The Drums Were Recorded First
217 · 25 March 99
3 Colours Red: Revolt
If anthemic, punk-inflected rock songs came in kit form, and you assembled one carefully and painted it the way the directions say to, which with model airplanes I never had the patience to do, you could probably end up with something difficult to distinguish, quantitatively, from "Pirouette", song two on Revolt, the second album by the British quartet 3 Colours Red. There's a bit of anticipatory drum clatter to usher it in, a sturdy kick-snare-kick-snare backbeat with a few optional stutters and whispery tambourine rattles to keep it moving, a solidly descending bass line that blends self-effacingly into the kick-drum's thump, plentiful rhythm-guitar churn, pealing fourths- and fifths-based lead hooks, some swirly dream-sequence reverb treatment on the verses so the transitions to the choruses have something to jolt you awake from, elegantly ragged backing harmonies, lyrics that don't demand (or support) arduous "interpretation" but aren't so clichéd that you're embarrassed to sing along, and a lead vocal just hoarse enough to suggest that the singer spends his spare time self-administering tattoos or rebuilding motorcycle engines or berating passing helicopters or whatever, but certainly not doing tai chi breathing exercises or drinking restorative herbal tea. If a craftsman built one of these, it might sound more like Tommy Keene; if snotty, minimum-wage teenagers lashed one together it would be closer to Green Day; the models from fifteen years ago all sound like Don Henley. American radio has been full of songs of this workmanlike ilk for my entire conscious life, it sometimes seems to me, and although I keep thinking I've spotted some new trend come to rescue us, I keep being quite pathetically mistaken. These songs are the musical equivalent of comfort food, which is by no means inherently evil, but bad examples cover the land like the locust-plague of mashed-burger-extruding fast-food franchises, and technical advances are on the moral order of coating reconstituted potatoes with some sort of lab-bred coagulant that makes them stay faintly crunchy for up to eleven hours under a heat lamp. I have to believe, lest I sink out of sight beneath my misanthropy, that nobody really likes this crap. At best they tolerate the experience of eating it because it's cheap and plentiful and unthreatening.
But the prevalence of so much drearily uninspired Modern Rock (which used to be called just "rock", only that's harder to market) can no more ruin the occasional good band working the form than Burger King can prevent real restaurants from making hamburgers worthy of culinary enthusiasm. Music isn't as amenable to USDA grading as meat, perhaps sadly, so my exceptions may be your rules, or vice versa, but for me, after a debut (Pure) that I warmed to only on the brink of dismissing it as trivial garbage, 3 Colours Red have unexpectedly matured into one of the good ones. Almost every one of these songs is an object lesson in adroit avoidance of enticing disaster. The verses of "This Is My Time" drift towards cloying sentimentality and seem way too pleased with themselves for having mustered a couple of unexceptional minor-key acoustic-guitar chords, but the choruses billow and roar like Catherine Wheel's fog machine, and there's a real string section where a Value Meal would have settled for a couple of last generation's synths. Strings almost get the better of "Beautiful Day", and Pete Vuckovic's vocal intonation lists dangerously towards Third Eye Blind (who, in my personal burger/music taxonomy, are the McDonald's Express in a dying mall's food court), but by the end of the song the band has regained enough control to send the entire guitar-and-strings phalanx into sudden, lurching right-turns. "Song on the Radio" starts out like it's going to be a "Smuggler's Blues" redux, but then explodes into stark, howling, pounded rage, with a refrain, "Dead alive!", that seems like a searing indictment of radio complacency to me, until I check the lyrics and find out they're singing "Get it alive", whose point eludes me. "Calling to the Outside" is furious throughout, like Social Distortion without quite as much thuggish sneer, and "Intermission" pushes further into para-metal thrash, but the even coarser "Paralyse" strains the band's capacity for stentorian bluster far enough that I can see slivers of "We Care a Lot"-like novelty-pop impishness hiding underneath, and the mob-vocal bark of "Cancel the Exhibition" isn't anywhere near menacing enough to distract from its sighing and fundamentally poppy choruses. "Paranoid People" has a little too much repetitive Jane's Addiction-esque keening to it for me, but the cheerfully artless "Back to the City" is fuzzed-out three-chord pop of the most grandly simple sort, a few more amp settings borrowed from Green Day to go with the melodic flourishes from Tommy Keene. "Be Myself" filters Rancid's aggression through Velvet Crush's melancholy and Nine Inch Nails' voice-mangler in alternation. Much of the jerky "Age of Madness" sounds disconcertingly like what circa-1990 Iron Maiden might have become if they'd followed Anthrax and Slayer into their punk digressions. I don't take any of this eager fury very seriously, and it's hard to imagine that there are many communities left for whom defiance this formulaic still feels like an imminent revolution, but if every once in a while the army of occupation helps us carry some heavy stuff in from the car, it makes the days until liberation flick by a little more painlessly.
