in question is too expensive to buy three of, back slowly away from it, leave the store empty handed, and hire somebody who knows what they're doing.
You will be tempted to disobey this rule, and buy just one thing, because most of the things you'll need to attach to your home seem painfully simple. My most recent project, now that even New England has conceded to Spring, was to dig the scraggly remnants of two creatures that in some former life probably thought of themselves as shrubs out of my front yard, where by "yard" I mean a patch of ground no larger than fifteen by fifteen, which just happens to be outside the sagging fence, currently held up by a combination of a Cambridge historical marker cemented into the sidewalk in the direction the fence would otherwise have fallen by now and a reinforcing array of interstitial deck screws (my last project), that delineates the border between my "front" yard and my "back" yard. Plainly I needed a shovel to do this. Off to Home Depot. Home-maintenance proficiency can be expressed as a ratio between Home Depot trips and tasks: five to one is a respectable amateur rating, one to one is spectacular, and ratios below one can only be achieved when you get lucky and a new task requires one of the two wrong parts from the three you bought for a previous task. Now, a shovel is a particularly uncomplicated device. I suppose Dr. Roe, my high school physics teacher, would have insisted that a lever is simpler, but it's surprisingly difficult to purchase a lever. (Although if the Army used them, Dr. Roe would have acquired at least a dozen at surplus, and we could have used them to tip over all his surplus oscilloscopes and short-circuited Apple ][s, which I don't know why the Army had to begin with.) At any rate, I clomped cockily over to the Things You Use in Dirt department, orienteering with the handy portable GPS they give you when you enter a Home Depot, without which you'd never find your way back out of The Canyon of Unexplained Grommets. With unassailable self-assurance I plunged into the Forest of Digging Tools, selected a shovel-looking shovel-like device without an instant's hesitation or deliberation, spun around on one heel, and departed without a second thought.
Ha. All while levitating three inches above the floor and shooting sparks out of my ears. Maybe there really are people in the world that could just walk into Home Depot and grab a random shovel without scrutinizing every model on display, and constructing a mental comparison matrix with which to evaluate them, but they're not English. Forty-five minutes later (which is a good time, for me; it once took me three hours to buy one extremely unremarkable suitcase), there I still was, a gallery of shovels spread out before me, a puzzled frown on my face, and the sun setting over The Latch-and-Fastener Mountains. The shovel cognoscenti among you are nodding, smugly. Your basic wood-handled shield-bladed model, as used by kidnapping victims in mob movies to dig their own graves, is only the first character in an expressive alphabet of shovels. The shafts can be made out of a dizzying assortment of alloys, the blades come in a range of shapes like the tool kit of a Brobdingnag dentist, and that's before you even broach the subject of brand affiliation, every bit as critical in shovels as it is in athletic shoes or copier paper. At great length, I managed to narrow my options down to three: one nice, normal-looking shovel, an ungainly square-bladed contraption that billed itself as a gardening shovel (presumably useless for graves), and, for maximum error-protection, a "digging fork", which looked like something you'd use for eating shrimp the size of German Shepherds.
The normal shovel, unsurprisingly, proved pathetically ill-suited to the task. Were the shrub carcasses embedded in marzipan, it would have served admirably, but the rich, pliable East Cambridge soil is riddled with stingy, obstinate rocks, which make it impossible to sink a full-sized shovel more than two inches in the ground without first excavating the area with a hand trowel and probably an archeologist's brush, which was the exact knee-taxing tedium the whole shovel-buying expedition was designed to avert. The gardening shovel, which I quickly came to view as a mean-spirited prank, was so far out of its element that I was unable to drive it far enough into the ground for it to stand upright (although, to be fair, I found a use for it later). The fork, however, turned out to be exactly the right tool. Its tines slipped effortlessly into the narrow channels of soil between the rocks, roots and, for some reason, buried halves of bricks, and rather than digging the shrubs out, per se, I kind of pried at them until they were finally too weary to cling to the earth any longer.
