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Lose Some Sleep and Say You Tried
305 · 30 November 00
Maybe this would have been different if I'd grown up in a city with a more active local music scene or a college radio station, or if I'd had the sort of social circle in which forging fake IDs and sneaking into bars wouldn't have seemed pathetic and pointless, but for the formative years of my musical life, music came from mainstream commercial radio. Either I listened to it on the radio, or I taped it off the radio onto my little boom-box, or I heard it on the radio and then bought the records, but in any case I learned, long before I was aware that it was a thing one could learn, rather than an intrinsic truth, that rock music (much of which was pop, of course, but nobody cool called it that) is made by rock stars. And since you and I do not get to interact with rock stars as if they are people, process of elimination suggests that they are objects, and listening to their music is thus an act of anonymous consumption. I don't think I ever had a sense, buying all those Big Country singles in the mid-Eighties, that I was supporting Big Country, because I didn't realize until much later that support might be an applicable concept. I was just collecting, collecting records the same way I collected bottle caps in museum parking lots or little plastic football helmets from IHOP when I was younger. Records existed, and I wanted them; other people weren't involved, and the transactions were invariably unidirectional.
My mental model of my own actions has, since then, undergone a slow and almost-complete inversion. When I buy a record now, obscure or popular, I buy with the clear feeling that I am supporting the artist. If it's U2, or Radiohead, or Madonna, this is a statistical delusion, but I buy enough records by bands who will be lucky to recoup duplication costs to know that often my ten or fifteen dollars makes a measurable difference. I have come to feel that music is a collaborative enterprise in which I am participating, in which I would be participating even if I didn't also write about it. But because these synaptic pathways are different from the ones that got formed early, some instinctual part of me believes that if music isn't made by famous strangers, it doesn't count, and/or vice versa. Songs that Ben Barnett or Graham Smith record in their bedrooms fall, like high-school plays and refrigerator art, into cheerful myopia or insular separatism, and are certainly never meant to be juxtaposed with Backstreet Boys couture or Oasis' belligerence.
This dichotomy is profoundly false, bordering on backwards, but it would be largely harmless if these two internal concepts of music didn't have for me, for historical reasons, corresponding genre associations. Metal and synth-pop were the first two styles I intently absorbed, so those automatically belong to the world to me, and I came to understated DIY only recently, so it remains private. In metal's case there's probably a good argument to be made that scale is an integral component of the style, so in a way you couldn't make a bedroom-recorded, 1000-copy-run old-school heavy-metal album even if you wanted to. Synth-pop, on the other hand, can be miniaturized quite effectively. And so, listening to ZeRo-oNe-INFINITY, the second album by DC synth-pop neo-traditionalists Barcelona, I feel the twinges of opposing reflexes. One, tracing the beepy, looping contours of the music, wishes to categorize Barcelona with Yaz, OMD and the Human League; the other, focusing instead on Jason Korzen's scratchy guitar and his and Jennifer Carr's unceremoniously artless singing, knows that those may be their influences, but that isn't their tribe. These are songs raised on John Hughes movies, but by people who know they could never have been, and never would have wanted to be, those movies' characters. These are symbolic songs, structurally, but with actual subjects, like Mondrian portraiture. I struggle to find the right idiom in which to couch my reaction, to decide whether I want Barcelona to be artists, so I can be a patron, or whether I'd rather they lived two blocks over, and sometimes their mother would call mine to invite me over to play.
This tiny, arbitrary war of impulses, however, takes place inside a single hollowed-out moment of theory, and back where time flows normally into practice, my reactions take care of themselves. The album opens with a square, decisive drum-machine thump, burbling synth textures, bounding sequencer hooks and wiry rhythm guitar, and by the time Jen steps up to the microphone to start the clipped narration of "Studio Hair Gel" I'm ready to discover how New Wave has evolved since "Don't You Want Me?" and "Only You", instead of insisting on trying to deduce it in advance. There is, in fact, it seems to me, a relatively clear three-way tension that underlies all of these songs, and it's as evident in "Studio Hair Gel" as any of them. trevor/hollAnd's ambitious, meticulously controlled production, first of all, not much changed from simon BASIC, suggests that he and the band still might like nothing better than to become the next generation's New Order, a group whose every b-side recedes coyly into legend. Jason and Jen's singing styles, though (slightly less veiled here by production tricks, but as if they're singing because they're in the band and in bands somebody always sings, not because they're trying to foil any expectations), and the aggressively geeky lyrics (half these songs allude to technology issues in the titles, and if you count technophobia, millennialism and synth-pop history as technology issues there are only two songs that revolve around anything else) invite novelty dismissal, or at least cult-niche relegation. And then, thirdly, lurking under almost every cheerfully glib computer-lab tableau is one fragile bit of emotional truth that persuades me to pay closer attention. "Studio Hair Gel", for example, is nominally a New Wave crush song, the girl name-dropping Howard Jones, Robert Smith, Tracks, black vests, Casios, hair gel and bad dancing on the way to promising that none of that fazes her. But there are odd quirks in her side of the story, too. "Boys all say you must be strange; / I don't see what they mean", she admits, and I'm left wondering whether she heard "strange" when they said "queer". "Some dead poet or some such mess" is her guess at the meaning of the badge on his vest, and while I can't correct her, since she doesn't notice or say what's on the badge, I'm pretty sure it doesn't have anything to do with dead poets, and might well be something she'll later wish she'd known. And she means her own crush when she says "It must be obvious", but he's clearly missing that, so I wonder what she's missing that's obvious to him. "Bugs" bounces along like a "Bizarre Love Triangle" from the point of view of a computer-programmer too wrapped up in work to have romantic entanglements, but although an "If you would only hold my hand" in the middle could be a plea for coding help, I think we're meant to interpret the whole thing as his attempt to recast his relationship problems in programming terms because they're the only ones that don't scare him. Pop lyrics don't get much geekier than "Paging System Operator" (show me another song with a line as obscure as "I saw your name on a cracker screen / Waiting for EA Winter Games to load"), but the scene that eventually plays out, a thirteen-year-old looking online for a mentor and finding what turns out to be only another thirteen-year-old, is both trenchant and plaintive, and probably far more representative than the usual romanticized melodrama about the shy kid who learns to open up in the nurturing nobody-knows-how-old-you-are safety of the net. Tenderness and possibility, as they always do, brush against certain doom.
