Or Are You Going to Turn On Me?
242 · 16 September 99
Guided by Voices: Do the Collapse
I'm not, I realize, very good at conducting job interviews. Perhaps because I am employed, myself, at a job for which I have little or no formal training (depending on whether a complete lack of formal training counts as "little", to you, or "no"), it rarely seems germane to me to ask job-related questions. Competent and incompetent applicants are both going to tell you that they're good at whatever it is you propose to hire them to do, so asking them about their skills directly is meaningless. I basically assume (not necessarily correctly, which is another problem) that any reasonably aware and intelligent person can do any job they're willing to do. If previous experience is relevant, that's why you have résumés and references. All I'm trying to ascertain during the interview is whether it will be pleasant to work with them. As a result, my interview questions end up all being either intelligence or personality tests, or frequently one disguised as the other. If applicants turned up for job interviews under the misapprehension that they were keeping appointments with benevolent family therapists, maybe this tactic would be appropriate and effective, but for most people it seems like dentistry is a more apt medical analogy, as my stochastic philosophical provocations usually inspire a dialogue only marginally more coherent and informative than the one you get by asking somebody to describe a recent vacation while you hold several miniature gardening tools and a small pump in their mouth.
One personality test I have not yet used in an interview, but only because I haven't conducted any interviews during the ten minutes since I thought of it, is asking an applicant to pick and rank their top ten insults. More obviously work-related formulations are possible ("Pick and rank your top ten criticisms of a project team", for example, if you think you can stay awake through the answer), or if you have specific ethical concerns you could make up the list yourself, and then just ask the applicant to rank them. (And if you work for a company that doesn't have ethical concerns, you should think about moving to the other side of the interview process.) I haven't tried to work out my own solution to this puzzle, in any of its forms, but three pejoratives I'd be inclined to put on a pre-compiled list, to see what people would do with them, are "bureaucrat", "heretic" and "sell-out". "Bureaucrat", to me, is a rather damning characterization, and it's my suspicion that workplaces like Dilbert's arise from not attacking the early incursions of bureaucracy with adequate vitriol. "Heretic", conversely, at least to me, is one of the archetypical self-reversing insults, an epithet that serves as a character witness for the target, and a condemnation of the speaker.
"Sell-out" is more complicated. In my taxonomy it's one of the most serious insults for which there is no associated criminal penalty, but this betrays, I know, several things about me. It isn't quite as patrician as a nasal "breeding will out", or some withering imprecation about an inability to discriminate between clarets, but leveling it as a criticism carries the implication that selling out is a surrender to weakness, not an achievement, something anybody could do, which they must work diligently to avoid. All those agonized discussions we had in college about being co-opted by the system, it now seems to me, were in part tacit boasting that the system would have us. Naturally a force more implacable than gravity is drawing me towards a fabulously lucrative career as a brainless cologne-commercial sex-symbol, and it's only through maniacal and selfless vigilance that I am able to sustain my tenuous alternate existence as a pudgy, shaven-headed monologuist. Despising sell-outs is virulent elitism only thinly disguised as anti-elitism. Even if you aren't necessarily claiming that you are better than a sell-out, you are claiming that they, themselves, used to be better, which is arguably worse.
Guided by Voices have been courting this denunciation since, unless you live in Dayton, Ohio, the day you heard about them. The records, beginning at least with Bee Thousand, have walked a steady progression from illegible obscurity towards pop ambition, and although the band is still a ways from the Tommy Mottola press-conference announcing an upcoming residency in Martinique with Bob Rock, they have moved from handing out self-released LPs to Scat to Matador and now to TVT, and from recording in Pollard's garage to recording in Memphis with Kim Deal and now to recording Do the Collapse at the Hendrix-hallowed Electric Lady with ex-Cars leader Ric Ocasek. If you've been waiting impatiently to decry them, this new album allows you to complain about the sad dearth of song fragments (these sixteen songs average 2:45, and only one fails to graze two minutes), the intrusions of synthesizers, strings, non-ironic reverb and a general aura of musical competence, at least one borderline power-ballad and practically half an album of songs that could be enormous hits. If a nation of teenage girls are not yet murmuring "Bobby Pollard!" into heart-shaped pillows with a breathless agony previously reserved for their selected Backstreet Boy, it's a sign that selling out requires a complementary buying in, perhaps, for which being in your forties and insisting on only performing while drunk are poor qualifications, but we measure evil by intent, not by accomplishments.
