Nurtured Life Reciprocates a Truth
289 · 10 August 00
Verbow: White Out
Although I can't readily think of a sense in which reducing my musical taste to the simplest possible generalization constitutes progress or meaningful insight, if a reason ever occurs to me, at least I'm ready: I like drones. Specific counter-examples are plentiful, but it's a pretty effective overall aesthetic observation. I like distorted electric guitars, bagpipes, dulcimers, bowed strings, legato synthesizer patches and slow harmonies. I like theremins, chamberlains, digeridus, e-bows, sustain, reverb and flanging. I like Roto-toms and drum-machine loops, which are as close as percussion comes to drones. I like open fifths and suspended fourths. I like songs that soar, ring, churn and sigh. Many of the musical forms with which I feel the least empathy are the ones with clear preferences for discrete articulation: reggae's choppy guitars, jazz's walking bass lines and fluttering saxophones, hip-hop's clipped vocal idioms, show-tunes' enunciation, blues soloing, scat. I tend to prefer nasal singers (Richard Shindell, Richard Butler, Bob Mould, Ozzy, Cyndi Lauper, Jean Smith), expansive guitarists (Mark Knopfler, Steve Rothery, Adamson and Watson, the Edge), busy drummers (Mark Brzezicki, Neal Peart, Ian Mosley), minimalist but intense composers (Nyman, Pärt, Glass, Górecki, Eno, Aube).
It is thus one of the saddest shortcomings of rock and roll, to me, that there aren't more bands with full-time cellists. There has never been a shortage of session cello appearances, but my current personal pantheon includes only two rock bands that take the cello as seriously as they take the guitar, and one of those, Rasputina, is arguably more of a cello band that takes rock seriously than vice versa. The other one, though, is Jason Narducy and Alison Chesley's Verbow, who not only take the cello seriously, but allow it to shape their arrangements, even when it doesn't dominate them, and to define the texture of the band's music. This was already discernible on Woodshed, their mostly-acoustic duo debut (released as Jason & Alison), and clearer on Chronicles, the first Verbow album, but White Out follows the idea to what seems to me, at least until the next album redraws the borders, to be its logical conclusion. If we didn't segment popular and classical music so stubbornly, I think we'd put this at the end of a line that stretches back to Pachelbel's Canon. The guitars hum and simmer, the drums rumble, Jason's voice lingers on notes and rarely jumps far. A cross between Sugar and Jeff Buckley might have sounded like this, or between the Pixies and Michael Penn. If Dave Matthews could lend Live some of his humility and get some of their focus in trade, they'd both move closer. Verbow arrives organically at many of the same revelations My Bloody Valentine reached through obsessive machining, but perhaps in part due to the change in producers from Bob Mould, one of drone's grand masters, who handled Chronicles, to Brad Wood, who helped orchestrate Liz Phair's transition from lo-fi reticence to buoyant pop, White Out also retains enough melodic melancholy for it to belong, in part, in my mind, to the same pop tradition as Del Amitri, Smart Brown Handbag and School of Fish (whose debut I considered one of the most tragically underrated albums of the Nineties even before Josh Clayton-Felt's abrupt death of cancer, earlier this year, gave "tragically" an unwanted nuance).
Neither of the other albums offered much internal variation, and White Out provides even less, but where the other two struck me as coherent explorations of tone punctuated with a few cathartic highlights each, on this one it seems to me that almost every song has individual virtues in addition to its role in the larger composite. "Dying Sun" loops a blaring guitar over a dense bass layer composed of pulsed guitar noise, booming electric bass and Alison's double- and triple-tracked cello, and the lyrics paint a car-fume-tinged portrait of an alienated sunset ("Then a dying sun / That felt love from no one / Takes a dive in our native lake"). Feedback squeals and Thom-Yorke-like choruses alternately goad and restrain "New History", which is transformed from an ambiguous new beginning, interpretable as either renewal or resignation, to a bracing, hopeful love song by a single parenthetical segue. The galloping verses of "I'll Never Live by My Father's Dreams" are as close as any of these songs come to Sugar or Everclear, but in the reverse of the usual pattern, the choruses are guarded and hesitant. Acoustic guitars, steady drums, falsetto harmonies and cellos both legato and pizzicato bear the airy ballad "Sweet Felicity", somewhere between Mould's "Brasilia Crossed With Trenton" and Primitive Radio Gods' "Standing Outside a Broken Phone Booth With Money in My Hand". The sinister, circling "Happy to Be Away" makes me think of a less-somber Live. The ratcheting drum loop and becalmed, Waterboys-ish vocal on the verses of "Closer to Free" give way to an arena-filling chorus worthy of Styx or Kansas.
