Patience, Belief, Hornets
185 · 13 August 98
The Magnetic Fields: I Don't Believe You
I clearly remember, at the age of fifteen, in one of those hopeful bouts of abstract rationality that cause me to look back on my younger self with the helplessly poignant affection of Christopher Robin banging Pooh's head down the stairs behind him, coming up with a list of the highest prices I would pay for each of the then-proliferating formats of music. My album cutoff was eight dollars, EPs overreached themselves past five or six, twelve-inch singles should be four, and seven-inch singles' correct place in the Order of All Things was two dollars. This worked out, and I knew enough, even then, for the neatness of it to be deeply suspicious, to almost exactly a dollar a song. (The fact that I thought the "average" album had eight songs tells you a lot about the sort of music I was buying at the time.) I was always much better at analysis than resolution, though, and if this earnestly established schedule survived the next trip to the record store, it was a lucky week.
Sixteen years on, I have long since given up demanding that my music expenditures make budgetary sense. I buy import CD singles for ten dollars, EPs go for twelve, albums range from thirteen, if I get them on sale when they're new, to eighteen, if I have to go to Tower to find them, to the high twenties as imports. This inflation seems borderline criminal, until I realize that the prices of books and movies have also essentially doubled over the same period, after which the whole thing begins to smack of massive-scale collusion. The music industry, at least, can claim that the physical quality of the medium has improved along the way. (In the endless, tedious CD-vs-LP debate, I'm pro-CD; the lost "warmth" analog purists lament can be reapplied, as far as my ears care to tell, by using crappier speakers.) And when I do a little statistical massaging of the years in my record-collection database with useful sample sizes, I find that there does seem to be more music on albums, at least numerically, than there used to be. From 1980 to 1989, the span into which the bulk of my vinyl falls, the average number of songs per album drifted from nearly ten (after some concerted pop back-filling to counter-balance all the epic-laden Rush albums I bought at the time) to nearly eleven, and the average length meandered from about thirty-eight minutes to about forty-two. The CDs I own with copyrights in this period (largely reissues, necessarily) trace a parallel course at about one song and three minutes more, and since then have crept up to thirteen songs per, and a nearly fifty-three minute average running time, although you'd need something less blunt than an arithmetic average of total length to account for all the long bonus-track-"concealing" silent gaps and the seventy-four-minute behemoths that would have been double albums (or thought better of) in the vinyl era. My subjective impression, however, is that albums have gotten longer, while books (for which my data is biased by my changing reading habits) and movies (for which I don't keep data) have not. Obtusely literal value calculations notwithstanding, it's not clear to me if this is an improvement. I suppose there's nothing, really, about the structure of the air that makes forty minutes a more perfect length than an hour, but it's what I grew up with, so I suspect a piece of me will always notice, whether it chooses to speak up or not, when a record overstays what would have been its welcome.
It's comforting, then, in the shadow of this trend, that a few bands still put out the occasional old-fashioned seven-inch single, not the eight-songs-in-seven-minutes Guided by Voices splatter-mosaic sort, but the kind with one song on each side, played at forty-five rpm, the setting on which all true singles should be spun. They, too, are more expensive now ($3.49 where I get them), but it's frankly amazing that I can still get out of a record store with anything for less than eight dollars. (The only material flaw with this new Magnetic Fields single is that it uses an album-gauge spindle hole, but I guess the market for vinyl is sufficiently constricted these days that eliminating the people who've lost their single adapters would push the venture over the brink of commercial suicide.) As I was amused to rediscover, the quantitative difference between listening to a single and listening to an album is severe enough to pass for qualitative. I don't ignore the first song on albums, but I definitely suspend judgment, waiting to see how the context of the rest of the record alters my understanding and appreciation of any one moment. When the record stops after one song, this doesn't work at all. I kept putting this single on, hitting Start, settling in to listen, and realizing after three minutes (exactly three minutes, while we're amassing suspicious coincidences) that the song is over and I haven't the slightest idea what I thought of it. You can't just grow into a holistic understanding of an isolated three-minute pop song, you have to stop what you're doing and concentrate on it. This is, it suddenly hits me, why I could never make sense of the liner notes to There and Back Again Lane, the farewell compilation from pop single specialists Sarah Records, either. The format is critical. All those songs that blended, for me, listening to them in collected form, into a coherent stylistic statement constructed out of blurry individual details, originally appeared in their own meticulously selected frames, not as components but as complete works, however small. It wasn't that I failed to hear what made them precious to the people at Sarah, I couldn't hear it. Played straight through, the compilation didn't preserve it.
