The Most Important Feeling in the World
298 · 12 October 00
Shampoo: Absolute Shampoo
It's not an implausibility quite on par with Britney Spears putting out a home-demo concept album about the Boer War accompanying herself solely on mandolin, or Eminem organizing a symphonic tribute to the Little River Band, but it's close enough: Shampoo have not only released a third album, they've put it out themselves and it's at least three-quarters serious. If there were ever a band that deserved to either evaporate the moment the dollar signs vanished from the eyes of their major-label A&R drone, or expire the moment drugs could no longer stave off the official conclusion of puberty, or both, it was Shampoo. "Viva La Megababes", their defining moment, was patently idiotic, willfully immature, abjectly underthought and garishly overproduced. If you hated it, I can't imagine trying to talk you around. But I adored them. I once wrote that We Are Shampoo was the best female punk record ever made, and if you look it up you'll find that after 267 weeks of chances to go back and edit some more-rational accolade into this malleable medium, I still once wrote that We Are Shampoo was the best female punk record ever made. Girl Power, the second album, was almost an exact copy of the first one, but I chose to take that as heartening evidence that the first one wasn't a fluke. Girl Power came out in 1995, though, and a lot has happened in what we might now think of as Shampoo's field since they last contributed anything to it. True gender parity is a ways off, but there are now at least enough bands with teenage girls in them to suggest that equilibration is underway. If you thought Shampoo represented a triumph of belligerent attitude over musical craft, surely Lolita Storm have reset expectations for the extreme to which that concept can be taken (albeit, in my opinion, by dispensing with music entirely, which is not at all the same thing as dispensing with musical technique). And if you thought Shampoo were cynically contrived and tastelessly plastic, low-grade corporate pornography that existed only to be promoted as crassly as practical, then arguably the low profile of this new record, arriving after such a long absence and only available by mail-order from the band's own web site (www.shampoo.org.uk), is intrinsically an admission of defeat. If Shampoo were a commercial fabrication, then what's the difference between obscurity and nonexistence?
But turn that around: they did make this third album, despite no longer having the resources (if they ever did) to cram it down anybody's throats, so it's hard to blithely ignore the idea that they might have another motive. It's even harder, I think, although obviously you're as free to disagree with me as ever, to keep dismissing this album after hearing it. Where We Are Shampoo and Girl Power subsisted on bioluminescent lip-gloss and bubble-gum laced with microscopic magnesium flares, Absolute Shampoo is an actual pop record. Jacqui and Carrie get plenty of help again (Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs, of St. Etienne, co-wrote eight of these eleven songs, and veteran Sarah Records producer Ian Catt co-wrote the other three and produced them all), but it was their own giggly defiance that turned the first two albums into cartoon riots, and it's their own unexpectedly matured presences here that make this a much different experience. They turn down the best opportunity to reinhabit their old selves, in fact, right in track one, "Shampoo's Cupboard". The British-ism of "cupboard" aside (an American would say "closet", but neither Shampoo nor the Spice Girls have ever bothered disguising their origins), the song is a free-associated pop-cultural litany, mostly of junk food and ill-conceived electric toys, like an unsorted version of Billy Joel's "We Didn't Start the Fire" that lists only things that wouldn't appear in history books. Between gender, age and geographical gaps, I recognize less than half of the references (I know what Donkey Kong and Care Bears were, and Play-Doh, Etch-a-Sketch, Weebles, Speak and Spell, Deely Boppers and Mork and Mindy are all from my generation or earlier to begin with, but Roger Red Hat, Button Moon, Um Bongo, Game and Watch, cola cubes, Grange Hill and Tiny Tears are all ciphers to me, and I don't even want to know what "white dog poo" refers to), but when the chorus rolls around, and it comes time to characterize all this nostalgia, they say merely "Here's some things from our cupboard, / Memories from the young Shampoo girls", and instead of treating all these objects like throwing stars for retarded ninja, it seems to me they are being inclusive, offering the possibility that we can have some Shampoo memories of our own, if we choose to so construe ourselves. Chunky guitars, twittering synthesizers, faux saxophones and languid "la la" backing vocals twine unhurriedly, and I hear Kenickie and bis, but also Madness, the Go-Go's, Sleeper and the Thompson Twins. And at the end, instead of lost interest and an abrupt exit, there's a graceful fade out, as if they are slowly, wistfully, letting go.
