The Fin de Siècle Gets Up From Its Desk
182 · 23 July 98
Lucinda Williams: Car Wheels on a Gravel Road
Some of my best weeks, at least lately, are made by fortuitous accumulations of such small, subjective associations. After a conversation with a friend about his girlfriend's art-history dissertation on an obscure early Dutch painter, the next book I read (reading finally returning to the slot in my life out of which it had been displaced by soccer's temporary expansion), Richard Powers' monumental The Gold Bug Variations (the only thing keeping me from declaring Powers my new favorite writer, at this stage, is that the three books of his I haven't read yet are sitting on my shelves awaiting my attention, and it seems marginally more delightful to read them as part of the process of him becoming my favorite, rather than its aftermath), revolves around a character who is writing a dissertation, fitful, long-delayed and digressive, about an obscure early Dutch painter. Two of my long-standing favorite bands play the same tiny Cambridge nightclub in the span of five days (The Loud Family, to a delirious Friday-night crowd, primed by mailing-list reports from other cities to greet the most obscure performance variation with ecstatic roars; then Smart Brown Handbag, shoring up the middle of a three-band Tuesday-night bill, playing to a crowd consisting of, for their second straight Boston visit, only me). The Knack make a new record, and Tommy Keene's 1986 national treasure Songs From the Film is finally reissued on CD. I limp through a virulent weekend flu on the sense memory of a beaten-up Simon complaining to Henry, in Henry Fool, "It hurts to breathe", and Henry, volleying the straight line into the second balcony, replying "Of course it does".
Perhaps the most uplifting associations, though, are the ones where my private frame of reference seems to correspond so precisely to the public one that I am compelled to believe, however unlikely this often seems, that the world is full of people I don't even know who are following all these same paths. This week's entry in this slim ledger (I picture Henry, balancing his notebooks along his window sill like he's assembling a schooner inside a Budweiser can) is Susan Skoog's film Whatever, which surely she intended, as I took it, to be a demonstration, by painstaking juxtaposition with My So-Called Life, of the power and importance of good parenting. I know, it's odd that the movie's promotional literature neglects to mention both the theme and the reference, but the parallels are just too exact to be my imposition: Anna and Brenda are near duplicates of Angela and Rayanne, Anna and Angela the brooding, principled ones, Brenda and Rayanne the ones disguising their vulnerabilities under a desperate veneer of promiscuousness that holds up only because they so seldom test it on anyone who cares enough to look closely. Rayanne and Brenda tug Angela and Anna toward sex, older men, alcohol and drugs with the same garish, hollow exuberance, begging silently to be resisted. Brenda and Anna's truant road-trip to New York is played with almost the identical costume-charade giddiness as Rayanne and Angela's first night at Let's Bolt, and Anna and Angela's bicycles, which both figure into key moments, serve such indistinguishable symbolic ends that I wonder if they used the same bike. (One particular bicycle scene in Whatever, which I won't spoil for you, but you'll know when you see it, might be the most movingly pathetic single moment I've ever come across on film; and certainly Whatever and Henry Fool have, between them, enough transcendent ugliness to make a time-zone of PTAs regret ever allowing Clerks as precedent.) The feeble gesture of switching the genders of Angela and Anna's Greek-chorus younger siblings fools nobody. You could attribute the divergence in Anna and Angela's paths, I guess, to several things, from individual resolve to socio-economics, but the most obvious explanation, by far, is their parents. Angela's parents, infuriating and oblivious as they can be, are rock-steady presences, moral and, when needed, physical. Angela resists them, but she carries their love and the courage of their convictions wrapped around her nerve fibers, nevertheless, and thus is able to evaluate situations before (and instead of) getting into them, where Anna, whose gaudy single mother only ever vaguely resembles a pillar of strength when she's holding onto a supermarket wine bottle, can only make sense of them afterwards, if then. Even Rayanne's mother, the closest thing in My So-Called Life to a literal Whatever character, tempers her ineptness with sincerity, and is thus an enormous improvement on Brenda's irredeemably creepy stepfather. And although both Angela and Anna do return from their journeys into moral temptation, Angela comes back nearly unscathed, and, perhaps even more triumphantly, with Rayanne in tow (and, in their ways, Jordan, and Brian, and Graham, and probably Rabbit's friends and relations, as well), while Anna is forced to leave Brenda behind to save herself. We may not be able to tell me, within my lifetime, what fractions of my own values are products of chance, genetics and upbringing, but after this composite case-study, as compelling to me as it is unscientific, I'm willing to give my parents as much credit as they have space to store.
