With One Eye on the Time
263 · 10 February 00
There are four of them. They are very young, very cute, female and British. Most of these songs were co-written by their producer, the same guy who produced and co-wrote most of Natalie Imbruglia's Left of the Middle. In one of the booklet pictures, Sarah Davies looks almost exactly like Geri Halliwell. Their songs are very shiny, and extremely untroubled by angst. Their album has not been released in America yet, but they have a song on the Buffy the Vampire Slayer soundtrack, so presumably marketing forces are being marshaled even now, as you and I cower in our homes. It is logical to assume that they are, or somebody at Sony thinks they might be, the next Spice Girls, although arguably the relative apathy with which the US has greeted the last next Spice Girls, B*Witched, bodes poorly for the whole concept. But I bought the two B*Witched albums, and I bought this one, because cheerful pop records made by nineteen-year-old girls seem to me like at least as good an idea as petulant punk records by nineteen-year-old boys, and the boys still outnumber the girls by a wildly unjust margin. I wanted to like the Spice Girls, and failed. I wanted to like B*Witched, and managed to for two or three songs per album (the chiming, Roxette-like "Blame It on the Weatherman" and the ringing, fuzzed anthem "Never Giving Up" on B*Witched; the robot square-dance "Jesse Hold On", the Ray of Light pastiche "Leaves" and the impish a cappella "In Fields Where We Lay" on Awake and Breathe), which wasn't really enough. I want to like Hepburn. And, in fact, I do like Hepburn. I like them a lot, actually, but they are not the next Spice Girls. They are not the dance group they look like they should be, they are a pop-rock band in the noble, if recently neglected, tradition of the Bangles, Scarlet and the Tuesdays. They are the band Garbage might have become if the Shirley Mansons with deranged fashion senses outnumbered the balding studio geeks, instead of vice versa. They play their own instruments, anybody writing about them will feel obliged to point out, and I will keep buying these records until it's as puzzling and patronizing to say that about girls' bands as it is about boys' bands. I will keep buying these records until everybody involved realizes that naming a band after a glamour figure and using a picture of them as barefoot nymphets on a pale bed for the album cover is no way to treat musicians. It may be a long process, but I'm very stubborn.
Not that you need to be particularly stubborn to put up with Hepburn. The album opens, in the most straightforward pop manner, with the lead single, "I Quit", which is the same one they used on Buffy. Whether the members play their own instruments is nearly moot, given the thick syrup of keyboards, drum loops and other assorted production tricks in which the song wriggles. There's some diffident acoustic guitar over a brittle loop at the beginning, traces of Jamie Benson's English accent creeping into her elfin delivery of the introductory verse, and then Lisa Lister's fiery guitar kicks in, augmented by shards of a howling harmonica sample, and we're off into the soaring reveries of Scarlet's "Independent Love Song", Natalie's "Torn", or Hole's "Malibu". It's a simple break-up song, the chorus' relationship-as-job kiss-off not even sustained into the verses, and while the band deserve a little credit for rhyming "messiah" with "desire", and "baby" with "debris", with some of Billy Bragg's unselfconscious awkwardness, "'Cause loving you's a job I don't need" isn't exactly "Does she go down on you in a theater?" There isn't much to this, but there doesn't need to be. "I quit! I quit!", fans will sing along obliviously and blissfully, the same way they sang "Don't fear the reaper" or "Isn't it ironic?" or "It's just another manic Monday". There have probably been a hundred pop songs just like this, all the way down to the chord changes, but there have been a million scoops of your favorite flavor of ice cream, too, and that won't make you enjoy the next one any less.
Song two is single three, "Deep Deep Down", the record's most blatant Garbage rip-off. Jamie's voice is mangled, some fake vinyl crackles are slathered on for gritty ambience (exactly as convincing as the rakish streaks of mock-grime on the cheeks of a Disney pirate), and the measured verses surge into the pounding choruses, which attempt to sound menacing, but mostly fail, because it's hard to sound especially menacing when all you've got to brandish is "Have you ever been down? / Have you ever been way down?" "Here Comes Napoleon" sensibly abandons the attempt, and settles into a luscious, mid-tempo ballad, and while the lyrics are only a marginal improvement, I find it charming that the nominally-defiant "Here comes Napoleon, / There goes my dignity. / You're just no good for me" is sung with such sweet enthusiasm that I'm left feeling like it's far more conspiratorial than critical, more "They Don't Know About Us" than "You're So Vain". "Bugs", the galloping second single, arrives fourth, sounding something like a slightly older Shampoo singing over one of Per Gessle's more guitar-centric Roxette songs, and as a devoted fan of both Shampoo and Roxette the only complaint I can think to lodge against this liaison is that three minutes badly underestimates my tolerance for it.
