I Hope I'm Not Enjoying This Wrong
303 · 16 November 00
Kind of Like Spitting: Nothing Makes Sense Without It
We tend to focus on the possible commercial impact of the net on popular music, and so maybe miss ways in which it could alter the artistic processes, even, or maybe especially, when the commercial effects and the artistic effects are closely related. So we speculate that if NSync and Britney Spears could sell individual songs, online, they might just make singles, and never bother with the "other" songs necessary to fill out an album. But this critique insinuates that they don't really expend much energy on the other songs, anyway, so all we are really contending is that online distribution of individual songs may allow them to drop the hollow pretense of album-making, thereby eliminating some minor inefficiencies in their production cycle, and freeing their major-label marketers from having to try to sell one thing using another. Whether this amounts to market cannibalization or not is a fair question; will the kinds of people who reluctantly cough up $15 for a Britney Spears album today spend enough money on one-at-a-time single downloads to sustain Britney's agents in their adopted lifestyles, or will this streamlined process amount to making movie trailers without the accompanying movie, and then wondering why nobody wants to pay any more?
The biological imperative to protect cute children aside, though, I don't really care what happens to Britney Spears. I care more about what online distribution could do for artists who are currently forced, by logistics, to work in what are, for them, unnatural patterns. Once you leave the top 40, it becomes much harder to produce music at the music's own pace. Getting anybody's attention is enormously expensive, a cost sometimes paid in dollars, but as often, by people who don't have the dollars, in emotional energy or touring time, so collecting songs into discrete albums is a theoretical convenience turned practical necessity. Music is hardly alone in this regard, of course; short-story writers are marginalized by the nature of their craft just as surely, and makers of short films are an order of magnitude worse off, still, since there's no established infrastructure for what would be their equivalent of an album (a dozen short films concatenated, and screened like a single conventional-length movie). Cartoonists, perhaps, are the only people whose medium has been set up to let them publish as they produce. Online distribution might be able to change that for music. If uploading and downloading is easy enough (in all senses), then an artist may be able to promote their web site, not their latest album, and then put up new songs every week, or every day, if that's the kind of work they do. This flexibility is irrelevant to Britney, because her "singles" are enormous multi-pronged corporate initiatives, not just songs, but for all the people at the other end of the resource spectrum, saving up day-job money for studio-time or home recording gear, the ability to let people hear one or two songs, when that's all you have so far, could be what saves you from giving up and never getting to a dozen.
The irony, though, it seems to me, is that ad hoc distribution ought to be most appealing to the people who record songs most improvisationally, since their ratio of distribution delay to creative time is the highest, but those tend to be the artists whose material most desperately demands the additional layer of montage. Guided by Voices is the most obvious example, since I suspect Robert Pollard actually could put up a new song every day or two, but fractured into one song a time, his canon would disintegrate. Bee Thousand may be one of history's least album-like albums, in terms of how it was assembled (where by "the most album-like album" I mean something like U2's The Joshua Tree, or Marillion's Afraid of Sunlight, or whatever MBV has been doing all this time), but it is one of the most dramatic examples in my awareness of how an album can become a qualitatively different achievement than its individual tracks. The weakness of a web site full of song files, at least given how we deal with digital music circa late 2000, is that the site mainly provides context for downloading, not for listening. Three-minute pop songs (never mind shorter ones) press against the lower limits of our ability to resolve experiences, as it is, which is why MTV is so much more effective a commercial for itself than it is for any bands whose videos they play. Albums, done right (and even EPs, for that matter), are not an internal data-chunking algorithm for an antiquated distribution network, they are a necessary framework for focused reception. Even in albums without an overriding aesthetic or theme, the songs you consider filler amount to reserved time, in your life, for contemplating the ones you like better. And the most remarkable albums, sometimes, are the ones that can transport you outside yourself for thirty or forty minutes at a time, even though when you go back and inspect them you can't see where the skyhooks attach.
