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Lift Yourself Up
Meat Puppets: Golden Lies
I don't really understand how people can watch televised baseball games or golf tournaments, and yet I sat in front of my television for nearly nine hours last night watching election returns. Watching the election itself, a parade of a hundred million people filing into flimsy portable alcoves in musty junior-high-school gymnasiums to answer the one poorly-formulated question about public policy they're ever directly asked (which most of them are, lest you think the answer is more feedback, woefully ill-equipped to answer), might actually be interesting, but nobody attempts to cover that. Instead we get a slow trickle of 49%s and 47%s, a dozen obtusely isomorphic color-coded maps, and lots of redundant commentary that valiantly attempts to confuse the process of counting votes with the process of casting them, as otherwise they'd have to admit that all the results drama, up to and including the Florida recount responsible for the fact that as I write, Wednesday night, the outcome of Tuesday's US presidential election is technically undetermined, is manufactured and tangential. No matter how many sports metaphors are applied to the candidates, they are not fighting, digging in, digging out, hanging on, making comebacks or slamming dunks, they are, like the rest of us, sitting around and waiting. In the future, once we've quit bragging about the Age of Information long enough to build some information technology that works, elections will be quick and unambiguous. In the meantime, they are embarrassingly awkward, and operate primarily as spectacle to distract people from how unsatisfying the underlying decisions really are. Tuesday night's spastic exercise in oscillating assertion and doubt was grimly fascinating, but either way the President, for the next four years, is going to be a man I don't like and am not proud of, governing under a mandate to concern himself with superficial changes to profoundly broken systems.
This is, if nothing else, an excellent excuse to revert promptly to my normal state, where I arguably should have stayed to begin with, in which I ignore politics and concentrate on music, because music is almost invariably more rewarding and useful. The jump is fairly jarring, though. Election coverage is a self-defining universe that welcomes everybody and offers the tantalizing possibility that we can perform a valuable function without expending any energy or thought. Representative politics solicits passive witnesses. Staying up until five in the morning watching Tom Brokaw's eyes narrow and the guy on CNN who looks like Seamus Malin try to avoid strangling the woman in the middle who kept asking the producers, on air, for stats they weren't supposed to display, felt, while I was doing it, genuinely participatory, like I was sacrificing sleep for some common good (and I suppose there is a tiny sense in which I am better prepared than most people to stay up that late). But then I sit down, tonight, and put this Meat Puppets album on, and my own frames of reference recoalesce out of the political hallucination like a dream-sequence Olympus dissolving back into a bedroom. Oh, right, the campaign is about hereditary bureaucrats with terminal imagination deficits dickering over the wording of third appendices, a soulless pursuit that claims (at best) to be grounded in compassion, but ends up obscuring far more human truth than it reveals. Government is one of the activities humans are worst at, and the closest I've ever come to being inspired by anything in national politics was when I thought Stockdale was just going to unplug his microphone and walk off the stage in Atlanta in 1992. In theory government could be radically overhauled, but in practice it's more realistic to hope that it continues to be so intrinsically ineffective that society is eventually forced to solve its systemic problems itself, and gradually renders the government moot. Preferring music to politics isn't a lack of seriousness, it's the reverse. The important questions, including the ones we haven't figured out how to express yet, are all the province of art; to politics fall the petty logistics. So shut off the television, quit refreshing cnn.com, and put on a record. Lift yourself up.
