Play Me Records, Get Me Home Safe
213 · 25 February 99
Sarge: The Glass Intact
It hurts, this dizzy, helpless, debilitating rapture. I can barely spare the time to eat, certainly none for sleep. All I want to do is listen to these records, piles of them, so much simple joy that I worry I'll forget to breathe. All I can bear to do with my hands, as I listen, is pore through the catalogues of indie mail-order distributors, sending away for singles recorded in dorm rooms and basements, in Adelaide and Arlington, by bands I wonder if anybody's heard of but the people in the other bands their members are in and now me, on labels that will probably never get to use the second digit in their release numbers. I found a convenience store that still has cases of Diet Virgin Cola, and I don't have to be back at work for another fourteen hours, and I think I'm close to finally understanding something elusive. I'm feeling faint, and I want to feel even fainter. I don't swoon enough. I don't remember the last time I did; maybe I never have. I remember walking into a movie theater, one afternoon last winter, to see Spice World, despite having no rational justification in mind for doing so, and slamming into a pheromone wave so palpable I almost fell down. The room was full of eleven-year-old girls who could hardly have been more excited or less coherent if you'd laced their Pop-Tarts with peyote, shrieking spontaneously in anticipation, though the previews hadn't even started. I don't shriek enough. I write essays. Maybe these essays aren't that different from shrieking, but there's something wrong with a reflex that takes a week to kick in, and can't touch the world without the help of VBA scripts. These records demand something more immediate, like flurries of kisses when you can't stop laughing, or sitting on somebody's doorstep in the rain for six hours because you can't imagine the point of another second of your life until you see them again, all the things we did involuntarily when we were eleven, or fifteen, or twenty, before we decided, in error, that delirious, frightening, excruciating crushes were something to grow out of, and now we ought to be harder to hurt, but spontaneity is pulling sweatpants on over pajamas to go to the drugstore for more Advil at 1:30am. I don't know how to handle these feelings, any more. Was I ever better at this? Records don't have doorsteps you can go wait on. All I can do is play them over and over, hoping mania will prove my sincerity, hoping mania is endearing, hoping a CD can be so pleased to see me happy that it doesn't think it's creepy that I care what it thinks.
The Illinois trio-sometimes-quartet Sarge are currently my worst crush of all, taking over this dubious honor from Heavenly, in the insane succession of just-discovered miracles that my musical life has suddenly become. My database insists that until eighteen days ago I'd never heard them, but that can't possibly be right. The Glass Intact (their second album, after the 1996 debut Charcoal, but if I think too hard about the fact that they've existed since 1996 and I didn't know, it makes me crazy) is one of those records, like Surfer Rosa when I was in college and not very many since, that make me sympathize with evangelical cults. For forty minutes (a long record, by indie standards) it seems to me that that there is no important truth outside these songs. Of course voices are frail, feminine, possessed and serene, and guitars sweep across them like moods through the muscles of a face. Of course drums snap, and the bass twitters like nobody told it it was supposed to supply the low end, and nobody noticed when it didn't. Of course pop and punk are complementary impulses, and bubblegum can be as seditious as plastique. The four-color-map theorem must have been a mistranslated demonstration that no pop song ever requires more than four tracks to record. Life is romantic. All significant struggles are romantic struggles. This is why people who don't even know you can seem so sure that the answers to your questions are in their books, and if Marx could have phrased his fears about class divisions and economic inequity this cogently, they might have had to tear the Berlin Wall down from the other side. Love songs should be iterative and ambivalent, like the fitful "Stall", and when we say "This is harder than I ever thought it'd be", we always mean both staying together and breaking apart. The furious "A Torch" reunites the fragments of a single lost soul that was scattered through Tori