The carcasses were, once I finally got them free, pretty impressive. I don't know where you buy those coat-of-arms-shaped wooden plaques hunters mount elk heads on (actually, Home Depot probably has them), but I intend to find a pair and mount these two root-masses on them. They are better trophies than elk heads, truthfully, because the size of the elk head has no relation to the magnitude of the hunter's accomplishment. Huge, ancient, plodding elk, in fact, are probably the easiest targets, and hunters ought to take more pride in picking off the more nimble, elusive youngsters. The bigger the root, on the other hand, the harder it is to exhume. And to give them their credit, both of these roots fought gamely. The outcome was genuinely in doubt for the first ten minutes or so, and while arguably the second shrub's resistance, in the face of my convincing defeat of its companion, was slightly petty, I can't say I would have capitulated any more cooperatively in its place. I don't recall Man Versus Plant being one of the Eternal Conflicts that my sophomore high-school English teacher, Mr. Day, taught us all great literature revolved around, but as I tamped the battered dirt back into the shrubless holes with my handy gardening shovel, I felt suffused with the glow of a small, personal triumph.
As a soundtrack for small, personal triumphs, at least mine, it's difficult to imagine anything more appropriate than The Great Unknown, the debut solo album by Big Country bassist Tony Butler. Big Country song credits have often attributed songs to the whole band, rather than just leader Stuart Adamson, but I always assumed that was a politic way of saying that Tony came up with his own bass part, and his corpus of solo bylines was limited to two b-sides, "World on Fire" (from Save Me), and the instrumental "On the Shore" (from Broken Heart). Added to Big Country's subterranean profile in the US, and the fact that The Great Unknown was released on Tony's own deliberately local Cornwall label Great West Records (www.cornwall-online.co.uk/gwr), these things add up to an album destined for consumption chiefly by neighbors, family members and those few of us to whom Big Country music is more dear than many of our own internal organs, and one I half expected to enjoy owning more than listening to.
To my surprise and intense delight, however, and I don't know if this means that Tony had more to do with Big Country songs than I assumed, or just that he paid attention to how they were made, The Great Unknown turns out to sound like an entire album of Big Country b-sides. Whether this prospect will seem appealing to people who haven't completed their collection of Big Country a-sides yet, I won't hazard a guess, but to me, who cherishes every Big Country footnote with the enthusiasm of a hyperactive terrier cherishing a laminated pork chop, an album of fourteen of them is close to overwhelming. "The Great Unknown", thick with unmistakably Big Country-esque Celtic guitar hooks, is a breathtaking anthem, Tony's beguilingly artless lead vocals, Tom Jamieson's solidly uncomplicated drumming and Josh Philips' bleating and slightly out-of-tune synthesizer figures combining to make it sound like a block diagram for a song originally meant to be polished later, whose sketched lines turn out to have a calligraphic personality of their own. "Living Side by Side" opens with another trademark bagpipe-phrasing trill, but by the chorus slips into disarmingly chirpy guitar lashing, yearning harmonies that aspire to pop charm but get sidetracked just before reaching it, and a melody that builds its tension by slowing down, rather than speeding up, so that the rest of the song appears to accelerate around it. "I Believe in Angels" is one of the album's few bass showcases, Tony balancing a sweet, gentle ballad on the points of a restless, evasive bass line. "When the Trees Come Down" switches to chattering synth-bass, a square drum pattern and some keyboard string runs whose collective dance-beat propulsiveness reminds me of solo Fish. "Mist in Your Moonlight" is a pounding, urgent hard-rock blast in roughly the mold of Big Country's last two albums, but the stiff, self-conscious way Tony sings "Always high on crack, / You disgust me" reminds me how foreign rock's usual knowing decadence remains to Big Country's conception of arena thunder. The lilting, buoyant "The May Queen Leads Her Parade" is perhaps the album's farthest remove from Big Country's usual demesne, with airy synth-flute hooks that wouldn't be out of place on early Three O'Clock records, chiming twelve-string guitar that seems about to break into "Don't Pay the Ferryman", and a sunny, pastoral narrative that is the emotional antithesis of "Porrohman" or "Chance".
