Talking to the Dictaphone, He Said "I Am Not Alone"
207 · 14 January 99
Ian McNabb: A Party Political Broadcast on Behalf of the Emotional Party
The oblique rules of engagement of the elaborate battle I fight, both with and against technology, as often with the cadences of ritual dance as with the martial stomp of genuine animosity, are encapsulated pretty aptly by the two objects I've been carrying around with me at all times this week. They are similar sizes and shapes, and they address, at least in a sociological sense, similar needs. One is a palm-sized computer (a Cassiopeia E-11, if you care), the tentative culmination of my long-running search for a method of carrying large amounts of data around with me that is slightly more reliable than trying to simply remember it all. I'd resisted several generations of these devices, unmoved by the business-machismo sales campaigns measuring their capacities in terms of thousands of contacts, tasks, appointments, and other things I spend more time trying to eliminate from my existence than track, but the generation with Microsoft behind it decided, for not-too-mysterious reasons, to present itself as very small computers, rather than very powerful Daytimers, and when I discovered that I could stick a memory card in the back of this one and fill it with megabytes upon megabytes of real information, lists and databases and letters and maps and entire novels, I got a lot more excited. This is still clearly a transitional technology (instant, constant, wireless connectivity is probably what I really want), but I feel like I've finally persuaded an enormous reclusive piece of my brain to leave the house with me.
The other object, and I try to keep them in different pockets so they'll stay calm, is a miniature Rosetta stone, a disconcertingly inspired present from someone I do not yet know as well as I'd like to. A palm-sized Rosetta stone replica is, of course, of no literal practical value. I never encounter any of the languages it encodes, and the writing is unreadable at this reduction even if I did. It sits in my hand perfectly, though. The sides are a pleasant plaster-molded-like-rock texture, and the back is covered with soft black felt, presumably in the expectation that it will be used as a paperweight (perhaps the first knowledge-management accessory). The stone is a token of at least as much human knowledge as I can download into the Casio, and a talisman, moreover, of the very concept of information. If I pull the computer out of one pocket, I might be able to use it to answer a question. If I pull the stone out of the other, I am reminded that humans are the creatures that answer (and ask) questions. I've been carrying both of them because the data itself does not also act as the symbol of data, and I can't decide which one is more valuable. This opposition, in other guises, infuses most of my life with technology. We build the machines, so they ought to be the most human things in the universe, heavy with our spirit, but our crafts exceed our arts, and the more we teach our toys, the colder and more alien they become.
It is this same tension, I think, between the implications of technology and its capabilities, that haunts A Party Political Broadcast on Behalf of the Emotional Party, the fourth solo record from ex-Icicle Works leader Ian McNabb, and explains why he feels obliged, in the credits to an almost entirely acoustic album recorded in six days in rural Wales, to detail every piece of equipment employed in its production. The lists of instruments are like ingredient warnings for the allergic, pledges of freedom from contaminants; a Boss digital delay pedal, evidently, is acceptable, but the master reverb is a plate, not a processor. Somewhere in between the acoustic guitars, stand-up basses and tambourines that appear on this album, it suggests, and the synthesizers, samplers and drum machines that do not, is the point on the continuum of invention where we outreached ourselves. Somewhere in between these ten songs that try to capture the organic character of a six-night summer acoustic residency at Ronnie Scott's, and months of click tracks and night-session studio manipulation, the way Ian used to make records, is where we stopped telling stories and started negotiating with monsters.
And as I sit, surrounded by computers quietly hissing their demands, listening to what Ian has assembled out of these parts, I'm appropriately ambivalent about the results. He picks his accomplices carefully, acoustic bassist Danny Thompson playing on a handful of tracks, ex-Waterboys leader Mike Scott returning the favor for Ian singing harmony on Still Burning by contributing guitar to two songs, fellow Waterboys alumnus Anthony Thistlethwaite adding mandolin to a pair and saxophone to another. Ian himself plays guitars (acoustic and some very understated electric), harmonica, piano and some subtle percussion. There are no drums, and in many cases almost no rhythm. There is a big difference, however, between electric music played on acoustic instruments and acoustic music played in its natural idiom, and for me this album never negotiates the chasm between the two. Too many of these songs rely on blocky chord-changes that would have sounded monumental with waves of distortion behind them, but sound tentative and half-formed without them. Plaintive harmonica wails aspire to campfire warmth and intimacy, but McNabb's voice is too big for them, more like Tom Jones than Richard Buckner. Weirdly blaring backing vocals undermine the gentle sparkle of Thistlethwaite's mandolins, a psychedelic jam refuses to subside into atmosphere, and a breathy piano ballad lurches like it's wearing the wrong shoes. I might have enjoyed the novelty of hearing McNabb's old songs reworked in this spare style, but at the end of this I feel as if I'm still waiting to hear what these ten will sound like when they're finished.
