The Subtle Difference Between Suicide Notes and Love Letters
225 · 20 May 99
My Favorite: Love at Absolute Zero
The days stretch, the air warms, windows open, other sports start, but I measure the departure of winter, now, by two signal events in what I'll call My Garden, although this implies that I garden, as a verb, in it, which I don't. The first is the appearance of some colorful flowers ("tulips", I'm told, which sounds plausible, but frankly "Irish Setters" sounds plausible, too) along one edge of my front yard, where "yard" here comes closer to describing the area's size than its composition. I didn't plant these flowers there, and since it was July when I bought this house, I didn't even know of their existence until I'd been here for nine or ten months. They are pretty, though. This year a couple red ones also sprouted up in the middle of a small purple-flowered bush ("azalea"? "solar plexus"?) in my more-yard-like back yard, which was striking. They don't last long, these flowers, a quick blast of color to announce the entrance of milder weather, gone as soon as they've made their point. And while I haven't seen them snowed upon, yet, this is New England, and Spring has a way, like some of the people I work with, of arriving at a meeting on time, setting a small personal item on the conference table to assert their attendance, and then wandering off again on unexplained errands. I reserve judgment on the persistence of the traditional contours of the Earth's orbit, therefore, until the second event, which is when the large tree in my back yard finally deigns to provide a leaf density sufficient to shade my hammock. That happened over the weekend, so as far as I'm concerned, it's summer now. Non-horticultural corroboration is provided by the sudden need to start using coasters again, and that dream I had two nights ago about this girl on whom I have a pointless crush, most of which she spent explaining how easily she gets drawn into religious cults and multi-level marketing schemes, which isn't a quality I find particularly attractive, to be honest, although later in the dream I did get to see her in her underwear.
I relate to my garden as an advisor, on occasion, but more often as an observer, frequently stooping over to peer at things but rarely challenging their right to exist. This attitude is a product of laziness, ignorance and lack of interest, arguably, but I prefer to cast it as scientific detachment. If I pull up all those things that look like bad imitation lettuce, I'll never find out what they turn into later. Maybe they're just about to get good. This kind of archaic, passive notion of science, simply watching what goes on, instead of impatiently smashing things into ever-smaller shards, is on my mind for several reasons, this week. My friend Mike, whose birthday it just was, has taken up bird-watching, perhaps the ultimate non-interference pastime; I've just started reading The Song of the Dodo, David Quammen's imposing survey of island biogeography, which I bought (albeit a long time ago) because Mike's sister, who does biogeography, recommended it; and, in music, I've finally reached the point in my Voyage of the Beagle-like expedition into obscure indie pop music where half of the dozen other bands every new discovery leads me to are ones I've already come across. It's taken almost five months, and hundreds of CDs and 45s, to get this far, and as the wobbly piles of things I've only listened to once or twice testifies, I have a long way to go just to make lasting sense of everything I've cursorily examined, but at least I no longer feel, like I did in January and February, as if I'm sitting beside a rupture in our small universe, watching some other, larger one leak into it.
The precise turning point in my self-education, in fact, is a single album, Love at Absolute Zero, the full-length debut by the Long Island quintet My Favorite, which is the first (by some reckoning) new indie record I've purchased not because a description made me think I'd like it, or because the bass player owns the label that put out the last record I liked, but because I actually know the band from singles and compilation appearances, and have been eagerly awaiting this next step. This is the first one I feel like I've earned. It's been a long time coming, much longer than I've been waiting myself: the songs on My Favorite's Swingset single The Last New Wave Record were recorded in early 1994, the Harriet single The Informers & Us came out in 1995, and even their split with Mad Planets was back in 1997. Most of this history, however, is conveniently reprised on the album, whose twelve tracks include re-recorded versions of The Last New Wave Record's "Go Kid Go" and "Absolute Beginners Again", The Informers & Us' "The Informers", and My Favorite's half of the Mad Planets split, "Working Class Jacket". Those songs suggested, I thought, that My Favorite were trying to reconcile Simple Minds and the Human League with Heavenly and the Field Mice, reviving the sweeping scale of pop from before self-consciousness undermined New Wave, but filtering it through indie pop's deliberate naïveté. It seems like a pretty good idea, to me. "Absolute Zero", the first song in my awareness to extract romantic angst from the upcoming calendar roll-over, is strung over spindly synthesizers, alternately evasive and propulsive drumming, chirping guitar and angular vocal harmonies, like the introvert's complement to Duran Duran's "Girls on Film". "Absolute Beginners Again" is somewhere between early Modern English