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Maybe in Time They'll See Us as the Ones Who Didn't Miss the Point
211 · 11 February 99
The most obvious logistical difficulty occasioned by my sudden, posthumous discovery of Sarah Records is the fact that their catalog represents something on the order of five hundred songs, nearly all of them by bands most people have never heard of, most of them no longer in print, many of them only ever sent into the world on a format for which the average music consumer doesn't possess the requisite playback technology any more. Much of Sarah's legacy has done its best to dissipate into the atmosphere, in an apparent attempt to live on only as stray scents that blow in through just-closing doors on days over which seasons are still arguing. Great pop songs, argues one of the Sarah manifestos (and labels that don't issue manifestos don't deserve to exist), should be ephemeral. I'm not supposed to be able to track all these songs down, years after the fact. I'm not supposed to care. I should concentrate on the new great pop songs somebody, somewhere, is making right now, and not worry about the ones I missed.
This directive is, of course, laughably pointless. I'm an obsessive completist. It's what I do for a living, if you ignore the strange detail that it involves spending money instead of earning it. I can't not worry about the ones I missed. I'll concentrate on the new songs, too, but the only way to keep me from wanting the old ones is to keep me from finding out about them, and now that I've got the Sarah discography downloaded to my Casio, so I can carry it with me at all times (along with the transcripts of all nineteen My So-Called Life episodes; my friend David thinks I'm the only person in the world who routinely walks around with these, but I wonder), it's far too late. Fortunately, tracking down hundreds of obscure, out-of-print pop songs is a challenge of a form with which I'm both familiar and comfortable. It requires dauntingly large amounts of time, energy and money, but that's basically what I do with my time, energy and money. A month into the project, I've managed to track down a little over half of Sarah's songs, in one form or another. The other half will take longer, and I've got a bad feeling about the flexis and the board game, but give me enough time, and a little help here and there from reissues, and I'll find most of them.
The harder task, by far, is listening to all these songs properly. I usually charge through back-catalog bulk-acquisitions in impatient "OK, now I know what that sounds like" mode, two or three spins and then onto the shelves, digesting the past only in order to better understand the present, pretty much according to Sarah's prescription. But I don't want to do that with these songs. There is no Sarah present, in the strict sense, for this to be background to. I don't want to just learn about the era I missed, I actually want to live it, as best I can. To do that, I've got to slow down. I've got to ignore the to-be-listened-to piles climbing towards the ceiling (luckily, I have extremely high ceilings), and soak in one song at a time. Play the A side. Sit still in the silence for a moment, afterwards. Get up and walk over to the stereo. (I think my turntable is the only media device I own that doesn't have a remote.) Play the A side again. It's been a long time since playing records was such an active endeavor. Play the A side again. Once it keeps ringing in your head after the clunk of the needle coming off, you're ready for the B side. And then, harder still, do the same thing with the CDs, even the compilations, which mash years into half-hours. Pull the songs apart, one by one. I don't require (or expect) myself to like every song, but I insist that they each get a real chance. Hopefully in that spirit, then, in place of any of the epic surveys I'd normally embark upon this week, as my usual way of expressing my enthusiasms, here are ten random pop songs, random by virtue of the order in which my haphazard pop investigation progresses, no matter how carefully I selected them, that a month ago I'd either never heard of or forgotten about.
