Longing to See You Smile
251 · 18 November 99
IQ: The Lost Attic
If my philosophical life can be cast as a polar struggle (and most people's can, so I don't see why I should be different), there are several candidate antitheses, but the one that most readily subsumes the others, I think, is the aesthetic tension between "less is more" and "more is more". The telling meta-point, of course, is that I reduce philosophy to aesthetics when pressured, but if I can resist the meta-point impulse for a moment (and the even more seductive meta-meta-discussion about the meta-impulse itself), I can trace the war between minimalism and maximalism, between austerity and extravagance, back to two of my teachers, one in high school and one in college. The one in high school was Mr. Day, my sophomore English teacher, the closest thing I've ever had to Vic, the substitute in My So-Called Life, or any one of those renegade mentors they make heroically over-simplified movies about. Ours wasn't a troubled inner-city school, so his success in bringing the grand issues of Art to life for us were not, perhaps, triumphs on the scale of Dangerous Minds, but freshman year I was so bored with school that my parents were forced to meet my guidance counselor (I forget which of them thought this would help), and sophomore year I was not. While Mr. Day wasn't the first English teacher to attempt to tell us something about the craft of writing (my mother, if you ever meet her, will be happy to tell you, among other inspirational anecdotes from my childhood, the one about when she asked my fourth-grade teacher whether we were doing creative writing, and the hapless woman smiled ruminantly and waved a hoof at the cursive penmanship exercises that adorned the walls like the world's drabbest bunting), he was certainly the first to undertake the task with anything resembling contagious enthusiasm. Where previous teachers had approached the topic with the trepidation of one of Hardy's rural vicars decanted from a time-machine into a Meineke franchise, Mr. Day arrived in old clothes, hauled our hideous snarl of "knowledge" out into the sunlight, and proceeded to lay into it with any tool that seemed solid enough to leave a mark. Subjects and verbs? Yes, yes, of course they have to match, but getting the grammar right is not writing any more than failing to draw blood from a dance partner's shin constitutes a minuet. I believe he was the first person, in my school experience, that actually understood the private lives of phrases. I remember vividly the surge of triumph I felt when I discovered the word "castigate", whose literal sense of punishing somebody by beating them with a rod was so precisely what the beleaguered thesis sentence of my paper about Shakespeare's Richard III needed that it was a shame I had to dilute the aphorism by explicating it. Mr. Day's great talent, it seems to me in retrospect, was that he took exciting things seriously, and thus debunked the implicit assertion, in too much of the rest of my education, that excitement and seriousness were inherently incompatible. I don't think he was a maximalist, at heart, but he held our attention by dazzling us repeatedly, and so, by accumulation if nothing else, ended up as a champion of more-is-more.
To my junior and senior English teachers was left the unenviable task of stomping all that expressive vitality back out of us, and reshaping our writing into the lifeless polygons we would be expected to extrude onto the pages of AP test booklets. I remember exactly two enduring lessons from those years, one being that once you got the hang of "advanced" punctuation, the number of sentences you were supposed to produce no longer constrained the number of things you could say, and the other being that if you adjusted your margins, character-spacing and line-heights (this was before word-processing but, mercifully, after electric typewriters with backspace keys), you could cram a 250-word essay into the top inch-and-a-half of the page, and bring to a teacher's face a particularly intriguing hue. In the end, though, I guess they did their jobs as well as Mr. Day did his; my class developed a collective aptitude for standardized tests that reduced the school board to happy, gibbering delirium.
All Harvard freshmen, however, no matter how many commendations their high school received from President Reagan's commission for commending high schools for things (my assumption that Reagan wasn't intimately involved with this process is based on the observations that he was, at the time, best known for being a doddering idiot, and that my high school was, at the time, best known for being the one John Hinckley had attended), were required to take Expos, pronounced like an athlete's foot remedy instead of like a baseball team, and short for Expository Writing. The course catalog described this mandatory component of our first year in a series of patently meaningless evasions that I would later recognize as the embryonic form of a "mission statement". At the time we thought Expos existed to ensure that even those of us with the sense to fill the rest of our schedules with drawing and deductive-logic courses would have a formative experience with institutional officiousness. After all, surely anybody who got into Harvard must already be able to write, yes? Well, no. Somewhere I still have the papers my freshman roommate Peter and I stole off our third roommate's Macintosh when he wasn't around, which could have been bound into Woody Allen's Without Feathers without reducing its average level of slapstick hilarity. The best was his final essay for a year-long honors-only seminar on Eastern religions, which began something very much like "When asked to write an essay about Sufism, my first thought was I wonder what Sufism means. The American Heritage Dictionary (Ninth Edition, Large Print) says...". I now realize that they had us take Expos not for our sakes, but as a cost-cutting measure. If you make elite Harvard professors (where by "elite Harvard professors" I mean "elite Harvard graduate students", and by "elite" I mean "not wealthy enough to turn down tuition subsidies") read piles of essays that begin by citing dictionaries, they will quit, and you will have to find new ones. Recruiting is expensive.
