Music Never Says "I Have a Boyfriend"
210 · 4 February 99
The Field Mice: Where'd You Learn to Kiss That Way?
The cracks always look so tiny and inconsequential, until they split your life open. It's January 4, and I'm driving to work, up Hampshire Street through East Cambridge, across the Somerville line where it turns into Beacon, past the building where my first real apartment was, past the American Institute of Arts and Sciences, which I always think is a martial arts cult, past the methadone clinic that you aren't supposed to know is a methadone clinic because it doesn't say anything on the outside, except methadone clinics are the only non-residential structures left in all of America that don't say anything on the outside. Past the combination liquor store and three-car Toyota dealership, past the only take-out French restaurant I've ever heard of, past auto-parts stores in the front rooms of askew triple-deckers, past Kiki & Art's hair salon, past the eighteenth used-records store within three miles of Harvard Square. I have my car radio on, for once. Usually I'm late, and attaching the faceplate of the radio feels like surrendering to the length of the journey, like I don't care that I'm late, but this morning is my first day back at work after two weeks off, and I figure by now they've probably half forgotten about me, and if I'm there before lunch that's soon enough. I've given up on WFNX, because they can't go twenty minutes without subjecting me to "Check it out now, the funk soul brother", or "I guess I didn't know", and those aren't songs, to me. The radio was tuned to one of the college stations down in the eighties last time I used it, and I leave it there. They're playing something innocuous but sweet, sparkling guitars swirling around an artless boy-girl duet, halfway between the Byrds and what the Smiths might have sounded like without their irony gland. College stations have whole vaults of this stuff. I have no idea where it comes from, pop geeks running tiny labels out of their bedrooms probably, 45rpm purists immersed in some mail-order subculture into which I have no entry. It's the kind of song I don't mind swaying to, as I swing into Porter Square past the workers gluing a fake brick facade onto another superfluous building filling in one of the few remaining holes in the zoning map, but would surely never buy. It ends, and the DJ says who the band is, some group whose cultivated timidity infuses even their name. I remember it, of course, not because I care but because that's what I do with my brain, fill it with hopeless minutiae whose import even I can't fathom.
That's Monday, and Tuesday is record-buying day, and it's January so there haven't been any new records in weeks, and I'm pacing the aisles at Newbury Comics looking for random inspiration, when I come across this beautiful orange package. It just has a slipcover, no jewel case, and the cover is only a picture of some fields, blurry even on a five-inch square, but the light is perfect, and there are thirty-six songs listed on the back, and I can never resist comprehensive surveys of subjects it hadn't occurred to me until one second ago to be interested in. Do I really need thirty-five more songs about which I'll probably feel as ambivalent as I did about "September's Not So Far Away", the one I heard in the car? No, of course not. But I buy it anyway. The light is so perfect.
It's long. There are two discs (differentiated only by color, shades indistinguishable in dim light), filled to capacity. I've committed myself to two hours and forty minutes, even if I listen just once, with a band I know only from a mildly pleasant song I heard half of while I was concentrating on traffic. Somewhere in this willingness must be the key to why my life doesn't feel right yet, why my social calendar is so uncluttered and yet I never get enough sleep, why we channel so much of our souls into records, me and maybe you, instead of what our mothers mean by "getting out". Records tolerate our obsessions. I've known the Field Mice for two minutes, and they're already willing to spend a week with me, if I want. At three in the morning, when unconsciousness seems like death, I can't really phone the girl I danced with at a New Year's Eve party, but this record is sitting by my bed, three dozen songs that don't mind that I haven't learned any of their names yet. Records don't have busy lives with these brief moments into which they're willing to fit you, under carefully-prescribed conditions, after you promise to pretend you don't have poignantly groundless crushes on them. Every record is willing, at an instant's notice, to become your whole universe. Not this record, of course; I mean that rhetorically. These are just jangly pop songs, and you can't build a universe out of pop songs any more than you can build an igloo out of marbles. Of course you can't. But there are so many of them! Is there a booklet? Maybe it explains where they all come from. Yes, there is.
