Do You Think There's Someone Out in Space for You?
184 · 6 August 98
The Knack: Zoom
The last Billboard book I bought, copyright 1992, is pretty out-of-date by now, but I remember, back when I got it, scanning down the master list of the top one hundred records from 1955 to 1991, as measured by chart success (weeks at number one, tie-broken by weeks in the top ten, in the top forty, and in the top one hundred), and discovering that I owned exactly two of them. I'm sure the list has changed a little in the ensuing seven years (although perhaps not as much as you'd think; the 1991 list included only two songs released later than 1984, and the life-spans of pop singles are only getting shorter), and I've even broken down and purchased three more songs from the old list (the Bee Gees' "Night Fever" (18) and "Stayin' Alive" (100), and Prince's "When Doves Cry" (66)), but the original two songs still stand, in my mind, as the symbolic intersection of my personal taste in music and that of the rest of the late Twentieth Century: "Bridge Over Troubled Water" (56), by Simon and Garfunkel, and "My Sharona" (49), by the Knack.
For a band that was once so massively popular (consider that only two Beatles singles, "Hey Jude" (10) and "I Want to Hold Your Hand" (28), rank higher on the chart), it's amazingly difficult to find anybody who will admit to liking the Knack any more. They were, people complain, a glib and shameless Beatles rip-off, a cynical studio fabrication designed to exploit the combined vulnerabilities of jerky New Wave and boyish pop nostalgia. These are, I think, reasonable objections, and they may well be factually accurate. For me, though, they are also unresponsive. As far as I'm concerned, Get the Knack justifies its every calculated detail by calculating correctly. It sets out to be a sly, puppyish update of the Beatles, and in my opinion it succeeds in being a sly, puppyish update of the Beatles. Of the album's dozen songs, at least eight of them still sound, almost twenty years later, like pop classics to me, and "Good Girls Don't", in particular, is a leering teenage anthem to stand with the best of them.
The Knack's commercial downfall is almost certainly a product of mass capriciousness and statistical inevitability, but they would have destroyed themselves just as effectively if they'd been given the chance. As a shortcut, perhaps, to getting their second album out only a year after the first, they opted to dispense with the popular between-albums step of thinking up any new ideas, and ...But the Little Girls Understand, whose very title sounds like a redux of "That's What the Little Girls Do", from Get the Knack, is one of the most blatant predecessor-retreads in my musical awareness. Listening to it, I feel the same horrible sinking sensation you'd get if a stand-up improv comic came out to perform a deliriously-demanded encore and started in verbatim at the top of his set again. The chords have been reshuffled, and a new set of crass lyrics drawn up to accompany them, but the tricks are the same, and seeing them done twice strips them of most of the fun. Round Trip, the third album, tried to compensate with a frantic muddle of other hastily-affected styles, but this only made the limitations of the first two more apparent, and that was the end of the Knack.
Or it ought to have been. Pop groups don't die any more, though, they just have their heads cryogenically frozen in some record-company vault in case they're needed again one day. The Knack's number, according to the official biography, came back up in 1994 when "My Sharona" was used in the movie Reality Bites. This thirteen-year elision, however, skips over the fourth Knack album, 1991's Serious Fun, made with new drummer Billy Ward (not the one from Black Sabbath, sadly). I gather, from all the copies of this album I saw languishing in the cut-out bins with yellowing $1.99 stickers, that it did not turn out to be a triumphant comeback. But I'll confess, I love it. The lyrics are painfully stupid, devoid of even the snide cleverness that passed for intelligence in the band's earlier songs, but the music is gloriously sentimental, over-produced, over-wrought, shiny American summer convertible rock, as close to the spirit of the first two Boston albums as anything Tom Scholz himself has done since. The album hadn't a prayer of salvaging the band's commercial or critical fortunes, and it's more than a little remarkable that Don Was, who produced it, escaped with his reputation intact, but if you have anything like my weakness for this sort of rapturous schlock, and your local record store hasn't cannibalized all its copies for jewel-case parts, two dollars is a pretty small price to pay to find out if you agree with me.
