How to Get Lost in a Room
275 · 4 May 00
Mary Timony: Mountains
"I'll be shocked if that isn't broken", the orthopedist said, poking, with what seemed to me to be a seriously misplaced cheerfulness, at an ugly swollen blob where my ankle would normally be found, perhaps thinking that I was busy enough trying to avoid hyperventilating from the pain that I couldn't hear her. Having registered her bet, she wandered off, and I never saw her again. I'm not sure who would have taken the other side of the wager, though, as the EMTs, the other ER personnel, the players near me who heard the pop as I fell and I were all of a similar mind, the sole dissenting voice in my unscheduled Sunday-morning tour of Norwood, Mass., medical facilities being an X-ray tech who held out, with admirable self-confidence, for torn ligaments. According to the X-rays, however, the internal components of my ankle are merely aggrieved, not broken. I was vaguely disappointed. This was the first time I'd ever been carried off a soccer field, my first stretcher ride, and my first ambulance ride, so "just a sprain" was an anticlimax, and one that made me feel self-conscious about the effort expended on my behalf.
After three days of not being able to put any weight on my right foot, self-consciousness has long since given way to self-pity. I am profoundly sick of hopping, and intensely weary of finally getting from one side of a room to the other only to discover that I left some essential device (remote, telephone, pillow, ice-pack) behind. The sprained ankle would be sufficiently annoying on its own, but the annoyance is compounded by the fact that earlier in the same game I got a ball kicked into my left hand, spraining that wrist, which makes operating the crutches required by the sprained ankle next to impossible. Neither of these things would be quite so bad if the ankle injury hadn't occurred at nearly the end of a game played without substitutes, which would have left me limping around for a day or two from sheer exhaustion, even without the injuries. Add to this the fact that my house, not designed to be occupied by people with multiple joint injuries, is mostly vertical, with flights of stairs strategically located between almost all pairs of rooms required for physical survival, which I am currently reduced to ascending and descending one tread at a time, on my ass, thirty-one years of stair-climbing skill-development ignominiously reversed. The crowning irony is that I usually play goalie, which in this particular game, a 7-0 victory that could easily have been twice that, turned out to be the safest role on the field, but I had switched to forward in order to protect a month-old, repeatedly-aggravated finger injury. On, of course, the hand the ball got kicked into.
All of this means that although I've been home for a few days, with a remarkable amount of foot-elevating time good for practically nothing but listening to music, I've been in a relentlessly bleak, lonely mood. The Steps albums that last week seemed like the miracle cure for melancholy this week are much too plastic and brash to bear. Swedish pop sounds sickly, four-track bedroom synth noodling far too claustrophobic. To lever me out of this mood, music has to be willing to meet me halfway, has to be willing to identify with my shut-in ennui before attempting to dispel it. In the end, in fact, no one record is up to the task; it takes three, working in series, and I only realize in retrospect that the rescue begins with Mountains, the first solo album by Helium leader Mary Timony. I was largely ambivalent about Helium up until their startling metamorphosis on 1997's The Magic City, and since Mountains is closer to the angular dissonance of earlier albums than the epic mysticism of The Magic City, my default attitude, before hearing a single note, was disappointment. I bought the record out of a feeling of responsibility, and put it on like a chore. Yes, here are the repetitive, minimalist riffs, here's Mary singing in her fitful, sleepy murmur. Take away the electric guitars and occasional rock drums and how wouldn't these songs sound like lurching, half-formed Suzanne Vega rejects? Mary Timony and Kristin Hersh are so much smarter than Courtney Love, why haven't they been able to grasp, like she has, that melody is nothing to be afraid of?
But I owe Mountains at least two or three tries, and it gets them. Maybe I haven't been paying close enough attention during them, though, as after listening three times I still don't feel like I can accurately characterize my disappointment. So I give it a fourth try, and a fifth. After the sixth, it dawns on me that the main reason I'm having trouble isolating what's so disappointing about Mountains is that the expected disappointment hasn't actually materialized. I was set to gripe about charmlessness, but I'm mesmerized, and while there's a big difference between mesmerized and charmed, they're both valuable. The clanging piano on "Dungeon Dance" has all the fluidity of "Chopsticks", and Mary's whispery quasi-falsetto delivery of the chorus sounds like a belated discovery that she started the song in the wrong key, but these awkwardnesses turn out to be appropriate, a parallel allegory to the lyrics, which are a sneaky but bracingly candid love song, an invitation not to effortless bliss but to a terrifying joint struggle against hopelessness, which is what all honest love songs propose. "Poison Moon" is nearly as sinister, lyrically, but Ash Bowie's concussive synth-drums and distracted hi-hats and cymbals undercut a twinkly, toy-piano-like acoustic guitar. "I Fire Myself" starts out echoey and grim, but the piano breaks into a reticent solo in the middle, and a demon interrupts the litany of torments to ask "Can you see love though a telescope?", sad because he knows, as maybe we haven't acknowledged yet, that hells are never eternal.