And from the moment I pulled out the booklet and started to read, the ensuing month is a blur. The pages and pages of liner notes do explain where all these songs come from, more or less, but only in the course of telling a story that has as much to do with the interdependent structures of human frailty and happiness as it has to do with recording studios and singles charts. It slowly dawns on me, as I read, that although I spend as much time investigating obscure twists in the paths of popular music as I think any human being can be expected to, I have still managed to miss something incredibly important. The Field Mice are not simply cuddly and disposable, that's part of it, but the girl I'm really dancing with is Sarah Records, the label for which they recorded all these songs. I rarely pay much attention to labels, as theirs are usually fables of the business of music, at best, but as I read Sarah co-founder Clare Wadd's journal of her life and Sarah's and the Field Mice's, intertwined, I discover that she understands. This isn't just music that lends itself to introvert obsessions, it's a whole label about the transference of interpersonal relationships both into and onto pop music, about how right it is that thinking about your life makes it harder, about candid vulnerability as a serious alternative to ironic distance, maybe even an extended explication of one of my favorite hopeful theories, that songs don't replace people, they represent them, in which case our relationships with songs are, in fact, relationships with people, an evolution of communication rather than an avoidance of it. The notes to There and Back Again Lane, Sarah's swan-song compilation, the next thing I can find, have enough raw emotion, stylistic flair, insurgent energy and formal complexity to follow A Farewell to Arms in the high school English curriculum. Running a low-profile singles label, in the movie-tie-in, celebrity-cult, Third-Eye-Blind world is the same insanity, transposed up a level of abstraction, as writing earnest, fragile pop songs against CNN clamour; Sarah itself was as much a dream of a better world as its most gossamer single, an aesthetic system and a musical grammar and a political movement and a foreordained tragedy, all in one. I am devastated that they fought this noble, impossible battle without my help. But I can't change history, I can only try to learn about it. A month later, I'm surrounded by piles of CDs literally tall enough to hurt me if they were to topple inward, and stacks of vinyl, because Clare and Matt were 45rpm purists, running a label out of their flat in Bristol, just like I imagined. I've hardly pieced together a chapter of the story, yet, and my late arrival will cost me a small fortune, but I know already that this is one of the Great Things to have happened during my life.
Part of what makes Sarah remarkable is also what makes it a difficult story to reconstruct. On the theory that pop music, done properly, is about perfect isolated moments, not epic sagas, the core of the label's labors was Sarah 1-99, a series of, with a handful of odd format exceptions (some flexis, a fanzine or two, and Sarah 50 was a pop board game, apparently), seven-inch singles. The twenty-one-track retrospective farewell There and Back Again Lane was Sarah 100, and with a Drowning-by-Numbers-esque faith that after you've done the first hundred all the other hundreds are the same, that was the end. They did give in and release a few full albums along the way, and after about Sarah 66 even began putting things out on CD too, but the catalog is now almost entirely out of print. Two singles by the pre-Velvet Crush duo The Springfields can be found on Ric Menck's The Ballad of Ric Menck, some of the East River Pipe records are available on Merge in the US, and almost all of Heavenly's records are in print on K, but beyond that you're in for a lot of bin-flipping in vain. Where'd You Learn to Kiss That Way?, compiled by Matt and Clare for Sarah's successor, Shinkansen (maybe the other hundreds are the same, but you can't be sure without checking), is thus not only my posthumous introduction to Sarah, but a ray of hope that more of its music will have second lives. It doesn't return all of the Field Mice songs to circulation, quite, but thirty-six of the forty-five tracks from the band's nine singles and EPs, and one real album, is pretty close. There's an essential perversity, however, to presenting so much material in this format. These songs were intended to be taken a few at a time, two to four on most of the EPs, preferably with a pause in the middle while you flip the record over. Trying to learning about the Field Mice by listening to two hours and forty minutes of three dozen pop songs, end to end, is like trying to learn about a bakery by eating a year's worth of its pastries in an afternoon. The sequencing emphasizes this point by skipping around in the chronology seemingly at random. You can't just play this set and then pretend you bought all the records the first time through. You have to do some work.
