I'm Trying Not to Wonder Where You Are
292 · 31 August 00
The Corrs: In Blue
I forget which dismal teen romance I was there to watch when I saw the trailer for Bring It On, Kirsten Dunst's dueling-cheerleader-squad movie, but it was a crowded Friday night at the bad theater, and I was sharing the fourth row with a group of teenage girls who did not appear to have had, yet, any of the experiences that eventually teach people not to automatically say aloud every single thought that wanders, obviously lost, through the unfamiliar terrain of their heads. My internal running commentary consisted solely of a snide "Well finally, an American Anthem for cheerleading." Their commentary was rather more voluminous, and if I had made it up I would have felt bad about it. The word "hottie" was employed twice, and the phrase "I could totally wear that outfit" was said without apparent humorous intent. But the group fell strangely silent for the last twenty or thirty seconds of the preview, and I allowed myself to hope that even they could see through such blatant pandering. "Bring It On", the narrator intoned, in that booming, insipid tone reserved for the titles of utterly predictable movies and the names of cars manufactured in Asian countries other than Japan. "That's the title?", one of the girls asked, an admirable attempt at rhetorical inquiry marred only slightly by the sense that she wasn't actually sure. "Yes, " I replied silently. "Yes", the next girl over started to echo. But our explications of the title's flaws turned out to be somewhat different. Mine, internal: "That may be the lamest movie title since She's All That, some aging marketing executive's self-congratulatory demonstration that he knows how the kids talk, which only proves that he's listened to what they say without learning anything about why." Hers, as a helpful aside to her companions, so they wouldn't need to waste their energy puzzling it out for themselves: "Too many words."
And so it was that I survived a virtueless hour and a half (Boys and Girls? Loser?) by, whenever the movie assailed my patience, returning with delighted incredulity to the idea that movie titles ought to have two words at most, and preferably one. On those grounds, and one or two others, Loser was clearly superior to Boys and Girls, but both movies mainly served to underscore what a disappointing summer it has been for teen movies, to me, only Road Trip as a faint echo of last year's American Pie, and nothing at all comparable to 10 Things I Hate About You or the partial teen films Election and Dick. And no doubt it was due in part to a sense of summer's fundamental incompletion that I allowed a couple of guardedly positive reviews to convince me to go see Bring It On, after all. Here is the measure of how self-conscious I was about this decision: on my way out of the house, twenty minutes before a low-demand mid-afternoon show-time, I stopped and went back upstairs to order my ticket online, just so I wouldn't have to say the name aloud to theater personnel. But Moviefone was down, so in the end I did have to step up to the counter and implicitly identify myself as a thirty-three-year-old male voluntarily seeing a movie about high-school cheerleaders by myself on a pleasant Sunday afternoon. It wasn't that embarrassing, after all. The movie wasn't that embarrassing, either. It earned an "OK" on my simplified five-step rating scale, making it roughly equivalent, in my personal evaluation, to The Virgin Suicides, Where the Heart Is and Erin Brockovich, superior to The End of the Affair ("Bad") and Mission to Mars ("Awful"), and inferior to Love & Basketball, The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle and The Cell (all "Good"). The characters were shallow but likable, the cheerleading bits emphasized gymnastic ambition over imbecilic pep, and the frisson of seeing Faith (Eliza Dushku from Buffy, playing her LA-transfer-student character as if the directors forgot to tell her that this wasn't the pilot for another spin-off series) swallow her attitude and don the squad uniform was a bit of novelty casting almost on par with Alanis Morissette as God in Dogma, or Mike Tyson as himself in Black and White. I reacted in the prescribed manner to all the twists in the story, even though I could easily have outlined them in advance, and at the end regarded myself as having been adequately entertained. Especially after B*Witched's cover of Toni Basil's "Mickey" as exit music.