There are traces of arena-rock in the compressed-epic structure of "Ambulance", my pick for the album's least reluctant rock song, as well, but any possible solemnity is undermined by the deadpan delivery of the opening verse ("Hey, your hand's covered with lint, / Clammy fingers, where've they been? / It seems my pants / Leave evidence.") and the decidedly anti-rock chorus ("I find that when I'm sleeping / A selfish tea is steeping"). "Garden" opens with the threatening calm of Live's "Lightning Crashes", but tinny drum-machine patter defuses the tension, and the song turns out to be a less-obvious warning, not about the balanced equations of life and death, but about the limits to the patience of neglected dreams. "Four Channel Town" is how I imagine Hüsker Dü might have grown to sound if, like Soul Asylum and the Replacements, they'd survived long enough to mature. The loudest song, on the other hand, is the roaring, unapologetic "Corner Bending", a skeptical outside-in portrait of America which merges the Call's cinematic scope and Living Colour's vehemence. The sinuous, atmospheric "Be Someone" wouldn't have been too out of place on the Grays' Ro Sham Bo, and with a little more polishing might even have fit into one of Jason Falkner's solo albums. But rather than ride this crescendo to a grandiose rock finale, Verbow end instead with the album's smallest song, "Crest of Mary", just an acoustic guitar, a drum stick tapping on the rim of the snare, Jason's lullaby-hushed voice and a minor host of cellos. As the guitar fades out, repeating a simple figure, the last cello holds one low note. I could probably listen to it for another hour. In fact, I'm not completely sure it hasn't been playing throughout. Maybe a war against silence seems misconceived, to you, like silence is a resource, not a state to be resisted. But silence makes me restless, not calm. In the absence of music, the noise-floor rises, and the incidental hisses and whines of the built environment become deafening and cavernous. So I seek songs like these that assert their constant presence, that reverberate after they're done, songs whose steady hum drowns out the clamor in my own head that fights against stillness, and sleep, and peace.
My Bloody Valentine's Loveless is a landmark moment in the evolution of drones in rock, but by the time any form of Kevin Shields' sonic invention reaches mass consciousness, at least here in the US, it's been filtered through Curve, and then through Garbage, and the average listener would be forgiven for thinking MBV's innovations were not much different than Depeche Mode's. My search for a worthy successor to Curve, which Garbage are not, has turned up a number of good candidates over the years, but they've all failed to pan out in one way or another. The Rose Chronicles were always too ethereal, Fledgling and sirensong too short-lived, Echobelly, Mistle Thrush and Polara all too pop. Eve's Plum disgorged Vitamin C. Chainsuck showed great potential, but I thought Kindly Stop for Me was fundamentally flawed in the same way as Nine Inch Nails' The Fragile, impressive engineering in service of no songwriting. A few early Splashdown songs appeared to be heading in Curve's direction, but then they moved to LA and hired Glen Ballard and by the time I saw them last, a few months ago, they had become so insincere and grasping that I was driven out of the club by the force of embarrassment halfway through their set.
My newest hope is the London trio Darling. Singer Laura Mohapi is not as demonstrative as Sonya Aurora Madan of Echobelly or Melissa Kaplan of Splashdown, but for every quirk that reminds me of Natalie Merchant there's one that reminds me of Jane Siberry and a couple that remind me of theaudience's Sophie Ellis Bextor, which is as exotic a blend as it needs to be. Guitarist/keyboardist/producer Jim Abbiss and drummer Emre Ramazanoglu don't quite have Shields' or Garcia and Halliday's marathon studio tolerance, but they share a fondness for waves of processed noise and indistinct vocal treatments. If their intent was anything like the one I'm projecting on them, then this album exists to convey three songs. "Swoon", the first, begins softly, undulating and echoing, but by the menacing chorus, Mohapi intoning "Swoon, swoon; / The body count", a whirling gothic urgency has taken hold, and although I admit I have no idea what she's talking about, I'm pretty sure I don't want to get in its way. The second, "Temporary Love Song", mixes Curve's dark ambience with a couple Kate Bush flourishes and an oddly Bananarama-esque underlying cheer. And the third, the bouncy "Inside", is the great rock song Garbage will never come up with unless they hire Curious Ritual to write it for them.
Judging from the other songs, though, resuscitating Curve wasn't actually Initiation's chief purpose. Mohapi sounds much younger to me on the unhurried "Blackout", less churn than strut. "Love & Loathe"'s square drum-machine stomp and flowery arpeggiator runs clash like many of the Cardigans' attempts to sound edgy. "Automatic" never finds anything to stand up to its implacable New Order drum loop. "Sweet Boy" sets out to channel Siouxsie and the Banshees, but somehow gets some Divinyls signals mixed in. "Melting Pot" sounds like a demo that can't decide whether it wants to belong to Kenickie or Lisa Germano. "Delilah Blue" is like a disoriented Eve's Plum trying to locate the misplaced chorus of Pat Benatar's "Promises in the Dark". And "Remedy & Curse", except for a few scattered bars of borrowed Big Country guitar, resigns itself to a mid-tempo Garbage pastiche. But I'm glad of all this, pleased to spot shards of Curve's heritage, and so too MBV's, in a band that doesn't seem to believe they are shoegazing's heirs. Good ideas in music don't survive by being reincarnated in the same body, again and again, they survive by disappearing into the fabric of something else, and emerging later as a hue, or a contour. Immortality is not conferred by tribute bands and karaoke playlists, it's earned by finding a consciousness to inhabit so deeply that your host no longer recalls that you used to be anybody else.