Amos' "Me and a Gun", Pat Benatar's "Hell Is for Children", Curious Ritual's "Get With It Girl", MC 900 Ft. Jesus' "City Sleeps" and Naked Raygun's "Treason". "Beguiling" contributes the crucial postulates that lives can only change in the middle of the night, that long words are important, and that Natalie Imbruglia covered the wrong song whose chorus ends with "I'm torn". The slow, cathartic "Charms and Feigns" is the female perspective on a relationship triangle that Del Amitri songs never provide. At first I thought the deceptively airy "Homewrecker" was a perverse age-difference lover's plea, perhaps the other side of "Don't Stand So Close to Me", with "Everyday I drove from your hotel to my high school" as a radical condensation of Nabokov, but after studying it I'm pretty sure it's a harrowingly confused portrait of the narrator's parents' divorce, and any one of the three participants could be the titular villain. The weary "Half as Far" explains the most fatal relationship flaw, "You're only half as far as I need to go", in a setting that sounds to me like one of the sparer songs from Juliana Hatfield's Bed with the vocals shifted into a different quadrant of the skull. "I Took You Driving" and "Fast Girls" are as potent a pair of attraction songs as you're likely to find adjacent, the former a punishing Nirvana-ish thrash about irresponsible flirting and the latter a disarmingly chirpy stomp about gender confusion, kind of like the Undertones doing Blue Öyster Cult's "Burning for You" with the pronouns switched, and a good case, I think, for "I met this girl at a Madison punk rock show" being the way all relationships songs should begin, the extro-to-introverted heir to the Human League's "You were working as a waitress in a cocktail bar". "Transatlantic calls to mute the panic", in "The First Morning", is the modern incarnation of every separated-lovers' dilemma in history, and "I can't get you out of my mind; / I guess I really fucked up this time" is the colloquial translation of the universal sinking feeling that we've lost the ability to determine our own emotional state. And the swirling "To Keep You Trained", the finale, is what I always wanted Lush to sound like, to justify my visual fascination with Miki Berenyi. Heavenly was more complicated than this, but no more buoyant. Sarge could have been what Heavenly used to sound like, except that there's a record to tell us what Heavenly used to sound like (Backwash, by Talulah Gosh). Sarge could be what Heavenly would have gone on to sound like, except that most of Heavenly are now in Marine Research, and eventually we'll get an album out of them and find out what they've gone on to sound like. So Sarge must be something else, but I refuse to accept complaints about redundancy until Sarge and Heavenly are both more famous than Hole.
Wolfie: Awful Mess Mystery
The one song on The Glass Intact that Sarge didn't write, the crunchy "Put in the Reel", was written by their friend Joe Ziemba, who spends part of his time in the trio Busytoby with Sarge bassist Rachel Switzky, and most of the rest of it, along with Busytoby keyboardist Amanda Lyons, in the even cuddlier quartet Wolfie, whose thirteen-song, twenty-five minute debut album, Awful Mess Mystery, was partially recorded at Switzky's house, and all three bands' records appear on one or another imprint of the Urbana indie distributor Parasol. If my reaction to Sarge is desperate lovelorn incoherence, my almost-as-ardent fondness for Wolfie adds a twinge of rueful sympathy for their hopelessly earnest geekiness. Sarge cultivate a deliberate girlish naiveté, and singer Elizabeth Elmore is young, but Wolfie are kids, making records during college vacations, and many of these songs make Papas Fritas sound like Leonard Cohen. They sing like Sloan's younger siblings, RJ Porter plays drums like he's trying not to upstage the extremely cheap beatbox they sometimes drag out, Mike Downey's guitar sounds like he couldn't afford a real amp and so is playing, instead, through one of those fake-rock outdoor speakers you're supposed to nestle in the ivy by your swimming pool, and Lyons' keyboards all seem to have the anemic wheeziness of a Lego Theremin. Only one of these songs gets much past two minutes, a couple are closer to one, and a part of me suspects that staying on tempo for longer than that is simply beyond Wolfie's abilities. If any of these elements annoy you, and they all have that potential, then it's unlikely that even twenty-five minutes will be short enough.
