Frozen in These Records
203 · 17 December 98
Letters to Cleo: Sister
The question I'm most often called upon to address, on music-industry colloquium panels, as we pick desultorily through the tiny carcasses of quail on our plates while waiting for the wait staff to finish hastily re-reading Serving Espresso to 250 for Complete Cretins, is "What do you believe will be the impact of internet technology on the music business?" Actually, the most common question is "Which Spice Girl do you most closely resemble?", but the one about the impact of internet technology comes soon afterwards, perhaps as the knowledge ripples across the room that dessert is an unnervingly wan key lime pie, and people begin to need a diversion. The question is directed at the whole panel, not just me, but since my sage colleagues are mostly greengrocers and geologists by training, I, as the nominal expert in technology, usually have to field this one. I'm always tempted, but have so far never succumbed to the urge, to begin my response by noting that people who say "internet technology", instead of just "the internet", are both unworthy of a serious answer (like the people who insist on saying "key lime pie", as if they knew of lime pie of any other sort, don't deserve dessert), and probably not prepared to understand one were I to give it. After a short pause in which better judgment asserts itself, I reel off the standard, rosy, acronym-laden, techno-centric picture of the future, with virtual stores taking over from physical ones, people downloading entire albums from the comfort of their own office cubicles when they should be working, intelligent software-agents collaboratively determining whether you want the next verse to be about romantic yearning or project management, and everybody who used to earn a living in the ancient, creaky, lumbering, pre-net music business dragged out of their crumbling LA art-deco mid-rises and shot through the skull by a rifle-wielding robot, operated through web-based telepresence by a cranky thirteen-year-old shut-in from Columbus, Ohio, who is pretending to be a tall, moody, disgruntled, Senegalese ex-fashion model named Aylia. The crowd listens with the exact same rapt, half-glazed/half-horrified expressions on their faces that they use for watching movies about extinction-level asteroid strikes. They mutter to each other, reassuringly, that their megalithic company is forward-thinking at the very highest levels, incents intrapreneurial innovation and employs a powerful, and even more importantly, proprietary, methodology for systematic reinvention, which in most cases means that they hired some sleep-deprived college burnout to design them a web site, upon which they've heaped glowing accolades, in order to avoid admitting to him that they never understand a word he says to them about it, and don't know how to make their computers show them what it looks like, or if it even exists. The question, and my answer, are part of a social ritual, the music industry's version of spaceship-behind-the-comet millennial panic. These people want to believe that they are doomed; it lends their numbing daily routine (which they have no intention of altering) both a certain knight-errant grace, noble labors for a lost cause, and also a glimmer of hope that their struggles are finite, and soon they will be, through no fault of their own, released.
And then, although by now I should know it's hopeless, I try to explain what's wrong with this entire scenario. Most obviously, it misunderstands the mind-sets and behavior patterns of most of the music-buying public. At one end of the spectrum are music fanatics, a set into which I fall, and perhaps you. There aren't that many of these people, in the context of the wider public, but they buy disproportionately large amounts of music (this is one of the reasons why music executives' attempts to act like music is television fail so miserably; a discerning television viewer watches less television), and they respond to collectors' appeals, like limited editions, imports (and no matter where you live, there's essential music getting made somewhere else), remakes, reissues, remastering, b-sides, etc. Their collections are works of intellectual sculpture, and exist, in part, to be exhibited, even if only to themselves. A hard-drive full of downloaded music files is not a collection in any satisfying sense. It doesn't demand custom shelving, it can't fill a wall, it can't comfort and excite you, standing in front of it in your pajamas, at four in the morning, trying to remember, without looking it up in some database, everybody who ever covered "Wall of Death". You can sell these people music on the net (although some of us still insist on going to record stores), but we're a long way from any delivery format that you don't then have to put in a box and mail to them to make them happy.