The Lassie Foundation: El Rey
Bands that emulate MBV directly are, without a Garbage to popularize their cause, much harder to find, and of the handful I've come across, most of them seem to have studied Shields' approach to layering very closely, but in doing so have sacrificed perspective, and so overlooked the one thing that might most reasonably be called MBV's secret, which is that underneath all those layers, buried so deeply that their outlines are no longer recognizable, but not so deeply that they don't contribute to the shape of everything above them, are pop songs. Lenola and All Natural Lemon & Lime Flavors escape this trap for a song or two at a time, but I don't think they understand it as well as the Yorba Linda, California quintet The Lassie Foundation. El Rey is a short compilation of sorts, pulling "El Rey" itself and "Crown of the Sea" from last year's album Pacifico, "I Can Be Her Man" from the California EP (there was also a live version on the Dive Bomber EP), and "I'm Stealin' to be Your One in a Million" from both old EPs and a single. "Promise Ring" and "Conquer Me" are new, though, and if you sit out ten minutes of silence there's a mostly-instrumental bonus whose origin I know nothing about.
Overlapping track lists notwithstanding, though, I find myself returning to El Rey more often than Pacifico. The Lassie Foundation have only one trick, dreamy male falsetto vocals over immersed, immersive accompaniments, but most bands have only one trick, and as long as you like it, you're fine. "El Rey" sounds a bit like a Sparkle in the Rain-era Simple Minds song with the music slowed down to half-speed. "Promise Ring" sounds, self-explanatorily, like The Promise Ring, except blurrier, and with falsetto vocals and chime glissandos. The sunny "I'm Stealin' to Be Your One in a Million" aspires to be redress for all the strange uses the Pixies made of the Beach Boys. The jangly, ahistorical "Conquer Me" grafts snappy Knack/Romantics verses onto pealing Echo/Chameleons choruses. "Crown of the Sea" is the most straightforward MBV homage, close-formation guitars dipping and swerving under the translucent vocals. "I Can Be Her Man" swallows half its words, but the music is heroic and the harmonies are exquisite. Whether you find evasive pop music hypnotic or maddening is, of course, up to you, and it's true that I've never seen a modern-art skeptic suddenly won over by a docent pointing out Pollock's "vigorous use of color". But portals in the backs of random wardrobes are how the universes are joined, so maybe this could be your door from one to the next.
Rothko: Forty Years to Find a Voice
One of the nameless obscure universes I've blundered into, banging my head into the backs of all available wardrobes, is the stark, compact one that contains the bass trio Rothko. I enjoyed last year's A Negative for Francis, and the follow-up EP Truth Burns, but couldn't predict whether they had reached the limits of the concept. Strictly speaking, maybe so, as Forty Years to Find a Voice recruits a singer for one song, trumpets for a couple, flute and clarinet for one each, and some additional processing help for a few others. Unless you think a little cerulean would have turned Motherwell into Sargent, though, these additions to the palette hardly count as corruption. "Open", with Simon Tilbury's liturgical singing, nearly out-This-Mortal-Coils This Mortal Coil. Two of the basses on "Breatharian" wind around each other helically, while the third supplies a textured backdrop against which the nearly-inaudible flute draws curvy designs. "Solder" is a processing poem, all space noises, but the brief "Sky Blue Glow", with burbling bass runs and a trumpet merrily under- or over-shooting half its notes, sounds like a half-serious Officium parody. "Us to Become Sound" and "Shock of Self" are little more than duets between a bass and an independent-willed reverb, but "Dream of Mountain Air" is at once lucid and subliminal, and "Herbivore" is delicate and pretty. The trumpets fading in and out on "A Whole Life of Memory" sound like a city respiring. The delay-loop experiment "A Search for No Answer" is a little predictable, but "Pencil Sketch" really does sound to me like a glimpse into the secret home life of basses. "Flown", the last track, simply disappears, like a dream world slowly dissolving back into your bedroom. Usually I like the abstract art I like for two reasons, one being that I just like it, in exactly the same visceral way I like or don't like statues of soldiers or portraits of vain noblemen, the other being that I love art's ability to redefine the parameters of expression, to postulate new languages, or new grammars for old ones, in the process of speaking. These twelve tracks are shaped like songs, and played on instruments, but in pop songs notes are an elaborate form of punctuation, an infrastructure, and here they are their own purpose. These are the noises that happen before songs start, and after they end, in a universe where the question of the existence of songs is considered theology. This album is a manual for forming a different relationship with sound, a relationship of equals, in which silence, our mutual enemy, is overcome not by antipathy but by empathy, by understanding what silence would like to say, and then removing the pieces of silence that aren't saying that, until what's left has a voice.