The Boy Most Likely and the Girl Most Lovely
229 · 17 June 99
Sleepy Township: Set Sail
Between the distractingly escalating tensions, at work, of trying to finish up a new version of our web-based project-collaboration software (that's not the phrase I'm supposed to use to describe it, but it's closer than I usually get), and the fact that I still live in the same town as my college, and thus didn't have to make any complicated, life-disrupting plans to attend my ten-year reunion, I managed to get within half a block of Eliot House, last Friday night, before a physical sense of apprehension came over me. I've been joking for months, watching email messages on the class-of-'89 mailing list from people I didn't even vaguely recall, that I'd probably show up at the reunion and not recognize a soul, but as I picked my way through the class of '94, milling around outside Kirkland House, next door, in their own nervous eddies, it suddenly dawned on me that this fear might not be rhetorical. What if I really didn't recognize anybody? I'd run through the statistics at least twice, and comforting figures had emerged, but it's difficult to both focus on encouraging probability equations and also pronounce your last name clearly to a bemused nineteen-year-old standing behind the K-O box of registration packets. As I walked into the Eliot courtyard, my large white envelope of redundant information and wheedling in my hands, I was consumed by two panicky impulses: 1) find somebody, anybody, whose name I could remember without pressing my nose into their breast (one of the weekend's two egregious planning errors was printing the name-tags in the same font used for The Portable Nietzsche, which, until the black-market trade in "HELLO, MY NAME IS" badges and Magic Markers got rolling, rendered any semblance of identity-divining subtlety impossible), and 2) trade the cumbersome envelope of garbage for some kind of food, as it finally occurred to me that the feeling in my stomach might also be related to the fact that I'd neglected to eat anything in the last 26 hours. Solutions to neither problem were immediately apparent. The caterers were all still scurrying back and forth with tablecloths, which usually means you've arrived way too early, a hypothesis confirmed by the sparse assembly. I started a slow circuit of the yard, attempting lamely to look purposeful. No, no, hmm. No. I don't recognize them, not any of those people, not the ones comparing babies, not that one already well into an evening's drinking (a rational defense mechanism, arguably, but I don't drink). No. No. Ah, the tall guy with the scar seems remotely familiar, but did I know him in school, or does he just look like one of the villains from Cerebus? Wait! There! That girl lived upstairs from me freshman year! I remember her name, both her names! I rush over, trying not to hyperventilate, and greet her with an effusion usually left to sailors returning from active duty. Hi! Wow! How've you been, what are you doing, I haven't seen you in years, where do you live now? Caught up in the moment and the relief, I temporarily forget that we were never especially close friends, that I didn't see her much in the three years that we spent at the same college but not living on the same staircase, that I haven't thought of her once in ten years, and that we could have been living half a mile from each other, ever since, and I probably wouldn't know it. In fact, a short exchange reveals that we have been living half a mile from each other, for the past decade. This is an inauspicious start.
As more people drift in, though, and my frame of reference adjusts, things slowly begin to improve. My girlfriend from freshman and sophomore years arrives, as does one of my senior-year roommates, which gives me two people with whom I'm prepared to have substantive conversations. I start running into people I actually hung out with, at various times. Clusters accrete, crowd noise reaches a reassuring level, and the part of me that used to know ways to behave at sprawling parties like this blinks out of dormancy. I have the first of several ultimately minor epiphanies, which is that I'd been subconsciously expecting this college reunion to more or less resemble my ten-year high school reunion, four years ago. My social patterns in college, however, were nothing like the ones in high school. In high school I had a single, cohesive group of friends, all of whom were each others' friends as well as mine, most of whom had known each other for either seven years or thirteen, depending on which of the four elementary schools they were from. The formal reunion was largely just an excuse, and a scheduled framework, for our own personal reunion. In college, though, my experience was much more fractured. I had lots of intense but short-duration friendships based on residential proximity or shared courses, I had a lot more friends in other classes than I did in high school, and I spent an enormous amount of time as a member of a few especially insular and/or dysfunctional organizations and disciplines. As conversations form and dissolve around me, at the reunion, I realize that I had no group. I did know lots of people, after all, but any random pair probably didn't know each other. A few moments of observation suggest that other people are finding this out about themselves, too.
