239 · 26 August 99
The Alarm: King Biscuit
I think the people at King Biscuit would like this record to be cited as "King Biscuit: The Alarm", as if King Biscuit is such an enduring emblem of musical quality that it becomes the artist of these recordings, as if thinking people the world over are endeavoring to keep their King Biscuit collections complete, caring little whether the next installment features the Waitresses or Uriah Heap, just thrilled to know that another random hour of music has been aged to delicious perfection in an oaken vault buried deep under Cleveland, waiting for the perfect day when a bright young intern realized that legally, nobody could stop them from trundling out CDs of every minute they ever broadcast. Standing in the way of the noble dream of corporate brand-loyalty is the fact that the releases themselves have the shoddy look of an apprentice bootlegger's first surreptitious practice-run. The stenciled band-name, splintered-wood background, grainy computer-drawn flower and random song-title capitalization that adorn this package all look to me like the work of a twenty-two-year-old with a copy of Photoshop and an empty-handed courier idling in his doorway, working from the memory of having seen the cover of an Alarm record, once, at a friend's house, long ago, or was that The Armoury Show? The "Collector's Edition" liner notes devote one page to a wildly self-congratulatory essay about the King Biscuit Flower Hour itself, and two to an ineptly written and chronologically haphazard biography of the Alarm that can't even provide the date of this recording, much less anything a "Collector" didn't already know. Even the truncation of "King Biscuit Flower Hour" to "King Biscuit" irritates me, a corporation trying to assert its own familiarity, and in doing so deleting the only word of the name, "Hour", whose pertinence I ever understood. The production quality is woeful, at times losing entire instruments in the bowels of the mix, Dave Sharp's guitar somehow ending up sounding like the Wedding Present, Eddie Macdonald's bass rarely hitting two in-tune notes in succession, Mike Peters shouting to be heard over it all as if the band grew up so poor they never learned to use stage monitors. The last track here, a "bonus interview", is a distorted ten-minute phone conversation with Peters for which clearly neither party has prepared, and I'm not entirely sure that Peters even knows he's being recorded. In their hurry to take advantage of their only asset, now that live broadcasts are no longer novel, the people at King Biscuit have missed the fact that although their radio show was significant, its significance was not the archival value of its broadcasts, but rather their timeliness.
What bails them out, however (and you could claim that they know what they're doing, but I don't see any evidence to that effect), at least in this instance, is that the Alarm, in Boston for a rare headlining appearance on an unknown December night, 1981, transcend themselves. They seem to be in control of their direction in only the loosest conceptual sense; Twist's drumming is reasonably decisive, but the other three musicians stick to their parts with all the graceful aplomb of derailed subway cars, careening through chord-changes in the hope that if they move fast enough, any mistakes they make will recede into the past too rapidly to register. King Biscuit's no-overhead dumping of the tape onto CD turns out to be the best possible thing they could have done with it. By sitting still and keeping the microphones pointing in the correct direction, some uncredited attendant captured the band's breathless intensity an order of magnitude more vividly than any of the albums they made themselves. Their one official live record, the half-hearted Electric Folklore Live, may as well be of someone else. The Alarm, the real Alarm, were grand masters of ragged, anthemic catharsis, and in concert, with eyes to make contact with, and heartbeats with which to beat in sympathy, they came alive in a way that the studio experience could almost inevitably never recreate. Over time, in fact, it seems to me that instead of learning how to impose their will on the studio, the Alarm just became progressively more confused by it, assured by too many producers that this bizarre, polished, impersonal quartet on the records was their true selves, and eventually, their faith in themselves sapped to the point of collapse, they were reduced to attempting to oblige the illusion, to become the strangers they saw in their own publicity photos. I saw them for the last time in the same club where this show was recorded, almost exactly a decade later, on tour for the blunt, lifeless Raw, desperately trying to recall their old selves, and failing. But for one night in 1981, all that is far in the future. Declaration, their first full album, is still in the future. Learning to play their instruments properly is, arguably, still in the future. Except for the absent "Lie of the Land" (available in similarly unhinged live form on the 1998 reissue EP Save it for Later), they play about every song they know, "Marching On" twice, even "Reason 41", "Up for Murder" and "Unsafe Building" making their way into the set list, and by the end they may be out of blood, not just material. "The Alarm offered listeners something to believe in", the liner notes dryly assert, but I don't think that's what the Alarm did at all. I think what they gave away, for the most part, were anthems whose defining genius was that they came with no ideologies of their own, and thus could be applied to any sufficiently passionate conviction for which the listener wanted a soundtrack. And this noisy hour, more than half my life ago, the conviction given voice is, recursively, heartrendingly, upliftingly, immortally, the very idea that music can be the language in which we declare our selves.