Pop albums like this usually exist as a convenient way to distribute all of their singles at once, so songs five through twelve are often doomed to be the other songs short-attention-span consumers mean when they say there were only two or three good ones. What they really mean, though, is that there are only two or three familiar ones, and the rest are unknown, and thus automatically scary and to be avoided. Those of us who conquer our fear get to enjoy ourselves more (in music as in life). "My Old Love" marries some more Tracey Ullman-esque retro-pop cheer to decisive acoustic guitars and warm, buzzing electrics. "Next Life" sounds like Mel C's production crew has gotten ahold of an Aimee Mann song. "Out of Sight" is sort of a Shangri-Las update via Kenickie and the Starland Vocal Band. "See the Girl With the World in Her Eyes" is careening and bleary, like something from the last Cardigans album confessing its secret love for Neil Finn. "Waiting for God" has its Finn moments, too, but also banks of sentimental strings and perhaps traces of Echobelly's flair for drama. "I Can't Cry" is the kind of song Geri's Schizophonic might have been crammed with if she'd let Jon Brion produce it. "I Got the News" is busy, textural and incongruous, and reminds me of nothing so much as Melissa Etheridge's "2001". And if you make it all the way to the end your reward is the muted, old-fashioned finale, "Tomorrow's Girl", which blends the Beatles, the Bangles and Steely Dan, and might be a folk song if it weren't for the persistent rustle of somebody quietly garroting an electric guitar with its own cable in the background. I suppose this can't really be Girl Power, unless we've come so far, so quickly, that there's nothing left to rebel against, but it's sunny and glorious, and Phil Thornalley's production is sure-handed and knowing, and what's the risk? At worst, it'll just sound banal to you, and there's no margin in resenting the ordinary. At best, it's another syllogism in the ongoing proof that it's possible to add up all of our culture's conventions and clichés artfully, so that the sum isn't inflatable marionettes writhing to music performed by mannequins, it's the sound of some kids with just enough self-awareness to realize how precious these few moments are, after they've found their way out into the world, but before they've started smashing it up and sorting the rubble into the pieces of things they despised and the pieces of the ones they coveted.
Fastbacks: The Day That Didn't Exist
And frankly, I'm not sure where I'd start constructing a case that there's much material difference between an unapologetic mainstream pop record like Hepburn's and the small-label punk-pop variant like the Fastbacks' recent The Day That Didn't Exist. There's a lot more unsculpted noise here, the drums are louder and faster, Kim Warnick sings like a Smurf with a chainsaw and Kurt Bloch treats the studio like a very large tape recorder instead of a very complicated airbrush, but the songs Hepburn polishes and the ones that are thrashed here belong to the same shamelessly classicist tradition of happily exploiting the handful of intervals whose popularity diligent research has most conclusively established. The Fastbacks put on a destructive show, but when I watch it carefully I notice that there isn't anything fragile within reach. This is cartoon violence, like the garage band the Powerpuff Girls will start when they're a little older (and, somehow, no longer Japanese). The opening sprint, "One More Hour", is a battery salute to the Ramones, the McRackins, Kiss, Nirvana, the Monkees, Social Distortion and anybody else who ever realized what a spectacular mess a three-chord pop song makes if you strap enough bottle-rockets to it. "Goodbye, Bird" is basically a nursery rhyme played at a hyperactive child's metabolism rate. "Like Today" extracts the essence of the sawing guitar riff from the Clash's version of "Police on My Back" and hammers it into the rough outline of the "Ode to Joy". "New Book of Old" could be a Christmas carol. "I Was Stolen"'s rock clatter can't disguise a melody infectious enough to supplant "100 Bottles of Beer" on long elementary-school-field-trip bus rides. Most of "Dreams I.H.S." blasts along like "Auld Lang Syne" transcribed for Easy Guitar (and Distortion Pedal). "Have You Had Enough?" is a by-the-numbers rock song methodical enough to make Social Distortion seem oblique. "What's the Use?" breaks into a few hoarse Faith No More-ish shouts in the chorus, and a squalling guitar solo on the bridge, but the melody is no more avant-garde than "She'll Be Coming Round the Mountain". The verses of "My Destiny" crunch brusquely, but I have fun singing along with a spasmodic rendition of "Heart of Glass". And the last song, "The Day That Didn't Exist" itself, is drumless and elegant, to the extent that frayed guitar permits elegance, in almost exactly the same way as Hepburn's "Tomorrow's Girl", and almost exactly the same way that albums and plays and novels have ended for centuries. After all the battles, and parades, and confetti, it's somebody's job to take off their mask, come look the audience in the eye one last time, confirm that this really is the end of the story, and offer us a moral, narrative art's equivalent of the fortune cookie, to take away with us as we leave, and fret over in the car on the way home. "I unplugged the phone and rode out the storm", Kim says. There's nothing new about this album. It could have been made twenty years ago. The songs could have been composed long before any of us were born. We have begun a century that is choked with influences and trends, and virtually none of them inform this record or are challenged by it. It is a celebration of everything we no longer consider controversial. The fact that it sounds superficially like punk, and Hepburn doesn't, I think is only a recognition that everybody needs to be comforted this way, once in a while, so every human dialect requires an idiom of reassurance.