Sunlight in Empty Car Parks
198 · 12 November 98
Kenickie: Get In
As I write, reports are claiming that Kenickie have broken up. Musical differences, disappointing follow-up sales: the reasons given are tediously familiar, which only makes my sadness at their departure more intense. I gave their frenetic debut album, At the Club, the #4 slot on my 1997 top-ten list, and in describing it I said that Kenickie had a chance at longevity that the Spice Girls did not. A year later, the Spice Girls appear to be doing fine, and Kenickie do not. Lives, of course, are long, and there's still plenty of time for fortunes to reverse. Maybe tomorrow will bring word that Kenickie have reformed, penitent, and Get In has been scheduled for belated but heavily promoted US release, and the Spice Girls have retired from music to become lepidopterists. Maybe. Events, however, rarely alter my convictions. The Spice Girls could spend the next forty years on a monomaniacal campaign to win over me, specifically, and still never occupy as much space in my mind and heart as Kenickie staked out in two albums (although, to be fair, if the Spice Girls ever decide to fire their producers and co-writers and backing musicians, learn to play instruments themselves, and make an album entirely out of their own resources, I have made a standing offer to become their most ardent advocate, and the more dreadful the resulting music sounds the better).
The sources of musical differences and disappointing follow-up sales, however, are trivial to discern from even the most casual juxtaposition of At the Club and Get In. At the Club was, it seems to me, a joyfully erratic, bracingly self-defined celebration of the dual, and arguably symbiotic, spirits of youth and punk. In its most electrifying measures, it sounded like the band's fervent, inexhaustible, nihilistic impatience had been only barely confined to the vicinities of songs, but for every in-joke aside they refused to slow down and explain, there were a flash or two of what seemed to me like indelible adult insight. There is a sort of art that we can maybe only make during the briefest transitional moments in our lives, those few excruciating and exhilarating days during which naïveté and wisdom stare each other down, before they strike whatever truce, in your life, keeps you from imploding. I hear the same essential tension in At the Club as I do in Jagged Little Pill and Pieces of You, however differently the three records cope with it. They are albums to be proud of and embarrassed by, at once, and I'm not sure whether I think doing things to be proud of or doing things to be embarrassed by is a better use of your youth, but if you can get them to co-exist you don't have to decide.
The first album was released in the US, but the spiritual similarities to Alanis Morissette and Jewel apparently didn't impress most people the way they impressed me, and Kenickie's musical cross between Shampoo and Sleeper fared, here, as best I can tell, no better than those two bands had, before it. And while I had very high hopes for the second album, both for its own reasons and as the first new music from my best-new-artist class of 1997 (Kenickie, Linoleum, the Longpigs and the Stereophonics), I admit that the two advance singles, "I Would Fix You" and "Stay in the Sun", were a little perplexing to me. There were some diffident, muted moments on At the Club, and a few more among the earlier b-sides, but both new songs sounded uncharacteristically pastel to be Kenickie singles. When a copy of the album finally reached Boston, and I whisked it home, turned the volume up, and assumed the proper anticipatory Kenickie air-guitar stance (you try to look as much as possible like a malicious, rubber-clad Pippi Longstocking, on a sugar buzz, absent-mindedly flicking the trigger of a fluorescent-pink flame-thrower), my confusion went asymptotic. Song after song went by, and I was still waiting for the album I was expecting to hear to begin. The album ended, my shoulders slumped (this was before I dislocated the left one), and a stream of wounded, whiny objections dribbled out, most of them variations on either a totally non-rhetorical "What was that?", or an incredulous "That was awful." The singles hinted at the nature of the problem, but not its magnitude. Kenickie, for utterly unfathomable reasons, had abandoned their caustic muses and made a record full of disposable, gutless lounge-pop. Where were all the things I loved about Kenickie, the shouting and the guitars and the mangled rhythms, the destructive exuberance of warm-summer-night looters who just needed the store-window mannequins to stage a situationist diorama in the nearest intersection? What a disaster. I was strongly tempted to shelve the album, on the spot, to keep it from doing me any further damage. But a day or two went by, and my aversion began to take on the retroactive gauziness of nightmare. The album couldn't really have been that bad, could it? There was that song in the middle somewhere, maybe, with enough synth-pop clank to redeem it, and perhaps a couple times the accents ruined the intended affectations in an appealing way. I might not be able to love this album, but I wanted, at least, to find some small common ground with it, enough to keep it from joining West and You Hold the Key in my roll of grand betrayals.