At the other end of the consumer continuum are casual buyers, whose music collections consist largely of case-less cassettes scattered on the floor of the passenger side of their cars, many of them third-generation dubs from friends bearing labels that stopped relating to their contents two re-recordings ago. There are countless millions of these people (including maybe you, although in general these people don't tend to read music reviews), and in terms of attention span and artifact ambivalence, they are the ideal audience for downloaded music. The technology is not up to their requirements, quite yet, but mini-discs are moving in the right direction, towards the easy disposability of cassettes. The tricky (although maybe not insoluble) problem with basing an industry on this demographic, though, is that the individuals in it aren't inclined to spend much money on music as it is. They dub friends' tapes, today, on cheap dual-deck boom-boxes (they are the reason boom-boxes are made with two tape decks, or used to be, and why the ones with CD players still have tape decks as well) and don't complain about the sound quality, so you can be pretty sure that they will pirate downloaded files. And copy-protection misses the point; they will tape the sound files from playback, if they have to, to avoid paying for an imaginary product. The parts of the music industry that downloaded music could radically change belong to sub-markets with complicated internal structures already, like the jukebox and muzak businesses, where customers already think of music as a service, not a physical good.
The second huge reason the internet won't change the mainstream music business is that the industry's critical work is social, not technological. Yes, we now have cheap CD recorders, and cheap color printers for the packaging, and you can promote your record over the web, and take orders online, but ten years ago you could have made cassettes and sold them through the mail, and although that probably changed a lot of individual lives (and the new technology will, too), it had little effect on the music industry, proper. The main reason Janet Jackson sells more albums than Susan Court isn't that Virgin can press more copies than Susan can, or can press them more quickly, it's that they can get Janet's songs played in every supermarket and shopping-mall food-court in the country, and Susan cannot. The commodity the music business trades in, first, in order to sell records second, is attention. Give Susan and Janet exactly the same distribution (in stores, online, whatever), and Susan's sales (and all the Susans, put together, the occasional Ani DiFranco exception notwithstanding) will still be round-off error against Janet's, and the other Janets', etc.
The attendees at these functions do not enjoy this story. It isn't thrilling or scary enough. It condones complacency, on their part, more than anything, and although nothing could please them more, one by one, they're painfully self-conscious about admitting it in front of their peers. If the music business is basically assured of its survival by the nature of its market, then their siege-state mentality is pointless, and they might have to confront the fact that they work long hours in dank pens not because they belong to lean organizations on the leading wave of a cultural sea-change, but because some senior accountant with a psychology degree bet the CEO a Lexus that the workers would put up with anything short of clearly-labeled asbestos spilling out of the drop-ceilings. The internet will change a lot of things about music, but very few of them will be things the people who attend industry conferences care about. The changes that are coming, and the changes that are already underway, are necessarily much smaller stories, because for the most part it's only the smaller stories whose plots aren't dictated by population dynamics, and thus can be affected by such subtle forces as changes in enabling technology and the evolution of niche communities. Susan Court, whose chief promotional strategy appears to be targeting Ecto, the mailing list devoted to Happy Rhodes, Kate Bush and their stylistic relations, is an instructive example, in both senses. Ecto, and its various web offshoots (and since Ecto was where I heard about her, and vice versa, we can count my site as part of Ecto's extended family), provide a way to reach a group of people with a known affinity to music Susan's clearly resembles. Without the net, these tiny quasi-communities (and most are less communal than Ecto) would be hard-pressed to achieve critical mass. Conversely, though, Ecto reaches only a couple hundred people, directly, and probably no more than a few thousand through the second degree of separation. That isn't enough to keep Happy in Korgs, and it's her list; successes like Susan's are very real on a personal level, but commercially negligible, even to her. The brightest hope they offer is, as Scott Miller put it, ascending from the depths of obscurity to the heights of it.
But while this can't change the world much, it can change your world, and mine, as much as we're willing to work to let it. Forget the music-industry middle-managers slouching in their stiff hotel-ballroom chairs, obliviously smearing the blotch of latté foam on their jacket-cuff onto the side of the seat cushion, listening to me, or whomever it is that they really hire to answer rhetorical questions, playing back to them their consensual hallucination that everything is about to change forever. The assistant managers of record stores in malls care what these people think and do, but you and I don't have to. Those events probably exist, and they're probably even less pleasant than I guessed at, and since I spend eight hours a day thinking about "internet technology", and the other sixteen thinking about music, I'd probably be as good a person as anybody to ask about how the two might affect each other, but so far nobody has, and even if they did, I'm just inventing theories that sound plausible. Probably the web will turn into an enormous home-shopping channel with a big Buy Me button on it, and a slot where the crap shoots out, but then again, maybe it won't, or maybe there will be enough space left around the edges for the rest of us, players and listeners alike, to enjoy our hobbies.
