Travels From Heart to Head
276 · 11 May 00
Wheat: Hope and Adams
I'm not supposed to do this, but I'm going to violate a secret covenant and tell you the two defining truths about the enormous obscure underground culture of bands you've never heard of. The first truth, which should only be controversial to the extremely ignorant, is that many of the bands you've never heard are a lot better than many of the bands you have heard. The math behind this isn't very complicated. Neither commercial success nor the accompanying public exposure are particularly dependent on or related to artistic quality, so good records end up being distributed fairly evenly across the obscurity spectrum. And since there are always many more bands you haven't heard than bands you have, it follows that you're probably missing many of the best ones. Of course, the same statistical analysis can be used to prove that there are lots of kinder and more intriguing people than your friends, which doesn't make your friends any less precious, so I don't mean to imply that the situation is a problem.
The other truth, though, the one I'm going to get in trouble for revealing, is that if you're an even cursorily informed music listener, almost none of the bands you've never heard plays music that is significantly different, in nature, from the music you know. If you know the Cardigans, Aimee Mann, Live, Weezer, Nirvana, the Goo Goo Dolls, Hole and Elliott Smith, for example, to pick a random set of people to whom you might easily have been exposed without undertaking any special research, then I have a thousand more records whose general outlines will be familiar to you. The details are important, of course, so some of these records might seem initially familiar in outline and then change your life anyway, later. But mostly obscurity has depths, not breadths. A tour through Hope and Adams, the second record by the Taunton, Massachusetts band Wheat, can be conducted entirely by reference to better-known landmarks without much trouble: the calm instrumental intro, "This Wheat", would fit in fine as the soundtrack to a Hal Hartley reverie or a time-lapse nature documentary; "Slow Fade" could be Counting Crows thinly disguising their envy of the Goo Goo Dolls; the pensive "Don't I Hold You" has about as much crossover potential as the Verve Pipe's "Freshmen"; "Raised Ranch Revolution" has a frayed, vaguely country-ish jangle somewhere between the Gin Blossoms and solo Paul Westerberg; "San Diego" trails off into strange noises, but "No One Ever Told Me" is half the Replacements and half Third Eye Blind; "Be Brave" is drenched in feedback, but "Who's the One" sighs like Buffalo Tom; "Off the Pedestal" mutters and skips like Folk Implosion; "And Someone With Strengths" is a hushed confessional in the vein of Elliott Smith or Aimee Mann; "Body Talk (Part 1)" belongs to the same spectrum of Americana as Soul Asylum, Son Volt, Wilco and the Jayhawks, and the second part sounds to me like an especially haunting cross between the Replacements "Skyway" and Elliott Smith's "Miss Misery"; "More Than You'll Ever Know" might be what's left after Trent Reznor got through with a Tom Petty song, but "Roll the Road" lifts the verses of Petty's "Free Fallin'" nearly verbatim. It's a wistful, subdued and ultimately open-hearted album of unhurried American guitar music with an earnest and artless singer, and you've probably heard a dozen albums that fit all those adjectives, if not a hundred, starting at least as far back as Neil Young.
But then, I've probably heard three or four hundred albums of this basic description, and yet months after I got this one I'm still taking it to work on days I know will be crazy, and to bed when I think my passage out of distressed wakefulness will be turbulent. Quiet, beautiful albums are a no more exhaustible form, to me, than paintings of people's heads. These songs give off twilight luminescence and resonant composure, the roughness around the edges affected, clearly, but also effective, like photographs matted to show the unexposed borders of the film, or movies whose dialogue hasn't been re-recorded in sealed booths. The instant when "Slow Fade" slips into double-time reminds me of the childhood exhilaration of running down hills (an especially fond memory for me, at the moment, as ten days after spraining my ankle I've just today taken my first laughably token steps without crutches). "Don't I Hold You" is like a b-side for John Waite's "Missing You", the song for after the camera crews have gone and simple sincerity is permissible again, and while it's playing I can believe that the three-note guitar-hook in the bridge is the direct transliteration of "I love you" into music (as well as a stylistic link between Sebadoh and Marillion). "Raised Ranch Revolution" could have come off of the last Mutton Birds album, but where the Mutton Birds echo Crowded House, Wheat manage to remind me of Jules Shear, the Connells, Anton Barbeau, Stretch Princess and Jimmy Eat World. "San Diego" counterposes sweeping strings and blippy synth noises, but leads into the gruffly and unapologetically sweet "No Over Ever Told Me", which, if it had been done a few years earlier, might have spared us the Wallflowers. "Be Brave" seems like a digression, to me, but "Who's the One" strains like Bill Janovitz, and "Off the Pedestal" pulses like Lou Barlow in a holding pattern, but then lifts off on pealing guitar and chirping keyboards. The firm, measured drums on "And Someone With Strengths" refuse to let the song subside into balladry. Spare piano rings through the old-fashioned "Body Talk (Part 1)", which I think will now be how I demonstrate my long-standing contention that "Leaving Las Vegas" is inexcusably banal. The intimate, sparkling second part is as perfectly uncluttered as the Arrogants' "Lovesick" or the Steinbecks' "Karma". The blasted "More Than You'll Ever Know" has an unsettling habit of waking me up just as I'm finally drifting off, but at least that means I'm awake again for the elegiac "Roll the Road", which has the sense to recognize, as "Free Fallin'" itself does not, that we don't have to be roused every two minutes. I don't want to reach the end of this album shaking my fist at nothing, I want to be re-centered. I want my metabolism to slow down, give my blood time for a leisurely circuit. There are a lot of albums shaped like this, but there are a lot of spaces shaped like my back yard, and yet surprisingly few of them have a shade tree and a hammock. The stacks of obscure records that trail away behind every popular one matter not because what you know without them is wrong, they matter because truth is solid, and any one record is flat.
