The Best Part of the Day
209 · 28 January 99
Smart Brown Handbag: Little Things Are Everything
I have filled my life with lonely vigils. What I'm watching for, I rarely have a clear idea, but I know, in every symbolic translation, the feeling of standing on the battlement, scanning a moonlit horizon for the glimmer of movement. We all have our heroic self-images, most tragic usually because we dream on such small scales, but it's only the small dreams I trust, the ones that are phrased in oblique internal grammar, not pidgin, socially-programmed pictograms. Holden waits by his cliff, grabbing errant children and pointing them back into their game. I stand night watch on the wall of some border stronghold. I don't know what would constitute a threat worth warning somebody about. I'm not even sure who I'd warn; you, maybe. All I can really vouch for is that when I think I'm standing guard over something, that's when I feel the least like the life I should be living is taking place somewhere else, without me. It's cold out here, on the wall, and I'm tired, and what could break through all this stone, anyway? I should go to sleep, leave the wall to the moonlight, leave the forest below to owls and petrifaction, leave the mountains in the distance to snow and forgetfulness. I should go find a card game, or take some flowers to the hospital, or write enough letters to use up the rest of these annoying one-cent stamps. I should make a list of all the better ways to spend my time, but my pockets are still crammed with the lists I made last night, and making more of them won't change anything. I don't know what I'm watching for, but know I can't leave this position unmanned.
There is a guild of us, I've slowly come to realize, dreaming walls to stand on, scanning our own tiny quadrants of what must be one big darkness. I know the others are out there, because every once in a while, when the night is perfectly still, I hear them singing. All art, it seems to me in these suspended moments, is exactly this: songs we murmur, as we watch, searching for the tune with which we can explain ourselves to the night. You're best advised to be suspicious, of course, of any moments in which "all art" seems like exactly anything, and maybe you'll think moonlight and a theory is a romantic ideal that misses the point of "romantic". But get your own sense of purpose, this one is mine.
Few people make soundtracks that suit these vigils any better than David Steinhart's. Little Things Are Everything is the fifth Smart Brown Handbag album, and David's twelfth. Of my souvenirs from writing this column, one of the ones I'll treasure the most is the CDR of this album that David sent me, the title written on the face of it in magic marker, last summer, so that even if I was the only one to show up to see them play here, a couple weeks later (and I was), at least I'd be able to sing along. Stonegarden Records has a web site now, and even other bands, so maybe next time I won't have the club to myself. I hope I don't. The private import of these songs doesn't rely on public obscurity. I'd be ecstatic, the next time Smart Brown Handbag come to Cambridge, to find myself surrounded.
Whatever its fate with the rest of you, though, the measures of my own embrace of Little Things Are Everything are the parade of albums that have spun past it, into and out of my high-rotation pile, during the six months between the advance copy and the record's eventual recent release, and the surety with which these songs have wound themselves into my subconscious, over those months, so that I now hear them swirling through the background noise behind everything else, like a reference tone taken to the next level of abstraction. Pop songs can be draped over frames as rococo as you can picture, but their silhouettes always reveal a familiar overall shape. Steinhart's albums are never startling, and Little Things Are Everything is perhaps understated even by his standards, but understatement is the privilege of craftsmanship, and these ten songs are as enchanting, artless and desperately empathic as any of the hundred before them. John Glogovac's drums circle patiently through the verses of "This and Every Sunday", waiting for David's train of thought and glassy guitar to reach the rolling choruses. Distortion glistens off the refrains of "Summer Can't Come Soon Enough" like a half-evaporated sweat, and the short spasms of drum-and-bass rattle feel to me like shimmers of sunlight into a shuttered room. "Ungrateful After All" is anxious and frayed, metal thrash for sitting rooms. David's characteristically unassuming guitar leads spiral through the fond, helpless "This Little Waste of Time", a song timeless and simple enough to have come from anywhere in his catalog. JoJo Swift blends slow piano with David's brushed guitar and haunted falsetto on the hushed ballad "Good Bug". I was a little disappointed, when the copy with the titles and lyrics came, to find that the quick, crisp chorus "My attorney is a bald girl" is actually "My Tami is a bar girl", but the garbled lyrics of "Bar Girl" feel appropriate for a song that recaptures so much else of what made REM's "Radio Free Europe" precious to me, and everything REM did after it progressively less so. Cindy Albon's springy bass runs buoy "No Shot", refusing to let David settle into the song's blocky gait. "Every Day Siren"'s guitars peal like bells, keeping a stuttering rhythm from sinking into novelty lurch. "Sandbags" rescues the sparkly guitar cycle from The Dream Academy's "Life in a Northern Town" and grafts it to quiet, sighing cello instead of "Hey na na na" effusion. "The Best Part" clatters into its soaring choruses with downbeats and backing-vocal "ahh"s that could have been borrowed from an old, forgotten Byrds song. And the plain pop charm at the core of David's songs might be most unmistakable on the fuzzy, drum-machine-driven bonus track (even the CDR said "10 Songs" on it, adorably), where even processor mangling and bloopy synth noises fail to disguise it.