But one of my five favorite bands is the Loud Family, who were once Game Theory, and back around the time that the members of Wolfie were learning to squint at bright lights, Game Theory were making short, earnest, geeky pop records with cheesy keyboards, boyish singing, goofy drums and spindly guitar tones, and since Scott Miller hasn't done any more songs like "Nine Lives to Rigel Five" in a long time, Wolfie instantly endeared themselves to me by approximating its clunky, artless charm. The key detail that keeps Wolfie from turning into a novelty, at least for me, is that they refuse to scale down the melodic ambitions of their songs to match the track lengths or instrumentation. The keyboard hook in "I Know I Know I Know" is performed almost entirely without inflection, and not entirely in tune, but when Amanda joins in on backing vocals, toward the end, I realize that she's been hearing something on the order of Jefferson Starship's "Jane" in her head all along. The transition from the dying embers of "I Know I Know I Know" to the wiry gallop of "Mockhouse" is electrifying, and Lyons makes unselfconscious use of the Portamento switch on her keyboard, which the rest of the music industry appears to have observed a moratorium on for about a decade and a half (and which I only recently realized is a different term from "Portmanteau", although it seems like either word could have handled both jobs). "Yeah Yeah You" matches a tinny drum-machine groove to a monotonous, bleating guitar that gives way, dramatically, to pleasing chords in the chorus. "Subroutine the Reward", the one song shorter than a minute, is only shorter because it's fast, and sounds a bit like Devo covering Nirvana, with a little fluttering falsetto and a trace of Green Day sneer tossed in for good measure. "Lkat Me" sounds like a cross between Weezer and Everclear, with breathy Heavenly-ish harmonies and a timeless pop-isolationism chorus ("I've got my friends on my headphones"). "Lazy Weekend, Stormy Season" twitters like the Munchkins got ahold of some Warren Zevon sheet music, but are reading it upside down, or possibly sideways. "Getting the Reach I Need" has the most papery drums I've heard since ...And Justice for All, and the languid, poignant "Life Saver Socks" has a drum loop that would embarrass Casio. "Everybody Ought to Know" sounds like Sloan in one of their retro moods, and "I Gotta, U Gotta" sounds to me like how Nirvana might have turned out if Kurt had grown up in Halifax, too, and maybe ended up going out with somebody from Jale. "Iron Orange, Iron Blue" is as close as Wolfie get to the Judy's, and "Want to Practice (You Do)" makes me wonder if they've been getting into their parents' old girl-group 45s again.
Wolfie raises, for me, two big, fascinating questions. First, how much longer will I love music made by twenty-year-olds? Indefinitely, I dearly hope. I certainly intend to try, not least because I'm not sure you can communicate meaningfully with somebody whose music you don't understand. (That would imply that you can't communicate meaningfully with anybody who has no music, which sounds right.) I bought the new Blondie and B*Witched albums, yesterday, and I'm very happy that I don't know which one I'll like better. And second, conversely, what will happen to these kids when they are older? What will they think of this music when they're forty and looking back on having made it? Unlike Alanis' teenage dance-fluff, this hasn't been foisted on them, but still, very few of us have our youthful impulses captured in this high resolution. Or at least that used to be true. When people go looking for the ways that technology has changed music, they usually end up fixating on the 128 tracks Butch Vig used for the second Garbage record, or on the cunning Japanese miniaturization that allows a thirty-eight-pound manikin with a head the size of a baseball to produce Celine Dion's voice in two languages, but there's always another wave a generation behind, when the people who can afford the current state of the art need to unload their old, depreciated gear to make space for the new stuff. South Park, not Antz; HTML, not VR; Caller ID, not videophones. You can buy a used four-track for a hundred dollars, and I already have one, and I suspect neither of us have exhausted our capacities for foolishness, so what are we waiting for? Ineptitude, clearly, is no excuse.
