My Comrades Lost in Battle
215 · 11 March 99
Blondie: No Exit
Blondie's first life came just a few years too early in mine. By the time I caught up to punk and New Wave it was basically 1983, and Blondie were done. The sawed-off corner of my LP copy of Autoamerican testifies that I bought it either used or as a cut-out, and the 45 of "Heart of Glass" that I once had perished in an Edison-esque college-years demonstration that you can play (loosely speaking) a record without any electricity, spinning the platter by hand and using an Xacto knife, held in the grooves, as a combination stylus and very small speaker. I never bought any of Debbie Harry's solo albums, so before now the closest thing to a Blondie representative in my active music collection was Sleeper's cover of "Atomic". By Blondie's second life, however, which begins with No Exit, their sixth album, following a seventeen-year break to recuperate from the fifth, I'm better prepared. All it would have taken was one critic, grousing about how Blondie should have had the sense to stay quit, to prompt a reactionary purchase of this record, in defense of the ideas that music, even pop music, ought to be a life sport, and that people who were wildly creative when they were younger are probably still creative later on. I haven't actually run across any such review, but it seems unavoidable that they will exist, so I've bought the album, anyway, in preparation.
There are a variety of cautious approaches Blondie could have taken to this record, to minimize their exposure to ridicule (hiring some hip producers and pretending to be young, or just making more of the kind of music they played when they were young are the most obvious two, depending on whose ridicule you're worried about), and writing an epic, all-directions-at-once, partial history of Western popular music isn't among them. In most other art forms it would seem perfectly reasonable, veteran observers taking advantage of the perspectives their age and experience supply to survey the developments in the field, but pop tends to prefer reiterations of the past over perspectives on it, and admits the word "wisdom" into its vocabulary only to have a concise way of describing the force that bleeds the essential energy out of rock albums made by adults so that only other adults like them any more.
And who knows whether my own perspective is irretrievably damaged yet, but this all sounds admirably incisive and plausible to me. "Screaming Skin", the opener, bounces along on an impatient ska/reggae beat that seems to me to illuminate the continuum stretching from Blondie's old explorations into these genres to their recent renascence, but without the self-conscious retro-isms that ruin New Swing for me. Harry's silky voice and some sputtering guitar flourishes help keep the beat from straying into caricature, but a classic Blondie-trademark recapitulation of an early swelling chorus in clipped, rhythm-defying half-speech later, and some chirpy, girlish "na na" harmonies here and there, both guard against the song slipping anywhere near ponderousness. "Forgive and Forget", next, is a reverent Pet Shop Boys homage, driving dance-beats and glassy synth stabs à la 1986, Harry's deft, lilting "If you'll forgive me my ferocity, / I won't forget your sweetness" lifting the choruses out of dance repetition towards pop rapture. "Maria", though, the lead single, is springy power-pop from some other corner of the style-space entirely. Cheerful, snarling electric guitars wind around twinkly acoustics, bell cascades and dry pop drumming, like a historical truce between the Knack's sardonic punchiness and Roxette's grandiose chime, and the soaring chorus, a simple ascending melody over a descending choir harmony, is no less captivating for the thousands of parties to which it has worn these clothes before.
A hockey-rink organ solo introduces "No Exit" itself, but the song promptly erupts into pounding rap-metal menace, Harry trading vocals with a feverish hip-hop rant by Coolio, while the music flips from distracted stomp to histrionic lead-guitar Mussorgsky quotations, Debbie's husky delivery on her own rap section saving the performance, I think, from sounding too much like your mom trying to sing along with Salt N Pepa. "Double Take", on the other hand, is a shameless power ballad, something like Night Ranger's "Sister Christian" via one of Cyndi Lauper's slow songs, with a bit of Quarterflash-ish saxophone. The quick, snapping "Nothing Is Real but the Girl" is perhaps the closest in arrangement to old Blondie, charged guitars and twittering synthesizers skipping alongside Harry's uncluttered lead, which lets just enough unsteadiness creep into a few of the held notes to remind me that she was a punk singer once. I skip the coy "Boom Boom in the Zoom Zoom Room", I admit, as much out of an aversion to the inane chorus lyrics as anything else, but tune back in for the moody, ethereal "Night Wind Sent", with its "Running Up That Hill"-like drum gallop and faerie-choir backing vocals. "Under the Gun", a tender city/country love-story with some artless "Did you hear I've got a band?" self-reference, edges at once towards Blondie's "Dreaming" and Joan's Baez's "Diamonds and Rust". Perhaps my favorite song, oddly, is the album's one cover, an inspired update of the Shangri-Las "Out in the Streets" (which Blondie used to cover in their first life, as well), replacing Shadow Morton's Sixties-girl-group production with a booming drum loop, sharp orchestra-hit samples and velvety backing vocal choirs that Harry stubbornly refuses to sink into. I bypass the goofy "Happy Dog", which seems to get so distracted by its canine metaphor that it neglects to make it a metaphor for anything, but the mournful country waltz "The Dream's Lost on Me" evokes, unexpectedly, Lone Justice and the Geraldine Fibbers. "Divine" (co-written by Clem Burke and ex-Go-Go's bassist Kathy Valentine) rekindles the ska spark, with some distinctly "Mirror in the Bathroom"-ish bass growls and tip-toe pizzicato hooks. And the dense, surging "Dig Up the Conjo", the end of the album proper, adds backing vocals in several uneasily-coexisting ethnic styles, calliope synth spirals, mock-accordion drones, lurching drums, and Harry singing (in a disconcertingly dry production treatment that leaves her floating, exposed, on top of what would otherwise be her accompaniment) a presumably facetious verse ("'Hey Mommy, do you see that man? / Hey Mommy, I don't understand.' / 'It's only a zombie, honey, / Hailing a cab. / Just hold my hand / And don't look in his face.'") that I nonetheless find extremely disturbing.
