If I Could Fill Your Heart Just Once
296 · 28 September 00
Sunny Day Real Estate: The Rising Tide
At some point, I am quite certain, I became convinced that I didn't like Sunny Day Real Estate. When, I couldn't exactly tell you, except that it must have been before 1996, because I remember buying and enjoying singer Jeremy Enigk's solo album Return of the Frog Queen in spite of disliking his band. When I inspect this straightforward conviction, though, I realize that I haven't the slightest idea what I was talking about. My memory of SDRE seems to consist of nothing but a mental image of the cover of the album I thought I disliked, which after some laborious research (anybody feeling smug about the current state of information technology should try to locate an album based on a vague geometric sense of the cover) I have identified as 1986's Made to Be Broken, by Soul Asylum, who have no connection to SDRE except that they are another band I once mistakenly thought I disliked.
My standard way of apologizing to bands I discover I've been avoiding for no reason is to buy their next album, like it, and then immediately buy all their other albums. In SDRE's case, though, my aversion seems to be tenacious as well as groundless, and every week I listen to The Rising Tide a few more times, and yet return from the record store without any of its predecessors. Somewhere I read a suggestion that the older albums don't sound like this one, and although I spot the fundamental logical fallacy in concluding that I would dislike anything that sounds unlike something I like, I have nonetheless opted to keep enjoying The Rising Tide in isolation. Maybe I'm savoring the rare respite from irresistible obsessiveness. More likely, though, there is something fragile about The Rising Tide's appeal, for me, which I fear context could shatter. It seems like music I respond to, grown out of subtle modulations of music I wouldn't have responded to, and the more old music I learned, the more echoes of things I dislike I'd hear in these songs. I prefer to maintain the illusion that SDRE always sounded like this.
Blame revisionist nostalgia, if you wish, because The Rising Tide, to me, amounts to a striking approximation of what Rush's A Farewell to Kings or Hemispheres might have turned out like if Rush had begun their whole catalog sequence anew (possibly after an amnesia-inducing dune-buggy mishap), with their decisive, stripped-down 1993 album Counterparts in place of the forgettable self-titled record with the goofy pink logo. The arrangements are dense and dark, the playing restless and intricate, Dan Hoerner's guitars, in particular, slashing into cyclical surges and dives with an air of assured over-preparation. Enigk's voice sounds virtually nothing like Geddy Lee's, but he does switch in and out of falsetto, and both timbres are confrontational enough to lose a few people. There are no rococo, side-long, mythological epics, but the ghosts of "The Temples of Syrinx", "Closer to the Heart", "Circumstances" and "The Spirit of Radio" look on, suspended from the molding, with pleased expressions. SDRE may once have been alternative to something, but most of these are expansive, composed rock songs, writhing stadium sing-alongs for people with too much faith in the power of rock to tolerate being patronized by "Closing Time" or mambo number anything. "Killed by an Angel", the opener, seethes and shudders under an ominous soliloquy more A Clockwork Orange than Anthem, but the methodical hooks and dynamic shifts reveal the same sense of rock's proper dimensions that drove a hundred bands from Led Zeppelin to Soundgarden. "One" switches between bleary, redemptive howls, like "Been Caught Stealing" rewritten for theosophy instead of shoplifting, and delicate, spindly acoustic-guitar pauses. The lover's promise "Rain Song", lyrically a de-sensationalized rewrite of the same bruised they-don't-know-you insistence as Everclear's "Heroin Girl", is primarily acoustic, quasi-classical guitar against a plush string backdrop. Crashing drums propel the tangled, Live-like "Disappear", which careens, near the end, into a dizzy bridge that lends the whole thing something of the effusive air of a rock opera scored for the stage instead of the screen. The barbed, oscillating "Snibe" is as close as I've heard anybody, including Queensrÿche, come to Queensrÿche's Operation: Mindcrime in a long time.
The becalmed, dreamlike first half of "The Ocean", with some E-bow sounding guitar lines supplying what I will take to be an explicit allusion to Rush and Marillion, forms an act-break of sorts, and after the meter of "Go tell the millions begin!", towards the end, borders on Supertramp, I'm not too surprised when "Fool in the Photograph" starts with pealing electric sitar and odd, wordless backing-vocal chants, and then segues into a gruff, rousing, Collective-Soul-ish refrain. The first minute of "Tearing in My Heart" is a field recording of passing footsteps and children playing in a foreign language, and for a minute I think they've written a paranoid 2112-size conceptual suite, after all, cleverly disguised as a conventional eleven-song rock album. But the rest of the song is nearly pastoral, the lyrics a nursery-rhyme repetition for insomniac romantics, based on the courageously unironic play of "tearing in my..." against "tarry in my...". "Television", after some beepy introductory noises, turns out to be nervous and charged, like Anton Barbeau verses grafted to Verbow choruses. The slow, measured "Faces in Disguise" replaces the usual rhythm-guitar layer with muted strings and sighing keyboards, for most of its length, and it isn't hard to imagine it as Sunny Day Real Estate's "Silent Lucidity" crossover.