Heavenly: "Space Manatee"
If there were nothing more to Sarah than Heavenly, no manifestos, no sprawling discography to fixate on, nothing but this handful of short, unassuming CDs, it would still probably be my discovery of the year. I haven't learned to tell Heavenly's albums, as wholes, apart yet, and I'm not totally sure there are wholes hiding in there, waiting to be distinguished, at all. But the songs are starting to resolve themselves, in my mind, led by this swarming, cathartic, unsinkable anthem from, as it happens, their one post-Sarah album, 1995's Operation Heavenly, which Mathew Fletcher's suicide turned into their last. Heavenly have some important qualities that this song doesn't demonstrate, but plenty that it does. There, there's the bass-pulse intro that sounds like they borrowed it from the Pixies (along with the title), until I notice that Amelia Fletcher's voice has none of the deranged detachment of Kim Deal's, and find that there are real characters hiding in the sonic delirium, which was rarely the case with Pixies songs. There's the giddy 4-3-2-1 punk count-off, but it turns out to be part of the story, space exploration and technological armageddon as an extended metaphor for all the machines, procedures and plans we surround ourselves with, and then desperately try to peer through to catch glimpses of each other. There's the weird quick-step skiffle snap that creeps into so many Heavenly songs, pastel cheer just where they might have sunk into punk aggression. And then there, too, where the guitars explode into life and Mathew's diffident hi-hat tick switches to a crash-cymbal impersonation of belt-fed howitzer concussions, is the aggression after all, the sound of the planet you're standing on being blasted apart, except Amelia and Cathy Rogers' dreamy harmonies flit over the chaos like the updrafts from magma spilling out of the earth's wounds are just good kite-flying weather. This is punk music born of fury, as surely as the Sex Pistols or Minor Threat, but informed fury, cultivated in library stacks and late nights on school commons, directed as much at ourselves as anybody else, and ultimately disarmed by compassion, by a debilitating belief in the essential romantic nobility of people. Heavenly were too smart to be nihilists, too aware of how we are defined by our frailties to be straightedge, too self-conscious to be rock stars (or perhaps not self-conscious enough). I've had many theories, over the years, about which band I would have wanted to be in, if I could have stepped into any of them, but this is my new one.
St. Christopher: "Say Yes to Everything"
I did put up some token resistance to the idea of opening myself to seven-inch singles again. My turntable has been hooked up and operational all this time, and I have purchased enough vinyl during this decade to remember how it works, but a little database querying reveals that a short burst of local-music enthusiasm during the summer of 1995 accounts for nearly half of only sixty new 45s added to my collection during the Nineties. But the singles were Sarah's soul, and even if there were CD compilations to supersede everything, which there aren't, it didn't seem like my experience would be anywhere near right if I didn't live some of it in its native format. The prize of the first batch to trickle in, for me, is the A side of Sarah 46, by St. Christopher, one of several bands I probably wouldn't have pursued, based on their one song on There and Back Again Lane, if I'd actually been exercising individual discretion on these purchases. I picked it for the song's title, not knowing what it was about, but imagining that it would be a sort of self-help admonition with an endearingly shuttered concept of "everything", and thus a good example of how it's quite possible to turn an introvert into an extrovert with a single kiss, if you can only first shrink the extro down so it's not that much bigger and scarier than the intro. I was half right, but the other half is even better: it's a love song, but one as concerned, as was the case with Sarah songs often enough to suggest intent (see Another Sunny Day's "I'm in Love With a Girl Who Doesn't Know I Exist" for the most plaintive rendition), with the narrator's attitude towards his own emotions as with the subject's reaction to them. "Surely you will / Say yes to everything", he sighs, and I'm far from convinced that she will, but I'm pretty sure that whole-hearted belief is his only way through this ordeal, either with her or alone. The music matches this giddy optimism with incredible swirls of chiming guitar, resonant singing and what I'm almost sure is the same cheap drum machine I bought in college, and ends up sounding like the Icicle Works redoing the English Beat's "Save It for Later" with the ska twitches replaced by kettle drums. A single three-chord, two-measure guitar hook is repeated through almost the entire song, over a single one-measure drum loop, but that only succeeds, for me, in turning the whole thing into a four-and-a-half-minute non-stop chorus. "It took me hours to convince you", the narrator either admits or wishes, and I can only assume he is making the mistake of trying to sing her some other songs, too, instead of just playing this one over and over until she swoons. If three times doesn't do it, I'd start thinking about transferring the crush to someone with quicker blood.
