We Feel Sorry for the Wall
188 · 3 September 98
Liz Phair: whitechocolatespaceegg
If my day job paid me twelve dollars less, I would never have bought this record. If there's no accountability, how will this system not collapse? Liz Phair made one of my favorite debut albums in the world, the starkly arresting Exile in Guyville, which for me combined oblivious incompetence, aimless atmospheric drift, blasé profanity and achingly uncluttered pop chime with such artless equanimity that I felt like I was hearing the adult version of those six-page folded-up "novels" eight-year-old girls write about their alternate lives as famous authors (like Gert Fram, although unless Mormon juvenile fiction has a wider mainstream audience than I'm aware of, I may be the only human who knows both sides of this equation), single epic paragraphs that execute logical pirouettes with approximately the same reticent deliberation as a just-punctured mylar balloon inside a running microwave oven, stories that the author will discover, years later, in some college writing class, violate every rule of successful short fiction except the one about taking the staples out before putting the thing into the auto-feed tray on the copier, and only if we're very lucky, and she can somehow evade the wardens we've posted to keep the corrupting dementia of vivid and aware childhoods outside the gray walls of our fogged-in adult city, will she ever rediscover a glimmering spark of its energy, after all the lessons that were supposed to educate it out of her. Some people make music as if there is no other way they could survive this life, as if there are notes in their breaths unless they stop taking them, as if their footsteps make cement sidewalk slabs incandesce like a Michael Jackson video stage-managed by sentient (and sentimental) quantum mechanics. And then there are people who make music as if they are a butterfly's wake away from having lived out their days as the associate director of admissions at some Northern liberal arts college that only broke down and started accepting men during the Reagan years. I adored Exile in Guyville all the more fiercely for every one of its resolute ineptnesses. The journalists swarmed around the temerity of talking about sex without employing any of its usual denaturing euphemisms, but the album's climax, to me, was "Stratford-on-Guy", a song simply, and irrelevantly, about flying into Chicago at night, and the important artistic traditions Liz extended, in my mind, led back to Let's Active and the Go-Go's, not Anaïs Nin and Henry Miller. But then she made Whip-Smart, and self-consciousness and proficiency, between them, ripped apart everything I loved about Liz's music. The album hardly sounded like Paula Abdul, in the larger scope of pop idioms, but the enchanted soap-bubble reverie of Exile in Guyville required no such drastic metamorphosis to dispel. She tried to make a real album, but you can't write airport-newsstand Grisham novels in Gert Fram's breathless run-on sprawl, so she learned a little discipline, and I didn't need any more of that. The follow-up EP Juvenilia exhumed a few more moments from before the downfall, but archeology is not rebirth.
And so I should never have bought this record. Buying new records, after the thrill is gone, is like pouring new layers of mud over the excavation site, hoping it will congeal, of its own accord, into the parabolic aqueducts and geodesic-domed agorae of the civilization that these very ruins prove never arose, or perhaps that the entombed are merely asleep, and that at this splash they will reawaken, eager to teach us how planar geometry and representative democracy are elements of a single natural science. What good I thought would come of a second confirmation that Liz had only one album in her (itself no cause for disgrace; most people don't have that many), I can't imagine. Five years after Exile, four after Whip-Smart, every life-change in the social repertoire arrayed between this version of Liz and the one that once imparted all those frightening squalls to a cheap, helpless tape recorder, surely the best to be hoped was that her ambition would outstrip her abilities, leaving us to sift though the resulting rubble for quartz sparkles and the heads of abandoned dolls. Either she'll have learned enough to sustain herself, which would be dull, or she will not, which would be dreadful. I buy albums, all the time, that I realistically expect will be horrible, but there's usually a sheen of silly optimism across my face, and this one I bought in a morbid, desiccated gloom, and put on like I was contractually obligated to play it once through, before shoving Dennis Phelps and Rebecca Pidgeon a case-width down the P shelf to make room for it.