Because I watched Whatever as such a grim parental cautionary tale, though, the music in it seemed fundamentally wrong. I like Aimee Mann a lot, but neither her sunny pop demeanor nor her lyrics' venomous cynical streak fit what I thought of as the film's theme. Having come this far with the MSCL parallel, I wanted something that would, with at least a wink as the credits rolled, explicitly confirm my interpretation. It wasn't, in fact, until the credits reached the end of the cast list, where New Jersey is listed as played by West Virginia, that it occurred to me that one of this week's high-rotation discs, back in my player, would have served perfectly. I mean, it wouldn't really: if the preview for Whatever had run over Lucinda Williams' "Car Wheels on a Gravel Road", instead of Aimee's "I Should've Known", it would have lost all the kids who came expecting a Nineties Dazed and Confused (although Whatever is actually set in the Eighties, and is the second movie I've seen in the last month to use the Rush song "Tom Sawyer" over a scene of a girl getting dressed, which is bizarre even once), without attracting a compensatory crowd of parents, who aren't traditionally that fond of watching movies about what grimy things their children might be getting involved in. And come to think of it, my parents didn't find watching My So-Called Life very rewarding, either. But the songs that play, once each, during the ninety minutes I sit in the theater are in a bad position to compete with the ones that play over and over, for the next week, as I meditate on what I saw, and so Car Wheels on a Gravel Road has accompanied my slow mental exercise of plotting the steps in a hypothetical transformation of Whatever into a rural variant of MSCL. Forget the geographic sleight of hand and let West Virginia be West Virginia, or any one of Lucinda's gazetteer of small towns; the story is stronger without an easy physical escape to obscure the need for a mental one. Anna's goofy art teacher will have to fill in for her missing father, but if we replace her scheming, dissolute mother (contrast these key generational bonding scenes in Whatever and MSCL: Anna's mother sharing her cigarettes, and Patty feeding Jordan sandwiches and milk) with Buffy the Vampire Slayer's, who runs an art gallery, then the metaphorical plot-twist practically ties itself. Let Anna and Brenda borrow a convertible, instead of taking the bus to New York, and let them bond over open roads and sunshine in their hair, instead of drunken law students they pick up in a bar. Let them not smoke (Henry Fool has enough smoking to last us for a decade). Let Brenda model for a drawing class, on an exhibitionist whim, and get sucked into Anna's art world that way. Let Anna's oafish ex-con, who looks like Springsteen, be a songwriter (and let him be better at it than Jordan was). Give her spells to cast, and let them all be caught up in them. Let there be more stories of our childhood that revel in the mistakes we didn't make, fewer that wallow in the ones we did.
The odd effect Whatever has on Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, for me, in return, is to make me acutely sensitive to the difference between kids' music (although Aimee Mann stretches the definition of "kid") and adults'. Lucinda Williams is a country artist, of course; this is the first of her own albums I've bought, but Mary-Chapin Carpenter covered "Passionate Kisses" on Come On Come On, and Emmylou Harris did "Crescent City" on Cowgirl's Prayer, and "Sweet Old World" on Wrecking Ball, and she's played with Steve Earle and vice versa. Most of these songs have details that could come from no other genre: Jim Lauderdale's plaintive harmony part on "Right in Time"; Buddy Miller's twinkling "mando guitar" on the title track; the effortless guitar hook in "Kool 2 Be 4-Gotten", cast from the same mold as Sheryl Crow's "Leaving Las Vegas"; Lucinda's clipped, nasal vocal on "Drunken Angel", the slurred harmonies, plunking acoustic guitar and desultory slide licks of "Concrete and Barbed Wire"; the smoky Patsy Cline languor of "Lake Charles"; the sand-blasted blues wail of "Can't Let Go"; Emmylou's unmistakable ethereal sigh on "Greenville"; the sawdust waltz of "Still I Long For Your Kiss"; Earle's wiry resonator guitar and the call-and-response repetition on "Joy"; and the mournful bowed bass and voice/guitar rounds of "Jackson". The litany of dusty back-road towns (Macon, Jackson, Rosedale, Lake Charles, Algiers (not, I think, the one in Algeria), Opelousas, Nacogdoches, Lafayette, Baton Rouge, Lake Ponchatrain, Greenville, West Memphis, Slidell, Vicksburg) is a standard country trope, as are Lucinda's invocations of Howlin' Wolf, Hank Williams, Loretta Lynn and Robert Johnson.
But my genre certainty proves to be increasingly elusive, the more closely I scrutinize it. How is Lucinda's defiantly artless singing voice, for example, qualitatively different from Barbara Manning's, or Liz Phair's? The way the lyrics stumble over each other, on "Lake Charles", as if aligning them into meter and rhymes is an affectation to be spurned, isn't that the essential spirit of low-fi, and even of punk? Couldn't the chirpy "Car Wheels on a Gravel Road", in another accent, be the Cardigans? Do the halting lists of "2 Kool 2 Be 4-Gotten", inane title spelling aside, remind you of Bruce Cockburn, like they do me? The grieving elegy "Drunken Angel", it seems to me, is basically a combination of the Slingbacks' "No Way Down" and "Hey Douglas". "I Lost It" sounds halfway between Aimee and Richard Thompson, "Metal Firecracker" somewhere between Tanya Donelly and Maria McKee. Mark Eitzel and the Geraldine Fibbers and Son Volt and Grant Lee Buffalo can all make records steeped in country twang, without giving up their rock citizenship, so on what grounds do we assign this one, which has far more in common with those artists than with Garth Brooks and Vince Gill, to another category? If No Depression has pushed the edge of underground rock out towards country, then maybe Lucinda has simply reached it from the other side. And if continuum compression is one of our age's great themes, then this album is part of the necessary dismantling of the wall between the musics of childhood and adulthood, and perhaps Whatever ends up being the same story, whether you think it's about the kids or their parents.