Shelley: "Reproduction Is Pollution"
Thirty four bands released songs on Sarah. The most prolific ten accounted for almost two thirds of the material, and the top twenty for about ninety percent. At the other end, there were seven bands that released only one single apiece. Christine's Cat is the tiniest footnote, represented by Sarah 13, a one-track flexi, but Shelley, who arrived just in time for their three songs to constitute Sarah 98, the label's second to last single, are close behind. The self-loathing that chewed at the heart of many Sarah songs here lashes out, for once, with a withering denunciation of the urge to breed that seems utterly unconcerned with the demise of the species that would inevitably result (as with "Say Yes to Everything", "Reproduction Is Pollution"'s assumptions about the limited audience it addresses are integral and automatic). The narrator is so disgusted by the prospect of bringing children into an unraveling world that he can't even be bothered to invent a melody, and mutters the song in a disdainful, arrhythmic monotone. If he wanted to make the song ugly, though, he needed to have done something to get rid of the spiraling, luminescent music, something like textural early-Smiths guitar over a slow proto-hip-hop beat, and the breathy, elegantly atmospheric female backing choir. The combination of the two carries the heavy-handed sermon ("Don't talk to me about natural instinct. We've spat on Nature for far too long.") past pretension, for me, into breathtaking earnestness. The song attempts to be a paean to life ("Steep yourself in yourself", exhorts the chorus), despite also being a condemnation of life, and while I don't think it argues itself out of the contradiction, I'm mesmerized watching it try.
Even As We Speak: "Falling Down the Stairs"
One of the discoveries I didn't expect, as I delve further into Sarah's history, is that some of the bands that seem, from the vantage point of compilation appearances and catalog share, to be the Sarah style's definitive practitioners, like Blueboy, Boyracer, the Field Mice and Even As We Speak, also have wide and erratic experimental streaks, and sometimes produce songs that invade the label's usual coherency like they've teleported in from another universe. Even As We Speak alternates sugary, dizzying pop songs with sinister mock-bluegrass banjo laments, bubble-gum New Wave, noisy semi-industrial grooves, surreal instructional-filmstrip narration, Mazzy Star-ish ambience and squeaky retro-funk. "Falling Down the Stairs" is one of the pop moments, a bouncy, ringing gem from their wonderfully titled studio album Feral Pop Frenzy, sprays of multi-tap guitar echo and gauzily angelic female harmonies weaving over a sturdy drum thump and, for several unsettling seconds in the middle, a writhing mock-Indian jam, like the idiosyncratic original of which the Bangles' "Manic Monday" was a glossy reduction to stereotype. Sarah didn't release very many true albums (that is, ones that weren't singles compilations; maybe as few as a dozen, depending on how you define them), so it seems fitting to me that some of the ones they did seem to have been constructed like singles compilations without the singles' histories for perspective, emphasizing the futility of trying to make people ingest pop forty minutes at a time.
East River Pipe: "Prettiest Whore"
There are pictures of most of the Sarah bands in the booklet for There and Back Again Lane, and it's easy to detect patterns in band composition, even if you somehow missed them when you were listening. The two primary themes appear to be co-ed membership and, for the men, extremely poor haircuts. There are only two solo acts, and Harvey Williams, although his EP Rebellion was the only release in the label's history to have a person's name on it, can hardly count, since he seems to have been in most of the other bands at one time or another. Although the Sarah aesthetic lent itself well to bedroom composers and studio projects that either couldn't perform, or took on very different guises on stage, there was an important communal aspect to the culture, vividly apparent in Matt and Clare's frenetic tour reminiscences in their label history, that made serious shut-in solipsism somewhat incongruous. The one practitioner, in fact, F.M. Cornog, whose pseudonym East River Pipe is, was from Queens, and I have no idea how he got involved with them. Many of his individual songs sound like obvious Sarah candidates, but taken together they have a strange consistency not otherwise common to Sarah bands, and traces of claustrophobic, recorded-in-a-tiny-apartment seediness, like Mark Eitzel if he didn't get out to the bar for some fresh air, that resembles the bedsit reserve of the British bands only superficially. Cornog's songs are quiet and non-neighbor-disturbing, and for some people might verge on limp, but they're growing on me steadily. My favorite, for the moment, is "Prettiest Whore", another technically post-Sarah Sarah song, from the East River Pipe album Mel, sold-out in its Shinkansen 7 incarnation but available in slightly altered form from the Chapel Hill label Merge. This one I'm certain is using an HR-16, as nobody but Alesis made kick drums with exactly that ungainly thwap, or anemic crash cymbals whose timbre lacks nuance in precisely this way. Prostitution is out of the usual spectrum of Sarah topics, but Cornog bends it back into line with the helpless confession "I know you're a whore, / But you're the prettiest girl I've ever seen", facing down corruption with innocence. The guitars are thicker here, slashing and droning instead of chirping and sparkling, and Cornog's voice wanders from a Tom Petty-ish drawl on one phrase to a Perry Farrell-like snarl on the next. It's as if, without the rest of the Sarah support system to lead him to their version of romantic melancholy, he's had to construct one from scratch, and thus ended up with something that does essentially the same things theirs does, but looks, compared to their calm balance, like it's liable to topple over at any moment.
