Gascoigne 91 (Romario, Harkes)
176 · 11 June 98
Soul Asylum: Candy From a Stranger
I miss John Harkes. I understand, intellectually, why Steve Sampson cut him from the US World Cup team. We've got too many midfielders, even playing six of them at a time, and it's hard to argue that Harkes is a world-class defender (although I'm pretty sure he's a better defender than Jeff Agoos is a midfielder). But for this argument to be responsive, you must accept the principle that international soccer is supposed to be an intellectual matter, and I don't. A country's soccer team should represent it, not in an abstract, nominal, amorphous way, but individually, with every last person on the roster. I want to support these players, not just because they're wearing US shirts, but because I've spent enough time attaching emotional import to their fortunes that they are already significant figures in my life. Mike Burns isn't Roberto Carlos, but I've sat in the third row at Foxboro watching him nudge countless outlet passes upfield with the same distracted sweep of his right foot, beginning countless Revolution attacks, as Sisyphusian a labor as they come, and when I see him make that same, stubbornly optimistic pivot against Germany, Yugoslavia and Iran, I will feel like something of me is starting upfield with him. I know the way Joe-Max Moore's hair collapses into a stringy mess even before he's halfway through warm-ups. I know the way Alexi Lalas turns, after a faster attacker has whizzed by him. I know the look on Brian McBride's face after he heads a perfect cross three feet over the crossbar. I know Kasey Keller's bored, supercilious frown as he takes a goal kick after a near miss that he probably, his expression insists, had covered. As the team runs onto the field, my mind is replaying Ernie Stewart's outstretched tip-in in '94, Tab Ramos' blast into the corner against Costa Rica in Portland, Preki's two curving highlight-reel strikes in the Gold Cup, Marcelo Balboa's header with his face planted in the grass. Nobody in their right mind really believes the US is the eleventh best team in the world, as FIFA's last ranking claims, but that's fine. We are behind, as a soccer nation, and part of the thrill of supporting the national team, and MLS, is watching them slowly, steadily improve. Some day we'll win the World Cup (the men, I mean; the women will already have a closet full by then), and the greatest joy will be to be able to say we earned it.
Which is why it seems so tragically misguided to me that David Regis is on the team, and John Harkes isn't. I'm happy to have Regis as a fellow citizen, but he hasn't earned the right to represent me to the world. International soccer is one of the few corners of sports left where long-term loyalty is still viable (is enforced, even), and rushing a French defender through his exams two weeks before the Cup is the worst sort of mercenary concession. When Sampson declared Harkes "Captain for Life", however long ago that was, it was an astonishing gesture, in stark contrast to the usual fickle, calculating approach to coaching, and I wanted to believe he really meant it, that he would rather lose with the heroes we've made than win with whatever Regises and Deerings he could round up at the last minute. And this, too, is why, if I were coaching England, I'd take Gascoigne with me, fractured cheekbone and extra pounds and all, and if I were coaching Brazil I'd take Romario, even if he could only stand on the sideline and remonstrate. It doesn't matter how much you improve your odds by leaving them home, because you hollow out the meaning of success twice as badly. A World Cup isn't about statistics, it's about narratives of national identity. Switching characters sixty-four pages before the end of a sad story doesn't make it happy, all it does is render it nonsensical.
And so, in music, this is why I keep diligently buying records by bands I've grown to love. Soul Asylum's fate matters to me. A new album is significant because it exists, because it is another chapter in a story I've resolved to see through to the end, because to me everything Dave Pirner says before and after "Nice Guys (Don't Get Paid)" is part of understanding in which senses he was correct, because he caught America in an unguarded moment in "Black Gold" and I want to find out what else he's seen. I know his shortcomings, but I've adopted them. I know the trajectory the band has been tracing into the mainstream, but I follow it because I know where they came from, and the details of their adaptation say as much about the world they insinuate themselves into as they do about the fringes they've abandoned.
