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You Stroke My Head and I'll Watch for Trucks
Starlet: Stay on My Side
If I were to draw up a Frequently Asked Questions list for my life (and there are worse ideas), one of the first questions on it, almost invariably asked by anybody who sees the interior of my house, would be "Why do you have so many dinosaurs?" Or, as it is sometimes rephrased, "Don't boys generally grow out of the dinosaur phase by their teens?" I usually get away without answering this, because right after the person notices the hundreds of little plastic dinosaurs lining the edges of the bookshelves in my living room, they notice all the books on the shelves, and a force more powerful than humidity compels them to inquire, even as a part of their brain realizes they are about to say something dumb, "Have you read all of these?". "Not yet", I growl, watching them to see if they realize that I'm quoting from My So-Called Life (the second-to-last episode; Patty, abandoned at the inn and slowly driving the innkeeper insane, asks him "Have you lived here your whole life?"). Of course they don't. But a few more words on the subject of books occupies us long enough for the tour to get upstairs, and once there a few words on the subject of music are usually elicited, where by "a few" I mean however many fit into the time remaining before they, I, or the universe undergoes thermodynamic collapse.
As I dragged a visiting friend around the New England Aquarium last weekend, though, the fish, which fascinate me for exactly the same reason as my plastic dinosaurs, reminded me that the question, whether it deserves an answer or not, does have one. It has little to do with dinosaurs or fish, really. I know a little bit about paleontology, somewhat less about marine biology, but I breeze right past the captions and explanatory charts at the Aquarium, and whenever I've bought a dinosaur book with more words than pictures I've found it unsatisfying. As scientific subjects they're important but unremarkable. What I love is the way the models and tanks display, indirectly, our changing implicit image of ourselves. The best plastic dinosaurs are the ones that indulge in the wildest extrapolations from the fossil record. Did any living parasaurolophus really have radial orange streaks on its abdomen, and Eeyore's eyes? We don't know, of course, but the evolution of dinosaur imagination, just during my lifetime, from one lumbering gray brontosaurus munching dolefully on a treetop to a flocks of skittish compsognathi harassing tourist children, is as illustrative as anything of our slow, dawning understanding that anthropocentricity, at least as an environmental policy, equals death. We haven't dug up any sauropod web servers, but that doesn't mean they didn't have a culture. Or that we couldn't give them one, posthumously, as part of our ongoing effort to understand how culture and biology relate. The best exhibits at the Aquarium are practically parables, laconic crocodiles coexisting uneasily with what amounts to a captive food supply, turtles and sharks alike fighting off boredom swimming laps around the artificial coral reef in the big center tank, traumatized starfish enduring the inquisitive fingers of nearly-as-traumatized kids on elementary-school field-trips. An electric eel lies in one corner of a featureless yellow-walled tank with one large electrode (labeled "ELECTRODE", presumably for the benefit of those visitors who are complete imbeciles) at each end, like a lethal, seven-hundred-pound editorial cartoon about the danger of assuming that anybody's most distinctive trait is their only trait. The octopus, ancient and world-weary, has a dark tank to himself, way off in a corner. He doesn't look lonely, but maybe that's just his pride. Of every ten thousand people to scrutinize him, how many are equipped to observe his condition meaningfully? One? Maybe none, but who cares? The octopus is there, where I have to assume he'd rather not be, because a few of us will peer into his murky cavern and see shadows of ourselves. The fish, and the dinosaurs, and good science fiction movies and bad pizza exist, at least in part, so that we may define ourselves by what we claim to enjoy.
But the exhibit that keeps me going back to the Aquarium, even now that it's mostly familiar to me, is the one outside the tanks. The Aquarium is one of the few citadels, at least in my limited sphere, into which irony either cannot penetrate, or else simply doesn't bother to. People come, and they look at the fish. When the shark swims towards them, the lens effect of the curved tank-wall exaggerating its approach, they flinch. They shudder at crabs the size of ottomans. They frown at the tank that seems to contain nothing but sardines and logs, until somebody points out that the logs are fish, too, spectacularly ugly and perpetually unimpressed. A diligent circuit through the building takes a couple hours, but you can see the entire structure at all times, so that must help keep people from getting impatient, the way they seem to in museums, and during long films. I don't think I've ever seen anybody smirk inside the Aquarium. I'm sure many of them don't love the place as much as I do, but however much they love it, for the duration of their visit that appears to be all they're doing. I'm sure most of them don't think, as they gauge their reactions to one tank or the other, that they're participating in an experiment in self-definition at least as revealing as a Rorschach test, and maybe, in fact, they aren't, at least not as much as I am. But at least they aren't fighting it.