Sweet William: "Volatile"
Some mail-order site claimed that people who liked Sarah would like Sweet William (who appear to be an Australian trio, although the four song EP which contains this song, Ambiguous, came out on the California label Twee Kitten), and since I was already ordering a raft of things from the site on not-significantly-less-flimsy premises, I couldn't think of a good reason to begrudge them a few more dollars. The Field Mice and Orchids resemblances are more pronounced on some of the other songs, but "Volatile" appeals to me as an extrapolation of East River Pipe, a little farther into textural drone and skeletal drum-machine infrastructure. I suspect a seven-minute song runs afoul of some pop statutes even before anybody bothers listening to it, but length is relative to pace, and this slow lullaby feels just as concise to me, in its own dialect, as a Heavenly sprint in theirs. Much of the song rides on a simmering, anxious kick-drum pulse and a careful picked-guitar cycle, Jason Sweeney's gentle voice edging into notes as if he's worried about startling the microphones, but just past the halfway point more guitars join in, and the song crescendos slowly into a redemptive, wordless blur, the soundtrack of forgetting how close to you your walls are.
Prickly: "Bicycle Thief"
One of the dangers of finding something you love is that you'll feel compelled to look for other things like it. Thus my ill-advised attempts to watch other TV shows about high-schoolers, hoping one will turn out to be My So-Called Life in disguise (not so far; the only one I can stand is Buffy, and that's not why). Thus my sudden sheepish realization that Harriet Records, run by Tim Alborn out of his Harvard grad-student dorm room for forty-five singles and nine CDs, until finally shutting down with last year's farewell compilation Friendly Society, was not only an blatant and reverent emulation of Sarah, but one taking place literally within blocks of me, for most of its nine-year existence, at least the last four of which I knew about, but ignored. If the costs of recovering these catalogs were assessed as punishments for not paying attention the first time, the prices of old Harriet and Sarah singles would be reversed for me, but if I buy enough of each I suppose it'll even out. Friendly Society, my reminder of the label's existence, opened with two tracks from the eminently Sarah-esque Boston quartet Prickly, which sent me scurrying after the other few crumbs of their output, even before I thought about the label angle. I've had the Harriet EP Velleity in rotation with Heavenly's records, for the last few weeks, and it's held its own admirably, but my favorite of the few Prickly songs I've been able to round up is on their Cassiel Records single Winded, a brief, languid complaint called "Bicycle Thief", which I suppose I might not like so much if there wasn't also the American Measles' "God Took My Bike" to make a miniature genre out of it. The ragged guitars and persistent whooshing noise (which I assume is intentional, but only because I can't think of anything that would make it that they couldn't easily have turned off until they were finished recording) give the song a sort of lumbering gravity, but the chorus, Collin Oberndorf leveling the accusation "You stole my bike, you stupid jerk. / How am I supposed to get to work?" at as low a volume as will register on tape, is a moment of perfect pop vulnerability, a small affront producing a small nuisance that nonetheless could wreck a life. We give each other incredible power to hurt us, but it's the only way to give us power to touch each other, at all.