But the interesting thing I realized (interesting to me, at least), leaving the theater humming the song, is that my ability to appreciate conventional art varies dramatically by medium. My taste in books is, with the exception of Dave Barry, almost painfully esoteric. I'm a little less uptight about movies (I liked Armageddon, for example, and Four Weddings and a Funeral is in my top ten), but in general I vastly prefer obscure, shakily-constructed films in which virtually nothing happens. And yet in music, which I care about the most, I am oddly willing to embrace some of the most unashamedly mainstream impulses. I like a fair amount of music that most people would identify as incomprehensible or broken, but I also believe that Alanis and Roxette are brilliant, and I stubbornly cling to the notion that Jewel will have a long and significant career once she fires her image consultants and stops recording glossy, soporific crap. Rick Springfield's album Karma was on my 1999 top-ten list not as a joke, nor as some sort of abstract commentary on the state of modern music, it was there because I heard more than a thousand records last year and thought Karma was better than all but five. It was not innovative at all, but insisting that every individual artwork must innovate is myopic, and resigns art to a drunkard's walk in place of progress. Innovation is an incredibly important force, but so is refinement. The past can be defied, or it can be drawn upon.
And so, although on some level I think In Blue, the third album by the nominally-Irish family band the Corrs, is to music more or less what Bring It On is to movies, formulaic, quite literally unimaginative, and with too many words in the title, Bring It On gets only an apologetic "OK" from me, while In Blue basically gets my heart. The Corrs invented none of this, not the three-chord choruses, not the sparkly studio arrangements, not the pouty, dark-eye-shadow-against-pale-skin expressions in the booklet photos, not the soaring harmonies or the traces of techno inserted only where they're most harmless. They've heard Björk and Sinéad, but they heard Fleetwood Mac and ABBA when they were much more impressionable. The women all wear too much lipstick, nobody has scowled into a wind-machine this faux-seductively since Heart quit trying to hide Ann's weight, and if this is what Irish music sounds like, then Ireland owes a national debt to the Bangles and Shania Twain. And yet, the only thing I find myself unable to decide is which of these songs exemplifies the Corrs' unerring instinct for perfect pop songs most completely.
Simplicity argues for "Breathless", since it's the lead single and the first song on the album. Mutt Lange, Shania's husband, produced and co-wrote it, and it has the characteristic square thump and simple hooks of Shania's singles. Mutt plays some Dolores O'Riordan-ish production tricks with the girls' vocals for the first few seconds, but then backs off and lets them just sing. I suspect adjunct guitarist Anthony Drennan and bassist Keith Duffy account for a disproportionate number of the noises, but if that bothers you, just pretend they're neighborhood kids the Corrs grew up with. Whoever did what, nobody emits a rebel note for the entire 3:25, and the result belongs in the same pop treasury as Jane Wiedlin's "Rush Hour", the Bangles' "Manic Monday" and Roxette's "Sleeping in My Car". The lyrics are sappy and generic, but they plead "Go on, go on, come on leave me breathless" so guilelessly that I can't find any energy to object. Who doesn't want that? If a billion people before you have begged to have their breath taken away, will you keep your lips clamped shut just to be different?
But if "Breathless" is a little too Mutt for you, the moodier "Radio" may be more to your liking, gurgling, drifting verses deferring, with a flourish, to a pealing and nostalgic chorus, like the Highland reverie of Runrig's "Hearthammer" tempering the pop glee of Tracey Ullman's "They Don't Know About Us". "So I listen to the radio / And all the songs we used to know" is all they repeat, but the associative power of music isn't complicated, and the Corrs evoke it as effectively as Dar Williams' uneasier "Are You Out There" or Triumph's more overwrought "Magic Power". Or if you're looking for more gleaming, ABBA-esque harmony, maybe it's the Mutt-aided "Irresistible" you want, part airbrushed spaghetti-western, part kaleidoscopic ecstasy, like "Waterloo" by way of the Go-Go's' "Vacation" or Belinda Carlisle's "Heaven Is a Place on Earth". Or if you think dynamic contrasts are overrated, and the best pop songs sound like choruses from beginning to end, "At Your Side" is what Scarlet might have been able to do with Natalie Imbruglia's "Torn", or the missing upbeat flip-side the Pretenders never wrote for "2000 Miles", all cartwheeling open fifths, galloping 4/4 drums and sighing stacked-chorus vocals, the usual guitar hook shifted to Sharon's violin. And the semi-chanted verses and bounding, guitar-dense middle eight of "No More Cry" are as close as the Corrs come to Roxette here, if that's your standard, but the dizzy chorus recalls Scarlet's "Man in a Cage" vividly, and if this turns out to be a hit single I'll dedicate a moment of petulant resentment to the injustice of Scarlet's obscurity and subsequent demise.