In one sense, then, Candy From a Stranger is an unapologetically normal rock record. The ragged punk roar of Made to Be Broken is nowhere to be found, and even Pirner's gradual embrace of folk and country restraint has largely mutated into languid rock assurance. If you punch through these tracks in the impatient quest for a jolt from exposed wiring, you'll probably get to the end without finding one. Dozens of bands make records like this, you might protest, and I wouldn't argue. But what this dismissal misses is the history. The remarkable thing, I think, isn't that Soul Asylum records still sound bracing and strange, it's that they have been one of the forces that have changed the parameters of normal. Pirner's sad, creaky voice has gotten better, over the years, but we've also grown accustomed to it, and to voices like it. Warm, distorted guitars didn't always sound this melancholy and affectionate to us; busy, snapping snare drums weren't always this infectious; slide guitar idioms weren't always this routine; power chords and mandolins weren't always such familiar companions. The squalling solo lines, stop-start rhythm guitar, gang backing vocals and plaintive affirmations of "Creatures of Habit"; Pirner's lurching rhymes and the dense, swirling choruses of "I Will Still Be Laughing"; the ping-ponging guitar feedback, aching resignation and crescendo bluffs of "Close"; the breathy pop harmonies, cycling guitar loops and telegraphed modulations of "See You Later"; the Velvet Crush-like post-Byrds jangle of "No Time for Waiting"; the piano sentimentality of "Blood Into Wine"; the nervous, noisy churn and evasive melody of "Lies of Hate" (as much like a Pearl Jam song, in structure, as Pirner's wail on the chorus is like a throwback to Hüsker Dü); the graceful lilt and sing-song forced cheer of "Draggin' the Lake"; the nasal, wavering admonitions and incongruous bluegrass twinkles of "New York Blackout"; the slinky r&b bass strut and "doo doo" backing vocals of "The Game"; and the atmospheric drift and pealing catharsis of "Cradle Chain": all these things sound, to me, coming out of my speakers on a cool summer night, like elements of rock convention to which Soul Asylum are entitled, because they participated in their introduction. They are parts of the bridges from Nirvana to Live, from Tommy Keene to Counting Crows, and even in retrospect from the Eagles to X, and if Soul Asylum has turned out to be less notorious than some of those others, perhaps they are also more illustrative. It isn't a very glamorous niche, nor much of a tourist attraction, I guess, but neither are most of the places where people go, unobtrusively, about living perfectly good lives.
Mike Peters: Rise
Quiet, stubborn survival could ask for no better icon than ex-Alarm singer Mike Peters, who seems to me to have forged a solo career from the unpromising rubble of the Alarm through sheer strength of will. If I'd been in the Alarm, and then I'd made Peters' Breathe and Feel Free, I think I would have given up. I don't mean that they're bad records, merely that the Alarm, at least in the early days, had such a clear sense of direction that almost anything is bound to seem aimless by comparison. The Alarm couldn't extricate themselves from the shadow of U2, in the end, and Peters' solo albums, to me, were no more successful in shaking the ghost of the Alarm, his bits of electronic experimentation even more helpless to dislodge the past than the songs where he tried to outdo his younger self in its own voice. But I owe him for "Where Were You Hiding When the Storm Broke?", and "Absolute Reality", and "Deeside", and "No Frontiers", and rock doesn't have a pension plan, so I'll keep buying his records as long as he wants to keep making them.
And perhaps it's partly because I've stopped asking for anything from his records that Rise is able to surprise me. Where the shadows fall, on the earlier records, is a function of where you stand when you shine the spotlight on them, and I doubt it's coincidence that his music starts to make its own sense to me right when I stop trying to turn him into a finger-puppet remake of his former band. Rise reminds me of nothing so much as Mike Scott's Still Burning, another balanced, appealing record by the ex-singer of a band that traded in overwhelming drama. "In Circles", "Transcendental" and "High on the Hill" are sturdy, unhurried rock songs. "Rise" and "First Light", slower, are calm and poised. "You Are to Me" reminds me alternately of Simple Minds and Neil Diamond. "My Calling" climbs to a shamelessly Beatlesque chorus. "The Wasting Land" is breathless, dashing pop. The furious "Ground Zero" mixes raw, crashing verses with an anthemic chorus as rousing as anything from Mike's past. The synth gurgling and drum loops in "White Noise (Part II)" feel completely natural to me, for once, where the sequencer interludes on the other two albums usually seemed as contrived and ill-advised as Warren Beatty's rapping, though admittedly it helps that the song erupts into pure guitar charge for long stretches. And "Burnout Syndrome", the extended finale, is by turns psychedelic, blaring, bloopy, tense, strident, conciliatory, desperate, weary and inviting. I should go back and listen to the other two records again, now that I've grasped this one. Maybe he stopped shouting four years ago, and I've been listening too loudly to notice.