We play weird social games, as we go through this haphazard square dance. More than once I escape from a tedious drone by collaring a third party and using them as a conversational pick, and it later occurs to me that we could probably invent a scoring system to keep track of how often you free yourself from a dull encounter this way, how often you yourself are used as the pick, and how often you're the one somebody else is resorting to subterfuge to elude. At one point I notice, as I never consciously have before, that I immediately switch into an effusive performance mode when presented with an audience of any plural size, but am either mordantly serious or torturously reticent in one-on-one conversations. The undergraduates manning the bar don't seem that much younger than we do, to me, but I can see in their eyes that to them we're virtually unfathomable, hardly the same species; I feel like I was supposed to get old by now, but forgot. And the aura and expectations of Harvard, of course, settle over the congregation like ash. The class report made it sound like nearly everybody is now a lawyer or a doctor, and I figured to some extent that was a self-selection effect, but if it was, reunions select for the same tendencies. I don't meet anybody who seems to be actively bragging (in fact, I suspect several people of deliberately understating their accomplishments to avoid being obnoxious), but I'm sure we could all remember our SAT scores if we tried, and we were told once too often that we were the brightest and the new leaders, and those of us who don't feel like we're the leaders of anything yet, which appears to be just about everybody, still can't shake the unspoken question "Am I keeping up?" Conversations about classmates all eventually turn to Mira Sorvino, our class' only genuine media celebrity (who lost points, I thought, by choosing to be listed in the class report with only her agent's address, but then won them back by showing up at the reunion and acting like a normal person). Never mind what I have or haven't done myself, I feel like we've let the school down a little, collectively, like an Oscar for supporting actress, Prozac Nation, a couple rowing trophies and the girl from my Swedish class who married Branford Marsalis aren't that much to show for sixteen thousand person-years out in the world with our expensive diplomas. We had such dreams and plans. In many cases we probably still have them. The woman I talk to who just got back from six years in Chiapas and is now working as a medical interpreter, for example, seems pretty focused. Nonetheless, I watch way too many of us, myself included, glaze over staring at Mira Sorvino's nose. In our defense, it's a reasonably amazing nose. But while there are many healthy, productive dissatisfactions a person can harbor, I don't think this is one of them.
These are pretty superficial revelations, though, most of them truths about cultural value-systems and population dynamics, not insights about my life now, or my life then, or the relationship between the two. The really important things I learned over the weekend, of which I'm pretty certain there are several, are only barely beginning to coalesce. If "Am I keeping up?" hovered over us as we looked back, "How will this reunion change the course of my life?" hovered over us looking forward. I went, I admit, hoping for some dramatic change to occur. I went hoping for a dramatic, instant change, actually, and the instant part, at least, didn't happen. I did meet an old college acquaintance I'd have asked out in a second, but she has a boyfriend and she lives in LA. I'm convinced, though, and I heard others echo this same conviction in various idioms, that my life will be changed, dramatically, by some aspect of this experience. It will just take some time to figure out how. Instant changes are necessarily literal (one of us could move...), but the most profound changes are usually much harder to isolate and identify. I went wanting answers, or perhaps new questions, and what I got were seeds of new questions. But maybe that's all you ever get. Curiosity is rarely portrayed correctly. Ninety percent of it is patience. This sounds convenient and self-fulfilling, I realize, like I'm trying to rationalize stasis by calling it attentiveness, and whatever happens to me in the next ten years I'll find some way to trace back to these two days, but transformations are no less real for being subjective, and what you make of them depends almost entirely on what you believe their causes are.
