Does She Cast Such a Shadow Because She Hasn't Been Followed Yet?
270 · 30 March 00
The Steinbecks: Recorded Music Salon
The first computer I owned was a TI 99/4a. It stored data on a cassette recorder, displayed its blocky graphics on a spare color TV (except in my endearingly gadget-averse household, where it displayed them on our first color TV, purchased reluctantly for that purpose), and allowed me to write a long series of enthusiastically unplayable video games, starting with a functional rip-off of the handheld Mattel Auto Racing game in which you operated a fat man trying to run up a crowded down escalator, proceeding to a minor masterpiece in which you were a two-inch alien attempting to survive inside a party-debris-strewn jacuzzi until the rescue ship could reach you, and culminating in a flight simulator for which, with commercial prescience, I abandoned the tedious projects of level flight and routine navigation in favor of guiding a lone Zero, dead-stick, into the control tower of an unsuspecting American aircraft carrier somewhere below. What gaming fanatics would have made of my inventive pilot's interface, which consisted of typing in yaw, pitch, roll and thrust numbers, to eight-digit precision, and then waiting a minute and a half while the program calculated the results of one second of elapsed time in order to determine whether the single black dot somewhere on the screen should be moved to some other position or not, I never got to find out, because either my physics wasn't up to the scenario, or else I figured out what happened to those fighters that simply disappeared while attempting to following UFOs. There was code in there to make the single black dot get bigger, which ought to have been quite a visceral thrill, but due to my inability to keep the plane from catapulting into hyperspace after two or three seconds, I never got to see if it worked. In what now seems like foreshadowing of my professional career, I finally gave up on games and wrote my first piece of productivity software, a Dungeon Master's Assistant, whose ingenuity I didn't fully recognize until I tried to recreate it, many years later, using what ought to have been far more advanced technology.
A few months into my 99/4a immersion, though, I was cruelly torn from it, for an excruciating aeon, in order to go on a family trip to visit my grandmother and various associated relatives in then-far-off Connecticut. This would turn out to be an unexpectedly formative experience, as my grandmother had cable television (acquired, I was disturbed to theorize, so that she could spend a larger part of every day ogling the asses of Scandinavian tennis players), and while left alone with it one evening I came across my first music video, featuring a band so preposterous that I think I wandered around muttering their name to myself in disbelief for weeks ("'Echo and the Bunnymen'? 'Echo and the Bunnymen'? 'Echo and the Bunnymen'?"), totally unaware of how much damage had been done. At the time, though, all I desperately wanted to do was get back home to my computer, so I made the trip borderline unendurable for everybody else by talking about it constantly. Most of the clan asked a few polite, baffled questions, and then ignored my answers. All except my loopy great aunt, not known to me to possess any skill more technical than the delivery and retrieval of dry-cleaning, who managed to shut me up in the middle of my first cryptic anecdote by interrupting with a chirpy and utterly earnest "Ooh, I've been thinking about getting a computer myself!" And while I sat there, agape, searching for a logical system in which this comment could be meaningfully parsed, she added the revelatory clarification: "I have so many things I'd like to ask it!"
