No One Calls But to Weigh In Against Us
273 · 20 April 00
The Loud Family: Attractive Nuisance
"They'll be OK, right?", Julianne asked me as we pulled out of the parking lot of the Original Pancake House, in Portland, Oregon, on our way to Seattle to see the Loud Family play for the second night in a row. "I'm sure they will", I reassured her, at what we would later find out was the exact instant that Kenny backed the van into a parked car. All we thought we wondered was whether the band, groggy from eating too many pancakes, would spot the signs designed to direct them back to the highway. But a week later, having raced them to the tour's turnaround point in Boston, watching my third show of what might be their final tour, it occurs to me to expand the scope of my concern. I've allowed the Loud Family to become a much more central part of my life than is usually my practice. My trip to Portland and Seattle wasn't the first time I've gone out of my way to see a concert, but it's easily the most effort I've expended; five hours before Portland show-time I was in Los Angeles on business. The mailing list nominally centered on the band, loud-fans, is the only virtual community I've ever invested enough emotional and physical energy in for it to serve real communal functions for me. I've come to think of Scott Miller as an alternate version of me, of how these years might have been had I followed minorly different paths. In Portland, the crowd was enthusiastic but far too small, and I thought "How have we survived this long?" In Seattle the crowd started out larger, but then all the Velvet Goldmine extras who were there to admire the creases pressed into Beachwood Sparks' flared jeans dispersed, and I thought "This is unjust." In Boston, though, we fill the room, and our roars of approval don't sound like we're Scott's parents. During the first song I email the set list to loud-fans from the stunted web browser on my cell phone, and a little later I use the phone to call Julianne in Portland and leave a minute of live "The Waist and the Knees" on her answering machine. The band do three encores, and look genuinely reluctant to leave. And suddenly I think "Maybe this is all." It's a small club, and a short set on a Sunday night. My dreams are always bigger than this, but Scott's probably once were, too. We dream of saving the world, or at least of jarring it, but maybe the most we can realistically hope for, or what we ought to aspire to instead, is that a room full of people will sing "I bet you've never actually seen a person die of loneliness" with us, and get choked up when we bow to them and lay our guitar down on the stage. I've never wanted to be Napoleon. If I can ever figure out a way to affect a handful of people as powerfully as Scott's songs have affected me, a way to fill a room like this, it will have been a well-led life.
So never mind the band's van and cramped parking lots, I'm worried about all of us. If this was the Loud Family's last album and tour (I don't believe for a second that Scott will really give up music, but Attractive Nuisance completes the five-record deal with Alias, and from listening to Alison and Gil politely discuss equipment repacking strategies over pancakes it was clear that low-budget touring is no longer their target lifestyle) then which of our own devices are we being abandoned to, and is anybody sure how they work? I'm pretty sure the virtual community could survive, since it often functions perfectly well for months at a time without discussing anything of direct band relevance, but maybe carrying on a mailing list about a defunct band would become too self-conscious. I assume I can chart the course of my own life without using Loud Family albums as navigation beacons, but that doesn't mean I won't miss their glow. "We'll be OK, right?", I ask myself. "I'm sure we will", I say back, and then I brace myself for the crinkle of surrendering taillights. I made the Northwest trip, even though I usually regard this kind of band-following with suspicion, because I might need these memories to last a really long time. So here, whether they end up having to sustain me for a year or a century, are six precious things I've learned from, or been reminded of by, one album and three concerts.