Complicating the process further is the fact that although Sarah had a signature sound as unmistakable as any single-minded label from 4AD to Metal Blade, there were also times when its boundaries were defined by where its people wandered, as much as vice versa. So you go, as you make your way through this collection, from the spiraling, ethereal rapture of "Five Moments", Annemari Davies' vocals processed into a dreamlike, near-featureless haze, to crisp, plaintive bounce, Cure-like bass trills and Bobby Wratten's ingenuous singing on "If You Need Someone". "Sensitive" may be history's most adorable failed punk song, its fast drumming and waves of distorted guitar like ingredients for a dish the band saw pictures of in a cookbook but has no idea what it's supposed to taste like, but it segues into the spare, moody, shimmering "Couldn't Feel Safer". "Below the Stars" is becalmed, but "Coach Station Reunion" falls midway between "She's Got a Ticket to Ride" Beatles and Manchester dance groove. "Everything About You" and "Let's Kiss and Make up" remind me of the Feelies' muted cyclicality, but the drum-machine and synthesizer clockwork of "It Isn't Forever" sounds more like the Fixx, Wratten's echoing melancholy more like Joy Division's Ian Curtis, and neither the long, slow intro nor the noisily cathartic fade-out fit the three-minute pop-song mold. "Between Hello and Goodbye" is just acoustic guitar and two voices, and "And Before the First Kiss" is even quieter, but "Tilting at Windmills" is a buzzing instrumental collage, and the late single "Missing the Moon" is an unselfconscious synth-pop gem like a lost collaboration between New Order and a-ha. Much of "Triangle" could be Trans Am trying to remember ABBA's "Dancing Queen", but the lilting "Canada" sounds more like Aztec Camera trying (and failing) to prove that they could play country-western if they wanted to. "Anyone Else Isn't You" barely escapes being swallowed by its own dejection, but "September's Not So Far Away" is about as close as any single song gets to defining Sarah's idiom, Wratten and Davies' gentle, uncluttered duet sighing above pristine acoustic-guitar arpeggios, pizzicato mock-strings, shuffling drums, springy bass and wheeling reverse-reverb lead-guitar hooks. The awkward, heartbreaking "Emma's House", the band's first demo, transcends a toy-drum-machine groove, brittle guitar tones and a shaky vocal performance with sheer melodic bravado. "Landmark" is a drowsy waltz, "Willow" sonorous and glassy, "Holland Street" an oblique instrumental like the Field Mice's answer to Big Country's "Balcony". "Clearer" is bright and jazzy, like China Crisis edging toward the Pet Shop Boys, but the elegiac "Quicksilver" is ambient and languid. The sweeping denial anthem "Star of David" is as textured and ambitious as the elfin, jangling "When Morning Comes to Town" is self-contained. "Indian Ocean" sounds like the reply to a bet that they couldn't make a charming pop song out of one of the quasi-Latin patterns on a bad drum-machine, but the similarly mechanical "This Love Is Not Wrong" is like a "Don't You (Forget About Me)" for a Breakfast Club not staffed by stereotypes. The blinded roar of "White" gives way to the effortless lullaby "When You Sleep". The sunny, folkish "An Earlier Autumn" leads to the morose shuffle of "End of the Affair". Meandering bass, eddies of guitar noise and a brittle, harpsichord-like keyboard part share the loose, improvisational ensemble-piece "This Is Not Here", but the harrowing, insular, methodical, guitar-and-voice lament "Wrong Turn and Raindrops" barely finds room for a few discreet harmonica moans. And "So Said Kay", the collection's sketchy conclusion, supplies its title, a sort of injured objection to a lover having shaken the lifestyle constraints the narrator thought they'd implicitly agreed to.
The biggest difference between Sarah's conception of pop and the shinier mainstream variant, though, like the difference between true art and mere diversion in any other medium, it seems to me, is that these songs are never meant as escape. Listening to the Spice Girls is the moral equivalent of drinking too much: it produces an illusion of cheer by suppressing your rational anxieties, which is a delaying tactic at best. Sarah's raptures try to embrace fear, isolation and despair as manifestations of our power to live, because that's the only way to actually overcome them. It doesn't always work; the specter of Heavenly drummer Mathew Fletcher's suicide haunts Sarah's history as surely as Kurt Cobain's death informs Nirvana's punk legacy. "I've never been more lonesome, / Life's never been less fun", goes "Wrong Turn and Raindrops", and the magnificent simplicity of the music either underscores the magnificence of the dilemma, or reminds you of its inexorability, depending largely on whether you've already resolved to survive or are creeping towards an exit. Suicide is inconceivable to me, so this music is intensely optimistic, if only because it has no other option. After years of being convinced there is a simple explanation for all the melancholia in great pop music, I've finally thought of it, and it's even simpler than I expected: happy people don't need art. They don't need to make it, and they don't need to experience it. Art isn't precluded by happiness, but it isn't required. Sad people, dissatisfied people, confused people, these are the ones that demand explanations, sometimes so impatiently that they're forced to begin inventing them themselves. Vacant songs and undistinguished relationships are killing time until you die, and if you still believe life is worthwhile, nothing could be more intolerable. Romantics end up alone because they will not (cannot) settle for comfort or convenience. Yes, I put more energy into my relationships with some records than I do into my relationships with some people, but I maintain, arguably circularly, that the relationships with records are often more rewarding. Or, put another way, the records provide a standard for comparison; a real person is far more exhausting than a pop song, so they better also be more magical. I can't say "I found this amazing record label I didn't know about" to my parents and expect them to be as happy for me as they would (and perhaps I should) be to hear me say "I met somebody", but maybe you understand, reading this in the shadow of CD piles of your own, how the two can be comparable events in my private life. Sarah has the potential to expand my idea of the fora in which it is possible to do great things, to argue that record labels can be a medium of intensely personal expression like My So-Called Life demonstrated that TV could be simultaneously astonishing and human-scale. I'm glad I've never had to trade friends for records, but I can't promise I wouldn't. And while there is room in my life for a pretty limited number of human soulmates, there's room for thousands and thousands of records. So if one search seems to be stalled, at least I can try to make some progress on the other one.