The music changes gears slightly for the choppier "Electronic Company", synths giving way to bass and guitar vaguely reminiscent of the Jam's "Start", but the theme is, again, the temptation to let machines be a shield between you and other people. "My stereo knows how to warm the room. / Given the choice I choose electronic company", he says, and I'd object, but here I am. In the jubilant, kaleidoscopic "I Have the Password to Your Shell Account", on the other hand (geekier than "Paging System Operator"? maybe), machines are the medium in which a relationship (or, in this case, revenge for a relationship transgression, but the difference is often semantic) is conducted. "Bass and Drums (For Modem Users)" is a fleeting instrumental that probably didn't deserve its own track index, but it leads into the "Radio Free Europe"-dance-mix-ish intro to "Replicant", which in turn ends up being a stiffly robotic ode to bioengineering. "I've fallen in love with my replicant", Jason mutters, and I begin pondering the observation that he sings the songs in which we build things to keep other people away, and Jen sings the ones in which we build things to reach them. They then promptly confound me by singing the measured, swirly "Obsoletion" as a duet, and disarming the menacing, grinding "Robot Trouble" with sunnily oohed chorus harmonies. The verses of the nostalgically paranoid "Have You Forgotten the Bomb?" are perhaps album's closest approach to a vintage New Order dance groove, but the quick, chirping guitar owes more to the Wedding Present. "1980-1990" pivots on a perky count through those years, but "I'm not afraid of the Millennium, / I will not be here when you come to Earth" provokes some unsettling hypotheses about why the span in the title ends ten years before the rapture in the chorus. Except writing a song in 2000 about planning to have killed yourself in 1990 to avoid a numerological Final Judgment we already know didn't happen doesn't make much sense, so presumably I've misread something.
The album finally turns from shards into mosaic, for me, with the unexpectedly straightforward pop song "Haunted by the Ghost of Patty". I take this, although I'd give at least two-in-five odds that I'm imposing an overarching narrative Barcelona didn't mean to put there, to be the answer song for "Studio Hair Gel", his reply to her attention, and as soon as I have the ends of the story, the other songs fall into place as questions in the middle. Is he ignoring her as a symptom of his fear of vulnerability, or is his overall introspection actually a projection of one specific fear of rejection onto everything else? "Feels like I'm being watched, / But I'm glad I'm not alone", he professes, but then instead of addressing the unspoken dilemma he spins off into a digression, albeit a reverent one, about the dead pop star he thinks she thinks she is (the late Patty Donahue, of the Waitresses). But we've peered into her mind, and she's dreaming no such thing, so the monologue reflects back onto him, and her chances of reaching him the way she wants become that much more remote. If their story has an ending, though, we're going to have to wait until the next album to hear what it is, as this one ends with two thematic non sequiturs. The deliberate, humming, Jen-sung "My Mom's New Boyfriend" is the narrator's case for why her mother's much-younger boyfriend would be better off going out with her. And the finale, apropos to absolutely none of this, is the long-awaited album appearance of my favorite Barcelona live song, "Kasey Keller", Jason's earnest, jangly, guitar-driven tribute to the ten-save MVP performance Keller, the US men's national soccer team's first-string goalkeeper, turned in during the 1-0 upset of Brazil in the 1998 Gold Cup semi-final. I feared, after hearing them play this song in concert, that they'd be too self-conscious to put it on an album, and I'm happy enough to have been wrong that I'm half-tempted to try to write a companion piece, myself, about Preki, who scored both that game's lone goal and the late winner in the 2-1 victory over Costa Rica in the previous round. In the context of the advance/retreat relationship ambivalence the rest of the album hints at, though, this feels like changing the subject, defensively, yet again. I do love soccer (I wonder whether the audience for deadpan indie-pop anthems about US soccer history includes anybody but me and Jason), but I hate leaving stories in the middle. Is he gay? Does he tell her? What does she do? What does he do? It doesn't take much to imagine gender implications of the zero and one in the title, but if zero-one-infinity is a syllogism, not just a programmer's rule, what does infinity represent? Never mind what they're about to discover about each other, I don't think either of them is getting through this without discovering something surprising about themselves, and I hate the idea that they're going to do it off stage. "What's the point of doing anything if nobody's watching?" sounded craven when Nicole Kidman's character said it in To Die For, but an unobserved fictional character ceases to exist. Jason and Jen's characters might be real people, for all I know, might even be themselves, but if you turn yourself into a character, in order to tell a story, you incur the responsibility of finishing it. Actually, I think I believe that as an imperative, not a conditional: you must turn yourself into a character in order to tell a story, no matter whether you're telling the story to a packed arena or an empty bedroom, and once you begin telling stories you incur the responsibility of finishing them. Not knowing how they'll end is no excuse. You keep telling, and hope, word by word, that you can think of the next one. When you get it right, people sing along.
