Turn Off Your Radio
236 · 5 August 99
The Verve Pipe: The Verve Pipe
On the surface, "Photograph", the first song I heard by The Verve Pipe, seems like exactly the sort of relentlessly mainstream quasi-aggressive mildness of which, more often than not, I disapprove, a point somewhere along the airbrushed-stubble/cultivated-ennui axis from Pearl Jam to Deep Blue Something. It's easy to see why aging record executives like this stuff; it tends to bear the same resemblance to rock music that Taco Bell does to Mexican food, nominal exotica for the intensely xenophobic. But the genre survives, I'm pretty sure, because if you put out a constant stream of earnest, friendly, uncomplicated VH1-ready singles, even people who resist them on principle are bound to let down their guard every once in a while. With millions of people to aim at, one hit in ten is easily a high enough success rate to justify hiring new interchangeable bands to replace the ones that wear out or contract personality. I like to think of myself as a grouchy elitist, but I bought Home (and not only did I buy it, but I can remember, without referring to my shelves, that "Breakfast at Tiffany's" wasn't the album title) and Third Eye Blind, and I like Eve 6, and two out of three Goo Goo Dolls songs make me swoon, so I'm as guilty of sustaining the trend as anybody, and thinking that I'm "fighting" it is merely a rationalization. The promo sticker on my copy of the Verve Pipe's Villains attests to the depth of my ambivalence, since I almost never buy anything used that's still available new, but buy it I did. And then "The Freshmen" turned out to be a huge and overplayed hit, and I could easily have resented whatever discounted price I paid for it.
But actually, I liked "The Freshmen", even after hearing it dozens of times. I empathized strongly with the song's essential mystification about the characters' past idealism, and with the helplessness of "I can't be held responsible, / 'Cause she was touching her face", as if a simple gesture can preordain its consequences, which often feels true even when I know it isn't. The quiet, unadorned version on Villains is much more artless than the sweeping, re-recorded single version, but I like them both. Moreover, I liked the rest of the record too. It was standard, clearly, but also sturdy and consistent. I liked Brian Vander Ark's warm, slightly bruised voice, a compromise of sorts between Bob Mould, Seal and Eddie Money. I liked the solid thump of Donny Brown's snare drum. As with the Goo Goo Dolls' A Boy Named Goo, although who knows what these impressions are really based on, Villains struck me as an album born into graceful obscurity and then catapulted out of it, rather than a corporate ostrich dropped out of a cargo plane in the hopes that we'd mistake its plummet for flight.
And if this proves my tastes are more arbitrary than discriminating, always a good theory, then so be it, but where I liked Villains despite my reservations, I listen to The Verve Pipe without it even occurring to me to have any. It doesn't deconstruct any forms, but somebody has to keep the forms upright, otherwise there won't be anything for the kamikazes to dash themselves against. I like the tense, buzzing guitar, lead-vocal howls and harmony wails of the rock career-arc bio "Supergig". "She Loves Everybody" takes Eddie Vedder's nervous snarl, smoothes it out, and drapes it across a lithe melody (in which I hear faint traces of Marillion's "White Feather", but that might only be me), the lack of which is my exact standing complaint about Pearl Jam's churning, evasive songs. "Hero", if you factor out the idiom, could be a Neil Diamond anthem, but I'd rather have one song that arrives at his flair of its own accord than ten coy homages that amount to self-congratulatory paeans to the idea of liking him. "Television" opens with industrial surge à la Stabbing Westward, but sweeps into a chorus more like a hoarse Jesus Jones. "In Between" plays reeling pop hooks against muted whir, like Sugar trying to learn a Jellyfish song. The sentimental "Kiss Me Idle" is closer to Jeff Buckley, the swaggering choruses of "Headlines" to the Black Crowes. "The F Word" ought to be a novelty song and deliberate censor's taunt, but it actually strikes me as a surprisingly sober meditation on the hollowness of lives centered in defiance. "Half a Mind" is the closest thing to a sequel to "The Freshmen", an airy backing choir and gentle guitar arpeggios leading to a slow-procession torch-song, perhaps on the assumption, supported by ample precedent, that rock ballads are the most durable crossovers. The album does lose its way a little at the end, I think, "She Has Faces" lapsing at one point into a slow-burn guitar solo that seems firmly out of character, and the underdone "La La" not quite managing to marry its seething, textural guitar to its overwrought melody, but the Verve Pipe are at a career's most perilous juncture, successful enough for things to be expected of them, but not entrenched deeply enough to hold their ground without support, and the only open ways are collapse and retreat, or push on, tossing a song or two to the monsters to keep them occupied, while you try to figure out which path leads out of the forest, and what the world consists of other than immovable trees and shadow.