Tullycraft: "Pop Songs Your New Boyfriend's Too Stupid to Know About"
I didn't just overlook Harriet, I actively ignored them. The main reason for both my aversion and my chagrin is this succinct, elfin exercise in indie-obscurity name-dropping, which appeared on both the Tullycraft album Old Traditions, New Standards and the 1995 Harriet compilation The Long Secret. I loved the song, musically, a gleeful dash of boxy drums, barely in-tune bass and Sean Tollefson's absurdly boyish yelp, but I hated the in-joke lyrics violently. I didn't know any of the bands he listed, either, and I disliked being called stupid for it. Listening to it again, four years later, as my manic pop exploration spreads and circles back on itself, a bunch of things occur to me that should have been obvious all along. First, the joke is on the narrator, not the listener, as the girl has left him despite his immense arsenal of pop trivia. If knowledge of musical arcana were a turn-on, I would be dating supermodels, whether it would make my life OK or not. Second, not only is he going to be listening to his pop songs by himself, not with her, but that's the way the songs themselves want it. He's probably got an entire shelf of records that were waiting patiently for her to dump him, so that he'd be back in the proper mood to listen to them. Who writes pop songs for functioning couples to listen to together? And third, acting defensive about not knowing the bands Tollefson lists is obtuse and backwards. After all, he's telling me about them in the song. All I have to do is go to the store and buy the records, and we've already established that I can do that.
The Judy's: "All the Pretty Girls"
Tullycraft bear an uncanny resemblance to the long-lost Texas band the Judy's, whose records were staples of the one two-hour alternative-music show on Dallas radio when I was in high school, so close a resemblance, in fact, that once it was pointed out to them, they took to including a Judy's cover on every album. They've yet to redo the Judy's' masterwork, the contemptuous "All the Pretty Girls", and all the Judy's records are out of print perhaps beyond even my ability to retrieve them, at least not from here Cambridge, but a Judy's fanatic has made a web site for them, and got them to let him put up mp3 files of every song they ever released, so if you have a fast net connection and good speakers on your computer (which two months ago I didn't, but I didn't know how much money I'd be spending on out-of-print singles until after I told Gateway to send me something to replace my wheezing, five-year-old 486), you can listen to them while you wait for leader David Bean to finish the CD reissues he's been promising for years. The song I remember best is "Guyana Punch", the surreal ode to Jim Jones, but "All the Pretty Girls" is more fun. It's low-fi to make Guided by Voices seem like Mahler, just a dry drum part, a bass line that sounds like it's being played on hair scrunchies, and Bean's querulous sneer, and it's hard to listen to a song about how loathsome the popular girls were, especially one whose grievances start with their behavior in junior high school, without wondering which side of the line between pathetic and hilarious this particular rant falls on, but the compulsion to channel dissatisfaction, of any sort, into pop songs, will find no more elemental an expression.
The Primitives: "Crash"
And although it's tempting, looking at the all the records I've bought in the past month that I'd never heard of before then, to conclude that I was basically ignorant of an entire art form, when I stop and think about it clearly, I remember that I've got plenty of music that differs from these piles only in having been a little more popular. Let's Active sounded a lot like the Judy's, too. Aztec Camera, Prefab Sprout and the Bluebells were making elusive, sensitive pop music long before Sarah 1. Echoes of Salem 66 bounce through Prickly's songs. And if you streamline Heavenly in the way I fear you'd have to to give them a chance at mainstream popularity, you'd probably end up with something very similar to "Crash", the two minutes of effortlessly buzzy pop genius that the Primitives spent the rest of their career trying to live up to. Pealing arpeggios, restless drumming, bass churn, sunny boy-girl harmonies and roars of guitar noise: Heavenly did every detail better than this, but one of the most magical truths about pop is that it often doesn't matter. "Crash" will never inform my life the way "C Is the Heavenly Option" or "So Little Deserve" or "Trophy Girlfriend" have already begun to, but I will be able to hum it until I die. And with so much present I want so badly to learn about, any bit of past that can take care of itself is priceless.