I don't know how much the net was really involved, but Letters to Cleo's CD reissue of their demo EP Sister is the kind of little story the net can help write, whether this is actually one of them or not (it appears on Wicked Disc, the label belonging to the New England alternative CD-store chain Newbury Comics, so perhaps this was really the result of a local effort, not a net one, but my suspicion is that the net, which nourishes information like the parts of my vaulted ceiling I can't reach nourish spiders, was instrumental in keeping the mythology around the EP alive). They made it before Aurora Gory Alice, their indie-then-major debut, and claim to still think it reflects poorly on them, but the combination of fan requests and the samizdat circulation of the material convinced them to go ahead and legitimize it. I can understand their self-consciousness, since Aurora Gory Alice was rough and erratic, and the eight early songs here are only more so, but the reason I was never able to wholeheartedly embrace Aurora Gory Alice was that it always seemed, and this became even easier to perceive in retrospect, like the band knew, while they were making it, that they weren't yet producing they kind of music they wanted to have made, and although you could contend that Sister only escapes this fate because they hadn't thought that far ahead yet, for me that makes these songs charming in a way that the next set were merely awkward. The 1990 recording of "I See", remade later for the first album (and its rapid-fire chorus is in a way a sketch, in turn, for the bigger minor hit "Here and Now"), hasn't noticed the song's jerky potential, and so retains some loose, bluesy jangle that eventually got sanded off. The moody "Sister", with its "More Than a Feeling"-esque acoustic guitar, pingy lead-guitar swirls and hilariously undisguised synth bleats (the cross between a sax and a banjo is an especially nice patch) is closer to early Rush than the punk/pop ancestors the band would finally decide to claim. "Never Tell" (either the back cover flips two track listings, or they've swapped names and choruses on two of these songs as a joke) is a slow march, Kay Hanley's singing showing off theatrical flourishes she would later repress. "Clear Blue Water" and "Green Eggs" are dark and drifting, with hints of the Rose Chronicles or the Love Club. Parts of "Pete Beat" (or is this "Never Tell"?) are summery and open-hearted, but between the buzzless, cycling guitar and the becalmed choruses, the song ends up making me imagine Mazzy Star trying to cover the Icicle Works' "Birds Fly". Several of Hanley's vocal flutters on "Boy" would be obvious Jewel references if the song hadn't been recorded four years before Pieces of You. Of the early songs only "He's Stayin", with popping bass and quacking wah-wah guitar, exhibits much of the chirpy energy of the later records, and even that has a long, surging bridge that would sound odd performed in bright colors.
The gems of the reissue, though, for me, are the three 1994 covers added to bring the set up to a respectable length. Scruffy the Cat's "You Dirty Rat" (with writer Charlie Chesterman singing the harmony part) is the one of sentimental value, as I spent several months of 1987 following Scruffy the Cat around with cameras for a film-class documentary (though why I should have such nostalgia for a project that entailed so many hours spent sitting in a corner hoping one or another band member's day job would suddenly, incredibly, turn eventful, I don't know; documentary film-making was not, I discovered, my calling). A spaghetti-western stomp through Lee Hazlewood's "Secret Agent" is the novelty, the band performing like they can see the credits to the smirky cartoon for which this is the theme song running in their heads as they play. And the one that simply sounds wonderful, to me, with no qualifying irony or personal association, is an impressively deadpan rendition of Fleetwood Mac's "Dreams", Kay retreating into a Juliana Hatfield-ish shell (this means, among other things, that the lyrics are intelligible, which after decades of Stevie Nicks' ligatured version is pretty startling) while the band storms through the music like nobody at their high school ever decided Fleetwood Mac didn't count as a real rock band. I can sense, already, that I'm going to want the next Letters to Cleo album to bear the marks of this one, and although the chronology is wrong for that, of course, perhaps they're listening to this record, too, and seeing in it bits of themselves they'd forgotten about.