I expect "The Rising Tide" to resolve things, to settle the questions of what sort of album this is, how comfortable it is with its ambitions and what rock has to allow to encompass this. I expect the walls of guitars to return, actually, to assert that the pensive songs in the middle were half dream, half hope, an explication of what music could be that doesn't notice itself demonstrating exactly what it's arguing exists. I expect to conclude that the quiet songs, as has been the case throughout much of rock history, are there to frame the loud ones. The cathartic crescendo, however, never arrives. Instead the vocals trail off into a nonsense-syllable flourish, the music blurs into ambient murmur, and the album leaves me to make up my own mind without much assistance. So here's what I've decided: the impulses that lead people to try to invest music with complexity and nuance are exactly as innate as the ones that motivate the rawest punk fervor. Punk rock and progressive rock are often portrayed as ideologically inimical, but I think people just need to feel like they have enemies. "Pick a side", we're constantly urged, as if partisanship and citizenship are synonymous. But picking a side is too often done by closing half your mind, by forgoing contrasts and productive tensions, and robbing your understanding of everything of some of its depth by factoring out all the ways in which each thing is partly something else. And the more you know, paradoxically, the harder it becomes to imagine. Once I buy the other Sunny Day Real Estate albums, as I assume I will eventually, I'll never be able to hear this one the way I hear it tonight. Temporarily, all things are possible, not only in the future, which is a worn truism, but also in the present and past. If you can let go of every external thread, if you can put yourself entirely within an art work, then there's the tiniest chance that you will be able to let it alter your perception of the universe, and see not only how it fits into the contingent world, but how the alternate world it implies overlays the one you share. And how do we find the next interstices into which we can slip, except by watching how ghosts disappear into the spaces where nobody is standing?
elliott: False Cathedrals
I bought this elliott album specifically to make my life more difficult. Camden and the Weakerthans were both playing here in Cambridge Tuesday night, in adjacent clubs, and the only hope for avoiding disappointment was that one would play early and one late, so I could see them both. On advance schedules it looked like the Weakerthans would be on first, downstairs, and I could slip upstairs afterward to see Camden. elliott, whose name meant nothing to me, were the downstairs headliners, and thus the band I would miss when I went upstairs. So naturally I went out and bought their new album, and inevitably I liked it a lot, ruining the night's logistics. Schedule reshuffling came to my rescue, though, and Camden ended up playing just early enough that I could see them first, then go downstairs for the other two.
None of the three bands were, live, what I expected from the records. Camden sounded right, but watching their mysterious, textural songs emanating from three scruffy kids in track shoes and a scowling drummer playing to a headphone click-track made no sense, and I had to stifle the impulse to run around the room, kicking the shins of everybody who was standing around waiting for the other acts (everybody except, as far as I could tell, me) to get their attention. The Weakerthans, on the other hand, who sound vulnerable and dangerously introverted on record, played like road veterans, to a large and supportive crowd. And elliott, my own ignorance notwithstanding, are big enough to pack the club close to capacity with people who seemed primed to be battered by Fugazi/Braid-derived guitar noise and drained by the corresponding emotional authenticity. I was willing, myself, too, and so taken aback by several things in quick succession. First, I proved unable to shake the visceral impression that singer Chris Higdon would, if he were a decade or two older, have been in Molly Hatchet. I made the mistake of momentarily imagining that he had hurriedly shaved off a vintage-1974 mane just before taking the stage, hoping to pass for a younger generation (but leaving the dopey mustache, and thus failing abjectly), and then spent the rest of the concert trying to get a clear view of his head from the right angle to figure out whether what looked like a stray tuft of hair in the back really did constitute proof that he had attempted to cut his own hair. Second, drummer Kevin Ratterman wasn't just using a click-track to keep in sync, the band was actually playing over a prerecorded backing track with all the keyboards and programming from the album, which at times constituted almost all the audible music. I've seen plenty of bands play with backing tracks, but never one that projected such a contrarily raw image. And third, when the band finally got around, after a seemingly interminable and directionless abstract experiment that I don't think I was the only one frowning at, to playing "Drive on to Me", False Cathedrals' chiming rock masterpiece and huge (I believe) potential hit, they opted to render it in such a fractured and diffident style that I found it nearly unrecognizable. Also, I lost track of how many times I got hit by some simultaneously intent and oblivious twenty-year-old's absurdly overladen backpack; either the younger generation needs more provisions to get through a rock concert than I did at their age, or else they've all turned to nomadism when I wasn't watching. I left, feeling grouchy and old.
