No Rest Lest I Miss One Single Kiss
216 · 18 March 99
Fleming & John: The Way We Are
It's hard to explain why I was anticipating this album so eagerly, since when I look back at what I wrote about Fleming & John's last one, Delusions of Grandeur, I remember that I thought they showed a glimmer of potential, but not much more. Possibly I have conflated them in my mind with their alphabetic neighbors Fledgling, who I dearly hoped would make another album but haven't; or with Jason & Alison, whose record-bin divider I keep flipping hopefully to in the store, temporarily forgetting that they are now called Verbow and already made another record; or with Damon & Naomi, who I have traditionally dismissed as the rhythm section of Yo La Tengo, until recently realizing that they were actually the rhythm section of Galaxie 500, whose box set I finally broke down and purchased, so Damon & Naomi's records can't be far behind. The packaging of The Way We Are also employs a similar color scheme to that used on the recently revived album by fellow Christian Contemporary Music transplants Sixpence None the Richer, on which John Mark Painter also played but which struck me as a lethargic knockoff of 10,000 Maniacs, whose last album I didn't like much either, but who survived Natalie Merchant's departure by rehiring former member John Lombardo and his folk partner Mary Ramsey, who in the interim had been performing as John & Mary, and if there were only somebody named Mary Fleming who were involved in music, as opposed to being the deputy Executive Director of the American Statistical Association, the circle would be closed and maybe I could sleep.
At any rate, somehow this album weaseled its way into my existence as something I ought to be excited about, and the reason I didn't immediately spot the misunderstanding is that listening to it does, in fact, excite me. Lest this fate befall you, as well, I will supply two crucial caveats. The first is that singer Fleming McWilliams' loud mode, which gets used at least once in almost every song, sounds something like Harriet Wheeler from the Sundays being electrocuted, and can make Alanis Morissette's seem comparatively muted and soothing. The second is that Painter, who generates all the music on this record save the drums (played by Fleming's brother Shawn), some strings, Fleming's flute and pump organ on one song, and backing vocals on one other by Ben Folds, is a musical polyglot whose amiable style-hopping you might well consider, if your aesthetic heroes are punk hardliners who refuse to learn that principle-compromising fourth chord, facile and undisciplined. Combined, these two elements produce music that you would be within your rights to regard as simultaneously mundane and nerve-shredding.
But I love Alanis far too much for "mundane music" to be the end of an argument, and I've learned that the sensation that I am bleeding from the ears is rarely the product of genuine injury, and so I don't have to negotiate any particularly complicated truce with my moral standards in order to enjoy this record. Playing the first thirty seconds of "I'm So Small" through a telephone (or, more likely, through an extremely expensive equalizer designed to impart the minimum possible spectrum shaping to convey the impression of telephone fidelity) is hardly an innovation, but Fleming's keening, para-Eastern vocal flourishes on the crazed, lurching chorus, bolstered by Painter's theremin in case that wasn't enough keening by itself, make me shiver pleasantly, and I like the low buzzing noise that accompanies the dry drum loop, like a generator leaking. And "That's why I wear my hair so big. / Some people think it might be a wig, / But it's all part of my plot / To prove I'm not a dot", despite the spaghetti-western guitar twang it tangles with, is basically the same timeless rock frustration as "No one notices; / I think I'll dye my hair blue", just formed in a later grammar. Clanging timpani and chimes boost the pealing "Sssh!" into an orbit they were probably keeping free in case Lita Ford decided to cover Alanis' "Hand in My Pocket" as part of a comeback rock opera. The moody pizzicato hooks of "The Pearl" sound to me like they were pilfered from the Parachute Club's "Middle Child", but since I fear no one other than me remembers that, I suppose F&J might as well return them to circulation, and the churning choruses they lead to, here, are closer to Stabbing Westward than the Parachute Club. The shiny, maudlin ballad "Comfortable" might have bored me in other months, but it's been a while since I've heard anything from Roxette's Per Gessle or Marry Me Jane's Amanda Kravat, two of the writers that can still bind me with spells woven from these familiar threads, and Painter makes a plausible case for his own inclusion with some adroit intermingling of twittering drum machines, epic string arrangements and aching harmony vocals. The gentle "Don't Let It Fade Away", all pillowy strings and lullaby acoustic-guitar strumming, gives Fleming a rare showcase for her prettier modes, which lend the song an aura that can't seem to decide whether it owes more to Kate Bush's "The Kick Inside" or the Eagles' "New Kid in Town". I think "The Way We Are" is Fleming & John's Cardigans pastiche, but it spans the Cardigans jazz- and jagged-pop extremes with perhaps, at least for me, more aplomb than the Cardigans themselves have so far mustered. The sunny pop vibe settles in for a while, permeating the bouncy "Radiate", sparkling with flugelhorn and trombone, the xylophone-heavy "Ugly Girl", which is an unmistakable descendant of Fleetwood Mac's "Dreams" (and Fleetwood Mac are the only band on my CD shelves between Fledgling and Fleming & John; these connections will eat your cerebellum if you aren't careful), the sultry "Sadder Day", part languid funk and part Blondie's "Rapture", and even "Rain All Day", which reminds me vividly enough of the Parachute Club's "Innuendo" that I wonder if it isn't intentional after all. They do eventually reapply the warpaint, though, in time to storm through "Devil's Food", which might be Siouxsie and the Banshees doing a new theme song for Dr. Who, and shiver into a Tori- and Kate-indebted "Suppressed Emotions". The credits insist Folds is only singing on "I Fall for You", but Painter takes his presence as an excuse for a funhouse piano romp of his own, and enough florid accordions and glassy vibes to placate a militant circus. "That's All I Know" alternates between brass-section jump and a stentorian chorus thrash, and while the thrash sounds more sincere, to me, than the jump, "The Hidden Track" turns out to be a cartoonish cocktail-party remake of "I'm So Small", so maybe I'm wrong. I still feel like this record represents more potential than accomplishment, and my suspicion is that I'd like Fleming & John better if they didn't try to split their energies between kitsch and crunch, but I'll buy the next one fully aware of what I'm doing.
