The Reason the Night Is Long Is Very Simple
243 · 23 September 99
Death Cab for Cutie: Something About Airplanes
One of the serious flaws of virtual communities is that the sense of "us, together" can only very rarely transcend the overwhelming pall of "me, alone". It's easy to say that we are in this together, you and I, and only a little harder, if I cant my head correctly, to believe it. We share these records, or at least the idea of these records, or the idea of some records, and these are real forces, and there are plenty of physical-world relationships based on less-promising value-correlations. But there stubbornly remains a level at which our time together consists mostly of me sitting in between my computer and my stereo, by myself, for six to ten hours every Wednesday night, and you checking in the next morning, when you're supposed to be debugging Perl scripts or something, to see how it went. Some weeks it goes well, some weeks it doesn't. When it goes well, at least one of us feels less lonely at the end. Maybe, once in a long while, both of us.
Another serious flaw of virtual communities is that despite the infrequency with which we ever sense "us", it's all too easy to imagine that there's a "them". After all, you know that you're basically alone, yet it seems like there's a group, therefore all the other people in it must be personal friends, muttering about you over sausage-and-caramelized-onion pizza wherever They congregate. In reality, virtual persecution is usually way too difficult to coordinate, even if anybody were so inclined. The others are almost certainly exactly as alone as you.
We tend to talk about virtual communities as if they are a new phenomenon, born of the net, but of course many of their aspects are manifest in other worlds, as well. I think part of the reason people sound threatened, not grateful, when they say "I've never even heard of those bands", is that they are imagining a cohesive underground community from which they've been excluded, and we grow up learning to counter exclusion with disdain. The sad truth, or the encouraging one, depending on your perspective, is that this community you fear you aren't part of basically doesn't exist. There are some mailing lists, and there are the people who did radio in college, but basically, nobody has heard of these bands. I'd never heard of them, either, until I ran across them somewhere, and now this is the somewhere where you're running across them. If I ever sound like I'm criticizing you for some kind of ignorance, I'm doing my job poorly. The reason it matters to me, and the reason it might matter to you, is that these bands nobody has heard of offer you an incredibly valuable and increasingly rare opportunity to experience a very different relationship to art than the one you get from all the disposable bands that everybody has heard of. They offer you responsibility. No matter how much you ever learn to love the Backstreet Boys, you are one of millions, and thus are individually expendable to them. To the rock star, audience is a substance. But buy a record that somebody only made a thousand of, and maybe haven't sold a quarter of them yet, and you hold in your hands a share of the authors' fate. Smile, and you could be changing someone else's life as much as they are changing yours. You feel lonely? So do these records. Introduce yourself.
Death Cab for Cutie is exactly the sort of band name that lends itself to paranoia and retreat. Obviously it means something, and if you have no idea what, it's tempting to conclude that the music must not be for you. I had no idea what it meant when I bought it, but I've since discovered, by accident, that "Death Cab for Cutie" was a song by the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, of whom I'd also never heard. I still don't have any idea what it means, and I'm going to assume it doesn't matter. The band is a quartet from somewhere in Washington. Their songs are hesitant and often blurry, meditations that no amount of magnesium could transform into arena dance anthems, but you're not supposed to shriek and genuflect, you're supposed to listen and perceive. "I think I'm drunk enough to drive you home now", Benjamin Gibbard sings in the tense "Champagne From a Paper Cup", and do you want to hear how a real relationship hangs on by a thread, or would you rather pretend that a sixteen-year-old video starlet wants to have sex with you? Erika Jacobs' circling cellos and Gibbard's quiet vocals turn "Bend to Squares" into creaky, redemptive folk-art, with traces of Elliott Smith and the Willard Grant Conspiracy. The haunted, echoey "Your Bruise" has Death Cab for Cutie's entry in the catalog of references to listening to other bands while driving (Helium, in this case, although they no more resemble Mary Timony's band than Cheryl Wheeler does Richard Thompson). "Pictures in an Exhibition" leans into a guitar groove not that far from the Posies circa Amazing Disgrace. "Sleep Spent" is a spare lament, the cover of Jay Chilcote's "The Face That Launched 1000 Shits" paced and menacing (and no, I'd never heard of Jay Chilcote, either; I think he and his brother Joe run Elsinor Records, who co-released this). "Amputations" sounds like a distracted Fugazi song that suddenly erupts into breathy, sweeping pop in the choruses. "Fake Frowns" is churning and concentrated, and "Line of Best Fit" is a disturbing relationship's-end duet, concluding with the searing "I remember being inside something more than you...". We rob each other of treasures, sometimes, unaware, and deny ever seeing them, and then later, when we discover them in a drawer or behind a dresser, far too late to return them, all we can do is seal them into songs and set them adrift. Nobody should ever fear loss, when the oceans and air are so full of unclaimed apologies and consolation.