"Pleasuretime" slips back into several Big Country idioms, with an arid, howling guitar hook and simmering organ fills from the No Place Like Home era, and Big Country drummer Mark Brzezicki making a heavily syncopated guest appearance, but the theatrical voice-overs and the cheerful government-official paranoia in the lyrics lack Adamson's characteristic menace. The chanting, sinister "Old Money" sounds like early solo Fish again. The jaunty, twanging country stomp "Can You See Heaven" somehow modulates into brass flourishes instead of banjo plunk, with Brzezicki, in the other of his two appearances, wearing the song's jangly strut with much the same bemused smirk that betrayed Ethan Hawke's droopy mustache throughout the otherwise turgid The Newton Boys. Tony's bass resurfaces on the booming "Oblivion Road", along with some emotion-strained vocals, a few flanged, burbling sequencer fly-bys, and a little sampler dicing of the background vocals borrowed, in spirit, from old Big Country extended remixes. "How Many Times", more measured, ends up somewhere between Big Country's "Just a Shadow" and Midge Ure. "The Man With the Hooded Face" is back to slabs of guitar again, though, like a cross between Big Country's "Winter Sky" and "God's Great Mistake". "But I Still Want You", with sparkly chorus rounds, strummed twelve-string salvos and galloping drums, flits through momentary impressions of Boston, Cat Stevens and Semisonic. And the dense, incongruously soaring poverty lament "Everyday", the finale, sounds like an inconclusive in-studio skirmish between Big Country and Tears for Fears. Now, admittedly, I absorb Big Country material with an assiduousness that makes the people who collect volumes of J.R.R. Tolkien's grocery receipts look like bored regional sales reps buying the shorter Stephen King novels in airports, but that doesn't mean I can't tell the difference between a good Big Country-related album and a bad one. I can. At least, I think I can. But when they're all as great as this, how would I know?
Big Country: Brighton Rock
As the gap between Big Country's own studio albums (the last being 1995's Why the Long Face) stretches into its third year, it's some comfort that the pile of delaying-maneuver compilations and concert recordings continues to grow in parallel. Last year's Brighton Rock, a recording of a 1995 concert, and the sixth live album released since Without the Aid of a Safety Net in 1994 (including Radio One, BBC and King Biscuit sessions, as well as the unplugged half-covers album Eclectic), is actually the first one to document the band in a full electric set from this decade, and the track listing, for once, seems to be aimed at current fans rather than impulse buyers with a glimmer of nostalgic fondness for "In a Big Country". Almost half of the thirteen-song, sixty-five-minute set comes from Why the Long Face itself: the roaring "God's Great Mistake", the plaintive, reeling "You Dreamer", an extended, effervescent rendition of "Sail Into Nothing", the crashing "Thunder & Lightning", an unhurried "I'm Not Ashamed" and a sly, twinkly, mandolin rout of "Post Nuclear Talking Blues". The rest of the selection skims through the rest of the band's catalog with equanimity, choosing the churning, explosive "Alone" from 1993's The Buffalo Skinners, a fierce resuscitation of the title track from their oft-neglected 1988 fourth album Peace in Our Time, the straightforward single "Look Away" and the intricate album track "Eiledon" from 1986's The Seer, and the between-albums single "Wonderland", still my favorite song in the world. And although they don't do "In a Big Country", they do end with two other standards from their first album, "Chance" and "Fields of Fire", but after more than a decade not of depending on these songs but of investing the band's soul in them, I think they are entitled to play them whenever they want.
Two impressions war in me as I listen to this record. One is joy, as pure as it comes in music. Big Country are my favorite band, and hearing them in such good health, twelve years on, as if their diminished commercial fortunes mean nothing to them, renders me nearly incapacitated with pride and hope. I'm on record as saying that Everclear are the best rock band in the world today, but that's my public position, which has to be couched to fit into public discourse in some clear manner. In the privacy of my own home, where even the walls know these songs by heart by now, there is no doubt in my mind that Big Country are really the best. And so, too, a part of me boils with frustration, as I listen to this recording of another glorious concert, that I don't have the power to make other people hear it. Not only is Big Country every bit as powerful as Everclear, they are powerful in a very similar way, and though their passions derive from different cultural contexts, they are even products of similar social forces. The resolutions they arrive at are different, and nobody who studies the two would ever confuse the sad, circumscribed existence of "You Dreamer" with the desperate claustrophobia of Everclear's "Sunflowers", however structurally similar, but it seems to me that the two are not so far apart that there isn't room for them both in the public heart. A missionary compulsion grips me, like I should set out to convince people one by one, crossing the nation with a speaker on each shoulder, because surely the only reason they don't love this music is that they haven't heard it. If I play it for them, they will thank me, and the world will brighten, mile by mile. This is strong, vital music, music born of the same impulses that make digging dead shrubs out of stubborn earth cathartic, and a nation nourished on it would draw strength from the ground, and the air, and exult in worthy victories instead of trying to mold each other into convenient enemies. It would be greater, I know it would.
I also know, of course, that that's exactly what makes missionaries so insufferable. But I know, too, why they persist.