Let go they do, though, decisively enough that by the second track they're ready for the sweeping "Inspector Gadget", a sneaky updating of "Game Boy" that in the old Shampoo world would have been a withering rant against boyish tech-geekery, but here conceals a kernel of rueful affection. "Everything that he does, nearly drives us insane", they say, and the magnitude of "nearly" is calibrated by the cohabitational implications of "Phone rings at six and he'll wake us at seven" (and at least he lets them sleep for that extra hour). "Sod the Neighbors" has plenty of Joan Jett swagger, but faced with the choice between petulant intelligibility and sticking to the contours of the music, they opt for a syrupy girl-group blur in which the lyrical scrawls fade most of the way into the background. The gurgling, florid "Take a Break" falls somewhere between the Cardigans, Bananarama and Propaganda, and "Bet he did it with my teenage neighbour / While I was in labour" finds the girls again testing out older narrators. The bouncy, effusive kiss-off "Don't Remember" is the closest thing here to an old-style Shampoo song, Princess-phone vocals and a sing-song chorus melody, Jacqui and Carrie chanting "Of course we don't remember" with boundless scorn, leaving the suitor to wrench his come-on out of his spleen and decide whether it's more humiliating that they can't conceive of having shared his past, or that they know they wouldn't remember it even if they had.
"Terrorist TV", a sardonic ode to daytime television, probably ought to be the album's goofiest song on lyrical grounds, but diffident acoustic guitar and stabbing piano circle warily around a steady drum pattern, and I begin to wonder if Shampoo have been listening to Melissa Ferrick. "First Class" is shouty and derisive, but the crisp drums and compact organ hook on the verses evoke old Manchester groove, the bridge borrows some sunny Byrds psychedelia, and the chorus is a linear descendent of "Our House". "Star of the Show" crosses EMF with BTO and a writhing snake-charmer guitar solo. "Jet Lag" hints at EMF's choppy synths and sample collages, too, but slows down to the pace of "Crimson and Clover". The strangest conflation of eras might be "Love Hate Baby", whose verses are spare, snapping drum-machine-and-synth hum on the order of the Human League or Giorgio Moroder, but whose choruses insert eerie, Rasputina-esque cello groans. The lyrics, appropriately, are about old eras returning to clash with new ones. "Baby you scare my mates", they say, which implies that since we left them, they've found the patience to cultivate less-well-armored friends, and started to assemble existences that don't revolve around simply shocking people any more. I believe that this, and not those formula biopics about sitcom prodigies turning to prostitution, is why we bother forming attachments to child celebrities: even though we know the pressure does them no favors, we need narratives that reach back as far as our recollections. The Truman Show was only superficially hyperbolic; stories about how to grow up are precious, and although we can glean a lot from vignettes, it also helps to have a few examples that begin at the beginning.
Just when I think the album is going to end with some sort of ringing cliff-hanger insight to leave me eager for the next chapter, though, it concludes with the mock-metal grind of "Sid", an unabashedly mindless anthem about, as best I can tell, a totally non-metaphorical cat. After several repetitions and some reflection, though, I've decided that it's better this way. Shampoo are older, but they aren't that old yet, and the most honest meta-message childhood stories (including stories of the tentative transition out of childhood) can deliver is that preternatural wisdom can wait. Turning from sixteen straight to sixty is not the goal. Part of the reason Jagged Little Pill and Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie mean so much to me, for example, is that I think Alanis sketches, in her own rudimentary style, a remarkable number of ageless truths, but another huge component of my affection is that I'm so sure she'll look back on some of these songs with intense chagrin. Proud, intense chagrin, I hope. If Shampoo survive to make a dozen more albums, they may decide that this kitty-cat trifle, all by itself, is a sufficient failure of artistic self-awareness for them to say that their adult career didn't begin with Absolute Shampoo. But so what? So they weren't quite ready to close the cupboard. Challenges intrude on their own schedule, not ours, yet we allow ourselves to feel much too much pressure to face them as they arrive. Childhood is accelerated. Every phase of our life is accelerated. Pop is temperamentally suited to remind us of many things, but there are a few lessons for which it may be one of the last teachers. Like "Life is long enough". And "'Once in a lifetime' is fairy-tale logic, no challenge is unique". And sometimes, knowing yourself is knowing when to suddenly smile, stand up, skip out of the room, and leave your empty chair behind to shrug at the grown-ups and say "Die as fast as you want. I'm not ready."
