God Never Liked People That Much
191 · 24 September 98
Happy Rhodes: Many Worlds Are Born Tonight
Although I've always been a gadget fanatic in theory, able to spend more or less any amount of available time poring over the specifications for just about anything you can collect specifications for (I recently amused myself for almost three solid months with nothing more than a tape measure and the dimensions of three different beds and two night-tables), in practice I seem to have developed the consumer survival skill of completely losing interest in a product category the moment I break down and buy into it. Looking around at the equipment in my CD-library/listening-room/computer-room/study (four space-functions that should always, in my opinion, be co-located), it's easy to see the effects of this complacency. My computer is a 486 DX2/66, purchased in mid-1993, whose case I have not had occasion to open since. Some years ago I bought a 14.4 modem for it, which I'm still using, and more recently a small laser printer, the only part of the setup that isn't at least three generations out of date. The pieces of my stereo system, perched on various tiers of an old wooden rack at one end of the room, date variously from 1984 (a Technics turntable that I fully expect to live forever), 1990 (my first CD player, also Technics, also showing no adverse signs of age), 1994 (a big Denon receiver, obviously a product of a different income era than the first two pieces) and 1995 (a dual-well cassette deck, also a Denon to save on remote controls). The original speakers for this setup, small ones from Infinity (whomever they were), also of a 1984 vintage, have been demoted to satellite use after long, distinguished service, but their successors, a pair of heavy Klipsch bookshelf speakers, are only marginally fancier. In my old apartment the Klipsches were overkill for my tomb-like acoustic nightmare of a study, so I ran cables through some convenient holes in the wall into the living room, where they really did sit on bookshelves, even though audiophiles tell you never to do that. In my townhouse, however, the study is essentially a loft, overlooking the living room, so when I'm downstairs I just turn the volume up and use the whole loft as a single giant enclosure. This would undoubtedly enrage the audiophiles to a critical level; in those diagrams of proper speaker orientation for optimum frequency dispersion and stereo imaging you hardly ever run across the suggestion that the speakers be placed in another room, on a different floor of the house, firing at right angles to the couch were it even on the same plane. It's never bothered me. If you can't hear the details, turn it up until you can.
But all this doesn't mean that I'm not occasionally gripped with device lust. It's been long enough since I bought any new consumer electronics (unless you count an underachieving Mr. Coffee that produces a reliably ghastly ichor, albeit quickly) that I'm starting to feel a little itch. It might finally be time for a new computer, and I wanted to see an iMac in person (these are two topics, not one; iMacs are cute, but is the objection standing between personal computers and universal acceptance really "They're so hard to see into"?), so I dropped by a computer store over the weekend, and as I stood in front of a 450MHz Pentium II machine, chuckling softly at its smug, doomed hum, it occurred to me to put the potential expenditure in perspective by tallying all the audio gear I could buy with the same amount of money. Perhaps I really could, I mused later at home, already reaching for the tape measure, get some tower speakers, lay some monster cable down to the living room, set them up exactly the correct distance from the corners, and sit, back straight, directly in front of the cones, finally appreciating the majesty of the soundstage I've been missing all these muddled years. Two things interrupted this reverie: one, the record I had on at that moment was the greatest hits of the Primitives, and it's pretty hard to imagine that there's much majesty of the soundstage hiding in it, inaccessible to my current equipment. Fiddling with the equalization of "Crash" in order to appreciate it better is like trying to multiply the prurience of flipping through Playboy's Erotic Lingerie by scrutinizing the grains of the photographs under a microscope. This isn't necessarily an argument against expensive gear, since I have a lot of music with more subtlety and detail than "Crash", but the second interruption was more convincing. They've been ripping up the road outside my house, doing something in connection with the ten-story office-building going in across the street, and at night they leave large steel plates over the holes they've blasted ("Steel Plates", warns an orange sign, nearby, though it's not clear to whom the comment is addressed). The plates are flat, mostly, and the road mostly isn't, so when a car drives over them there are two loud noises, somewhere between clangs and thumps, a bit like someone pounding angrily on my front door with the head of a shovel, or else a toilet seat being slammed twice in quick succession (I haven't decided which of these is more alarming). "Crash", of course, buzzes over this incidental racket with cheerful equanimity. My real listening curriculum for the week, however, a pile of albums characterized, to oversimplify, by quiet eeriness, would surely be better off without it. Or, at any rate, no amount of pink-noise calibration is going help this problem. As long as I'm going to insist on living in Cambridge, I should have used the money as bribes for the two additional city councilors whose votes we needed to pass the zoning petition that would have kept the building to six stories, instead of ten.