Jimmy Eat World: Clarity
You'll have a hard time finding anything that fits the composite "Semi-Charmed Life"/"Counting Blue Cars"/"Closing Time" mold better than "Lucky Denver Mint", the lead single from Jimmy Eat World's second major-label album, Clarity. Clattering drums, pulsing bass, the quiet twinkle of acoustic guitar giving way, via throat-clearing borrowed from "Creep" or "Cannonball", to an overdriven roar, a simple and memorable chorus, a drum break at the end seemingly tacked on just to have something to lop off of the radio edit, all these seem like flawless preparation for a life in the arms of people who embrace "post-grunge" so heartily because grunge itself kind of frightened them, or like details out of a label rep's dream in which somebody far less angry than Everclear did "Santa Monica". I have only three explanations for why it hasn't been summarily crammed down our throats, in order of increasing optimism: Capitol are oblivious, commercial success is so capricious that no amount of premeditation can guarantee it, or else this era is over.
I rather doubt it's the third of those, but if it were it would be a shame or a mercy, depending on whether you think confounding timid listeners is good for them, or just apt to breed unfocused resentment, as the album that would have snuck into people's homes in "Lucky Denver Mint"'s Trojan Horse is actually rather daunting and impressive, and not otherwise filled with things that anybody ever intended to be bouncy radio hits. Jim Adkins takes his dense multi-part vocals much too seriously for a genre where you're only supposed to sing like you care if you sound suicidal, and backing vocals are generally the province of the scruffy, usually-drunk bass player. A few of the songs actually have cellos, but almost all of them have some cello-ish spirit, the arrangements legato and layered, more disposed toward wax and wane than crash. Most of this music diffuses its glow, rather than gathering it into brief chorus flashes. The closest thing to a follow-up hit, I think, is "Blister", whose droning chorus at least has a catchy tagline ("How long would it take me / To walk across the United States / All alone?") but however interesting an idea I think it is to have the Proclaimers' "I'm Gonna Be" rewritten by Fugazi (and turned from courting to break-up in the process), I doubt it's what Middle America wants their convertibles to emit. The verses of "Crush" have the velocity to attract some Offspring fans, but the chorus is too monolithic to mosh to. "12.23.95"'s ringing guitar could be useful, but not imprisoned in this song's framework of hesitant drum machines, ambient creak and meticulous rondos. Off-center drums hold back "Ten", too, and while "Just Watch the Fireworks" solves that problem, a square backbeat can't turn a seven-minute relationship vow into a three-minute high-school crush. "Table for Glasses" is oblique and becalmed, its pretty harmonies, bells and violin marred by a loud, funereal snare. "Your New Aesthetic" is a jagged, blaring anthem about shattering radio complacency with jagged, blaring songs, heir more to "I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts" than "Singing in My Sleep". "Believe in What You Want" is jumpy and strangled, like a Frosting on the Beater-era Posies outtake that they never got around to writing the shiny hooks for. "On a Sunday" simmers like Verbow, "For Me This Is Heaven" sounds like the bridge of a Collective Soul song stretched out to four minutes, and "Clarity" itself squawks indignantly every time it comes close to sounding like the Foo Fighters. "Goodbye Sky Harbor", the rare sixteen-minute final track that is not a three-minute song, ten minutes of silence and then another three-minute song, is instead an odd anti-epic that spends the first three minutes unraveling, the next ten in what you'd only call a jam if you'd been raised by appliances and wind chimes, and the last three trying to figure out how Philip Glass might sound as drum-and-bass. "Lucky Denver Mint" no more prepares you for these luminous dioramas than pinball for nebulae.
Christie Front Drive: Christie Front Drive
Jimmy Eat World did a split single with Christie Front Drive, back in both bands' early days, and in the notes to their discography Jimmy Eat World claim it's the release they cherish most, so naturally I went out and bought both Christie Front Drive records, the first one a collection of singles and this, their farewell, a short album that would be even shorter if there weren't Trans Am-like instrumental interludes strewn in between the six proper songs. The origin of the bond with Jimmy Eat World isn't at all hard to deduce. If you imagine that Jimmy Eat World are a mainstream guitar-rock band who aspire to richer, more complex and more cathartic things, Christie Front Drive could easily be the point they're slowly evolving towards. These songs are slower than Jimmy Eat World's, for the most part, made of rawer emotions and rougher music, as if Christie Front Drive were the guardians of a forgotten tradition that Buffalo Tom's "Taillights Fade" was a popularization of. Feedback swirls through them, almost a substrate, and the band doesn't hop from one section to another so much as they slowly modulate one section until it becomes the next one. If you find repetition and drone inherently distasteful, this isn't your band, but I find them wholly mesmerizing. Variations on this fondness for turbulent rapture constitute parts of the styles and appeals of Buffalo Tom, Sugar and Verbow, certainly, but also Red House Painters, Bluetile Lounge, Bark Psychosis, Catherine Wheel, Grant Lee Buffalo, Handsome, Puressence, old Radiohead, Son Volt, Soul Asylum and the Willard Grant Conspiracy, and probably a dozen or two other bands who understand, in whatever part, that weariness and awe are intimately related. A month ago I would have said that Low capture this insight in its purest form, slowing their metabolisms down so that one note can encapsulate infinity, but now I think that Christie Front Drive have solved the same system of equations another way, reaching perfect calm through noise rendered featureless by repetition, rock converted to purification ritual. Silent meditation and incessant chanting are manifestations of the same religious impulse, after all, both attempts to sever contact with the world, filter it out or drown it out.