1 The best way to cope with pain is to find the way in which it is both most intense and most instructive. Scott's vocal delivery on Attractive Nuisance may be his most evasive, and in reading through the lyrics on the band's web site I discovered elements of at least half of the songs that I had no inkling of from just listening, but several of these half-concealed insights are among the ones I'm most taken aback to find that another human being has formed (though not as taken aback as I was to hit the line in The Wishbones where Dave admits that he thinks Amy Grant is the sexiest person alive). "I fill my days with work because I am lazy", Scott muses in "720 Times Happier Than the Unjust Man", a suggestive corollary to Days for Days' "Businessmen Are Okay", and one that echoes my fear that my day job is a complicated way to kill valuable time. "One Will Be the Highway" opens with an under-populated nightclub tableau disconcertingly reminiscent of the shows in Portland and Seattle ("Ten or twelve who know the band look like they'll stay / But I'll be on my way"), but unfolds into a meditation on resignation and fate that points out the existential interchangeability of hitchhiking and just being hit by the car. "Save Your Money" is mostly a simple injunction against thinking your problems have material solutions (or at least against trusting the obvious material solutions), but my favorite touch is the oblique implication, midway through, that all stock-market windfalls can ever buy you is the power to change things nobody cares about. "But this is home, this is where we spend weekends", at the end of "Nice When I Want Something", is either the devastating punch line to a story of a relationship wrecked by cowardice, or else a defiant shard of optimism. "Blackness, Blackness" finds a trace of involuntary nobility beneath what appears to be a helpless amoral facade. "Backwards Century"'s "I used to want it to do something bad to you / As if it was going to show you decency" (a line I originally misheard without the first "it", which makes a big difference) seems to me like a cogent explanation of morbidity, and of how we court crises because it's so much easier to be our best selves in a crisis than it is to be them every ordinary day. Alison rises to Scott's lyrical challenge by folding the uncooperative "Into the void of lovesick reciprocity" into "The Apprentice", and then inverting the refrain at the end, "I taught him how to fake it" to "I should know how to fake it now", without conclusively resolving whether these mutual pretenses are the death throes of a relationship or the only way one gets through its trials. "No One's Watching My Limo Ride" is an unexpected-love song (not an unexpected love-song), in a way an alternate version of Alanis Morissette's "Uninvited", and appropriately Scott's version reads as much like a pensive internal monologue as Alanis' does like a candid answering-machine message. "The only world that I know is the / One where I don't get you", Scott confesses, and I have a feeling Alanis' narrator is going to find her way out of "I need a moment to deliberate" long before Scott's convinces himself that happiness isn't incompatible with his nature. (But Alanis, on the other hand, could hardly pull off the line "Marching in like women's liberation".) Fittingly "Motion of Ariel", the finale, is a lullaby about not having answers. But the truth I want most to have inscribed on every billboard in every city, a renegade social critique secreted among relationship songs, and quite possibly my new favorite first sentence of a song, is the opening verse of "Years of Wrong Impressions": "Design your life / To live as if you're in a movie / And after three hours / Anyone is going to think / It's gone on too long". This is, to me, our central social failure. Our culture produces role models whose lifestyle is unsustainable; it exhibits an inoperable public logic. We congratulate ourselves that we got past 1984 without acquiring an Orwellian government, but read 1984 again, ascribing all its tyrannies to private enterprise instead of government, and then tell me one detail that hasn't come precisely to pass.
2 The music matters. I watched Gil more closely, in Boston, than I had in Portland or Seattle, and finally noticed that when he sings along he's not singing the words of the song, he's singing his own drum part. As I am wont to forget, when I focus on Scott's lyrics, in a sense the music's story is rhythmic and wordless. The crashing accents and clattering fills on "720 Times Happier Than the Unjust Man", the resonant patter on "One Will Be the Highway", the subdued shuffle of "Save Your Money", the manic accelerando in the middle of "Nice When I Want Something", the taps and splashes of the elegiac "Blackness, Blackness", the evasive gait of "Soul D.C.", the impish skip of "The Apprentice", the edgy encouragements in "No One's Watching My Limo Ride", the bleary prom themes of "Controlled Burn (Part 1)" and the uncluttered heart-pulse of "Motion of Ariel" are all integral. Kenny is a reliably discreet bass player, but "No One's Watching My Limo Ride", especially live, is a rare showcase, and his harmony parts, both with Scott and especially with Alison on "Years of Wrong Impressions", have become an element of the band's sound that they never exactly had before. Alison has grown into her role, too, I think, almost certainly the best of Scott's many keyboardists at knowing when the most supportive thing to do is to stay out of the way. As is more apparent on stage, where you can see who's doing what, the Loud Family could have been Trans Am or Don Caballero if they'd wanted to be. Scott's production, here on the third album made without Mitch Easter's help, is rather less indulgent, on a macro scale, than on Interbabe Concern or Days for Days, the track structure normal for the first time since The Tape of Only Linda, but inside this framework the songs still bristle with obsessive detail. "720 Times Happier Than the Unjust Man" has a distressed background vocal part that sounds like one of your stereo components is picking up CB crosstalk. "One Will Be the Highway" counters sparkling acoustic guitar with warm, sweeping synth-string pads. Tim Walters' special effects punctuate the bouncy "Save Your Money" with oddly propulsive twitches of clipped static. The squalling guitar on the verses of "Nice When I Went Something" turns into roaring power-chords on the choruses. "Years of Wrong Impressions" is played almost completely straight, but Alison's breezy, cheerfully out-of-character bridge still floors me today. "Blackness, Blackness" is a ballad at heart, but the way Alison's detuned introductory keyboard notes snap back into key just as the other instruments start might be my favorite thing on the whole record, and Scott's gyrating slide-guitar hooks seem to have wandered in from an entirely different genre. "Backward Century" subsists on syncopation, and "Soul D.C." sounds momentarily like it's going to be Guided by Voices, but Alison's piano guides "The Apprentice", and "No One's Watching My Limo Ride" merely stops and starts. "Controlled Burn" is the only pure experiment, part one a reeling, soundtracky home-studio instrumental by Gil, part two an extended duet between Scott and his punch-in pedal. The aching "Motion of Ariel", conversely, is the only song without any experiment, a chiming throwback that might have come from any era at all.