If I were shopping for expensive audio equipment, though, I'd want to bring my own music with me to gauge the sound with. I'd want to bring some albums I'm intimately familiar with, probably The Hounds of Love or Misplaced Childhood for a sonic baseline, Steeltown to see how it handles a tense, dark roar, perhaps Luka Bloom's Turf for simplicity. I'd also want to bring something I haven't quite memorized yet, something that could sound different than I'm used to without that seeming inherently wrong. If I went tomorrow, quick, before Many Worlds Are Born Tonight, Happy Rhodes' eighth studio album, seeps into me any further, it would serve in this second role admirably. Kate Bush, Jane Siberry and Sarah McLachlan all have albums with this much intricate, glittering detail to them, as does Happy herself for that matter, but this is the only one still new enough to me that exotic components could reveal new noises and I'd think it was me who hadn't noticed them before.
And with Kate in seclusion, Jane on a jazz tangent that I fear is losing its tangentiality, and Sarah becoming popular enough for her singles to suffer from overexposure, in a sense Happy is, to me, their heir as the queen of meticulous production and soundcraft. Despite, or perhaps because of, the pervasive druidic calm at the root of Happy's music, I find that I only fully appreciate this album if I listen to it very loudly. No, it's more severe than that: if I play it quietly, I actually don't like it. Happy is quite capable of writing songs that stand on songwriting alone (the compilation RhodeSongs gathers a dozen of these from her first six albums), and thus would sound fine coming from a transistor radio locked in a Happy Days lunch box, but at least in the treatments here, these don't seem to me like more of them. These are not songs I hum, afterwards, the way I did "The Wretches Gone Awry", from Rhodes I, or "Words Weren't Made for Cowards", from Warpaint, or "Temporary and Eternal", from Equipoise; in fact, if I pause the disc, pick up the case and look at the song-titles on the back, I can't think of a single phrase. If this were a Green Day album, that would constitute failure, but for Happy it strikes me as a kind of triumph. Her grasp of compositional complexity has come a long way from the minimal synthesizer washes on Rhodes I and II. "100 Years", the existential soliloquy of a lonely computer, juggles drum-machine clatter, nursery-rhyme chants, operatic sighs, the contented groans of giants, synth beeps and vocoder flourishes as if gravity is irrelevant, and the only trick is nudging them occasionally, so they don't drift into the air-conditioning intake. The meditative "Many Worlds Are Born Tonight" is a stressed timpani loop and a Valkyrie host of processed Happy voices. The graceful "The Chariot" moves like a Berlin song taken apart by the Kronos Quartet and then put back together by the Future Sound of London in one of their ambient moods, and Happy, suspending spiraling rounds between her sensuous low hover and her breathy falsetto, sounds like two entirely different people. "Ra Is a Busy God", reprised from the 1995 ambient indulgence Aural Gratification Volume 1, is a syrupy swirl of voice-sample choirs, fly-by synth-bells, low polyrhythmic thumps (no, wait, that's those steel plates again, not the record), liquid bass, a children's litany, deliberately artificial hi-hat twitches, and Happy in two more of her vocal guises, the one where she sounds a demented midget and the one where she sounds exactly like Kate Bush. The vocal melody of "If Wishes Were Horses, How Beggars Would Ride" could fit in in several places on Kate's Hounds of Love, but the dense, busy arrangement is like Music for Airports crumpled and xeroxed in alternation until there's no tranquillity left. The bouncy "Roy (Back From the Offworld)" is dance music for a sci-fi-future party at which everybody is wearing clothes too metallic for anything more limber than precession, and is the song the diva in The Fifth Element would probably had sung if she was serious about the genre crossover. "Tragic", smoky and swelling, builds to some impressive choral crescendos, although it also reminds me that Happy's lyrics ("I see you because you're so tragic / And I need you for the same") still do occasionally land