Time and Space and Hurt and Tears Are Not Enough
208 · 21 January 99
All styles will return. Chance, environmental influences and subtle mutations will change their phenotypes, sometimes dramatically, but all styles, in rock music as in any other form of creative expression, are derived from a relatively small set of emotional impulses. We make art out of a love of order or a hatred of it, fascination with our mortal selves or repugnance, after glimpses of paradises or infernos, in reveries of ecstasy or despair. We are mesmerized by our powers or bored with the contours of our cells. We make art for all of the reasons that animals growl or purr or turn bright colors, to attract or repel or intimidate or simply to preen. We also stray into art while following a number of urges that animals do not appear to be troubled by. Another entry for the "Humans are the creatures that..." list: We may be the only animals who grasp our mortality, and we are certainly the only ones that toy with it, that affect anemia as a way of disarming it. Something like this, although of course I'm oversimplifying, coils at the heart of goth, in its many guises. With white powder and black eyeliner, we paint sepulchral caricatures of ourselves on our own faces, to glimpse our deaths, and to declare (bluffing bravely) that we are no longer afraid of them.
I say "we", but in fact I was always some combination of too squeamish, too impatient and too self-conscious to wear make-up myself. My high school was preppy enough for me to occupy the counter-cultural high-ground with a few bandanas tied around ankles and knees, a basic collection of concert t-shirts from bands the football players had never heard of, and, for absurdist good measure, a spring-loaded mousetrap worn as a pendant. College required a little more effort, so for a while I had a bleached mohawk with a long tail (except I could never be bothered to spike anything, so I looked a lot more like My Little Pony than a London street thug), and I did once have the intense satisfaction of hearing a child on the subway ask her mother whether I was a boy or a girl (although what malady the kid thought might reduce a woman to my bedraggled state, I don't know), but by real goth standards this was all laughably token, dilettantish stuff, and probably not enough to mark me as meaningfully different from the oxford-and-khaki economics geeks I was, in turn, intent on alienating. I was obviously not serious about goth, I'm sure they would have said, snippily, if forced to comment. And I would have countered, more or less confirming their point, that taking goth seriously is ludicrous and self-defeating. If you structure your identity around an obsessive defiance of death, you have structured your identity around death. What kind of victory is it to be free from the fear of death, but trapped in its aura? How inane is a church that claims to reject churches? I had my nihilist periods, as black as anybody's, but eyeliner and pointy-toed, skull-buckled boots always seemed to lead, with a discouraging lack of protest, straight to clove cigarettes and astrology, and I'm not interesting in living my life in either sort of haze.
But ah, if the lights were off, and we had only the swirl of the music with which to identify ourselves, I could have been one of them. Maybe I never loved Siouxsie and the Banshees quite enough, and I don't understand the musical appeal of Marilyn Manson at all (Warner's catalog only makes sense to me as a serious of alternate sleeves for Nine Inch Nails records, which he sells with CDs already inside them just to demonstrate how the cases are intended to function), but let the Sisters of Mercy churn through "This Corrosion", or Killing Joke thrash "Requiem", or Gary Numan sparkle in the blacklight of "Love is Like Clock Law", and I can howl and cringe in perfect sync. I can follow the threads that connect Joy Division and Bauhaus to NIN and Curve, the ones that lead from Specimen to Poison, the ones that loop off toward Celtic Frost on the way to Therion. It isn't a lifestyle, to me, and I worry that if the lights came on very suddenly, I'd be the only one grinning, but as long as you let me stipulate, even if just to myself, that this vampire-cult voguing is really a masquerade, put on in the hopes that if you change people's apparent context radically enough, they won't stand around in inhibited clumps, complaining about work, then I don't see why we can't all enjoy ourselves thoroughly.