The I Live the Life of a Movie Star Secret Hideout: Gale Wind Transistor
I have no idea what The I Live the Life of a Movie Star Secret Hideout means, either, but it is the longest band name I'm aware of, which must be worth something. The long name conceals a small band, a duo identified only as Maria and Adam, and this CD compiles six songs from each of two vinyl LPs I'd never heard of, and three unreleased tracks, although if you've never heard of the released tracks, it hardly matters which ones weren't. 1994 to 1998, the collection claims to span, and fifteen songs doesn't seem like that much to show for five years, if you're Prince, but probably you aren't, and one of the things obscurity frees you from is the idea that the only people who should write songs are the ones who can write them effortlessly. Our culture is heavily biased towards the kind of art you can't possibly make by yourself (witness, for one random example, that the makers of American Beauty, a relatively subdued and self-contained movie by Hollywood standards, nonetheless opted to have its brief and intentionally listless cheerleader routine choreographed by Paula Abdul), which conditions you to consume, and never respond. It sounds inane to say that your life will be better if you listen to more music that isn't very good, and that's not how I'd really phrase the exhortation, but it's not entirely inaccurate. I wrote eighteen songs, myself, between 1994 and 1998, and at least a few of them were more accomplished than the monotonous "Teenage Dream Circuit", on which one of the two of them hits the same drum on every quarter note for the song's entire two-and-a-half-minute length. The picture on the back of the case implies that the band owns three drums and two cymbals, but they rarely use more than one or two of them in any given song. There's no bass, only rudimentary guitars, and although both Maria and Adam sing, neither of them are much more than artless vocalists. "Taffeta Lipstick Kiss" kind of sounds like "Louie Louie" at a quarter speed. Unvarying cadences drag at more than one of these songs, "10,000 Unmemorable Goodbyes" in particular begging, to me, for the respite of however small a nuance. But this isn't supposed to be glossy conglomerate Entertainment, a way to kill time or mask engine noise, it's the sound of two people who love music too much to not try making it themselves, two people who could be you and me, not you and me in an alternate universe where your father is Lenny Kravitz but you and me in this universe, exactly ourselves. Probably, if we really tried, we could write an amiable, gangly pop song like "Cherrys Constantine", or a song or two with the cryptic early-Game-Theory hooks of "You're the Star of My Favorite Nightmare" or the perhaps intentionally "Chardonnay"-ish "Charlemagne". "Radio Argot" is somewhere between "Radio Free Europe" and Jonathan Richman, the instrumental "It's Always Summer" half Feelies mumble and half Pop Art jangle. The stop-start duet "Atom Blast" (mixed much lower than the surrounding songs, but you've got a volume knob) could be embryonic Talulah Gosh. The scratchy "A Fine Time for a Holiday" turns a chord sequence from Judas Priest's "Living After Midnight" into a ramshackle sing-along, like a Camaro refitted as a city-lagoon pedal-boat. And "Shake Earthquake Shake", the finale, might ask for more active cooperation than the Flamin' Groovies' "Shake Some Action", but I don't mind dancing and imagining at the same time, and if you want to fill in the roar of dazed throngs, Maria and Adam have left you, in between their notes, all the spaces you need.