But stylistic changes, it's dangerously easy to forget, are wildly relative. Do the Collapse may be a bubblegum pop record to a Dayton separatist barricaded in his split-level ranch with the master tapes to Vampire on Titus, but to the average MTV viewer it is still going to sound incontrovertibly strange, some inaccessible combination of cryptic, blurry and lurching, discouragingly ill-suited (for the most part) for prom soundtracks and yearbook quotes (although if you ever find me a girl whose farewell to her youth is "Front me a coroner's allotment, / I'll not fail to return / An exact Earth pinprick", that distracted look on my face is me calculating how old I'll be when she's 28). Calling this "pop" is the same sort of elitist/anti-elitist defiance that we succumb to when we question a hit's morals. Ric Ocasek may have made a few suffocatingly glossy records, married a supermodel, and ascended to the plane of celebrity from which one can dispatch "Deluxe" editions of one's early work, but listen to the second disc of the reissue of The Cars, the one with thrillingly scratchy demo versions of their entire first record and then some, and his presence here should seem far less mysterious. And if TVT is too mainstream for you, Do the Collapse is only a tiny fraction of what you're going to miss in music.
And to be fair to nobody in particular, I have yet to see, in admittedly cursory scanning of Do the Collapse's press, anybody actually state the accusation of indie treason whose potential I've deduced. Somebody will, as it's a rare attractive mistake that doesn't get made, but a lot of people who could have, haven't. I presume the insight they are sharing is that Vampire on Titus notwithstanding, Pollard's uncanny knack for indelible songs has always been as essential to GbV's appeal as their deliberate sonic perversity. Do the Collapse may be a less overwhelming art work, overall, than Bee Thousand, but it also seems to me to have a few songs as riveting as anything Pollard has ever produced. Treble-heavy vocal equalizing can't derail the surging guitar and infectious synth hook of the paranoid/romantic "Teenage FBI" (for some reason I automatically assume that the agent assigned to Pollard's case is Ben Lee, although are Australians even allowed to get US security clearance?). "Zoo Pie" is nervous and frayed, and it sounds like there's a fire alarm howling in the background through the entirety of "Things I Will Keep", but the pealing guitar in the latter is straight out of the Byrds-esque catalogs of Velvet Crush and Tommy Keene. "Hold on Hope" is prom-worthy, passionate and measured, little more than accents separating it from Oasis' "Wonderwall". "In Stitches" is oblique and pounding, reminding me of Tribe's dour "Abort", but "Dragons Awake!" could be one of the acoustic intermissions in a Townshend rock-opera (provided Pete could abide lyrics like "Sprinkle the pearls over the ham" and "Softer tits will greet you"), and "Surgical Focus", possibly my current pick for the year's greatest pure rock song, is as much an heir, to me, to the Lightning Seeds' "Sugar Coated Iceberg" and that dog's "Never Say Never" as it is to GbV's "I Am a Scientist" or "Not Behind the Fighter Jet". The evasive "Optical Hopscotch" reminds me of Voivod, "Mushroom Art" is built out of accompaniment slabs no more delicately articulated than anything from Metallica's crossover, and "Much Better Mr. Buckles" is as dense as Curve, but "Wormhole" is impish and spiraling, and I'm expecting to hear millions happily mis-singing the buoyant "Strumpet Eye" by Christmas. The verses of "Liquid Indian" are halting, but so were the verses of "Suddenly, Last Summer" and "Lullaby", and the choruses are as effortless as "Closing Time" or "Lucky Denver Mint". The sparkling "Wrecking Now", with its circling guitar lines and string quartet, would be unrecognizable as GbV without Pollard's voice, but his delivery is at once deadpan, assured and unmistakable. The kick drum thumps, in the early moments of "Picture Me Big Time", like the song is going to be Pollard's attempt at trip-hop, but it turns out to be the album's beeriest self-referential ode to the redemptive power of rock, something like a more self-aware version of Grand Funk Railroad's "We're an American Band" with traces of Triumph's soaring "Magic Power". And the minute-long buzz-pop-punk finale, "An Unmarketed Product", is such an obvious taunt that I fear it's only a matter of time until some corporate behemoth adopts half of it as lifestyle-commercial background-music.
