I've Seen Your Sorrow in My Dreams
248 · 28 October 99
Lincolnville: Black Box
For something I do so much of, I don't like mail-ordering very much. As a collector, I abhor the limbo between ordering something, at which point I feel proscribed from searching for it elsewhere, and feeling it in my hands. I don't like having to check on the status of things, I detest worrying about whether they're really going to arrive, and I become incensed if I've deleted some item from my want list, become emotionally adjusted to its absence, and then discover that my source has failed me and I have to put it back on. I used to avoid mail-ordering directly from bands and small labels, on the theory that the smaller and more personal the operation, the less reliable it would be, but the two factors have not, in my subsequent wider experience, turned out to be detectably correlated. I've had mostly good experiences with CDNow, which acts like an operation of scale, but the UK exporter Yalplay, which seemed to me like a viable, quirky alternative to international corporate behemoths, has barely been able to acquire half the things their catalog offered me, so I've reverted to Tower and HMV. One-person operations from a dozen states (including two states that belong to Australia) have come through without event, and certain others are at this moment enjoying pesto-chicken sandwiches bought with six dollars I sent them in August, for which they have not, so far, sent me anything in return. I've yet to be ripped off by anyone on eBay, nor strangers on mailing lists, not even the ones to whom I've mailed, somewhat against my better judgment, envelopes full of cash. In the indie world, where mail-order efficiency is most critical, my load-balancing algorithm has been modified to bias traffic towards Parasol and Twee Kitten, who act like they're genuinely interested in the quality of my experience, and away from any place that 1) charges my credit card before they check to see if they have what I asked for, or 2) keeps me in suspense, until I open the package, about what random subset of my order they'll deem worth filling.
Writing out checks, putting them in envelopes, and mailing them to one of the people who made the record generally works pretty well, and has a moral charm to it, but you have to understand that these transactions may not always proceed with a comfortable businesslike anonymity. Sometimes the drummer, who's in charge of taking orders, will keep forgetting to drop by the storage place and pick up a box of copies of the first album, and your copy of the second album, which is the one you really wanted, will sit on his hall table for two months. This is irritating, but then again I've had a Norwegian flag, nominally destined for to-be-determined wall space somewhere in my house, sitting on one of my kitchen counters since the Norway-China World Cup semifinal on July 4, so it's not like I don't empathize. In the case of this Lincolnville album, the drummer was so embarrassed by how long it took him that the package, when it finally arrived, contained not only the two CDs, but also my uncashed check. (The good news or the bad news, depending on whether you like CDs or returned checks better, is that now he's got a box of the old ones, so your order will likely be routine.) I only know of the band because I heard the last few pleasant, unassuming seconds of a song on the MIT radio station while driving to work one morning, and I'd probably have forgotten about it if even the most trivial work-task had intercepted me on the way to discovering that no band is too obscure to register their name as a web site and put up a few pages about themselves. I enjoyed a momentary thrill, thinking they might now be the least known group in my awareness, but it turns out the trio were both the opening act and backing band for Buffalo Tom singer Bill Janovitz on his solo tour, which, complacently, I missed, so once again I have mistaken behind for ahead, and I scramble to catch up. The troublesome first album, Lincolnville, released under the acronymous band name CAR (Colin Decker, Alec Thibodeau and Ryan Dolan; and lest any of us mistakenly believe that the internet has reached maturity, the choice domain "www.car.com" currently belongs to a company whose autobiography includes, in apparent earnestness, the phrase "Several years later, when consumer research indicated a need for a dry, nonstaining cream product..."), and recorded by Decker at home in Portland, Maine, is tense, crashing and cathartic, something like a cross between a sparer Christie Front Drive, a clearer early Buffalo Tom and a noisier Winter Hours. I like it OK, but I've bought a daunting number of records, in the past year, that basically sound like an hour of Live covering "That's When I Reach for My Revolver", and this one, on its own, would have vanished into the pile without much ado.