Pedro the Lion: Winners Never Quit
In the nighttime post-Hope and Adams calm, what I ought to do is go to sleep. I resent sleep, though. I know I need some, so I have enough sense not to get up, and undo Wheat's progress, but I never surrender without ado. I move towards sleep steadily and unerringly, but with all the acceleration of early-lap pursuit cyclists. The best records for this interlude are ones with similar overall moods, but a more engaging text. Musically, Winners Never Quit, the second full album by David Bazan's one-man band Pedro the Lion, is about as close to Wheat as you can come without actually sharing any specific referents. Bazan's voice is more languid, like a lower-register Jeff Buckley or a less voluble Mark Eitzel, and his arrangements remind me more often of Neutral Milk Hotel than Buffalo Tom. Of the quiet songs, "Slow and Steady Wins the Race" is just him and a reedy acoustic guitar, "To Protect the Family Name" is becalmed and eerie, "Eyes on the Finish Line" conflates lullabies and Low, "Bad Things to Such Good People" is how a non-glib Dan Bern might sound, and the guitar/organ/voice/erratic-percussion title dirge leaves me with afterimages of an eviscerated Catherine Wheel. These are interspersed with a few rock songs on which Bazan performs a cunning impersonation of a full band. (No other musicians are explicitly credited, although there's a long list of people thanked for "contributions to this recording", including Ken Stringfellow.) "Simple Economics" is nervous and insistent, like it can't decide whether to be the Breeders or Braid. "A Mind of Her Own" buzzes like Sugar, but Bazan's howl rises above the roar, rather than letting itself be swallowed the way Mould's would. "Never Leave a Job Half Done" is textural and steady, descended from My Bloody Valentine and Whipping Boy, but Bazan sings it buoyantly, like he's in Translator or Big Dipper.
What keeps me up, though, just as with NMH and AMC, are the words. I couldn't really tell you what Wheat's songs are about. I assume they're mostly about relationships, since melancholy songs usually are, but they could be broadsides for zoo deregulation, for all I know, and they don't appear to mind that I don't check. Bazan's album, though, it gradually but inexorably dawned on me, is a single eight-scene morality play. "Slow and Steady Wins the Race", the prologue, is the self-assured self-image allegory of an amoral man who fully expects to be welcomed into heaven, its most disturbing twist the concluding "I will trust my neighbors / Confident that they deserve / To be there in Heaven, too", circular logic clanging closed. "Simple Economics" is the one scene not entirely told in first-person (the printed lyrics include quotation marks in the right places, to make sure the structure is clear), an embattled-campaign-headquarters tableau in which the narrator, a minor political candidate, muses about the appeal and elusiveness of power and then cheerfully points out "It's good to know that just like sex it can be paid for". "To Protect the Family Name" is the run-on-sentence clemency plea of a detained drunk, presumably the candidate's brother, an ugly piece of self-contradictory reasoning that wouldn't be out of place in a Raymond Carver story. The story then skips an integral scene, which leaves "A Mind of Her Own" terrifyingly ambiguous, a smug rant that oscillates between religious self-righteousness and barely-restrained violence. "I took their wrong and I took their lies / And I made them right", the candidate insists, except as the song ends the narrator's wife is attempting to phone for help, so I'm guessing his earlier triumph wasn't rhetorical. We then miss a few more minutes, but by "Never Leave a Job Half Done" the man is muttering self-help jargon while he disposes of his wife's body, and "Eye on the Finish Line" finishes the murder sequence with what sounds like the man's confused soliloquy in preparation for his own eventual suicide. "Bad Things to Such Good People" finds him in jail, though, his suicide apparently thwarted, comforting himself that at least he's ruined his parents lives. After all this, the bland epilogue, "Winners Never Quit" itself, is shudderingly creepy. "Count it a blessing / That you're such a failure, / Your second chance might / Never have come". I assume he's addressing his brother, since there'd be no point in admonishing his dead wife or his aged parents to try again. The best gloss I've devised for that last line is that he (the candidate) won't get a second chance because he was successful, in the most ruthless sense, the first time, but that the brother, fumbling through life without such conviction or purpose, wins the right to trying again as a consolation prize. Winners, I think the point is, never get a chance to quit. The competition swallows them. The competitive urge, this argues, is self-destructive. I'm not sure Bazan is right, even if that is what he means, and I'm certainly not sure that I won't eventually think of a way in which this whole macabre saga turns out to be about relationships after all. But for the time being this is a short, muted, cathartic pop album that leaves me contemplating the moral repercussions of treating real life like a game, and that's more than I get out of thirty-four minutes of insomnia most other nights.
