290 · 17 August 00
k.: "Not Here" / "The Plan"
It was hardly brilliant of me to guess that Ida's recent show here, held in the small upstairs room at the Middle East despite their mostly filling the larger downstairs when they came last fall without even a new album to support, would sell out. Still, my intuition that I ought to swing by the club earlier in the week and get tickets turns out to have been a good one. Too bad I didn't manage to act on it. My best consolation for being turned away is the patchy but awe-inspiring eighteen-track Ida live album Insound put out as installment eleven in their minimal-overhead promotional series a few months ago, but since that's also sold out now, dwelling on it would be heartless. A consolation we can more easily share, if you missed Ida in your town or you live somewhere bad, is this two-song seven-inch, on Tree Records, by Ida singer/bassist/keyboard-player Karla Schickele, disguised for the purposes of the die-cut front cover, only, as "k." Except for the obvious absence of Daniel and Elizabeth's harmonies, in fact (although that's sort of like a medical triage beginning "except for the obvious absence of the patient's head..."), "Not Here", Karla's original a-side, makes no particular attempt to distance itself from Ida. Pattering piano, frequent Low and Ida collaborator Ida Pearle's sighing violin and Sue Havens' circumspect clarinet accompany Karla through a meticulously subdued doll-miniature anthem that I take as an unexpectedly convincing demonstration of how much of Ida's serenity can be conveyed without harmony. This single's reason for existence, though, to me, is the b-side cover of Low's "The Plan". Ida and Rachel's are probably the only two bands I would trust with a Low cover a priori, and even Ida I'm not absolutely sure about. Ida and Low resemble each other more than either band resembles anybody else, but I've come to believe that Ida's patient harmonies are by nature angelic, while Low's suspension is purgatorial, which makes the difference between them, however superficially subtle, actually theological, and thus hardly insignificant. The rest of Ida aren't here, though, and perhaps that isn't a coincidence. Karla coaxes a few notes out of a moribund piano, Ida Pearle supplies a somber violin recessional, and together they pick their way through an endless night compressed into a few short minutes. The result is grippingly close to recreating Low's aura, and if you find yourself about to argue that Low sounds like Low when they play Low songs, already, so why does anybody else need to, remember that you too may have to spend some time in Limbo, eventually, and then you'll be very glad they still allow visitors.
Low & Spring Heel Jack: Bombscare
Low themselves appear most recently on what I initially thought was a split EP with Spring Heel Jack, but is really a joint EP, four songs co-written by Spring Heel Jack's John Coxon and Ashley Wales and Low's Mimi Parker and Alan Sparhawk, played by Coxon and Wales and sung by Parker and Sparhawk, on the London label Tugboat. If I'd realized this was a collaboration, I'd have avoided it, like I avoided the album of Low remixes. Low are singular and precious, to me, and I have no interest in hearing their music repurposed in any way. Spring Heel Jack usually do Jungle, and Low-as-Jungle is one of the more spectacularly misguided innovations I can think of. That absurdity must have occurred to Coxon and Wales, too, as for this EP they put aside their usual agenda and instead concentrate on providing Mimi and Alan with an accompaniment that has the same spirit as the ones they play for themselves, but completely different components. "Bombscare" has piano, plucked strings, rumbling timpani and helicopter noises. "Hands So Small" has piano, bass, breathing, doors slamming. Most of "So Easy So Far" sounds like an orchestra tuning up across the hall from a player-piano testing facility, but for a few measures here and there the interlocking cycles suddenly cohere into a Spirit of Eden-like trance. "Way Behind" has banging piano, an intent percussion loop, ringing steel drums and some sort of fake horns, but as often with Rachel's songs, its nominal cacophony strikes me more like near-silence amplified until the smallest creaks and whirs fill the air. Mimi and Alan, for their part, sing the way they always do, as if they know things about time that nobody else is prepared to comprehend. The success of this unlikely venture makes me wonder whether this EP is the beginning of a pilgrimage, if Low now plan to wander the planet, teaching their secret to one band from each genre. For about three seconds, this seems like a brilliant idea to me. And then I think about Helloween.