The Gloria Record: The Gloria Record
The first single released by Audio Concept, the label belonging to Kerry McDonald of Christie Front Drive, was the debut of the quartet Mineral. The single was later reissued by Caulfield Records, who did both Christie Front Drive discs, and Mineral's farewell album, EndSerenading, was produced by frequent Jimmy Eat World collaborator Mark Trombino. Mineral are nominally defunct, but half the band resurfaced as The Gloria Record, whose self-titled debut sounds like a virtually seamless continuation of the two Mineral albums to me. Mineral cite Christie Front Drive as a formative influence, so it's unsurprising to find resemblances between them, but if all the members' names weren't so different, I'd be tempted to wonder if the two bands weren't products of the same ensemble, like the half dozen groups that are all really The Cat's Miaow. Singer Christopher Simpson's desperate, straining vocals resemble Bono and Thom Yorke's in some passages, Paul Hyde and Tommy Keene's in others, and tend to command these songs more than whoever's voice that is in Christie Front Drive, and a slight inclination towards quieter arrangements (punk having steadily yielded to atmosphere since Mineral's The Power of Failing) leads some of these songs to sound a little more like Son Volt, but the overall emotional intensity seems to me to produce the same redemptive rush. These are my insomnia themes, soundtracks for clinging to the last shred of awareness, half petrified and half savoring the struggle for its simultaneous simplicity and futility. I take them to be proof, valuable however self-evident the point, that serenity and complacency are two entirely different forms of surrender.
Kind of Like Spitting: You Secretly Want Me Dead
A few more steps in the direction of silence get us to Kind of Like Spitting, a Portland, Oregon one-man-band augmented, for this first full-length, by a drummer and a violinist. Hushed and tentative, torn between singer/songwriter poise and low-fi bedroom-pop naïveté, this is the sort of record I fear you only properly appreciate once you've heard so much noncommercial music that you no longer think of polish and technique as qualities every record is measured on, but rather as optional elements on the order of mandolins or Chinese gongs, things that might be delightful touches in any given performance but whose "absence" it's barely sensible to discuss, let alone consider a flaw. Given the hand-made booklet, the illegible cartoon printed under the opaque CD tray, and the relief lettering on the CD itself, which appears to have been done with Liquid Paper, the level of conventionally musical competence on the record is actually higher than I expected. Kind of Like Spitting is, in fact, almost exactly what I thought Elliott Smith would sound like, before I heard him, and what I still more or less wish he sounded like now that I have. Smith vexes me, as there are clearly grounds for claiming that he's a songwriter on par with Paul Simon, but if somebody Simon's age performed a song as listlessly as it feels to me that Smith performs his, we'd be scrambling for a doctor's phone number to ask about stroke symptoms. The more quietly Elliott sings, the further away he seems to me to fade. The more quietly Ben sings here, on the other hand, the more intimately I feel connected. The litany of imminent losses in "Who Cares How Much" is delivered in so close to a whisper that I imagine the tape recorder propped on the end of the bed, in danger of being kicked off if the subject of the song stirs in her sleep. "Catch the Red-Eye Out of Girlfriend Land" is as close as I've heard a song come to capturing the queasy mood of middle-of-the-night departure. "Your Favorite Actor" makes Patty Larkin's "Red Accordion" seem overblown, but the sketchy guitar and handful of violin notes imply an entire lullaby. "We Got as Far as Minnesota" might sound like Guided by Voices if it were twenty times noisier and four times less coherent; "When they look at our dirty hands, / We get followed in supermarkets", Ben complains, unwilling to cloak his pathos in surrealism. At least a third of the melody of "Happy?" falls outside his vocal range, but you can't always count on knowing how to say the things you need to. The verses of "Maybe We Should Get Married..." ride on a single repeated chord, but in between the verse and the chorus is a picked guitar figure as elegant as it is understated. Loping drums give the disconsolate "A Thought From the Kitchen Floor" a faint country twinge. "Motor Boat" has some barely-audible backing vocals that sound like they're coming from another room. "Please Don't Sweat the After Life" could be a blues song that has yet to suffer its first real hardship. "Why can't I slow down?", Ben asks in "Slow Me Down", a song already in danger of stopping altogether. "Something in the Air" approximates Tullycraft for a moment, but "A Song by Eric Mast" is back to gangly, muffled candor. Track fourteen, whose title is too long to quote, could be a tape of Mark Eitzel as a sixteen -year-old, "Staring at Your Toy Collection" Eitzel at nineteen or twenty, pre-alcohol. And the record ends with a cover of Karate's "New Hang Out Condition" so unresolved that I don't think it's a tribute, I just think Ben needed the song for something and couldn't find his tape. Not even Robert Pollard writes songs that sound this much like recording them is a daily routine as uneventful as checking for mail, but as effortless as feeling lonely when there isn't any.