Perhaps it follows, then, that my idea of the inevitable and welcome return of goth isn't Marilyn Manson or anything on Projekt, but something as frothy and cartoonish in its interpretation of the macabre as Candyass, the debut album by the LA quintet Orgy. Goth was always about image, to me, and you'll find few bands as gleefully content as Orgy to polish their images and let somebody else worry about "substance". Frayed industrial percussion sputters through "Social Enemies" like the death rattles of rogue transistors. The stilted, lascivious musings of the throbbing "Stitches" ("Fucking you is strange / And adored by me throughout") are grafted to a melody that, were it not sung from so far down singer Jay Gordon's throat, would have the engaging lilt of a nursery rhyme. The simmering rebuild in the middle of "Dissention" wriggles from speaker to speaker like somebody gave the bass player a few pan knobs to play with in the hopes that he'd stay out of bigger trouble. The gruesome images in "Fetisha" are delivered like the band knows the words are provocative, but not why. Robot clatter and feedback drones goad the clipped "Fiend". Drum-machine kick grooves as unapologetic as anything I've heard since the Eighties gird the Gene-Loves-Jezebel-ish "Gender". The glittering sequencer stomp "Revival" skips along the line between Stabbing Westward's bluster and Faith No More's sardonic smirk. The lurching "Dizzy" turns on a chorus with all the intrinsic menace of a jump-rope mantra, delivered with the demonic solemnity of a serial killer auditioning to do pay-per-view wrestling-commercial voiceovers.
The track that most clearly betrays Orgy's real roots, though, and since they made it the single I assume they don't mind us knowing, is the hilariously grim and buzzy cover of New Order's "Blue Monday". I persist in thinking of Nine Inch Nails as a minor processing variation on Depeche Mode, and once you accept Trent Reznor's amendments to the aesthetic constitution of New Wave, getting from New Order, OMD and Tears for Fears to Orgy is charmingly straightforward. Filter some of the withering distortion back out of Candyass, and remind the band members not to talk about the Internet so much, and they could pass for early-Eighties London pop stars with hardly any effort. Bobby Hewitt's V-drums might as well be Simmons pads (and I'm hard-pressed to think of any band more recent than Missing Persons who've admitted to using entirely electronic drums), Amir Derakh layers swooping guitar synth over everything with a gadget-evangelist's zeal, and underneath producer Josh Abraham's waves of noise almost all of these songs ride on bouncy monophonic hooks that, scrubbed and transposed, would befit Erasure. Maybe this is just another sign that I don't really appreciate goth for its own qualities, but if the Sisters of Mercy made heavy metal for people who weren't ready to admit they still had Scorpions albums in their closets, then Orgy is synth-pop for kids who need a way to rebel against parents who still have their old Cure LPs. All styles will return, but some of them, and this is one of mine, you'll be happy to see again, even with the goofy new haircut.
Placebo: Without You I'm Nothing
The new-release cycle doesn't really kick in again until February, any more, but I've started taking the opportunity of a month without a buying agenda to fill in some of the holes I discovered over the course of the preceding year. This year's major remedial-education project is my tragically (and, I fear, expensively) belated discovery of Sarah Records and its various tributaries, but there were also a few scattered records from last year that I resisted, for one reason or another, but became suddenly curious about. In Placebo's case, I actually bought their first album, after seeing them compared repeatedly to Rush, but despite an overwhelming consensus that Brian Molko's voice sounds like Geddy Lee's (I was listening to Without You I'm Nothing at the office, today, and two of my co-workers remarked upon the resemblance, unprompted), for some reason I don't hear it, and the record did nothing for me otherwise. Placebo were involved in the film Velvet Goldmine, which I also could not fathom, and I saw them interviewed on 120 Minutes and thought they were insufferable. And "Pure Morning", the lead single from their second album, opens with the lines "A friend in need's a friend indeed, / A friend with weed is better", hardly the way to convert a listener who is completely intolerant of drug use. The rest of the song's lyrics are so muddled and creepy, though (half of it sounds like a love song written by somebody who has only read about women in comic books), that objecting to it on topical grounds would be breathtakingly pedantic. And musically it sounds to me like another contribution, right up there with Orgy, to the canon of distressed late-Nineties pop anthems that could have been interred a decade and a half ago, this one closer to the steady, minimalist drone of "Da Da Da", fuzzed guitar coughs replacing Trio's ping-pong-ball-on-marimba blips. It's impossible to dance to, but I can't stop humming it.