So I put it on again, and the second time through, I was shocked, however pleased, to discover, it all seemed to make perfect sense. Although I remembered, intellectually, hating it the first time, I could no longer reconstruct the sensation of distaste, and dozens of plays later the only reason I'm sure the initial revulsion ever happened is that I know it isn't the sort of thing I'd make up. The two albums are very different, and having one band make them both, in succession, is disconcerting in about the way it would be if the Buzzcocks had followed Love Bites with the Boo Radleys' Wake Up!; in the liner notes the band themselves seem a little unnerved by the transformation ("It was all just something that happened"; and later, ominously, "[We] will shortly be committing hara-kiri over the delicatessen counter in [our] local supermarket"). But we live in the era of accelerated life-cycles, and surely hyperspace leaps from unruly youth to preternaturally poised young-adulthood are preferable to arrested-development holding patterns (I'd love to do a Coke/Pepsi-style test to see how many people can tell the difference between the two Spice Girls records). If this turns out to be Kenickie's final album, after all, it won't be that hard to argue, at least to ourselves, that their trajectory was sufficiently steep that the third point simply fell outside the coordinate system. In some higher dimension, a year from now, tentacled aliens are blasting our lost third album out of hyper-dimensional convertibles, sucking banana-plasma smoothies from insulated Klein bottles under (or whatever the right term is for displacement along the fifth axis) a gleaming meta-pentagonal sun.
And actually, although you'll probably miss it the first four or five times, there's a mumbled explanation of sorts for Get In, right at the beginning of it. "Oh great, we're getting a band together, let's get all the mates. And then you find out your mates can't play.", or something like that, says one voice. "Yeah", says the other, as if this is a prerequisite, not a hurdle. And then, with a flourish, because eventually your mates do learn to play, and should, the album is off. The chirpy Seventies-movie-soundtrack guitar stabs and shiny brass fusillades of "Stay in the Sun" flit over a half-techno, half-disco drum loop and restlessly pulsing bass, the earnest hand-claps, keyboard runs, and sighing harmonies cradling an affectionate paean to simple pleasures with a trace of desperation to it, like the sun is setting, and to stay in it we have to scramble to higher ground. On At the Club Kenickie would have found a way to cut this idea open, and reveal some pathetic weakness of the underlying structure, so that the portrait would be balanced, but in the intervening time they've learned, perhaps, that everything has underlying weaknesses, and the things that seem strong are just the ones so beautiful that you can't bear to mar them with a scalpel. The verses of the glassy "Lunch at Lassiters", second, are a little like a working-class Portishead, but the choruses drop the arch reserve and let fond rapture leak out of the drum machines, synth gurgles and backing vocal reverberations, like it's been trapped there for a decade. "I Would Fix You", the other single, is even bigger and more fearless, with crashing, rolling, Spector-ish drums, soaring synth-strings, tentative acoustic guitar segues, twinkly piano and the persistent, kinetic rustle of tambourines. Compared to the ravenous carpe-diem energy of "PVC" or "Nightlife", the nearly apologetic small-steps lyrics here ("I am stronger on the outside; / It's easy when you know why", "The sun was hot, the day was long: / The best day we've had in ages", "I am here to take it out on", "Don't cry") sound scarred and post-therapy, and the chorus' promise ("If you broke in two (haven't you?) / I would fix you") sounds completely sincere to me, where it could easily have been a sneer at the idea that people can be fixed, or at relationships based on that presumption.