My TI 99/4a was, of course, woefully unprepared to answer my great aunt's questions. If I still had it, and ranked my current collection of devices by informational capacity, the 99/4a would probably end up in a dogfight for one of the last spots in the top fifty with the IR-to-RF remote-control extender and the battery-operated plastic frog that croaks when you walk past it. Hers was a reasonable misconception about computers, though. Her life had no particular need for processing, but it did occasionally lack facts. I've returned to this scene many times in my mind, as I've watched the web evolve, asking myself whether we've yet built the computer she thought I already had. I've been sporadically tempted to conclude that we have. I now treat my own computer, not all that many generations removed from the old TI, at least half as an information appliance. Some time ago we passed through the crossover where it began to seem more surprising if some bit of useful routine human knowledge cannot be found on the web. Several sites have taken the inevitable step past search engines and now purport to let you type in a question, in English, to which they will endeavor to supply an answer. When this works, it looks impressively artless. "What is the capital of Paraguay?" gets you to Asunción with minimal ado. Every few days, though, I step into a gap in the knowledge infrastructure and, falling into inky depths, am reminded that most truths are still rather more elusive than South American capitals. Today's telling query would have been, if I'd formulated it in naïve confidence, "What is the last song on the new Steinbecks album about?" It's a jaunty folk sing-along about the new spirit pervading an island, and my initial hypothesis, based on not listening very carefully to anything but the first verse, was that it was about some Australian equivalent of Martha's Vineyard or Ibiza. (These are somewhat different, I'm aware; thus my question.) I was thinking, actually, about the island they go to in the movie Under the Lighthouse Dancing, but that, I know from a previous query, was Rottnest, near Perth, and the Steinbecks live on the other side of the continent. Absent a web page addressing this question directly, it runs aground fairly quickly, as soon as I realize that since the CD sleeve does not print the lyrics, my clues are all foreign place names spoken quickly in a thick, unfamiliar accent. Octevi? Octebi? Arktetti? Soba? Chaubah? "The Bird's Head" is understandable, but ambiguous. Eventually it occurred to me to pursue "Vanimo", which was the one name in the song whose spelling I was sure of, due to its being the title. Then I began getting somewhere. Vanimo is a town near the western border of Papua New Guinea, which splits the world's second largest island with the Indonesian province Irian Jaya. "I'm just fifty miles west of my brothers and sisters in Vanimo", they sing at one point, and from the maps it seems like that might be enough to put you across the border. "Though there's a black line that runs between us," the chorus muses, "You know they'll never break the bond between us." In a flash it hit me: this sunny, unassuming little song is actually a withering exegesis of the political struggles and human rights abuses in East Timor! This album is on Drive-In, who also just put out Indie Aid Abroad, a benefit for East Timor, which has two Steinbecks songs on it! My eureka was short-lived: neither of the two Steinbecks songs on the benefit album is this one, and even more damningly, East Timor is on a totally different island. Irian Jaya is not exactly the most exhaustively covered topic on the web, but I did finally track down references to a few of the other places mentioned, enough for me to declare with some confidence that although the song isn't about East Timor, it's a protest anthem about another of the world's many arbitrary political borders that divide people from their own kind. I never did determine if the new optimism in the song is connected to any actual current events on the island, but on the web, these days, you still often have to be content with partial victories. The search, which ought to be like posing a casual question to an amiable sage, is rather more like beating code ciphers out of a low-level mob accountant, and I doubt my great aunt is up to it.
Then again, this is hardly her kind of music. The Steinbecks are, more or less, the same band as the Sugargliders, who were responsible for six of the ninety-nine (or so) singles Sarah Records put out. My Sarah Records collecting pursuits have treated all Sarah bands equally (I've got five of the six, and lost an eBay auction for the sixth while proofreading this), but my listening has followed my tastes, and none of the Sugargliders songs, nor either of the two previous Steinbecks records, made much of an impression on me. But in between the last time I played From the Wrestling Chair to the Sea and the arrival of Recorded Music Salon (which I bought because Drive-In is one of several new labels I'm following diligently in case they turn out to be the next Sarah), I discovered the Lucksmiths, and they give me a different context in which to understand this record. I kept wishing the Sugargliders' songs were more palely luminous, dreamy odes to listlessly unrequited passions more like the Field Mice or the Orchids, but Recorded Music Salon is actually like a more upbeat Lucksmiths. The lurching "No Strings, No Money, No Worries" opens the album with trumpet fusillades, splashing cymbals, twittering synth noises and gruff vocal injunctions, and right up until the abrupt fade-out after barely a minute I think it's going to erupt into the pop grandeur of the Boo Radleys circa Wake Up! "Storm Boy" is less demonstrative, grinding guitars trying to decide whether they're supposed to sound more like Braid or Cinnamon. The hushed, languid "Precious Burden" is closer to the last couple of Lucksmiths records, gentle acoustic guitar and sketchy drums behind a creaky, confessional vocal. A perky organ strut and mournful harmonica halfway turn "The Long Walk" into fond Euro-retro-pop. "Imperial" is more menacing, like a slow acoustic Midnight Oil demo, but "Karma" is a heartbreaking acoustic-guitar-and-voice pop ballad that will be even more trouble for the Arrogants' "Lovesick" when I try to make my year-end top ten.