By rights, then, Expos should have been dreary. It wasn't. Teaching it was the most thankless of all faculty affiliations, but somehow this produced an endearingly motley collection of instructors. Mine, a tolerant, cheerful young woman named Alex Johnson, was a Lotus software tester who I think had once written a book review for the New Yorker. Later, in real writing classes, I had real writers for teachers; Alex was a much better teacher than any of them. She gave us our first assignment, and I responded with a bouquet of painstakingly-arranged clauses that ought to have been accompanied by a vase, a chapbook of footnotes, and a large pipe. It was my first Harvard assignment, after all, and she was also very cute. She read it, to her credit, without flinching, put it down on the table between us, studied it for a moment longer, and then raised her head and peered at me with eyes whose color I ought here to report, except for some reason I am incapable of remembering eye colors.
"Just say", she said, "what you're trying to say." I had no idea what she meant. I worked even harder on the second assignment.
"Just say", she said, after dutifully admiring its rococo intricacies, "what you're trying to say." Blankly I looked back at her, with whatever color my eyes are. "Um", she explained, looking around for either a metaphor or something to hit me with, finally settling on a pen and flipping my assignment over, "what are you going to study here?"
"Well, I thought I was going to be a physics major, but now I'm not sure."
"Well," she wrote, on the back of my assignment, "I thought I was going to be a physics major, but now I'm not sure." "Just say", she reiterated, spinning the paper around and pushing it towards me, "what you're trying to say." And then, in the movie version of my life, she handed me a copy of Franny and Zooey, and I suddenly saw the light, and we became lovers. In the actual version of my life, I'd read Franny and Zooey already, it just hadn't occurred to me that schoolwork could have a writing style, too, or that schoolwork could be personal expression. If you can think clearly, you can write the way you think. For my third assignment, I didn't use the thesaurus once. I never learned to like Hemingway, but I learned to write sentences you could simply read, learned the critical lesson that a philosophy paper is no different, in communications terms, from asking your third roommate to turn off the harp music and stop having sex in the bunk below yours while you're trying to sleep. You'd have to confer with my professors to find out whether this amounted to a net improvement in my academic writing skills. (You may debate, among yourselves, the question of whether I've forgotten this lesson in the years since.) And maybe I was going to learn it somehow, anyway, but that's how I did learn it, so Alex gets the credit: Less is more.
And from that day on, the two ideas have battled for my affections. Software design, my professional pastime, consists mostly of removing complexity (or concealing what you can't remove), but software marketing consists mainly of adding it. Some of my favorite authors (Carver, Salinger, my teacher Mary Robison) mete out words like Sahara nomads stenciling the sand with canteen water; some (Gene Wolfe, Richard Powers, Umberto Eco) write like vocabulary is a form of ecology, and the only thing between any given word and extinction is a living human using it in a sentence. My favorite movie in the world is Peter Greenaway's dumbfoundingly ornate and layered Drowning by Numbers, but my favorite movie this year was The Blair Witch Project, probably the most minimal film to see theatrical release in this country since they started having sound. My desk is a simple, solid oak table; the computer on it has a subwoofer, an ergonomic keyboard and a flat-panel monitor. I love Mecca Normal, early Billy Bragg and Liz Phair, Low, Aube. But I also still love progressive rock.
