Obnoxious to Anyone But Her
299 · 19 October 00
Kent: Hagnesta Hill
Americans are notorious for cultural myopia, so I'm a little self-conscious about the fact that although I'm a product of more or less the best general education the country is prepared to provide, I cannot communicate meaningfully in any human language but English. I had two years each of French and German in high school, a year of Swedish in college, and whatever ambient Spanish you naturally absorb growing up in Texas and being an American soccer fan, which is enough exposure to give me a general idea about how languages operate, and convince me that language modifies perception as well as expression, but nowhere near enough for me to experience the effect for myself. So I wonder, when I'm reading Eco or Høeg, what linguistic gaps separate me from what they meant in the original Italian or Danish. I assume there are some, perhaps even serious ones, but there's no practical way for me to find out, and the backlog of English books I want to read is already so unwieldy that I have basically given up on the others. Movies are a little better; I can follow emotional nuance well enough in most Germanic and Romance languages to feel like I'm getting more out of subtitled movies than dubbed ones, but if the characters are speaking an Asian language I'm completely dependent on the printed text. Music is hopeless. I like Runrig's Gaelic songs, and I have a bunch of Swedish records by Per and Marie from Roxette, but I've never formed a significant bond with a band that doesn't sing in English at least half the time. In theory, songs ought to be closer to movies than books in this regard, but singing has such different dynamics than speech that reading an English translation of the words of a foreign song doesn't help me at all. What should help is hearing the same song in two different languages, but I have surprisingly few samples of that. Roxette's album of ballads translated from English to Spanish doesn't count, since neither tongue is their native one. There's "99 Luftballoons"/"99 Red Balloons", of course, and a scattering of arch pop songs redone in French as an inevitable affectation, but the only complete album I own in two different languages is this new one by the Swedish quintet Kent, their fourth in Swedish, and the second one also available in English (the titles and cover pictures are the same, but the Swedish version has Swedish song titles).
Merely listening to the two records back to back, unfortunately, is not enlightening. Once I've heard the songs in English, the Swedish versions just sound garbled to me. The two albums are not actually the same ("Ett Tidsfördriv Att Dö För" and "Insekter", on the Swedish version, are replaced by "Quiet Heart" and "Just Like Money" on the English one), and even the running order of the common tracks is a little different, but I haven't been able to think of a cultural explanation. A close-scrutiny A/B comparison of individual songs turns up a number of incredibly trivial insights (the English phrase "the king is dead" doesn't scan right, so the refrain in the English version of "The King Is Dead" is actually "Now the king lies here dead", which is arguably a poetic improvement; the Swedish word "Kevlarsjäl" goes up at the end, where the translation "Kevlar Soul" goes down, which gives the Swedish version of that song a natural suspended cadence that the English one lacks), but I wanted to find passions and fears in one that simply couldn't be expressed in the other, songs whose fundamental character in one language can scarcely be identified in its translation. I wanted to hear Joakim Berg singing the two versions as if his throat were being operated by two entirely different lobes. Instead I'm left piecing together the Swedish text of "Berg & Dalvana" a word at a time, trying to figure out why the English version is called "Rollercoaster". On one level, I guess, it's encouraging that the language doesn't seem to matter; maybe what I'm missing by reading Eco and Høeg in translation is real, but unimportant. But this idea is unsatisfying to me. I'd rather be missing something. I'd rather believe that human languages are more like living creatures than like abstract coding schemes, and thus that poetry is immune to machine assimilation, not only because nobody cares whether the machine hurts or not, but because the process of saying why you hurt cannot be fully schematized. I want human language to resist computers, because it's often easier to let technology zealots fail than it is to convince them they're working on a stupid problem. (And much easier to let them decide they've failed for themselves than to convince them they've failed when they think they've succeeded.) I might still be missing something profound, but the bad news is I doubt it.