The closest Get In comes to At the Club, to me, is the slow, crinkly "60's Bitch". The old Kenickie would have picked at the tears in the synth-pop fabric until half of it unraveled, where the new Kenickie seems more inclined to mend them, but the impulses are related. A cheap, "Heart of Glass"-ish drum machine hisses through the verses, before giving way to rumbling timpani in the choruses; vibes, a boingy bass line and tiny, scratchy guitars, more than a little reminiscent of the Cardigans, sketch the accompaniment; and the narrative, over it all, counterpoises context straight out of At the Club's lexicon ("Well every boy I know, they all want the same thing", "I couldn't eat, though, because I was hung over", "We're on Nintendo sitting in your front room") with a helplessly romantic chorus ("When we are all each other has, / If I fall I'll reach to take your hand"), as if they've come to both recognize and cherish the romantic potential in all the scenes that used to seem the most self-contained. "Run Me Over", which sounds to me a lot like a later, more confident rewrite based on the same structure as "Stay in the Sun", is that song in the middle somewhere that I kind of liked even the first time, thanks to the sinuous, bloopy synth hook that runs through the verses, and the opening couplet "He met a star, he gave him drugs, / He said 'The people we are from are thugs'". The harrowing "And That's Why" ("Why does nobody want you?", the chorus asks, over and over, and then even more depressingly, thinks of an answer) dispenses with rock instruments, substituting a string quartet and some woodwinds, and ends up sounding like one of the Rasputina songs they forgot to add noise to. The verses of "Magnatron" sound almost exactly like Elastica, but the choruses channel ABBA more vividly than I think Justine Frischmann would allow herself to, and the bridge sounds like Madness trying to imitate Shonen Knife. "Weeknights", becalmed and pensive before surging into a noisy finale, finds Kenickie already feeling old enough to be dismayed ("We didn't drink on weeknights when we were young") at the behavior of the next generation, which is pretty frightening to those of us who must, if that's how fast generations tick by, be three or four ahead of them, but frightening in a way it is useful (I hope) to be frightened. "Psychic Defence" distends the same basic shape, with airy nonsense harmonies, heavily flanged cymbals and ringing xylophone chimes.
The album's one brush with electronica, and these days it seems compulsory to have at least one, comes near the end, with "5 AM", a dry drum groove under sinister, detuning bass pulses, telephone dial-tones and sci-fi fly-by noises. The beat-rate is much too slow to dance to, though, and the melody, despite the echoes, is frail and heartfelt, neither qualities part of electronica's usual forte. The story, inspiringly, turns out to be a sequel of sorts to "Nightlife", filling in the part of the night that "and then, the next morning" usually glosses over, when glamour has given way to loneliness. This was always my favorite time, the justification for night life, not the price, and the part I miss, long after strobe lights and the dance crush have stopped being appealing. If I'd been in charge of sequencing the album, I'm sure I'd have put "5 AM" last, so that the album could leave you in this mood, like walking out, just before dawn, into empty city streets, like by outlasting the people who came for cacophony and inebriation, you've won control of the world. And probably for this reason, I have a hard time focusing on the last two songs, the rattling "411 (La La La)", with its blaring, insectival horns, and the deadpan torch-jazz conclusion, "Something's Got to Give", which appears to be where all my "What was that?" reservations have collected. And while seven-and-a-half-minute blank intervals followed by a throwaway instrumental loop with somebody muttering incomprehensibly over it are high on my list of gimmicks the music business should have collectively outgrown by now, on this album I find the hidden track oddly hopeful, like the half-eaten dinners on the Marie Celeste. Surely they'll be back. A career can't end like this. They've been taken from us, but maybe that just means that when they come back, they'll have even weirder and more wonderful stories to tell.
If Kenickie are really gone, though, I've already picked out the new tenant for their old place in my affections. Passing mentions of theaudience I'd come across, in the last few months, didn't make them sound like anything I'd really enjoy, but I put the album on my list anyway because, and I'm neither proud of nor condoning this, Q finally ran a picture of lead singer Sophie Ellis-Bextor, and I thought she was incredibly cute. When, at length, I found it (see earlier diatribe about record-store alphabetizing; theaudience should be under "T", especially since there's another six-member band called The Audience whose music does not, I found out the hard way, resemble theaudience's in the least), it further endeared itself to me by having song titles like "A Pessimist Is Never Disappointed", "Mr. Doasyouwouldbedoneby", "I Know Enough (I Don't Get Enough)", "I Got the Wherewithal", and one of the only appearances of a semi-colon in a pop-song title I can think of, "If You Can't Do It When You're Young; When Can You Do It?", although unless this is a Britishism I don't know about, or a joke, the sentence really only merits a comma. Add the existence of b-sides, as I flipped through the bin curiously, called "Boutique in My Backyard", "The Last Seven Minutes With You", "Ten Minutes Which Improved My Life" and "Penis Size and Cars", and you get a band I suddenly really wanted to like.