3 There is the list of things for which you vow you would sacrifice, and then there is the list, far shorter, of the sacrifices you do make, not just endorse in theory. I wore earplugs for the Portland show. The Seattle show was a little quieter, or the room acoustics a little kinder, and I didn't need them. In Boston, though, the volume was a few decibels too high, and I had the plugs in my pocket. I took them out of their case and held them in my hands, considering. I didn't put them in. My ears would ring for a few days afterwards, I knew, but if hearing is a finite resource to be spent, this was the right thing to spend some on. After I finally hear my last new sound, I'll have only the old ones to listen to in my head; I suspect the last time I heard the Loud Family play will be one of the most cherished.
4 The distinction between nostalgia and continuity is subtle, perhaps even illusory. I loved hearing the new songs in concert, but the most helpless raptures came from older ones. The two oldest in the regular set list were a breathtaking "Idiot Son", from 1993's Plants and Birds and Rocks and Things, and a wall-shaking "The Waist and the Knees", from 1987's Game Theory album Lolita Nation, but over the course of several encores I also got to hear a plaintive "Slit My Wrists" and a heartfelt "Inverness", from PABARAT, a whirring "Rosy Overdrive" and a titanic "Dripping With Looks", from Lolita Nation, and "Erica's Word", from 1986's The Big Shot Chronicles. Game Theory songs are always highlights, to me, since I never got to see Game Theory play live, but the early Loud Family songs have come to occupy the same dear place in my heart, even after five tours. The part of me processing the experience as the end of an era wanted desperately to have the connections explicitly confirmed. I only realized how successful the integration had been when I got home and it dawned on me that "Rosy Overdrive" is actually on PABARAT, not Lolita Nation, a conflation which firmly reassures me that replacing the latter with the former on my DID list, recently, was an acknowledgement, not a decision.
5 Other people matter. The few Game Theory/Loud Family songs not written and/or sung by Scott tend to be sources of contention on the list, but "Years of Wrong Impressions", words by Scott but sung by Alison, was my first favorite song on the album, nothing like "Mammoth Gardens" in structure but similarly distinctive and arresting. Alison's swooping "The Apprentice", the one song Scott didn't co-write, seemed out of place to me the first few times through, but after a couple weeks I noticed that I'd gone from trying to overlook it to not knowing how else the album could have been assembled. Scott demanded it as the first song of the encore, in Portland, and it didn't go that well. Alison, normally animated, seemed to be paralyzed by the task of singing and playing at once, and the rest of the band's stage composure looked destabilized by the shift in aesthetic geometry, so they didn't try it again in Seattle or Boston, but that only makes me desperately glad I got to see it before they gave up. There's another band there, Alison in charge and the others supporting her. It's not the Loud Family, and this one song could be all we ever hear from it, but that's enough for me to imagine a mirror universe, and the profound shock was seeing, in Scott's eyes as he played the guitar part to her song, transfixed as if by the indescribable beauty of his own funeral, that he can imagine it too. If you understand how the world would cope with your absence, you are half the way to knowing what you should do until you're gone.