Tugboat: If You've Done It, You'll Know What I Mean
This debut single by Tugboat, the quiet Australian band, not to be confused with Tugboat, the small, quiet British label, appears on the small, quiet Australian label Library. Efficiencies of scale would argue for uniting all the small, quiet record labels and all the small, quiet bands and making one giant introverted supergroup with the charisma of a hamper full of nuns' habits and the marketing muscle of a rainy coastal town's assistant-director-of-tourism sinecure. But if efficiencies of scale were the goal, the first step would be abandoning the long-ago-obsolete 45rpm vinyl format, off of which it's debatable whether it's more difficult to make money or MP3s. As the modern world draws ever tighter, and the time-horizon of "modern" gains on us, willful anachronisms like vinyl and understatement only retreat further into obscurity. The twelve degrees in Tugboat's measured, blurry lullaby "Twelve Degrees of Separation", in turns reminiscent of the Clientele, Hydroplane and Huon, are really the temperature, not a Bacon-number record, but it's a sad song of distance, all the same, and as we lose our cultural understanding of distance, I hoard words from before. The reluctant but ultimately open-hearted "So Much Fun to Be Had" has the title line, "If you've done it, you'll know what I mean", and although I was a little disappointed to decide that it's not a cautionary tale about virginity, "I need nothing but thank you for noticing" is at least as self-contained and contrarian. "Better Late Than Never", on the back, is becalmed, glassy and sentimental, guitarist James Dean joining singer Bek Varcoe for shimmery, almost Cocteau-Twins-ish vocal patterns. The lights in the picture on the sleeve are blurry, too, but focus always buys detail at the price of magic.
Laura Watling: What's Your Favorite Color?
If we were merging tiny, shy record labels, the first two I'd probably unify would be Library and its Brooklyn fragile-pop counterpart Shelflife. Laura Watling used to be in the Autocollants, who put out a compilation on Shelflife and had a track on Library's East Timor benefit album, and she's also in Cartwheel and Casino Ashtrays (whose labels, Sandcastle and Twee Kitten, could be the next two into the conglomerate). For the purposes of this solo single, though, she lets jangle overpower reticence, and all four of these songs skip along like a barely-recalled bubblegum-pop youth the Blake Babies and Heavenly might have shared. Her vocals on much of "One More Way to Amuse Myself" are so indistinct, like Elliott Smith as a nervous six-year-old girl, that they become a fog for the guitars to glow through. A bouncy pop song lurks under "Passing Time", but Laura's murky double-tracked vocal-rounds seem to fade out of tune as they recede into the reverb. On the b-side, "My Fondest Wish" is slightly clearer, somewhere between Mary Lou Lord and Shelflife colleagues the Arrogants, with more than a trace of heady early-REM swirl. "Christmas Trees in July", the brief conclusion, loses me, but I don't mind being lost. Better sometimes to drift away from a thing, letting it gradually resolve in your mind, than to be spat out in the direction of the nearest fast-food place selling the tie-ins.