In music, people fight it. They take refuge in irony, a way of claiming that you can like something without being the person that liking it would make you. They refuse to take responsibility for the moral implications of what they glamorize. They pretend they don't know what the words are, or else they really don't know what the words are, and they think that makes it OK to sing along. I will never forgive Kurt for killing himself, but it's not because I don't understand, all too vividly, how nauseous it made him to see what people did with the songs he gave them. The world would be vastly improved if more of us had the patience, and the self-awareness, to truly like the things we like, and vice versa. I'm convinced we can. I see people do it with leafy sea-dragons, and undulating sea anemones, and most music should be no harder. My favorite fish are the boxfish. They're lumpish, unarticulated things, nearly triangular in cross-section, like they were designed to be paperweights for aficionados of misshapen potatoes but then modern farmers learned to make every potato look the same and computers came along and nobody wanted paperweights any more, so they were forced to take low-paying jobs as marine life. They move by wriggling tiny fins on each side, and if you step back, you can't even make out those, so they seem to be maneuvering by magic, like every miscellaneous repair shuttle in every post-ILM space-station movie. They must have natural enemies, wherever it is they come from, but in the world of the tanks they look invulnerable, like they've hit upon the most efficient solution to life's dangers, which is to remove yourself from every inessential process, and remain in contact with the space around you only as much as is necessary to be able to move through it freely. It's not hard to argue that this is exactly what I do, in my own tank. I'm not saying it's right, and that the boxfish didn't sacrifice too much when it gave up florescent stripes and arabesque fins and predatory menace. I might be happier as a manta ray, or a picasso trigger, but at least I have the presence of mind to spot the fish I am right now, and salute the two of us for how hard we've worked to get this way.
The album of the fish I am, this week, is Stay on My Side, the second by the Swedish (but English-singing) quartet Starlet, released in the US by Parasol. From the One You Left Behind, the first one, was quick and crisp, something like a lower-res post-Cardigans Scandinavian version of the Housemartins. I liked it, but I got it during a massive Parasol back-catalog binge, and surrounded by their usual jangly mid-American guitar-pop bands it seemed out of place, and I filed it without too much scrutiny, preferring to concentrate on other things. Stay on My Side isn't a radical course change, but the difference resembles the jump from the Housemartins to the Beautiful South, in magnitude if not direction. Slowing down requires confidence, and somewhere between albums Starlet found theirs. Much of this record sounds like it could have been on Sarah, some side-project related, no doubt complicatedly, to the Field Mice or Blueboy. Parts remind me of Belle and Sebastian, at least in intimacy, but Starlet's version of British folk-pop is less historical, as if most of what they know of melancholy comes from Ian Curtis and Morrissey, not Nick Drake, and when you say "girl-group production" they think you mean the bad synthesizers on Shampoo records and don't know why anyone would be wistful about it. "I'm Home" bounces wiry acoustic guitar figures across a dry, steady drum shuffle, half-subliminal bass and restrained keyboards just barely filling in the empty spaces. Jonas Färm's quiet singing is as artless and untroubled by irony as Bob Wratten's ever has been, and he sings "Gruesome days at school, / Still I went" and "It's healthy to know / Your history" without any sense of contrived nostalgia, as if it's never occurred to him that childhood doesn't remain a vital part of every adult's self-image. The central guitar hooks are spare and unforced, three or four notes wherever three or four notes are sufficient, and the final minor-key chord, arriving not exactly by surprise but without any semblance of a concert-jam wind-up, seems momentarily like a textbook demonstration of how these sorts of pop songs ought to end, somewhere equally far-removed from resignation and triumph. "Why all this fuss about endings?", a monk asks at the end of The Cup, a film with a similar awareness that since life continues, stories that are true to life don't resolve, they just finish making a point and then release you. "Homewater", slower and sparer, opens with a descending guitar line worthy of a Christmas carol, and Färm and bassist Henrik Mårtensson's breathy harmonies carry on a tranquil lineage I'm not sure they realize goes back to Simon and Garfunkel. "At Least in My Heart" opens at a faster clip, a melodica bleating as if they're going to be the Cardigans after all, but then settles into sprightly guitar hooks that conflate Trembling Blue Stars and the Smiths, and when Färm's voice dips down into a lower octave, in the bridge, I wonder if Morrissey was ever really this sanguine.
