What the Heart Creates
269 · 23 March 00
Star Ghost Dog: The Great Indoors
In the dream, your creator is finally explaining the underlying logic, lecturing you about the way your environment is a manifestation of your self, or maybe it's the other way around. Either your creator is a distributed process, though, or else your dreaming brain simply isn't able to sustain a text and an appropriate image at the same time, so the words are coming from the mouths of bystanders in the illusion. "It makes no sense to talk about things happening outside of you", points out an intense looking Korean woman pulled up next to you in a Trooper at a rotary yield. "But", offers an errant traffic sign on the other side, to which a tired pharmaceutical rep standing beside a newspaper machine adds "That doesn't mean it isn't a valuable skill." The front page of the paper reads, in Dewey-Defeats-Truman type, "Reality is the consensus you reach", and a jogger so beautiful you can smell her through the windshield passes wearing a neon-pink knee brace and a T-shirt reading "with the enemies you imagine." A kid with only three fingers who you played against in a soccer semi-final when you were twelve lays out a short history of emotional resonance. The receptionist at the insurance company on the floor below your office debunks social Darwinism, orbital mechanics and guilt. Your inbox contains 7,204 copies of a haiku cycle asserting that competitiveness is jealousy traveling through time in reverse, and three emails pointing out how much more money you'd be making if you accepted credit cards. "Anything you don't consciously control", the other people in the record store murmur in unison, "is a truth conduit". And even though you're dreaming, you realize that this point is redundant, that the people in the dream don't need to tell you that they're telling you things, because by telling you things they're already showing you that they're telling you things. And then you wake up, and expect your alarm clock to be able to integrate, and the rims of lunch-change quarters to have inscribed koans. Sadly, the awake world's version of the creator's monologue has more of a millionth-monkey quality, tantalizing shreds of cogency trailing off into gibberish just when they start to look interesting. Dreams facilitate the expedient detachment of effect from cause.
But if you're bad at dreaming, there's always music. The more records I buy, the more of the explanation I find, which is why people who buy fewer records than they can afford mystify me. In their version of the dream, somebody tells them the first half of the first sentence of the nature of being, and they shrug and spend the rest of the night dreaming of being asleep again. Charlie eats one ticketless Wonka bar and then gives up and becomes a stevedore's apprentice. A drab life is a willful pathology. There is more available wonder than you can possibly apprehend, and it floods in through anything unsealed. Records want to paralyze you with joy. Expecting nothing from an album is an affront to which it may well be compelled to respond. Ambivalence is even more intolerable. I liked Happylove, the first Star Ghost Dog album, OK, but it reminded me a lot of Veruca Salt's American Thighs, which I thought self-consciousness hamstrung. The songs on both albums sounded afraid of their own potential, to me, the muffled productions (Brad Wood's on American Thighs, Pete Weiss' on Happylove) case studies in letting what somebody is occlude your view of what they could be. Veruca Salt went on to make Eight Arms to Hold You, but that required hiring Bob Rock and going to Hawaii and probably accepting a Faustian constraint about breaking up before making another record. Star Ghost Dog's second album, The Great Indoors, was co-produced by co-leader Brendan Lynch, and recorded here in Cambridge, so of course it can't be the same kind of revelation. You can't just hire a new rhythm section and hope that it will make your pop songs epic. I still remember seeing Star Ghost Dog for the first time, as one of three opening acts for some weekday schedule-filler, and thinking, as I watched Ginny Weaver negotiate warily with her microphone, that I'd probably sound lifeless, too, if I hadn't eaten in a month. Emaciation to catharsis is just too far.
And then "Knock Down", track two, starts. Now that they've got somebody else to play bass, Lynch can fiddle with synthesizers while Weaver plays the guitar. Ginny's singing is a little more confident, maybe, but mostly they've just learned how to process it, and it now sounds like everybody wanted to three years ago, like a cross between Kim Deal, Liz Phair, Nina and Louise, Tanya Donelly and Mary Lou Lord. The throttled guitar roar on the choruses is straight out of "Cannonball", the strumming on the rest resolutely uninflected, the muted keyboard whirs the smallest nod towards Wolfie. There have probably been a hundred songs derived from this formula before, and there will be another hundred to come. But that isn't a complaint. The only thing that bothers me about the hundred songs like this people have already written is that I haven't found them all yet, and the only thing I don't understand is why, if perfect pop anthems are this simple to construct, any album is ever shipped without one. For those of you who dig up our cities four thousand years from now, and wonder what my generation thought, in our hopeless primitive confusion, we had mastered, it's a short list: burritos, baggy cotton sweatshirts with university logos on them, and songs like this. Why, once we had "The Unguarded Moment" and "Radio Free Europe", did we need a hundred more? Why do you take more breaths? If I remember "Knock Down" as long as it feels like I will, it will be because of two lines Ginny sings. "I don't want pain," she notes in the first verse, "but it's good to have around", which seems to me like the central meta-observation of all redemptive melancholy. And then, in the soaring chorus, "I can knock down / What the heart creates". "Cannonball" and "Feed the Tree" said the same thing, essentially, and "Calling out / In transit" is probably also the same mantra. We celebrate our capacity for emotional destruction because if we can trash our loves then there's some hope that we can learn how not to.