and the Primitives. A few bars of fierce guitar introduce "17 Berlin", but they quickly give way to a glassy blur, like the evolutionary link between the Orchids and the Rose Chronicles, that refuses to either glamorize youth or rail against it. The anxious, stranded "The Truth About Lake Ronkonkoma" could be the indie-pop national anthem, sighing "We're all pop stars underneath our sweaters". "Let's Stay Alive", with a timeless arpeggiator riff running under charging guitar and springy bass runs, sounds to me like New Order waking up to realize that the only thing keeping them from sounding as irrepressible as Kenickie are their own complexes. The soaring "Go Kid Go" is even more Kenickie-ish, but a Kenickie that grew up on Missing Persons and Blue Öyster Cult as much as on Penetration and the Jam. "Modulate" opens like a dub Spandau Ballet remix, but crashes into crisp, Ultravox-like stomp. The suburb dirge "Between Cafes" never sheds its melancholy composure, but "The Informers" is a gleefully mechanized dance-standard, like the Smiths with the presence of mind to disguise their grim solemnity as aplomb. In the wake of Littleton, the threat in "Working Class Jacket"'s "Rich kids hate the skinheads, / and the skinheads hate the rich kids. / She gets thrown in with the deal. / ... / She says, 'I'm gonna kill someone'" may sound less rhetorical than it did when it was written, but the girl in the song, and its narrator singing to her, and a hundred bands like this spending five years making one small record if that's what it takes, they all realize, as the killers and their victims in Littleton both did not, that ostracism is a gift, and the one that almost all interesting art celebrates.
Vitesse: A Certain Hostility
One of the arguments I've heard used to either demonstrate or endorse, and it's rarely clear which, the imminent destruction of the music business by MP3 files is that music buyers will finally be freed from the tyranny of albums with a couple of good songs and ten bad ones. I used to resent the bad songs, when I was much younger, and I've noticed that the people who complain about them often share one essential characteristic with my fifteen-year-old self, which is that they don't seem to have selected the offending records from a very wide palate of alternatives. There probably are a few records made that do, in some quasi-objective sense, have two good songs and ten bad ones on them, but these are swamped by the number of records that have two songs you like and ten you don't. Statistically, if you buy an album because you heard one song from it, there's a decent chance that you won't like the rest of it nearly as much. The more discerning you are, in fact, the more likely it is that the song you already heard is the one you're going to end up liking best. Coping with this truth by not buying albums at all, however, is a solution to the problem only in the obtuse sense that never leaving your house will result in people disappointing you less often than if you walk up to cute strangers on the street and attempt to kiss them. Discovering an album you like all of is a precious human experience, and the thing militating against it isn't musicians' incompetence, it's your ignorance. There are four albums sitting in even the crappiest record store that could change your life, but there are a thousand that won't, and of course the twenty songs you hear on the radio every day are more likely to come from the thousand than the four. One of the most inspiring things I've learned, though, in seventeen years of obsessively refusing to be deterred by disappointments, is that for every record that has one moment that intrigues you, there's another record somewhere that sounds exactly like that, all the way through. Absent a formal taxonomy for subjective impressions, there's no systematic way to find these albums, but reading reviews and looking up footnotes and following links all help, and if you're willing to spend most of your income (and time) on music, you'll end up coming across a few more of them just by luck. One of the lucky ones, for me, is this album by Vitesse, which I bought because one of the two members of Vitesse is also in Aden, whose last record, Black Cow, was about two-twelfths to my liking, and ten-twelfths not (although in this case I liked each of the songs a little bit, a problem I assume MP4s will address). The question to which Vitesse is my answer turns out to have nothing to do with Aden. They are, instead, a distillation of all, and only, the things I like best about the Magnetic Fields. I prefer the Magnetic Fields songs that Stephin Merritt sings himself to the ones he recruits other singers for, and Vitesse sound like Stephin almost all the time. I like the Magnetic Fields best when Merritt's penchant for carnival floridity isn't fully indulged, and many of these songs sound to me like what's left when you strip a Magnetic Fields song of its costume jewelry, the same cheap keyboards and drum machines permitted to skip the one or two tackiest lines in the score. Merritt's misanthropy wears on me, after a while, and Vitesse's lyrics I don't find myself fixating on. In the Magnetic Fields case, Merritt already made one record that was close to perfect, as far as I'm concerned, 1993's The Charm of the Highway Strip, and a perfect record that transcends your reservations is even more satisfying than one that simply circumnavigates them, but that, too, is a valuable lesson you're unlikely to learn if you only ever buy songs you've already concluded are harmless.
