Let the Sunshine Crash Into Our Souls
212 · 18 February 99
The Merrymakers: Bubblegun
I just checked, and out of two hundred and eleven installments of this compulsive journal, forty one of them have mentioned the Beatles. In a straight ranking of reference points, that would put them no higher than fourth, as Tori Amos figures in sixty five, Kate Bush in fifty five and Big Country in forty eight, but if you divide the four artists' citation-counts by the number of entries they have in my collection database, in search of a representation of proportional significance, Tori comes out around one and a half, Kate a little higher, and Big Country, whose heroic stature in my life hasn't translated into nearly as much popular impact, doesn't even make it to two thirds. The Beatles' score, on the other hand, is infinite. This, not to be coy with those of you who have blocked out all elements of your mathematical education that aren't required for estimating sales tax, is because I do not own any Beatles albums. I don't own any solo albums by former Beatles, I don't have any records on which Beatles members made guest appearances. The closest I can come to a Beatles personnel connection is a handful of later records featuring producer George Martin and engineer Geoff Emerick (most of them, oddly, related to Ultravox in some way).
It's not that I don't like the Beatles, or appreciate them. My fondness for contending that everything I care about in music can be derived from some combination of Simon and Garfunkel's "The Sounds of Silence" and Black Sabbath's "Paranoid" notwithstanding, the Beatles are almost certainly the most pervasive influence on the music I love, and thus one of the most substantial influences on my life. They're also almost certainly the most pervasive influence on music, period, during my lifetime, and thus on all of human culture. Maybe Elvis was as unavoidable a musical presence, in his day, but his immortality has become iconic. If you imitate Elvis, you are an Elvis impersonator. If you imitate the Beatles, you're just a musician. I don't own any Beatles records because I don't need to. Between covers of their songs, younger bands just generally retracing their steps or reinhabiting their haircuts, and the ambient level of their own songs lingering in the environment, the Beatles have achieved cultural ubiquity. If somebody ever discovers that secondhand Britpop causes cancer, the planet is doomed. And if Beatlesque pop is viral, this week has been a complete epidemiological disaster for me, as my slow excavation of the dozens of heartbreakingly earnest indie pop bands that I'd never heard of a month ago has hit a vein of them who appear to be suffering from especially vivid delusions that they are the Beatles, or would have been, if only some tiny flaws in the structure of history hadn't flung them later in time and elsewhere in space. Imagine, then, that instead of playing clubs in Germany, the Beatles were a couple of Swedes, who grew up with their idea of pop gleam informed by Roxette and ABBA (this is circular history, since ABBA and Roxette owe plenty, in turn, to the Beatles), made a record that for some reason they sold boatloads of in Japan, and then were discovered by ex-Jellyfish singer and drummer Andy Sturmer (more circular history), who helped out with their second record, and you've got the short biography of the Merrymakers. No Sleep 'til Famous, their 1995 debut, was the one the Japanese liked, and the second is last year's Bubblegun (the title may be the most succinct evocation of power pop I've yet encountered), which was just belatedly released in the US by Big Deal, packaged with a bonus disc of five songs from the debut (which is thoughtful, but leads me to fear that no full US reissue of the earlier album is planned).