Perhaps the most surreal thing about the reunion, though, was a result of the simple logistics of living in the same city. I had to fly to Texas for my high school reunion, which meant that for four complete days I was out of my normal environment. This time, I was five minutes from home. After the Friday night party I stayed up talking to people until six, so the gap between that and the Saturday afternoon picnic was absorbed in sleep, but the four hours between the picnic and Saturday night's gala were like a short visit to an alternate universe. I had the usual array of routine tasks to accomplish, but having just come from three hours in my past, and about to go back for several more, I felt like I was a temporary substitute for my current self, performing my roles according to detailed instructions left for me that I was perfectly capable of following, step by step, but whose overall logic I didn't understand at all. In part, this was an intentional effect. Because I'd been afraid of reunion DJs messing with my musical memory, I'd deliberately picked this week's listening and reviewing agenda to be as far removed from college as possible. In the end, the musical fears turned out to be misplaced. The first two events had no music at all (or none I noticed, which is about the same thing), and the Saturday night party had a wildly miscast, and equally wildly over-amped, soul band (the other planning mistake), whose volume made conversation difficult, but whose repertoire was simply irrelevant. A few people did get up and dance during the band's last two songs (and it occurred to me, watching Mira sign out YMCA, that the band could have been a mercy, as an alert and sadistic DJ might have spotted her and put on "Time After Time", the song she and Lisa Kudrow and Alan Cumming danced to in Romy and Michele's High School Reunion), but the records that will forever take me back to this weekend, ironically, are the ones from a pile of obscure Australian indie music I picked precisely because it seemed to have no pertinence at all. It comes from the opposite side of the globe, I'd never heard of any of it until very recently, and most of it has an artless low-fi charm that strikes me as a viable antithesis of Harvard's polished, decisive, ambitious persona. I should have remembered that artistic continua tend to look like Ouroboros, or number lines plotted on the surfaces of spheres, and if you run away far enough, looking over your shoulder, you'll only smack into your starting point again from the other direction. No matter how much ivy and brick Harvard cloaks itself in, no matter how heavily its years of tradition and vaults of endowment gold weigh on the shoulders of its infrastructure, the undergraduates who inhabit it are, to whatever degree they fight or embrace this themselves, just kids, many of them embarked on what will turn out to be one of the few epic adventures they're ever granted. When I dig out papers and stories and art projects I did in college (which I don't do often), they seem abjectly misguided and hysterical, but I'm all the more fiercely proud of them for their blatant naïveté and overreach. It can be awesome to watch a master do whatever they've mastered, but my favorite thrills are the ones that surprise their creators, too. Celine Dion hits some astonishing notes, but there's no suspense. I know they're coming, I know she can hit them, I know she's going to hit them, and then she hits them. There must be a lot of people who think inevitability is exciting, since professional wrestling still exists and The Phantom Menace is doing OK, but if the outcome isn't in doubt, the closest you can get to triumph is bombast.
There's probably a way to make music with even less bombast than Set Sail, the debut album from Perth-to-Melbourne transplants Sleepy Township, but I suspect it involves playing a toy piano in your underwear while scrunched into the back of a Geo, and even Robert Pollard has higher production standards than that. Mia Schoen sings half the songs with a guileless frailty like Natalie Merchant as a fourteen-year-old, Guy Blackman sings most of the other half in a fond, unsteady, accented croon halfway between Steve Kilbey and Jonathan Richman, and drummer Chris Gorman contributes an occasional third voice that demonstrates, to me, why even if he'd had more brothers, Robert Smith could never have become the Bee Gees. Switching back and forth between male and female lead