Love Bites You in the Ass
282 · 22 June 00
Julie Gold: Try Love
I should never have bought this record. I have Nanci Griffith's versions of three of Julie Gold's songs ("Heaven", "From a Distance" and "Southbound Train"), a couple of Julie's own performances on folk compilations, and Julie's four songs on the second Four Bitchin' Babes album, but Nanci always seemed to me to be barely restraining the songs from catapulting into abject excess (witness Bette Midler's Grammy-winning ululation of "From a Distance"), and for me the studio-bound volume two was the Four Bitchin' Babes record that threatened to squander the legacy of volume one's enchanted concert-round-robin. But sometimes I transfer things from the release-date lists in ICE to the to-buy list in my Casio without fully engaging my brain, and sometimes I later transfer things from the record-store bin to the pile in my left hand with a similar carelessness, and then unless I think the better of it before actually unwrapping the thing (an even more unlikely scenario), I'm stuck with it. A casual inspection of the packaging of this one might have shaken me out of my trance, as the front cover features a rosy drawing of a cat pawing, adorably, at a large menu reading "Try Love", surrounded by placards trumpeting ava-rice pudding, sorrow-dough dolls, jello-sy, mixed green salad, gripe 'n' beans, eggs over envy, sour grapes and anger burger (I don't know what's lamer, these quasi-puns or the fact that they couldn't come up with melanchollard greens, slothsages, scorn on the cob, s(h)e(l)lfish, vani-tea, crueldites, hubrisket or weltanschauerkraut), and whoever did the layout for the back cover couldn't even be bothered to fix a quarter-inch spacing problem that makes the track listing look stupid. But I didn't inspect this disc, I just picked it up and bought it. The fourteen tracks here (including "Southbound Train", but not "Heaven" or "From a Distance", which were apparently on 1998's Dream Loud) are Julie's original demo versions of songs written as long ago as twenty years, and as recently as 1999. As she notes, in the credits, the arrangements are "not elaborate". In fact, in many cases they are borderline incompetent, maudlin electric piano clomping along like an aging karaoke machine auditioning for a day job as an elevator chime, and Julie singing as if right before they started the tape her manager told her to assume that her audience is both fanatically interested in her lyrics and mildly retarded. This production style is in stark opposition to the compositions, which have all the melodic subtlety of a beach SOS dug by marooned backhoes, and brandish their subject matter with a guilelessly overwrought pathos I haven't encountered since my sister, going through her Bono-centric early-teen years, composed an epic verse-cycle on the subject of the Irish potato famine in which rather too many lines began with "O!" These are demos intended not as proofs of concept for an eventual album of Julie's own, but as sketches to give other prospective singers a rough idea of what the sheet music translates to, and I'm not sure I've ever had as firm a conviction that I can hear the square brackets being sung around the bits of the performance that amount to "[insert actual trained-voice maneuver here]".
As terrible as all these ingredients seem, individually, to me their composite effect is staggeringly disarming. Listening to these songs is a little like watching a silent, shuffling pre-soundtrack crowd-scene in a the-making-of-the-movie special, a familiar spectacle stripped of an entire dimension we've been trained to think of as intrinsic. These songs, by their nature, should be elephantine and regal, but the performances' simultaneously wobbly and didactic demeanor is more like an hour-old Hallmark colt somehow born with a hangover and a valise full of pie charts. Under no circumstances is anybody going to mistake this for punk, but I'd hate to be the one delegated to explain the difference to inquisitive and short-tempered aliens. One of the original philosophical cornerstones of punk was that with enough electricity running through them, shortcomings can twitch in an uncanny imitation of virtues, and later on various people added the converse truth, which is that there's sometimes a very fine line between rigor mortis and poise; Julie's adaptations of these two principles, for me, are that ardent belief can turn doggerel into poetry, and that the right combination of restraint and necessity can reduce bathos to simple insight. And punk always did share a protest-song urgency with folk music ("God Save the Queen", "Holiday in the Sun" and "Bodies", decoded with the help of more than twenty years of hindsight, may not exactly constitute trenchant social criticism, but in the context of Phaedra, Tarkus and "By-Tor and the Snow Dog" they're practically "The Internationale"), so while it takes a painful effort of will to imagine Lydon howling Julie Gold's songs (actually, I can't do it with Lydon, but for some reason Stiv Bators works pretty well), it really shouldn't be that surprising that in many cases you could turn these texts into punk songs just by deleting the redemptive choruses.