I'm pretty sure Curt Kirkwood didn't have the presidential elections or my temporary alienation from myself in mind when he decided to open Golden Lies with a brief instrumental intro, but the track turns out to be, at least for me, an apt abstract of what's missing from what passes for public discourse. The short sample-loop around which it's based is some indigenous Baka warbling from Martin Cradick and Jeremy Avis' Heart of the Forest, but here I take it (with some cultural insensitivity) as a universal glyph for meaningless chatter, for the background hum of insignificance that politics and advertising and commerce produce. After a few seconds a drum groove enters, giving the muttering a rhythm, and then a bass line and a twittering synthesizer join in, extrapolating a musical idea from the texture of the loop. Taken as a forty-eight-second thesis statement, "Intro" says something like: all art is rooted, necessarily, in mundane life, and so becomes the way we learn to recognize its elements of grace. Or maybe it's just a throwaway snippet to clear the air before the real songs start. Either way, "Armed and Stupid" opens with a bruising drum/bass/guitar riff from somewhere between Pearl Jam and Korn, and if you think rock's ongoing debate about the proper place of aggression in youth-oriented art isn't inextricably linked to the understanding of our country's educational problems, then you're unlikely to make any headway against either. These choruses are murmured, not howled, and unexpectedly poetic: "The sun wants a place in the sky", as if this is a privilege we grant it, which is true in every sense that matters. "I Quit" (not a cover of the Hepburn song, sadly) isn't as overstated, but the insistent guitar slashes combine with the light-handed drumming and vague countryish twang to suggest a bridge between REM's solemnity and Nirvana's battered rage, and again, if you don't think understanding how we got from REM to Nirvana and back is important, you're going to find a wide array of social puzzles intractable. "Lamp" is spectral and simmering, like Bauhaus crossed with the Primitons, and despite sharing almost no literal ingredients with the early tracks on Radiohead's Kid A (there mechanical percussion, atmospheric keyboards and Yorke's ethereal sighs, here boxy drums, dense layers of grinding guitar and Kirkwood's gruff baritone), seems to me to have some of the same grandly introspective reserve.
Any illusion that this album is going to be overarchingly somber, however, is dispelled conclusively by the genial, lurching, bolt-through-neck swagger of "Hercules", which comes off like the Dead Milkmen filtered through Gwar and BÖC, or like how Primus might have turned out if Les Claypool had grown up on Billy Squier instead of R. Crumb. "Just when you think that you're safe and alone, / There comes a big, fat zombie with a taste for your tail-bone". Amidst the goofy comic-book references, however, is the plaintive admonition "If you don't watch, you won't be cool, / And nobody will like you", an ominous allusion to the reality comics escape, and I think it's not as far as it might seem from this to "Another Brick in the Wall Part 2" and "Subdivisions". I haven't been able to read much into or out of the gallumphing nonsense-verse of "Batwing", but there's something sinister lurking under the shouty choruses and quick, macabre verses (Pearl Jam trying to cover Oingo Boingo?) of "Take Off Your Clothes". "You Love Me" is comparatively affectionate, as close as Kirkwood is ever likely to come to a lullaby, or what "Brasilia Crossed With Trenton" might have been if Mould had written it while happier. "Pieces of Me" (which demonstrates that pitch-correction doesn't have to turn you into Cher) is an ageless rock song that could have been borrowed from Thin Lizzy or Gerry Rafferty as easily as from Mould or Elliott Smith.