And from the moment I conclude that this record is really a deeply life-affirming impulse searching for the applicable grammar, it all starts making an oblique sense. The medieval clang of "The Bell" turns heroic, plainsong dreaming of Juliana Hatfield. "Painted Horses" is dark and swirly, and ends with the bleak "He made a really good case against me: / 'Why go on?'", but then the scratchy strings and booming percussion of "The Hour Glass" are joined by twittery synth noises, grumbling bass and ringing piano, and the song evolves from a Rachel's-esque reverie into a glassy, menacing, Rasputina-like dirge, and although "We are only free at night, / But that is when we sleep" isn't quite a rousing rebuttal to suicide, it buys time. I'm not completely sure how the math in "13 Bees" (reworked from its original instrumental appearance on the Helium No Guitars EP) is supposed to work ("three leaves times six bees" seems like eighteen bees to me, unless the leaves form some sort of organic Venn diagram), but fourteen bees are born and only thirteen die, which is progress. "The Golden Fruit" could almost be a single, its mordant drum-machine thump supporting spectral, metallic acoustic guitar and Mary gyrating like a polluted Riverdance. "Whisper From the Tree" is a short instrumental, and "1542" is a stark voice-and-organ lament, but "The Valley of 1,000 Perfumes" roars back to life, with low, surging guitars and John McEntire's pinging vibes, and a lovelorn plea resolves to the provisional "But today our music doesn't have enough style, / We're going to run to the country from a suicide.", and then the open-hearted "All I ever wanted was to talk to you, / It's all I still want to do." "Tiger Rising" explains, for anybody who hasn't guessed, that the mountains of the album title are personal struggles.
The finale, after the short interlude of "An-Deluzion" (which I suspect is a Pixies reference, but I don't know how), is the spare diptych of "The Fox and the Hound" and "Rider on the Stormy Sea". "The Fox and the Hound" is evasive, desultory keyboard runs looping around an underdeveloped chase metaphor, but "Rider on the Stormy Sea" is as close as anything here to rock strut, a solid drum cadence and choppy, circling guitar spurring Mary's fragile vocal. At the last moment she abandons metaphor completely, instead signing off with the deadpan chorus "The turning of a young man's head is / A mystery that's unsolvable". Usually I'd be content to ruminate on what this implies about Mary's view of romance, the tragic idea that she's given up understanding it, which I think she thinks is the way to free herself from its tyranny. In a more reflexive mood, I might take this as a meta-question about art, and the arbitrariness of personal preference. Tonight, though, it seems to me that the most important mystery is how minds change. How do we ever become people who accept something we used to fight? How do we make sad people into happy ones without simply replacing them?
Christine Fellows: 2 Little Birds
But to think about that, I need a much sadder album than Mountains. The saddest one I have on hand (and admittedly, defining "sad" is at least half of this battle) is 2 Little Birds, the debut by Winnipeg singer/songwriter Christine Fellows, released by the Canadian label endearing (who also did one of last year's saddest albums, the Bonaduces' The Democracy of Sleep). Calling an album this reliant on slow, legato viola and cello parts "sad" may not be especially more insightful than Nigel Tufnel branding D-minor the saddest key, but we have to start somewhere. In this case, "sad" means a sort of cross between Lisa Germano, Jane Siberry, Dana & Karen Kletter and Rasputina. "20 Bullets" reminds me of Michael Nyman's music for Peter Greenaway's movies, even before Christine starts counting the bullets (although, disappointingly, she only gets to three). "Cowboy" loosens up a little, the acoustic guitars holding their own against the bowed instruments, bringing the song closer to Patty Larkin than Lisa Germano, but "Red Letter Day", despite the addition of drums and piano, is thoroughly becalmed, traces of Emm Gryner and Sinéad O'Connor creeping into Christine's voice. "Monica's Prelude" is a gorgeous two-minute piano-and-viola instrumental, but "Advice", which it leads to, uses strings and guitar to cloak a rather more grim set of self-help strictures than "wear sunscreen" ("Don't trip when your legs snap like pencil lead. / Don't spit when your teeth fall like hail."). "Ruthless" adds the eerie sighs of what sounds like a theremin, but must actually be a musical saw. "Hypothetical" reminds me of Nyman again, the viola cycling over a breathy cello drone, piano eventually joining the viola in its circuit, John K. Samson intoning a poem alternately harrowing ("Say you wake up one morning without a language, / Not lost but taken away") and plaintive ("Make a missing poster for your heart"). "2 Little Birds" itself is more forceful, like Tracy Bonham songs might sound if she wasn't trying so hard to make hers hits. "Bright Blue Flame" is meticulous and pizzicato, but in the choruses the strings turn into revving engines. Greg Macpherson takes over the lead vocals for the brief, fluttering "Fold Into June", which more or less begs for a Brothers Quay video. "Boy on the Cover" is relatively upbeat, perhaps like early Suzanne Vega updated with just a little bit of Tori Amos. And although the pedal guitar in "Small Change" lends it a slight country twinge, the song exits on acoustic guitar and piano, Christine's multi-part harmonies clustering like shy ghosts. The hidden bonus, a quiet, brittle cover of Vic Chestnut's "Guilty by Association", is more rueful than despondent, an interesting third approach to playing other people's songs to go with Mary Lou Lord's frail reductions and Tori Amos' haunted abstractions.