The Doleful Lions: Motel Swim
The mail-order arm of Parasol Distribution has been invaluable to me, both for records and leads, so I've taken, every time I place an order with them, to throwing in one or two extra records from one of their own labels, Parasol, Mud or Hidden Agenda, as thanks. I passed over Motel Swim a couple times, as the production involvement of Mitch Easter and Chris Stamey seemed promising, but Parasol's description began with a Brian Wilson comparison, and mentioned that the album itself begins with an elegy to krautrock, and it's been my experience that neither of those things bode well for my tastes. Some tangent I've forgotten looped back around to the Doleful Lions from another direction, though, and I broke down. Indeed, the album does open with an answering-machine message from a record store, letting leader Jonathan Scott know that the copy of Can's Future Days he ordered has arrived, but the song on this subject, "The Sound of Cologne", despite amounting, lyrically, to "German Noise Bands Your New Boyfriend's Too Stupid to Know About", sounds more like a cross between McRackins and the Connells, and Scott's cheerfully nasal voice eliminates any Brian Wilson aura, at least for me. "When Neu make a noise / They sound just like the Beach Boys", he insists, but he doesn't try to demonstrate the equivalence, aware, I assume, that what he means is that they affect him the same way, not that they literally sound alike. Stamey and Easter's presences turn out to be much more relevant, as most of the time the Doleful Lions strike me as descendants of Let's Active and the dB's via Velvet Crush and the Primitons, or perhaps like REM traced backwards past Chronic Town into an imaginary Undertones pre-history. The slow songs let in traces of mournful country twang, "Gulliver Diver" sounds like a cross between Counting Crows and Guided by Voices, there are a couple excursions into late-Beatles psychedelia, and at least one song could easily be an old Scruffy the Cat number, but if My Favorite are an Anglophilic updating of British New Wave, the Doleful Lions might be the corresponding heir of southern American guitar-pop, Guadalcanal Diary and the Swimming Pool Qs translated through Tullycraft and the Posies.
Tim Best: Promising Boyfriend
Tim Best was the singer and guitarist in the Australian band Girl of the World, whose other members went on to be in The Cat's Miaow (along with more side-projects than I've so far been able to count). Parasol put out his solo album Viva, credited to Hispaña Tim, in 1995, and then this new one, on which he finally abandons pseudonyms entirely. Promising Boyfriend serves as another what-if experiment for me, this one approximating what I think it would have sounded like if Game Theory/Loud Family leader Scott Miller had made a wispy, solipsistic, East River Pipe-esque album for Sarah Records. Best's vocal delivery, breathy and strained, reminds me of Miller's more often than not (although my guess is that they both got it from Alex Chilton, not one from the other), but Scott would never have stood for the sketchy drum-machine parts on some of these songs, and Best's melodies, at their most effusive, barely reach the ambition of Miller's most understated compositions. A few horn flourishes succeed in reminding me of some of the more muted Hunters & Collectors moments, and there are layers of chamber-pop strings draped over a couple songs, but the overall ambience is confessional, atmospheric and a little austere, as if it's obvious to all listeners that Harvey Williams and Paul Westerberg are anchor points on a single wounded, wistful, romantic continuum.
The Shining Hour: Wait All Summer
The liner notes claim that Mark Cohen, whose one-man band the Shining Hour is, wrote and recorded 167 songs between 1986 and 1998, which makes it not too surprising that the fifteen chosen to represent him on this album from the German pop label Apricot spin off in a variety of directions, albeit related ones. On one song he sounds like a young Paul Weller fronting St. Christopher, and the next he could be Mark Hollis making a guest appearance with the Magnetic Fields. One sounds like a Smiths demo, the next like a Byrds/Who pastiche, the next like the Icicle Works with a head cold. A couple could be Orchids or Field Mice songs, a couple sound more like the Pet Shop Boys remixing Nick Drake. Some undulate, some sparkle. Some drift, some skitter. Cross Aztec Camera and the Housemartins, or Tobin Sprout and Orange Juice. If I move on a little too quickly, hardly giving this album a fair chance to enthrall me as thoroughly as it well might, it's just because 152 more songs like these is enough material to make Cohen into a patient, sober, sentimental Robert Pollard, and the prospect pushes me disconcertingly close to panic.
