How September Came for Sinatra
245 · 7 October 99
Sloan: Between the Bridges
There are many valid reasons for being unhappy. A large fraction of the human population pursues existences that are vulnerable to severe disruption by forces either entirely or partially out of the victims' control, depending on how much how much allowance you're inclined to make for human nature and emotional inertia. "The news", most of the time, is a monotonous exercise in cataloguing the sources of justified human misery: earthquakes, train wrecks, itinerant plagues, esoteric tribal vendettas and general imminent apocalypse. Happiness is possible in the face of anything, but the level of Zen required for the serene appreciation of complete catastrophe is pretty advanced, and the difficulty of getting through to Amazon.com to order Self-Esteem for Dummies is probably not high on the current list of East Timor refugee complaints. For me personally, though, and probably also for you, given that you're sitting in front of a functioning computer reading music reviews, happiness cowers behind far-less-tangible barricades. Nothing ghastly and inexplicable has happened to anybody I love in weeks. I've never had a helicopter-deposited President shake my hand and assure me that the nation's thoughts are with me and the Red Cross will be here for as long as necessary. I've never been hungry, really. But our conceptions of happiness adjust themselves to our environments. Solipsism is depressing, and anything short of it exposes you to loss, so we are all indefensible. Distress adapts.
We are unhappy, then, however much of the time, because: we let something other than happiness guide our decisions (sometimes intentionally, sometimes not), we insist that the unlikely is necessary, we allow the equation to become so encrusted with variables that it can no longer be solved, we lose perspective, we help happiness defeat itself by distrusting it, we compensate for a lull in adversity by internalizing somebody else's, we become so skittish that when wonder tries to leap into our arms we dodge. We intellectualize happiness, and assume that as long as we don't understand the characteristics our happiness would have, we can't possibly be experiencing it yet. This is circular logic, but logic is circular by nature. Escapes from the loop are made by breaking it from outside; to revive an exhausted deductive system, add another postulate. I learned an incredibly important lesson many years ago in the back seat of my parents' Toyota (no, not that lesson): solving mazes, one of my chief childhood pastimes on the long drive from Dallas to our family-vacation spot in Colorado, is more than twice as easy from two directions as it is from one. (Actually, I learned two incredibly important lessons on those trips, the other being that tornado-prone states should not have trailer parks.) When you get stuck trying to find the path from here to happiness, go to the other end and try tracing happiness backwards. Find something that makes you feel happy, however superficial or irrelevant it seems, and explore what happiness is like, learn to recognize it from a distance.
And this is why, I think, I reserve such intense joy in my life for buoyant pop music, even (perhaps especially) when it seems most decorative, its thrills least connected to what I think my values are. I don't wish to spend every week insensible with glee, but without a few of those weeks, scattered through the year, I'd have no way to triangulate. This feeling, the one that consumes me during a perfect pop chorus, this is what I'm trying to reach through insight. Do you have stupid, pretentious, preposterous goals? I hope so. Here is mine: I want to learn to look at the world, in all its tedious detail, and perceive infinite harmony. There is a scale, I'm convinced, on which all this noise forms a choir without a note of dissonance. This is a leap of faith, and I claim to be an atheist, which I realize is inexplicable, but when Sloan, who were responsible for the worst concert experience of my life, leap into the first glorious chorus on Between the Bridges, their third album in the last year and a half, and I feel myself surrender helplessly, resentment less overcome than simply bypassed, I know it's true.
Buoyant pop comes in many forms, of course, and even Sloan's own contributions have varied widely in the past, but as of their last three studio albums, 1997's One Chord to Another, last year's Navy Blues and this one, it seems to me that they've settled into a single identity that is, if not necessarily coherent, at least consistent. On Smeared, their first full album, I thought each song found them suffering under the delusion that they were a different existing band, but by Between the Bridges they've spent so much time spinning inside their own illusions that they now think they're half a dozen bands at once, the simultaneous heirs (not that all of these are dead) to the Beatles, Elton John, ELO, the Posies, Velvet Crush and Ben Folds Five. To place this album in the rock chronology, I have to imagine a tangent to history, all the years that make up the last three decades drifting loose from their places on the timeline and converging into an unordered mass in which every momentary impulse coexists. Sloan has somehow managed to grow up in the Sixties, the Seventies, the Eighties and the Nineties at once. "The N.S." sounds like a bunch of college kids who met fighting over second-hand XTC LPs and decided to form Supertramp. "So Beyond Me" could be Grand Funk Railroad trying to sound more like the Romantics. The swooning "Don't You Believe a Word" plays airy falsetto harmonies against ringing piano borrowed from the Hill Street Blues theme and insistent guitar borrowed from the one for SWAT. "Friendship" writhes and surges like a contentious union of AC/DC and Frosting on the Beater-era Posies. "Sensory Deprivation" sounds like Billy Squier getting lost in bar boogie. "All By Ourselves" has as much to do with Toto and REO Speedwagon as Matthew Sweet or the Minders. The languid "A Long Time Coming" could be how Jellyfish would have turned out if they'd loved CCR and the Eagles as much as the Beach Boys and Queen. "Waiting for Slow Songs" flirts with lounge-pop, the Wedding Present and a vaguely Celtic guitar hook. "Losing California" is deadpan alt-rock as infectious as Semisonic and as impetuous as the Caulfields. "The Marquee and the Moon" is as soaring and magnificent as the combined grandest flourishes of the Goo Goo Dolls, Soul Asylum and U2, and the irresistible, propulsive "Take Good Care of the Poor Boy" is as lilting as the Connells but as driving as BTO. "Delivering Maybes" is the long-lost Rosetta stone for translating between "Crocodile Rock", "The Boys Are Back in Town" and "The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead". Those may not be the languages I was trying to reconcile, exactly, but half of the battle for knowledge consists of figuring out what's knowable. If these patterns are ever to make sense, some of the simple ones have to conceal incredible complexity, and some of the most hopeless tangles need to turn out to be contortions of a single line. Sloan suggest a breathtaking shortcut: forget how much past stretches away behind you; all the things you fear you missed are immanent in every clearly-lived moment. The universe begins the instant your heart opens.