Ben Barnett's liner notes on Kind of Like Spitting albums aren't particularly detailed, and he doesn't appear to have a web site on which to supply glosses (we aren't quite to the technological point where I assume that a band who doesn't list a web site on their albums has actively opted not to have one, but we're getting close), so I don't know much songwriting time the three or four albums he's put out this year account for. They're all on different labels, too, so the catalog numbers don't help, but I'm going to assume, until contradicted, that the variously informal recordings sample from a year or two of writing. Combined the records contain about fifty songs, so I'm guessing that Ben has the right creative capacity (and production approach) for putting out a song a week, in the new world. His songs are generally whole, so his albums, unlike many of Pollard's, don't depend on collage for effect, and I think I trust Ben, where Pollard's motives worry me, but even so, I don't think Ben's songs reward or withstand scrutiny the way a-song-a-day fodder would have to. Taken one at a time, their lyrics are too bruised, the performances too erratic, the rough production too hard to trust as an idiom. Even the ones I think I like best never turn out, when I go back and listen to them by themselves, to affect me the same way. The experience relies on listening to a bunch of KoLS songs in a row. I haven't tried to figure out how many, exactly, "a bunch" has to be, but it's more than two, because I have some of the same songs on albums and singles, and the singles don't make much of an impression on me, and it's probably more than six, as my copy of Nothing Makes Sense Without It happens to be on vinyl (the LP is by Slowdance, the CD by New American Dream), and neither side feels quite sufficient on its own. Actually, as I accidentally realized by playing my four KoLS albums back-to-back, there doesn't seem to be an upper limit. That is, after listening to all four at once, I felt one unit happy, whereas listening to the four interspersed with other albums made me four units happy. Boxing them up, à la 69 Love Songs or Suitcase, seems wrong to me for much the same reason that we wouldn't still be talking about Jackson Pollack if he had produced a single splatter-painting with the same total area as all his individual works. In the end, then (although you are as welcome as ever to be suspicious of any conclusion that claims to endorse the status quo by coincidence), at least for KoLS and me, albums turn out to be fine, and the new technology changes nothing. Even the lack of a band web site seems to have an aesthetic logic. However much these songs sometimes amount to journal entries or love letters, the voyeurism of reading somebody's private correspondence is very different from the voyeurism of watching their living room through a web cam. It isn't Ben's life we are following, it is his analysis of his life, and while it sounds creepy to say I prefer analyses to lives, good analyses include lives, and not vice versa.
The records are, in a broad sense, interchangeable. Ben's songs cover a fairly limited musical spectrum from spare guitar-and-voice intimacy (in which mode he reminds me, often vividly, of what solo Mark Eitzel might have sounded like if Eitzel was younger and not as drunk) to guarded but band-augmented catharsis (whose timbre owes what I assume is a conscious debt to Braid), and the lyrics are almost always examinations of relationships in which the examiner is partly fighting to understand the situation, partly battling the nagging sensation that observing the relationship and participating in it are mutually exclusive, so by trying to understand a relationship he is already giving up on it. But I have a lot more than four records exploring these same sounds and themes, already, and I expect my interest will accommodate quite a few more. Nothing Makes Sense Without It opens quietly, with the tentative lament "Short Story Song". "You ask me who I've been with, / Do I know all their last names? / I can't answer honestly", Ben admits, but so distractedly that his avoidance of rock's usual tendency to glamorize anonymous sex only registers, for me, in retrospect. This is an argument between two people so afraid of vulnerability that they've crushed what they're supposed to be guarding. "You're realizing I'm your projection", he concludes, and "I'm forgetting I am not". "Blue Period", about the way melancholy art is drawn towards suicide, is slow and noisy, drummer Mark Wallace and bassist Steve Kramp filling in around Ben's strained guitar and singing. "At Your Convenience", with Mollie Hardy's skeletal violin, is part Eitzel, part Low. "Birds of a Feather" ("You feel fat and I feel ugly; / Together we don't like anybody"), with all four playing, comes out like a Dambuilders song somebody took half apart and then abandoned. "Robi Point, Stars Above", recorded so quietly that the tape hiss turns into a third part, could be Nick Drake dreaming of being Hank Williams. "Out of Harm's Way Finally..." is a break-up song that erupts into noise at the end so determinedly that I'm not convinced Ben knew it was going to, either.