Six Cents and Natalie: Show Me the Honey
But if The I Live the Life of a Movie Star Secret Hideout are still a little too polished for you, there's always this compilation, released by Black Bean and Placenta Tape Club (one of the few labels whose name upstages their bands'), of old homemade tapes by Six Cents and Natalie, who I didn't think I'd heard of until I discovered they were Sean Tollefson's recording alias before he formed Crayon, which was his band before he formed Tullycraft, who I had heard of, but only barely. If four-track demos push at the limits of your tolerance for low fidelity, these songs, recorded directly to a cassette deck, may well cross your line, and by Sean's own lucid account most of them are his learning experiments. A mean-spirited list of the things he learned from mistakes captured here could include singing on key, tuning guitars, playing more than one guitar string at a time, setting recording levels, writing lyrics, inventing drum-machine patterns that don't sound like demonstration presets, the difference between overdubbing and squashing, why blues don't work if you sound like a thirteen-year-old white kid, why you can't be New Order alone in a closet, why churches play hymns on pipe organs instead of Casios, why duets work better if you don't stand between the other singer and the microphone, why there isn't much kazoo playing on Whitney Houston records, and what's ironic about spending a summer locked in your bedroom writing songs about meeting girls instead of actually going outside and meeting girls. This is all plainly juvenilia, and if you aren't charmed by how juvenile Sean still sounds as an adult, it might be too much for you. (And if you haven't heard how he sounds as an adult, this might not be where to start.) But I've come to adore Tullycraft, and to find Sean's odd, squeaky pop songs utterly endearing, and for me hearing the skittering melodies in these hissing, lumpy, largely botched and poignantly earnest sketches is like spotting Escher's ever-ascending monks in the background of a crayon Happy Mother's Day house-tree-car portrait stuck to your neighbor's refrigerator with a Bullwinkle magnet.
Sand on Stars: Songs From Silt
If you want to hear how bedroom cassette experiments grow up, but for some reason don't want to hear Sean Tollefson's own account of the process, Sand on Stars, whose album I bought for reasons I have neglected to recall, are another one-person four-track toy-synth recording project, this time belonging to a Vassar student (I guess he could be a professor, for all I know) named Jeff McLeod. McLeod filters his cheap-drum-machine pop urges through a fondness for ambient twitter and rattling electronica that Tollefson never developed, and so ends up somewhere between Six Cents and Natalie and Steward. Low-fi synth-pop used to seem like an oxymoron, to me, as if using synthesizers inherently meant that the music had to be slickly produced, but that theory collapses under any casual scrutiny. There are moments on Songs From Silt that sound like Tubular Bells, or that hint at Gary Numan or OMD, but even more moments that sound like Devo, Magnetic Fields, Guided by Voices or Kleenex Girl Wonder. This bears little resemblance to the other band I know of who recorded in Vassar dorms, the Receptionists, but perhaps, since the college started admitting men, these beeps and whirs have become what the bedrooms sound like.
Suran Song in Stag: Pure Agitator
I'd never heard of Suran Song in Stag until they were scheduled as an opening act for some show I've forgotten, and which I didn't end up attending. Apparently this is their second album, and Suran Song isn't an an anagram or an oblique metaphor, it's the singer's name. Any impression I might have had that they too are going to be cherubic bedroom-pop auteurs is efficiently dispelled by their opening this record with a grinding voice-and-bass rendition of Fugazi's "Blueprint". They make it sound like Mecca Normal, and although that transformation isn't exactly a stretch, I find it electrifying anyway. William's Weis' distorted, howling bass and Suran's clipped, scary voice are the duo's normal palette, augmented by guitar on one song, piano on two, and a little snare clatter on one other, and the stark, bracing effect reminds me a lot of the two-person "band" on Kristeen Young's Enemy. Suran's lyrics, too, share some of Kristeen's unflinching vehemence, particularly the vengeful "Female Rape Jury", the deceptively graceful "Bad Faith Inclusion", the anti-battle-anthem "Ubergrrl" (with the contemptuous refrain "Mouth the words of resistance"), and "Red Ridinghood's Basket"'s sardonic "Thank you for teaching me / To hate while pretending to like it". Elsewhere, as on the unexpected harmonies that waft across the buzzing "Cribbage in Provincetown", the backing-vocal sighs on "Duet Crush", and the bouncy, hopeful "Analogue Love Muffin" (not as bouncy and hopeful as the title might imply, in other hands, but pretty bouncy and hopeful by Suran Song in Stag standards), the fierce facade crumbles just enough to suggest that they didn't choose this idiom for their agitation casually. And the deconstruction of David Bowie's "Star" suggests, at least to me, that they understand which of the weapons of rock-and-roll stardom belong to celebrity, and can thus be employed only by people who have strong incentives not to, and which ones belong to the music, and are thus available to all of us, for smashing real things, things we didn't buy for that purpose.