Half Cocked: Sell Out
The Boston record I've been anticipating the longest, since hearing the terse, hammering "Whole in the World" on the Girls! Girls! Girls! compilation a year ago, is the debut by Half Cocked, who still have, in my opinion, the worst name in rock. "Whole in the World"'s appeal, to me, was half metal thrash and half a meltingly perfect, and mindlessly simple, rock chorus hook, bolted together only firmly enough to survive a two-minute sprint, so I had no clear idea of what the rest of an album would sound like, but the other three of my four favorite songs from the compilation (Chelsea on Fire's "Wig", January's "Fuzzy Sweet" and Sara Mann's "Little Premonitions") got albums of their own long ago, so I've lived in fear, for months, that Half Cocked would take so long to deliver theirs that by the time it came out I'd have forgotten about them (a totally inane fear, since I carry a list of CD wants with me at all times, and their name was written on it).
If I'd paid better attention to the credits on the compilation (or gone out to see them play, for that matter), I might have avoided wondering what the band's real style would be. Bassist Jhen Kobran was in the titanic Boston all-female metal band Malachite, and was the one missing when guitarist Janet Egan (who contributes to three of these songs), drummer Gay Hathaway and Justine Couvault (who switched to bass to replace Kobran) regrouped as the somewhat less metal-centered Swank. Half Cocked, with Sarah Reitkopp taking over as main vocalist (although Kobran sings on three of these, and Chelsea on Fire's Josey Packard does a fourth), and drummer Charleee Johnson and guitarist Tommy O'Neil supplying the male half (I told you the name was awful), picks up Malachite's mantle as the city's reigning disciples, in any mix of genders, of brutal, slamming, old-style heavy metal, about as close to Black Sabbath as you can get while still having a female singer and an impatient, late-Nineties (i.e., post-Anthrax/Metallica/Slayer) sense of tempo, or maybe what you'd get if you could strip the odd keyboards and camp out of The Real Thing-era Faith No More. The rhythms are merciless, O'Neil's guitar parts are bludgeoning, non-stop, two-finger power-chord riffs (it's hard, listening to them, to see how "lead" and "rhythm" guitar ever got to be separate roles), and the band charges along in lock-step, like a player piano designed to entertain tanks. As with "Whole in the World", several of these songs also revolve around compelling chorus melodies, but as my Reunion-inspired expedition through the remastered Sabbath catalog has recently been reminding me, so did theirs. At least half of this album would have made a perfect mid-Eighties Metal Blade record, and while I no longer think, and perhaps never really did, that that's how all rock music should sound, I'm immensely pleased that somebody else remembers how cathartic it can be.
Cherry 2000: Taint
If "Whole in the World" understated Half Cocked's commitment to metal, then "Rodeo Clown", Cherry 2000's contribution to Girls! Girls! Girls!, which filtered metal through the atmospherics of Curve and My Bloody Valentine, is a misleading indicator in the other direction. The ninety-seven-second crush "Real Bad" sounds a bit like Fugazi, in an unguarded moment, revealing a secret love of Motörhead, and the twenty-minute finale "Lungfish", before it wanders off into noisy post-rock, sound-collage experiments and ambient wash, has several passage of overdriven rush, but most of the band's material is much more squarely in the demented, essential Boston tradition of the Pixies; the clipped "Marlboro" would make a very believable Surfer Rosa out-take, and the fitful, stop-start "Mexican" could be an excerpt from Bossanova, right down to the guitar sound. Elsewhere, the isolated howls of "Purified" punctuate a pogoing surf-punk anthem with traces of the Buzzcocks' unsteadiness. "Sullen Man" is a punk rant that might, if they'd put it out two or three years ago, have earned Cherry 2000 the Offspring's spot in the suburban punk revival. The lurching, mechanical "Blood Red" smoothes out some of Tool's jaggedness by letting Leah Blesoff take the vocal lead. "Small Still Hands" brackets a bleary wail, like Lush trying to compete with Curve, with intro and outros that sound more like a slightly-less-restrained Cowboy Junkies. "Tommy's Lonesome Trainwreck" is a measured instrumental that, if it were only a little slower, could belong to the Red House Painters. This album suffers a little, for me, from the band's reluctance to commit to any one style, but I'll admit that I often seem to react that way to any band that alternates male and female lead vocalists, so if you're less sensitive to that detail, this record may seem more coherent to you. And as I'm happy to be reminded, not cleaving to a single style is one of the great prerogatives of albums made without any appreciable outside pressure, and one of the good reasons to support whoever is having noble difficulties making their decisions where you live.