Listening to records would be much less time-consuming if every band who wrote one perfect pop song would simply put it on a CD, by itself, and discard the distracting remainder of their catalog. I have no idea, however, why you'd want to spend less time listening to records. The inefficiencies are glorious. In the case of The Great Indoors you'd get one great song but miss another eight or nine that are inspiringly half-great. "Underdrive", the beepy opener, has a springy rhythm track and chirpy toy-keyboard hooks, and I'd distrust anybody who begrudges us another pop song with a chorus that celebrates pop songs. Three fourths of "Megafauna" are close enough to Liz Phair to tide us over until Liz's next album, and the other quarter helps me deal with my lingering animosity towards Luscious Jackson for all the songs on Electric Honey that didn't sound like "Ladyfingers". "Holiday" sounds to me like a deliciously restrained Belly song. The chattering "Exploding Party Favor" makes me imagine Curve having taken 69 Love Songs to heart. "Erase Me" is a third "Seether", a third "Divine Hammer" and perhaps a third Matthew Sweet. "Everything I Want" is a prom slow-dance for anybody that wished Kenickie's "I Would Fix You" didn't stop as much. "Moth" is a Veruca Salt pastiche I could do without, but the short instrumental "Candy Floss" is becalmed and gracious, and "The Hardest Part" surges from a breathy guitar-and-voice intro to thundering choruses and a dreamy, drifting bridge. And "The Great Indoors", the atmospheric finale, combines wavering keyboards, glassy guitar harmonics and a crunchy, measured drum loop, and demonstrates why the last Chainsuck album seemed so overwrought to me.
But the best summary of both how far I think Star Ghost Dog have come, and how small the differences between potential and poignancy can be, is the new version of their 1998 single "Automatic Caution Door". Without actually doing the A-B comparison I'm not sure I could have told you how the two differ, but flipping back and forth I discover three critical changes. The new version is just a few beats slower. Ginny's vocal is sleepier. And the background, which was empty and unpainted in the original, is now filled by gauzy layers of carefully contained feedback. These are small touches, but they transform the band's relationship to the song. In the original, they perform it the way a fox terrier performs a rubber pretzel, but some time in the past two years they have learned not to treat their own songs as threatening inanimate objects. In the new version, they step into the song, and let it radiate around them. "We'll just pretend / We don't know how it ends", Ginny sighs. That's how we keep going.
Except sometimes we don't keep going. The Great Indoors is an album of sad songs that make me happy, but distant is a record of sad songs that make me sad. There was supposed to be a third Sarge album in this space, but the band broke up before they could make it. I always assumed Sarge was Elizabeth Elmore and whomever else she recruited, and thus immune to dissolution, but apparently that was wrong. They are no more, and this album of rough drafts and scrapbook photos is a haunting, patchwork farewell. Most of it is a retrospective, b-sides and some live recordings because two albums aren't enough for a greatest hits collection. The live version of "Stall" is bleary and indignant, a bit of angry sixty-cycle buzz underscoring its frayed urgency. "Fast Girls" is crisp and pointed, a soundtrack for its scenario to be replayed. The solo opening of "Half as Far" is harrowingly frail, Elizabeth's voice at its prettiest and most artless, but when the band joins in they grind like Soundgarden. "Dear Josie, Love Robyn", the one song from Charcoal, is a boisterous sprint, but "Homewrecker" is fretful and venomous. The solo rendition of "the first morning" is all the evidence anybody should need that the rest of the band is expendable. Of the covers, "These Boots Are Made for Walkin'" is a throwaway, but the ringing version of George Michael's "Last Christmas" is my favorite cover of one of his songs since School of Fish did "Father Figure", and the quick, fond stomp through Cyndi Lauper's "Time After Time", the b-side of the "Stall" single, is one of my very favorite Sarge moments. The short new song "distant", just Elizabeth and a trebly guitar, is nearly her answer to Cyndi's "Fearless", except depressing. These songs are desperately sad because they should never have been the end of anything. They were sad songs that made me happy, before, because I could anticipate someday hearing their dismal conclusions refuted. Sarge should have made new records for decades.