singers is often a strategy to which I react badly (my obscure canonical example being the Swimming Pool Q's' Blue Tomorrow, on which I love all the songs Anne Richmond Boston sings, and hate all the ones she doesn't, even though when the band later made an album without her, I liked it just fine), but Mia and Guy sing with what seems to me to be the same spirit, so I hardly even notice the differences in timbre. The music, gentle, jangly, burbling pop with wheezy organs to counterpose the scratchy guitars, often sounds to me like how New Order might have turned out on a planet poor in the metals required for blinking LEDs, or like the lost link between the Pixies and Belle & Sebastian, or like Pop Art with the propulsive energy of the Feelies. The mesmerizing "Heed the Call" drags its lumpy drum track behind it like Pooh's head on Christopher Robin's stair treads, and Mia's airy chorus, instead of leaping into straining rock pyrotechnics, fades nearly to translucence. Guy's spindly ode to a life watched over (and overshadowed) by album spines, "All These Records", would join the Slingbacks' "Junkstruck" on the soundtrack for a movie version of Nick Hornby's High Fidelity, if I were in charge of compiling it. The organ-driven "Thanks" could be a Zamboni anthem for suburban cul de sac broom hockey. "Just a Sec" is comparatively dense and textural, with ragged guitar fifths churning over fretful drumming and another springy, New Order-ish bass line. "For You" sounds to me like a drunken Field Mice, the stop-start "Little Song" like a version of Fugazi who never learned anything but major chords, the wistful "Pillow" more like the Magnetic Fields in a moment of jealousy over how unforced early Billy Bragg songs always sounded. "Westgate Bridge" is quick and crisp, Mia's vocals low and careening, something like a Mecca Normal song rearranged for more instruments and less stridency. "Unperturbed" is halting but radiant, a gruffer St. Christopher, but the brief, rumbling "Another Episode" could almost be an early Kenickie song. The chirpy "Lone Ranger" strikes me, although I can't figure out exactly why, like the wizard behind the curtain of a towering Who anthem. The crashing drums and insistent organ of "Weak" don't faze Gorman's falsetto at all, but the oblique guitar stabs of "Last Time Early", in which I hear traces of Pop Art, the Wedding Present and Heavenly, do seem to goad Guy into keeping pace. The galloping "U.F.O." sounds like a punk sprint performed by a combined troupe of adorable adolescent banshees and perfumed organ-grinder monkeys, but "Earth Wire" throbs and sighs like Louise Wener fronting Guided by Voices. And the bleary "Merry Xmas", which Gorman sounds like he's singing over the telephone, I'd immediately elevate into my pantheon of great rock Christmas songs if only I could pick out any Christmas-related details in the unintelligible lyrics.
I tend not to pay much attention to package art, since I almost never sit around scrutinizing the liner notes for the hundredth time while I'm listening to a record, like I did when I was fourteen (the shiny obsidian LP sleeve of Rush's Moving Pictures collects fingerprints with frightening enthusiasm, as I recall), and the photograph on the cover of Set Sail, some anonymous four-unit block of suburban townhouses painted in unconvincingly sunny pastel shades, seemed merely emblematic until I noticed in the credits that it's a painting, not a photo. It's not especially hyper-realistic, I realize when I take the time to look at it, but Schoen, who painted it, seems to me to have done an admirable job of choosing the details to labor over (the half-hidden screen doors, the anonymous sedan parked in front, the back of a yield sign on the side street) and the ones to merely intimate (trees, the hills in the background, back yard fences) based on the taxonomy of object-values through which these tract suburbs are usually experienced. The building sits at the top of the frame, a featureless road filling most of the middle space, the edge of some sort of traffic island just visible in the bottom corner. This is, in fact, the only reason small towns, over which the same infinite sky arches that spans the biggest cities, seem small in the first place. We've been trained to look down, to chart our lives according to dotted lines and curbs and sidewalks. We stick to the straightest paths we paved ourselves, and then wonder why they never lead anywhere interesting.