Helicopter Helicopter: Squids and Other Fishes
Another interesting result of buying local releases as indiscriminately as you can afford to, assuming you live somewhere where there's enough local music to be indiscriminate about, is that for every band that seems to orbit around a style you suspect you might be quite satisfied with if they felt like sticking to it, there's probably some other band that plays just like that all the time. The focused counterpart to Cherry 2000, for me, is the even more Pixies-like Helicopter Helicopter, yet another co-ed quartet in what seems like a suspiciously unending stream of them until I remember that the bulk of the Boston bands I've discovered in the past year all came from Girls! Girls! Girls!, and then think to check some credits and find that the striking resemblance between Helicopter Helicopter (who weren't on the compilation) and the American Measles (who were) is less a result of sharing a musical philosophy than of sharing a lead singer, Julie Chadwick, whose artless Pauline Murray/Kim Deal squawk threatens to turn just about anything into "Where Is My Mind?" Helicopter Helicopter doesn't lean on her sense of humor as heavily as the American Measles, so there's nothing here as blatantly and delightfully vindictive as the Measles' "God Took My Bike", but the raggedly glorious "Gay Porno" has some of the dissolute angularity of Human Sexual Response, the relationship lashing "Cut Down by Trees" is sung with the exaggerated care of someone hoping sufficient volume and enunciation will make up for the fact that the listener doesn't know a word of the language, the title track loops off into a parable about the symbolic value of sea creatures that I can't quite follow, "Steel Bull" skews from topic to topic with disarming abandon ("Patch up all the skin / With rugburns and breath mints. / I wonder if you're cold. / I haven't seen you in five years."), the Archers-of-Loaf-ish "Please Please Tito"'s idea of romance goes "Please, please, Tito, will you give me some Percosets? / I lost my faith to a girl in white; / I met her in the crowd at a cockfight.", and my impression, from listening, is that "The Accidental" got its name from the circumstances of its recording. I assume by next year Chadwick will have another album with another band, but if "The American Measles" and "Helicopter Helicopter" are the beginning of a word-sequence puzzle, I'm going to need more clues.
Verago-go: Hollywood Hits
One of the oddest joys of stubbornly continuing to buy records by bands you aren't sure you like is that sometimes you can become sure without noticing or knowing how you got there, or even being entirely clear what you're sure about. I couldn't decide whether Verago-go's Flight 45, yet another Girls! Girls! Girls! purchase (although their track, "Candy Cane", is on this album), made sense at all, let alone a sense I enjoyed, and Hollywood Hits, confusing almost throughout, seems no less evasive when I try to explain it to myself, which I usually hate, but I'm convinced it's brilliant, somehow. The songs are mostly set in edgy trio arrangements surrounded by bits of odd noise and a remarkably persistent xylophone whose existence the credits coyly deny, but bassist Jennifer Diamond and guitarist Isabel Riley's chord progressions seem to leap around with little regard to key, and skid from minimalist binary oscillations to folk melodies according to a schedule I can't follow. Their delicate cover of Steve Winwood's "Can't Find My Way Home", with Akina Kawauchi's liquid violin, is almost a straight ballad, but then the ticking instrumental "Concert Report" sounds uncannily like Trans Am, "Shotgun Prelude" is a breathy lullaby but "Shotgun" itself is wiry, anxious and explosive, and the singing on "Garbage" doesn't sound like it was necessarily directed at a microphone. "Touch of Evil", with a twinkling acoustic guitar, growling bass, shuffling drums and calm, pretty vocals, might want to be folk-pop, like Mondrian might have been trying to paint portraits. I could swear both the vocal and instrumental refrains of "Day 6" are deliberately micro-tonal. "Letter F", the song that ends the album proper, sounds confusingly like an earlier incarnation of "Candy Cane" to me, and my confusion is exacerbated by a fifteen-minute bonus-track quasi-medley that reiterates "Candy Cane", "Shotgun", "Concert Report" and some other pieces from elsewhere on the album, like a movie ending with a preview for itself, which makes me wonder if I only dreamed that I saw it already. The only overall referent I can think of is that this is what the Shaggs might have made if they had been extremely good musicians, but even after listening to an album of that, almost twice, I can't imagine what it sounds like.