But Julie does not delete the redemptive choruses, and that, in the end, is probably the largest part of why I find myself, at thirty-three, listening to Try Love in more or less the same stunned reverie that Never Mind the Bollocks engendered at fifteen, savoring the experience of being surprised by something patently inevitable. Both records derive from the instant in which you realize a challenge is beyond you and decide to go for it anyway. Julie doesn't need to sing or play better than this any more than the Sex Pistols needed Tony Levin. She bangs her way down the glissandos at the ends of lines in "Tiger in New Jersey" with the approximate grace of Pooh descending the stairs on his head (except not as effortlessly, as if Pooh also needed a running start), but then later in the song she pulls off a verse about Amadou Diallo (the black man shot forty-one times by New York police, and not, as I momentarily thought before checking the name in the lyrics, the Tampa Bay Mutiny's Senegalese striker Mamadou Diallo) that ends with "Forty-one times / They assured him / He'd go down in history", and I fear Bette Midler would have involuntarily segued into "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer". The sentimental "Try Love" itself flirts with Springsteen's "Hungry Heart", Peaches & Herb's "Reunited" and Howard Jones' "No One Is to Blame", but it's also what I imagine Beth Nielsen Chapman sounded like at twenty. The hesitant "(No) Justice" reminds me of Beth's "No System for Love", but Julie delivers it like an apprentice torch singer trying to sing in high heels for the first time. Do the clattering piano chords of "Southbound Train" speed up and slow down in intentional imitation of how rhythmic track noises sound from inside a moving train? I feel certain that the pricelessly dogged verse-long metaphor that begins with "my heart is on the baggage rack" could provide the nucleus of a remake of Dan Fogelberg's "Same Old Lang Syne" relocated from the grocery store to a moving train. "Teach Us" is an unadulterated prayer for divine guidance, draped unselfconsciously over a drum-machine groove grown stiff from at least a decade of closet neglect, but the reason professional songs of faith usually strike me as hypocritical is that they flaunt their own talents in the process of purporting to defer, and in this one, for once, it sounds like Julie is actually willing to learn. "Every Living Thing" is a rejected attempt at an Audubon Society theme song, and although I'm only guessing that they turned it down because Julie insists on writing a melody she can't quite carry, I'm glad they passed it up, because despite all the flora and fauna references, its reverent unsteadiness is quintessentially human, and would have been sadly wasted on whippoorwills. "Once You Said You Loved Me" is basically a pastiche of every plaintively sugary unrequited-love-song in pop history (especially the ones that dreamed of being in Grease when they grew up), and the blustery guitar solo in the middle is a thoroughly awful idea, but the banality of romantic rejection is part of why it hurts so badly, and what I think Julie observes, as she strains to sing "Once you said you loved me... / Was that a lie?", is that our grandest ambitions often only thinly disguise our truer aspirations to exactly this mundane pain. "It's Hard to Love September" is a heartbreakingly simple song for mothers to sing to their children and themselves. "Letter to Paul", a consolation message to Paul McCartney after Linda's death, is another idea I would have advised against, but when Julie sings "Dear Paul McCartney, / I am forty three", for me her blunt insistence moves the song from idol-worship to human empathy. "People Say" is a funeral ballad worthy of Beth's Sand and Water, and "The Ride" is the matching celebration of the journey from here to death. I'm not sure whether to believe the evident sincerity of "Hit the Sky" or Julie's liner-notes claim that it's really about the music business, but either way, one of the two is hilarious. "The Journey", written for Bette Midler but eventually consigned to even grimmer fates, challenges "From a Distance" for deliberate timelessness. And lest the album end on a song so plainly groomed to be the end of an album, Julie appends a thirty-second novelty-pop throwaway about working as a temp. I'm not fooled. This album is not the story of a secretary with a fortuitously successful hobby, and I don't know why anybody thinks we'd want it to be. It's the story of a single person who has been seized with aesthetic compulsions it usually takes an entire industry to confront, and the sound of her trying, and failing beautifully, to get them out of her head intact. I understand why, hearing these demos, better musicians are gripped with the urge to do them "justice". But professionalism is a defense mechanism, not redemption. It isn't justice these songs lack, it's fear.
Bellatrix: It's All True
Maybe Julie Gold and Icelandic quintet Bellatrix aren't precisely opposites, but only because the spectrum of music styles is uncooperatively non-linear. If Julie writes extravagantly mainstream songs and then reduces them to human scale by refusing to be intimidated by them, then Bellatrix attempt the reverse transformation, polishing spiky pop songs until they glitter blindingly. The two albums are blatantly incompatible, but the juxtaposition itself makes me almost as happy as either album. Bellatrix don't announce their age in any of their songs, but I think it's a safe guess that logarithmically, if not arithmetically, they're as much younger than me as Julie Gold is older, and so I take the two of them, for the moment, as representatives of the generations ahead and behind me, and thus too as avatars of myself, what I've been and what I will become. They might well both distrust each other, but from here in between it looks like an appealing arc, from brash exuberance to rapturous humility. I hope I was once this sure of myself, and I hope I'll once be this selfless. As kids we thought the challenge of aging was resisting erosion, but erosion, if you're patient, is transformative, and the challenge isn't to defy it, it's to harness it, to have a clear enough idea of both what you were and what you want to be that you can get from one to the other at the only pace available.