The Clientele: "What Goes Up" / "Five Day Morning"
And if you do release right, you can drift not away, but into orbit. The newest addition to my pantheon of astounding performers who evoke less of the atmosphere of a rock concert than of a library reading hour, joining Ida and Low, are the Clientele. From the first two singles I heard, neither of which offered much in the way of explanatory credits, I expected a vast, pensive ensemble, less a pop group than a philosophical Cirque du Soleil for solemn, overcast industrial provinces. To my surprise, when I got to see them at their last Boston show, they are just a trio. And to be honest, although I believe the bass player and drummer participated in most of their songs, I couldn't tell you exactly how. Subjectively, for me, the performance just consisted of Alasdair MacLean gesturing at his guitar ("picking" and "strumming" both seem to imply more violence than I observed) and singing, in his frail, breathy, lurching voice. Having no function in the music business, and not generally going to see people unless I know them already, I don't often have the sense of discovery, like I've spotted a great talent laboring in an obscurity that later nobody will credit. And perhaps I wouldn't have felt it this time, either, if Volkswagen's resuscitation of Nick Drake weren't on my mind. But sitting there on the floor of the Milky Way, listening to MacLean singing as if the hum of conversation in the room had as much right to the air as he did, I started to dream a future. But I fear it took place in another universe, because in this one, our only paradigm for iconic evanescence is suicide. Our systems foster flames, not durable luminosity. Elliott Smith gets a chance because his implosion seems so imminent; Ron Sexsmith and Richard Buckner, on the other hand, don't. And if Ron Sexsmith hasn't become twice the star Jeff Buckley ever was, I doubt I'm ever going to have to decide whether to skip a Clientele show based on arena size. They make music for small rooms, which is an art form without the seeds of its own obsolescence.
This is actually the first Clientele single, released on Pointy in 1998, but recent advances in distribution technology have brought most of the catalog to my area, and maybe yours. They were a quartet, at the outset, before second guitarist/vocalist Innes Phillips left to become the Relict, and that might be why these two songs don't quite sound like what I mean by the Clientele. "What Goes Up" is too jittery, MacLean's falsetto not yet sure where its boundaries are, and as a result often straying, uneasily, beyond them. "Five Day Morning", the aa-side, is closer, like the Rolling Stones' "Miss You" run through a Photoshop graphic-pen filter, but MacLean hasn't hit upon his trademark the-flashback-is-beginning guitar sound yet. When the vocals clip, though, I can hear him grazing his potential.
The Clientele: "(I Want You) More Than Ever" / "6 A.M. Morningside"
The second Clientele single, "All the Dust and Glass", is the one I haven't been able to find. The third was "Lace Wings", and the fourth was this one, released in mid-1999 on Elefant. The Apricot-style Euro-retro cover art notwithstanding, by this point the band has worked out its basic aesthetic and are experimenting to see what it can encompass. "(I Want You) More Than Ever" gallops unhurriedly, like a skeletal "Leaving on a Jet Plane". A second vocal track joins in at a couple points, but I'm only half sure it's not a botched punch-in. A voice is faintly audible singing nasally to itself way in the background, under the bridge, and I could easily be convinced that they simply didn't notice it during mixing. The succinct "6 A.M. Morningside" is the middle link in the shortest possible transit from Simon & Garfunkel to Travis.
The Clientele: A Fading Summer
And when the Clientele finally make the leap to digital (although this March EP is also available on ten-inch vinyl, if you're not ready), they do so cautiously. "An Hour Before the Light", with its hints of the Mamas & the Papas' "Twelve-Thirty (Young Girls Are Coming to the Canyon)" (as if with proper equipment you can still detect the warmth left by the girls' bare feet on the rocks, all these years later), was the b-side of "All the Dust and Glass", and the elegiac, Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme-ish "Saturday" was the b-side of "Lace Wings". The comparatively florid "Bicycles", which if I hold my head right I can imagine as a pre-chorus acoustic demo for Marillion's "Sugar Mice", is from a fanzine flexi. But the one new song here, "Driving South", is shabby and perfect. MacLean's vocal dynamics waver dangerously, the bass is too loud, the kick drum sounds like a boot tapping on the base of a microphone stand, and the tape hiss is loud enough to count as another instrument. The guitar chords seem to shift in mid-arpeggio, so they're forever out of key or out of tune, and the drum fills are executed with the approximate flair of a telegraph operator relaying barometer readings. The choruses are random, lumpy shapes with a few weirdly familiar contours, like the image on the Shroud of "Dear Prudence". Clearly the ambiance is contrived, the fey rustle of dusk-lit country lanes hardly the natural argot of electric guitars and Bob Dylan as a tenor. But that's what art is, contrived ambiance, and this one captures exactly what it was like, watching the Clientele, hearing how out of sorts with their environment they were and how wholly oblivious to it. On one hand, it seems painfully apparent that they are doomed. And yet, on the other, we bring most of our curses upon ourselves. Ron Sexsmith and Richard Buckner sound to me like they have seen their own ghosts in dreams, and are just killing time until they meet them again in person. Alasdair MacLean sounds like he met his own ghost and mistook him for somebody else, somebody translucent and wise, and now Death has no power.