Stretch Princess: Stretch Princess
Nothing even remotely shrill or erratic troubles the self-titled debut from photogenic British trio Stretch Princess, whose song "Sugar", to get the connections out of the way, appears in the film She's All That along with the Painter-aided Sixpence None the Richer's "Kiss Me". They look like some label executive woke up convinced that the main thing the world is waiting for is a version of Eve 6 fronted by a woman with Aimee Mann's hair, and they sound like an extremely meticulous pop archivist has gone through the catalogs of 'til tuesday, Sarge, the Sundays, the Bangles, the Rose Chronicles, Grace Pool, the Cranberries, Veruca Salt, Emm Gryner, the Go-Go's, Paula Cole, Lush, the Primitives and Marry Me Jane, extracting only the purest moments of glossy melodic passion. There's probably something ghoulish about that, but I'm not about to spend a second trying to figure out what when I could be listening to this record instead. I readily admit that these eleven songs all blend together, in my mind, a forty-minute oscillation between ringing verses and heartbreaking choruses, but it would take a lot more than forty minutes for me to get tired of these effortless hooks. "Oooh!" has a post-Pixies grind worthy of Veruca Salt's "'With David Bowie"; "Sorry" makes Hole's "Malibu" sound thin and forced; "Shoes" may be the best bedtime anthem I've heard since Marry Me Jane's "You Didn't Kiss Me"; "Lost on Me" plays the Sundays' frailty against the Rose Chronicles' atmospheric swirl; "Twisted" reaches towards Paula Cole's "Bethlehem". Blanket-warm distortion swaddles "Free"'s guitars, and Jo Lloyd's multi-tracked vocals fan out into the reverb space like a summer sun disassembling itself to become all the stars of the night sky. "Nice Thing" dodges a predictable-ballad destiny in favor of dense, dreamy, textural crescendos. ''Sugar" starts off like the big-budget cousin of Sarge's "Fast Girls", but slingshots into a chorus so delirious (and from so many worlds away from a Madison punk rock show) that I can't imagine life being complete without both ethics. The layered "J.W.B.A." ("Just Want to Be Around"; I don't have any good theories for why they abbreviated it) demonstrates, for me, why Garbage's approach to popularizing Curve is fundamentally unimaginative and unsatisfying. "Heavy" invokes 'til tuesday's "Welcome Home" and Grace Pool's "Paint the Ending ", two of the strongest foci of manna in my pop pantheon. And the viscous, roaring "Universe" concludes an album that doesn't overstay its welcome in my house, at forty minutes, any more than the twenty-four minutes of Team Dresch's Personal Best that my indie remedial-listening program has been dwelling on this week. Bridging the gap between riot grrl squall and this hyper-refined mainstream pop may require a longer chain of associations than I can readily piece together in my head (the key link is bound to be Stretch Princess producers Sean Slade and Paul Q. Kolderie, who saw a lot of angrier bands than this pass through Fort Apache over the years), but they don't seem any more incompatible, in my mind, than a protest rally on a perfect Saturday.