Pohgoh: In Memory of Bab
If you cross Juliana Hatfield with Letters to Cleo's Kay Hanley and Rose Chronicles' Kristy Thirsk, and then equip her with a thoughtful buzz-rock band somewhere between the Slingbacks and My Bloody Valentine, or Weeping Tile and Rose Chronicles, or Eve's Plum and the Gathering, and you do it under the same laboratory conditions I used in my tests, you ought to end up with something like Pohgoh, who I hadn't heard of until it occurred to a clever mail-order-catalog annotator that all it might take to sell me one of these was pointing out that three of the four members of Pohgoh went on to be in the Maccabees, whose EP they'd already sold me on some other pretext. In the wake of the Vitamin C debacle I'm particularly receptive to bands who pick up any semblance of Eve's Plum's discarded aesthetic, and with almost all the other qualifiers defunct, as well, Pohgoh are as close as anybody has come in a worryingly long time. They replace some of Eve's Plum's pop effervescence with waves of seething, atmospheric guitars, Susie Richardson more often silhouetted against the music than wrapped up in it, but the contrast between wall-of-noise guitar and a small, breathy female voice is, in my opinion, one of the more underutilized contrasts in rock. In a less gutless universe, copies of In Memory of Bab are leaving stores in every hand that here holds Sixpence None the Richer.
The Maccabees: Songs From the Weakest Link
The only personnel change from Pohgoh to the Maccabees, according to the credits, is the replacement of bass player Brad Richardson (still credited with the layout of the striking hand-assembled sleeve) by Chris Deininger, but they must have decided concurrently that distortion was an outmoded concept, as this six-song EP finds them playing pretty acoustic folk-pop that could probably replace Sixpence None the Richer, Jewel, the Sundays or the post-Natalie Merchant 10,000 Maniacs without altering the fabric of reality in any otherwise detectable way. Pohgoh was such an exhilarating jolt, to me, that the transformation is unavoidably disappointing (actually I bought them in reverse order, but you get the point), but if you accept that this is what they're going to do, they do it with enough meticulous elegance that I half expect their next album to be a Christmas record.
Rainer Maria: Look Now Look Again
Rainer Maria were another opening act I intentionally missed, because I'd never heard of them, only to later feel bad about it and buy their record. There's an earlier EP that's noisier, but by this full-length album on Polyvinyl the band is poised and melancholy, Caithlin De Marrais' uncluttered singing the main difference between them and male-led guitar-anthem bands like Braid, Mineral, Jimmy Eat World or Buffalo Tom. The first half of "Rise" is just De Marrais' calm voice and a careful guitar arpeggio, the second half adding bass and drums that prod her a little. The pensive, shifting "Planetary" offers spoken-word counterpoint in place of harmony. "Broken Radio" threatens to erupt into punk shriek, but catches itself right at the edge. The smooth, surging "Feeling Neglected?" sounds like Mecca Normal produced as if they were Christie Front Drive or Live. "Breakfast of Champions" is propulsive and cathartic, "The Reason the Night Is Long" becalmed, "Lost, Dropped and Cancelled" gentle and faintly twangy, "I'm Melting!" choppy and quick. Maybe it ought to take more than switching vocalist genders to give a band a unique role in an existing subgenre, and if you don't react as strongly to the difference as I do maybe for you it will, but for me that's enough.
Chong Marker: Music by Chong Marker
I don't know what Chong Marker means, and I'm not sure I want to. They appear to be a trio from Austin, although I'd never have guessed Texas from anything on this brief (twenty-seven minute) debut. Amy Steiger sings, Stephen Jones drums, and Eric Stoess (who may or may not be the same Eric Stoess from Hula Hoop and the Hula Hoop / Boyracer collaboration Hula Boy) contributes what the credits refer to only as "instruments". On the couple songs I don't care for so much, Amy sounds a bit like a distracted Sara Hickman, to me, not a great formula since most of what I like Sara for is her awareness and wit. On my favorite tracks here, though, especially the dense, wiry "Wax & Brain", Chong Marker play jagged guitar pop something like an early Helium with a little less of Throwing Muses' angularity, and since Helium's concessions to melody were only made as part of the package deal that got them the epic quasi-prog rock of The Magic City, it's intriguing to me to hear an impression of how they might have sounded if they'd written friendlier songs in their old idiom.