The Cannanes: The Cannanes
The only reason I know Sleepy Township is that they shared a split single, on Guy Blackman's label Chapter Music, with the Cannanes, who are one of my favorite discoveries from this five-month binge of random indie buying, and one of the main catalysts, along with the gnarled Sugargliders family tree, for me starting to pay attention to Australian music again after many years in which I allowed it to essentially be reduced, in my mind, to Midnight Oil, Hunters & Collectors, and the soundtrack to Rikky and Pete. There are a bunch of Cannanes albums, of varying demeanors, and this self-titled one, from 1996, on the endangered Chicago label Ajax, is neither their debut nor their most recent, but it's the one I've ended up returning to with the most pleasure. The Cannanes share Sleepy Township's fondness for buoyant, irrepressible, New Order-ish bass lines and uncomplicated, Pop Art-like guitars, and on earlier records frequently sound even less polished than Guy and Mia, but by this one they've gained some confidence, and Frances Gibson and Francesca Bussey's delicate singing lends many of these songs an ethereal grace out of proportion with their humble arrangements and production. Stephen O'Neil's guitar lurches heavily around corners like Billy Bragg's, sometimes, and other times grinds into a bleak groove like Mecca Normal's David Lester. "Drug-Induced Delirium" is a spiraling, Sarah Records-worthy lullaby, like the soft-focus picture of which the Cranberries are a mangled fifth-generation Xerox. A jittery, flanged guitar propels the oblique lilt of "Asleep", on which Frances and Francesca's harmonies alternately remind me of Heavenly and the Au Pairs. "Caesar" is what it would sound like if Billy Bragg wrote a song about his cat. "3-Way Release" is a distortion-drenched instrumental blast over which bassist David Nichols recites a bizarre, skittering monologue that concludes, tellingly, with "It's helpful to be able to live with your own limitations", as if in his mind the song's whole meandering narrative is a straightforward syllogism. "Get On Down" is muted and minimal, a distant choir inserting quiet "ahh"s while the guitar, bass and drums circle tightly. Stephen's squalling guitar hooks are the nervous core of the methodical "Matter of Distinction", and he takes over gruff lead vocals, too, for the distressed "The Promise", which seems to me like an exasperated cross between Whipping Boy, the Fall and Jimi Hendrix's "Hey Joe". Seething guitar noise buzzes under Frances' clear, folkish singing on the monolithic "Pedagogy (The Mystery of You)", but "Marching Song" is a wiry, uncluttered, stutter-drum pop song with a Primitives-style overdriven chorus. And the clipped, fedback finale, "Swing, You Little Red Devil", sounds like the Geraldine Fibbers ripping apart "The Devil Went Down to Georgia". If the Pixies, Thin White Rope and Mecca Normal all dreamed of becoming the same bookish pop group, the Cannanes are what I imagine it would sound like.
The Lucksmiths: Happy Secret
If I had to distill the week down to a single song, though, three minutes to forever stand for both my hopes and ambivalence about my reunion, and what that says about my relationship to my past, I'm pretty confident that "Untidy Towns", the first track from the Lucksmiths' ten-song Candle Records quasi-album Happy Secret, which collects the band's 1998 output (two three-song singles and four songs from compilations), could serve. Although the Lucksmiths' overall palette of styles resembles Sleepy Township's and the Cannanes' quite closely, this particular song is more polished than any of three bands' usual wont, Tali White's beatific lead vocal, Kimba Parker's breathy harmony and Richard Ogier-Herbert's spare piano combining for an effect like the Beautiful South convinced to forgo trenchant irony for just one song. The lyrics leap from solipsistic melancholy ("But for a while I'm fairly happy feeling hopeless") to earnest romantic yearning ("I know both of us are poor / But baby what are phone bills for?") and terminal awkwardness ("I say it like it's unrehearsed, / But I said it in the bathroom first") to the way our environment takes on our moods ("Past the pub where my parents met / Resigning ourselves to modern architecture"), but always return to "The boy most likely / And the girl most lovely", a pairing that, after a little too much time trying (and failing) to convince myself that "I don't think we ever met, but I called you up once to ask if you'd be in a student film I did, and you turned me down but I ended up casting one of your roommates" wasn't an obtrusively lame excuse for saying hello to Mira Sorvino, seems like a cogent point about how easily our judgments lapse, and we forget the difference between a symbol and its meaning.