We're nearly at the hour mark, at this point, in an album whose style-hopping can make it seem even longer, but early copies, at least, have three more tracks to go, live recordings of "Dreaming", "Call Me" and "Rapture". Apparently there's also a version which moves the live tracks to a separate disc, and adds a performance of "Heart of Glass", and though I haven't seen any of these two-disc editions in Boston stores, that seems like a better configuration. Not only is Blondie's urgent, spiky music a little more easily enjoyed at shorter lengths, I think, but tacking three old hits onto the new album seems like a small failure of courage, like somebody (the band? the label?) doesn't quite trust the new Blondie to survive on its own. And if I believe in it, I'd like to think that the album also believes in itself.
Missing Persons: Late Nights Early Days
There's no sign of a Missing Persons reunion, as of early 1999, and this album of 1981 concert recordings, for which ex-Missing Persons guitarist Warren Cuccurullo is somehow responsible, bears a 1997 copyright, but it only just reached my stores a month or so ago, so perhaps it's new to yours, as well. A desultory 1987 "Best Of" and a long-overdue 1995 reissue (by One Way) of Spring Session M notwithstanding, Missing Persons have so far escaped the critical resuscitation that many of their early-Eighties peers have enjoyed. Probably guilty memories of adolescent reflex responses to Dale Bozzio's transparent plastic stage-outfits are at least partly responsible for this silence, but my own proselytizing urge is also damped by the realization that although Spring Session M still seems virtually flawless to me, as pristine an embodiment of New Wave as anything, seventeen years after it was made, the only song I'd even consider trying to salvage from their two subsequent LPs is "Color in Your Life", the title track of the last one. In 1981, though, bad impulses, bad songs, acrimony (the credits try to pass off the mustache drawn on the cover picture of Dale as a Duchamp allusion, but it just looks mean to me) and dissolution were far in Missing Persons' future, and this set finds them crashing through most of Spring Session M (everything except "It Ain't None of Your Business", "Tears", "Bad Streets" and "Rock and Roll Suspension"), the EP tracks "Mental Hopscotch", "I Like Boys" and their surreal cover of the Doors' "Hello I Love You", and the 1980 studio demo "Action Reaction". And for a few minutes, it's quite possible to forget that this all ever unraveled. In a genre frequently reliant on simplistic drum-machine programming, Missing Persons had Terry Bozzio, one of the most capable drummers in the world. For all Dale's trash-sex performance antics, which are not pictured on this recording, her capacity for virtuoso squeak, which is, was only rivaled by Cyndi Lauper. And if you could peer through the band's perverse tendency to play their compositions at songcraft-obscuring speeds, there was usually atypically-complex pop with occasional progressive-rock traces lurking at their cores. Synth-pop wasn't traditionally the most thrilling medium for live performance (one of my queasiest concert memories is Howard Jones, at the 1986 Giants Stadium Amnesty International concert, having his sequencer cut out in the middle of "No One Is to Blame", and trying lamely to compensate by arpeggiating his skeletal live piano-part by hand), but this recording finds Missing Persons sounding pretty convincingly like a rock band, not just a studio collective. "Mental Hopscotch" comes off like Foreigner on concurrent overdoses of speed and helium, "Noticeable Ones" finds Cuccurullo and bassist Patrick O'Hearn locked in an incendiary duel, Cuccurullo warms up the thanklessly stark "Words" with jagged shards of incidental proto-"Creep" guitar noise, keyboardist Chuck Wild buzzes and whirs enthusiastically through "Destination Unknown", and only a notable absence of technical deficiencies keeps most of "Here & Now" from being speed-punk. "I Like Boys" has roots in the same novelty-pop soil as Toni Basil's "Mickey" or Lene Lovich's "New Toy", as does "Hello I Love You" by the time they're done with it, but "Windows" is steady and almost graceful, "No Way Out" is half embryonic later-Rush and half embryonic hip-hop, "US Drag" is elusive and squalling enough to remind me of King Crimson, and the rendition of "Walking in LA" with which they close the set is magnificently frayed and furious. This band deserved better, from us and from themselves.