Life on Mars: Life on Mars
I get this stuff from all over, but the Urbana label, distributor and mail-order house Parasol has quickly become such an indispensable resource, both for records themselves and leads, that I've taken to buying all their own releases, in addition to whatever else I'm ordering from them. In practice this is about ten percent an expression of gratitude and ninety percent acknowledgement that I almost always like the records they put out. The style they appear to have cornered, or at least the one I haven't found any other reliable sources for, is a variant of American guitar pop derived in approximately equal parts from the Southern axis (by which I mean some combination of REM, Let's Active, the Primitons, the dB's, Marshall Crenshaw, Guadalcanal Diary, the Swimming Pool Q's, the Connells, Velvet Crush, Matthew Sweet and Tommy Keene) and from the older, more effusive Pacific-Coast traditions of the Beach Boys, the Mamas & the Papas, Randy Newman and Jefferson Airplane. Buying all Parasol releases saves me the nontrivial effort of trying to keep track of the frequent name-changes and roster recombinations among their stable of regulars. Life on Mars guitarist Brian Leach had a reeling and somewhat Donovan-esque solo album on Parasol (005), was the leader of Sugarbuzz, who put out two more albums on the label (022 and 034), and appeared on another Parasol album by Boot Camp (046), all of which I liked in varying degrees, but Life on Mars (052) is by far my favorite of his projects. All three members sing, and although I'm not sure which is which, one of them has a high, quiet voice straight out of the Sixties, one has a slightly bruised voice in between Jules Shear and Don Henley, and the third one has a plaintive, David Byrne-ish wail, and they trade off verse to verse and sometimes even line to line, interchanging far more fluidly than the "OK, now it's your turn" blocking of the Spice Girls or the Backstreet Boys (of course, it helps that all the singers in Life on Mars can sing). The music, similarly, leaps from guitar jangle to horn flourishes to massed strings at will. "Undone" starts off like a Manic Street Preachers song, turns into the Shining Hour for a moment, then the Byrds, then the Left Banke. "Reversal (Lost Direction)" careens from orchestral drama to slashing guitar rock to spinning neo-psychedelia like "Bohemian Rhapsody" and "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" mashed together and then compressed into three minutes. "Ambulance" reminds me at once of George Harrison, John Denver and Hunters & Collectors. "Beg" layers thick harmonies and barbed guitar hooks over a more or less straightforward post-dB's framework. "If You Please" is parts the Cardigans, the Jam, Velvet Crush and the Boo Radleys. "Running Out of Time" sounds like the Connells, at a gallop, smacking head-on into Edison Lighthouse. "Autoliner" could be the Who with a horn section, "Do Anything" could be the English Beat crossed with Cactus World News, and "The Arthur C. Clarke Blues" could be the fastest Translator song ever. "Back to Zero" sounds like a Knack song with some Foo Fighters guitar spliced in. "Happy Summer Uber Alles" is like a remake of the Dead Kennedys "California Uber Alles" for a California that is exactly as sunny as it claims. And all the threads get drawn together for a breathtaking concluding cover of John Phillips' "Twelve Thirty (Young Girls Are Coming to the Canyon)" after which I have a hard time remembering that the Mamas & the Papas didn't just move to Sweden in 1970 and become ABBA.
Toothpaste 2000: Bachelorette!
Parasol put out two albums by the duo Cowboy & Spingirl (003 and 008), who then changed their name to Toothpaste 2000 (which doesn't seem like an improvement to me) and made two (016 and 028) and now three (053) more records. Those four earlier albums (along with the Wolfie and Sarge records on the subsidiary Mud) were the original cornerstones of my faith in Parasol, and although I've since also become quite fond of the Doleful Lions, Belva Plane and George Usher, and anything with Tim Best in it, Toothpaste 2000 remain the definitive Parasol band to me. I was momentarily taken aback to have this record just appear, unceremoniously, in their Now Available listings, but I started recovering almost as soon as a copy reached me, delayed only by the opening track, "Baby, Let's Rock!", which reminds me unpleasantly of the last two disappointing Gary Myrick records. Once that's over with, though, the rest of the album strikes me as another installment in Donna Esposito and Frank Bednash's series of flawless pop songs, this one distinguished from the others by some memorable, if odd, production decisions. "Bachelorette" itself sounds like everything except the hi-hats are underwater, and Donna and Frank's voices seem to merge into one. "Miss Marcy Brown" is quick and trebly, the vocals muddled again but the ticking drum machine and shimmery guitars right on the surface. In "The Girl Who Could Get Everything" Donna sounds like she's locked in a half-full dumpster, but "Mary February" is clear and calm. "My Favorite Blonde" reminds me of Blondie, "Why, Why?" struts like Queen's "You're My Best Friend", and "Sensational" is simultaneously pastel and robotic. The hazy "Virtual Girl" sounds like a Lush track on which they forgot the drum effects, and "Starched White Shirt" comes off like "Summertime Blues" redone by Rick Springfield. "Drop Dead, Go Away!" is translucent and gleaming, "Don't Say That You Love Me" bubbly "Tesla Girls"-like synth-disco. "Disco Baby" has the rhythm and sc-fi noises to live up to its title, but the mix is completely wrong for dancing, the drums submerged under moody keyboards and jazzy guitars. Fix the weird interstitial chords in the choruses of "Destination Now" and it could be the lead track on a Bangles reunion album. The final track, "Yeah, Yeah!", is basically "Baby, Let's Rock!" again, clichéd and uncharacteristic, which baffles me, but maybe you're supposed to peel off the two songs on the ends when you get the record home.