There's a break in the song list at this point, where the side would have ended in the vinyl age, and I recommend using your pause button and pantomiming the old movements (if you're too young to recover them from muscle memory, get your parents to demonstrate). "Karma"'s position in the sequence only makes sense if it's at the end of something, and "Anna Karenina", the seventh track, a boisterous stomp with some faint Blink 182 crossover potential that reminds me vividly of the Caulfields' L, is jarring if you segue straight into it. They could have inserted an artificial pause, of course, but I'm perversely pleased that I have to provide it myself. Nobody would mistake the whole album for sneering pop-punk, though, so the centerpiece, for me, is actually the next song, the ticking, becalmed, affectionate "Are You Guys Into Wings? Part 2". "I can feel the bass drum / Coming through the floorboards", it begins, like a hundred pop songs before, and when Josh (or is it Joel?) sings "Sun has come, / Like it used to, / Like it never has before", the contradiction is a throwaway pop trope, but it's also a simple restatement of the essential joy of pop, hearing things that sound breathtakingly wonderful and new no matter how apparent their derivations are. "Were these cats even born / The year that punk broke / And cracked and fell apart / And their idols swept it up and sold it? / Money changes everything; / When it's gone / We'll get used to what it is to be human". A quiet pop song about the betrayal of punk might seem like a stylistic oxymoron, but I wonder if we've reached the point where so much of punk's aesthetic has been co-opted that it can't be defended from within any more. (Of course, now that even Nick Drake's "Pink Moon" is a car commercial it's debatable how much viability the idea of defending aesthetics has left at all.) "Rare Blood Group" is wiry and distracted, but the coda builds to a guarded catharsis, which is then promptly squandered on the bouncy, Housemartins-ish love-song/kiss-off "Monochrome". Track eleven, which is labeled "Are You Guys Into Wings? Reprise" but bears no evident relation to the earlier song, continues the Housemartins pastiche by repeating "Ooh, think it over" in swelling, near-gospel, multi-part a cappella harmony for about a minute. And then we're to the campfire jangle of "Vanimo", like a "This Land Is Your Land" in metric. Sarah is probably the last place you'd ever look for activist politics or market-square populism, but I suppose it's inevitable that eventually somebody would wonder if the hinges on the inside of the bedroom door mean that it opens, and allow their curiosity about what's outside to overcome their reticence.
Trembling Blue Stars: Broken by Whispers
Reticence, on the other hand, still has its devoted adherents. Now that ex-Field Mice Michael Hissock and Annemari Davies have joined Bob Wratten (and Field Mice producer Ian Catt) in the studio incarnation, at least, of Trembling Blue Stars, the distinction between Wratten's three bands (Northern Picture Library, in the middle, had Wratten, Davies and Field Mice drummer Mark Dobson) is seeming particularly arbitrary. I came to them all at once, anyway, and the progression never seemed more than evolutionary. NPL and the first two Trembling Blue Stars albums were drifting steadily into the ambient, atmospheric end of the Field Mice's range, but Dark Eyes, last year's four-song TBS EP, was about as focused as any four consecutive Field Mice songs, and the new album continues retracing steps. "Ripples" opens with spare acoustic guitar, bubbly beeps and whooshing beach noises, but then launches into a dramatic synth-padded full-band chorus. "She Just Couldn't Stay" adds sparkling folk-guitar arpeggios to muted bass, an understated drum-machine cadence and sweeping chorus synth-strings, Wratten sighing into a trademark transcendent anti-love-song that contrives to find separation in togetherness ("I'm in love with a ghost") and vice versa ("Were we destined always for a broken heart each?"). "Sometimes I Still Feel the Bruise", with its cheap beat-box and unadorned guitar strumming, sounds a bit like a New Order demo recast as melancholy gospel, but Annemari makes her entrance on the chorus, and her presence transforms "Making contact gets harder / As the silence grows longer", which I'd otherwise have assumed was about her.