The first full-fledged upbeat pop song on the album finally arrives with "In the Disco", Anders Baeck's drumming bristling with hi-hats and snares, guest keyboardist Jörgen Andersson supplying a relentless organ riff, and the rest of the band barreling along like it's "Does Your Mother Know?". Except when you examine the lyrics you'll find that "Baby you got to get it on, / You got to get next to me" isn't a leering come-on, it's an internal monologue, and the final words, "You got to ask me to a dance, / 'Cause I am much too shy / And alone", spoken barely past the one-minute mark, are not explicitly answered during the gradual fade-out that occupies the remaining minute or so. It think the implication is that she doesn't ask him, but that the song itself contains enough of the dream that she would that he hardly cares. If I'm right, though, then "Internal Affairs", next, is a bracingly bitter critique of being satisfied by the sense of an experience instead of actually having it. "I'm so tired of these internal affairs. / They should have been left behind / A long time ago. / It makes me wonder if I'll ever be alright." Together, the two songs reiterate the paralyzed romantic predicament from Trembling Blue Stars' "Dark Eyes", and I may be demonstrating it, myself, by finding song after song that pose the question instead of spending my time looking for an answer. But "Scent of You" reminds me of the danger: "Let me have some sleep / Among your clothes". The more sophisticated your romantic ideal becomes, and how else do unattached romantics spend their time than refining their hopes, the more likely it becomes that a real chance, when one finally arrives, will seem like something to be integrated into a system of possibilities, instead of something with which it ought to be replaced. An afternoon at the Aquarium leaps towards metaphor, past other things it might have been. The radio astronomer develops a narrative of equanimity, spending night after night in an empty sky; the longer it lasts, the harder it becomes to see how the aliens would ever play a part.
The advance single, although at this level of obscurity it's debatable whether an advance single is really a concept, was "Diary & Herself", which combines a "This Charming Man"-ish musical arrangement with a text that could be the prequel to Belle and Sebastian's "Lazy Line Painter Jane". The song I'd have picked for a single, though, is the one after it, "Silver Sportscar". Yes, the cheap drum-machine groove, trebly keyboard hook and Färm counting to fifteen in lieu of a drum-fill to bridge into the chorus are arguably unrepresentative, certainly less central to the album's aesthetic than "Diary & Herself"'s pensive calm. But the circling guitars are as evocative as anything else, and when the chorus sighs from the sunny "If I had a silver sportscar / I would head for Los Angeles" to the poignant "If I had a drivers license / I'd be by your side in a second", as if the relationship is doomed not just by the singer's fear ("By your side I'd sit and wait; / Will you ever make a move?"), but by an entire chain of life-decisions that ends up preventing the situation from even arising, I'm completely disarmed. The great romantic tragedy isn't that people try to solve their problems with fast cars, it's that sometimes the fast car you don't have could have made the difference. "Moving On", almost as ebullient, could be the b-side. "Do you remember that night / In your bedroom / When we almost fell in love?" Only in a romantic's universe is falling in love something that could almost happen, something a moment can aspire to. And just when I'm expecting the conclusion, "Friends", to be the most mournful song of all, some grand promise quietly converted to harmless familiarity, it turns out to be an entirely different plea, eluding introspection for once and pleading "Tell me I did some good today". Maybe this is the romantic's most precious secret: the refusal to settle for anything less than delirious joy isn't selfishness, at all, it's an incontrovertible belief that whatever we have or haven't earned, as individuals, the world deserves more. We spend warm summer days indoors elaborating our dreams because never living them is bearable, but thinking that they're impossible is not.
Smart Brown Handbag: Just Like Driving Backwards
Starlet are still discovering these things. David Steinhart learned them all by heart a long time ago. Just Like Driving Backwards is the sixth Smart Brown Handbag album, and David's thirteenth in various guises. He hasn't said it's his last, and Stonegarden, which has taken on a few other bands, seems as anchored as it ever has, but labels and bands this small lead precarious lives, and I'm careful not to take a new SBH record for granted. Tomorrow someone might offer David a job at an Internet startup, and that will be the end. I listen to every new album, then, in part as if it were to be the last. Or I try to, anyway. None of the others, though, were the finale I think David has earned. A career this long, carried on so often in thankless obscurity, deserves to have its aesthetic encapsulated. It deserves one record on which the themes the other ones explored are both set down definitively, and debunked, one that only a decade and a half of experience and perspective allows, one that nobody else could have made. Little Things Are Everything was splendid and moving, but it wasn't an end. SBH's Silverlake and Pop Art's Snap Crackle Pop Art, until now my favorites, are exquisite records but inadequate summaries. Just Like Driving Backwards, however, at least tonight, sounds like the one the others led to. Other SBH records have experimented with more noise, or less, or varying amounts of bitterness or empathy, and I guess this one has its twists as well, particularly some elegant strings and a lusher overall production by drummer John Glogovac, but for once the new elements seem to me like they must have been missing all along. I used to think Pop Art's sketchiness and the artless, vibrato-less guitar solos were an integral