To enjoy this record, you must either not mind bands who don't bother to disguise their own affections, or else not have heard of anybody else in pop, ever, as the Merrymakers have assembled a laminated pop-up encyclopedia of primary and secondary Beatles tropes. The giddy "Saltwater Drinks" sounds like Paul McCartney, abducted by aliens while in the middle of recording "I Want to Hold Your Hand", handed a duet microphone and dropped into a studio where Mitch Easter and Velvet Crush are cheerfully attempting a confused party-stomp hybrid cover of "Crows on a Phone Line", by Mitch's old band Let's Active, and the theme to Friends, into which somebody has convinced them to insert a whistled bridge that sounds uncannily like the music that plays over the end credits to The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai. The proper application of tambourine sparkle to a pop song isn't that difficult to demonstrate, I guess (wait until the chorus, then shake it on the sixteenth notes), but surely the curriculum can spare three minutes for such a pristine example. The surging "Troubled Times", its harmonies slipping into minor at the ends of lines, flutters from Jellyfish (although this isn't one of the ones Sturmer participated in) to the Posies, with some guitar breaks that could be vintage Tommy Keene. The jerkier "Under the Light of the Moon" detours through Squeeze, XTC and Michael Penn. "Monkey in the Middle", rising out of hushed, acoustic verses into swirling, soaring choruses, dances somewhere where neither The Grays nor Ben Folds can quite reach it. The affably inane "Superstar" is half Jellyfish, half Roxette, with a slow descending bass-line under the chorus that takes only four notes to render the entire Semisonic catalog moot, for me. "April's Fool" sounds like "Lady Madonna" trying to morph into the choruses of "Pulling Mussels (From the Shell)", and contains another textbook pop lesson, this one on the correct use of telegraphed poetic structures to illustrate the inevitability of romantic disappointment. ("She packed in January. / She left in February. / It took 'til March to realize / That I'd been April's fool.") The brief "A Fine Line" takes the verses from "Pulling Mussels" and uses loopy synth lines to lash them to crashing choruses. "I'm in...Love!" combines clipped Barenaked Ladies smirk and airy, ABBA-worthy harmonies. "Sad" sounds like Jason Falkner redoing "Day Tripper". "Ms. Demeanor" reminds me of Too Much Joy. "Adore" is the slow, yearning ballad, except with a bit of mournful, non sequitur slide guitar, like an uneasy truce between American Music Club and Shoes. "Coming Home" sounds to me like the Rembrandts covering 'til tuesday, although I think pretty much any song that builds a catharsis around a homecoming is going to remind me of 'til tuesday's "Coming Up Close". And "Outside Looking In", the finale, which is one of the four Sturmer produced, wanders back to Jellyfish, the Posies, the Grays, Tommy Keene, Velvet Crush, all these memories closing in, and I sink into their embrace. "These are the things we love most about pop", all these songs seem to be explaining, and I'm nodding, agreeing, ecstatic, bouncing up and down in my desk chair, whose hydraulics seem to have this album's tempo as their natural frequency.
Myracle Brah: Life on Planet Eartsnop
The Beatles are so firmly enshrined in the pantheon of music immortals that it's difficult to step back and remember what a silly, timelessly stupid name "The Beatles" is. No such cloak of historical invulnerability protects Love Nut (no, I'd never heard of them, either) guitarist Andy Bopp from violent censure for giving his solo project an egregiously bad band name and perhaps the worst album title I can think of since Helloween's "Pink Bubbles Go Ape". It would make a sort of sense if the music was silly, but it isn't. Bopp shares the Merrymakers' perhaps-involuntary fondness for McCartney-esque vocal intonation, but his Beatles lessons spent less time on bouncy energy and more on harmonic density, replacing the Swedes' Roxette-ish lilt with more Byrds-like jangle. He steers away from the theatrical flourishes that all of Jellyfish's alumni seem to have taken with them, and instead these songs are darker, more measured, with hints of Bob Mould's guitar drone amidst the flashes of Velvet Crush and Michael Penn. A Cotton Mather / Myracle Brah package tour might implode from a critical mass of any of a number of things (ungainly names, indie obscurity, indie acclaim (indie obscurity and indie acclaim have a suspicious tendency to co-exist)), but it would make excellent musical sense, as the two bands take a similarly frayed, but ambitious, approach to pop songcraft.
Indie pop has made short records into a sort of genre trademark (I've bought more twelve-song, twenty-eight-minute albums in the past month than I previously knew existed), but Bopp goes against the trend by cramming twenty songs into nearly an hour. This could provide ample opportunity for experimentation, but for the most part, at least the way I'm processing records this week, he sticks to two sorts of songs, the ones that sound a lot like the Beatles and the ones that don't, as much. "I'm in Love" and "Inside of You" are like muted "Ticket to Ride"s, "Medicine Man" could be a warped amalgam of "Paperback Writer" and "We Can Work It Out", "She's Everything" is Andy's skirmish with "Day Tripper", "Anything But This World" has traces of "Hey Jude", the choppy "Loli La Letta" has some early "I Want to Hold Your Hand" hop, "Just Because" is gentle and "Penny Lane"-ish, the massed harmonies of "Love Is" edge towards "Help!", and "Someday Soon" reminds me of some Beatles song I can't mentally reconstruct enough of to identify. At the other end, "Whisper Softly" could easily be Tommy Keene, "Action Reaction" reminds me of Verbow, "Getting Over Delusion" is the Byrds by way of Velvet Crush, "Good Day to the Night" sounds like the Grays in their glummer moments, "Usual Request" is strikingly Michael Penn-like, the dreamy "She's So Young" might be an outtake from one of the later Three O'Clock albums, "Talk to Me" is mostly rock churn, and "Machina" is even grimy rockabilly strut. By far my favorite moments, though, and I can't tell how much of this is coincidence and how much is causal, are probably the album's least Beatlesque songs, the blaring "Photograph", all hum and distortion, parts Verbow and parts Mission of Burma, and the similarly tense and ethereal "Carry on the Lie". Either I'm straining at the genre's restraints, or else Bopp is, and I'm responding to it. But either way, I don't think we're seriously trying to escape.