The good news, though, is that although listening to Hagnesta Hill over and over again, searching for linguistic secrets, hasn't made the Swedish version into an exception to my general rule about not falling in love with records sung in foreign languages, I have grown quite attached to the English version. It's one of my favorite rock albums in a year mostly not focused on rock, a glimpse of what a post-Pablo Honey Radiohead might have evolved into if they'd set out to demonstrate how insincere and derivative Oasis is, instead of trying to synthesize Jeff Buckley and Autechre. The strangest irony, to me, is that the difference between the two versions, though I can't see what it means, is musically critical. The two songs dropped from the Swedish version, the slow piano-and-strings ballad "Ett Tidsfördriv Att Dö För" and the sinuous and somewhat numbingly methodical "Insekter", are intermissions to me, while the two that take their place in English, the acoustic-guitar-and-kick-drum-heartbeat lullaby "Quiet Heart" and the effusive, menacing "Just Like Money", seem like clear highlights. But then I could easily imagine half of these songs as singles. "The King Is Dead" is the song I wanted everything on the second Longpigs album to sound like, measured and whirring, groaningly distorted bass impaled on a gloriously ragged guitar hook, like a tank division finally arriving to crush "Wonderwall". The romantic "tyrant is dead and his lady is free" yearning in the chorus is offset by the insistent "My IQ allows me to brush you aside", at once echoing and answering Radiohead's "Creep". The hammering soft/loud anthem "Revolt III" is like a rewrite of Blur's "Song 2" that is afraid neither of its own urges, nor of leading somewhere. The lumbering "Music Non Stop" sounds to me like the second draft of the Cardigans' "Erase/Rewind". The creaky verses of "Kevlar Soul" have some of the eerie anomie of Radiohead's OK Computer, but the choruses are decisive and cathartic, a dizzying harmonica wailing over grinding bass and slashing guitars. The languid, horn-buoyed "Stop Me Jane (Little Ego)" is exit music out of place in the middle of an album, but the pounding "Heavenly Junkies" is what Orgy might have sounded like if they'd learned glam from the Manic Street Preachers instead of Marilyn Manson. "Stay With Me" is a song in search of a motive, to me, but it clears the way for the arresting juxtaposition of "Quiet Heart" (probably the album's second-subtlest moment) and "Just Like Money" (maybe its brashest). "Rollercoaster" starts out with just ticking cymbals and a spiraling, circumspect guitar line, but the chorus adds crisp 2/4 drums, airy vocal harmonies and a spiky guitar lead dueling with a thick bass line, and the whole thing turns out to be a refreshing bell-curve throwback to the days before Nirvana established soft/loud as the only allowable organizing rationale for modern rock songs. "Protection"'s snarled "It took me twenty-nine years to reach perfection" reminds me of Emm Gryner's "I've had eighty-nine days of Alcatraz", but the rest of the song swells and swoons like Puressence or Geneva. And the signature epic, to me, far better placed as the second-to-last track on the English version than the ninth of thirteen on the Swedish one, is the harrowing, intimate, fractured "Cowboys", metallic background noises and slapback vocal production harassing Berg's ambivalent reverie. "I dreamed about my childhood, / Surrounded by dead things, / Awakened by the humming / Machines make when they sleep." And later: "I read something about kisses / In a science magazine, / Something they can't capture in the / Sweetest movie scene." But lest you take this as an encomium to rationalism, the chorus ends "And my quiet heart goes to pieces, / It's been a lonely year in this room". I think he's ready to leave.
And indeed the long finale, "Whistle Song" (nearly eight minutes, several of which bear a striking resemblance to John Lennon's "Watching the Wheels"), begins with the portentous "There is something in her eyes / That's making me scared." Scared is a sign that you're finally paying attention. "She is talking through a yawn / And the radio is on", starts the second verse, as he wonders how to reach her. "I listen through the thin walls", he says, "And someone's whistling along", and for a second I think this is the necessary epiphany, that he has realized that emotional orienteering is done by triangulating on all the points in the web of consciousness that constantly surrounds you, that staring into someone's eyes is often the worst possible way to understand them. Merging two lives isn't marlinespike, it's topology. The real challenge is reshaping the local universe so the contact becomes self-sustaining. Families matter, friends matter, enemies matter. Lonely years are what we've learned to build rooms for. "The striplight flickers and then dies / And leaves us in the dark." Now, without walls or cues, what will they do? Sadly, I've overestimated. They don't know, and they don't do anything. "And I tried to make you a believer", he concludes, "But you're not a receiver", which is exactly not the point. And so the lives brush against each other, and cannot hold, and the reinvention that "The King Is Dead" announced turns out to be tragic. But so are most of the best stories. And the lesson, if we still want one, can be that a common vocabulary is neither necessary, nor sufficient. Translation implies that you know exactly what both people are saying, but if you do, it's probably not a very interesting conversation. Borders and miles and languages are the easy distances. The hard one is the last two feet.
Embellish: Wake Me Up!