part of their appeal, now I see that that was only half-right. Those records wouldn't have been the same, otherwise, but maturity and craftsmanship weren't inimical. Those records witnessed David learning, and watching somebody learn is awesome, but it's easy to see process and miss progress. Evidently eloquent melancholy can be mastered, according to my personal parameters, because here the mastery is. The rasp of bar chords slipping up and down the guitar neck, on "Where to From Here?", defies me to lose yourself in the seductively angelic backing vocals and sparkling mandolin too deeply, but I'm helplessly enfolded nonetheless. Glogovac's glockenspiel and Tim Alexander's orchestration buoy "The Day Before" into sweeping soundtrack expansiveness, but Cindy Albon's steady bass anchors it, and the tension between David's uneasy voice and the simmering violins on the chorus is a succinct demonstration of what I mean by anthemic grandeur rendered in human scale. "Greetings" may be my favorite strangely-specific memoir since Pop Art's "Half Days", this one a biting shopping-mall farewell to Steinhart's family after a Christmas reunion he refers to as "the longest weekend". "Medicate to Stabilize" is ostensibly an ode to anti-depressants, but the soaring falsetto chorus, over churning percussion, is as unapologetic a pop reverie as David has ever written, and whether he meant it this way or not, I can effortlessly adjust the song in my mind to mean that the songs are the pills, and/or the reason no pills are necessary, and "I'm ready to have a great time" is at once sincere and sarcastic, like great times are both simple and unnecessary. "Her Side of the World" starts with a wistful "I know that it's sunrise / On her side of the world", another "Ana Ng" salute, only to descend into a harrowing "She up and left the car / On the 405. / I found her wandering / Around the mall", and an eddy of self-pity, but from somewhere finds the courage to begin again, and ends back on the same sunrise, and maybe this day will be different.
The pivot point of the album, for me, and the one song that recalls the squalling distortion of Lullabies for Infidels with the least self-consciousness, is the grinding title track. Guitars swirl impatiently through the verses, and gasp with audible relief when they're finally set loose on the roaring choruses, Albon's bass pounding like a heart the size of the harvest moon, David borne along with gracious aplomb. "Trying to tell the future", he explains, "Is just like driving backwards", and with this thesis, the rest of the album proceeds to unravel his canon, explicating and obviating the future in tandem, like we finally pestered the Norns one time too many, and they decided that the only way to convince us that they were never more than gothic stenographers was to take apart the tapestry, and the loom, marry retired minor-league baseball players and try to forget about the rest of us. Bells chime through "As Close as We Get", a measured lullaby to lovers who never meet, but when I go back and read the lyrics more closely I find a loophole. "Come and meet me / Some summer's night", the woman prays, and the man sits in a bar dreaming of moving but not, but she packs her bags and boards a plane, and although the song doesn't say where she's going, and "This is as close as we get, / This is the summer of her life", at the end, could easily mean him in the bar and her on the plane, their affinity his motionlessness and her equally ineffective flight, I prefer to believe that it's a few hours later and she's found him, that in a way they've both taken responsibility for their futures, dreaming each other into existence. "Penalized" shimmers and wriggles, and "Done in / By whispering", the plaintive refrain, is nearly the title of the new Trembling Blue Stars record. "I will scratch my head / Forevermore, / Or until you tell me why / In every photograph / In the drawer / It looks to me / That you were / Just about to cry." At least he still wants an answer. "I Love Everyone" plays buzzing synthesizers against clanking drum-machines, as if David finally figured out that the quasi-industrial urges in the untitled bonus track on Little Things Are Everything were a long-standing urge to write one Richard Butler song before he was done. And although "Plastic Babies", the final track, starts off with glistening vibraphones and a para-samba rhythm, by the chorus it erupts into decisive guitar catharsis as straightforward as all David's open-hearted rock hooks put together, and although the refrain returns to a couple driving in a car, one of our era's defining romantic image (and if you say the automobile age has given way to the internet age, you have to explain why the net has yet to supply a replacement), this time he lets the story be "You Can Sleep While I Drive" instead of "Driving With the Brakes On". "You stroke my head / And I'll watch for trucks". In a way, that's all we're ever asking for. We invent intricate contexts, to keep ourselves busy, labyrinthine driving examinations that assume the passenger has to navigate, but the most encouraging truth is that confidence and tenderness may be nearly enough. Navigation might be superfluous, after all. If we pity the fish for the walls of their tank or the dinosaurs for their fates, or think we like them as anything but allegory, our mistake is supposing that our own tanks are any larger, or our own magniloquent plans any less thoroughly doomed. A part of me refuses to accept that, of course, but even that reticence could be part of the solution. "Most days are good days / For getting over the thing / I won't get over", David admits in "Where to From Here?" But it's not a break-up song, and whether this is his last album or not, whether you even agree that it could be or not, it is in no way a surrender, and I embrace it, not as a goodbye, but as the profoundly uplifting idea that one of the best ways to keep a life going is to always know that there's one perfect thing left to do tomorrow.
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