Braid: Frame & Canvas
Ben's favorite band is Braid, whose final studio album (they are extant as I write, but due to break up in a matter of days), Frame & Canvas, is the other bookend for my week, jarring and resistant in the way that the Verve Pipe are amiable and inviting. If Kind of Like Spitting are what I wanted Elliott Smith to be, based on no knowledge, then Braid are what I wanted Fugazi to become, based on knowing their entire history in detail but having been progressively less entranced by each of the five albums since Repeater. Reviewing Red Medicine, just over four years ago, I suggested that Fugazi should make a dizzy pop record, or an ambient album, something wholly outside of their experience (a relatively harmless request that as an inciter of hate-mail has ended up right above my describing Billy Corgan's vocal timbre as a whine, but below anything I ever wrote about Helloween), but in a way Instrument, the soundtrack to the recent film about them, is Fugazi's version of an ambient album, and I listened to it three times through without a single moment registering, so perhaps I should have been more specific. Frame & Canvas isn't a dizzy pop album, either, but Braid do combine Fugazi's menacing minimalism with a wide assortment of other modes, which was really my point. The crashing drums of "The New Nathan Detroits" are straight out of New Model Army, but there are a couple vocal moments that remind me vividly of Everclear. The propulsive "Killing a Camera" has hints of Naked Raygun, Mission of Burma and the Mighty Mighty Bosstones. "Never Will Come for Us" sounds to me like a Trans Am sprint finally given lyrics. The guitar pulse of "First Day Back" is somewhere in between Everclear and Green Day, but the shouted vocals are pure Fugazi. The spasmodic "Collect From Clark Kent" sounds a little like Sebadoh, but the twisting chorus of "Milwaukee Sky Rocket" reminds me of The Skids. Bob Nanna lurches over the words of the venomous, self-critical rant "A Dozen Roses", like this recording is the first time he's seen them. "Urbana's Too Dark" reverses the lens, and makes a love story out of an urban critique. "Consolation Prizefighter" skips beats in the middle of the chorus, as if mocking the atavism of refrains. "Ariel" is Braid's "Heroin Girl", this couple's problem far more complicated than heroin. Cascading guitar hooks nudge the braying "Breathe In" along, and if this album ever lets me down, it's only in closing with the drifting "I Keep a Diary", a fine interlude that despite a cacophonic coda simply lacks the heroic will to be the climax of this decisive record. Fugazi showed how the world could be reduced to a set of sharp angles, every compound shape abstracted to the smallest possible number of lines, but after a while I got tired of dramas staged with just lines. Braid points out that if you relax the rules a little, and allow the lines to be bent, you can draw surprisingly recognizable characters without needing very many more of them. I consider Repeater one of rock's rare paradigm shifts, but Frame & Canvas makes me realize that from Fugazi's vantage point, within it, it may be hard to see where Repeater's evocation of unflinching straightedge touches anything else, which leads to a diminishing-returns spiral almost of geometrical necessity. Fugazi are aesthetics pretending to be folk heroes, Braid auctioneers pretending to be skeptics. Moreover, this record makes me doubt that we can, or at least doubt that we should, ever have Heroes as heroes to begin with. Sure, "You Can Still Rock in America" is rousing, and Hercules retrieved Cerberus from Hades, but that's what Night Ranger and Hercules are built for. How heroic is destiny, and what kind of identity can you derive from the inevitable? If Claire Forlani disappeared for a month and returned smelling of pomegranate, with a three-headed, dragon-tailed schnauzer trotting docilely at her side, that would be impressive. Listening to this album as I made dinner tonight, stomping in enthusiastic circles in my kitchen, flailing in sympathy (not the greatest idea while holding a bread knife), I felt as inspired as any anthem can make me. If you can lose yourself in this music, factor out the superficial differences between slashing dissonance and eloquent sighs, then you're on your way to recognizing the heroic in everyone, and thus the implicit mythologies by which we each chart our progress and stature, and through which we filter every proposal. Understanding a person's mythology is the first step towards truly communicating with them. Understanding your own mythology is the first requirement for a revealing conversation with yourself. The real danger of banal, unthreatening art is that for its audience it marks the borders of what's possible. If your music is all the same, so will be your days.