And to the extent that I can simulate objectivity, and the extent that the music will submit to dry analysis, whitechocolatespaceegg seems to me like a virtual encyclopedia of easily avoided mistakes. Popular music isn't a determinist function of structure formulae, but there are at least a few simple lessons that anybody determined to make a living this way, given four idle years to work with, ought to have learned by now, and Liz hasn't. The title is ungainly and typographically pointless. The opening track is becalmed and uninspiring, like The Hobbit starting off with a chapter of the footnotes from The Silmarillion, before we have any reason to care. The lyrics of "Big Tall Man" have all the melodic lilt of Jordan explaining that Brain has diagnosed his learning problems from the phonics manual. "Perfect World" is like the sound that that red plastic barnyard-animal simulator makes if you pull the cord with the dial pointing at Paul Simon. The rationalization of relationship abuse in "Johnny Feelgood" undoes two Lilith Fairs of female self-esteem building, and rips off its title from Exile's "Johnny Sunshine". "Polyester Bride" manages to ruin the most straightforward of dialogs by pre-empting the second speaker's chorus reply in the very first line of the narrator's introduction. "Baby Got Going" is a misbegotten mixture of "eenie meenie pepsodeenie" sing-song, two-finger Devo synth drone and laughable quasi-road-blues. "Uncle Alvarez" is an extended snipe at a dead relative. The morose "Only Son", which opens with the line "All these babies are born / To the wrong kind of people", is probably worth a year of therapy all by itself, when Liz's child grows old enough to read copyright dates and understand that it's one of only two explicit reference to child-rearing on this whole album (and the other one, which concludes with "You and I are in way over our heads with this one", is no more comforting). "Go on Ahead" relies on tautological extra verbiage to make the notes and syllables line up, as if this is how a song's quality is measured. "Headache" seems to have been recorded before Liz finished converting mumbling into actual lyrics. "Ride" sounds like a radio-station promo-jingle or an advertisement for a purportedly life-enhancing sports drink. The chorus of "What Makes You Happy" makes neither grammatical nor thematic sense. "Fantasize" sounds like an Elliott Smith demo from before he'd worked up the courage to tell his arrhythmic beat-poet friend to cut the bongos out. "Shitloads of Money"'s central argument is both venal and specious. And "Girls' Room", the catty finale, marries a hook that sounds to me like it was stolen from the theme song to WKRP in Cincinnati to perhaps the most gutless guitar tone since the Carpenters.
I also believe, however, with an incapacitating detonation of empathetic passion to go with every petty formal slight, that this album is also the year's second genuine pop masterpiece, after only Tori Amos' from the choirgirl hotel, and even then only on the tenuous grounds that Liz's genius seems like a slightly less incomprehensible sort, to me, than Tori's, and I'm less able to modulate my enthusiasm rationally when I'm critically disoriented. You find out what you really feel about an album, I think, not while any one of its songs are playing, but in the silences between the songs, as one echoes in your memory and you wait for the next one to begin. Are you impatient, or weary? Do you just want the momentary pause to end, or last forever? Does a part of you attempt to convince the rest that that was the last song, and strain to hear the CD changer click around to the next aperture? Or is the moment an exquisite misery, as you are stretched into delirium between wishing the last song hadn't ended yet and knowing, by heart, as if the progression has the inexorability of the multiplication table, the notes that begin the next one? I haven't had this album a month, yet, and I'm already singing along with it in as elaborate a detail pantomime as the one I go through with Boston's Don't Look Back, whose every nuance I memorized at an age when these mind tricks are both unintentional and indelible. Yes, in many ways this record is fundamentally incompetent, but all we can ever mean by that is that it disobeys some set of rules, and while some of the greatest and most inspiring works of art, in both the collective pantheons and your personal ones, are the ones that explicate a prevailing system most clearly, there are just as many great works that exist to reverse-engineer a completely new set of rules out of conclusions that are manifestly and unapologetically incompatible with the old ones. Liz could have spent the last four years learning to write songs correctly, and I am weak with gratitude that she didn't.
The album does open slowly. It ends slowly, too, for that matter, and the floor drops out of it at a few places in the middle. But Exile in Guyville shares that erratic quality, as if this is what Liz thinks we mean by "pace", and the second I was sure that the whole album wasn't as muted as the first song, I stopped objecting to it. "White Chocolate Space Egg"'s lumbering gait is half its charm, the rumbling drums like the pick-axe cadence, penetrating into your dreams, of an army of benevolent dwarves digging the foundation for your sovereign fortress, undaunted by the knowledge that they have done this every night of your life, only to have the ramparts disintegrate at dawn's first touch, moments before you can wake to inhabit it. "Girls' Room", at the other end of the record, is not only a graceful bow, but a fluttering, gossamer counter-example to the claim that Liz doesn't know how to make words span notes, and an attempted reconciliation, albeit in Liz's oblique vocabulary, with whatever part of the community of women her rank-breaking endorsement of fellatio on Exile alienated. Like Tori's Under the Pink, it is less a declaration of undying sisterly solidarity than a reminder that anger and discord are as omnipresent as they are destructive, but this recognition makes it possible to integrate Liz's past, as well as her future, and thus is probably the difference between condescending forgiveness and informed exoneration. Of the slow parts along the way, most of "Perfect World" is as close as this record comes to Exile's naïve minimalism, but the auto-harmonies that sneak in toward the end are as plaintive and haunting as Elliott Smith at his most ethereal; "Only Son" is wrecked and harrowing, but the family narrative is more complex and sympathetic than it might initially seem, and although the closing refrain is "I think I'm losing my soul...", the musical catharsis the song swells into is so buoyant that I think she must mean that she's losing sole possession of her soul, not that it's abandoning her but that she's finally discovering that it can be shared; only "Fantasize", the bongo song, seems truly adrift to me, but it's short and the echoes are pretty.