The second record, though, "Lincolnville" reassigned from album title to band name (Thibodeau has been replaced on bass by Neil Collins, so they had to do something), may be my year's most astonishing reward for obscure persistence. It has only seven songs, lasts only thirty minutes, and changes the evolution of rock in no measurable way, but I find it spellbinding, and all the records I thought were only backed up behind Tori are making no further headway yet, this one looping instead. Lincolnville have found what sounds to me like the perfectly balanced midpoint between Jimmy Eat World (and the strident, emotive sub-genre beyond) and the Verve Pipe's smoother, more commercial variations on the same theme, and if the people who bought "Lucky Denver Mint" and "Freshmen" are still around, every one of these songs could be huge. Lincolnville could be Semisonic with depth, or Elliott Smith with power, or Wilco and Son Volt for people afraid of twang. REM and U2 began like this. So did a hundred bands nobody remembers, of course, but everything has to start somewhere. "You Know What You Are" opens with gleaming guitar arpeggios and Decker's breathy voice, like a choirboy gracefully aged, and then sighs into a steady, reverent assurance that I only can't imagine as a movie theme because I don't think anybody's made a love story good enough this year, nothing like Random Hearts recast in the aesthetic of The Dreamlife of Angels. Dry, splattering drums nearly obscure the sketchy acoustic guitars of "Ursa Minor", which finds Decker's singing suspended between Dave Matthews and Jeff Buckley, Collins' gauzy harmonies drawn across the backdrop like a veil. The elegiac, Richard-Buckner-ish "Medicate Luck" reaffirms my faith that the destiny of rock is guided by muses who, when they come to Earth, invariably inhabit luminous women named Caroline. "Kill the Show" is what Pearl Jam might sound like if they had Bruce Cockburn's effortless folk-poet fluency and Son Volt's implacable composure. The bouncy, brittle "Heavenly Calm" tests the theory that Geneva would have been massive here if they'd only sounded ten percent more like the Goo Goo Dolls. "Selling His Guns" reminds me of Black Sheets of Rain-era Bob Mould, but sadder than angry. And "There Was the Fire", the surging finale, has some of the prettiest guitar feedback I can remember, and until it surrenders to wordless howls, could fit in almost anywhere on Buffalo Tom's Smitten. This album more or less amounts to thirty minutes of Winter Hours' "Hyacinth Girl", to me, still one of the most gorgeous pop songs I know of almost fifteen years later. Thirty minutes seems like the perfect length, because it means I never have to be away from any individual song for longer than that. It's heartbreaking to imagine how many people won't hear any of them. The drummer couldn't mail out enough of these if he did nothing else. I never really know which of the albums that sustain me would have the same redemptive power for other people, but I do have guesses, and this is one of them. If anything, Black Box may be just a year or two too late, a few VH1 pan-flashes too far into the post-Hootie/"Breakfast at Tiffany's" backlash for people, even if they had the chance, to recognize the difference between diminished expectations and open-hearted serenity, or between indifferent jangle and impassioned roar. This is the way rock should have adapted to Americana, muting and compressing it and turning reserve into resolve, pulling desert skies into city basements, pouring ocean-beach solitude into crowded buses, lacing tendrils of starlit air around the beams of new office buildings, our country's fortitude flowing back into us. Music is more profitable as division and distraction, but more valuable for community and focus. But who even stands still long enough for their overloaded sense of wonder to recalibrate itself, much less tries to tell whether the radio is actually tearing our culture apart? The kids have learned too much slang, or they're too buzzed on Nintendo and Kid Rock, or they're checking their beepers waiting for the song to end, waiting for their lives to snap into one of the hollow, impatient rhythms to which their role models pretend to move. Their parents, conversely, are too guarded to absorb this much sincerity, too self-conscious to remember that murky, allusive lyrics once seemed like a virtue, too busy congratulating themselves that they can still play air guitar to Melissa Etheridge, and naturally much too busy to write a check and mail it to Maine. But I imagine, for a moment, that you and I fall in between, that if we're here together, it can only be because we have clung successfully to our attention spans, and because we know that every interstice is a place in its own right. One day in our lives we realized music could be taken seriously, and one day, later, we will forget that again, but here we are during the days after and before, and maybe this could be an album for you, as for me, that hums the outline of why we care.