And although vigils are my self-image, not David's, it's easy to imagine the ones these songs are standing. "This and Every Sunday" is a relationship held together by the refusal to disentangle inertia and determination, maybe sustained by the very NY/LA separation that strains it. The narrator of "Summer Can't Come Soon Enough" (the flip side of the Field Mice's "September's Not So Far Away" in my mind, this week) waits for the change of season to extract him from another relationship's rubble. "Ungrateful After All" is trapped, by its own admission, in a Del Amitri song (the lines of my favorite relationship poets crossing, bizarrely), hoping a rented car knows about roads our usual routines never encounter. When the relationship triage "This Little Waste of Time", which also manages to summarize so much interdependence and compassion in a post-binge "I held her hair back" that I almost don't get through it, ends with "I wonder, is this really me feeling complete?", David turns what could easily have been disdainful irony into honest confusion. The pretty-sounding "Good Bug" is actually terrifying, its narrator cutting himself out of a destructive relationship that had so much of him in it he'll be lucky if his blood still circulates the whole way around without it. "The sun will be up / In a few hours time", he warns in "No Shot", like all important events happen while everybody else is asleep. "Which words were yours / And which were mine?" If you can't remember, it doesn't matter. The relationship predicament in "Sandbags" could be the one disintegrated beyond recovery ("This and Every Sunday" a month or three of decline later, possibly), but David wriggles out of the way of the blow at the last second, shifting his ego into wry self-assessment ("Now I dabble in regret -- / OK, I jump in headfirst").
The soul of the album, however, and I imagine that part of the record's buoyancy, paradoxically, comes from the fact that David actually knows, at least for the moment, what his vigil is about, is "The Best Part", his tender elegy to cancer-stricken bassist Cindy Albon, who played on the album but missed the tour for chemotherapy. Pictures of her line the booklet, and the album is dedicated to her, and to her courage. What good all these hours on the wall are, if the enemy, when it finally comes, is nothing we can really fight, it's hard to say, but as long as we know there's somebody inside to stand guard over, we'll spend as many nights as it takes.
David Gray: White Ladder
I used to have a policy, for reasons I'm not sure I ever articulated, against buying, and certainly against writing about, records that you couldn't actually purchase in stores. I wasn't against mail-ordering things that didn't happen to be available in my stores, but I needed to know that they were available somewhere. I can only reconstruct fragments of why this used to seem important to me. I always resented fan clubs, too, and I suspect both aversions stemmed from an irritation at how much work it takes to keep up with the parts of the world that don't participate in the general market. Good record stores, among their virtues, are extremely efficient. I go to my favorite one every Tuesday after work, and in a well-ordered week it takes me less than an hour to consider the week's new releases, gather up whatever back-catalog survey-material has collected on my list since the previous visit, do a slow circuit of the shelves to see if anything snuck out without my knowing about it, and pursue whatever other random leads I haven't been able to make sense of yet. When my arms are full I take everything to the counter at the front, show them a card with some numbers on it that by rights they should have memorized by now, and then just walk away. The store, out of touching concern for my valuable time, takes upon itself the considerable logistical burden of distributing my money to the hordes of people with claims on parts of it. I like this system a lot. I understand the considerable compromises artists make in order to participate in it, but what is the alternative? If every record that sounded intriguing required me to track down a separate web site or mailing address, and conduct a unique, isolated transaction (some of which, barbarically, involve putting paper into envelopes), I would have to spend most of my spare hours at it.