The Harvest Ministers: Embezzling Kisses
The Harvest Ministers put out three singles and an album on Sarah Records, which is how I know of them, but to me they were the one clear anomaly in the Sarah roster, pastoral and expansive where the center of the Sarah aesthetic was housebound and guarded, so I wasn't much surprised to discover that they outlived it, as many of the label's more characteristic bands did not. 1995's A Feeling Mission and 1996's Orbit, both on the expansively-minded Setanta, belonged to the organic tradition of Dexy's Midnight Runners, the Waterboys, Hothouse Flowers and the Frank & Walters, which doesn't have much to do with the Field Mice, Heavenly and Boyracer, but happens to be another genre I follow for its own virtues. The subsequent long silence is finally broken by the release of this five-song EP on March (who seem to be going through an EP phase at the moment). Four of the five follow the earlier albums' lead, the mournful "Benediction" channeling the Alarm and the Boomtown Rats through some of Radiohead's eerie poise, the meditative "Madame Gris" weaving diffident acoustic guitar over a watery piano, "Make Me Your Insep'rable" arching into gospel rapture like the Undertones grown up to be a cross between the Tindersticks and the Continental Drifters, and "Embezzling Kisses" itself reviving a broad, bleary, pub-throng conception of call-and-response.
Track one, though, "The Pawnbroker", is something quite different. A dry, steady drum click, unobtrusive bass and tiny spikes of wary Wurlitzer provide a lattice to undergird Will Merriman's careful, insistent narration, drummer Kieran Lally adding a few clipped lengths of backing vocal. The combination, for me, conjures Everything but the Girl's drum-and-bass minimalism slowed down to the Sunday-afternoon pace of Idlewild, or David Gray's skittish programming reconceived as a chastened modernization of Joe Cocker. Except for a scattered handful of tentative cymbal splashes, the accompaniment simply loops for the length of the song, and the chorus, to the extent that a repeated lyric qualifies, is delineated by borders less drawn than glanced. Many definitions of pop would exclude this song, I suspect, and it probably isn't what Matt and Clare meant by making popmusic a ligature, but it transforms the symbolic emotional vacancy left in a community by the closing of a resented pawn shop into a hymn, albeit wordless in conclusion, of apology, farewell and grace. And if pop songs can't help us shape our pain into something more productive to live with, then why do we ever bother playing them for each other?