Side two regroups with "1330 Oak 1995", a measured soft/loud/soft song without the loud part, and although the scene of party alienation is familiar, at the end the narrator, back in his room, notes that it was "The first time that I ate food just because I was sad", and implicates another set of anxieties and coping mechanisms entirely. "Dodge Dart" is shouted at the breaking point of Ben's voice, in his best Braid inflection, but the band hangs back, as if fascinated but a little confused, and the contrast is scarier to me than most louder Braid songs. The becalmed "Haven't Been to the Ocean Sense" (is that supposed to be "since"? or am I missing a joke?), playing a pretty picked guitar part against artlessly gravelly vocals, pushes from Eitzel towards the Secret Stars. Hardy joins in on backing vocals at the beginning of the badly overmatched "Shuffle, Kick, Hum a Tune", and I'm obscurely pleased to note that when the violin comes in later, she stops singing, and they don't go back and pretend there's two of her with overdubs. "A Shaggy Dog Shames Its Owner" is about the lingering effects of a father's alcoholism, and it makes an instructive contrast to Art Alexakis' Everclear songs on the same subject, Art's defiant insistence that he'll be different probably prompting several more questions than Ben's plain and weirdly dispassionate "Even in death that guy still makes a mess of our lives". The album ends with a sketchy demo (although in KoLS' case the difference between a "real" song and a "demo" is just that the demo has a brief false start at the beginning) of a song about Portland indie-scene infighting that ought to be petulant and disposable, except it ends with the line "Sometimes I feel like I need new friends", and I'm left wondering whether this is just overflow doubt, causing the narrator to question the parts of his life that aren't the problem, or whether his uncertainty is so insidious that it can actually infect other things it touches. And yet grimly, as the title suggests, we can't, or won't, leave ourselves alone.
Kind of Like Spitting: Old Moon in the Arms of the New
Album two, in my arbitrary ordering, is the shortest, a nine-song, half-hour set on Hush Records (who also released the fourth, a proper, but mercifully unimproved, reissue of the 1997 CDR You Secretly Want Me Dead). Where the recordings on Nothing Makes Sense Without It came from a single session with a single band, these feature a revolving cast and a wider array of instruments, and therefore sound a little more like studio experiments than bedroom concerts, but the difference doesn't alter the atmosphere much. The beginning of the trudging "Old Moon Meet New" is one of Ben's most uncanny Eitzel pastiches, but then Jeff London's pulsing farfisa part comes in, and the song starts sounding like a paranoid soundtrack for a Metropolis remake by Jim Jarmusch. "Boy Cries Wolf" is an uncharacteristic attempt at momentary Sarah-Records-ish pop exuberance, with quick, chirpy guitars and Boycrazy drummer Rachel Blumberg contributing breathy harmonies. Eric Mast adds some Steward-esque beeps and clicks to his production of the violin-less "Two Violins, Which Are Meant to Represent the Forest", but it would take a lot more odd noises than these to make a song that revolves around "She tells her roommates not to take your calls, / You hear her telling them from the hall" much less plaintive. "Tyco Racing Set and a Christmas Story Fifteen Times", a clanging elaboration on "Silent Night", is unflinchingly pained, but the music pushes us towards "Sleep and hope for January" and out. The glib title of "Dostoyevsky Gets Mugged Outside a Donut Shop in Jersey" fails to hide a rattling, melodica-tinged crisis of faith. "On the Subject of Her New Gold Star" is one of two solo tracks here, the restless guitar wishing it could cartwheel into Richard Thompson spirals, Ben harmonizing carefully with himself as the lines of a hopeless love-triangle spill out of the meter. "To see your happiness is the truest gift, / Like when you're on the phone with him and you bite your lip". "So strange to change from a martyr to a person", he says, meaning himself, but then can't resist adding "Right where you belong / Not in these creepy songs with me", which I don't believe for a second. Mournful flute and accordion bias the stark "Young Fiction Writer", one of the few KoLS songs in which art is a metaphor for distance, instead of the other way around. "Young fiction writer, / You tried to live inside her, / Depending on paper / To save you in the end". It doesn't work, of course, any more than it ever does. "I Know You Heard Me the First Time" edges into Elliott Smith's territory, and offers a rare practical (albeit circular) justification for alcoholism, "So we take the bar home, / 'Cause we can't stand the smell any more." And "43C", the last song, is the simplest arrangement (one guitar, one voice, I think recorded in one pass), but the most elegant melody, part Nick Drake part the Beautiful South. It's also a real love song, for once, and although Ben seems self-conscious enough about this prospect that he has to circumscribe the topic (it's about him anticipating admitting he's in love, not being in it per se, and at the end he gets sidetracked into worrying about what his friends will think if he moves to another city to be with her), he does get through the song without undermining its intent, and for the moment I can't think of a more succinct evocation of romantic hope than "Soon it'll take two".