I loved Exile most for its moments of pure, endearing pop coltishness, though, and whitechocolatespaceegg has eleven songs in various stages of turning from adorable into frankly impressive. "Big Tall Man", with spoken verses and bits where nearly everything but the drums drops out, belongs to the same genus as the Breeders' "Cannonball", but breaks into soaring harmonies, not punk howl, and betrays the secret that Liz can sing for real, if she wants to. "Johnny Feelgood"'s crisp, snapping drums are close to my idea of pop-percussion perfection, the freefalls that lead from the choruses back into the verses are one of my favorite undisciplined songwriting techniques, and in the context of the giddy "I never met a man who was so pretty inside" and "He's got petals on the bed of his sweat sock drawer" I think the apparent violence of "I still get up / When he knocks me down / And he orders me around / 'Cause it loosens me up" is most plausible as emotional metaphor, not police report. Most of the lyric details of "Polyester Bride" are gleefully inane, and the guitar riff in the verses seems an awful lot like the one in David Bowie's "Ziggy Stardust", but the song compensates with abundant expansive simplicity and two completely independent choruses, and seems to me to come out ahead in the exchange. "Love Is Nothing" and "Baby Got Going" are both genre experiments of sorts, the former like a two-thirds-speed "That Thing You Do" rearranged by Lida Husik, the latter like an uneasy truce between Stephin Merritt and Carla Bozulich, but both are executed with such a cheerful absence of pretense that I can't sustain any objection. "Uncle Alvarez" is a hilarious mixture of gorgeous guitar sparkle, bloopy sampler percussion and an ultimately affectionate biography of its subject ("Oh, oh, oh, imaginary accomplishments!" is terser than They Might Be Giants would have been, but disguises its poignancy in the same sort of surreal reverse irony), and the drum-vocal-piano-bass break before the final verse is far prettier than Liz usually lets her songs be. "Go on Ahead" is a little anonymous, but it's redeemed, for me, by the line "You walk out of the room with your hands so deep in your pockets I don't recognize you." "Ride"'s drum gallop reminds me of Game Theory's "Nine Lives to Rigel Five", the vocal polyphony is enthralling, and the deadpan "Boys can make me kick and moan" is a sly allusion to younger pleasures. And "Shitloads of Money", despite a refrain calculated to infuriate indie purists, is actually a languid, confident, waltz-time lullaby.
The difference between great and masterful, however, in my mind, requires that the overall spirit of effervescent self-reliance be augmented by at least two songs with credible individual claims on immortality. "Headache", the first, is wholesale New Wave, a cheesy synth-bass riff and an imperturbably square drum-pattern supplying the foundation, over which Liz hops in and out of falsetto and breathes deeply in lieu of cymbals, and organ stabs and some atmospheric guitar feedback fight for the privilege of juxtaposition. The two moments that reduce me to an awed puddle both come about a minute from the end, the first when Liz forgets what words come after "Russian Army" and calmly hums nonsense until the next line occurs to her, the second the blurry whoosh with which the synth-bass returns, like a portmanteau impersonation of the first heavy-metal guitar trick you ever learn, scraping the pick down the length of one of the wound strings. My other nominee for immortality is "What Makes You Happy", which might qualify on the basis of any one of the Byrds-y verse guitar, the burbling synth runs in the chorus, the whirling "Listen! Listen!" backing vocals or the Chemical-Brothers-esque drum-pattern shifts, but whose real claim is that it's one of the few songs ever written about a mother's advice that is willing to relate the advice verbatim, illogic and all, instead of substituting the narrator's interpretation or commentary. "Listen here, young lady", rings the chorus, ebulliently, and Liz is somewhere in between ridicule and reverence, somewhere in the middle where the things her mother says to her can never exist solely as sentences in English, because there's too much history and knowledge implicit in them, but where they have value, nonetheless, perhaps more value than anything literal they say. This is the state of relationships, circa 1998: "But don't worry, Mom, I met him in a restaurant" is how you introduce one, "Mostly we've been living here uninjured" is how you describe success, and "All those other bastards were only practice" is how you reconcile marrying later in life with the appealing illusion of emotional (at least) virginity. But however the mores mutate, our mothers still just want to see us happy, and learn, before we're old enough to have any idea of the effort involved, that the most efficient route to this peace involves tilting the world's axis so whatever peculiar angle we assume is, by definition, upright.