with an artless thud. The snarling, jerky "Proof" is the closest thing here to Equipoise and Building the Colossus, to me, but the pulsing bass and snapping drums keep evaporating suddenly, and then re-condensing a few drifting measures later. "Looking Over Cliffs" is a gothic midnight wedding march for reluctant ghosts, or robots grown sick of the smell of wires. "Winter" starts out halfway to This Mortal Coil, but then breaks into an awkward vocal-beat-box funk, like Spock trying to imitate Bobby McFerrin. And "Serenading Genius", the finale, is a sweeping tribute to inspiration, all of Happy's voices joining in (including a couple I don't think I've ever heard her use before, incredibly), and if the sentiment again lacks a little in grace, this time I think Happy rescues it with sheer sincerity. There's a weird taboo against musicians admitting how much music means to them, as if true artists toss off their creations with casual disdain, but these songs were never intended to sound like improvisations or sketches. Many Worlds Are Born Tonight is an immersion, and if it doesn't sound right quiet, well, the Eiffel Tower doesn't look like much as a four-inch model, either. Asking every record to lodge three-chord hooks in your brain is like asking Anna Karenina to be The Rules. I don't have to remember this music after it stops playing, I just have to remember where the disc is so I can listen to it again.
Lisa Germano: Slide
Happy Rhodes' music can be spooky, like a moonlit forest, but ex-session-violinist Lisa Germano, at her most intense, has made some of the only music that genuinely frightens me. Geek the Girl, her third solo album, which pivots around "...A Psychopath", possibly the most terrifying thing I've ever heard asserted as a pop song (it incorporates samples of a gut-wrenching 911 call), has all the glistening clarity of a dissection, something like Big Star's Sister Lovers strained through Tori Amos' "Me and a Gun", and I have a hard time listening to it without becoming convinced that somehow the problems in her world are my fault. There is catharsis in this, when the album ends if not while it's running, and it's high on my list of remarkable artistic achievements in music, but it's a record I don't have the strength to confront very often. The first two, though, On the Way Down From the Moon Palace and Happiness, are consigned to history in my mind, and when I put them on I feel like I'm just avoiding Geek the Girl. Excerpts From a Love Circus, the fourth album, was a wild overcompensation for my purposes, like Prozac took the personality along with the fear, and left me worried that Geek the Girl was just going to be the one Lisa Germano album I cared about. Slide, to my surprise, turns out to be precisely what I wanted Excerpts From a Love Circus to be, a recapitulation of some of Geek the Girl's atmospheric and musical themes in a form I can listen to and not want to sit in oppressive silence, for an hour afterwards, staring blankly into space. Violins creak wearily, pianos twinkle like something melting, Lisa's defenseless voice wavers with the charming unsteadiness of a faun, and the drums, where there are any, seem to trail behind, like even the drum machine isn't that pleased with its station in life. A few songs flirt with the subtle distinction between catchiness and monotony, a deconstruction of rock-and-roll that might have come off as parody if it wasn't so clear that Lisa doesn't hear anything strange about them. Tchad Blake's production lets the instruments get shredded, at times, but keeps Lisa an inch from your ear, like a suicidal guardian angel given up on the whole concept of guidance. The costume changes of Excerpts From a Love Circus are almost completely absent, with the possible exception of a short interlude at the end of "Turning Into Betty" that sounds to me like a banshee trying to remember how the theme to Star Trek goes. This music isn't therapeutic, and might even be the opposite of therapy, a soundtrack for people so defined by their depression that counsel is torture, and there's something wrong about saying I enjoy it, but there's a part of me that always feels a twinge of regret when a problem gets solved before I've understood it, completely, and these are songs for spending a little more time broken.