Neither the New Wave undercurrents nor the goth veneer are nearly as prominent on Without You I'm Nothing as on Candyass, but if I lean into it a little, and concentrate on the two records' common roots, I can get them crammed into the same nostalgic niche without undue difficulty. The central hooks of "Brick Shithouse" have all the lilt of a car crash, and for much of the song the guitar and bass seem to be engaged in a game of harmonic chicken, but the choruses break into a chirpy sprint with more than a little New Order springiness. The bass line under the verses of "You Don't Care About Us" is ripped off almost wholesale from the early Cure, but the guitar is raspy and fitful, the choruses squalling and harsh. The languid "Ask for Answers" reminds me of some of the quieter Chameleons songs, although Placebo don't come as close to the Chameleons' atmospheric density as Puressence. The slashing, angular "Allergic (To Thoughts of Mother Earth)" sounds a bit like Catherine Wheel covering the Undertones (Molko does sound a lot like Feargal Sharkey, to me). "Every You Every Me", twitchy and quick, strikes me as another potential classic, a less stop-start companion for Blur's "Song 2", its infectious drum groove ricocheting off of single-minded eighth-note guitar and rubbery bass. The gruff spoken parts of the glassy "Summer's Gone" remind me of Whipping Boy, but the sawing "Scared of Girls" is loud, furious and cathartic. And the becalmed finale, "Burger Queen", despite the inane tag line, takes some of Radiohead's harrowing melancholy and infects it with a reassuringly gentle drum patter and just enough of Molko's sneer for the sorrow to seem rueful, not a prelude to suicide. I suspect that much of this album will eventually fade away, for me, maybe enough of it that all I hold onto are the two pop gems and a blurry memory of the quiet stretches, but that kind of graceful retreat was part of the nature of New Wave, too, and if Placebo can come up with two solid singles per album, they'll be ready for a marvelous retrospective right around the time the next generation starts retracing their steps.
Catatonia: International Velvet
I've bought pretty much every other album by British bands with female singers, and certainly anything by anyone Welsh, but I had the vague impression that Catatonia were some sort of dub-oriented cross between Kylie Minogue and Massive Attack. Having bought and liked the latest Kylie Minogue and Massive Attack albums, though, I could no longer really think of that as a meaningful objection, even if were accurate, which it isn't. Strictly on instrumental grounds, Catatonia might fit into the Sleeper/Elastica/Echobelly/theaudience wing of Brit pop, as many of their songs have a similar eager, chiming, guitar-centric melodicism to them. "Mulder and Scully" flips from choppy Elastica-esque verses to a rousing Echobelly-ish chorus; "Game On" eases from jangly Smiths reserve into a swaying sing-along; the expansive "I Am the Mob" revolves around a slow hook with much the same inexorable grandeur (and some of the same notes) as the one in Echobelly's "Insomniac"; "Road Rage" seems to abandon the idea of verses entirely, opting instead for a succession of choruses, a pop-song construction tactic so effective it's probably proscribed; the oblique "Goldfish and Paracetamol", in the same general vein as the new Cardigans album (like watercolor sketches of an autopsy), is the closest the record comes to my weird misconception of it; the ungainly Welsh verses of "International Velvet" give way to bleary drinking-anthem patriotism; detuned synth bleats derail the uneasy "Why I Can't Stand One Night Stands"; "Part of the Furniture" could be a Sleeper b-side; the acoustic dirge "Don't Need the Sunshine" is graceful and Celtic; "Strange Glue" is a soaring rock lullaby; and the jazzy piano farewell, "My Selfish Gene", would be an old-fashioned torch song if vocalist Cerys Matthews didn't sing it like at any moment she might disembowel somebody sitting at the bar.