Gigolo Aunts: Minor Chords and Major Themes
Another nearly perfect pop moment introduces the new album from Boston's answer to Velvet Crush (whom singer Dave Gibbs toured with at one point), Gigolo Aunts, the second exuberant pop song called "C'Mon C'Mon" in less than a year (I think I saw Sloan play theirs at their show here, last weekend, but they performed everything in such a mangled, over-amped roar that it was difficult to be sure). The template is essentially the same one Velvet Crush used for "Hold Me Up", the tambourine trick is exactly the same as the one in the Merrymakers' "Saltwater Drinks", the chord progressions are so familiar it's a wonder nobody's built a guitar yet that simply produces them of its own accord, and if the lyrics have a message deeper than the title, I'm missing it, but pop owes most of its longevity, I'm convinced, to the fact that repetition doesn't tend to diminish its appeal. That Dog's "Never Say Never" is more or less the same song, Tommy Keene's "Places That Are Gone" isn't much different, nor is the Posies' "Friendship of the Future". The Beatles had lots of these, "You're Going to Lose That Girl" and "I Want to Hold Your Hand" and probably half of everything else they did before psychedelia crept in. Yet I seem to enjoy each new one just as much.
There are a few more such songs on this very album, in fact, enough of them to make me think that twice leaving shows the Gigolo Aunts were headlining after seeing only the opening acts might have been foolish. "Half a Chance" is languid and breathy, part Velvet Crush and part The Connells. The galloping "The Big Lie" has the anthemic splendor that kept the last Mystery Machine and Caulfields albums in my player for so long last year. "Rest Assured" has some musical hints of old REM, along with a lovely, sighing chorus about gravity and apathy that makes it sound similarly noble to resist either one. With the exception of the buzzy, howling "Fade Away" and the garishly overwrought "Super Ultra Wicked Mega Love" (a blatant and sadly out-of-character bid for fleeting MTV novelty notoriety, I'm sorry to theorize), the rest of the record is pillowy and mid-tempo, like they had some time to kill between the really great songs, but if waiting is this comfortable, I can be patient.
The Minders: Hooray for Tuesday
If you can imagine a band simultaneously thinking they're the Beatles and recording for Elephant 6, the same collective responsible for The Apples in Stereo, Olivia Tremor Control and Neutral Milk Hotel (and I've burrowed so deeply into this little world that it's an effort to remember that most people will think I made those three names up), who all suffer from their own milder Beatles delusions, anyway, you probably have a pretty good idea what the Minders are like. Robert Schneider, the collective's resident producer, keeps the Minders' sound much thinner and lower-fi than that of the Merrymakers, Myracle Brah or Gigolo Aunts, but since the Beatles, at least in the early days, or at least by modern standards, were kind of thin and lower-fi themselves, this only makes the resemblance seem more conscious. "Hooray for Tuesday" has some of "Good Day Sunshine"'s uncluttered zeal, "Pauline" is wiry and artless in the mold of "Please Please Me", "I've Been Wondering" careens along like "I Saw Her Standing There", and "Pass It Around" and "Red Bus" have the carnival lurch of Sgt. Pepper. Elsewhere, "Yeah Yeah Yeah", except for the self-explanatory chorus, just about amounts to an excitable jangle-pop cover of Yaz' "Only You", "More and More" cycles between Cat Stevens twang, Byrds chime and some breezy male-female harmonies, and "Our Man in Bombay" is a throwaway bossa nova instrumental. I assume the traces of Neutral Milk Hotel's In the Aeroplane Over the Sea are Schneider's doing, since the Minders and NMH share no core members. Brass/wind accomplices Rick Benjamin and Marisa Bissinger add a miniature trombone-and-flute concerto to the intro to "Hooray for Tuesday". The tempo interplays between the rumbling percussion and slashing guitars of "Joey's Pez" and between the martial snare-rattle and acoustic-guitar twinkles of "Comfortably Tucked Up Inside" both share some of NMH's art-polka reel. "Bubble", an abstract instrumental pieced together out of tinny, picked guitar, a glassy synth-xylophone and the low groans of some unspecified bass instrument, could fit into any of the interstices on In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. And the vocal processing on "Frida", the conclusion to this concise album (twelve songs, twenty-eight minutes; perfect), makes Martyn Leaper sound enough like NMH's Jeff Mangum that I wonder if this and In the Aeroplane weren't recorded back to back, and only sawed apart afterwards.