Sarah Slean: Universe
I don't know whether the similarities were intended or not, but I always think of Geek the Girl as a direct descendant of Tori's Little Earthquakes. There have been a lot of albums, over the past six years, that could be construed to owe a debt to Tori, some of them to traditions that Tori didn't start, either, and some to ones she did, but the bulk of them fan out around Alanis Morissette, focusing on Tori's emotional courage and her implicit contention that rock can encompass serious studies of women's issues, a non-obvious point given how seldom rock is used to study anything seriously. Lisa Germano doesn't really sound much more like Tori than Alanis does, but she picked up on subtler, creepier cues in Tori's example, and perhaps because the line of exploration doesn't lead anywhere after Lisa, and sprays off in all directions after Alanis, I still think of Lisa and Tori together, which I've stopped doing with Tori and Alanis. It's a telling comment on the difference between Tori's appeal and Alanis', though, that Alanis has had dozens of extremely close imitators and Tori has had none. The cynical explanation is that Alanis took the part of Tori's style that anybody could do, so of course other singers find her easier to emulate, low-imagination record-label executives find her easier to market (and easier to clone, and it's always easier to promote an artist with a genre behind them), and casual fans, the ones that bought copies 100,001 through 15,000,000, find her easier to endorse. But no matter how hard it is to emulate Tori, herself, surely somebody would eventually try.
The closest I've heard anybody come, yet, is Toronto singer and pianist Sarah Slean, whose eight-song debut EP, Universe, does not include US distribution among its virtues, but anything priced in Canadian dollars is currently free to Americans, so after enough pestering from people who'd heard it I looked it up on the web and ordered it. The resemblance, on at least some of these songs, is uncanny. The rolling piano cycle, shuffling drums and breathy vocals of "Weight" would have fit right in on Boys for Pele. "I Know"'s wavering tempo, ringing piano and melancholy, slightly-overwrought strings are closer to Little Earthquakes. "Me & Jerome", faster and a bit more spasmodic, sounds to me like a cross between "Happy Phantom" and Tori's recent b-side cover of Steely Dan's "Do It Again". The distinctly "Silent All These Years"-ish "Universe" twists, at the ends of lines, in a way I might have thought only Tori's lips correctly shaped for. If there were legions of Tori imitators as convincing, I might have had less patience with this, but frankly, at this point I'd probably buy an album of Weird Al Yankovic making inane jokes out of Tori's songs ("Me and a Bun" would chronicle a workplace dispute at a Burger King, "Little Earthworms" is self-explanatory, and "Silent All These Years", no name change needed, would inevitably be about a long-pent-up fart) if the impression was convincing enough. And the fact that Sarah Slean sounds real, to me, like she sings and plays this way because she does, not as a calculated ploy, makes this EP very promising. By the time she assembles a whole album, I expect she'll end up sounding less like Tori, whether she wants to or not.
And the other reasons to expect her to develop an identity of her own are the rest of the songs on the EP. "Angel" combines some of the organic bounce of Shawn Colvin with a bit of Sarah McLachlan's ethereal reserve, leavened with traces of Jewel's candor. "Pie Jesu" is an admirably plausible multi-track setting of a Gabriel Fauré motet. The untitled seventh song (does an eight-song EP really need 44 track indexes and two hidden bonus tracks?), my favorite of this set, has a Tori-like piano line, but a massed chorus closer to Sarah McLachlan, and a structure that reminds me strongly of late-Hogarth Marillion. And the eighth song, after the track numbers finally stop flipping, is a sinister, throbbing cover of Radiohead's "Climbing Up the Walls", and the shock of discovering, at the end of it, that it was recorded live, and there were people sitting a hand-clap away from her, dead silent through the whole song, but erupting into applause a respectful moment after it ends, might, if it had happened at the end of OK Computer itself, have saved the whole album for me.