Baxendale: You Will Have Your Revenge
Glimmers of progress towards gender parity notwithstanding, part of why Shampoo is precious to me is that theirs is a story of girls' childhood, and girls' conceptions of rebellion, and eventually girls' terms of reconciliation with adulthood, and another century down, those are still worryingly unfamiliar stories. You could easily argue that Jewel and Sarah McLachlan are as monotonously feminine as Korn and Limp Bizkit are masculine, but Korn and Limp Bizkit embarrass me, and Jewel and Sarah do not; Lilith Fair risked turning faintly sanctimonious and maybe a little too vegan for some people's comfort, but not self-destructive. To an extent the entire developmental course of my musical tastes, starting at about fifteen when I first realized that there was other music at all, has been a slow process of integrating femininity. I wouldn't have liked Tori Amos at fifteen. I'm not sure I could have enjoyed Shampoo at twenty (but maybe). I knew, though, as I discovered the Psychedelic Furs, the Smiths, REM and Game Theory, that they represented distinctly different attitudes towards their cultural roles than Boston, Rush and Black Sabbath. Jane Siberry, Susanna Hoffs and Dar Williams have all written songs about girls being boys, and I can't think of any exact boys-being-girls analogues offhand (songs about cross-dressing don't count), but "Music for Girls", the opening track of Baxendale's debut album You Will Have Your Revenge, is a closely related thread. "Oh I remember back in '91, / Feeling good jumping on my bed. / I had my favourite record on, / My brother came into my room and said: / 'Well if this is really music / I wouldn't want it in my world. / Well if this is really music, / This is music for girls.'" On cue, the somber piano gives way to a pulsing kick-drum, twitchy fake hi-hats and nervous, showy synthesizers, and the lyrics never have to resort to name-dropping because the music explains exactly whom they mean: the Pet Shop Boys, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Duran Duran, Culture Club, Bronski Beat, the Art of Noise, OMD, New Order. I didn't have an older brother, but we manufacture internal older brothers on demand, and anyway I did have a younger sister, which is a similar effect. I still don't own any records by some of those bands.
But I bet I will soon. Not even bis comes this close to recreating early New Wave's mixture of breathless androgyny and seductive mechanism. "(I've Blown It) Big Time" is a weirdly methodical synthesis of clipped Bowie, lurching Thomas Dolby, Black Box Recorder's "Facts of Life" and Frankie's "Relax". The swoony, awkward "The Future...", part the Waitresses part Devo, revolves around a sighing "I've never ever had a computer", like a sheepish pick-up line aimed at Barcelona. The sweet inverted-"Maggie May" love-song "Hanging Out With Her", with several verses performed by speech synthesizers (but one female, one male, like a robotic "'Don't You Want Me?"), is more or less my impression of what it would sound like if Belle and Sebastian decided to have trevor/hollAnd produce an attempt to out-synth-pop "Electronic Renaissance", and the giddy portamento keyboard hook towards the end makes Jesus Jones sound restrained. "Switzerland" hovers between "Major Tom" and the Magnetic Fields. "I Love the Sound of Dance Music" means "West End Girls". "Contact Lenses" is a late-night torch song for an android cantina. The jittery disco aria "Je Serai Espionne" ("I Will Be a Spy"), sung in sultry French by guest vocalist Kate Pemberton, mashes together just about every current soundtrack impulse from Badalamenti to Air to John Williams. "Neato" could be the Happy Mondays mis-remembering "Safety Dance". The don't-go-with-him plea "The Nineteen Sixties" is a bit like a orchestral-pop version of "Pop Songs Your New Boyfriend's Too Stupid to Know About", except without the band list, and with, as the rival, for some reason, Austin Powers. "Battery Acid", after a bizarrely "Baby Got Back"-ish rapped intro, turns into thumping arena-techno. The muted and distinctly hollAnd-like "Electric Trains" bounces from Tim Benton's half-spoken narration to a gauzy female-falsetto chorus to a gruff speech synthesizer. "Don't Smooch" is three parts New Order, one or two the Dead Milkmen. Keyboardist Senay Sargut (or maybe it's Pemberton again) takes the vocal lead for the melodramatic "It's My Party" update "You Know the Rules". "Better Teeth" sounds to me like OMD's "Enola Gay" redone with Jesus Jones' percussion. "Me & My Piano" could be double-speed Spandau Ballet.