astrid: Strange Weather Lately
One of the perils of mail-ordering from web sites that don't really know what they're selling, which is most of them, is that the long list of things they don't know may include a few critically important details. The one from which I acquired Astrid's two I Am the Boy for You singles, for example, failed to note that the Hi-Fi Lo-Fi EP, which of course I also ordered to complete my Astrid collection, shares a catalog page with the others only due to a careless database-operator's inattention to case. Astrid, who capitalizes her name, is Astrid Williamson, former singer of Goya Dress and author of last year's bracing solo debut Boy for You. astrid, lowercase, are an irrepressible Scottish power-pop quartet whose debut album, Strange Weather Lately, produced by Edwyn Collins, has nothing in common with Astrid Williamson's discs other than the lack of a US distributor. Lest you fall into this trap: I Am the Boy for You, Boy for You and Hozanna are Astrid Williamson's, all on Nude Records; Hi-Fi Lo-Fi, High in the Morning, It's True and Strange Weather Lately are astrid-the-band's, all on the label Fantastic Plastic.
This isn't the first band I've discovered by mistake, but it's the first one whose own records I've continued buying on purpose after the initial mistaken identity. I was never able to get into Teenage Fanclub and 18 Wheeler the way I expected to, from reading their reviews, and now I finally understand why: this is what I wanted them to sound like. If I feel like chiming Northern-British pop tinged with melancholy, I've got nearly half a shelf of Del Amitri records; I wanted Teenage Fanclub to be dizzying and frivolous, like the Dickies crossed with Velvet Crush. To make anything dizzier and more frivolous than astrid, you'd need a Spirograph, an outboard engine and four years of Franklin Mint advertisements. All instruments are played at breakneck speed, the songs revolve around hooks so shamelessly melodic that I'm not sure McRackins could do them with a straight face, and guitarists William Campbell and Charles Clark sing harmony like the Byrds after four days with no food but Mountain Dew and jelly donuts. "Kitchen TV" is a breathless sprint somewhere between the Go-Go's and the Undertones, virtually all chorus, a few bloopy synthesizer notes the only thing I imagine they slowed down to think about consciously. The surging "Plastic Skull" sounds like a double-speed synthesis of REM and the La's. The frothy "High in the Morning" (a jubilantly innocent paean to drugs and bi-sexuality, as best I can tell) makes "That Thing You Do" sound like the Doors. "Zoo", oddly, reminds me of both the Byrds and the Animals. "Standing in Line" slows down, incongruously, and comes off a little like Geneva fronted by a chipmunk instead of a twelve-year-old, but the twangy "Bottle" speeds up again, mixing the energy of "Plastic Skull" with the sock-hop rush of "I Want to Hold Your Hand". "Redground" is a graceful mid-tempo ballad on the approximate order of Hunters & Collectors' "Throw Your Arms Around Me", "Like a Baby" affects a goofy country-rockabilly shuffle, and "Stop" strays towards Oasis, but "Dusty", nominally a tribute to Dusty Springfield, sounds more like the Springfields doing an alternate theme for Josey and the Pussycats. "Boat Song" is nearly folk, but "Boy or Girl" (whose lyrics consist solely of "Are you a boy or a girl? / Either way you rock my world!", over and over) is the garage band ABBA never was. The only song with anything much like nuance is the swirling, atmospheric finale, "W.O.P.R.M." (no idea), epic for astrid at almost five minutes, which only contrives to sound like the Feelies trying to make "Yellow Submarine" into "In a Gadda Da Vida". If I ever convince myself to stop worrying, this is what the whole world will sound like to me.