My sophomore year in high school was 1982-83. At the time, all I really knew of progressive rock was Rush and Yes, and I didn't like Yes, but I idolized Rush enough to compensate. I didn't learn much more about the subject until my friend Matt, years later, introduced me to Marillion, Magnum and IQ. Timing, it turns out, wasn't the problem: Marillion's Script for a Jester's Tear, Magnum's The Eleventh Hour and IQ's Tales From the Lush Attic all came out in 1983. Five years later, they were the first CDs I ever held in my own hands. Two years after that, they were among the first CDs I bought for my first CD player. In Marillion and IQ's cases, I've since bought reissues, as well (a Magnum reissue campaign doesn't appear to be forthcoming, but I'm waiting patiently). In my subjective musical autobiography, time is fluid, and things often get assigned to phases of my life according to the mental states they evoke, not how old I was when I really first heard them. Byzantine progressive-rock bands, then, always partially belong to my childhood, to when I thought more was more, and didn't realize that qualified as a stance. My officemate David and I were talking about the difference between childhood and adulthood, last week, when we should have been developing the leading web application for business-to-business project collaboration (or however I'm supposed to describe it), and his formulation of the underlying question was "What did I want to do, and do, at sixteen, that I still want to do, but don't, now?" My glib answer (and the difference between glib answers and considered ones, for me, is often a matter of whether I was swallowing the instant you asked) was that at sixteen I enjoyed what I enjoyed without having to analyze it to figure out whether I enjoyed it or not. I didn't love Rush because they demonstrated an aesthetic principle, I just loved them. I wasn't self-conscious about Neil Peart's awkward, pretentious lyrics, I didn't contrast Rush's dense, glossy production with the new Aquadays album. Other people not loving them wasn't a matter of taste, it was a failure of taste. I've lost that immediacy. There isn't anything, any more, that I don't experience, at least at one level, through the filter of awareness of my own subjectivity, mentally wording the disclaimers even as I swoon. I know why people might not like Tori Amos, or Big Country, or the Loud Family. I understand why some people thought Eyes Wide Shut and Romance weren't awful, and Dogma and Desert Blue weren't brilliant. I know, I know too much. It makes me more mature, and I'm pretty sure I wouldn't actually trade it, but it doesn't reliably make me happier. And so each new blast of progressive-rock rapture, even if it doesn't really go back far enough, is like synesthetic nostalgia, a gust of the scent of what it was once like to not know any better.
The Lost Attic is a rarities collection, and thus a particularly effective piece of para-nostalgia. For an obscure British progressive-rock band who've only made six studio albums in sixteen years, none of which you're liable to run across by accident in the US, IQ have a startling amount of miscellany to collect. These fourteen tracks include the twelve-inch version of their debut single ("Barbell Is In"), one song left over from Tales From the Lush Attic ("Wintertell"), three 1984 BBC-session versions of early concert staples ("Awake and Nervous", "Just Changing Hands" and "Widow's Peak"), five songs from fan club singles ("The Last Human Gateway (middle section)", "The Bold Grenadier", "Fascination" and both the original and 1999 recordings of "Hollow Afternoon"), their cover for a 1994 tribute to Twelfth Night singer Geoff Mann ("Apathetic and Here, I..."), one Dutch prog-magazine compilation track ("N.T.O.C. (Resistance)"), and two outtakes from the 1997 double-album Subterranea ("The Universal Scam" and "Eyes of the Blind"), and that's despite a selective sense of history in which Paul Menel, who was the singer for the middle two of their six albums, is represented by only two songs, neither of which he helped write, the traditional dirge "The Bold Grenadier" and the remake of the pre-Menel composition "Fascination". IQ put this compilation out on Giant Electric Pea, their own label, and although I was, to my astonishment, able to purchase a copy in a Boston store, I'm not anticipating a surge of underground support. Since original vocalist Peter Nicholls' return, in time for 1993's Ever, IQ have shown no inclination to modulate their style to account for current tastes in any way. The most striking thing about this set, I think, is how much of a piece the new songs and the old songs sound. The three newest ones and the three BBC recordings do not belie the decade and a half between them. Marillion have evolved, and Magnum have retired, but IQ still believe in jump-cut time-signatures, willowy keyboard hooks, Nicholls' mannered singing, traces of metal more often than of pop, long songs with long instrumental breaks in the middle, and Mike Holmes' dizzying, expansive guitar solos. "Barbell Is In" has a robo-reggae beat they would wisely choose not to reuse, and "Wintertell" is mostly just twinkling acoustic guitar, but Paul Cook's clattering drums on "Awake and Nervous" are like a rhythm track drawn up by M.C. Escher, "Just Changing Hands" is as much a domestic-crisis story unaccountably narrated by a harlequin as Marillion's "Punch & Judy" (more indirect and thus, in my book, more indelible than Suzanne Vega's "Luka" or Pearl Jam's "Jeremy"), and the towering, anxious performance of "Widow's Peak" obviates the need, to me, for anything Genesis did before Peter Gabriel left (and Gabriel's departure obviates the need, in my opinion, for anything they did after). This is the fourth version of the middle of "The Last Human Gateway" I've heard, but it encapsulates the band's ethos in four minutes almost as effectively as the whole piece does in twenty. "Fascination" is frilly and thin in this form, the drum production pretty disastrous, but I always loved the way Menel's voice flits back and forth over the border of falsetto. The early tape of "Hollow Afternoon" wasn't in very good condition, thus the re-recording, but redoing a song from scratch in order to fix the sound quality is a classic more-is-more exercise, and the band shows remarkable restraint in not trying to reinterpret it in the process, especially given its weird, plodding pace, which practically begs to be sped up. Somewhere I have the SI compilation "N.T.O.C. (Resistance)" came out on (which also features, as I recall, an excellent mid-absence Pallas track and a post-IQ Paul Menel song from a proposed solo album that I'm not sure he ever finished), but SI combusted years ago, and IQ's song was well worth rescuing. And while Subterranea hardly needed any more songs, both the outtakes are up to the epic's musical standards, and I'm immeasurably cheered by the assertion in the liner notes that "Eyes of the Blind" was dropped because they couldn't fit it into the narrative, as it suggests that the band has a much clearer sense of the album's story than I do, which is an excellent excuse to go back and listen to the whole thing again.
