Stay Up for the Rest of Your Life
268 · 16 March 00
hollAnd: "Mil" / "Neoprene So Tight" / "Soft Limit"
How close did we come, as our universe swirled towards This, to records being a public art? A raged-blinded mastodon bashed headfirst into a sequoia, changing them both, and now people file into movie theaters to see movies, but go home to their own shielded confines to read books and listen to records? How many human chromosomes, or lab electrons, would you have to change to end in a culture that thinks commercial spaces and special equipment are integral to the experience of recorded music? Certainly the arguments made for seeing movies in theaters can be applied to records without much alteration: a theater is much more expertly tailored to the medium's demands, or at least ought to be, and the art form lends itself to shared awe. We don't sit in movie theaters thinking "For $8.25 I want to see real people saying these lines in front of me on a stage", but music is different. I know why, if by why we mean the cost-curves of reproduction technology and software, and the associated social phenomena that developed around them, but what I really want to know is whether those factors aligned the way they did as a historical accident, or because of deep biological imperatives. Are we constructed in such a way that only visual sensation is as engrossing as public art needs to be? And if so, how different would people be for whom it were otherwise? We're about to test the reverse case, I suspect, as home movie-playback technology creeps toward the immersive intensity of commercial installations. When the average household can afford a wide-screen TV, surround-sound audio and whatever supplants DVD, will it kill movie theaters? Or will we keep going, even when there aren't tangible advantages, out of social inertia, because the kids need something to do on the nights when there's no high-school football, and/or because going to a movie she wants to see is about the limit of most men's capacity for foreplay? We can't peer into alternate universes, but we often get to live through them in succession, which is almost the same.
This idea about public or private consumption of recorded music occurs to me with some frequency. Not as often, perhaps, as I wonder whether there's a parallel universe like ours in every way except that pizza is something you only order in truck-stop diners and meatloaf is the standard delivery food, but more often than I wonder how long it will be before evolution gives up on toes. It occurs to me this week, as I dance around my kitchen, not really exploiting the abilities of my toes, cooking a dinner I might not bother with if I could call somebody and get a really good meatloaf delivered, because the seven repeatable minutes that currently make me happiest are the ones recorded on the new single by hollAnd (who might have a rationale for the inter-capitalization, but I don't ask for rationales, I just ask for consistency; and which might actually have a title, except that the writing on the cover seems to have been done by dangling an exasperated dachshund over a piece of paper with a ball-point pen duct-taped to his snout, so it's hard to be sure). And as I ricochet around the kitchen, endangering appliances and singing along to "Mil" in only approximate tune, it slowly sinks in that the phrase I'm repeating is "Your pants down at your ankles". Eventually, of course, I may figure out that this crude phrase is part of a sophisticated insight about relationships or desire or fashion or something, but for the moment I'm just singing it because those are the words, and the rhythm makes me feel good, and I want to participate. This is normal, I think, and to be fair you can probably find people mouthing more embarrassing things at live shows, but for a moment I'm imagining self-consciousness, and the fact that I don't have to explain the content of my rapture to anybody, the fact that in a sense my rapture doesn't even have content, seems profound and essential and irreproducible outside of my own walls.