If the clear lineage from Alien Lanes to Do the Collapse keeps it from being a sell-out, though, then the same lines of derivation argue against its being a revolution. In the end, Ocasek's meticulous production is almost moot. I find myself forgetting, while I listen to this record, that Guided by Voices albums ever sounded any other way. The amnesia is intoxicating. If Pollard's songs work just as well here as they did in his basement, how might they work in even bigger settings? Are there trumpets and duets in their future? I kind of hope so. After so many records in the lowest of fi, I'd love to see Pollard complete his proof that production is inconsequential by turning out albums from every major point on its continuum. I want one with Steve Vai playing guitar, one with a Queen Latifah cameo, one on which he assumes the persona of however androgynous a fictional future idol you can become with three days of stubble and a can of Miller in your left hand. I want remixes, a Robert Pollard and the London Symphony Orchestra concert album, an ambient movie soundtrack, a fan-shedding detour into bebop or plainsong, a Third/Sister Lovers-intense self-assessment when he finally confronts the cigarettes and alcohol. Sell out? I think Robert Pollard should be an international star. A part of me believes that he'd be a new David Bowie already if he didn't insist on gnawing his own liver, like an eagle-abandoned Prometheus afraid that if he let himself heal they'd pry him off his comfortable mountain. My faith in Guided by Voices faltered when it seemed that Pollard wasn't willing to challenge himself, and is restored by the sound of him finding the courage to evolve.
Vitamin C: Vitamin C
One person's brave progress, however, is another person's crassly calculated ploy, and vice versa, so if you can't bear to hear a GbV album on which each song's recording level hasn't been chosen with the I Ching, perhaps you won't agree, either, that Vitamin C, the pseudonymous debut solo album by former Eve's Plum singer Colleen Fitzpatrick, establishes a new standard for nauseating, amoral, opportunistic pseudo-reinvention. Eve's Plum were never Cibo Matto or anything, and their two albums, Envy and Cherry Alive, came out on a Sony label during an era when spunky guitar bands with female singers briefly seemed like the formula of destiny, so you could plausibly wonder how much musical credibility Colleen ever had to lose. All the songwriting was credited to the band, but maybe this was just a social statement, and she was never really that involved, just a pretty singer to complete the image. I don't know the story behind their formation, I don't know whether they had titanic early struggles or inherited their record-deal from a doting aunt, I don't know why they broke up. All I know is the music on the records, so maybe Eve's Plum was exactly as venally cultivated a marketing experiment as Vitamin C.
But that isn't how it sounded, to me. All I know is the music on the records, but my theory, from listening, was that Eve's Plum were an entirely real band, and they sounded the way they would have sounded no matter what the prevailing context. I believed, and still do, that while their major label contract was probably a reward for matching some exec's search pattern, without it they would just have made these same records for a smaller label. I thought they were exhilarating and distinctive. Their songs made me smile. The two albums didn't affect me deeply enough to inspire as much emotional investment as I have in a few of their peers, and maybe, given the fizzy kind of music Eve's Plum made, no number of albums would have, but I was disappointed, when the band split, that I wasn't going to get to find out. And excited, when I heard that Colleen was working on new music of her own, to see which of Eve's Plum's threads she would weave into her next life, and which ones she'd weave out.
To my profound horror, nothing remotely as textural or human as weaving appears to have been utilized in the polymer extrusion of Vitamin C. Make-up artists, hair stylists, choreographers, state-of-the-banal-art sample-loops and WB-teen-drama soundtrack guidelines, on the other hand, have all been assiduously deployed, and the resulting miasma of pre-fab styles makes Geri Halliwell's Schizophonic seem as focused and writerly as Dar Williams. "Smile", the lead single, with guest rapping by Lady Saw, is three parts the Spice Girls' "Wannabe" and one part some Sugar Ray song whose title, mercifully, hasn't lodged in my head. (The "maxi" single for "Smile" includes an "Acappella" (sic) "version" (sic) that consists of just the vocal tracks from the original, in no way edited or augmented, complete with the long pauses where the music is supposed to go, which is perhaps the stupidest thing I've heard all year.) "Turn Me On" dusts off the muttering/surging template used to stencil a hundred girls' songs from Lesley Gore's "It's My Party" to T'Pau's "Heart and Soul", but the blasting choruses sound so much like Eve's Plum that the inept verses make me twice as angry. "Me, Myself and I" is masticated mock-r&b, "Unhappy Anniversary" so saccharine and maudlin that I imagine Natalie Imbruglia turned it down. "Not That Kind of Girl" sounds like the maimed victim of a collision between Kid Rock and "Does Your Mother Know"-era ABBA, and the leering rap interjections