These three are rendered prefatory, though, when "To Leave It Now" snaps into motion. The drum program is forceful (and on the choruses, carefully elaborated), the guitars brash, the bass decisive, the sequencer runs mined from New Wave ore. Sandrine Young intones a breathy running translation in French, a pretentious idea that I just accept as texture, and the whole thing ends up seeming delightfully anachronistic, to me, as if I'd somehow forgotten about the best song the Pet Shop Boys ever did. Wratten contorts the momentum into the spiky, bracing "Fragile", which except for Wratten's warm voice is as close as I've ever heard anybody else come to replicating the timbres and dynamics of Talk Talk's Spirit of Eden. "I No Longer Know Anything", with Jo Richards' cello, could be his nod to Belle & Sebastian, the Clientele and Sodastream, but Wratten's lyrics come much closer to my own doubts than the others, and so always seem much more profound. This one is a complicated self-interrogation about the significance of a failed relationship, and except for the minor detail that I haven't had the exact relationship predicament he sketches here (seeing one relationship that didn't happen, but might have, as a betrayal of an earlier one that was already over), I empathize with every tortured nuance. "Do I only think what I did / Was a stupid thing because / I did not get what I wanted, / Or would it have been no matter what?" "What if something had happened?", goes the chorus, which is hardly heroic but captures, at once, the important fear that our respect for the hallowed past keeps us from moving forward, and the second-order fear that even if we conquer the first one, we risk becoming mired in doubts about whether or not our respect for the hallowed past, before we overcame it, wrecked something promising in the recent past. The drifting "Back to You" inverts the Beautiful South's "You said if I wrote the perfect love song / You would take me back" into "I wish that I could have written / The song that would have broken / Your heart again", and Annemari's absence from the arrangement makes me wonder, not for the first time, whether Wratten continues to use their relationship for material because it still really haunts him, or just because that's the phase of his life from which song lyrics originate.
"Back to You" is clipped with no notice after nearly seven unhurried minutes, and the production shifts abruptly for "Birthday Girl". Wratten's voice, which had been dissipating into the music, is pushed to the front again, and the acoustic guitar and cellos behind him ring and purr clearly. The lyrics, surprisingly, are not another withering self-analysis, this one an apparently genuine long-distance reassurance that doesn't clutter supportive sympathy with dreams or demands. "Snow Showers" is a twangy ode to British radio and/or weather, and for a moment it looks like Broken by Whispers is going to turn into a sort of oblique concept album about Wratten finding new, less debilitating things to obsess over. "Sleep", though, seems to notice this transformation just in time to worry about it. "Can there only be / One ending?" What's the difference between giving up on doomed romanticism and death? No good answer is forthcoming, and so Wratten effectively supplies one by ending the album with "Dark Eyes", the heart-breaking title track from last year's EP, the old fixations and passions all flooding back in. Davies joins in again, and together they sing "As if she's going to just knock on my door" like his paralysis is their joint project, and even they aren't sure whether they're supposed to be cultivating or alleviating it. One part of me wants to scream at them that figuring out what you want from life is hard enough without other people burdening you with confusion about their own roles. But then, if you don't understand your own feelings, maybe hearing your confusion echoed is the best possible sound. It's far too easy to adopt an insular mathematics, and try to answer your questions from inside. But if other people are involved (and aren't those invariably the most interesting questions?), then the equations are simultaneous, and your inability to solve them one at a time isn't a failure, it's a structural necessity. "Shouldn't I be scared by how / Fear only makes itself / Known to me / At certain moments of clarity?", Wratten and Davies asked on "Half in Love With Leaving", one of the other EP tracks. They are afraid of numbness, of giving up on ever feeling better, and so am I. But if tormented pop songs teach us anything, it's that it's seductive and wrong to assume that sadness and fear are counterposed forces, and fear is the productive one.