But the album sounded just as magnificent Wednesday as it had Tuesday, so the strange concert experience appears to have had no lasting effects. Whatever genres elliott nominally belong to, by virtue of history or label or audience expectations, False Cathedrals is just as grand and sweeping a rock record as The Rising Tide, or as half the music I grew up hearing on FM radio, Bad Company to April Wine to Kansas. Ratterman's pianos, atmospherics and percussion loops are at least as central to the album's sound as the guitars, bass and drums, if not more so. "Calm Americans" opens with Higdon singing over spare piano, somewhere between Ben Folds and Radiohead, and the piano continues as counterpoint to the jerky, violently bass-heavy groove in the rest of the song. A pattering drum-machine loop girds the elegant "Blessed by Your Own Ghost", whose legacy I have plenty of time to trace back to "With or Without You" and "No One Can" before the guitars kick in and it starts reminding me of Pearl Jam and Buffalo Tom. "Calvary Song" and "Lie Close" are both jagged and fluttery, the keening guitars and shouted choruses as close as this album comes to Braid. The lyrically overwrought "Lipstick Stigmata" mixes some of Live's earnestness with some of early Radiohead's clipped rancor. Adjust the geography and accent of "Dying Midwestern" and it could be a Manic Street Preachers outtake from the bleak years. "Shallow Like Your Breath" is mechanized and elegiac, not far from (in various directions) Puressence, Lincolnville or VAST. The grinding "Superstitions in Travel" is almost as heavy metal as Helmet or Handsome, and "Carving Oswego" is frantic and strained, like the Call via Stabbing Westward. "Speed of Film" is perhaps the album's best one-song summary, tempos shifting like ice floes, Higdon drifting through evasive verses and then leaning into valiant choruses, bass and drums pounding oblique patterns. The song fades out slowly, as if the only way to escape this music is to walk away from it.
But my dedication to this album arises from its least representative song, the one I firmly believe should be a hit (in the same universe where I was right about Jimmy Eat World's "Lucky Denver Mint"), "Drive on to Me". A sparkly guitar arpeggio and stately piano chords start it off, but like most great rock songs it's almost all chorus, soaring vocal harmonies over roaring guitars, hissing cymbals and rumbling bass. It's "Voices Carry" and "Taillights Fade", or "Iris" and "Crush Story" and "Brasilia Crossed With Trenton", or "That's When I Reach for My Revolver" and "Sleeping in My Car". The lyrics are questionable ("We are the bruised and the tender" feels bathetic, to me, the matching "We are the crack that was mended" not emotional enough), but I don't even remember what "Lucky Denver Mint" and "Iris" are about, so who cares? Songs like this are the sound my heart makes when I forget, for a few minutes, to hate anything. The "false" in the album title and the concert disassembly of "Drive on to Me" both imply that elliott distrust themselves, that maybe rock songs deliver only the superficial sensation of redemption. And of course they're right, but as with the superficial sensations of relief, survival, fury and certainty, the feeling of redemption is part of the biofeedback mechanism by which we figure out which imitations our actual selves should more precisely inspire.
Jimmy Eat World: (split EP)
Jimmy Eat World just put out a singles compilation, collecting a bunch of miscellaneous songs from around the margins of their discography, and although I like it OK, it also sounds miscellaneous and marginalized to me, and thus like a step backwards for them, compared to Clarity. The next steps forward, I think, are the three new songs on Jimmy Eat World's half of an untitled six-song EP split with Western Australian superstars (sic) and future Big Wheel Recreation label-mates Jebediah (whose three tracks do absolutely nothing for me). "Cautioners" is programmed and sputtering, a tentative melody just winding free during the fadeout, but "The Most Beautiful Things" is alternately restrained and lurching, Jim Adkins' verse delivery hushed and confessional but the choruses punctuated by yelped backing vocals and churning guitar, and the long bridge (with a spare guitar solo doubled on what sounds like a xylophone) interestingly unsure whether it wants to be majestic or menacing. The prize, to me, is "No Sensitivity", glorious sub-four-minute buzz-saw pop, all quickstep drums and puppy-affectionate guitar squalls, in the tradition of Naked Raygun's "Treason", Archers of Loaf's "Harnessed in Slums", almost every Sugar single, and almost every Connells song if the Connell brothers had been in a punk band when they were kids. "You don't have to scream to say something that you honestly mean", Adkins scolds at the end of a verse, but then the chorus (the touchingly plaintive threat "I'm taking my kisses back") is screamed all the same. You don't have to scream the truth. You don't have to write songs. You don't have to fall in love, or be fallen in love with, or hope, or breathe.