The outcome was in doubt for the first five or ten seconds of "A Pessimist Is Never Disappointed", which could have introduced a dull Cardigans knock-off, during a period in my life when my relationship with the Cardigans themselves is going through difficulties, but by the end of the first minute I was pretty sure things were going to work out. theaudience fits neatly, it turns out, into a gap in my collection I didn't know was there until they occupied it, directly between Sleeper and Echobelly, using some of Echobelly's Smiths mannerisms and arrangement ambitions to relieve Sleeper's solemnity, and some of Sleeper's lyrical sophistication and melancholy restraint to fill in the empty space I sometimes find under Echobelly's fizz. "A Pessimist Is Never Disappointed" (which is the album's third single back in the UK; US audiences have only an "I Got the Wherewithal" EP to go on so far) is as illustrative an example of the band's style as anything: the verses are spare and moody, mostly bass and a kick/hi-hat groove, trimmed with delicate guitar chords and keyboard swells, and then the song accelerates into the choruses, for which the band pitches in with all hands, and Sophie launches into a refrain less histrionically rendered than Echobelly's "Insomniac", but for me approximately as effective. The lyrics are a little less caught up in their own dilemmas than Louise Wener's, but conceal a similar trenchant clarity: "It's a karaoke climate, / And we all sing the same fucking song"; "We must be so charming when we're praised; / Like kids when we are trashed"; and, with every bit of Morrissey's genius for hanging the hooks of his melodies on the most mordant lines, "This is the highlight of your miserable life".
First albums should be a little erratic, so you have something to expand upon and/or refine later, and theaudience provides a number of only-partially-explored avenues. "Now That You Are 18" is solid and fast, with bits of blues, punk thrash and rock surge, Ellis-Bextor alternating between undercutting the band's drive and letting it carry her. The string-dense "Mr. Doasyouwouldbedoneby" is a measured, wistful ballad with the sense not to slip too far into easy, overbearing, "November Rain"-ish pomp. The bouncy "I Know Enough (I Don't Get Enough)" (the fourth single) is a radiant, propulsive pop gem like the Beautiful South could probably still make if they pulled their tongues out of their cheeks and remembered that some of them used to be in the Housemartins. "Keep in Touch" sounds a little like Everything but the Girl doing a Michael Penn song, with a couple portmanteau synthesizer solos that could be borrowed from the Rentals. "I Got the Wherewithal" (the first single) is edgy and sinister, almost rhythmless, sawing strings and Sophie's languid voice wrapping around a framework that could, with another facade, belong to Propaganda. "Harry Don't Fetch the Water" slides and swirls, jaggedly, like a glossier Linoleum. The gentle "If You Can't Do It When You're Young; When Can You Do It?" (the second single), which maybe relies on the novelty-value of its lyrics and a couple more synth flurries a little too heavily, still reminds me at points of the Cardigans and early Kate Bush. "Running Out of Space" pops back into gear with blaring guitars, galloping drums and a magnificent, striding, chorus piano worthy of the Go-Go's "Head Over Heels". "You Get What You Deserve" (any song with the line "I blame my school friends' affluence" is OK with me) is slow and menacing. The echoey, acoustic-guitar-led "The More There Is to Do" sounds like a demo they decided to leave alone. "Shoebox Song" starts out that way, too, but then snaps into focus as a mid-tempo rock song something like a less clipped Pretenders. And "How's That?", the epic last track, is parts This Mortal Coil ambience, Dar Williams talk-singing, psychedelic mock-sitar dreamscape and abstract noise-collage. There are probably seven different careers implicit in these fourteen songs. I hope theaudience get a chance to live out more than two of them.