Kind of Like Spitting: One Hundred Dollar Room
There aren't any dates on Old Moon in the Arms of the New, but it alludes to winter more than once, so I'm guessing its recordings were done in late 1999 and early 2000, which makes One Hundred Dollar Room, recorded this June and co-released by the Florida labels Ganaarecordings and Ohev, the most recent. But I would have assumed that without any dates at all, just from listening. Many of the songs fit existing KoLS tropes, but in almost every case there's something identifiably more mature or ambitious about them: the deliberately arid low-fi processing on "Hook", the confident duet with Corrina Repp on "One Bird. One Stone", alternating leads with Sandy Shockley on the shifting "Scene" (which rises from a kids'-song lilt in Sandy's opening verse to churning guitar drama by the time Ben takes over), the Eitzel-ish "Hoax" bowing out after thirty seconds, "This Life, So Unlike the Last" unraveling itself ("Forget I wrote this, I changed my mind. / You thought I'd have learned something from the last time."), the cross between maudlin Morrissey-scale self-deprecation and "So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright" grace in "26 Is To Soon" (sic, I assume, unless you can think of a verb use for "soon"). "B-Side Poetry" takes a short throwaway lyric and sets it in surprisingly pretty (and charmingly out-of-sync) two-part a cappella. "Yes, You're Busted" finally gets Braid right, but then shuts down after only a minute and a half. "11:11", a complete song in thirty-four seconds, sounds like an old Elliott Smith vocal over a Billy Bragg guitar line.
But the difference between this album and the others is least subtle in three songs. The pounding, lurching "Cater", whose chorus reprises the same lyrics from "Hook" and "Hoax", is the closest Ben has come yet to writing and recording a real rock song, with choppy guitars, cracking drums (which Ben is playing himself, I believe the credits imply) and an aching 3/4 coda, falling short of three-minute glory solely by virtue of being only half that long. The break-up-acceptance song "Free Advice" is delicate and haunted in the same vein as "Haven't Been to the Ocean Sense" or "On the Subject of Her New Gold Star", but Elizabeth Elmore adds a spectral backing vocal to the chorus, and although I can't decide whether I think she's the subject of the song, or the next girl, or isn't playing a character at all, I'm sure "Even if it hasn't been that long, / She's none of your business any more" is a different line coming out of two mouths. And the record ends with a cover of Billy Bragg's "Little Time Bomb", which is doubly inspired, to me, first for acknowledging the debt, but second for redoing the song, which Bragg himself recorded with piano and horns on Workers Playtime, in a stunning and reverent imitation (pace, guitar style, vocal phrasing and even a trace of the accent) of Bragg circa Life's a Riot With Spy Vs. Spy. I never wanted Bragg to stop making solo albums, and I resisted the first few, but then I thought Don't Try This at Home was brilliant. I don't really want Ben to stop making fragile, home-recorded Kind of Like Spitting albums, either, but I suspect he's going to, and I know I'll fight them, and hopefully we'll both get through it.