It's not my youth, of course, that Bellatrix are living. I learned to distrust technique before I mastered very much of it, so I never did anything this shiny. I usually distrust flawlessness, but Bellatrix's version of it, like Stretch Princess and Scarlet's versions before it, seems to match my neuro-receptors perfectly, and I absorb these songs without, as best I can tell, any intermediating layer of analysis. All the explanations I come up with are retrofitted: they're the pop band bis could be if they weren't so afraid of betraying their punk roots; or the band Kenickie could have become if they weren't so scared they'd never transcend their punk roots; or the truce between Garbage, the Spice Girls and Shampoo; or between Aqua and Hepburn; or between Astrid and Marine Research; or Sleater-Kinney raised on Curve and the Bangles. The closest they come to Björk, the obvious referent for anybody who admits to being Icelandic, is the moody "If I Fall", but Eliza's voice is more in the vein of Echobelly's Sonya Aurora Madan or the Rose Chronicles' Kristy Thirsk, more confident and ethereal than elfin and mercurial. Several songs remind me pleasantly of Rose Chronicles: the gauzy, churning "Sweet Surrender", which veers into Cardigans-esque Europop in the middle; the inversely structured "Tamed Tiger", jazzy but veering into atmospheric drive; the becalmed "Always", on which Eliza's occasional violin gives way to a full string quartet. They toy with eerie later-Cardigans evasiveness in the sinister, crashing "Lullabye", which is either egregiously mis-named or else meant to be sung by Dr. Frankenstein to his monster, but "Strange Encounter" is half Curve, half Rubber Rodeo, and both the dense, crunching, mechanical "Daredevil" and the blasted, keening, stop/start thrash "Madness" could be their nods to Garbage (although Garbage would have to trade Shirley Manson for Fleming McWilliams to approach Eliza Maria Geirsdottir's operatic range).
The songs that thrill me the most, though, and anchor my faith in the whole album, are the ones that remind me of bands either defunct or dormant, whom I miss palpably, like epic stories abruptly interrupted. The most Shampoo-like of these is the giddily venomous synth-pop anti-nerd rant "Jediwannabe", whose surging chorus, oddly, reminds me of Cactus World News. A diatribe against Star Wars geeks is a decent idea, by itself, but my affection for this song leaps another quantum level or two when, reading along in the lyric sheet, I get to the line "Their crawling into my bed!!!!!", which suggests that Bellatrix have confused possessives and contractions in at least two senses, and this purported hatred of geeks is a juvenile way of coping with a crush. The song that reminds me most vividly of Kenickie is the choppy, gleefully acquisitive "This Boy Will Be Mine", with an arching chorus Kenickie should have been up to by their third album, if they'd made one. And the album's commercial prospects, I suspect, rest on the fate of the jubilantly irrepressible, alternately beepy and soaring "The Girl With the Sparkling Eyes", Bellatrix's simultaneous answer to Scarlet's "International Love Song" and "I Wanna Be Free (To Be With Him)", Slingbacks' "No Way Down", the Primitives' "Crash", the Go-Go's "The Whole World Lost Its Head" and, for a token non-defunct antecedent, the Cardigans "Rise and Shine". "She'll only break your heart", they warn, repeatedly, but everybody knows that. The attendant heartbreak is the most important part of the experience. In fact, most of the time we streamline the process by falling in love with a girl with sparkling eyes that we're well aware we can't have, which allows us to go from the crush to the heartbreak without wasting any time developing an irrelevant and doomed non-relationship. Pop songs are a terrible medium in which to talk us out of this behavior, because crushes on pop songs follow the same patterns. Bellatrix lyrics are dreadful, for example, and while that doesn't detract from my visceral enjoyment in any way, it can't be a good sign that smarter bands I've adored similarly imploded long before their natural lives should have expired. I'd like to believe that Bellatrix have a dozen albums ahead of them, that they'll learn to write songs with lyrical substance under the impregnable gloss, that they'll eclipse all the bands they currently remind me of. But if they don't, if they go the way of Kenickie and Scarlet, they will live on in my expectations. If you execute your crushes correctly, you get to keep them. All eyes, really, sparkle about the same, it's the angle from which you look into them that makes a particular pair special. Falling in love isn't a mishap, it's a skill, and pop songs are a way to practice. They don't just break your heart, they etch and carve it, and after a thousand years of guitars and harmonies and choruses have broken and mended and scored our hearts, maybe they will finally be the right shape.