Saturnine: American Kestrel
I'm painfully aware that perceptions of musical similarity are only marginally less subjective than tastes themselves, if at all. To me David Bazan sounds so vividly like Mark Eitzel that twice, while listening to Winners Never Quit, I've momentarily lapsed into thinking that it's an American Music Club album. But maybe you won't have that reaction. Maybe AMC's signature element, for you, wasn't the timbre of Eitzel's voice, it was Vudi's guitar, or the fact that the lyrics were usually about drinking. So maybe the comparison will make no sense to you, after all. Every once in a while, though, I encounter an equation whose correctness seems completely and unassailably objective. For example, I firmly believe that any unimpaired human being who has heard ABBA, Roxette and a representative sample of each of their historical peers must agree with me that they are effectively the two are exact same band rendered in the production styles of two different decades. I believe that anybody who has heard the Magnetic Fields and Vitesse will concur that Vitesse sound like the Magnetic Fields stripped of their playfulness. I believe that anybody who listens to Aimee Mann's Bachelor No. 2 and Michael Penn's MP4, even without being told any information about the artists responsible, will conclude that the two either are married, or should be.
And so I also believe that if we rounded up one hundred people who have heard the first four REM records and the first four Byrds records, locked them into listening booths with American Kestrel, the fourth album by the New York band Saturnine, and a few back issues of Analog, that they would all generate the following identical explanation of how the band came to be: In 1982, right after they finish recording Chronic Town, REM are abducted in their sleep by agents from an alternate universe. In this alternate universe AIDS, animal rights, Tibet and East Timor are all non-issues, stardom is boring, nobody will sell Peter Buck a mandolin, and there is no Courtney Love, but on the other hand, the Byrds never existed. Freed from everything that would end up distracting them back in our reality, and given an obvious void to fill, REM proceed to try to recreate the Byrds, from memory, as exactly as possible. Their first three attempts are only partial successes, but then they deliver American Kestrel, and their captors, tearful with joy that now they can hear what they were missing, allow the band to return home to their own universe. Unbeknownst to the abductors, however, Mike Mills has smuggled a copy of the album back with him. The band consider releasing it under their own name, but Michael Stipe is self-conscious about how clear his singing voice sounds, so in the end they opt to put it out under a pseudonym. They name the fake band after the one other difference between the two universes other than the Byrds, which is that in the other one the planet Saturn has only nine moons.
Vehicle Flips: For You I Pine
The last quiet, calming album of the week is the third by the occasional trio Vehicle Flips. I support many bands because I like their music and ignore their lyrics, but Vehicle Flips continue to be the only band I support because I like their lyrics and ignore their music. Just as on In Action and The Premise Unraveled, the songs here are understated to the brink of anonymity, but Frank Boscoe's lyrics reduce me to helpless giggles. The sung liner notes (including the copyright and catalogue number) are arguably the most poignant, but many of the others are nearly as good. "City Beautiful" is a litany of civic improvements that are entirely attributed to the narrator having met a new girl. "Parcel Post" is a cliff-hanger about standing at line to pick up an anticipated package. "Trouble on the Western Survey" is a love-letter sent from the 1870s surveying expedition (with the prescient insight "In a future time, / People will cross this line / To avoid 3.2 beer"). The Tullycraft-ish "Bus Pass" is a snarl of romantic transportation analogies. "Song for Pahaquarry, NJ (1824-1997)" is a memorial to an abandoned mining town voted out of existence. "Graduation Party" is one of the best poetic evocations I've read of the clashing thrill and remorse of college ending. The chirpy "Anti-Hymn" is an unusually trenchant surge of post-break-up despair, which is both reinforced and dispelled by "Return to Sender", the thirty-second deferred punch-line to "Parcel Post". The package wasn't from her. "It was a seven-inch record / From a band I've never heard of / Who would like to play here / In the dead of winter." The unanswered question is this: what is it better to get, a present you should know better than to want, or an unexpected song from a stranger who thinks you might be part of the rest of their life?