To be fair, though, Scarlet couldn't sustain this kind of pop effervescence for every song of an album either, and Roxette only ever did on their greatest-hits compilation, so it's neither surprise nor flaw that the Corrs embed the most helpless pop among songs both less demonstrative and more protective. "Give Me a Reason" is a cross-over experiment of sorts, chattering sequencer disco lining the verses, but the waves of guitars crash back in for the chorus, and Sharon uses the rhythm loop on the bridge as a stage for a cycling violin solo. The dreamy "Somebody for Someone" falls somewhere between recent Madonna and Luscious Jackson, pensive and undulating, the violin entwined with some synthesizer's well-intentioned idea of a hammered dulcimer. "Say" is half Fleetwood Mac poise, half vintage girl-group swoon. "All the Love in the World" is three quarters the Backstreet Boys, a quarter power-ballad Heart. A string section buoys the sultry, "2 Become 1"-ish "One Night". "All in a Day" and "Rain" are a little too muted for me, but the mock-reggae jump of "Give It All Up" sounds like something ABBA would have tried if they'd survived to become Madness fans. "Hurt Before" seems to have understood Edie Brickell, the Sundays and Melanie C all as variations on Madonna's Ray of Light. And "Rebel Heart", the epilogue, as if in fulfillment of some national-service clause, is a mournful techno-Celtic instrumental worthy of Clannad's synth-pop phase.
But "Breathless" is the song that gripped me, and it is to "Breathless" I return. The guitars are shiny and unthreatening, but shiny, unthreatening, overdriven electric guitars are a cultural accomplishment, a sublimation of sonic intensity into emotional resolve. The blocky drums could be Caroline, a drum-machine, or some of both, but by now kick-snare-kick-snare is what my heartbeat sounds like to me, and the discrete, cascading fills that lead in and out of the choruses are exactly what my heart does as I listen. The chiming synthesizers would be porn-soundtrack cheesy in isolation, I bet, but in context they're merely emphasis, making sure we don't miss any detail of the melody. And then the chorus comes around again. I don't think I trust my lungs as much as they trust theirs. A romantic system based on breathlessness is probably also dependent on make-up and hair stylists and that wind machine. Part of my self-consciousness around art like this is that I know it describes a world I don't live in. I had my fringe competitions in high school, academic in my case, but with that same movie-logic sense of the question being whether I would come in first or second. I had years and years during which generic love-songs were as specific as I needed, where breathlessness and similar reactions were their own justifications. The things I really want, now, are more ambiguous, less triumphant, results of reasoned confidence instead of sudden conviction. I expect to plan, and calculate, and revise; I'm not trying to fall in love involuntarily any more. Which must be why it's so overwhelming when I do.