Of course, if relocation to a universe in which we have to listen to all two-minute synth-pop songs in company were to become imminent, we could always just rewrite the words to this one. I don't think they have anything to do with why I like it. I like it because it starts out like a remake of Lipps Inc.'s "Funkytown" by somebody who also loved the Breeders' "Cannonball". I like it because the drum-machine programming sounds like it's following equations with only incidental rhythmic characteristics. I like it because the squishy, vaguely Orange-Juice-ish guitar part somehow strikes me simultaneously as a humane intrusion and an extension of the mechanized aesthetic, like following equations is something machines learned from us (which I guess it is). I like it because Trevor Holland's trademark vocal treatment (based, I think, on shadowing the unprocessed part with one fractionally pitch- and time-shifted), which makes a voice sound both resonant and faintly robotic, reminds me pleasantly of the barcelona album he produced. I like it because it snaps to an artlessly abrupt halt after two minutes, as if he suddenly had a better idea. The better idea is the blaring, pulsing "Neoprene So Tight", laced with saw-wave synth buzz over a sputtering drum-machine percussion, like Yaz with distortion pedals. "Spit on asphalt, / Just spit on asphalt", Trevor enjoins, on the way to "ooh ah ah ah oh"s in the chorus, which would be just chirpy nonsense were it not for the veiled intimations of fetishism. But with nobody around, I don't have to figure out if I approve or not. Holland resists the temptations towards cyborg paranoia (à la Gary Numan in "Cars") or overt licentiousness (à la Holly Johnson in "Relax"), and the song ends up sounding oddly affectionate, torn between Tullycraft's boyishness and a British accent probably absorbed from a childhood awash in imported New Wave. The final track, "Soft Limit", is the longest of the three, but it's also the most methodical, and although there are words, there are only six of them (three of which I can't figure out), so I opt to consider it an instrumental, and add it to my obscure roll-call, which you probably won't care about unless you spent your childhood awash in imported New Wave, of great understated b-sides (a fourth to go with the Assembly's "Stop/Start", Simple Minds' "E55" and Gay Dad's "Electrogeist"). I'm absurdly pleased that I'm still extending this list. New Wave has been marginalized, but its principles haven't been abandoned. Maybe it's survived because it's been marginalized, but that's fine. Marginalization is valuable. New Wave was still strange and dangerous when I found it, and I'm not sure I'd have had the experience of making people feel threatened without it. I like to think that somewhere a fifteen-year-old boy raised on Blink 182 is having his life-course altered by this single the way mine was changed when "She Blinded Me With Science" interrupted my teenage regimen of Foreigner and Blue Öyster Cult. And as with most course-altering experiences in the life of a fifteen-year-old boy, I'm thankful that we let him have it without people watching.
Manic Street Preachers: The Masses Against the Classes
Circa Generation Terrorists, at least, Manic Street Preachers were the antithesis of content-free perkiness. "Nat West - Barclays - Midlands - Lloyds", "Another Invented Disease" and "Democracy Coma" are some of the more frightening tirades anybody has ever crammed into song form, I think, and the whole first album seemed to me to be perilously close to collapsing under its own rhetorical weight. The rock expansiveness of Gold Against the Soul forestalled the inevitable by a few more songs, but then they made The Holy Bible, which is probably the bleakest piece of music I've ever listened to more than once. Nothing since, with the partial exception of a couple b-sides, has had anywhere near as much polemical urgency. Were it any other way, I know, the other three might well have followed Richey off his bridge, or wherever he went, so I believe serenity is a triumph, but that doesn't keep me from feeling let down. Whether their fury was sustainable or not, I admit I fed off its energy. The consumption of art is frequently vampiric, and I don't see a way around that, other than to hope that artists can learn to do without so much blood. So when I read the title of this new MSP single, supposedly a between-albums one-off, I felt a guilty jolt of anticipation. Could they have failed to learn the lesson? Would they really risk another descent into thankless, earnest socialism? We can't possibly ask them to, but were they to make the decision on their own, quite independent of our poorly-muffled entreaties...
And no, that's not quite what this is. The Chomsky and Camus quotes notwithstanding, "The Masses Against the Classes" doesn't stumble, musically, over its intransigent politics the way "Nat West..." did. Richey would never have stood for the stair-step "ah"s in the bridges, and the howled "A slave begins by demanding justice and ends by wanting to wear a crown" at the end, while conflicted, wouldn't have been mollified him enough to cancel Nick's supple and facile "We love the winter; / It brings us closer together". But Manic Street Preachers first won me with choruses, not broadsides, with the delirious anthemic power of "Slash N' Burn", "Motorcycle Emptiness" and "Spectators of Suicide". I could easily have forgiven This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours for not reading like the work of pamphleteers. What I couldn't forgive it for was failing to move me, I mean physically, not emotionally. Generation Terrorists, Gold Against the Soul, The Holy Bible and Everything Must Go all leave me feeling profoundly drained, whether from thrashing nihilism, heart-wrenching pride, consuming despair or fate-defying hope. There are songs I like on This Is My Truth, but when it finishes I only feel like I've listened to a record, not been mugged by a cabal. So the visceral thrill of "The Masses Against the Classes", which the text merely enhances, is just that it sounds like they used to sound. It's fast, bleary, strangled and passionate. Like the old songs, it conflates basement-punk aggression with arena bombast in exactly the way that used to get the band compared to Bon Jovi and GNR as often as the Sex Pistols. This may have been one of the most important meta-points from the first two albums, actually, that revolutionary anthems have to scale, that you can't overthrow the world if you have to deliver the message to fifty people at a time, and you make them self-inflict body-piercings to prove their dedication before you'll explain to them the logistics of the uprising. For all that punk and progressive-rock are thought of as poles, "Slash N' Burn" embodies precisely the same insight about collective yearning as Marillion "Market Square Heroes". Maybe that's what Richey couldn't stand, realizing that to explain his misanthropy to people he had to become a populist ideologue. And so maybe this song can't retrieve him, maybe the old battle hymns now just seem foolish and doomed, so invoking them is no improvement. But his struggle for freedom is his, we have to get our own. I will pick one for which anthems can sound like this, guitars roaring in banks, drums slamming past in machine-gun spasms, melodies arcing like fighter fly-overs. For a few minutes I'll hope that melodies co-opt war metaphors, not vice-versa, and that "the good fight" isn't a self-negating idea. I'm not convinced, but I want to be convinced, and most days that's close enough.