Travis: The Man Who
My week's other dumbfoundingly generous payback for persistence is The Man Who, the second album by the British quartet Travis. If I weren't opposed on principle to dismissive one-line reviews of records the reviewer obviously doesn't understand, and didn't listen to more than once, I might have written one for Good Feeling, the first Travis album, in the vein of "Dammit, I told you that when we were going around letting everybody know that Oasis sucks we missed a street." We missed lots of streets, and if I'd had the patience to play the record again I might have learned something, but I didn't. Persistence may not be the right thing to credit for Travis' and my second chance, exactly, as I wasn't planning to buy this until a girl I like asked me to, recommendations from girls I like being one of the few incentives in my universe more powerful than bonus tracks. Buying it was only supposed to be a gesture, at most an insight into her tastes (Montague-vs-Capulet-ly, she likes Oasis). Neither of us foresaw that The Man Who would find Travis having arrived at another midpoint I didn't realize I was looking for, this one the simultaneously simple and epic grace that both Oasis and Radiohead seem to me to be shying away from, in opposite directions, Oasis' shameless fondness for pop songcraft blunting Radiohead's serrated edges, Radiohead's oblique ambitions forestalling Oasis' tendency to settle for the most obvious flourishes of cynical rock bravado, and the lyrics safely negotiating the not-particularly-narrow strait between banal cliché and mordant nihilism.
The synthesis is startlingly beautiful. Bright guitars chime through the opener, "Writing to Reach You", Fran Healy singing a sinuous chorus hook that sounds almost backwards, and more people than me must have harped on the Oasis resemblance, as he tosses in the barb "The radio is playing all the usual, / And what's a Wonderwall anyway?" "The Fear" swirls up out of the depths of the early Seventies, vaguely evoking CSN&Y and America, except with fretful Nineties drums and some unexplained sci-fi noises. "As You Are" veers closer to Radiohead, Healy shifting into Thom Yorke's harrowing attack-falsetto. Springy bass triplets goad along the elegant "Driftwood", a sympathetic lament for lives that have forgotten inertia is an energy. "The Last Laugh of the Laughter" is baroque, glassy and partly sotto voce, and the chorus perversely ruins a perfectly good "laughter"/"chapter" couplet by singing the second line in French. The soaring anthem "Turn" sounds like Travis' entry in whatever slow, heroic song contest the Manic Street Preachers and Stereophonics have been taking turns winning. I'd probably consider "Why Does It Always Rain on Me?" an even grander bit of arch pop ostentation than Ultrasound's "I'll Show You Mine" if only I liked Randy Newman and the Beatles better. Plaintive harmonica tinges the eddying "Luv", one of only two songs here that seem to me to lose their way (and not coincidentally, this is the one that reminds me most of OK Computer). The other is the mannered, reverb-drenched "She's So Strange", on which Healy's clipped vocals sound straight out of Ziggy Stardust, which I don't personally think of as a good thing. The unlisted bonus track is the one noisy rock song, a blaring shut-in critique that I take to be a bleary impression of what it would have sounded like if the Wonder Stuff, in their final black days, had attempted to get out of some contractual obligation to produce one more song by doing a cover of Billy Joel's "Captain Jack" to whose gruesome lyrical revisions they knew perfectly well Joel would never consent.
The last listed song, though, "Slide Show", is clearly my favorite. Over a murmur of car and traffic noises, as if the track was recorded in the back seat of a car on a rainy day, a single acoustic guitar, a purring string trio and a few desultory tambourine rustles accompany a lithe, Lennon-esque melody, delivered in an intimate hush. "Cause there is no design for life, / There's no devils haircut in my mind, / There is not a wonderwall / To climb or step around", goes the chorus, and although this is mainly reference-dropping, and the Beck and Oasis allusions don't really even make sense, the one I've fixed on is, predictably, the one from a song I like, and despite the lack of cogent commentary in "Slide Show" otherwise, that one idea, that life has no design, is sung with such captivating sadness that the whole song becomes, for me, a confirmation masquerading as a rejection. The Manic Street Preachers "A Design for Life", a portrait of people whose only strategy for survival revolves around heavy drinking, was trenchantly ironic (irony in the old literary sense, a purposeful rhetorical device, rather than its new use as the adopted accent of a generation scared to death of revealing that anything matters to them), but the song existed in the context of Everything Must Go, whose awesome resilience betrayed the band's stubborn optimism. The Man Who employs a similar tension, in fact the same one that I suspect most people who don't find OK Computer unbearable think Thom Yorke uses: Beauty is inherently life-affirming. A pretty song with ugly words just proves that beauty transcends sense, and the uglier the words, the more uplifting it is to hear a melody overcome them. Music defeats death, over and over, right in front of us, hoping desperately that we'll eventually catch on. We sing that there is no design for life, and every ringing note of our resignation demonstrates that we are wrong.