But precisely because I can't throw myself into the music, and perhaps this was Ian's intent, I find myself paying far closer attention to the lyrics of these songs than I tend to on his records, and so discover, as I might not have, some remarkable and disturbing stories. "Sex With Someone You Love" is not an ode to healthy relationships, it's a meandering narration of a long day in a painfully lonely life, ending with poignantly resigned masturbation. "The music's gettin' faster / And you know you'll never master / All the things that make a woman care", goes a scene in a disco in the middle, leaping wrenchingly from dance-floor ineptitude to its larger causes and consequences. The mournful "A Guy Like Me (And a Girl Like You)" is a deranged escape song for fugitive murderers, like a Del Amitri relationship lament turned suddenly violent. The elegant, expansive "You Only Get What You Deserve" throws all of Ian's vocal earnestness behind a kiss-off without a single sympathetic sentiment. "Bloom" laces a coming-of-age welcome with assurances phrased so stiffly that I wonder if they aren't meant as mockery. "The Man Who Can Make a Woman Laugh" starts off affectionately, like a underdog lullaby, but by the end has collapsed into a puddle of its own scorn. The deadpan "Liverpool Girl" is a harshly-lit type-portrait that, if this is how he planned to make women laugh, would explain why the encounters never end well. "Absolutely Wrong" is so mesmerized by the protagonists' moral culpability that it barely manages to explain the nature of their transgressions. The pulsing "Little Princess" can't seem to decide which character in the dependency-hamstrung relationship it's more disgusted with. And "Girls Are Birds", the somber finale, is like singing "Let It Be" while releasing the parking brake and watching the car roll over a cliff. It is a cruel trick this album plays, beckoning us to gather round and then spitting rancor, but when you ask for truths that bear the marks of human hands, sometimes you get them.
Brenda Kahn: Hunger
And maybe it's just the contrast, but after A Party Political Broadcast on Behalf of the Emotional Party, Brenda Kahn's fifth album, Hunger, doesn't sound nearly as depressing to me as did its two predecessors, Destination Anywhere and Outside the Beauty Salon. "I keep my best shoes on / For when the Messiah comes", explains the narrator of "Messiah", a charmingly irrelevant preparation for Armageddon. "Heaven's just the light / That shows you vice, / The dark sea coral castles in your heart.", offers the title track, an encouragingly symbiotic cosmology. "Queen of Distance" ends sadly, but where the couples on the last two albums were torn apart by self-destructiveness and sicknesses, the spaces between the Queen and her suitor are choreographed, as much part of the dance as their feints toward closeness. The baleful "So What If I Saw Jesus" conflates Christ and an abusive boyfriend, and ends up trying to sleep with them both. "Side Step the Bullet" is an elegy to a suicide, but the narrator's lingering image, "A broken record of what I never said / And stacks of what Rilke had to say" / Piled on the bed" diagnoses the death as something she failed to save him from, not something she drove him to, a distinction that won't help her through this grief, but might prevent the next one. "Dictaphone", my favorite text here, balances the "All you need is love" choruses with the leader's protest "I raised a flag, I raised an army / Just to keep your children fed", a frighteningly realistic explanation of how our collective needs subvert the peace we claim to long for. The spoken-word fragments that frame the songs, three scenes from a trip through Mexico, retrace some of Bruce Cockburn's poet-traveler steps, attempting to see them in warmer light. But my favorite theory for this album's infusion of possibility is that if you give it enough chances, self-awareness will always overtake depression. "The radio is filled with voices / That made mistakes", worries "Hunger", and I don't think Brenda wants to be just another one. "Do you write your problems down / And sell them for money?", she asks in "Messiah". It's a reasonably noble occupation, as occupations go, but if you write your problems down clearly enough, eventually your pen will start to show you ways out.