The other half of why this single seems like such a breathtaking return-to-form, to me, is the second track, "Close My Eyes", a sketchy experiment very much in the vein of the dozen b-sides that have safeguarded my faith in the Manic Street Preachers even when the albums made me squirm or doubt. A single, unvarying drum-loop runs through the entire song, and the bass and guitar parts are only slightly more ambitious (there are two different patterns, which amount to "verse" and "chorus" only by virtue of Bradfield shifting registers during alternate sections). But anthems aren't based on articulation, they're based on converting routine into drama, and you could probably make one out of a busy signal and an air-raid siren if you had to.
And the reason my excitement is split into halves, not thirds, is that the single's final track is a cover of Chuck Berry's "Rock and Roll Music". I guess I don't understand the band's taste in covers, as I've found it questionable before, and this one, performed like Little Richard sitting in with Tesla, seems like the most misguided yet. If it were obviously sarcastic, I might find it easier to take, but if it was supposed to be, I'm missing how. I think it's intended to be a reminder, and clearly I've just demonstrated that I need one, that songs like these are, finally, party music, and it's a mistake to ask them to lead us into any battles more sophisticated than a crowded dance floor. But what harm is there in my indulging this delusion, just for a few songs, just until dinner is ready? I'll remember the limits of music's power as soon as the disc ends, whether I want to or not. Disillusionment is inevitable, it doesn't need to be accelerated.
The Clientele: "Lace Wings" / "Saturday"
Fortunately, I've also accumulated a small pile of vinyl singles that are more than willing to sustain the illusions I feel like clinging to tonight. The act of listening to 45s has become a small celebration of pop's refuge in itself, and I'm almost sad that my modern turntable (where by modern I mean circa 1984 or so) isn't equipped with a multi-disk spindle like the first record-player I had. These singles really ought to clatter down on top of one another, a-sides interlaced with b-sides in the sort of naïve deck-shuffled way that I lurched through the world of music before I knew enough to think of it as a world that could be explored methodically. Part of the reason my excursions into obscure indie-pop have been so satisfying, over the past year and a few months, is that they've recaptured some of the feeling of discovery that used to accompany every new record in my life. Even back when I wouldn't think of buying an album until I knew and liked at least four songs from it, hearing the other six or eight songs on a record was transcendent. It's hard for me to believe, in retrospect, that I could stand to play a new album all the way through, that I didn't simply shut down after the third or fourth new song. I can no longer reinhabit the version of me that brought home the Steve Miller Band's Greatest Hits and heard "Swingtown" and "Jet Airliner" for the first time. There have been far too many songs since then. I hear two or three new albums nearly every day, now, often ones I know not a single note of before they start. I've traded innocence for knowledge, willingly, but that doesn't mean I don't miss the old sensations. Playing 45s is a way to get them back. Standing up and going over to change sides or disks every three minutes, running the cleaning brush over the surface as the turntable spins up to speed, is a way of defying progress, of defying adulthood. Or not defying it, exactly, but nudging it back into perspective, reminding me that going to work and fretting about our competitors' IPOs and wondering whether I should care about gas prices in some way are really games, and the person that plays them is an invented self, far less real in every important sense than the me that needs nothing more, to be happy, than a pile of records and nobody telling me I can't stay up all night listening to them.