But, and this will be another in the ongoing series of possible signs that my current single phase has lasted way too long, I guess I'm willing to spend my spare hours that way, after all. I'm pretty certain one-to-one sales don't scale, for either the seller or the buyer, but I've come to find this futility endearing. The compensation for the time it takes is a sense of contact that buying a record in a store can't give you. My new rule, the complete inversion of the old one, is that the first measure of the worthiness of a purchase is the likelihood that the artist responsible will have to learn your name before they can sell you anything. And if somebody is willing to spend months making a record, how can you justify begrudging them half an hour all their own, if it even takes that long, in order to hear it?
David Gray's first three albums, A Century Ends, Flesh and Sell, Sell, Sell, traced a commercially promising label-trajectory from Caroline to Virgin to EMI, but his fourth, White Ladder, was made at home last year and appears, if "appears" can be stretched to cover a record that those of us in the US can currently only get by mail-order (this is an easy one, though; he has a web site, and it shouldn't take you very many tries to guess its address) as the first product of IHT Records, a label that might be David's own, only neither the credits nor his web site really say. The logical stylistic progression to go with this shift in circumstance, and the one that would have followed most directly from the tenors of the three albums before it, in any context, would have been further away from rock and technology, towards folk reserve carefully balanced against Celtic expansiveness. Sell, Sell, Sell sounded to me like a Waterboys record stripped of all the overt atmospherics and production experiments you might have found on recent Hothouse Flowers albums, and an extrapolation of that reductive trend might have made this album Gray's answer to Luka Bloom's Turf, just a guitar and a room full of microphones, an independent record whose self-sufficiency and commercial uncooperativeness would have been audible right on it.
That is not, however, the sound that comes out of White Ladder when you put it on. "Please Forgive Me", the opener, in fact, turns the technological equation more or less inside out. If you go through the Hothouse Flowers / Waterboys math from Sell, Sell, Sell again, but this time keep what last time you discarded, you'll end up with something pretty close to this. Icy keyboards glide up and down short chord-runs with diffident soundtrack grace, drum-loops patter dryly, a pizzicato bass line twitters like something cut out of an Erasure song and given a thorough denatured-alcohol scrubbing before being reused, the guitar, when it finally shows up, is content to repeat a simple, steely, plucked figure, and Gray's voice, prone in the past to snarling, clings instead to breathy-and-intimate. There's a little more guitar on the brittle but propulsive "Babylon", but minor-key piano whispers and muted drum-machine ticking keep the song somewhere between Hothouse Flowers and the Blue Nile. "We're Not Right" combines another spare drum loop, boingy synth bass, acoustic guitar and a striking, almost bluegrass-ish, vocal duet. "White Ladder" itself turns on crinkling static, bluesy singing and an arrangement like the Penguin Cafe Orchestra has replaced Simon Jeffes, their late leader, with Howard Jones. At the less artificial end of the spectrum, the swaying, folkish "My Oh My" lets more of Gray's Dylanesque twang show through, the slow, sad "Silver Lining" is closer to Robbie Robertson, and "This Year's Love" is a deadpan piano ballad, filled out only by some subtle synth-strings. "Sail Away" (not a cover of any of the things you might have hoped or feared) almost sounds like Cat Stevens. And "Say Hello Wave Goodbye", the long finale, attempts a synthesis of sorts, drum twitches underlying warm string crescendos, acoustic-guitar jangle and an unassuming three-chord hook on the order of Sheryl Crow's "Leaving Las Vegas" or maybe something of John Mellencamp's. I suppose if Luka Bloom got Everything but the Girl to produce a record for him, he might be able to do this, too, but it would be no less surprising. Those of us with propensities for locking ourselves in our homes can be cheered, if we want, by the idea that insularity and claustrophobia don't have to be synonymous, and by the possibility that you will come out different from when you went in, after all.