Where I really started paying attention, though, the first time through, was "Push the Button", and for a very simple and specific reason: it contains the nearest thing to a Big Country guitar solo I've ever heard anybody other than Big Country play. The rest of the song doesn't sustain the likeness (the reedy verse vocals sound like Jim Carroll in "People Who Died", and the choruses sound more like early They Might Be Giants with a real rhythm section), but I'm immensely cheered by the idea that something links Stuart Adamson and Bruce Watson's Celtic anachronisms with a sere Arizona punk band. "Tarantula" has traces of Guadalcanal Diary and the Swimming Pool Qs, and at this point it finally dawns on me how deeply I've fallen into this album. I bought all the old Meat Puppets re-releases last year, but they've been a band I've observed more than embraced, and Huevos is the only one I could hum much of. Golden Lies, though, is the big-hearted rock album I maybe wanted Everclear's Learning How to Smile to be, or a vision of American potential less rotoscoped than the Call's, or another valiant attempt to explain how much of music since In Utero has been trapped in its dead-end. This, I realize with an intense wave of relief, and not Gore threatening to fight for me or Bush's "I trust rich people" Sixth Sense impersonation, is the sound of the culture I want to be part of. It is noisy, charming, playful, frayed, self-composed, scarred, defiant, welcoming and alive, sometimes at once and in conflict. It doesn't always make sense, it doesn't always lead anywhere, but it's a culture based on open hearts and examined curiosity, not itemized budgets and micro-managed agencies, and it understands that if you buy a teenager an electric guitar, today, or a pair of noise-canceling headphones, you might not have to argue about who's going to pay for her arthritis pills eighty years from now. Most social problems result from somebody giving up, and the government quickly becomes a clearinghouse for resignations, when what we need is a treasury of joy. Why don't political candidates talk about music? (Other, I mean, than to conflate cause and effect by complaining about the lyrics.) Bush distrusts Gore's urge to intervene, and Gore distrusts Bush's faith that opportunists will self-regulate, but their specific programmatic differences, it seems to me, generally amount to disputes over bandage-wrapping techniques. Make better, saner, smarter, healthier people, on the other hand, and they'll solve everything else to amuse themselves. The only two intriguing ideas I heard in this campaign were John Hagelin's proposal to revitalize the inner cities by teaching them TM (a loopy idea that appealed to me for as long as it took to discover that he proposed to solve crime by teaching prisoners TM, the Middle East conflict by teaching the Arabs TM, health care by teaching anybody who ever planned to be sick TM, etc.) and Massachusetts senatorial stunt-candidate (i.e., running against Ted Kennedy) Philip Hyde's Timesizing Not Downsizing party, which is dedicated to reviving the old notion that social progress is measured by how much we can afford to shorten the work week. Bush and Gore (and Nader, for that matter) seem to me to have stopped thinking about people as individuals. (Of course, many people have also stopped thinking of themselves as individuals, but that's just another way of stating the problem.) Hand the Debate Commission over to me, and four years from now we won't put candidates on TV and lob them the lead-ins for two-minute position statements about tax regulations (read the platform papers, already), we'll make them tell us five albums they've liked that came out after they turned 30, explain which Pooh character they aspire to resemble, and prove that they can make a decent sandwich without assistance. We'll make them admit what board games they suck at, and which cities you couldn't pay them to live in. We will insist that our leaders behave like people, not because a discourse about policy issues is beyond us, but because it's beneath us. I don't want to hear their strategies for how to rescue Social Security, that's exactly the sort of difficult, boring problem we're hiring them to go solve for us. Show me that you know why.
The artistic equivalent of public-mindedness is periodically putting your own aesthetic aside and making art in some standard form. This doesn't happen much in literature (Updike writing a Star Trek novella?; although maybe Nick Hornby writing music reviews counts), but isn't as unusual in film, and happens frequently in music. The Meat Puppets' gesture of solidarity here is the lush, muted, sparkling mid-tempo rock ballad "Endless Wave", which with slightly different guitar and vocal timbres could be the Goo Goo Dolls, the Church, the Pretenders, Slingbacks, Foo Fighters, the Lemonheads, Buffalo Tom or Third Eye Blind. "Wipeout"'s verses gird a clipped spoken vocal delivery with a monster-blues guitar hook and some squalling lead, but a chiming piano strains to be heard in the background of the choruses, which seem torn between Michael Stipe and Dave Grohl to me. And "Fatboy/Fat/Requiem", the bleary multi-part finale, starts off like a cross between Camper Van Beethoven and Steve Earle with a stray track of space-rock sound-effects somebody forgot to mute, before finally devolving into a booming, Slavic folk dirge. What this ending has to do with the rest of the record, I can offer no theories, but it's a miserly story that can't afford an epilogue.