The Spinanes: Arches and Aisles
It's suggestive, if not necessarily instructive, that the music vying most successfully with Car Wheels on a Gravel Road this week, in my house, is Arches and Aisles, the third album by low-fi minimalists the Spinanes, whose underground credibility is unassailable, if for no other reason than that they worked with Elliott Smith before Good Will Hunting. On the two previous Spinanes albums, 1993's Manos and 1996's Strand, the band was an unfashionable bass-less two-piece, Rebecca Gates handling vocals, guitars and keyboards, and Scott Plouf drumming as if the implicit plural in "rhythm section" had never struck him. Manos, with a couple ghostly exceptions, was filled with jagged, noisy shards of half-learned pop songs, like Mecca Normal impersonating the Blake Babies, or an uneasy truce between Throwing Muses and Sleater-Kinney, highlighted for me by the surging, chattering title track, the slashing guitars of "Grand Prize" (later extrapolated into an entire style by the Flying Nuns) and the disarming, lilting frailty of the jangly "Sunday". Strand shifted the emphasis towards atmosphere, pushing the drums and guitars back into the wider aural spaces of longer songs, and letting Rebecca's voice drift out like steam escaping from a vent in the shape of heartbreak or resignation, but still interested me most when it let the succinct pop urges jut out of the haze, as on the half-Judys, half-Mission of Burma-ish "Lines and Lines", the pounding, insistent "Meridian", and the clicking, whisperingly effusive "For No One Else".
Plouf is gone for Arches and Aisles, but rather than retreat even further into herself, which would have been a logical extension of the chronology, Gates recruits enough collaborators to make up, jigsaw-wise, a semblance of a full band, and applies them to seeing where each of the Spinanes threads, moody stasis and pop snap, could lead, taken individually. Both sorts of song benefit from the focused attention, it seems to me. Of the slow ones, "Greetings From the Sugar Lick" is sultry, breathy and soulful, organ hum and falsetto backing vocals combining for an ambience a bit like the Style Council, at the end of a long night, playing one more bedtime song even though some of their equipment is starting to malfunction; the delicate "Slide Your Ass" betrays traces of both Liz Phair and Jane Siberry, who I'm not sure I'd ever thought to link; "Den Trawler" refuses to let a whip-crack drum line rush a pensive two-voice romantic tableaux; "Eleganza" flutters distractedly, as if Rebecca misread the label on the Casio beat preset, and thought "Samba" said "Somber"; and the finale, "Heisman Stance", with sketchy jazz-guitar chords that arrive like the ripples from pebbles cast into the darkness of a still new-moon lake, ends the album as if it is in danger of expiring of its own volition before the running time elapses, like albums can't be longer than forty-two minutes even if they want to. These are all nice, and I bet I would have been happy with a whole album in their mode, for the same reasons I like Stina Nordenstam, or Low.
Unfortunately, I like the pop songs on this album a whole lot better, and after they accelerate my metabolism, I have a hard time slowing it down again so abruptly. "Kid in Candy" layers cinematic keyboard pads and sparkling acoustic guitar over an oblique kick-snare sequence and a twittering percussion track that sounds like it was produced by flexing bottle caps in and out. The halting "Leisure Run" erupts out of guitar eddies into stretches of uncharacteristically full-volume singing. "Love, the Lazee" lets the bass and the vocals carry the melody, leaving the guitars to spiral around them in erratic counterpoint. "Reach v. Speed", with its meandering organ line, wouldn't have been too out-of-place on Helium's The Magic City. My favorite song here, by far, though, and the one the rest of them end up arraying themselves in relation to, with the inevitable sad result that the second half of the record drags rather noticeably, is "72-74". Although Scott Miller would never have settled for this bare, scratchy guitar, or for the inelegant verse/chorus transition device of chordless guitar strumming, and the choruses remind me more directly of Papas Fritas than Game Theory, at the song's core is the unmistakable soul of my favorite old Game Theory songs, things like "Real Nighttime", "Erica's Word" and "Mammoth Gardens", bedroom genius that connects the dots of irresistible melodies with few enough lines that even Edward Tufte would be hard-pressed to complain, songs that tumble into themselves as if wipe-outs and curtseys are dance positions they teach eight-year-old girls in a single week, their omission one of the things most wrong with how boys are raised. I'm not sure what the song is supposed to be about, since some critical phrase confounds me approximately every third line, but I've had enough songs and books and movies this week that were about something to not need this one to be. Like Anna and Angela, pedaling away from their trials and our cameras, even I need a moment, now and then, whose virtues can been seen as intrinsic. Here, then, is one form of my idea of pop perfection, and if the rest of the album slopes away around it, and maybe also life, well, how else do you reach heights, or return from them?