The songs that produce the old sensations the best are not the ones that sound like the old songs, they're the ones that are as unfamiliar as the old songs were to me when they were new, the ones that make me think, as I'm amazed and awed that simple pop songs still can, "I've never heard anything like this before". The most recent band to surprise me that pleasantly is the Clientele, about whom I've so far managed not to feel obliged to learn any biographical information. There's apparently an album on the way, and there are some other singles I haven't found, but for a little while longer I know nothing more than these four songs. The distinguishing feature of them all is an eerie, warbling guitar that sounds to me like they've devised a way to hook a pedal steel to an organ grinder powered by a monkey with respiratory difficulties. I realize that this may not sound like a good idea on paper, and I can't guarantee that it'll sound any less ill-advised to you on record, but for me the bright, fitful shimmer is mesmerizing, like a dissipated supermodel trying to ride a unicycle, or a recent electrocution victim trying to use an oscilloscope as an Etch-a-Sketch. "Lace Wings" is otherwise solemn and liturgical, somewhere between Nick Drake and Big Star's Sister Lovers, the drums almost mixed completely out of audibility, the vocals performed at varying microphone proximities, the lyrics evanescent. "Saturday" sounds like orchestral pop telephoned from an abandoned cathedral, hints of Simon & Garfunkel and the Beatles dissolving into the echoey atmosphere as if I imagined them. I hadn't understood, until I heard these songs, how definitive and pervasive Belle and Sebastian's version of these influences had become, nor how much it leaves out.
The Clientele: "I Had to Say This" / "Monday's Rain"
"I Had to Say This" adds crisp, lilting drums and glassy minor-key chords, which in other hands would almost certainly produce jazzy neo-Sixties Euro-pop, but the Clientele fight this tendency with a heartfelt vocal sung from across the room, more unsteady guitar and a series of fragmentary backwards solo hooks. The rhythm, which mostly proceeds at an unhurried skip, also adds and drops beats according to an inscrutable logic, and the result is both intricate and erratic, like a kaleidoscope's idea of fashion design instead of a lava lamp's. "Monday's Rain" has what might, objectively, be the worst drum production since ...And Justice for All, tiny dry taps with unappealing little tendrils of cavernous reverb trailing off them, and the slurred, falsetto vocals are similarly inept, but somehow the band carries it off without sounding insincere, as if they write songs because they have too much love to do anything else, and perform them in whatever vacant space they come across first. A note on the back cover claims that these songs were recorded in a proper studio, not a moribund monorail terminal, but making a professional recording facility sound like a forgotten interstice is a much more intriguing skill than the other way around.
My First Keyboard / Marshmallow Coast: January 2000 Kindercore Single of the Month
I signed up for the Kindercore Single-of-the-Month club because I hated the idea of missing the promised exclusive Papas Fritas and Wolfie tracks, but I didn't anticipate how exciting it would be to get the first installment. They come in generic sleeves, only the date and band names stamped into a space in the top left, like dispatches from secret headquarters that there'd be no point in trying to explain to anybody else, and I think this is something like how it must have felt to be discovering science fiction through the early pulps, in the era when the genre barely existed in any other form and you had to read whatever John W. Campbell and Hugo Gernsback felt like printing. Side one of the January installment has two bouncy songs by My First Keyboard that sound like they were performed on toy instruments in somebody's rec room after a few too many bowls of sugary cereal. "The You I Cheated", the second one, is a particularly insidious cross between Amy Rigby-ish folk-pop and something my middle-school class would have invented to annoy the chaperones on a long field-trip bus ride. The flip side has a short synth intro and then a plonking, nasal banjo/drums/vocals song by Marshmallow Coast called "Listen to Your Heartbeat" that I'd readily believe was a tape Stephin Merritt made when he was twelve, foreseeing 69 Love Songs in every detail except that they would be love songs, and that there'd be so many of them.
Japancakes / I Am the World Trade Center: March 2000 Kindercore Single of the Month
The February single was supposed to be the Papas Fritas one, but there was some sort of legal problem, so the second month turns out to be March, a screw-up that only endears the series to me all the more. Japancakes' If I Could See Dallas was filled with long, coruscating instrumentals, which seem like they wouldn't work especially well as singles, but "Soft and Easy", their track here, is just upbeat and focused enough to stand on its own, pedal steel and sinuous violin sounding melancholy but not mournful. I Am the World Trade Center, whom I know only from a song on the Kindercore Christmas Two compilation, turn in a guilelessly buoyant cheap-synths-and-girls'-voices cover of the Promise Ring's surging "A Picture Postcard", as if revealing its past life as a Bananarama demo.
The Autumn Teen Sound: From Quebec to Oswego
A far more ambitious cover, however, is the b-side of this single by March Records operator Skippy McFadden's own recording project The Autumn Teen Sound (which I will insist on believing is named after the Slingbacks' song), who turn Poison's "Talk Dirty to Me" into spiky synth-pop on the order of "Electric Avenue" performed by the Dead Milkmen. After playing it twice I feel like I've extracted all the humor I'm going to, but the a-side is proving more durable, a self-effacing synth-collector's soliloquy called "Say Something" that's about equidistant from barcelona and Wolfie.