Guadalcanal Diary: At Your Birthday Party
The week's other significant mail-order prize (acquired from yet another eponymous web site) is a new live album, of all things, from Guadalcanal Diary, one of the many mid-Eighties, Athens, Georgia bands that long ago disappeared into REM's shadow. In the taxonomy of major participants in the Southern-axis guitar-pop era, Guadalcanal Diary fell somewhere energy-ward of REM and Let's Active, neither of which ever tried to emulate Guadalcanal Diary's party-rock swagger, but composure-ward of the dB's, who to me were a bit more prone to pastiche. Their closest peers, by far, were the Swimming Pool Q's, and I like my favorite Swimming Pool Q's songs for almost the identical reasons that I like my favorite Guadalcanal Diary songs: at their best both bands were willing to subjugate their playful enthusiasms just enough to bend them into something genuinely beautiful, all the more fascinating because of the ever-present threat that they might suddenly break into speed-punk Woody Guthrie. Their purest songs ring with the same rustic clarity as, later, the Connells', expressions of a Southern cultural heritage less reliant on cowboy boots and lynching, like a pop geek's rejoinder to Lynyrd Skynyrd. Guadalcanal Diary made four marvelously boisterous albums during their relatively short existence; 1984's Walking in the Shadow of the Big Man (with the irrepressible "Watusi Rodeo" and a rock rendition of "Kumbayah"), 1987's somewhat less cartoonish 2x4 and the 1989 swan-song Flip-Flop (with "Always Saturday", in my opinion one of the genre's most perfect pop songs) were all produced by scene-regular Don Dixon. They made one without him, as well, 1986's Jamboree, but nobody thought enough of it to release it on CD, so you'll have to hope somebody who lives near you decided they'd rather have a dollar than keep their copy of the LP. After the band's demise, singer Murray Attaway made a solo record (1993's In Thrall, produced by Michael Penn compatriot Tony Berg, with some nice backing vocals by future Penn associate Aimee Mann, and assorted musical contributions from mutual friend Jon Brion), but a follow-up, despite numerous rumors of its completion, remains unreleased to this day. I wouldn't wish label problems on anybody, particularly anybody with connections to Aimee Mann, but if obstacles in Attaway's solo career helped bring about this unexpected reunion, I'd be tempted to grant them Machiavelli waivers.
The band has stated their intention to record a new album, but in the meantime we have this concert recording to remind us why we might care. Guadalcanal Diary never got to do a best-of, and this set is missing several things I would have included on one, but for a band that sat out most of the decade, they still seem to have a pretty firm grasp on their catalog. They do the careening instrumental "Gilbert Takes the Wheel", the stomping "Trail of Tears" and a blistering "Watusi Rodeo", all from Walking in the Shadow of the Big Man; Jamboree, not my favorite album of theirs either, is represented by cheerfully inane sprints through "Country Club Gun", "I See Moe", "Dead Eyes" and "Cattle Prod"; they omit my favorite song on 2x4, too, the admittedly concert-unfriendly alcoholic's lament "3 AM", but compensate with a soaring "Litany", the moody "Newborn", the churning "Say Please" and a rumbling "Lips of Steel"; Flip-Flop gets short-changed a little, relative to my affection for it, but they do play drummer John Poe's sinister "Likes of You" and edgy "Pretty Is as Pretty Does", the rockabilly strut "Whiskey Talk" and the nonsense sing-along "Vista". It's hard to judge, from this enthusiastically nostalgic romp, whether they really have the constitution for a second life, or whether they have new songs with something different to offer than the old ones, but they sound both confident and excited to try.
The moment on this record that raises my expectations the highest, though, isn't a song, it's a single segue towards the middle of the album. The band has just finished the goofy "Vista", and bassist Rhett Crowe is explaining, in an earnest, if implausible, drawl, that "All three of my sisters here tonight know the words to that song", when Attaway, in what sounds like an ad lib to make the transition into "Litany", elides Crowe's comment straight into "And all the angels in Heaven know the words to this one". The leap from amiable banter to astonishing presumption is sudden and perilous, but Guadalcanal Diary pull it off, and as "Litany" gets underway it seems to me that I can feel the crowd starting to realize what just occurred. One moment they felt good for all sorts of visceral, uncomplicated reasons, and the next moment the same feeling seemed to represent a much more profound calm, like a sunny afternoon has turned straight into a starlit night, without bothering to pass through dusk. I wonder if Guadalcanal Diary has more moments like this left in them, and I'm willing to wait, watching, to see.