(The "special limited edition" version of this album, whose availability I know nothing about, save that I was able to find one here in Cambridge, albeit not before buying one of the non-limited copies, adds a bonus disc with five alternate versions and one more song the album leaves out. "I Can See Clearly", the stray, would require only minor tweaks to Sophie's vocal timbre (and a few lyrical revisions) to fit in on Everything but the Girl's Idlewild. The "original" version of "Mr. Doasyouwouldbedoneby" just sounds like a demo, but the rougher original take of "I Know Enough (I Don't Get Enough)" has sufficient charms of its own, including an instrumental intro that was excised from the album version, that I would have thought at least twice about replacing it. The drifting "Blah St. Acoustic Version" of "A Pessimist Is Never Disappointed" merely underscores, for me, the role of the rest of the band on the album version, but the early renditions of "You Get What You Deserve" and "Keep in Touch" are elegant and eminently plausible with nothing but Sophie and a piano, and while a whole album done in this style would have sounded much more like Simon and Garfunkel or Emma Townshend, I bet I wouldn't have complained.)
Astrid: Boy for You
The week's third surprising import (between three albums, one bought twice, and eleven singles, I've spent well over two hundred dollars on these three artists in the past month, so it's a good thing I'm enjoying them so much) is the solo debut by Astrid Williamson (and anybody who objects to the tendency, mine and others, to refer to female musicians by their first names, will have to convince people like Astrid to stop encouraging the practice), formerly of Goya Dress, whose 1996 album Rooms I bought primarily on the strength of the cool band name and some very vivid cover art (exotic and colorful, I mean, this time; Astrid looks like PJ Harvey after losing a fist-fight on it), only to be disappointed by the rather generic British-indie guitar music contained inside, much of which seemed to me to have gamely, but ill-advisedly, opted to forge ahead after the expected shipment of melodies failed to materialize. Reviews insisted Astrid was much better on her own, thus my purchase, but when I examine Boy for You's liner notes I discover that the writing, playing and label credits are all virtually identical to those on Rooms, which suggests that the change in nominal identity is a product of the change in style, not the cause of it. The one notable personnel addition to Boy for You is producer Malcolm Burn, who is also listed as supplying "additional instrumentation", but the yawning chasm between the two albums, for me, is almost entirely a factor of Astrid's songwriting, which here betrays none of the directionlessness that I felt plagued Goya Dress. Doubled vocals beat against each other throughout the melodic pirouettes of "I Am the Boy for You", riding on deliberately mechanical piano runs and drum-machine spasms. "Everyone's Waiting" sounds like a cross between the Cranberries and the Sundays that somehow avoids being either strident or precious, as those two bands usually respectively strike me. The jittery, sequence-fueled "What Do You...", the second appearance this week of that beepy wood-block noise from "Heart of Glass", finds Astrid switching between dreamlike falsetto and a voice that sounds more like Kristin Hersh's. "World at Your Feet" could be what Patti Smith would sound like if her vocal range had an extra high register, and she felt like doing an album with Glen Ballard. Parts of "Sing for Me" could be either Spandau Ballet, Lisa Germano or a deconstructed show-tune. The mournful, rainy, end-of-the-night lullaby "Someone" is somewhere between This Mortal Coil and Sarah McLachlan. The burbling, glorious "Hozanna", pretty clearly this album's candidate for pop immortality, and a rare song about a television evangelist that musters some empathy for its subject, is exactly the kaleidoscopic, state-of-the-art pop reverie that the cover of Rooms implied. The dizzy relationship-lament "If I Loved You", which cloaks a hook the Bangles would be proud of in blocky, chattering synthesizer loops, is a summer song to get me through the incipient winter. The Happy Rhodes-ish "Outside" is an ambient dance-remix waiting to happen (I'd do it myself if I had a knob on my CD player that just scrubbed off all the non-repetitive vocals and made the rest of it go 50% faster). The dramatic, breathy piano/synth finale, "Say What You Mean", could have come straight off Emma Townshend's Winterland. And the elegant, haunting piano-and-voice hidden track ("Insides Out"?) makes me think that Astrid, too, despite her current techno-solipsism, could pull off an album without anything else, if she wanted to. Some days I wonder if this isn't true of everyone, and the satisfactions of finding connections, banding together, inventing increasingly elaborate processes with which to surround ourselves, and pushing every medium towards greater immersiveness are not all, in truth, attractive nuisances. Perhaps we'd all be better off if we each spent a month or two of every year locked in a cave with one or two simple tools, making things, and the rest of the time quietly watching, and listening, and not constantly interrupting every thing with our hopes for it, and maybe not searching for saviors in every face.