Rasputina: How We Quit the Forest
The other obtuse angle I've managed to align myself with, this week, is How We Quit the Forest, the second album by the lunatic cello trio Rasputina. I love cellos, and the idea of a rock band centered around three pale women playing them appeals to me in what may not be entirely healthy ways, but the first Rasputina album, Thanks for the Ether, never quite settled right with me. Actually, to be more accurate, the one song I heard from it, "Brand New Key" (which was the b-side to the single for "Ordinary Girl", the China Forbes-sung theme for the TV version of Clueless), never quite settled right with me, and I took the liberty of temporarily assuming that the rest of the album wouldn't, either, with "temporarily" ending up meaning "until yesterday", when I finally bought a copy of it, only to find out, after all, that I had extrapolated accurately. Having read in an interview with the band that they were unhappy with the production of the first record (thus my interest in the second), it's impossible to know how much of my impression is just a product of that bias, but I'm pretty sure that's the conclusion I would have come to on my own, as well. A&R rep Jimmy Boyle, who produced Thanks for the Ether, seems as much afraid of cellos as anything else, and treats them so delicately that the three women are forced into increasingly histrionic performances in a not-entirely-successful attempt to demonstrate that they are, actually, a rock band, not a chamber ensemble. Their odd songwriting experiments, which often have the character of monologues from plays staged by the orphaned inhabitants of a rotting, moor-encased Victorian estate, temperamental syntheses of the Brontė sisters and Edward Gorey, also aspire to a macabre edginess that the women aren't quite able to wring from their cellos just by bearing down harder on their bows.
Boyle still gets thanked in the notes to How We Quit the Forest, but his production duties have been transferred to ex-Nine Inch Nails drummer Chris Vrenna, who also supplies drums and programming, and Vrenna proves less perplexed by Rasputina's convoluted schemes. The cellos, this time around, are mashed through effects and distortion pedals just like guitars would be, and you could get through large sections of many of these songs without even realizing cellos are the source of the noises. "The Olde HeadBoard" is built on a bare drum loop, blasting industrial buzz, catlike yowls and one untreated cello that seems to think it's a violin, anyway. "LeechWife" (words mash together in these titles like they were invented by illuminating monks who regarded word spacing as a decadent waste of parchment) is all arena-metal churn, with layers of crowd noise for emphasis. "The New Zero" uses the cellos for a muted, arpeggiator-like stutter, a little like Yaz performed on stilts. "Dwarf Star" is mostly static and click-track beeps, "Sign of the Zodiac" hums eerily, "TrenchMouth" is more industrial throb, "MayFly" is almost entirely pizzicato, and "Watch T.V." is phrased for organ. Even the songs with cellos that sound like cellos often have other musical highlights, from the tap-dance percussion clicks of "You Don't Own Me" and the timpani thumps of "Herb Girls of Birkenau" to the crashing snares of "Things I'm Gonna Do", and the ones that don't are usually derailed by the vocals, especially the clipped, faux-adolescent narration of "Christian Soldiers" and the greedy harangue of "Diamond Mind".
Ultimately, though, while the cellos provide a different dominant mood than guitars or keyboards would, and one I like, the most thrilling weirdness that afflicts this record, for me, has much more to do with the voice and lyrics of writer, singer and co-producer Melora Creager. Her delivery is sharp and acerbic in the quick sections, like Annie Potts' might be if she had a singing career, but it vibrates with a Jane Siberry-like luminosity on half of the held notes, and trills as crazily as Kristeen Young on the other half, which leaves me with an disconcerting, if oddly believable, mental image of what such a synthesis might look and act like, and an urgent desire not to get locked in its house overnight. The lyrics to which Creager applies herself are even harder to fathom, like her literary world has been pieced together out of fragments of Dickens, Falkner, Dorothy Parker and novelizations of The Nanny. "The Olde Headboard" careens from a Space Ghost name-drop to "Where'd you get the dumb idea / For all the secretive platonic dating?", which I don't understand in context or out. "LeechWife", "Sign of the Zodiac" and "Christian Soldiers" constitute a disturbing theme trilogy about gruesome archaic medical practices. One or both of the protagonists of "The New Zero" may be intelligent polar bears. "Things I'm Gonna Do" could be the diary of the child from Kate Bush's "Cloudbusting", after a few years of paranoid fugitive seclusion with his father's books about orgasms. "Dwarf Star" may well be the most insanely self-contradictory story that can be told in only four sentences, and if I had to bet I'd guess that Creager wrote it while drugged. And perhaps the strangest song, for all its deceptive coherence, is the Rose Kennedy tribute "Rose K.", which burrows through sedated confusion to "I take my medicine, / I crush the paper cup", desperate fury funneled into a horrifically pathetic gesture, but the only one left to her. Rasputina are the opposite of hyperbole in almost exactly the same way: instead of thrashing at the borders of my understanding of art in an attempt to make an impression, which they have the tools to do if they were so inclined, they draw me in, reducing the terms of the form with each circuit of the spiral, until the borders are coiled in so tightly that they can be shattered with the tiniest sudden twitch.