Barcelona: Robot Trouble
Actually, there are lots of other reasons to play pop songs for each other, as I'm promptly reminded by the third March EP in this pile, the five-track advance warning of the upcoming second album by Barcelona. (They have apparently given up on writing their name in lowercase, which was always a juvenile affectation merely intended to irritate people, but then if the credits on this EP are being precise, the album will be called ZeRo-oNe-INFINITY, so perhaps they're just picking their battles.) "Robot Trouble" itself was one of three new songs Barcelona put up on their web site some time ago, and I was actually more fond of the other two (the geek anthem "I Have the Password to Your Shell Account", which I thought was both charming in the original and a case study in draft-to-draft improvement by its appearance on March's Moshi Moshi compilation, and Jason Korzen's heroic "Kasey Keller", which could easily be the best song ever written about an American soccer player), but if, as has been hinted, the new album is going to be even more unapologetically New Wave than the first one, a lead single that essentially tries to remake Gary Numan's "Cars" with sunny technological enthusiasm in place of dystopian paranoia may be a foresighted precaution. The Autumn Teen Sound "Bug Free" mix, track two, goes one step further by eliminating most of the Numan-esque qualities, leaving behind a hybrid of the Dead Milkmen and Tubular Bells. "Social Engineering", the other new song, is closer to OMD and ODW (not to be confused with OMC, OCM or OP8), and a cheerfully plinky version of Men Without Hats' "Pop Goes the World" (the only non-"Safety Dance" MWH cover I know of) eliminates any remaining ambiguity about Barcelona's allegiances or sincerity. My favorite track here, though, is trevor/hollAnd's beepy "Holland Shower" remix of simon BASIC's "Sunshine Delay", which I adore in general, but cherish particularly for four seconds, in the middle, when the music pauses to let a reference-minded speech synthesizer mutter the credits. Those of us who don't know how to extract any resonance from hip-hop and rap-metal are cheated out of a great deal of crowd-inciting self-reference, and when trevor's computer announces this song, from within it, I imagine the scattered world tribe of technophiles briefly raising a fist in what we only pretend is irony.
Future Bible Heroes: I'm Lonely
Yet more unrepentant synth-pop is available on the new EP, this one on Merge, by Magnetic Fields leader Stephin Merritt's deferential side-project Future Bible Heroes, in which he and Claudia Gonson sing over music by ex-Figures on a Beach synthesist Christopher Ewen. It's fairly ridiculous to expect musical development from a band whose entire persona is based on pretending the mid-Eighties never ended, but "I'm Lonely (And I Love It)" manages some anyway. A square, chattering drum-machine pattern and a springy, Berlin-ish synth-bass murmur set up a straightforward rhythm pulse, and over it Ewen layers Yaz-dense waves of synth-marimba sequencer-runs and choppy sampler blerts that function vaguely like guitars would, and then Gonson adds gauzy, reverb-smeared backing choirs and Merritt sings his part in a fair compromise between New Romantic demonstrativeness and his usual jaded moan (where by "fair compromise" I mean one part the former and three the later, but still...). The percussive "My Blue Hawaii" plays like a war of practical jokes between Merritt and Ewen, a pounding, Shriekback-like (but EMF-anticipatory) musical structure grafted to a series of goofily forced rhymes (mangos/tangos, messiah/papaya, dancing foola/hula-hula). The moody, Gallic soldier's letter "Café Hong Kong", with Claudia taking lead, is an oddly serious interlude, but cartoon depression reasserts itself for the slinky, lilting "Good Thing I Don't Have Any Feelings", which invokes the Pet Shop Boys, the Human League and New Order. And the EP ends with a twinkling disco refurbishing of Memories of Love's "Hopeless" that nearly succeeds in sending it back in time to join "Everything Counts", "Stop/Start", "Never Stop" and "Enola Gay".
bis: Music for a Stranger World
But the best current defenders of the New Wave faith, in my opinion, if only because they didn't always sound like this so we know they're doing it deliberately, are bis, who follow last year's joyous and brave Social Dancing with this six-song EP on Wiiija (and if you doubt that vision works by pattern-matching, not the processing of individual dots, see how long it takes you to be sure how many "i"s you see in the tiny label credits on the back cover). For the first half of this set, at least, it's almost impossible to spot the scars from where the surgeons made the new bis out of the old one. The rousing "Dead Wrestlers" is as definitive a synth-pop dance/protest song as anything New Order, Depeche Mode, OMD or the Dambuilders ever did. "Are You Ready?" mixes some of the frantic chirp of Lene Lovich and Thomas Dolby's "New Toy" with shaped-noise drum-loops and a few gleaming synth-fills worthy of Ultravox. The surging "How Can We Be Strange?" sounds like Level 42 covering Missing Persons. bis finally betray some of their roots, and some sense of history, on "I Want It All", which is part Dolby/Berlin/Missing Persons old-style, part crashing Powerpuff Girls post-drum-and-bass bubblegum-thrash (bis did the Powerpuff Girls theme, of course, so saying they resemble it is circular, but still accurate). The central sample in "Beats at the Office" is repeated enough times that I'm now forced to skip the track, but the pounding "Punk Rock Points", the finale, argues that if bis wanted to, they could go back and redo all their old, brittle, yelping punk songs and imbue them with the menace and drive for which, the first time around, youthful enthusiasm substituted. I don't know that that would be a real improvement, but I understand the urge to meddle with the past. It's so easy, today, to see how yesterday might have been improved. But to improve it, you have to return to it, and every today you spend in the past is another day you'll have to fix tomorrow. So we extricate ourselves from recursion by drawing lines behind us, marking the points from which, forward, we refuse to be held accountable for what we once were.