Patience, then. Start the song again, stop typing, turn to face the speakers. Listen, do nothing else. Ah, much better. A few more repetitions like this, and "I Don't Believe You" begins to come into focus. It's an astonishingly sparkly song, even by Stephin Merritt's sparkly standards. I can barely imagine what I'd think of it if I didn't know the Magnetic Fields so well, already, as it blithely mashes together almost every impulse Merritt has ever set to record: scratchy, swelling mock-strings, which invoke drama without really knowing what it means, like seeing the Grand Canyon through a View Master; a percussion track that sounds less like drums than the yelps of cartoon Martians getting pegged with zip guns; fluttering sequencer runs that make Erasure sound like they're using Jacquard looms; a banjo-ish plunk like Marvin complaining that with a brain the size of a planet he shouldn't have to wear this Stetson; a guitar solo extracted from an old teach-yourself-circuits kit; Merritt's exhausted murmur, singing an anti-love song seemingly more concerned with the syllables of its own words than the emotions of either participant; Claudia Gonson's sighing, nearly implicit harmony part, only audible on its own for the first two words of the song, when Merritt appears to momentarily miss his cue. The Magnetic Fields are, to pop, what those ludicrously bristling battle cruisers I used to draw on the backs of my notebooks in middle school were to ordnance, a logical extrapolation of the structure's ostensible purpose that you could never actually construct, in metal. I'm only sure while I'm listening that Merritt has found a way.
A true single's b-side exists not to compete with the a-side but to supplement it, perhaps only for the first few spins, with some engaging novelty. "When I'm Not Looking, You're Not There", the solipsistic dirge on this flip-side ("I'm being held against my will / Inside this stupid hologram / So I won't find out who I am"; Merritt's songwriting constitutes a living argument that education wouldn't have made Eeyore any happier), is an odd, erratic trifle whose gimmick only occurs to me about the fifth time through: the instrumental line, a single cycling keyboard hook, changes synth patches for every note. Maybe it reuses some -- I didn't attempt to map them out and check for duplication -- and it wouldn't surprise me if there's a rationale I'm overlooking for which patches are mapped to which notes in the cycle, but the easiest technical explanation is that Merritt has as many patches as notes (thus the song's length?), and some automated method for shuffling them. If only he'd written the song ten years ago, we might have been able to persuade John Cage to dance.
Scale affects experience in the other direction, as well. The first time I saw Formless/Functional on the upcoming-release calendar I thought it was a single ("Formless"/"Functional"), and at least one subsequent listing referred to it as an EP, so I approached it with an EPish mindset, expecting a brief aside to fill the time until the next real Polara album (which wasn't due for a while, since C'Est La Vie didn't come out that long ago, and was, itself, preceded by an EP). As an EP it is very confusing. It's twelve tracks and nearly forty minutes in length, for one thing, which is too long to hold the rapt-attention pose comfortably. It careens from style to style with little evident focus, and there are neither obvious singles nor obvious throw-aways. Mostly perplexingly, it isn't casual enough; a stopgap EP shouldn't have had this much work put into it.
When it finally occurred to me that I was just listening in the wrong mode, the situation improved rapidly. For a band I tend to forget about in between releases, Polara has managed to make off with an alarming amount of my affection. If I were on a 27 Various/Polara mailing list, in place of the Game Theory/Loud Family one, and so encouraged to think about them daily, it's not crazy to think that Ed Ackerson would have a place in my pantheon, at least on musical grounds, much closer to Scott Miller's. They tend to reverse the proportions of noise and melody, but their songs demonstrate a similarly obsessive devotion to craftsmanship, which can be explained, since neither make much money at it, only by their belief in their own worth, or their songs'. The band is reduced to a trio for this album, with the demotion of Jason Orris from bassist to "additional engineering" and the relegation of perennial guest-player John Strohm to the thank-you list, but their sound and musical ambition appear to have evolved in inverse proportion to the size of the ensemble, and while the songs still seethe with static and assorted clatter, the noise does a half-hearted job, at best, of disguising the pop aspirations lurking behind it. "Whassup?" sits on a rumbling quasi-dub bass line, a hissing drum loop that often seems to lose its place momentarily and stumble over itself to re-sync, and a pervasive flanging that sounds like somebody was playing with the reverb unit and forgot to switch it back to something less obtrusive, but Ackerson and Jennifer Jurgens' sunny duet, halfway to Papas Fritas, seems blissfully unaware of the chaos, and the legato horn flares sound like their wordless thought bubbles as they catch their breath between verses. "A Brighter Day" opens with nearly half a minute of machine buzz, but then layers a hushed, breathy vocal over it, like a Sister Lovers-era Alex Chilton coming apart in a more modern studio. "Trainwreck" interweaves acoustic guitar and glassy synth ripples with a dry, echoing drum part, bursts of irrepressibly springy oscillator noise, repetitive faux-brass runs like a low-aptitude orchestrina starting to teach itself "Beat Surrender", and another set of obliviously cheerful boy/girl harmonies. "Got the Switch!" is Ed's version of a dance track, drum-and-bass-like in its nervous energy, but unable to resist interjecting some abstract synth warbles and a bit of jazzy, cast-adrift organ improvisation. "Halo", dropping back to just acoustic guitar and Ed's voice, joined eventually by bubbly keyboards, muted drums and Jennifer's dreamy backing vocals, is poised and becalmed, like they could have made it a country song if they'd been willing to give up the couple measures of pop catharsis at the very end. These, however, turn out to be the segue directly into the blocky, kaleidoscopic "Peaking Charlie", which itself sounds more like a two-minute introduction than a song in its own right.