IQ: Seven Stories Into Ninety Eight
The credits for The Lost Attic claim that the 1999 remake of "Hollow Afternoon" was completed in eight days. This seems excessive, given that in 1998, for the same reason, the band needed only five days to rerecord the entirety of their near-mythical 1982 debut cassette, Seven Stories Into Eight. If an IQ rarities compilation (another IQ rarities collection, at that) was a dubious commercial proposition, re-recording ancient demos is beyond ridiculous, so Seven Stories Into Ninety Eight, a two-disc set with a copy of the original tape dubbed onto one disc and new recordings of the same songs on the other, is only available by mail from their fan club, who were not equipped, as of my order, to accept payment in any form other than a check in British pounds, the generation of which embroils my Boston bank in enough manager-consulting bureaucracy to make me suspect that the extortion-like seven-dollar fee they charge for it doesn't actually cover their personnel costs. Be forewarned: when a band cannot convince their usual label to release something, despite the fact that they own and operate that label themselves, you may be dealing with a record of limited appeal.
But the two versions offer a rare opportunity to put the less-is-more/more-is-more debate to a controlled test. My less-is-more urge is to say no, these are demos, there's no reason in the world to mess with them. However they sounded, that's how they sounded. In practice, though, listening to both, I find it hard to argue with the band's decision. The old versions are cool to hear, once, but they do not sound good, and IQ is a band that usually sounds very good. Then again, some of the songs, notably "For Christ's Sake", a medley of traditional Christmas tunes that sounds perilously like Mannheim Steamroller, aren't so great either. But if it only took the band five days to redo the thing, and the internet can bring together enough fans to defer the expense, then I can't think of a reason to object. Half of the original eight songs have appeared in other forms already, "Intelligence Quotient" on both Nine in a Pond Is Here and J'ai Pollette D'Arnu, "Barbell Is In" on The Lost Attic (although this version trades the twelve-inch's reggae swagger for an ominous, "Tusk"-ish march, which is much more to my liking), "Fascination" on The Lost Attic and Nine in a Pond Is Here and "It All Stops Here" on Living Proof, Nine in a Pond Is Here and J'ai Pollette D'Arnu. Of the other songs, "Capital Letters (In Surgical Spirit Land)" is wildly overwrought, but the mellow "About Lake Five" has a classic Martin Orford synth hook, "For the Taking" is serene, and the early instrumental "Eloko Bella Neechi", a non-album bonus on the re-recorded disc, isn't much more than a long Mike Holmes guitar solo, with a drum track borrowed from somewhere else, but if a four minute Mike Holmes guitar solo doesn't sound like a good idea to you, then you're not going to like the other IQ albums so well, either.
Yes: The Ladder
I wasn't a Yes fan at all until 90125, and I wasn't a fan of anything other than 90125 until I bought Yesterdays, on a whim, in 1992, solely to get their ten-and-a-half-minute version of Simon and Garfunkel's "America". To my surprise and consternation, I liked the rest of it just as much, and a quick catalog back-filling ensued. Yes have two records with plausible claims to being rock's ultimate statement of more-is-more, the one-song-per-LP-side double-album Tales From Topographic Oceans on sheer scale (especially if adjusted for CD-era running-time inflation) and obtuseness, and Union for incorporating (albeit, disappointingly, not all on any single song) two complete band line-ups with only vocalist overlap. The years since my Yes conversion, though, have not been so encouraging. Symphonic Music of Yes was a dreadful idea; Talk is either my first or second favorite album ever when judged on bass tone alone (depending on how I'm currently feeling about Queensrÿche's Empire), but I can't remember anything else about it; the two hybrid live/studio albums Keys to Ascension and Keys to Ascension 2 sounded to me like court transcripts from Yes' trial, and resulting conviction, for irrelevant atavism; and 1997's Open Your Eyes is the only album in my experience to be fatally upstaged by its own throw-away bonus track. If I didn't suffer from chronic synapse faults triggered by walking into record stores, I would not have purchased The Ladder. I put it on not because I want to hear it, or think it's going to be any good, but because the act of pressing play is therapy, admitting that I have a record problem, that I buy things I absolutely should not. Some weeks I think I'm making progress, as when I decline, with real effort, the urge to buy the Joy Division box set, despite the fact that I have never liked them even a little bit. And then I buy a new Yes album, and I'm right back where I started.