The Boo Radleys: Kingsize
The Boo Radleys don't sound anywhere near as much like the Beatles, or as often, as these other bands, but their 1995 pop gem Wake Up! fascinated me the way it's my impression that Beatles albums fascinate Beatles fanatics, and the association has stuck in my mind. Wake Up! has two or three of the most joyful pop songs this decade, in my opinion, but by its successor, C'Mon Kids, which from the title ought to be even sunnier, the band seemed to become paralyzingly self-conscious about having written such an accessible album, and managed, I thought, to subvert every element on the new record that could have been appealing, to the point where I couldn't find two consecutive minutes on it that I enjoyed listening to. I bought Kingsize thinking to give them one last chance, and in the week between its US release and when I got around to listening to it, the band turned "last" literal by breaking up, a piece of perverse timing that gave me a rare pang of sympathy for the plight of record-label marketing departments. Listening to the album, the breakup doesn't seem at all mysterious. The Boo Radleys don't appear to have run out of ideas, precisely, but they've stopped expending any energy on organizing them, which is almost as bad. Sad strings try to introduce "Blue Room in Archway", only to be strafed by drum-machine snares, and then stomped on by tattered Radiohead-esque guitar squall. "The Old Newsstand at Hamilton Square" sounds like a Bond theme, but the ragged guitars that I guess are meant to humanize it seem miscast and ineffective, to me, the same way all the loud squawks on the new Cardigans album do. "Free Huey" lays down a plausible Crystal-Method-style drum-and-bass groove, but then ruins it with a strident, repetitive chorus that makes EMF's "Unbelievable" seem understated. "Monuments for a Dead Century" is a title fit for the Manic Street Preachers, but the song the Boo Radleys attach it to is simplistic, limp and directionless for almost four minutes before coming to life as a flowery Bee Gees homage. The depressing "Heaven's at the Bottom of This Glass" coalesces for a nice turn at the end of the chorus, but the rest of the song sounds like a cynical conflation of Oasis and shaggy Manchester funk à la The Farm. But then "Kingsize" and "Eurostar", which could both easily have been even-more-shameless Oasis rip-offs, are heartfelt where Oasis always sounds pompous to me, and light-hearted where the Manic Street Preachers' This Is My Truth Show Me Yours felt somber and mired. The adventurous, end-auguring "High as Monkeys" is what I wanted the last Wonder Stuff album to sound like. The amiable "Put Your Arms Around Me and Tell Me Everything's Going to Be OK" is like a cross between the Connells and the Beautiful South, and "Adieu Clo-Clo", before it collapses into a caterwauling jam, suggests that they might have had a future writing songs for Björk. The sugary "Jimmy Webb Is God" is, as far as I can tell, completely sincere in its admiration for the man who wrote "MacArthur Park".
But then "She Is Everywhere" is as torpid as the Verve, and "Comb Your Hair" aspires to be the Manic Street Preachers via Phil Spector but lacks tension. "Song From the Blue Room" starts out as a delicate piano ballad, but struggles under the weight of strings and horns, and then sinks into a quagmire of sentimental banality for me once the rest of the soft-rock backing kicks in. And the beepy, distended farewell, "The Future Is Now", not only sounds to me like it can't decide whether it wants to be De La Soul or Peaches & Herb, but labors over a refrain ("All your classicisms and history don't impress me") anti-rhythmic enough to make "Supposed former infatuation junkie" flow like "We are the champions". If they had a future, even months ago when this album was made, I can't deduce it by listening. But maybe that's how these stories ought to end, spun out and throwing sparks off the asphalt, out of control and patience. Closure and calm are overrated. Nick Drake could have killed himself after any of his albums, and we would have nodded and said it was inevitable. The Boo Radleys, conversely, disintegrate without resolving anything, at least not for our benefit. They collapse fighting, the way I would want to. Their last words insist that this can't be the end of anything. And every end that refuses to accept itself raises the hope that ends are only pauses. We pause, then. In a century, or a second, we will rejoin the world.