But instead of decades, there are just three songs, three full-band demos to hint at what the next album might have been and try to compensate for its absence. "Detroit Star-lite" is manic and heart-wrenching in a way that I don't think anybody but Elizabeth can exactly replicate, her slashing guitar and weary voice coexisting uneasily, like she's developed an allergy to coffee and can only stay awake by kick-boxing. On a real album the lyrics would be a pointed relationship triage, and I'd have to decide whether the subject of the song is supposed to be a rock star in fact or only metaphorically, but here it becomes a break-up song for the relationship between Elizabeth and her old identity as part of the band. "Another line and all these stupid girls, / They think it's about them, / But if you're still mine / I wish that you would do without them". Instead of a male singer's female fans misunderstanding his lines for his neglected girlfriend as lines for them, now I wonder if this isn't instead (or also) a female singer's fans misunderstanding her lines for herself as lines for them. Instead of trying to persuade a boyfriend not to encourage his groupies, I think Elizabeth may be trying to persuade herself that her fans can do without her, and more importantly that she can do without performing. I doubt she really wants to hate her fans, but pretending to might be the only way out. Is there a graceful method for decommissioning a heroine? I don't know. I'm not looking forward to the day Tori Amos decides she needs one.
Once I'm in this mode, "the end of july" seems like another entry in the same troubled diary. "I took a shower and found your soap / Scrubbed you off for hours" echoes Tori's "I shaved every place where you been", but Tori's ritual was cleansing, and Elizabeth's ends with "then gave up hope", and I'm not at all sure whether she's giving up on ever feeling clean or on ever feeling. I don't know the story of the band's break-up, but it's easy to see how "I thought a few months apart might keep us together" could be its doomed second-to-last chapter. A departed lover or a defunct band, it's nowhere near as tragic as she thinks, I want to reassure her, but I remember what I was like at her age, and know how much I would have hated being told that. Yes, of course she'll survive, she's aware of that, but the way to defeat the pain is to make it instructive, and the way to make it instructive is to believe it matters. So it's important for it to hurt. Elizabeth needs this end to hurt, and so do I, because eventually ends stop hurting so much, and remembering what it felt like when they did becomes the difference between healing and numbness.
I don't know if it has to hurt as much as "Clearer", though. I let the buzz-saw clamor distract me, I admit, the first several times, let myself not parse the lyrics, let myself believe that the title was uncomplicated, that the song is a frenetic hymn to revelation and renewal. But it isn't. Of course it isn't. I can't even take it as an allegory about the band breaking up, because there's far too much specific detail. It doesn't have to be Elizabeth's real life she's writing about, but I'm no better at distant than she is, so all the important parts of me believe this is autobiography. I believe she drove off to law school, in Chicago, trying to leave behind both a failed relationship and an uncomfortable life, and found herself falling into the very patterns she hoped to have escaped. And I don't have to care, but of course I do. Whoever lives in these songs, Elizabeth or some convenient phantom, I've gotten to know her pretty well over the course of Charcoal and Stall. I've seen enough moments of terrifying clarity to know what she's capable of, and to have faith in her insight, so I refuse to accept this aberrant instant of oblivious resignation. "This is all I am, / This is all I ever will be", "Clearer" trails off. Bullshit. The truth is much different, and probably much harder because it's largely circular. These patterns are failures of self-respect. You do things you don't condone because you don't believe you deserve higher standards, and then you use your behavior as evidence to support your case. You don't fix your life, because it seems insupportably presumptuous to think that you can. But if getting up on stage and playing songs for total strangers who have internalized them isn't too presumptuous for you, the rest is well within your capacities. Stop smoking. Stop drinking. Stop doing everything that amounts to slowly killing yourself or deferring your actual life. Stop punishing yourself by doing things you know are wrong. The reason self-help systems always begin with incantations of "I'm worth it" is that they need you to think you aren't worth it, so you'll purchase their prosthetic approval. But I'm not trying to sell you anything, I'm just telling you things you already know, but aren't ready to admit. "I'm worth it" is tautological. You determine your worth. Those marks on your arms are beneath you the moment they're gone. If you want to outlive your band, just get back on stage without them. Maybe the band was the problem. Maybe law school is the problem. Maybe there isn't a problem. You think you don't know. But you can know, if you want to. You'll know the second you decide.