"It will be as boring as the rain / Or even sitting reading French", declares the first song on Wake Me Up!, March Records' US issue of the Danish sextet Embellish's debut album (called Long Live the Bald People at home), and some weeks I am hard-pressed to remember that I mash these bands together for my own reasons, they don't do it of their own accord. Where Hagnesta Hill is an Anglophile rock album, though, Wake Me Up! is sunny Euro/Brit-pop, and I'd be very surprised if the title isn't intended, at least in part, to invoke the Boo Radleys' Wake Up!. I don't know enough Danish bands for anything to sound Danish to me, so Embellish instead sound Swedish, by which I mean that they sound British more or less the same way that other British-sounding Swedish bands, like the Leslies and the Merrymakers, sound British to me. Breathy female backing vocals replace the Boo Radleys' trumpets, and vibraphones (xylophones?) give some of these songs the pastel shimmer of Cinnamon or Eggstone. I have an uneasy relationship with mallet instruments and the retro-kitsch ends of the March/Marsh/Apricot/Shelflife Euro-pop spectrum, but as with Kent, this album has stuck in my rotation because so many of its individual songs seem to me to be destined for greater fates. The unhurried "Water Lung" has rumbling orchestral timpani, lithe bass runs, scratchy rhythm guitar and sudden blasts of twangy, revving lead. "Super Cool Girl"'s choppy, nervous verses give way to artless, sparkling choruses, complete with "ba-da-da-da" harmonies (which I either hate or am charmed by according to some obscure factor I haven't been able to isolate, but like here). "You" starts with them, too, but then accelerates into a graceful gallop with elements of the Housemartins, Marine Research, the Posies and the Jupiter Affect. The "ba-da-da-da"s and a goofy piano exceed my tolerance of chirpiness on "Sunshine", but the choruses of "Wake Me Up!" live up to the Boo Radleys' standards. Bleating keyboards make "I Don't Know" remind me of Aquadays and Brideshead.
If I had to reduce this album to an old-fashioned A/B single, though, I could. The front side would be the expansive, flowery, vaguely Beautiful-South-ish "Drug Dealer", which revolves around the grandly shameless chorus "She doesn't care / Who you are, / Even if you're a bum / Or a drug dealer". On one hand, I think, shouldn't she care? I'd be leery of anybody who didn't care if I was a drug dealer. On the other hand, I'm a music critic and a soccer fanatic, so tolerance is probably good. The flip-side of the single would be "Ambivalence", a rare relationship song that doesn't want to be identified with. "You can tell all of your / Female friends how I am / The perfect sexist male / Chauvinist that ever lived, // But when you lie here / Disguised as a schoolgirl / I am the only one to / Satisfy your burning needs." Their problems, for once, are theirs. The soaring chorus, which begs melodically to be sung along with, goes "Don't you wreck my mistakes, / You know exactly what I mean / When I yell, // So get down on your knees / And let me penetrate you deep / From behind". I can't sing along with that, but Claus Hansen delivers it with apparently unselfconscious conviction, and if you don't believe that relationships can define their own terms, Hallmark will bury you.
Sodastream: Looks Like a Russian
There's vanishingly little chance of impressionable children coming across any of these records by chance (or any other way), but Melbourne duo Sodastream play it safer than Embellish and put an explicit-language warning sticker on Looks Like a Russian, their first full album. As far as I can tell, this refers only to the line "I know it's late, but I can still hear them fucking in the other room", which I persist in thinking is the sort of mundane observation people ought to be able to make without issuing disclaimers first. (You'll note that nobody ever feels obliged to put stickers on records saying "Warning: Contains nothing but vague, misleading generalizations.") I thought Sodastream's 1998 EP Practical Footwear was remarkable, even if it sounded uncannily like Belle and Sebastian, so I've been looking forward to this album for a while. To my dismay, the thrill of the EP seems to have dissipated considerably here, and I find myself resenting, inanely, the album's expanded scale. I thought I wanted to hear more, but here is more, and it's too much. The songs I like best are the ones for which singer/guitarist Karl Smith and double-bassist Pete Cohen didn't feel obliged to recruit much help. "Able Hands" is tentative and quiet, just a finger-picked guitar, a gruff bowed bass and Smith's soft voice. "Fitzroy Strongman" adds drums, "40 Days" adds drums and some string cacophony, and both lose me. "Done With Everything" keeps guitar, bass and viola under control, but "What a Lovely War" is rushed and anxious, and I just find the trumpet in "Song in Uniform" distracting and out of character. "Excuse Boots", with drums and a piano accordion, seems to want to be Cat Stevens, and to me the uneven pace of "Meals" makes Smith's singing sound overwhelmed, not confessional. Evanescent harmonics give "God in the Corner Store" some of the watery ambience of the Clientele, though, and "Wedding Day" is close to perfect, like Belle and Sebastian with some of the Nick Drake influences replaced by Gordon Lightfoot. And Cohen's sotto voce backing vocals on "Messiah", for me, are like the faint lines of a sketch that are not improved by going over them in ink. This whole album, in fact, seems like an ink tracing of Practical Footwear's sketch. But resisting it is short-sighted, at least, if not actively counterproductive. My CD player could turn this into another EP, but that's not what I want. I want the album I imagined the EP would grow up to become. I'll stick with this album, which isn't it yet, because I'm fairly sure that when Smith and Cohen take it apart again they'll find, just as you and I do when we disassemble our own half-successes, the pieces of something smaller, more fragile and more interesting, out of which the next half-success can be half-built.