The song it leads to, though, "I Can Believe", changes gears completely, slamming into Polara's most deadpan version of anthemic pop. Peter Anderson's drums crash confidently, bass obediently in tow, I'd take these string surges over "Bitter Sweet Symphony", and Ackerson sings like he might even be on stage in his mind, but where the overdriven guitar roar should be is a frayed, keening whir that slashes at what rock would say are the wrong notes, and the song, not even two minutes long, hurries through every phase that an aspiring hit would linger on. "Semi-detached", an acoustic lullaby punctured by eerily bent and clipped sampler incursions, reminds me simultaneously of Game Theory and Radiohead. "Verbing", a quick, bouncy instrumental, is almost entirely a drum-loop/arpeggiator duel, the guitar-feedback solo barely audible in the background. "Midtown Greenway" flirts with reggae, but ends up sounding more like one of the nightmares Tricky probably had after shooting The Fifth Element. "Tread Lightly", alternately atmospheric and churning, does a pretty good job of explaining why the new Smashing Pumpkins album bores me so much, although the non sequitur Britpop bridge in the middle is part of some other conversation. And the swaying finale, "Corporate Hegemony (Smash the State!)", despite the antagonistic title, is like "Let It Be" recast for Slash, three French horns and a swarm of hornets. There's no movement this seems like part of, to me, and I'm sure that's part of the reason Polara tend to wander out of my thoughts if I don't keep an eye on them. But if you keep at anything long enough, you construct your own context.
Trans Am: The Surveillance
Formless/Functional sat on my to-be-reviewed shelf for a lot of weeks, and as other discs arrived and departed, and the piles began to assume an identifiable stratification, the one it ended up on the bottom with was The Surveillance, the third album by the cryptic instrumental trio Trans Am. It's an alliance by elimination, as much as anything, but the bands do share a blithe indifference to anything going on outside their own heads and an abiding fondness for noise. Trans Am's attitude seems, to me, to be half Polara's conviction that the noise is often just as interesting as the notes, and half Guided by Voices' amiably passive refusal to see it as a problem. The muted tick that substitutes for hi-hats on "Prowler '97" could easily have been selected specifically for this purpose, or it could have been the result of somebody screwing up the levels on whatever processor it was supposed to go through. Is the modem noise on "Access Control", which sounds like what computers listen to when there aren't any people around to complain about it, recorded or simulated? "Endgame", a minute of static and hum, is either a reverent hymn to the power grid, or else the sound of the band miswiring something in their studio and taking that long to figure out which thing it is. Much of "Extreme Measures" sounds like somebody sawing apart a guitar in the background while the bassist and drummer continue with the song it was meant to join them in. "E.S.I." and "Shadow Boogie" both seem like demo programs for an early drum-machine prototype that the manufacturer decided wasn't quite ready yet, after all. "Stereo Situation" finds the drummer, apparently feeling that the guitar isn't sufficiently distorted, attempting to help it out by bashing his crash cymbals continuously.
It's easy to imagine people finding Trans Am intolerable. Even if you get through the noise experiments, most of the rest of this thirty-six minute album consists of sledgehammer rhythm-section sprints with little or no melodic direction, like rehearsal jams that might, eventually, turn into proper compositions, but probably not any time soon. The songs sound a lot like each other, and a lot like the songs on the other two Trans Am records. Every once in a while, though, a song's nomadic course alights on a riff, and the conceit of releasing these records suddenly seems very reasonable. "Armed Response" is like a surf-punk skirmish that the ocean wins. The pummeling, fragmented "The Campaign" is what I think I wanted the new Fugazi album to sound like. "Home Security", New Wave-y synth doodling over another lashing drum part, is the inspired sort of culture clash, to me, that I think other people hear in the Beastie Boys. "Extreme Measures" barely qualifies as a song, but it's as cathartic a four minutes of rock drive as I've heard this year. And "Stereo Situation", pealing guitar over a bass pulse that only changes notes when it absolutely has to, may not be the soul of why most people listen to rock, but it's the soul of why most people who play rock are able to struggle through the hard parts at the beginning. The noise doesn't have to mean anything, and it's a simple transformation to turn critical energy into critical mass. You could counter that not only do Trans Am tend to repeat themselves, but that their best qualities are also implicit in every other fervent rock band, and that they thus tend to repeat everybody, but if it's possible for a band to write their own context, it should also be possible for a band to erase their context, as they go, recreating a world that has never heard this noise embrace itself, and needs to.