Tullycraft: City of Subarus
I'd feel less sheepish about all these great bands I'd never heard of if I'd really never heard of any of them. But in fact, I had my chances. I have the Harriet Records compilation The Long Secret, which came out in 1995, and Tim Alborn's lucid liner notes mention Sarah Records, and between the bands with songs on the disc, and the thank-you lists of their records, and so on, I was probably no more than two or three degrees of separation away from everything I've dug up in the past two months. Tullycraft's "Pop Songs Your New Boyfriend's Too Stupid to Know About" was on the compilation, and subsequently on the 1996 Tullycraft album Old Traditions, New Standards, also on Harriet. Harriet is no more, but Tullycraft persevere with last year's follow-up (their second? third?), City of Subarus, on the Seattle label Cher Doll. Sean Tollefson must be older than the kids in Wolfie, by now, but he doesn't show any sign of letting it affect his behavior, and it's a toss-up which band sounds less encumbered by maturity. Three of the five players on this record sing (Jen Abercrombie borrowed from Rizzo, and Chris Munford may be on permanent loan from the defunct Incredible Force of Junior) and sometimes they do harmonize, but they also frequently just yelp over each other, in jubilant cacophony, like archival footage of the Beastie Boys appearing on Zoom when they were nine. "8 Great Ways" might be a useful compendium of dating tactics, except they blast through every method so fast, bouncing the parts of the sentences from one singer to another, that the only wisdom I can isolate is "Let her know that she's the only one", which doesn't quite qualify as a creative tip. The relatively muted "Belinda", with its squeaky synth bloops, is an apparently sincere tribute to Go-Go's singer Belinda Carlisle, which can double as a spot-the-Go-Go's-lyric-reference game if you don't feel like listening to it as a song. The band threatens, in a bit of concert banter inserted before track three, to try to play the Judy's' "Guyana Punch", but instead they twitch into the scratchy sprint "Ticket Tonight", drums and guitars racing each other to the measure bars, and this is probably who Wolfie learned that trick from. If it were just slightly more sardonic, the slower, moodier "Crush This Town" could be a Too Much Joy song. "Godspeed" is a micro-noise-riot in the spirit of Boyracer, and Jen and Sean's back-and-forth vocals on the raspy "Miss Douglas County" sound like Heavenly on helium. The plodding lullaby "Actives & Pledges" loses me, but the intriguingly mechanized "The Lives of Cleopatra", all drum-loop and buzzy synth blossoms, falls somewhere between the Dead Milkmen and "Standing Outside a Broken Phone Booth With Money in My Hand", and "Bee Sting Stings" is almost guitar-rock. This album's immortal classic, though, is surely the final track, a playfully reworded homage to the Judy's' disturbing hostage-crisis vignette "Vacation in Tehran", called "Vacation in Christine, ND", performed mostly on the crappiest auto-rhythm home organ available. Reconceiving the story's imprisonment to be merely small-town boredom, rather than terrorist abduction, runs the risk of trivializing a song whose point was the ironic trivialization of a violently non-trivial situation, but Tullycraft get away with it, in my mind, because their affection for the song's inexorable lilt seems so genuine that they are more or less forced to write some new lyrics for it in order to enjoy singing it without sounding like insensitive idiots. A Big-Star-style semi-reunion of the Judy's, with Tullycraft filling in around David Bean the way Jonathan Auer and Ken Stringfellow of the Posies did for Alex Chilton and Jody Stephens, seems virtually inevitable.
Vehicle Flips: The Premise Unraveled
The other of my favorite Harriet alumni, Vehicle Flips (now on the Portland, Oregon label Magic Marker), who succeed singer Frank Boscoe's previous life as Wimp Factor 14, are one of the few bands to stay in my good graces entirely by virtue of their lyrics. Their music, wispy low-voltage pop in the tradition of Galaxie 500 and Luna, or the Feelies with less percussion, is mild and pleasant, but the stories, usually oblique white-collar employment laments (my initial introduction to Wimp Factor 14 was a Dilbert-like paean to working at Rockwell International), are the reason I keep listening. The Premise Unraveled's songs cover life on a failing television show ("Requiem for a Canceled Program"), the soul drain of meaningless labor ("Security", with the desolate refrain "I'm not sure I'm cut out for this."), college selection ("Welcome to the Big Ten Conference"), industrial pollution ("Song of the Slag Pile", in which Boscoe somehow convinces "Old men fishing, / With teeth missing, / Ignoring the / Health advisory" to scan), European history ("Florence Scene Report"), moving to a less-desirable neighborhood ("Swope Street Theme"), a screechy autobiography of clip art ("Self-Pity 6.0.1"), envy and materialism ("Bitter Coffee Song"), utility deregulation ("Regarding Telephones") and enduring industrial design ("Honeywell Round Thermostat"). Maybe we don't need more than one or two bands writing songs like these, but my daily life, and perhaps yours, is filled with a lot more stories like these than it is with dramatic breakups, custody battles and emotional abuse. Some days I dream of a louder life, and some days a quiet, knowing record seems like enough.