Stereophonics: Performance and Cocktails
I'm sure 3 Colours Red and the Stereophonics didn't ask to be forever linked, in my mind, but I discovered them on the same sampler, I tracked down their first albums in the same search, and their second albums reached me (albeit Performance and Cocktails mail-order from the UK, since the US release date is TBD and I can hardly be expected to wait that long) within a week of each other, so they will pace my rooms in tandem for a while longer yet. Outside these walls, though, Stereophonics' bigger problem is extricating themselves from the shadow of Welsh country-mates the Manic Street Preachers, lest they become an Alarm to MSP's U2. If you agree with me that the Manic Street Preachers kind of lost their way on This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours, though, then Stereophonics are now getting the opportunity the Alarm had when U2 became cartoon characters. The metaphor isn't auspicious; the Alarm tried to rise to the challenge, ran out of magic, and got their wings and everything else about them summarily melted into slag for their trouble. For the time being, though, Stereophonics seem to me to have both a clearer understanding of their own vulnerabilities and a larger remaining supply of good songs. Performance and Cocktails tries to soar a little higher than Word Gets Around, but it is circling, I think, over the same terrain. Kelly Jones' relentlessly cathartic wail remains their music's emotional center, frantic enough at its quietest ebb to truncate Rod Stewart's effort to rouse Maggie to a quick throat-clearing, and his lyrics probe the hidden corners of small towns and bruised souls like he thinks (and maybe he's right) that he lost something there. The band's accompaniments strike me as fundamentally uncomplicated, but frequently eloquent, edging from punk stomp to sly classic-rock sprawl with a gracious air of rural-upbringing indifference. I think of this album less as a successor to Word Gets Around, which would imply that it needs to lead somewhere, than as simply a second attempt to render the contours of truth seen through Stereophonics' eyes.
And since second drafts are much harder than first drafts, and so much art moves on impatiently to the next thing rather than perfecting the last one, I'm inclined to give this courageous, thankless effort the benefit of the doubt, whether it needs it or not. Maybe there isn't anything here as plaintive as "Local Boy in the Photograph", but the gleeful snarl as Jones sings "The bartender and the thief are lovers" suggests as much small-town history. The plight of an aging stripper in "She Takes Her Clothes Off" isn't as incongruous a subject for rock as Word Gets Around's diptych about homelessness, but given how many songs are written glorifying strippers, I think we can stand a few more counter-arguments. And musically, Stereophonics still walk the line between Radiohead's paranoid weariness and Oasis's broad drama with as much composure as anybody. Brittle acoustic guitars send cracks fanning out across the murky surface of "Hurry Up and Wait", rolling drums push "Pick a Part That's New" along, and "Just Looking" proves that a hush can be deafening. "Half the Lies You Tell Ain't True" may seethe, but in other fabric the tune would fit John Waite, and "I Wouldn't Believe Your Radio" is traditional songwriting Neil Diamond wouldn't shrink from. "T-Shirt Sun Tan" is as blocky and standard as they come, right up until Jones' voice slides off the end of "Outta touch, out of luck". In other accents, "Is Yesterday, Tomorrow, Today?" could be Soul Asylum, and "Plastic California" could be a torch song from Still Crazy. And "I Stopped to Fill My Car Up", the car-jacking finale, is a moody piano ballad pulled one way by viciously distorted snare drums, and the other by Astrid Williamson's spectral guest harmony.