None of this bodes too well, of course, for Zoom, the Knack's fifth album, and their second attempt at a basically unsolicited comeback. They look like goons on the cover, and a chill of terror sweeps over me when I see, in the credits, that Ward has, in turn, been replaced by former Zappa and Missing Persons drummer Terry Bozzio, whose presence I don't believe you'd ever intuit from hearing the deadpan That Thing You Do simple-mindedness he employs throughout this recording. Maybe it would be better if these bands didn't try so hard to outlive themselves. Pop is like Tarzan-movie quicksand: struggling only makes you sink faster. But then, what could be more human and natural than flailing around, even when hope is lost, just in case your hand happens to grab hold of a passing skyhook? I don't know who I expect will suspend disbelief long enough to hear this, but I think Zoom is wonderful, at least as wonderful in its own way as Get the Knack and Serious Fun were in theirs. The band may look haplessly goofy on the cover, but they're smiling, and the reason is that they're having enough fun to stop caring if you or I are sharing any of it. And it's neither a coincidence nor a paradox, I think, that the album they seem least concerned about molding to prevailing expectations turns out to be the first one I'm able to enjoy without even a trace of guilt or irony.
Zoom blasts in, literally in mid-chord, as if the band is too excited to wait for the engineer's cue, with "Pop Is Dead", a sunnily sarcastic anthem worthy of a Dave Edmunds / Too Much Joy collaboration. There have been plenty of songs about rock being dead, but rock was always a style, and styles can die. Pop is a style, too, but it's also still, in some vestigial sense, a contraction of "popular", and popular music, almost by definition, can't die. Certainly it can't die in the middle of a dizzy pop song about it being dead, with a compound chorus that builds to the ringing "Please don't trouble me, / Not while I'm watching TV!", which they imbue with the grand solemnity of a marriage oath, apparently unconcerned that it isn't even endorsing anything. Bozzio punctuates every transition with a roll that sounds like a carton of softballs being dumped on his kit, an organ whistles like an honor guard standing watch, and Berton Averre spins through lead-guitar riffs so tightly coiled that I half expect him to pitch over midway through the song, his guitar cord wound around his legs like the bottom of a industrial-noir mermaid costume. "Can I Borrow a Kiss" slows down to a measured "Needles and Pins" strut, and winds the melody's Roy Orbison overtones around endearingly blocky chord changes, a psychedelic XTC-ish bridge, and enough sighing harmonies that the band could put on matching suits, learn a couple synchronized dance steps, and probably get a slot on one of those summer vocal-group package tours. It executes its stop/starts in a half-tumble, as if all that counts is that the feet stay planted for a second, and the lyrics, which wander off into a missed-point exploration of the implications of a harmless romantic figure of speech instead of granting the request, reveal more about the character of pop geeks than anything I can think of since the Slingbacks' "You're looking through her records / While she's taking off her clothes". The surging "Smilin'", just a fraction too slow to be a McRackins song, plays pealing guitar against burbling bass runs and a tenacious snare crack, under a vindictive and hilariously bouncy post-break-up narrative. ("Harder on You", later, with its brash, flaring guitars and sputtering drums, fighting with growling vocals and reedy harmonies, is the pre-break-up taunt to go with it.) The verses of "Ambition" have a laconic, Tom Petty-ish slouch to them, but from there the song leaps into a soaring, open-throated chorus, Bozzio sneaking a few off-center cymbal splashes into the space around the square kick-snare beat, and Fieger leaning into a staccato litany with a timelessly thrilling cadence and absolutely no coherent meaning I can determine.
The first real pause for reflection arrives in the form of "Mister Magazine", a quick, tender ballad with hints of Elvis Costello and the Housemartins, its "Ooh, la la la" group harmonies camouflaging a withering rant against tabloid journalists, an incongruity reminiscent, in a way, of the song about teenage pregnancy in Grace of My Heart. The pace holds steady for the reverent McCartney parody/tribute "Everything I Do", a pastel lullaby of hopelessness, but picks up again for the pulsing, Cheap Trick-ish "Love Is All There Is", an sleazy extended pick-up line whose explosive chorus-ushering drum fills appear to have blown out half of the drum mics. "Terry & Julie Step Out" could be a cross between "My Sharona" and "Good Girls Don't", only grown up, its coy "Number nine" references escaped from an entirely different phase of the Beatles career. "This retro thing isn't happening", it lies. The fluttering "You Gotta Be There" is only a string section short of the Walker Brothers.
The album then starts gathering steam towards the conclusion. "Good Enough" is choppy and charged, a touch of Bad Company bluesiness creeping into Fieger's voice. "In the Blue Tonight is buzzy, plaintive and quasi-country, its pop/country synthesis summarized neatly in the lines "It's your restless heart beating / In double time". The driving rockabilly howl "Tomorrow", two lovers at war over the symbolic import of procrastination, is an escapee from a mythical lost decade when the smart, pensive kids were the ones with their sleeves rolled up, racing cars on the interstate just outside of town. And then, just as the accumulated kinetic energy nears a frenzy, the floor drops out from beneath it, like clouds finally parting under your airplane, and we follow a majestic parabola across the languid, Jellyfish-esque finale, "(All in the) All in All", a loopy quasi-profound collage of New Age clichés and "A B C / 1 2 3" inanity, an end-of-the-night farewell for everybody who ever preferred to walk out with "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds" behind them, instead of "Freebird". You might still say, at the end of this, that the Knack are pop ghouls. But everybody borrows, and what the Knack are missing in subtlety and misdirection, they do their best to atone for with enthusiasm and comprehension. I guess I believe that we often bury things prematurely, and sometimes dragging them back out of their graves isn't desecration, it's rescue.