The rest of the disc sounds surprisingly coherent, given its patchwork origin, more like the band made the whole record and then sliced it up than the reverse. "Pin Cushion" has some very nice, soft, Simon and Garfunkel-ish harmonies. "Edward, Sandwich Hand" has the cadences of a calmer version of the Violent Femmes' "Blister in the Sun", and reads like Paul Weller with a slightly more pronounced weakness for wordplay. "Abdication" reads like Billy Bragg and sounds like Nick Drake. "The Art of Cooking for Two", shuffling and compassionate, crosses the Field Mice with Fairground Attraction. Bassist Mark Monnone's "Don't Come With Me" is light and jazzy, but the strange "A Great Parker", with Kimba Parker singing backup and playing accordion (the song title is ostensibly a small-consolation compliment about a girl's driving skills, but for all I know Kimba is the subject), is slow and a bit uncentered. The handclaps and tambourine twitches of "Southernmost", the second single's title track, seem paralyzed, like the song wants to be giddy power pop but has only enough energy for half the pace it needs, but "Beer Nut" picks up speed, insouciance and a small pub choir, and ends up sounding more like the Wonder Stuff. And "Paper Planes", the closing track, kind of trails off, hardly a rousing conclusion, but rousing conclusions are mirages that lure us away from sustainable states, from ways of living that don't require constant infusions of invented beginnings and ends to simulate a comfortable rhythm.
Sweet William: World of Books
Sweet William must not have been a sustainable state, either, as World of Books, the band's first full album after a series of singles (the singles were on Matinée, Library and Twee Kitten; the album is on Shelflife) finds them already defunct. Sweet William were, in my estimation, one of the few non-Sarah-Records bands who understood the proper role of the cheap drum machine in twee pop. "CK86", World of Books' opening track, is as clear an example as any, a fast, dry, unvarying kick/thwack loop that makes the sparkling guitars far more plaintive, in comparison, than any human groove could have. All the technological advances in drum machines have been dedicated to making them sound more human, but to me this very much misses a vital point. Drum machines are not a substitute for human drummers, they're a different instrument entirely, or at least they can be, and while trying to reproduce human nuances in a machine loop is an interesting formal challenge, so is Travis-picking a Strat through a three-story stack of Marshalls. The electric guitar was revolutionary because it allowed kids to redraw the aesthetic boundaries of guitar-based music, and the drum machine allows just as many new possibilities, but where electric guitars pushed rock towards stadiums, drum machines pull it back into bedrooms. Drum machines and sequencers explicitly acknowledge, as the multi-tracking of regular instruments does not, the solipsistic nature of pop melancholia; many pop songs do not want to sound like an ensemble jam, they want to sound like a single lonely person's tormented thoughts, which can bear the touch of as few other human hands as possible. Sweet William understood this, perhaps, even better than St. Christopher and East River Pipe, and go out of their way to feature sketchy, anxious mechanical rhythms, like a Casio preset you just haven't heard before. The fake snare on the pulsing "Handsome Man" sounds like a whisk hitting a mixing bowl, the wooden rim-tap on the gray "Bright Day" could be a porch railing clicking to itself. "Unbecoming" rides on parallel kick, shaker and snare rails that would never occur to human wrists. "Railway Terrace" and "Aeroplane Summer"'s muffled bass thuds are less struck drums than tripped synapses. The hissing snap of "This Part of the City" contrasts instructively with the somber, dreamy vocals and the glassy guitar cascades. The interplay of drums, guitar, bass and synth-whine on "Arterial", the exit song, is like the implicit pop music that trains make just by passing, like the relationships that form and disintegrate as strangers, however complete or reluctant, glance off each other on their ways to and from. Sweet William was a quartet, not a person, but keeping that in mind won't help you appreciate them, I think, any more than you'll like R2D2 better if you keeping muttering to yourself that he's a rolling barrel with a midget crouched inside of it. Every piece of art, every scene in life, asks you to pretend to accept a few clearly counterfactual assertions. The girl on the screen (or across the room) is a real person, not a movie star, that's why you care what happens to her, and wish you could say hello. The story really happened, the castle is suspended in air, the monks haven't noticed that their circuits of the stairs never take them any higher. Designing web-based project-collaboration software, and negotiating trademark-infringement-suit settlements, are contributions to world well-being every bit as noble and far-thinking as AIDS research and biogeography. Volume and distortion are expressions of emotional urgency. Minor keys are sad. Minor Greek noblemen always stood around, naked, with one leg leaning against a convenient tree stump. You forgive all the people you hated in college. You like all the weight you've gained. Your salesperson cares about you. These are three new chords. You're not already trying to guess, after one night of just talking, whether a whole life together would work.