New Model Army: Strange Brotherhood
I've pretty much given up on ever running a record label, not because I don't want to any more, but because somebody keeps beating me to all the projects I had in mind. The latest intruders, Eagle Records, seem bent on reviving at least the distribution fortunes of all sorts of people I might have tried to rescue myself. The Mike Peters album is theirs, as is Gary Numan's Exile and the comic-tie-in repackaging of his prior Numa album, Sacrifice, as Dawn, and it's their logo on the back of this new New Model Army album, as well. NMA almost ended up as an exception to my usual policy of lifelong adherence, not because they committed any egregious crime of stylistic departure, but because their career arc from Vengeance to Impurity seemed so self-contained, to me, that when they sort of started all over again, on 1993's The Love of Hopeless Causes, it felt like they'd missed their own point. The 1994 collection B-Sides and Abandoned Tracks reminded me, however, that I once thought they were one of the best agit-punk bands in the world, so when they announced, some time during the five years between albums, that they were breaking up, I was sadder than I expected. But I guess they couldn't think of anything else to do with their lives, after all, so here they are, the same trio as last time, clomping ahead with their usual fervent determination. "Wonderful Way to Go", the opening track and lead single, is like a pastiche of every other rant in their catalog, Nelson's pounding bass, Justin Sullivan's clipped, corrosive croon, glassy synth washes and Robert Heaton's martial drumming blissfully unaware of anything that's happened in music since their Luddite masterpiece, "White Coats", over a decade ago. But this turns out to be a wildly misleading introduction to the album (I thought The Love of Hopeless Causes, which began with the thuggish "Here Comes the War", had the same problem), and none of the other eleven songs sound anywhere near as anachronistic, to me. The stark "Whites of Their Eyes", with its groaning, distorted vocals and throttled harmonica, is like a blues jam for irritated cyborgs. "Aimless Desire" is restrained and steady, gathering noise and menace as it progresses. The jittery, technophobic "Over the Wire" (one of the few songs here that reads like NMA material) sounds a bit like Killing Joke covering Live. The muted, rumbling "Queen of My Heart" seems like a slow demo for a Richard Thompson song that will have the cynical twang dubbed on later. "Gigabyte Wars", with its shiny horn stabs, gruff muttering, soaring choruses and guitar blasts, sounds like a disorganized collusion of Hunters & Collectors, Whipping Boy, The Comsat Angels and somebody who's been following Slash around with a sampler hidden under his trenchcoat. "Killing" has Heaton's trademark sixteenth-note kick-drum rattle, but the "Baba O'Riley"-like arpeggiator flutter, Sullivan's uncharacteristic patience with the vocal melody, and the subdued acoustic-guitar coda are all new to me. "No Pain" takes this acoustic lead and winds it into a song that could easily be one of Mike Peters'. "Headlights", after a long, abstract intro, takes off on a meandering bass expedition. The crisp, ominous "Big Blue", simmering with saxophone hum and low backing-vocal oohs, is practically a Midnight Oil song, and the quick "Long Goodbye", with its harmonica howl, is at least partly borrowed from the Alarm's book. And "Lullaby", the exit music, is a moody, textural, dignified, 3/4 limp off into the surrounding fog. Not only do I forgive NMA for persisting, I'm delighted to realize that I no longer have any idea where they're headed.
Mogg/Way: Edge of the World
I could swear that Phil Mogg and Pete Way's band, UFO, used to belong to a completely different genre from these other three, in my mind, but after a while all the underrated bands I carry loyal, sentimental torches for start to seem like neighbors in my private universe. Although Mogg and Way gave up the right to print "UFO" on the cover of their Michael Schenker-less albums in the deal that got Schenker back for the inconclusive Walk on Water (released in Europe by Eagle, which suggests that I'm not the only one who perceives an affinity), the lawyers couldn't keep them from transferring the little Z deformation from the old UFO logo to the letters of their own names, and once you put the disc in the player, all pretense that this is anything but another UFO album swiftly evaporates. Schenker devotees will yelp in pained outrage at this admission, but I could never tell the difference between the UFO guitarists, to begin with, and my favorite of their albums, Mechanix, had Paul Chapman in Schenker's role. George Bellas, who handles the guitars on Edge of the World, flies through his share of flashy too-many-notes solo flourishes, but he also supplies a granite foundation of rhythm-guitar crunch, and together with Way's subtlety-free bass pounding, square drumming from veteran Aynsley Dunbar, and the usual UFO substrate of glossy keyboard fills, they provide exactly the sort of accompaniment that Mogg's rueful, ever-weary voice, halfway between Paul Rodgers and John Waite, always sounds best with to me. The secret truth about UFO, I've finally decided, at least when you look at them through my prisms, is that they aren't actually a metal band at all. They have the instrumental mannerisms of one, but Mogg doesn't have the requisite demonic camp. His vocal register is much too low for Dio/Dickinson/Halford shrieking, and he glides over jump-cut tempo-shifts like his head is clamped in a Steadicam, which tends to rob them of precisely the violence a real metal band would emphasize. An empathic soul haunts even his most incendiary choruses, like he knows the other pumas are going to make fun of him for licking the gazelle's wounds instead of ripping at it gluttonously, but he can't shake the wounded animal's supplicant gaze. A piece of his brain knows that in some nearby universe he's a folk singer, but in this one he hasn't the knack for detailed storytelling, nor the self-confidence to do without the protective shell of a band. So he does the best he can, following the seam between hope and hopelessness through the only country he's familiar with. He sounds so lonely, though; I can't help wonder if my fascination with the plangency of his struggle isn't a lamentable victory of aesthetic remove over simple compassion. But he doesn't seem to mind, and Ellis Paul's records don't make me feel like this, and folk songs always make terrible soccer anthems, so maybe I'm just thinking too much.