Going Stagg: Sink and Dream
Keyboard bands are still the minority, though, even within the tolerant environs of indie-pop. More typical are the two songs on the a-side of this Kittridge Records single by Going Stagg, an original called "Close Your Eyes" and a cover of "Torn Shoe", by Red Dye No. 5. Both are short, cheerful punk-pop, girlish female vocals over clipped but decisive guitar/bass/drums accompaniment. There are dozens of these bands, hypotheses for how the Go-Go's might have sounded if they'd grown up ten years younger and anywhere but LA. Going Stagg seem closer to an identity of their own on the b-sides, "Ryanoceros" jagged and abrupt like a cross between b'ehl and Fugazi that contrives not to sound as strident as Sleater-Kinney, "Windmill" a spare, frayed guitar/handclaps/voice piece as if Billy Bragg spent his youth watching people in the Mall of America instead of on English council estates.
The No-No's: Damage Done
If Sleater-Kinney had continued along the Go-Go's-ish trajectory I thought Call the Doctor represented, instead of the increasingly melody-averse Dig Me Out and The Hot Rock, they might now be making songs like the No-No's "The Damage Done", charged and deceptively sunny. I doubt SK were ever going to write the brief "I Deserve Someone Nice", though. The keening vocal style, like a manic Sinéad O'Connor, wouldn't be out of the question, but the jangly guitars are far too amiable. On the other hand, I'd be just as happy if neither band bothered with covers like this single's third track, a mangled version of Ron Davies' "It Ain't Easy" on which Robin's singing bears an uncanny and disturbing resemblance to Ozzy Osbourne's on the first Black Sabbath album.
Saltine: Find Yourself Alone
My renewed fondness for vinyl doesn't keep me from resenting Ken Stringfellow's decision to put a different b-side on the 45 and CD versions of the single for "Find Yourself Alone". The one here, "Your Love Won't Be Denied" is also a remake, the song having previously appeared on his solo album This Sounds Like Goodbye. It's easily worth the price, though, to hear a harrowing pop song emerge out of the bloated cacophony of the original version. Saltine's performance is hardly pristine, either, but it adds drums, inverts the mix so the textural feedback is an intermittent backdrop for the pealing guitar hooks and plaintive vocal harmonies instead of a thick camouflage tarp over it, and for me that's the difference between Sonic Youth and Big Star, and between perversity and pop.
Mishima: "Stop Swerving" / "Familiar Marks"
The one Boston band in the set is the last one, Mishima, a guitar/drums duo I saw open for Mark Eitzel a few weeks ago. In an admirable attempt to fit the evening's aesthetic, their opening set was played at minimum volume, Sean O'Brien drumming with a brush technique usually reserved for watercolors and singing his backing-vocal parts like an internal monologue. Eitzel's performances suggest that even live music might be less mortifying if it were happening at home, possibly he in his home and you in yours, and Mishima's confessional whispers lacked the confrontational failures of self-esteem that sometimes result in Eitzel apologizing for songs in lieu of playing them, but lullabies were a soothing way to begin a show that I was fully aware would end with Eitzel's terrifying impression of Prometheus chained to Mount Caucasus, which differs from the classical mainly in that Eitzel himself plays both Prometheus and the vulture, but the audience is expected to eat the pieces of extracted liver. On Mishima's one recording, though, this two-song 1998 single on Dahlia Records, they ignore the lack of a bass player and adopt a variant of the muted rock catharsis I think of as having been perfected by O Positive and never translated into extra-regional success unless you stretch the definition to include Buffalo Tom. On "Stop Swerving", Arto Payaslian's singing is warm and hushed, perhaps half early-Buffalo-Tom Bill Janovitz and half newly-intelligible Michael Stipe, but his guitar is clanging and insistent, evoking Mission of Burma via the Flying Nuns (one of my several former favorite Boston bands who all never got very far, though I'm not quite ready to give up on the Sheila Divine). "Familiar Marks", the b-side, seems less clear of its bearings, confused about whether it wants to be American Music Club, Hüsker Dü, the Meat Puppets or the Hoodoo Gurus. But that's what b-sides are good for, trying to figure out the difference between costumes and your own clothes, and that's why we build walls, instead of living under carports, not just to hold the sounds of our records in, but so we don't have to answer for every unguarded moment of our lives.