Black 47: Live in New York City
The sad paradox of the Alarm's King Biscuit album, though, is that on the one hand, I really believe it's the best recording of the band that has ever been legally sold, but on the other hand, its nominal deficiencies are such that only existing fans are likely to put up with it. Compared with Black 47's recent live album, however, the Alarm's might as well be stapled into next week's TV Guide. Black 47 built their following through tireless NY/NJ residencies, so this album could have been conceived as an opportunity for the rest of the world, where Black 47 have ventured less often, to hear what a night in one of their adopted hometowns sounds like. Listening to it, though, I have the distinct impression that the record is not a gift, it's an elaborate fuck-you to any but the most obdurate and entrenched devotees of Larry Kirwan's bleary narrative of Irish-expatriate pathos. Usually when rock bands play live, especially when they play live a lot, whatever sense their songs once had gets subsumed into the music, and they end up performing, in a way, references to the songs, not the songs themselves. This works because most band's fans stopped really paying attention to the subjects of their songs long ago, as well. The concert becomes a collaborative celebration of how the band's music makes people feel. Sometimes I think it has to be this way, otherwise many artists, Del Amitri, Lisa Germano and Kristeen Young leaping immediately to mind, couldn't perform for audiences at all. But the crowds that come to see Black 47, if this album is indeed representative, are there for the exact opposite experience. Live in New York City is less a rock concert than an original cast recording of an episodic accompanied monologue: instead of the music swallowing Kirwan's storytelling, it struggles to even get a few notes in edgewise. Several members of the band appear to have bet him that they can make their instruments sound more like wounded sheep than his singing does, and combined with the band's blithe ignorance of customary borders (Ireland, Jamaica and Manhattan are all islands, right?), this makes for an overall sensation that I suspect the average listener would liken to a remake of A Clockwork Orange in which Beethoven's Ninth is replaced, for therapeutic purposes, by a twenty-four-hour tape-loop of "Come On Eileen". The meta-message seems to me to be "Go ahead, hate us. You know you're going to." It's an endurance contest. You grit your teeth, not wanting to concede the band their weird, self-critical point. But if all you thought about these songs, the first time, was that they were catchy or cute, you'll never make it. They do play "Funky Céilí", there's no cynical disdain for their one hit, but the hooks rarely penetrate Kirwan's half-rancorous, half-lovesick rant, delivered like a memorized Monty Python sketch, and when the performance lapses into improvisation it doesn't sound like a jam to me, it sounds like Larry has finally gotten Bridie on the phone, late one night, hopelessly drunk and missing her to the point of physical pain (or maybe he fell down some stairs and doesn't remember), and after running out of his prepared speech and getting no response from her, he just begins babbling, searching for the incantation that will bring her to his side by the undisciplined approach of trying them all in a random order. Either you think Kirwan is a singular genius, or else my bet is that you will be unable to get through this whole album once.