Lily Liver: I've Got You Right Where You Want Me
Neither Heavenly nor Sarge come close to exhausting my appetite for spiky, buoyant, female-led punk-pop, a category I refer to, in my uncharitable moods, as See How Good Sleater-Kinney Could Be With Real Songs? Lily Liver owe some of the same debts to the Go-Go's and the Pixies as many others, at least on this side of the ocean, but they seem a little more serious about the punk roots of punk-pop than most, reminding me more than once of Meat Puppets and Fugazi. At their most energized, though, Lily Liver sound to me amazingly like a Sugar to Throwing Muses' Hüsker Dü, an evolution of angular experiment into roaring pop sprint, which seems so sensible and inevitable in retrospect that I start thinking of the earlier bands like they were puzzles waiting for these solutions all along.
Little Tin Frog: Brilliant Ideas
If you extend the line that runs through Heavenly and Sarge out past Heavenly toward the Cardigans, you find a lot of hooks on which to hang punk-pop bands that aren't afraid of the occasional jazz chord. The California quartet Little Tin Frog fit into this category on some songs, notably the careening "Just a Baby", the sinuous lounge-strut "Unaware", the leering gallop "Pet My Cat" and the diffident acoustic bonus track, but the storming "Grow" and warbling "Don't Go, Go" are both more in the rock mold of Jen Trynin and Tracy Bonham, the jerky, violent "Complex" (with an over-engineered keyboard/relationship metaphor to challenge the Posies' "You're the Beautiful Ones") sounds like Kristeen Young finally giving in and learning to play guitar, and "Picture of a Cigarette in a Circle With a Line Through It (The Cigarette Song)" (with the cogent "I once knew a girl who smoked. / She died! / Smoking is bad. / I knew a girl who never smoked at all. / She died! / But smoking is still bad.") is an astonishingly vivid impression of how a collaboration between the Leslie Spit Treeo and Too Much Joy might operate.
Girlfriendo: Surprise! Surprise! It's Girlfriendo
Girlfriendo are actually Swedish, but the lead singers sound English, and the band sounds a lot more like Kenickie than they do like Roxette. Girlfriendo, though, squeeze the warring impulses from Kenickie's two albums onto one disc, perhaps hoping that if they're forced to coexist they won't consume each other the way, in the end, Kenickie's did. "Homework" is a thickly-accented recitation over a cyclic funk jam, but "First Kiss Feelings vs. Everyday Sensations" is an unapologetic "Town Called Malice" clone and "Delicatessen" is defiant and shouty. "Make-Up" is sunny and delicate, and "Sad Birthday Song" describes itself accurately, but "12" is expansive and precocious. "Cat Heaven" is goofy girl-group froth, "Kisses in the Nursery" is a playground chant that, at less than a minute, still goes on way too long, and "Girlfriendo Soundsystem" is a meandering, expendable instrumental, but then "Hallelujah" sounds like Luscious Jackson by way of Trans Am. "Surprise, Surprise" reminds me of the Jam's "Beat Surrender" or Don't Try This at Home-era Billy Bragg, but on "Lose Your Face" the band sounds like they're trying to learn a Cardigans song at half speed. They bring in wheezing synthesizers and a clicking drum-machine for the beepy "Crushed", which makes them sound Japanese, but for the poised finale, "A Reason for Every Season", they're back to sounding like the Jam's Style-Council-anticipating final days. I'm pretty sure I wouldn't have wanted Kenickie to blend pastel pop into their shiny girl-power debut, or mar the icing of Get In with spray paint, but it's interesting to hear how the combination might have worked, if they'd survived to a third album to try it.
Eggstone: Spanish Slalom
The jazzy parts of Eggstone's Spanish Slalom are actually a bit too jazzy for my tastes, too many vibraphones, clarinets (oboes?) and demurrals, but when they slip up and revert to pop, as on the pealing "My Trumpets", the crashing, Jellyfish-like choruses of "The Dog", the sweeping strings that carry away the Beautiful South-ish "Birds in Cages", the frantic "If You Say", the sputtering disco groove of "Taramasalata", the warped Pixies-homage "Desdemona", and the ebullient cascades of "Still All Stands Still", I'm far too entranced to care whether this album has two songs I don't like or twelve. Summer days are long, long enough too for the moments of rapture you need a remote to organize. Know what the scientist knows: everything counts. Anything that isn't part of the treasure can always be part of the map.