Cotton Mather: Kontiki
It feels rather pedantic to identify opposites within a compartment as tiny as the wistful guitar-pop one that the Knack and Cotton Mather both occupy, in my mind, but any two things can seem a mile apart if you peer closely enough at the hairline fracture between them, and so the list of contrasts runs something like this: where the Knack are glossy and engineered, Cotton Mather are scratchy and bolted together; where the Knack hope sufficient self-deprecation will excuse their obvious derivations, Cotton Mather tries to emerge into a pop clearing from overgrown and unexplored paths; where the Knack were eaten alive by their own notoriety, Cotton Mather are still probably holding day jobs in order to eat. Back away, though, and turn enough cartwheels to disorient yourself, and it's hard to see why the bands' states couldn't be interchanged. Tip the scales of history a few degrees away from the Beatles, toward the Byrds, and send "Camp Hill Rail Operator" back in time, and this could have been the theme song of 1979, the seed of an alternative movement that started with jangle, instead of returning to it. Give Get the Knack the distribution of Cotton Mather's first album, Cotton Is King, and vice versa, and pop fanatics would be passing Knack recommendations around like samizdat, instead, and the backlash would be preempted by the lack of a forelash. But pop isn't zero-sum, and taken as a pair, originally for no better reason than that I bought them the same week, these two albums seem elaborately complementary, to me, and I've quickly come to think of the two of them as nutritionally incomplete in any other configuration. The murky, low-fi "Camp Hill Rail Operator" provides the noisy ambience Knack songs always scour off, and its harmonies belong to the many-throats-forming-one-voice tradition, where the Knack's harmonic lineage has more girl-groups and musicals in it. The eerie Michael Penn-ish "Homefront Cameo" bridges the gap between pop lilt and disembodied player-piano constraint. "Spin My Wheels" feels like an attempt to drag the ragged fragments of Guided by Voices and Neutral Milk Hotel closer to "Hey Jude". "My Before and After", with more or less the architecture of XTC's "The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead", is like a Knack song recreated in Gumby-figurine plastic and twisted out of action-figure readiness into pretzel-topology unrecognizability. The lurching "Private Ruth" reminds me of Michael Penn again, in one of the moods where he sounds like he's stripped all the basic tracks off a dense pop song, for his own private reasons, so that the parts that are left are reacting to a rhythmic foundation the listener can no longer discern. "Vegetable Row", a rousing, Velvet Crush-ish nonsense hymn, is sung in an uncanny Dylanesque drawl. "Aurora Bori Alice", sci-fi noises and a distracted keyboard line leading to a chorus that would be perfect pop if it didn't insist on modulating tempo, instead of volume, could, if it were a little shorter, be one of the in-between tracks on the Loud Family's Days for Days. The shouty "Church of Wilson" might have been a Robert Pollard song in another life. The hushed "Lily Dreams On" is halfway between Elliott Smith and the Three O'Clock, the galloping "Password" somewhere in between Sloan and "Cruel to Be Kind". "Animal Show Drinking Song", which fails the GbV song-title exam only at the last word (it should have been "Animal Show Drinking Contract", or "Animal Show Drinking Heroine", or something like that), is short enough to be one of Pollard's, but sounds a little too resigned to its brevity, and the following fragment, "Prophecy for the Golden Age", is too studio-contrived for Pollard, but not quite intricate enough for Scott Miller. The splendid "She's Only Cool" is like a parallel medley of Cotton Mather's Beatles, Byrds and Dylan modes. And the album ends, slow just like the end of Zoom, with the swirling "Autumn's Birds", as if Strawberry Fields really will be there forever, so there's no hurry.