As it happens, though, I do think Kirwan is a singular genius. Black 47's music annoys me, too, sometimes, and only rarely rises past "cute" in my abstract esteem, but Kirwan's storytelling, in my opinion, is genuinely brilliant and deceptively humane, his records forming a patchwork novel of cultural transplantation as poignant, acutely observed and engrossing as The Grapes of Wrath. So I take this album the way I think it was meant (though this, of course, might be circular reasoning). The more painful and self-indulgent it gets, the more I love it. If it's a trial, I refuse to fail. Kirwan could pitch face-first off the stage and lie on the floor retching uncontrollably, and I'd find some way to believe he's doing it in character; maybe inducing actual nausea is a cultivated defense against the emotional nausea that would wrack him if he weren't distracted from it. And by the time the record staggers to its finale, a shouty, distended, bouncy, blasphemous trashing of "Like a Rolling Stone" that Kirwan introduces with the audacious taunt "Hey Bobby Dylan, this is how you do it!", I know that my devotion is, because it might have to be, ferocious enough to stare down a horde chanting for Black 47 to hang.
Sloan: 4 Nights at the Palais Royale
If the point of a concert album is to reproduce the experience of seeing a band live, 4 Nights at the Palais Royale is one of the most egregious failures in the history of the form. My diary of seeing Sloan, at least, goes something like this: Wow, that's really loud. Wait, is that Sloan on stage now, or are those homeless people they hired to tune their instruments? Did they drive here from Canada, or were they dragged behind a truck? Wow, that is really loud. I can't make out any detail, at all. I guess it might be a Sloan song. If I watch that scraggly guy in the middle kick, I can deduce where the beats are supposed to be, and if I can see his lips moving, when he's near the microphone, that must be singing. It's very, very, very loud. These are the four sloppiest human beings I have ever seen on a lighted stage. Too brightly lit, in fact. They've got every white light in the place on, and my eyes are starting to hurt, too. The guitarist is wearing a sweater held together with duct tape. The guy in the middle seems to be under the delusion that they're Cheap Trick. I didn't even know duct tape would stick to sweaters. Man, this is loud. How can they be Cheap Trick without any melody or dynamic variation? This song has been going for at least two minutes, and I still don't have the slightest idea what it is. Maybe the PA on this side isn't working. It sounds hurt. My head is starting to hurt. Actually, my head is literally starting to hurt. My ears are starting to hurt. This is disconcertingly unpleasant. I'm going to stand farther back. No, it still hurts, farther. No, farther. Well, I'm standing at the back now. I still can't hear anything musical about the noise, and my ears still really hurt. The only way to get farther back is to go through the exit, which is right behind me. I like Sloan, and I just paid money to come through that door. But my ears hurt a lot. I am now standing on the other side of the door. It's still pretty loud. I'm now outside the club. Better. I'm now two blocks away getting into my car. Better still. It's now three days later and my ears have finally stopped ringing, and for the first time I think that maybe I've survived this experience without incurring permanent physiological damage. I am thinking about writing Sloan a letter telling them that they are the worst live act I have ever seen. A letter? I am thinking about driving to Halifax and punching them each in the face until they stop moving.
Several aspects of this ordeal, obviously, will not come across quite right on record, even with two CDs to work with. I've never been more confused and angry about a public event in my life, even if you extend "public event" to cover traffic jams, tornado drills and getting kicked in the head during a soccer game. Sometimes bad sound is the fault of the sound man, not the band, but I'm quite sure that's how Sloan wanted it. The volume went with the bare white light, the threadbare clothes, the oppressive air of annoyance. If they played that way everywhere they went, I think they may have invented the demotional tour, a wanderjahr spent tracking down every Sloan fan in America and alienating them all. Back at home in Canada, though, where the twenty-eight songs on this double-album were recorded, they seem to have been more tolerant, and this set sounds like I expected Sloan to, plenty messy but not unintelligible, harmonies evident, words discernible, the notion that they owe something to the Beatles, as well as Manowar, undisguised. In its best moments, where it sounds to me like Sloan have only slowly come to understand how great a song they've written is, it makes me all the more furious that they botched the one show I saw so badly. In its worst moments, where traces of the same pretentious anti-pretension that ruined my show wreck another perfectly good pop song, I begin to wonder whether inventing electricity wasn't a mistake.