But what really undoes any progress I might have made isn't the fact that I bought this record, it's the fact that I'm enjoying it. Not only am I enjoying it, I'm thinking that it might be my favorite Yes album, the one that best combines the Big Pop focus of 90125 and Big Generator with the more elaborate progressive settings of the Seventies stretch from Fragile to Tormato. Mind you, the album it threatens to unseat, in my ranking, is Union, which I'm not sure I've ever heard anybody but me even praise, let alone nominate as Yes' best, so real Yes fans are advised to disregard everything I say. Fake Yes fans may keep reading. Arguably The Ladder is fake Yes, anyway. Anderson, Howe, Squire and White are all there, but they haven't been able to shake interloper Billy Sherwood, who recorded and mixed Open Your Eyes, as well as playing guitars and keyboards on it. He's relegated to guitars and backing vocals here, but his keyboard role has been assumed full-time by Open Your Eyes guest Igor Khoroshev, who is obviously a spy, and the credits also list "World Instruments performed by Randy Raine-Reusch", which I suspect is a cult thing, and dance loops by Front Line Assembly's Rhys Fulber, which is as pathetic and flawed an attempt at garnering cross-generational credibility as remaking the Thin Man movies with Reggie Miller as Nick.
Except if it all works. I think it does. "Homeworld (The Ladder)" (or, as the lyrics have it, "The Ladder (Homeworld)") is a muscular ten-minute epic whose instrumental sections sound as much like Rush as like Relayer, and whose sunny harmonies invoke the Beach Boys as fluently as they do "Leave It" or "Our Song". Sherwood keeps everybody moving as adeptly as Trevor Rabin, but I never sense that he wishes he were in Mr. Mister. I admit that I could never tell Rick Wakeman and Tony Kaye apart, either, but Khoroshev knows what is expected of his role. "It Will Be a Good Day (The River)" is a self-contained pop song I can imagine remaking for either Marillion or Sting, without drastic changes. The bouncy "Lightning Strikes" is somewhere in between the Macarena and Graceland, but if it keeps somebody from actually combining the Macarena and Graceland, it will have done humanity a service. "Can I?" is a brief tribal interlude, but "Face to Face", with its burbling synth noise and crashing guitars, might finally be Yes' answer to the Who's "Baba O'Riley", albeit, because it's Yes' version, without any discernible machismo. Synth filigree excepted, "If Only You Knew" is a deadpan pop power-ballad, maybe three parts "This Kiss" and two "Sister Christian". "To Be Alive (Hep Yadda)" flirts with sitar and flute sounds, but reminds me more of recent Rush than of "Siberian Khatru". The synth and guitar hooks in "Finally" wouldn't sound too out-of-place in "Baker Street", but the harmonies are trademark Anderson/Squire, and the second half wanders off into a rare noodly digression. A sinister bass rumble drives the verses of "The Messenger", but the choruses are airy, effortless and rousing. "New Language", the other epic, mostly alternates between kaleidoscopic spirals and a sturdy, faintly funky groove, and is, for a long Anderson song on a New Age-y theme, surprising coherent. And "Nine Voices (Longwalker)", the succinct and lovely acoustic finale, with a neat interpolation of the "doot doot"s from "Leave It" at the end, could be Yes' new concert sing-along, like Rush's "Closer to the Heart". I think my problem with Keys of Ascension was that the new songs sounded like they really wished they were the old songs, like they were contractual-obligation compositions done to allow the band to play in exactly the same style as "Roundabout" and "Starship Trooper" for the part of the concert after they'd already played "Roundabout" and "Starship Trooper". Here Yes sounds rejuvenated, like they might be willing to go out and play these songs, and not the old ones at all, like they might have resummoned both the eagerness and the defiance necessary to alienate a sympathetic audience and then win it back again. Maybe I'm dreaming, but thirty years into their career I can imagine this album winning Yes new fans. Not Marilyn Manson or Wu-Tang Clan fans, perhaps, but there are a lot of people in the world, and I bet this could make some of them happier. More or less of them, I don't know, but more happy. More or less, but definitely more.