And it is Matthews' startling voice that, for me, keeps Catatonia from having anything to do with the bands they would otherwise resemble. I'm very fond of Louise Wener, Justine Frischmann, Sonya Aurora-Madan and Sophie Ellis-Bextor, each for their own virtues, but none of them are power rock singers. Wener is elegantly weary, Frischmann aggressively clipped, and the hyphens (if we do not abandon this naming convention, soon, we risk a generation that will never receive mail correctly) actually sound trained, but Matthews is viscerally imposing in a way none of them approach, something like a cross between Cyndi Lauper and Patti Smith, or perhaps a female version of Kelly Jones, of country-mates the Stereophonics. There are moments in almost all of these songs where the microphones seem to flinch, where the accompaniments suddenly seem like they've been constructed on entirely the wrong scale. Two of her, on "Game On", sound like a choir. The frayed edges of "I Am the Mob" are far scarier than the lyrics. She picks her way through "Road Rage" with the exaggerated care of a giant trying not to wreck the house of his one human friend. The attempt at chilly, Nina Persson-ish composure on "Goldfish and Paracetamol" is convincing for several lines at a time, but hairline cracks at the ends of phrases betray the amount effort this semblance of control requires. Cerys seems entirely comfortable, to me, only in passages, like the choruses of "International Velvet" and the distant two-part harmonies on "Don't Need the Sunshine", when it sounds like she's singing from some completely different hill than the one the microphone is on, letting the countryside absorb part of her enthusiasm for it, so that what reaches us is half the sound of her singing, attenuated to our tolerances, and half the feel of the ground, humming its fondness for her company.
Kylie Minogue: Intimate and Live
As for Kylie, whose album Impossible Princess has so far, for me, held up even better than I expected it to, my usual urge to express my affection by buying more of her records has been thwarted by the fact that all I can ever find are endless collections of remixes of her older material, which I didn't much like in its original state, and strongly doubt I'd enjoy any better in mangled form. The compromise this Australian double-album proposes is live renditions of two-thirds of Impossible Princess, in return for which I agree to sit through a similar amount of her older material, including five Stock/Aitken/Waterman numbers. These are not unreasonable terms. The songs from Impossible Princess are not much different from their album versions (her touring band even does a credible job with a necessarily streamlined "Some Kind of Bliss", missing its Manic Street Preachers co-authors and the small orchestra that played on the album), but after the record failed to come out in the US, and ended up getting Kylie dropped from her UK label, as well, it's reassuring to hear the audience at these Sydney shows greet her like a returning heroine. Of the older songs, the syrupy "Put Yourself in My Place", "Take Me With You" and "I Should Be So Lucky", the formula R&B "Dangerous Game", the embarrassing mock-funk "Step Back in Time" and the loathsome (but ecstatically received) "Locomotion" are all more or less what I was afraid of. "Free", not yet recorded, erupts into an alarming racket. The cheerfully overblown (and slightly Lone Justice-ish) "What Do I Have to Do?", the jumpy "Shocked", the snappy "Confide in Me" and the deadpan disco strut "Better the Devil You Know", on the other hand, might conceivably lure me into buying old records, if I could ever really find one. And if the balance is in doubt, two covers tip it for me: Abba's "Dancing Queen" is predictable, I guess, and Kylie doesn't attempt alchemy, but she sings it like she owes it something, and reminds me that I do, too; the one I wouldn't have predicted (but the audience doesn't seem surprised to hear it) is an unnervingly perky rendition of the Clash's "Should I Stay or Should I Go?", which wreaks as much havoc with it as Nanci Griffith and the Crickets did with "I Fought the Law" (which wasn't really a Clash song, I'm aware, but their version is the one I know). It's more or less the opposite transformation from Orgy's version of "Blue Monday", and the fact that I like it is probably symptomatic of my failures at goth and any other niche I've ever coveted, but whose strictures I've been unwilling to accept. I do wonder what I've missed, in all the things into which I haven't thrown myself. I trade a few answers for a lot of questions, I suspect. At some point, at least theoretically, you need to stop collecting and start doing the opposite of collecting. I don't even know what that is. I'll find out, but not yet. Not while there is still room in my house for more records.