Ramona Silver: Ultrasound
Organist Ramona Silver's sing-song "B.J.'s Got the Butterflies" was the one song on Girls! Girls! Girls! I actively disliked, but I had resolved to buy every album that was represented on the collection, and since that resolution was crazy when I made it, I couldn't see how the passage of time could make it any more ridiculous. I suppose I could have hoped that the rest of the album didn't sound like that song, but there are few things more pathetic than cheating at solitaire, so I just bought it. The organ is not, I admit, the instrument I would personally try to build a rock band around. The songs where Ramona does, like the sinuous "Mary's Beatup Truck", the sunny calliope twitter of "In Your Soul", the organ-brass-drums intermission theme "Cookies", the toy-keyboard-demo-song-ish "Star, Star" and the roller-rink homage "All Skate", all sound to me alarmingly like Sara Hickman's lost identical twin, reared by clowns, but they have a collective logic that makes me less inclined to resent them individually. The other half of the record is another confidently arbitrary survey of alternate styles: "Woman" is half Ramona's Pixies nod and half a languid Veruca Salt impression; on most of "Honeydew" and parts of "Had My Day" she sounds frighteningly like Aimee Mann; "Motivator" could have been borrowed from Jen Trynin or Tracy Bonham, and the beepy, half-spoken "Closet" from Luscious Jackson; "Remarks to Mr. McLuhan", the finale, is soulful, exquisite, uncluttered, three-part a cappella. If I could do all these things, I probably would, too.
Betwixt's Moustache is the other album from this second Girls! Girls! Girls! batch I would probably have avoided, if not for my self-imposed regime of tolerance. I would have been avoiding it based on the title and front cover, which are very bad reasons, I know, but the cover is a stylized painting of a cocktail party, and I hate the swing revival like I've hated only a handful of other alternative-music movements during my lifetime (cowpunk, neo-rockabilly, ska, anything that's supposed to sound better if you're drugged). Then again, I might have flipped over to the back side, and seen that the album was produced by David Minehan, formerly of the classic Boston power-trio the Neighborhoods, which would have been a detail in its favor.
Both these details turn out to be wildly irrelevant. Betwixt actually belong more to the wave of Boston bands I found out about through the last set of compilations, Castle von Buhler's Soon, Anon and Nigh (where Betwixt's methodical "Shrine of Iso" first appeared), which assembled the local community that congregates, to oversimplify, under the banner of goth, although my favorites, Curious Ritual and Mistle Thrush, have both drifted far enough away from goth's macabre, vampiric core (unless you're old enough to believe Siouxsie Sioux started it) aesthetic that by now both sides would probably resent being linked. Betwixt is a four-piece in the underutilized vocals/cello/drums/anything-that-makes-crinkly-noises configuration. The tenuous connection I draw to what Boston usually means by goth is based mostly on Leah Callahan's dreamy voice and the atmospheric texture of Gordon Withers' cello, but the primary unifying musical force is guitar/ukulele/synthesizer player Tom Devaney's consistent taste for brittle, icy timbres, like chirpy guitar chords, shards of glassy noise, finger-picking patterns with notes high enough to have come from above the nut, fast runs through obscure scales and enough swoops and slides to create a vague constant impression of Doppler effects. Most of these songs are more static than Siouxsie and the Banshees, noisier than Hex, less mannered than early Laurie Anderson, less abstract than the Cocteau Twins, less gauzy than This Mortal Coil and less sensual than Polly Harvey, but trace orbits close enough to all of those to feel their influences. David Nelson's insistent drumming usually keeps the songs from being purely atmospheric, but with the possible exception of his galloping part on "Cindy", his rhythms are almost invariably too oblique for the songs to settle into pop or rock grooves (although I take "Our Tusk" to be the week's second Fleetwood Mac reference). The one obligatory Pixies-esque moment is, bizarrely, the week's second Lee Hazlewood cover, this one a slashing, multi-voiced transit of "Sundown, Sundown". "Coo coo it's cold outside", went the line in Laurie Anderson's "Big Science" that Leah's reserve on "Shrine of Iso" reminds me of. The words, and the syllables, and their tone, and the rigid way we stand, trying not to frighten away the winter, all invite the cold into our air and life, hoping its crystalline patterns will tell us something about their contours.