Robert Pollard: Waved Out
I've grown sadly wary of new Robert Pollard or Guided by Voices albums. I know from reading one too many interviews that Pollard has suitcases full of demo tapes in his basement, and I have the grim image in my mind of some intern from the record company knocking on his front door every five or six months, and Pollard, hung over and surly, shoving a random cassette out through the mail slot. Maybe he was having a good day the day he recorded it, and maybe he wasn't; I'm no longer sure he himself remembers, or cares. It has occurred to me more than once that I might like Pollard better right now, with the albums I already have, than I'll like him if I keep buying new ones. But I thought that before, and was quite pleasantly surprised by Mag Earwhig!, the last album released under Guided by Voices' name, so even though the last album credited just to Pollard, Not in My Airforce, was essentially a disaster, in my opinion, I was willing to give him another chance. After listening to Waved Out this decision still seems reasonable, but not very inspired. I have no sense of this album as a whole, like I do with Propeller, Bee Thousand, and Mag Earwhig! (which are my favorite GbV albums, I assume at least partially for that reason), but the Batman-theme throb of "Subspace Biographies", the conspicuously Mission-of-Burma-like clamor of the title track and the cheesy drum-machine snap of "Wrinkled Ghost" are all charming, and several of the other songs have appealing moments. I'm glad I've heard them. I wish, though, that the two thoughts this album leaves me with weren't "It's amazing how much pointless filler you can cram into a thirty-five minute record" and "Is there any state in which I would want to hear music like this, but wouldn't rather listen to some other example of it?"
The Jupiter Affect: The Jupiter Affect
A convenient quality/quantity counter-example is provided by the five-song, twenty-minute debut EP from the Jupiter Affect, the latest band from ex-Three O'Clock leader Michael Quercio, also formerly of Game Theory (fleetingly) and Permanent Green Light. Quercio's revolving cast of accomplices has seen nearly as many members as Scott Miller's, but his own personality, possibly due to nothing more complicated than the fact that he plays bass, where Scott plays guitar, and thus relies more heavily on the other players for the substance of the music, hasn't always seemed strong enough to hold his catalog together, across the names, the way Scott's does, for me. The Three O'Clock, in their prime, by which I mean Sixteen Tambourines and Baroque Hoedown (one of the four seminal early alternative album/EP pairs in my version of pop history, along with Let's Active's Cypress and Afoot, REM's Murmur and Chronic Town and Game Theory's Real Nighttime and Distortion), were the definitive example, to me, of the American wing of neo-psychedelic pop. Arrive Without Travelling and Ever After, the third and fourth records, which attrition elsewhere has probably promoted to my top-ten list of LPs in need of CD reissue, were louder, and occupied less well-defined niches, but contained an intimidating number of exquisite songs. Vermillion, the final Three O'Clock record, from the line-up with Jason Falkner, was released on Prince's Paisley Park label, and had one Prince song, "Neon Telephone", which Prince backing vocalists Wendy and Lisa sang on, and remains baffling to me to this day, although confusion doesn't keep me from enjoying it. The short stay in Game Theory came next, and although the band didn't record any proper albums during Quercio's tenure, he did play on the three early songs re-recorded for the 1990 best-of Tinker to Evers to Chance, and on a b-side released later. The idea of having Scott and Michael in the same band was either brilliant or clearly doomed, and in the end doomed won. Permanent Green Light, a trio with drummer Chris Buckner and guitarist/etc. Matt Devine, existed for an EP (self-titled, 1992), an album (Against Nature, 1993) and a couple of singles, and seemed to me like they were just starting to understand themselves, but then they collapsed.
The Jupiter Affect, then, is a quartet, with Quercio, Buckner, and new guitarists Jason Shapiro and Dan Epstein. Quercio, who shared songwriting responsibilities in Permanent Green Light with Devine, here reverts to writing all the material himself (which suggests an explanation of PGL's demise), and while these five songs aren't enough to define a style, they do present some interesting possibilities. "Big Monster Chains" plays up the "Big" and "Monster" parts, clattering drums and churning guitars driving a song that reminds me a little of the loud parts of the early Swimming Pool Q's albums. "Angela Davis Hair", conversely, is a kaleidoscopic pop song as sparkling and winningly fragile as anything from Sixteen Tambourines. "#17 Dream" is a hybrid of the two, with both wailing wah-wah guitars and a delicate melody in Quercio's trademark falsetto. "Velocity" sounds a lot like the Connells, although I suspect causality runs in the other direction, if at all. My favorite of these songs, though, is the sprawling "Throwing in the Towel", a blurry, exhilarated 6/8 romp that sounds for all the world, to me, like a strippers' theme for pop nerds, the call for everybody whose brains are monopolized by such useless information as the bands Michael Quercio used to be in to get up on stage and pile our inhibitions and neuroses around our feet, forgetting, for three and a half joyful minutes, that we probably aren't any more attractive without them.