What makes me hope desperately that there's a third draft these two are en route to, however, is that one of the most impressive things about Word Gets Around, to me, was the narrative attentiveness of Jones' stories, and on Performance and Cocktails he rarely tries to tell stories at all. Instead of frightening clarity like "'I'll tell her this week' is what he tells her to keep her on loan" and "She's down waist low trying to make me happy", this time we get too many generic choruses, "Roll out the shock parade" or "Would you like to stay a minute longer?" or "I'm just looking, I'm not buying", without the incisive observations to provide the context in which they become epiphanies. Word Gets Around teemed with people, characters, life; Performance and Cocktails sounds like the band has been locked in studios and industry parties for a year and a half, and no longer knows any real people to sing about, like nothing bad has happened to them to overcome, so they're left to rail against being bored. The "never mind, I made it all up" anti-climax of "I Stopped to Fill My Car Up" is only the most blatant lyrical cop-out. Even "She Takes Her Clothes Off" seems to barely know the woman, and wanders off into Marilyn Monroe and James Dean where it should be explaining how her sisters did in school, or how badly her house needed to be painted, or how she drew lines, in her life, between dancing for people at night, and then seeing the same people in the shops in the daylight. There are tales behind every distracted expression, whole novels behind the bored look in the eyes of the woman kissing on the album cover. But this time either Jones couldn't get close enough to discern them, or else he saw a little too much pain and stopped looking. I hope, after an album's rest, he'll try again.
Kleenex Girl Wonder: Ponyoak
I'm still splitting time between what I used to think of as my musical life and all the obscure indie pop I've recently discovered, and the pile of the latter I've climbed to the top of this week is the tall stack of short songs by Kleenex Girl Wonder, the patently illegal trading name of home-recording prodigy Graham Smith, who will only get to keep using it until one of the children of a Kimberly-Clark Corporation lawyers gets old enough to subscribe to the Indie-Pop list and mentions it at dinner. The three KGW (allowable, although it would be funnier if everyone who were ever sued by small-minded corporations changed their name to Dream Command) albums and two singles I've found contain, between them, eighty songs. The obvious point of reference, given only this statistic, is Guided by Voices, and GbV remains my nearest point of reference now that I've listened to them, too. Smith favors whole songs over unresolved fragments, and intentional production whimsy over noises that sound like mistakes he didn't bother to correct, but the effect of sweeping pop ambition crammed into claustrophobic low-fi production is a similarly surreal and exhilarating jumble to me.