Talk Talk: London 1986
Cuccurullo went on to be in Duran Duran, with whom Talk Talk toured, in the early days, on a bill made in booking-simpleton's heaven. (I don't know for a fact that they made posters for it reading "Tour Tour", but it seems inevitable.) 1986 is long after Talk Talk's "early days", though, and this Hammersmith Odeon show, televised at the time but just dusted off and polished for CD consumption, finds the studio quartet who made 1982's austere The Party's Over transformed into a nine-piece performance ensemble, or ten- if you include producer and writing collaborator Tim Friese-Greene, watching over the recording. Hints of the astonishing metamorphosis to come on 1988's Spirit of Eden are not much more explicit in the live performances here of the tracks ("Life's What You Make It", "Living in Another World", "Give It Up") from The Colour of Spring, the album being promoted, than they were in the original versions, but the absence of anything from the first album feels deliberate to me (although for all I know they played the whole thing in sequence and just opted to leave it off the record), and the five songs from It's My Life ("Tomorrow Started", "Does Caroline Know?", "It's My Life", "Such a Shame" and "Renée") all expand to accommodate the additional players as if they're being released from corsets. One of the geniuses of Spirit of Eden was crowding as many people into a room as possible, but having them each exercise nearly super-human restraint in deciding when (or whether) to play notes on their instruments, and as of this concert only the first half of this equation has occurred to anybody, but the waves of organic clamor, here, despite the differences in density from the becalmed minimalism of Spirit of Eden, seem to me to share motivations. Hollis is trying, I think, although maybe this is still too early for him to have phrased the goal this way even to himself, to make music that reproduces the texture of living awareness. We don't live in cubes and parabolas and methodical gradient fills, we live in a fractal disarray of sparks and torn edges and inexplicable prickly sensations. Guitar/bass/drums rock-and-roll, at least as written, frequently abstracts this existence down to the reductive allegorical lucidity of international airport signage, and while this is a valid and valuable art, it can be intellectual to the exclusion of precisely the nuances that make physical experience remarkable. If it seems obtuse to characterize "Louie Louie" as an intellectual artwork, even momentarily for the sake of the argument, remember that tic-tac-toe counts as a mind game; and of course performance can restore detail that scores omit, like pockmarks from joyriding rednecks humanize highway signs. None of these things are new ideas for art or music in general (see The Rite of Spring or 4'33" for earlier examples, in radically different guises), but in the context of pop they're as startling and revolutionary as a Monet cathedral propped against a wall of cave paintings.
Lone Justice: This World Is Not My Home
There are three live tracks on This World Is Not My Home, the combination best-of and rarities collection for Maria McKee's short-lived para-country band Lone Justice, too. The marquee item is a somewhat blurrily captured cover of Lou Reed's "Sweet Jane" that is utterly ruined, for me, by an oppressively self-congratulatory cameo from Bono, who insists on the rest of the band shutting up while he ad libs a verse that prominently features his own name, just in case one or two people in the crowd have failed to recognize him. The other two concert recordings, however, are revelations, a deliriously unhinged version of "Sweet, Sweet Baby" (from Lone Justice) in which McKee appears to be in imminent danger of lapsing into either insensate demonic possession or an orgasm she's been building up to for approximately a week, and an elegant, lullaby-caliber performance of "Wheels", from the second Lone Justice album, Shelter. Not until McKee's bracing 1996 solo album Life Is Sweet would she allow this degree of abject emotional intensity to leak through the production seals onto one of her albums. Juxtaposed against these two live tracks, the studio selections ("East of Eden", "Ways to Be Wicked", "Don't Toss Us Away" and "You Are the Light" from Lone Justice; "I Found Love", "Shelter" and "Dixie Storms" from Shelter), which I used to think of as pretty energetic, sound tragically, poignantly muted, products of some sort of criminally misguided repression, and the omission of all four of my favorite non-singles from Lone Justice ("After the Flood", "Working Late", "Pass It On" and "Soap, Soup and Salvation") seems only fitting. The other justification for this compilation's existence, though, is its inclusion of seven of the band's pre-Lone Justice demos. "Drugstore Cowboy" is a deadpan country romp untroubled by cross-over ambitions, the traditional "Rattlesnake Mama" turns into frantic cowpunk thrash, "This World Is Not My Home" sounds like Dolly Parton fronting X, Merle Haggard's "Working Man Blues" is sandblasted and screechy, McKee's "Cottonbelt" is a raw blues howl, a spiky performance of Bob Dylan's "Go Away Little Boy" features Dylan himself on rhythm guitar, and guitarist Ryan Hedgecock's twangy "The Train" suggests that in some alternate universe Lone Justice was his vehicle, with McKee playing Emmylou Harris to his Gram Parsons. The glossy Shelter tracks, stranded between country exuberance and live drama, are almost incomprehensible, and I keep expecting a blushing Courteney Cox to leap onstage in the middle of one of them. But it doesn't actually say "The Best of" anywhere on the cover, and this is, whatever could have been, what was, and thus one of the rare retrospectives from which you can glean the real story of a band, instead of the one they meant to tell, or should have.