The Hope Blister: ...Smile's OK
The definitive album of spooky atmospheric dolor for spooky atmospheric dolor's sake, to me, is still It'll End in Tears, the first album by producer Ivo Watts-Russell and the conscripted stable of 4AD colleagues that made up This Mortal Coil. If we were moving off the Earth, and data capacity were limited, I could even reduce It'll End in Tears to its first three songs, covers of Alex Chilton's "Kangaroo", Tim Buckley's "Song to the Siren" and Chilton's "Holocaust" sung, respectively, by cindytalk's Gordon Sharp, the Cocteau Twins' Elizabeth Fraser and ex-Buzzcocks singer Howard Devoto, as perfect a three-song encapsulation of the 4AD aesthetic as anything ever released on the label. The other two TMC albums, Filigree and Shadow and Blood, each have some worthwhile moments, as well, notably Kim Deal and Tanya Donelly singing Chris Bell's "You and Your Sister", on Blood, but It'll End in Tears' revolving cast of minor celebrities, which also included Lisa Gerard from Dead Can Dance, and Modern English singer Robbie Grey, mostly gave way, after the first album, to a stream of people I didn't have any personal attachment to. The three albums were eventually boxed up, along with an additional disc with the original versions of twenty-one of the covers, as 1983-1991, and the original-versions disc turned out to be the prize of the set, for me, a remarkable testament to Watts-Russell's ability to find the 4AD spirit, not just manufacture it, and the thing that resulted in me buying my first Emmylou Harris album, an associative link that seemed a lot stranger before Wrecking Ball.
Why Ivo opted to assume a new band name for ...Smile's OK, I don't know; the album could have been credited to This Mortal Coil without much risk of buyers being misled, as the mood hasn't changed appreciably. Vocalist Louise Rutkowski, who sang several duets with her sister Deirdre on Filigree and Shadow, and a couple on Blood, and saxophonist Ritchie Thomas, who played on one song on Filigree and Shadow, are joined by a bass/cello/viola/two-violin string section, and the group takes eight songs, all written by other people, and makes them sound like work of a single gloomy pen. The repertoire, this time, mines recent obscurities, rather than forgotten treasures: Slowdive's "Dagger", Heidi Berry's "Only Human", Chris Knox's "The Outer Skin", the Cranes' "Sweet Unknown", David Sylvian's "Let the Happiness In", Gus Gus' "Is Jesus Your Pal", Brian Eno's "Spider and I" and John Cale's "Hanky Panky Nohow". The stretch that reaches towards the heights of It'll End in Tears, for me, comes in the middle of this album: The tense "The Outer Skin" is arranged for only Louise's voice, a backing-vocal chorus that sounds like it was created by molding the echoes from her own reverb, and an instrumental coda that could be the same noise with the vocal timbres ironed out of it. "Sweet Unknown" is my favorite, a simple guitar pattern and subtle strings supporting a haunting farewell phrased, like Jane Siberry's "The Taxi Ride", as a benediction and release to the next relationship, which for some reason always seems to me like the most poignant kind. And "Let the Happiness In", the most menacing of the three, undercuts the sunny repetition of the title with muted, pendulous bass guitar, slow string cascades, and a fade-out choir. The only misstep on the album, for me, is "Hanky Panky Nohow", and then just because the phrase "Hanky Panky" seems intrinsically goofy, and I can't bear to hear it so solemnly intoned. But the song drifts for another minute or two after the last chorus, and before long I've forgiven it, and am floating, trying to keep the final echoes from dying away by concentrating on them as hard as possible. Ivo's universe has a soothing physics, and I emerge from another forty-minute visit to it in a state where everything around me seems like it could obey those same laws. The LEDs on my CD player could blink a little slower, if they put their mind to it, I'm sure. My desk lamp must have a softer, bluer setting. The fan in my computer would sound great with just a touch of flanging and an extra harmonic, singing periodicity duets with the refrigerator, kicking on and off downstairs. If it weren't for the steel plates, I think I could sit here, listening to the revealed shape of nothing, until dawn.