Vitesse: Chelsea 27099
If "the next New Order" becomes a title worth coveting, for some reason, one of the few bands poised to challenge Barcelona for it is Hewson Chen and Joshua Klein's studio project Vitesse. As of their first record, A Certain Hostility, they struck me as a reiteration of Stephin Merritt's Magnetic Fields on the way to being a streamlined improvement on the Magnetic Fields, but since then Merritt made 69 Love Songs, after which I ceased expecting anybody else to improve on his aesthetic, and for either that reason or one of their own, Chen and Klein have steered Vitesse a few degrees further from Merritt's course for their second album, and although the vocal styles continue to resemble Merritt's, or a parody of Merritt at his glummest, the arrangements have begun to exchange Merritt's baroque toy-instrument tendencies for a clicky old-Factory-Records-ish patterned drive. Hissing hi-hats, sharp snare cracks, buzzing bass loops and high, stabbing synth chords drive the sumptuous, dance-y "When Nothing's Changed", the opener. "Brighter Than the Sky" is slower, coruscating mallet-synth shimmers falling over a spare drum-machine rattle and Chen and Klein's vocal rounds. The spindly guitars and boomy drums of "Philosophy or Forgetfulness" and the jarring chords and glum vocals of "These Long Centuries" push back past New Order towards Joy Division, but the picked guitar cycles and muted drum loop of "The Footpath" could have been borrowed from Trembling Blue Stars, and "Wicks & Fuses" invokes some Pet Shop Boys disco by way of the Future Bible Heroes' "Hopeless". "Good Fortune" might be Merritt improvising over the backing tracks from some forgotten "Shell Shock"-era New Order outtake, but "A Kiss, an Interrogation" sounds more like an old Jesus & Mary Chain song denuded of all its distortion and feedback. The quick, jittery, drum-machine-loaded "Everything's Amiss" is segmented like a mid-Eighties extended remix, although it's barely three minutes long. The disconsolate singing on "A Telegram, the Telegraph" distracts from what would otherwise be an excellent, twittery little instrumental in the vein of Assembly and Simple Minds b-sides, but "Stolz Darauf" splits the difference between Frankie Goes to Hollywood effusion and Merritt's "Born on a Train" reticence fairly elegantly. And "Swinging Bachelor Pad", the conclusion, another hammering drum loop under glitterball synth cascades, edges towards Peter Godwin. If I'm in the wrong mood, a few of these moments seem a shade too contrived to me, like they've built a whole song around a single drum loop out of some misplaced devotion to Greek unities, not because the song wouldn't have been better off with a variation or two, or like they were tempted to do some real singing but decided an album with ten songs that sound like Stephin Merritt and two that sound like Jim Kerr would be too weird. And where it's my impression that Barcelona sound like an old New Wave band because that's just the sound that happens when they get together to play, I'm betting that Vitesse prepped for this, and may even have picked specific New Order songs to emulate. The lyrics are unremarkable, and my only idea about what "Chelsea 27099" refers to evaporated when I found out that the ZIP code 27099 is in North Carolina. But like Merritt, Chen and Klein are archivists at heart, and if A Certain Hostility served as a summary what-went-before preface to 69 Love Songs for me, bracketing Merritt's old work by imagining its logical reduction, then maybe Chelsea 27099 is their attempt to exhume the common morbidity Merritt used to share with Ian Curtis, now that Merritt has transcended it, and imagine what Curtis might have made if he'd been able to do the same. It's a long way from "Love Will Tear Us Apart" to "The Sun Goes Down and the World Goes Dancing", but sometimes the long journeys are the most necessary.