The Anchormen: The Boy Who Cried Love
Even astrid seem comparatively somber, though, in the company of The Boy Who Cried Love, the thirteen-song, twenty-two minute debut by the Anchormen (who are from Somerville, the town immediately to the north of Cambridge, but I only discovered them via a six-thousand-mile mail-order detour). The music, which sounds like an unholy basement-lab hybrid of Tullycraft and Human Sexual Response, is manic enough, but the lyrics are utterly masterful in their inanity, and it would be difficult to assemble a better parody of local authenticity if you meant to. The shrill "Cake Walk" is practically a censored remake of HSR's "Butt Fuck", "Spy Pond" is a deranged fantasy of an aspiring secret agent drowning in an actual mundane pond in Arlington (the next town to the west), and "On the Phone" is a fifty-second answering-machine message. The love song "Raina" has some of the most contrived rhymes outside of a Billy Bragg song, and scans as if this recording captures the words and the music being first introduced to each other by mutual friends. "Target: Youth" is an anti-ageism polemic they're nearly through with before it occurs to them that they don't have a point to build up to ("If you're going to instill an 11 o'clock curfew / Then you better extend prime time", they lamely demand). "Bert the Pilgrim" reads like a class report on the colonization of America written in green crayon on orange construction paper. "My Shell" is "Pop Songs Your New Boyfriend's Too Stupid to Know About" without the name-dropping, "U Lock" is a Boston stolen-bicycle rant to go with the American Measles' "God Took My Bike" and Prickly's "Bicycle Thief", and "Starla" proves that if you can play the bass line to Big Country's "Harvest Home" at five times it's normal speed you can base a really short punk song on it. "Go to Hell" is "Nazi Punks Fuck Off" without the political acuity, and although I can't figure out whether they meant this joke or not, "Back to Lechmere" and "Bunker Hill" refer to two Boston landmarks that look like the ends of the earth on a subway map, but are actually within walking distance of each other. This disc wouldn't amount to anything but a party favor for close friends, though, if the songs underneath the erratic, borrowed-gear, rehearsal?-how-do-you-spell-that? production aesthetic weren't so self-sufficient. "Spy Pond" is rumbling and sinister, guitar feedback chirping like code, "On the Phone"'s tempo flags and rallies like a metronome about to faint, and the gang-vocal backing choruses of "Raina" sound like the rest of the band is just trying to be encouraging, and forgot that there was a song going on. "Target: Youth" is parts "Hell Is for Children", Fugazi and the Dead Milkmen, and might be the song I was hoping the Flying Nuns would eventually write. The Judy's-esque "Back to Lechmere" is wildly out-of-tune, but the cymbals and handclaps in the chorus are delicious. "Starla" trails off into wordless "Starla la la la" rapture with heartening enthusiasm, and "Bunker Hill" tries to blow by in such a caffeinated blur that you won't notice the intriguingly intricate twists its tune makes. As with Guided by Voices, low-fi is a facade, behind which these songs have pop ambitions as big as any. Faulting The Boy Who Cried Love because it's a third of the length of the new Melissa Etheridge album would be the height of pedantry; when you play this fast, twenty-two minutes is how long an album takes.
The Promise Ring: Very Emergency
I haven't heard the first two records by the Milwaukee quartet The Promise Ring, 30° Everywhere and Nothing Feels Good, nor the singles compilation The Horse Latitudes, but Ida, who are considerably more than fun in my taxonomy, split a single with the trio Vermont, two of whose members are also in the Promise Ring. Vermont's album, Living Together, failed to appeal to me in some way I couldn't identify, so I bought Very Emergency, the third Promise Ring album, to see if it had what I thought Living Together was missing. In retrospect, I think Vermont seemed a bit listless, and I wanted them to be smarter and even more listless, which would more or less make them Vehicle Flips. Instead, if astrid is the fun I watched other people having with Teenage Fanclub, then Very Emergency is my consolation for never being able to stand Green Day. The Promise Ring replace Green Day's nasal sneer and literal-minded bubble-gum Buzzcocks thrash with some of Helmet's intensity, Braid or Fugazi's emotive yelp, and a less simplistically sugary idea of what's left when you remove the clutter from guitar pop, and on this album, at least, end up as a sort of American answer to 3 Colours Red, which seems like indie timidity morphing into pop charm only because mainstream pop so rarely re-acquires indie artlessness. "Happiness Is All the Rage" is all jagged guitar grind, cymbal hiss and kick-snare stomp, but the lyrics' attempt at bubbliness is endearingly unconvincing, "We could do more outdoor things / If we weren't so busy getting busy" delivered as if they stopped some junior-high-school kids on the street and grilled them for slang. "Emergency! Emergency!" is what they should play as exit music at Revolution games, instead of "Closing Time". The verses of "The Deep South" seem inclined to be the Promise Ring's "Lucky Denver Mint", but the clipped chorus is useless for sing-along. "Happy Hour"'s refrain is half a beat too short, and so shifts across the meter as it's repeated, like "Stop this missile building" in Translator's "Sleeping Snakes". "Things Just Getting Good" is long and slow, with a mournful, legato cello, but "Living Around" crosses the Breeders' "Cannonball" with Buffalo Tom. "Jersey Shore" could be an uncharacteristically depressed Too Much Joy, but the jumpy "Skips a Beat (Over You)", with Jenny Toomey supplying backing vocals, is unguardedly sentimental and earnest, and "Arms & Danger" is snappy, expansive punk-pop. "All of My Everythings", the becalmed last song, nods in the direction of catharsis but hasn't the energy to get there. This is what happiness sounds like when it can't quite transcend its own self-consciousness. But that's often my problem, too.