Musically, Brenda makes Ian McNabb's six-day recording schedule look sluggish, slamming through this set in only two. Their core instrumental palettes are almost identical, Brenda relying on her acoustic guitar, Ernest Adzentoivich's acoustic bass (often bowed, to nice effect) and sparing extra-guitar assistance from producer Tim Bright, but Brenda seems to understand that making rock songs out of these elements requires some energy on her part, and so she compensates for the absent drums and amplifiers with her own intensity. Her guitar snaps and churns, fret buzz and the rasp of her arms against the body substituting for feedback and overdrive, and her voice slips from wispy sighs into an unguarded howl without warning, reminding me even more vividly of the Slingbacks than it did on her electric records. She still lets some of these songs stay reserved and quiet ("Messiah", "Hunger" and "Queen of Distance" are all droning and ominous), and the shuffling "Christopher Says" sounds like the soundtrack for a sinister Gorey animation, but I reach the end feeling that while these songs could have had other, noisier lives, if Brenda had wanted them to, and some day still might, they are also complete the way they are, not blueprints for something larger you have to close your eyes and hope you can imagine, looming over the real walls and roofs of your town.
Garbage: Version 2.0
If you go too much further past Hunger into low-tech informality you skid off the end of the continuum, and if it wraps around, and you re-emerge at the opposite extreme of production styles, you're probably somewhere near Garbage, as archetypal a studio rock band as you're likely to find in the world at the moment. I bought version 1.0 when it came out, mostly because I was amused to realize I had two Shirley Manson records already (the self-titled 1991 album by Goodbye Mr. Mackenzie, which I found in a $.99 bin and had played once and then tossed in my spare-jewel-case bin before realizing it had historical significance, and the Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz-produced 1994 reinvention of four of the six players from Goodbye Mr. Mackenzie as Angelfish, whose one album I still occasionally get out to hear the sturdy anthem "Heartbreak to Hate", after which I always have to go play "Painless", by Baby Animals, to be sure they aren't the same song), but the more I listened it, and the more successful Garbage became, the angrier I got that a watered-down version of Curve was making so much more money than Curve themselves ever did, and before long I could no longer stand to hear any of it. I did not plan to support Garbage any further when Version 2.0 came out, and indeed I managed to hold out several months without buying the album, but one night in December I came across the band playing on Letterman or Leno, and the bizarre plastic outfit Shirley was wearing, like something the Borrowers might have fashioned out of vacuum cleaner parts, kept my finger off the next-channel button for just long enough to hear the song they were playing, which sounded, to my chagrin, half decent, even though they'd found some way to sound appallingly over-produced even while playing live. I tried to forget the incident, but the song stuck in my head, and it was December so there weren't any new releases, and guiltily, I bought the record.
My basic objection to album one applies equally well to album two, perhaps even a little more shrilly now that so many people think Butch Vig invented the idea of layering gauzy female vocals over swirling semi-industrial grooves. But I've also come to accept that the differences in style between Garbage and Curve do have something to do with their divergent fates. As much as I ever loved Curve, it was extremely hard for a casual observer (or even a non-casual observer) to tell any two Curve songs apart, or for that matter to hum either of them. Garbage traded Curve's withering intensity for just enough pop accessibility to make their songs individually memorable, and for enough club-techno exuberance that you could dance to them without making a serious emotional investment in nihilism, or risking getting elbowed in the head by tall people because you were staring at the floor too raptly. Curve were studio perfectionists, too, but in the solipsistic tradition of My Bloody Valentine, obsessed with details that, by the time they were done with songs, only they knew were in there somewhere. Garbage are heirs to a much more practical studio lineage, the Nineties incarnation of the glossy attention to detail of Scandal's Warrior or Pat Benatar's Seven the Hard Way, production wizardry as a strategy for commercial streamlining. But underneath the production of Warrior and Seven the Hard Way were, for me, shamelessly addictive pop songs, and Garbage's, for the most part, just don't grip me as effectively.
I forgive this album all its subjective faults, however, for two moments that only narrowly slipped off the end of my year-end best-song list. One is literally a moment, a single percussive noise at about 1:58 of the lithe, quasi-disco strut "When I Grow Up". The song has dropped into near a cappella, Shirley muttering "Blood and blisters / On my fingers, / Chaos rules when we're apart", and then suddenly there are two sharp noises that on a simpler record would probably just have been kick/snare combinations, but Garbage layer so many instruments into these pulses that no matter how high I turn up my stereo at the crucial moment, there always seems to be a little more detail in them that I can't quite discern. Gates to alternate universes have been less ornate. The other moment is "Special", which was the song I saw them playing, a Pretenders homage that, in crossing Curve and the Pretenders, finally gives me a way to understand Garbage as a synthesis of two styles I like, instead of a dilution of one. As the drums pound out the coda, and Shirley slides, at last, into the "Talk of the Town" refrain the whole song has skirted, for an instant I believe that any amounts of effort and machinery are justified, and that my involuntary sigh of contentment, as the song fades, is as precious a feeling as we can build mechanisms to inspire.