Sissy Bar: Statutory Grape
Sissy Bar has a more recent album, Songs for Peeps, with a bunch of pop songs just as cheerful and catchy as most of the ones here, but Statutory Grape has what I consider their claim on immortality, a deadpan indie/synth-pop cover of Snoop Doggy Dogg's "Gin and Juice" that makes Aztec Camera's version of Van Halen's "Jump" sound like an homage. I don't think the point it makes, how ludicrous the song's crass posturing sounds in another voice, bodes well for musical desegregation, nor do the mocking bits of hip-hop slang in the credits, but we're not demonstrating much discernible progress towards racial musical unity anyway, and in the meantime the original song is such an ugly faux-authentic celebration of self- and community-destructive attitudes and behavior that I'm unable to deny the satisfaction I get from hearing it so deftly disemboweled, turned inside out without changing a single word. And I can't stop humming Sissy Bar's version of it, either, which when I'm feeling insensitive seems like as incisive a critique of the music as transplanting the words to a new context is of the subject.
b'ehl: Only a Paper Moon
Remove that one searing socio-aesthetic critique, and Sissy Bar is just a snappy indie-pop band with a female singer. I happen to collect snappy indie-pop bands with female singers, though, and the one I've got mounted right next to Sissy Bar is the Winnipeg quartet b'ehl, another band with a name that probably has a meaning, and I'm sure I don't know it. I have some b'ehl split singles, too, notably endearing records' four-song John Hughes tribute Pretty in Pop, on which they do a lovely, wilting "Don't You (Forget About Me)", but they're more impressive, I think, when they get to string a dozen of their own songs together. On my favorite stretches here they sound a little like a faster Blake Babies if Juliana sang with a slight country accent, and although I don't necessarily wish that the Blake Babies ever sounded like that themselves, I'm happy that someone does.
Holiday Flyer: You Make Us Go
This is actually my fourth Holiday Flyer album, but it's taken me that long to isolate both why I have such trouble focusing on their songs and why I keep trying. My admittedly tautological hypothesis is that I have trouble focusing on their songs because they have a knack for constructing songs that have no focal points. As I was never fully aware before I tried to mix some of my own songs, mainstream pop tends to be very heavily manipulated in the interest of insuring that it has, at any given moment, exactly one center of attention. Instruments are diligently faded down when the vocals come in, faded up for the solo breaks where there's no singing, traded against each other to make sure you never have to wonder about their relative importance. Holiday Flyer refuse to do this, instead mixing the parts into balance and then just leaving them alone. Without the usual exaggeration of song structure, these songs can sound like they don't have structure. It's only an illusion, though, and now that I've decided that's what was getting in the way of my enjoyment, I am, in fact, liking this music more, although it's hard to say whether that confirms the theory or testifies to my capacity for self-delusion. Either way, these songs are sweet, pellucid and serene, Verna Brock's understated instrumentation buoying up John and Katie Conley's pale harmonies. Holiday Flyer certainly isn't a rock band, and maybe isn't even a pop band, or a band at all, but if so their songs are a light enough to float in the air all by themselves, so diaphanous that even gravity lets them be.