The Weakerthans: Left and Leaving
And because I feel like involuntary ecstasy must be counterbalanced, and I need grounding twice as badly after something alien has tantalized me with what my life could be like if I didn't think so much, I've spent the week alternating In Blue with Left and Leaving, the second album by the Winnipeg quartet the Weakerthans. The musical oppositions are obvious. Singer John K. Samson's voice is thin and nasal, like a younger David Lowery, and the band rarely bothers with harmony. About half the songs here are seething guitar punk in the vein of the Weakerthans' recently deceased Winnipeg colleagues the Bonaduces, and the other half are sketchy and frail, disassembled punk songs tracing the same route Sarah Harmer took towards becoming folk music. Of the former sort, the dense, storming "Aside", the choppy, surging "Watermark", the slow, anthemic "This Is a Fire Door Never Leave Open" and the swooping, clicking, soft/loud "Exiles Among You" all thrill me almost exactly the way the Bonaduces and Sarah's old band Weeping Tile did. If Samson's singing were as assertive as the band's playing, the Weakerthans could easily have sounded like Braid or Fugazi, but part of their charm, to me, is that they don't, that at their loudest they still sound more than a little like Tullycraft, boyish and hopeful. Of the quieter songs, "Everything Must Go!"'s minimal guitar makes Sebadoh sound busy, "Pamphleteer" adds a little lap-steel and reminds me both of Son Volt and the Rheostatics, "Left and Leaving" revolves around a single careful, circling guitar line, "History to the Defeated" is becalmed and funereal, "My Favourite Chords" uses an acoustic guitar almost only for percussion and "Slips and Tangles" is a muted piano/violin/drum lullaby. "Without Mythologies" is just tympani tattoos, single pulsing guitar notes and Samson's half-spoken narration. "Elegy for Elsabet" attempts an expansive farewell, but Samson's obstinately antiheroic voice keeps it from taking flight like it seems to want to.
As with the Bonaduces' The Democracy of Sleep, though, I could like this album on musical grounds either a little or a lot, according to random whim, but in a way the songs exist only to hold my attention long enough that I notice the lyrics. Once I do, I move from interest to fascination rather abruptly. The Democracy of Sleep was an album of death and mourning, Left and Leaving is an album of ambiguous memories instantiated in environments and objects. "Everything Must Go!" is an inventory for an emotional garage sale ("a year or two to haunt you in the dark", "a laugh (too loud and too long)"), a good idea rendered inspired by the inclusion, at the end, of the asking prices: "a place where Awkward belongs, or a phone call from far away with a 'Hi, how are you today', and a sign that recovery comes to the broken ones." "Watermark" is a rare relationship song that tries to depict what keeps people together, rather than dwelling on what tears them apart, "I've got this store-bought way of saying I'm okay, and you've learned how to cry in total silence" leading not to goodbye but to "Let me scrub that brackish line that you got when something rose and then receded." "Pamphleteer" finds activists failing to replace each other with their cause, and I've heard very few summaries of the inherent tension of relationships more cogent than "How I don't know what I should do with my hands when I talk to you. How you don't know where you should look, so you look at my hands." "This Is a Fire Door Never Leave Open" is a conversation between old friends, or between parent and child, or perhaps between a person and the nature of memory. "I love this place; ... so why can't I forgive these buildings, these frameworks labeled 'Home'?" "If I could I would make you a raging river," "Without Mythologies" adds, "so you could always meander and forever be able to run away without contending with myths wrongly interpreted, with pain." In a list of things you gave me, in "Left and Leaving": "the best parts of Lonely". "Wishes and prayers are the way that we leave the lonely alone and push the wounded away", "Exiles Among You" gloomily concludes, but "My Favourite Chords" finds some overlooked commitment, and sets out to try to change things again. "I found the safest place to keep all our tenderness. Keep all our bad ideas. Keep all our hope. It's here in the smallest bones, the feet and the inner ear. It's such an enormous thing to walk and to listen." The point, I think, is that the way to store bad ideas and hope (and the two are often related) in your feet and ears is to project them onto the sidewalks and into the air. We sing songs in order to put our hopes somewhere they can later be retrieved. We tell stories, in other words, as much to protect them from ourselves for a while as to impress them upon others. And if it's not always clear why we choose these stories, or tell them in this order, that may be because it's impossible to know, now, which details will turn out to have been important. When we look back, will we need to know what we were in love with, or what love felt like, or what it meant to wonder which? One day, presumably, we will need to remember how to breathe. And one day, some time later, we will need to remember how not to.