I refuse to be held accountable, for example, for growing up in Texas. If there was a local music scene in Dallas in the early Eighties, other than Gary Myrick before he moved to LA, then nobody I knew knew about it. I know some Dallas bands now, but none I feel strongly enough about to doubt that my new favorite is the quartet [DARYL], whose five-song debut EP came out recently on Urinine, a label I only know because they did Park Ave.'s When Jamie Went to London. [DARYL] aren't a neo-New Wave band in the literal sense that Barcelona, FBH and bis are, but guitarists David Wilson and Dylan Silvers both also play keyboards, which these days is usually sufficiently damning. The interesting thing, though, is that without the keyboards I'm pretty sure [DARYL] would sound more like Braid than anybody else, making them one of the fairly small number of emo/New Wave bands, and the only one, I think, that takes full advantage of the combinatorial possibilities. And the really interesting thing, at least to me, is that the overall effect of the cross between guitar-driven emo intensity and New Wave synthesizer intricacy ends up placing them, in my taxonomy of how noises move me, alongside two of my very favorite forgotten bands, Cactus World News and Payola$, neither of whom I'd have previously thought to describe in terms of emo or synth-pop. Cactus World News were U2 protégés, but for me Urban Beaches, their one album, represents the perfection of the raw, anthemic style U2 developed through War, but then abandoned to make the more textural The Unforgettable Fire. Payola$ began by making reggae-infused punk-pop, but eventually evolved a mastery of emotional drama that leads me to think of them as their era's counterpart to Radiohead circa Pablo Honey and The Bends. What happened to Cactus World News, I have no idea. Traces of Payola$ are easier to find, since their guitar player, Bob Rock, is now one of the few producers that people who don't know producers might know anyway. Apparently I'm the only one who really misses the style, though, otherwise Cliffs of Dooneen would never have broken up, the Frank & Walters and the Frames would be doing American arena tours, and the Sheila Divine would have become superstars months ago.
For five songs, though, I can pretend some perverse logistical problems were responsible for those failures, and [DARYL] will soon start collecting the pent-up acclaim all those other bands deserved. Keening guitars and circling keyboard drones propel the jagged, pealing "Bottle Rocket". Buzzing synthesizers and slashing guitars lace "Radio's Replaceable", a skeptical bookend for Grace Pool's "Radio Religion". "Duration" sounds like a cross between Braid, Fugazi and late-period The Who. "Petition" is the EP's simplest guitar song, but "Last Impression" is slow and grand, bass synthesizers humming, guitars entering with timeless flourishes, rock like a more humane Gary Numan might have made, or a more technical Buffalo Tom. As assiduously as I support small labels, this is one of the occasional moments when I wish I had signing rights for a major. Not only do I want millions of casual listeners to hear [DARYL], but more importantly, I want hundreds of irresolute bands to hear them. I want this to be the template incompetent bands miscopy, instead of Kid Rock or NSync. I want rock to be, when it hasn't the wits to be anything better, at least fearless and heroic. I want us to aspire, when we don't know what we want, to catharsis, because every once in a while, what we aspire to, we achieve.