Sleater-Kinney: The Hot Rock
And the great thing about bridging musical gaps is you don't actually have to do anything. One album ends, and any other one can follow. You could argue that blasting off the satiated pop glow from Stretch Princess with Sleater-Kinney's abrasive fourth album is an odd use of both records, but then having sex with contraceptives is a lot like bulimia if you think too hard about it, so sometimes it's better not to. Among the many attitudes Sleater-Kinney may change, in your life, is the idea that Fleming McWilliams' voice is notable for its shrillness. Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein's vocal duets have all the reassuring lilt of a hockey game played on an enormous oval chalkboard, and Tucker's vibrato (at least, I think it's hers), by itself, could probably be put to some dental purpose. On Call the Doctor, the band's second album, the band allowed enough straightforward tunes to sneak through unaltered that I ended up as often reminded of the Go-Go's as of Bikini Kill or Mecca Normal, but Dig Me Out and The Hot Rock seem to me to have plastered a couple protective layers each over that chink in Sleater-Kinney's confrontational facade, to the extent that I'm hard-pressed to isolate more than a handful of moments here I could construe as catchy: Tucker's Belinda-Carlisle-ish trills at the ends of lines in "Start Together", maybe, Brownstein's hushed responses on the back-and-forth of "Hot Rock", Tucker's wailing "I am not the captain, / I am just another fan" in "The End of You", the tentative verses of "Don't Talk Like", a trace of Devo-esque jerkiness in "Memorize Your Lines", most of "The Size of Our Love". Maybe you'll find a couple more. In between these instants of respite are relentless flurries of two-guitar lines (there's no bassist) that interact and progress according to an internal logic having very little to do with the usual pop scales. If you fail to make the mental shift into Sleater-Kinney's own frame of musical reference, I doubt you will last ten minutes with this album, as these songs will probably sound arbitrary to the point of infuriation.
But if you can accept, on faith if need be, that to Sleater-Kinney these clusters of notes are melodies, then there are several ways listening might be rewarding. First, this is disconcerting music, and maybe your musical universe doesn't disconcert you enough. Sleater-Kinney didn't invent this style, and aren't its only practitioners (Team Dresch, Bikini Kill and Bratmobile all might come before Sleater-Kinney in my personal ordering, and I don't pretend to know enough about this culture to guess whether there are a dozen more I'd also prefer), but for some reason they've garnered more mainstream press than most of their peers, so knowing what they sound like is marginally more likely to one day be useful in a conversation. Second, Sleater-Kinney have an odd penchant for inserting standard pop tricks, particularly drum patterns, in places and with timings that undermine their nominal propulsive purposes. A steady groove will suddenly develop a limp, or will snap into a different tempo with no warning. Where the drummers in much of conventional pop often act as glorified metronomes, Janet Weiss has as much to do with the strange articulation of Sleater-Kinney songs as either guitarist, and the absence of bass parts helps emphasize the individual nuances of her playing. Sleater-Kinney are an instructive example of how complexity can re-arise from a style that began as a deconstruction of something else, and while I'd probably start that lesson elsewhere for historical reasons (this was the implicit central tenet of Post-Punk, although the first two Fugazi albums, a decade later, are my favorite demonstration of the process, personally; a course of study that leads more directly to Sleater-Kinney, gender politics and all, might begin with the Au Pairs), there's nothing especially terrible about working through it in reverse.
The thing that nagged at me, however, as Dig Me Out showed up on best-album lists at the end of 1997 (not enough of them for it to really matter, but enough that I noticed), is that Sleater-Kinney were also heralded as standard bearers for the lesbian community, poets willing to take on serious gender issues rock usually shies away from. Maybe in interviews they were, but the lyrics to Dig Me Out seem mostly banal and sing-song, to me, and if they address controversial sexual topics, they do it so obliquely that I can't find where. There are more songs whose lyrics I admire on The Hot Rock, but they're about random things. "Don't Talk Like" is a relationship song about immaturity, and doesn't have any gender bias. "Get Up" is about losing yourself, in various ways, but it passes up numerous opportunities to insert suggestive pronouns. "God Is a Number" belongs to a long tradition of rock songs about the mechanization of human society. "The Size of Our Love" is a remarkable lovers' deathbed anthem (I don't expect to hear many opening lines more arresting than "Our love is the size of these tumors inside us", in which the tumors are literal and the "us" is metaphorical). These are fine things to write songs about, and it's no fault of Sleater-Kinney's what other people's articles have encouraged me to expect. But the subject is on my mind this week, as I listen to The Hot Rock and my catch-up program reaches Team Dresch, so when I discover that Team Dresch write the gender-political songs Sleater-Kinney do not, and then discover that while I admire Sleater-Kinney's songs, I like Team Dresch's, it's easy to conclude, as I'd be inclined to anyway, that people who don't know much about this world picked a representative at random, and didn't get the one I'd have chosen. I have to listen to The Hot Rock through a layer of intellectual redirection, appreciating its musical agenda only by explaining to myself what its postulates are. Team Dresch are aggressive, too, but they aren't evasive, and I can enjoy their songs just by listening to them. So maybe I'm lazy, and am allowing myself to be drawn to the band I can understand better without challenging the assumptions that underlie my appreciation of music. Maybe. On the other hand, though, at the end of Personal Best I feel like I've learned something about a culture I'm not likely to get any closer to than this, and I've also had more fun. And so one disc goes on the shelf, and the other starts again, from the beginning.