The twenty-five-song (and seventy-four-minute; Smith takes "full length" seriously) Ponyoak follows 1996's Sexual Harassment and 1997's self-explanatory Graham Smith Is the Coolest Person Alive. If there are themes or overarching rationales for KGW albums, I haven't learned to spot them yet. For me the albums simply careen through as many songs as will fit, and although I forgive the complete lack of structure for only as long as the succession of irresistible tunes keeps me from thinking about it, that stay of execution turns out to last until the record is over. The quick acoustic guitar of "The Nearest Future" is an unmistakable GbV detail, but the hissing cymbals and dry drum rumble of "The Nearest Future" have the circus exuberance of Brian Dewan. "The Mohican Antler-Yard Alphabet" sounds like GbV from the title onwards, but works its way to the line "I must learn your alphabet / So I can spell goodbye", which floors me for the same reason I dwell on Beth Sorrentino's protestations of "You haven't heard my band yet", in Suddenly Tammy's "River, Run", love so fierce that it makes you want to say even farewells with the perfect words. The sparkling "What Does She Know?" has hints of the Byrds and the Kinks, a bit of Beck-like smirk in "I'd rather finish last than finish third", and a rhythm section that sounds like it's being recorded through the neighbors' wall. "Now, I Got a Feeling" is inane and frayed, but kinetic. The halting drum-machine groove and fragile Cure-like guitar chirp on "I Cut Myself in Half" leave Smith's barely-in-tune singing voice brightly unadorned, but he doesn't appear to mind, or notice. "Wait for Me (Please)" is half girl-group twirl, half Pixies screech. "Mayflower Looks at Asia" sounds like an early alternate-lyric rehearsal for Nick Lowe's "Cruel to Be Kind". "Tendency Right Foot Forward" could be Neutral Milk Hotel trying to write the theme song for a kid's TV show. The doubled vocal on the frenetic "Ark of Godiva" comes unraveled in the middle, one line scrambling to catch up with the other. "Glander's Biennial" has stutter guitar as party-fit as Grand Funk Railroad, one of the rare rhyme-motivated rock uses of the word "sesquicentennial", and a bridge that escapes Smith's vocal range by a good three notes. The bouncy "Leave Me" whizzes through a straining chorus that seems to be disintegrating under its own feet. "Anne Marie", with its breathtakingly silly mock-flute flutters and polka-cadence drums, could be an application essay for membership in Elephant 6. "Coming Back" might be a folk parody, only even with the multi-tracked harmonies that sound like a swarm of snoring cats, I can't be sure Smith isn't serious.
There's a short gap then, where I assume the split comes between disks in the double-album vinyl version, but the second half proceeds in pretty much the same mode as the first. "Power Bird" is just guitars and voice, but "Two Places at Once" slips into a comfortable rock strut. "Graham Smith Is the Strongest Man Alive" sounds like an early-Pixies rant, but "Don't Wait Up", with the potentially timeless line "All of the girls sing such pretty songs, / But they don't know what the lyrics mean", is somewhere between the dB's and "Clash City Rockers". Smith attempts some wispy auto-harmony on "It's So Much Easier", with questionable success. "Room at Deserted Ranch" leaps into and out of its guitar breaks with glorious clumsiness. "Five Guitars" skims into the periphery of Richard Buckner's airspace. "The Sound of Paul" starts off like tone-deaf Simon & Garfunkel, and then slams into wall-of-noise clamor, disclaimed with the probably-literal "The songs were not rehearsed, / The drums were recorded first". "Forget the World", with its percussive acoustic guitar and the uplifting refrain "Don't repent / Candy-bar centers", would probably fit into NMH's In the Aeroplane Over the Sea somewhere, if we could think of an Anne Frank tie-in. "Ain't Going Anywhere Soon" (also the title track of a companion EP) is approximately KGW's answer to GbV's "I Am a Scientist", an accessible mid-tempo abstract of Smith's usual eccentricities, in this case a lot like a toned-down remake of "The Mohican Antler-Yard Alphabet" that plays up the Beck resemblance. "The Cattle Call of the Would-Be" sounds like Simon & Garfunkel again, but with a protective layer of Pollard-style tape hiss. And "Running From the Wind", the final song, is just acoustic guitar and voice, as if for a moment Smith thinks he might have the potential for Springsteen/Mellencamp populist superstardom. My guess, like my hope, is no. What I think Smith is, though, is the next iteration of the process of pop cannibalization that Guided by Voices and Elephant 6 and others like them began. Where Robert Pollard reinvented the Beatles as an undiscovered basement hobby-band who happened to own some recording gear they could barely operate, and Elephant 6 treat pop as a medium in which to suspend uneasy dreams, Kleenex Girl Wonder seem to me to be what happens when low-fi is what you're raised on, not an aesthetic retort. Possibly, in the grand scheme of things, that makes Smith the Foghat of erratic home-studio pop, but if your genre doesn't have any Foghats, it doesn't really exist yet.