Trans Am: Red Line
The other band I've unexpectedly found myself incorporating into my current conception of the variability of rock expansiveness is the erratic DC sometimes-instrumental trio Trans Am. Red Line, their fifth studio record, is a double-album in its vinyl incarnation, and a twenty-one-track, seventy-four minute CD in digital, so to an extent it achieves expansiveness by the simple tactic of expanse, but as with Golden Lies, it is also not afraid to digress. "Let's Take the Fresh Step Together", the short opening track, sounds like a cheerful morning-coffee remix of a clip from Metal Machine Music. "I Want It All" starts out like an old-style Trans Am sprint, with sharp, busy drumming and a methodical, buzzing synth-bass, but a vocoded vocal line, except for the robot effect and the use of only one note per verse, fills a surprisingly conventional rock-song role, and sheets of Gary Numan-esque synthesizers merely outline the drumming's ragged contours. "Casual Friday" is an assaultive minute-long drum-and-echo solo. One robot voice and one human one exchange German pleas and frightened gasping over the obsessive pursuit groove of "Polizei (Zu Spät)". "Village in Bubbles" is oblique, repetitive and Fugazi-ish, but at the minute mark begins receding, for no clear reason, down some unseen tunnel, leaving us to listen to it for the next four minutes as if through a wall. I believe the three-minute guitar collage "For Now and Forever" runs entirely in reverse, but "Play in the Summer" might be the band's most straightforward rock song, even including a non-vocoder vocal part and some vividly Black Sabbath-derived guitar ideas, although it's still hard to imagine anything this relentless converting many AOR fans. The scary eighth track, all whispering, bad-electrical-connection clicks and menacing bass hum, is not humanized appreciably by a few faint synth chords towards the end, nor the inexplicable title "Where Do You Want to Fuck Today?" "Don't Bundle Me" is a minimal two-beat bass/drum stomp into which they introduce tiny variations in the lengths of the beats so that the rhythm is almost impossible to follow for more than a measure at a time. "Mr. Simmons" plays with a springy, New Wave-ish bass part, but the vocoder vocals are shredded, and nothing else seconds the bass' enthusiasm. "Diabolical Cracker" is a processed-acoustic-guitar meditation that turns into a furiously epic roto-tom solo, which then segues without warning or grace-note into the lumbering Psychocandy pastiche "I'm Coming Down". The pastoral acoustic-guitar duet "The Dark Gift" begins as if begging for Mark Kozelek to start singing at any moment, a prospect I slowly give up on as the song veers determinedly through a chaotic transition into something more like Trans Am's implementation of a classic ten-minute Rush instrumental. "Air and Space" sounds like found audio from a shopping-mall concourse, someone drumming impatiently on the side of a bench while people talk nearby. The long, Oval-like "Talk You All Tight" is the kind of music a click-track listens to when it's alone. "Lunar Landing" is an engaging experiment in Romantic electronica, like Autechre trying to write a "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy" update. "Bad Cat" is fragmentary, but "Slow Response" is a seething, eviscerated rock song with occasional muffled duet vocals, a pounding one-note bass drone and a drum part that skips beats according to what I could easily believe is either plan or whim. "Getting Very Nervous" is a spacer, but "Ragged Agenda" is an episodically violent thrash. "Shady Groove", the conclusion, is a drum solo through which pass, in single-file, broken-wave-machine surf-guitar, the synth shimmer from the opening track and a bit of caterwauling saxophone. And the record ends, you could contend, after more than an hour, without ever having formed one complete coherent thought. But coherence is overrated. This is a sketchbook, not a novel, a narrative only in the sense that we will tend to find a story in any arbitrary sequence of scenes. But our lives are such sequences, most of the time, if we've had the self-awareness to accept random impulses as valuable catalysts, and if we can understand how to make our own lives tell stories, then we are on the way to understanding what it takes to tell a story on which lives could be based, and then to imagining different lives worth inspiring, and then to understanding the structure of inspiration. We want better leaders, we say. We will get them as soon as we figure out where, and how, we would prefer to be led.
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