Isolating a sense in which this is feminine music requires some abstraction, but here's one theory: masculine music tends to adopt the structure of mating rituals, big threatening gestures occasionally interrupted by intricate (but totally self-contained) displays of virtuosity. Heavy metal's interplay of ponderous power-chords and brief pentatonic solo sprints is male music at its most elemental, essentially the same simple-minded reproductive-survival strategy employed by iguanas, finches, elk and business-productivity software. Feminine music is non-functional, at its best transcendently, and thus liberated from constraints. These songs are willing to exhaust themselves while accomplishing nothing, to dress up for no audience; girls' music is willing to be decorative, where decoration is trivial, it's true, but also the difference between engineering and expression, and thus the difference between mundane survival and the art that justifies it.
Fosca: On Earth to Make the Numbers Up
But maybe I just made up the idea that girls' music is a repudiation of primitive reproductive strategies because it applies so appealingly to the Shinkansen debut album by Fosca, a quartet led by Dickon Edwards, who in a past life was responsible for the trenchant late-Sarah single "Reproduction Is Pollution". Ian Catt produced this one, too, and its energy level is somewhere between You Will Have Your Revenge and Absolute Shampoo, but its New Wave referents overlap Baxendale's in so many places that You Will Have Your Revenge and On Earth to Make the Numbers Up have basically merged in my mind. I can tell them apart when I'm actually playing one or the other, but as soon as they stop I forget not only what the difference is, but why it matters. "The Agony Without the Ecstasy" makes me think of OMD trying to anticipate Stephin Merritt. "It's Going to End in Tears (All I Know)" is pure New Order. The wordy "The Millionaire of Your Own Hair" is an heir to Merritt, Stuart Murdoch and Gilbert & Sullivan. "Storytelling Johnny" returns to Edwards' frightened aversion to offspring ("And in a hopeful maisonette, / The girl pushed a boy away and said / 'These hips are not child-bearing, / They're child-spurning / And child-sparing / And child-scaring'"), but the glassy, sentimental waltz "Assume Nothing" seems to have been borrowed from Morrissey. "Live Deliberately" crosses the scratchy drum loops and dark atmosphere of recent Gary Numan with the spiky energy (and mournful melodica) of old The The, and "On Earth to Make the Numbers Up" sounds like "Uncertain Smile" succumbing, on the choruses, to a secret wish to be the Kinks "Come Dancing" or Bruce Springsteen's "Hungry Heart". "There Is Another Country", the finale, makes one more attempt at confronting the reproductive urge. "Don't be so down on Breeders", Dickon tries. "They offer you Love within their arms." But his list of things they offer you Love without gets carried away, and by the time he reaches "Real Love without social tourism" the train of thought is well derailed. And then he says "Barrie, you know far too much about me", and I see the escape route. J. M. Barrie wrote "Peter Pan". He wrote a lot of other things, too, any of which Dickon might have meant instead, but if it's "Peter Pan", maybe Dickon has begun to suspect that having children isn't evil, he just isn't ready for it. This is a far more tenable position, and lends "Reproduction Is Pollution" an oblique, feigned-indifference, "He will not be missed" sort of poignancy. Decrying things you will later condone is part of what makes adolescence enlightening in retrospect. And while we wait to grow up, starting to feel self-conscious about how long it's taking, we comfort ourselves by playing the kind of songs we loved when we were far too young to know we'd ever worry.