6 I need more people in my life. I stood right in front of the stage, at all three shows, but turning around, late in the Seattle show, and seeing what was left of the crowd, which should have been depressing, may have been the most overwhelming revelation of my whole tour. Although there weren't that many people, I knew them. I was in a club I'd never heard of, under a highway overpass in a city in an opposite corner of the nation from my own, and yet the sense of collective effort was as strong as I've ever experienced in a public space. I've spent the last eight years designing collaborative software for a living, and I've only seen a virtual community transcend its virtuality in virtual space once, in the last hour before the result of my first four years of work was anaesthetized. Some of these people were list-members I'd met the previous night in Portland, some I'd met earlier in the evening in Seattle, a handful I've known for months or years, and some were still strangers. Most of them, including the band, are still more accurately acquaintances than friends, but when we say "It takes a village", we don't mean a village of bridesmaids, we mean a village of people who take your existence and/or well-being into account even though they don't know you all that well. In Seattle I sent the set list to myself, amused by my toy. Checking my email during the Denver stop-over on my return trip, it hit me that that was wrong. I didn't need to archive the information, I needed to share it. I wanted to feel, whether the rest of the list, scattered around the globe, felt the same need or not, that the people physically absent were emotionally present, and that I was absorbing these sounds not only for myself, but also, however partially, as proxy for the community. It wasn't a utile gesture (I could have saved myself some laborious phone-keypad typing by writing "Same as Portland" instead of literally transcribing Scott's notation), it was an offered hand. I need more things to offer hands to. Writing about Days for Days, two summers ago, trying to decide what it indicated for my future, I begged for some route to a sense of community other than religion or politics. But I often deny things as the first step towards accepting them, and sure enough, two years later, my two tentative plans for my next life-direction after I find out how the story of my current internet software company ends are running for Cambridge City Council and starting a secular community church. I don't resent all these hours alone in front of my computer, but I need to balance them better. I don't want to drive around the country in a van, but I need a stage. No, that's wrong, I need a room. I need more rooms, with people in them, whose doubts and struggles are intertwined with mine. It's possible that the flaw with the council and church plans is that they are more stage than room, but I think not if they're done right. And buried in this idea may be the secret to how the end of the Loud Family, if that's what this turns out to have been, can be a graduation, not a tragedy. The tours notwithstanding, Game Theory and the Loud Family represent a dozen albums, and more years, of an insular mission. Touching somebody with a pop song is a triumph over physics and context, and Scott has learned to do it. We can hardly blame him, now, if he decides that it isn't the only way he wants to have ever tried.
And if this is the end, then Attractive Nuisance bears the responsibility of concluding the story. Scott's albums have often had to grow on me slowly, so I knew not to pass quick judgment on this one. Days for Days, in fact, never did grow on me, and became the first Scott album I left off its year's top-ten list. Attractive Nuisance won't be the second. Hooks and phrases starting lodging in my mind on about the fourth pass. The first half of the album snapped into focus around the tenth, and the second half followed three or four plays later. The transition from listening as learning to listening as confirmation and reified memory happened well before my trip, and after listening to the album in my rental car in LA, and then hearing two thirds of it live in Portland (the only songs I didn't see them do were "One Will Be the Highway", "Save Your Money", "Soul D.C." and "Controlled Burn"), and then listening to it again in the car on the way to Seattle, and then again live, and then on the plane back, and then home in my cold-induced semi-stupor waiting for the week to pass, and then live again, and then now, I've crossed over into yet another plane. I now know this record the way I almost never get to know records any more, the way I used to at fifteen, when new ones entered my life monthly, not hourly. I double the guitar lines involuntarily, in my head, the way I do when "More Than a Feeling" or "Tom Sawyer" comes on the radio. I developed an early theory, if I didn't find my way to loving this album, about why that would have been: I might have wanted a Loud Family farewell to recapitulate more of Scott's career, to overtly sketch a bridge from the spiky, intricate pop of the recent Loud Family albums to the more straightforward elegance of "Regenisraen", or "Like a Girl Jesus", or "Throwing the Election". When I got Days for Days out again, at the end of 1998, because I couldn't quite believe I was about to leave it off my list, I had to admit that the songs eluded me. There was a panicky moment in which I wondered if Scott's songs had started eluding me, period, but then I put on PABARAT, for comparison, and it effortlessly dispelled that notion. The ones here lurch and sputter as much as Days for Days' did, and I don't see how they're materially different, but I'm reporting that for me they are. Our culture attempts to breed the profitable misconception that selection is the same as creation, with the result that a frightening number of bands approach their craft like it's a glorified multi-media version of paint-by-numbers, and nobody's ever explained to them that there's more to mastery than coloring in somebody else's well-drawn lines. Even some of the ones who know this forget it, and begin coloring in their own old lines. Scott's songs, on the other hand, have always seemed to me like paintings on fresh canvases, like however many other paintings he's seen, or painted, when he picks up the brush he's not trying to recreate any of them. If I imagine him adding a caption to this set, it's something like "Thanks for letting me do whatever I did, as long as I did it". Right up to the last moment, if that's what the parallel descending figures of Scott's guitar, Alison's keyboard and Kenny's bass at the end of "Motion of Ariel" turn out to be, he tried to make up new things, to find new perfect moments we didn't know we were wired to adore. If it's a commission he's ready to put aside, then we will have to pick it up ourselves, and divine inertia from its motionlessness, and figure out where, now that it's our responsibility, we're going to lead us.