by Dan the Man help bring it down to the intellectual and sensitivity levels of coke-frazzled pimps in a karaoke "Walk This Way" contest. "Do What You Want to Do" is built on a Digital Underground sample that was itself a Parliament/Funkadelic sample, with the ludicrous result that a composition possessing all the musical sophistication of a cracked Speak & Spell ends up with nine credited authors. Most of "Girls Against Boys" sounds like Pizzicato Five, but there's a non-sequitur Count Bass-D rap in the middle, lending the song ethnic authenticity like catsup thinned with lime seltzer provides the coup de grace on a perfect pizza. "I Got You" is the Split Enz song, here given a mylar turbo-disco resurfacing that makes the Moog Cookbook sound like archivists and lends Kylie Minogue the dignity of Joan Baez. "Money" is Seventies slinky and timelessly grating. "About Last Night" shows glimmers of personality, but the persistent noise of what the credits describe as DJ scratching, but what sounds to me more like two vinyl Old Navy windbreakers being rubbed together, undermines harmonies that might otherwise have evoked Roxette's pop effervescence. "Fear of Flying" perverts a sample from the Clash's "Magnificent Seven" into a jerky groove on the order of Madonna's "Vogue", a transformation against which there ought to be laws. And the appalling "Graduation (Friends Forever)", with a melodramatic orchestra, a tear-jerking children's choir and more squelchy DJ sounds, sounds like an attempt to graft "Night on Bald Mountain" and "I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing" onto "Pomp and Circumstance", a commencement anthem for a generation that has conflated graduation and the prom, to whom school was never as much education as it was daily cotillion.
But all that stipulated, if I didn't know anything about Colleen Fitzpatrick's past I might still have found a way to enjoy this record. It's inane, but I've liked records more inane than this. The cover of "I Got You", especially, teeters on the tightrope between embarrassment and brilliance, vulnerable to a well-timed nudge in either direction. If I thought Vitamin C was nineteen, and didn't know any better, I would no more expect substance from this album than I do from Britney Spears, or Alanis in her mall-pop youth (not that I liked either of those, either). A clause in my moral code specifically allows you to retroactively declare the moment at which we should have begun taking you seriously, and everything before that is erased from your record. Those two Alanis records don't count. Y Kant Tori Read doesn't count. If Colleen had made this, and then joined Eve's Plum, I'd have bought Vitamin C for completeness, and forgiven her her naïveté even as I was removing the shrink wrap. She obviously didn't mean to hurt anybody. If there was ever a first album left self-titled because nobody expects there to be subsequent ones from which it would need to be distinguished, this is it, and I hope Colleen's lawyer got it in writing that she gets to keep the clothes. But it's not a first album, and I can't figure out how to forgive her for making them in the order she did. She does know better than this. I don't care whether she co-wrote Eve's Plum's songs or not, she sang them, so there's no excuse for not noticing their qualities. You can't be a real woman in a co-ed rock band and then be a plastic glamour-doll in a disposable one-off. The process of discovering yourself cannot be reversed. It's too degrading. Yes, in one of the "Making of 'Smile'" CD-ROM video segments she claims, in passing, that her tongue is in her cheek. But Colleen, if your tongue were really in your cheek, it would affect how you talk. This album you've made is shameless, pandering crap, and you know it, or you should, and claiming half-heartedly that you're not being sincere only makes it shameless, pandering, insincere crap, of which you ought to be even less proud. Yes, maybe you'll make money from it, however much a continuously-vomiting nickel slot-machine can spit up during the course of your fifteen minutes. I don't know how much that is, but it might be a lot, might even be enough to justify this time in the stocks, for you. But I don't get any of that money, I just get to hold your Eve's Plum records up beside this one, and think that the world is a gutless, unforgivable mess, and we don't learn from each other's mistakes. Yes, the kids lip-synching "Smile" on the bus, for a week and a half before the next biodegradable pop song is decanted from its vat, you've brightened a few of their days. A good light-meter could confirm that. Congratulations. But add up all those fractions of glow, and then subtract my pitch-black revulsion. And it's worse: they will forget, and I will remember. A year from now, the kids on the bus won't retain a single fact or impression about you, but I'll still be depressed by orange juice and Star Trek uniforms. They were always going to forget you, and I was always going to remember, and I don't know how you could avoid recognizing that from the beginning. I have to assume you did all this intentionally. You owe me an apology, but I'm the least of your problems, because unless you've stumbled through this entire experience under radical sedation, you will remember it, too. To me, you could just say "I'm sorry". But to yourself, you'll have to mean it.