The Castaway Stones: Make Love to You
If you find yourself appreciating Holiday Flyer songs as more than a commodity, I now know about a couple other bands that I think of as virtually indistinguishable until you get very close to them. The first is the Castaway Stones, one of entirely too many groups Pam Berry sings or has sung for for me to keep track. The Castaway Stones' drumming is more decisive than the muted percussion in Holiday Flyer, but the guitars are gauzy, and Berry's voice settles across melodies like a sheet of silk. We could turn Make Love to You into a Sarah Records album with only the most cursory adjustments. Turn the drums down just a little. Ditch the rollicking "Pinball, 1973", and sand off some of the blue on "Brazil". Make the duet on "Everybody's Having a Good Time" just a fraction chirpier. Make all the short titles longer.
Black Tambourine: Complete Recordings
Black Tambourine were one of Pam's earlier bands, and their complete works, although they don't quite span twenty-five minutes, were recently compiled on this CD. If I knew the right filters to apply, I think I could demonstrate that Black Tambourine songs are exactly like Castaway Stones songs except that they are one-and-a-half times as fast and they have guitar distortion.
The Autocollants: Why Couldn't Things Just Stay the Same?
Those differences are only minor as math, though, so the third band in the trio with Holiday Flyer and the Castaway Stones, for me, is instead the now-departed quartet the Autocollants, who I only knew as a name until this retrospective was released by Shelflife, the same label that did the Castaway Stones' album. Distortion does creep into these songs, too, at times, but so do piquant horns and some crinkly, Wedding Present-ish guitars, so the aggression and the reserve seem to me to cancel each other out. This one could be a Sarah record without any adjustment at all.
Kissing Book: Lines and Color
Lines and Color was recorded by the Minders' Martyn Leaper, and the back cover has a short memoir by the Lucksmiths' Marty Donald about meeting the Portland band Kissing Book for the first time. Both men appear to have made impressions on the band, in return, as Lines and Color sounds to me like exactly the combination of their two bands, the Lucksmiths' quiet intimacy amplified by the Minders' enthusiasm for rousing Beatlesque pop. There are eight people in this band, and 1999 is ebbing away, and yet it sounds like there can't be more than four of them, and we must have decades left before we have to worry about what it will be like living in the future.
Lunchbox: The Magic of Sound
Lines and Color is Magic Marker Records' 004. Magic Marker 005 is The Magic of Sound, by the cheerful duo Lunchbox, guitarist/songwriter Tim Brown and singer/bassist Donna McKean. Alphabetically, Lunchbox is on the way from Kissing Book to the Minders, and that's basically how they sound, to me, brasher and springier than Kissing Book, but not quite as volatile as the Minders. Synth undercurrents ripple through these songs, small steps toward "A Day in the Life" collages, and Brown, when he sings himself, sounds more like Mitch Easter than Lennon or McCartney, but this is still very much reverent music in a pop tradition nobody told them wasn't made in bedrooms all along.
Leslies: Of Today - For Today
All the Minders' serious competition for most unapologetically emulating the Beatles, though, seems to be Swedish. Where the Merrymakers added enough gloss to constitute a hybrid of the Beatles and Roxette, the quintet the Leslies try other ingredients. Parts of "So Sincere" remind me of the Minders, but others bring back long-suppressed memories of Shaun Cassidy. "Any Day Now" could be a cross between the Beautiful South and the Connells. "That's Me" flirts with Oasis and Placebo; "It's a Sin" adds a warbly synth hook and chiming, Wonder Stuff-like guitars; "My Perfect Pearl" is the surging pop song a dozen one-hit American college-radio prodigies might have made real careers out of. "It's Over" stomps and twirls like grunge Jellyfish, and "#5" is a slow, frayed waltz, but the fast parts of "Blue Suede Shirt" sound as much like the Housemartins as anybody ever sounds like anybody else. "Bye Bye" is as expansive as "Wonderwall". As sometimes happens with bands so dedicated to their influences, though, Leslies only seem to me to come fully alive when they take on somebody else's song, here turning Marshall Crenshaw's "Favorite Waste of Time" into a nostalgic, harmony-drenched, handclap-propelled "That Thing You Do"-style sock-hop theme. But just when I think I understand Leslies' place in all the relevant worlds, mine and theirs and whatever other ones I'm supposed to be maintaining this week, the last track, unlisted in the assumption that we'll all recognize it anyway, and attributed in the writing credits only to Ed Cobb, whose name means nothing to me, turns out to be a rushed and chaotic concert recording of "Tainted Love", as played to death by Soft Cell. Maybe you haven't heard of these bands, but you've heard of somebody, and so have they, and all our worlds, put together, aren't big enough for there to be that many steps between the two.