Sarah McLachlan: Mirrorball
But since I have the perfect antidote to terminal underachievement handy, this week, it would almost be a shame not to need it. Sarah is a concert perfectionist just as much as she is a studio perfectionist, her approach to performing about as far as you can get from duct-taped sweaters and hearing damage without becoming Leda and the Swan done as an ice-dancing pantomime. The obvious criticism, if you feel like criticizing her, is that the live versions of her songs are so meticulous and practiced that they sound like studio versions. But either you like her studio versions, in which case there's no problem, or else you don't, and there's no reason anybody should care whether you like this album any better. I don't actually care that this is a live album, I just love hearing different versions of her songs, hearing how they evolve and adapt. Nothing makes the long journey from Touch to the present, sadly, and a pensive, wistful, half-acoustic "The Path of Thorns (Terms)", with some breathtaking new harmonies between Sarah and backing vocalist Camille Henderson, is the only song from Solace, but the 1992 Live EP covered those two albums. This one, then, is split between Fumbling Towards Ecstasy, already partly remade on The Freedom Sessions, and Surfacing. The Fumbling singles "Possession" (which picks up a twitchy groove and some churning guitar) and "Good Enough" (languid and faintly bluesy) are joined by an aching and melodically elaborate "Hold On", Sarah and Ash's concert-staple guitar-and-hand-drum scat-duet version of "Ice Cream", a brittle, shimmering rendition of "Fear", and a long, rousing "Fumbling Towards Ecstasy" that seems to have received a complete rhythm transplant since I heard it last. The understated between-albums single "I Will Remember You" hasn't changed much yet, for some reason, although there's some pretty guitar-and-piano interplay in the middle. She omits "Full of Grace", I'm a little disappointed to discover, but does everything else from Surfacing other than "Witness", "Black & White" and "Last Dance". "Building a Mystery" is a steady and assured opening, "Adia" spare and unhurried, "I Love You" a little more organic than its original, more centered on Sarah's curling vocal. She takes "Do What You Have to Do" as a mid-album solo, accompanying herself on piano, which should shut up anybody who still thought that she couldn't survive without studio or band. "Sweet Surrender" has picked up speed and a touch of menace, Sarah clipping her words a little to play along. And rather than go out on crescendoing waves, as she could have, and probably I expected her to, she closes with "Angel", again just voice and piano, an intimate benediction to carry with us each into our own nights. Sarah occupies a very different place in the world than she did when I caught half of the "Into the Fire" video for the first time, months before I'd even heard of Tori Amos, back when Alanis Morissette was still making dance fluff that entailed more hairdressing than rehearsal. Airplay saturation and her role in the Lilith Fair have conspired to take her away from me and make her into other people's music, or to try to, anyway. And for weeks at a time, they sort of succeed, and I forget that there are awe-inspiring musical and emotional progressions to go along with the commercial one, forget that I have more than enough personal history with these songs to ignore whatever else they've become attached to, forget that twinge I felt, dubious and silly but involuntary and sincere, when I read that she'd married her drummer. I forget that no matter what tranquilizing shopping-experience use Sarah's songs are put to, all I have to do is go home and put them in my own player, let them out to echo around my own walls, and they are mine again. We let strangers steal our treasures, sometimes, by gradually convincing us that they're not so precious, until we finally just give them away. But I didn't like Solace because it was obscure, I liked it because I thought I heard a singer and songwriter starting to unlearn her limits. I thought she might have the talent, and compassion, to one day write songs capable of wrapping themselves around nodes of the universe's pain, and dissolving them. I think I was right. And late at night, when Sarah and I are the only ones to have fought off sleep, it seems to me that she makes new versions of old songs because the only way to dissolve pain is to absorb it into your own soul, and convert its energy to other forms. The good these songs do alters them. Any song you don't have to periodically rewrite is dead, or you are.