But what I realize, as I feel myself shift into Christine's idea of sadness, out of the one I was wallowing in, is that we probably need a different word. This kind of sadness, the sadness of old trees or long solitary return trips, is only distantly and indirectly related to despair. It's the openness that has to oppose and enable happiness, which is a form of satiety. Serenity is accepting pain without letting it affect you, but pain is supposed to affect you, that's the point. It's no more necessary or useful to withstand pain than it is to withstand love. (This may be the central fallacy of modern medicine, but I'm going to keep taking ibuprofen, just in case I'm wrong.)
Lois Maffeo & Brendan Canty: The Union Themes
And once I've found my way to a more productive sadness, cheering me up becomes a formality, and most of the records piled on my desk could probably do it, but it appeals to my sense of continuity to fill out the trio with a record that seems to me to build on the other two, rather than simply capitalizing on their set-up. Lois Maffeo's previous solo albums didn't do much for me, but some advance report described this collaboration with Fugazi drummer Brendan Canty as a concept album about marriage, which I thought was incongruous enough to be worth investigating. It isn't, though. I suppose, if I squint, I can imagine that it's a concept album about relationships, but if we're going to call a pop album "concept" just because all the songs on it are about relationships, half the albums ever recorded will qualify, and many of them feature insight and/or imaginative lyric-writing, which this one, which has a tendency to cling to clichés like they're life-preservers, to me does not. But forget what the "Union" in the title was intended to mean, and never mind the lyrics, which are unremarkable at worst. To me these aren't songs about relationships, they are songs about America, a much more complicated union, and surely the stars scattered over the cover and the liner mean that Lois and Brendan are aware of this dimension. If we construe 69 Love Songs to have launched a sprawling collective project to translate all American forms of popular music into current idioms, then to me this is the series' second installment. Lois and Brendan's version of our musical history is less insular than Stephin Merritt's, less centered around musical theater and New York, more like an American answer to The McGarrigle Hour. "These Parts" combines expansive, rolling piano and chirpy acoustic guitar, Lois leaning into the fond, airy vocal as if she's channeling Liz Phair and Linda Ronstadt at once. "Being Blind" is slower and smokier, evoking for me referents as varied as Billie Holiday, Dar Williams in her pop mode, and what I imagine Lita Ford would sound like unplugged. "How I Came to Know" is galloping and exuberant, like George Harrison and Elton John filtered through Randy Newman and Rebecca Gates. "Best Believe" reminds me of Patty Larkin, "You Love Your Wounds" of Aimee Mann. Fix the they-won't-expect-this minor chords in "Hollow Reed" and it could be a classic folk song, but "Give Faith" is lilting pop on the continuum that stretches from the Bangles to Suddenly, Tammy! "Con Job" is anxious and noisier, but "Handwriting" is half bare acoustic blues, half sultry torch-song. And "Monument", which reminds me strongly of Amanda Kravat, could be the acoustic version of any of a dozen graceful pop ballads. The Union Themes hasn't anything like 69 Love Songs' scale, of course, but if we're going to assemble a library, most of it is going to be done ten songs at a time, not sixty-nine. The most thrilling thing, to me, is the notion that random people (and Lois and Brendan are, in my scheme, pretty random) are going to step forward and take responsibility for sustaining the country's musical traditions, that some of the people who once rejected these same traditions are going to accept the task of rebuilding them. Many of these songs are sad, too, but sad in the way that the cornerstone of a new house is sad, when it's laid correctly, when it settles under the weight of all the houses that stood on this lot before, and all the lives that passed through them, and all the houses and lives that will follow. And so, three albums later, nothing altered in my life but the way the air around me compresses, I've somehow been converted. I'm no longer sad that I hurt myself playing soccer and can barely operate my own house, I'm sad about all the tragedies to come that will dwarf this one, all the things that no amount of ice and pillows can help. I'm sad about the injuries, mine and yours, that will still be waiting for me when these trivial, temporary ones are gone. The swelling will go down. Everything that hurts will heal, if only to make way for more important pain. Maybe being sad about the saddest possible things isn't exactly the same as happiness, but it's close, and I think I've hopped as far as I can tonight.