You Can't Start a Sentence Like That
307 · 14 December 00
Cinerama: This Is Cinerama
You take on a responsibility, in my opinion, when you put out singles, to eventually come back and compile them for posterity. Posterity, one might counter, may or may not appreciate the gesture, and I'm aware of the structural difficulties posed by the Kantian extrapolation of this idea, which is that everything ever put out should remain in print indefinitely. So here is a compromise: as long as you are alive and working, you are the narrator of your own story, and if you wish to be an honest and respectful narrator (and I think you should wish to be an honest and respectful narrator, but that's a separable argument), you have to keep your story from decomposing. Consolidating and reformatting are, when done with the audience's welfare in mind, laudable ideas, even though in some strict formal sense you are editing, and thus distorting, the record. But letting albums go out of print, abandoning b-sides to history and rearranging your past as if it told some other story to begin with are all deliberate narrative revisionisms, which are destructive not only to the coherency of the dialogue between the storyteller and the audience, but perhaps even more so to the sense of the dialogue within the audience. It is hard enough to talk about art when the art stays the same and the world changes around it; if both are changing, and every discussion has to begin with an arduous recapitulation of what the art is, before we can begin to wonder what it means, then it simply becomes less likely that we will learn anything, and art risks buying mutability at the price of becoming moot.
David Gedge, once of the Wedding Present and now of Cinerama, has done one of the better jobs of maintaining one of the more unruly back catalogs. The Wedding Present put out records on half a dozen different labels, including nearly three dozen singles and tracks from well more than a dozen radio sessions (eleven Peel sessions alone), but between singles collections, radio-session compilations and bonus tracks on album reissues, it's possible to reconstruct the vast majority of the band's history even if, like me, they had already disbanded by the time you figured out that they weren't Nick Cave's old band. Cinerama have only added two albums and a handful of singles to the story, but even that much has been conveniently consolidated by the release (on Cooking Vinyl in the UK and spinART in the US) of This Is Cinerama, which assembles all thirteen tracks from their pre-Disco Volante singles and one stray compilation remix.
One drawback of this diligence, of course, is that it caters to compulsiveness, so although it's quite possible, with a little research and some CD programming, to relive more or less the entire history of the Wedding Present, in order, at a leisurely and comprehension-conducive pace, it's also pretty easy to buy a dozen Wedding Present discs in a random order, attempt to listen to them all at once, and end up with a) a firm conviction that the band was brilliant, b) a rather more ambiguous impression that their brilliance had something to do with frenetic, trebly, low-sustain guitar and acerbic, yelping vocals, and c) essentially no ability to discern patterns in the band's progress or tell the phases apart. I did manage to absorb enough about the Wedding Present, though, to recognize that the first Cinerama album, Va Va Voom, belonged to a different aesthetic in a way that new bands with old lead singers often do not. Game Theory and the Loud Family are not really two bands, to me, nor are Pop Art and Smart Brown Handbag; I consider Galaxie 500/Luna and the Psychedelic Furs/Love Spit Love to be borderline cases; but the Housemartins and the Beautiful South are clearly different, as are the Jam and the Style Council. The latter two are instructive examples, in fact, as the Wedding Present were a manic, twitchy punk band in about the same sense that the Jam and the Housemartins were punk bands (by which we really mean that they would have been old-fashioned Brit-pop bands but they played too fast and always sounded irritated about something), and Va Va Voom's transformation, like that of Welcome to the Beautiful South and Introducing the Style Council, revolved around slowing down and adopting an air of vaguely European sophistication. I liked the first few Beautiful South albums, but I resented and despised the Style Council from the start and still do; Va Va Voom didn't seem like a betrayal to me, precisely, but I did provisionally conclude that it represented a tangent I wouldn't enjoy following. Not one I wouldn't follow, necessarily, just one I'd gripe about.
It was a good theory in every way except being totally wrong. When I go back to Va Va Voom now, no longer expecting it to be a Wedding Present record in disguise, I discover that although I still don't like it, my overall aversion is a product of a small number of very specific touches: bloopy vibes on the becalmed "Hate", wah-wah guitar in "Barefoot in the Park", the slow pace of "Ears", the Oasis-ish ham-fistedness of "Hard, Fast and Beautiful", some spaghetti-western twang on "Honey Rider". If I concentrate instead on the snapping drums and New-Order-esque guitars of "Comedienne", the sweeping strings and confident bounce of "Kerry Kerry" and "Dance, Girl, Dance", the shifting dynamics and sotto voce backing vocals of "You Turn Me On", the choppy guitars and tangled vocal duet of "Love" and the sunny cynicism of "Au Pair", I'm much happier. "Kerry Kerry" and "Dance, Girl, Dance" were a-sides, in fact, and "Love" and "Au Pair" (bonus tracks on the US edition of Va Va Voom) were b-sides, so the aspect Cinerama reveals on this collection turns out to be more to my liking. The unhurried "Kerry Kerry", recast as an introduction, alludes to Heavenly's metamorphosis into Marine Research as it passes in the direction of even grander scale. "Love" (one of the b-sides from the "Kerry Kerry" CD-single), with tumbling percussion and Delgados singer Emma Pollock's spiraling counterpart, accelerates just slightly, "Au Pair" (the other one) twists velocity into weight, the bewildered "7X" (from the first of two "Kerry Kerry" seven-inches) rides shuffling drums into brash chorus flourishes, and the sparkly, expansive "Mr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang" (from the second) could be the Euro-pop future the Wonder Stuff never got around to. The dizzy "Dance, Girl, Dance" swoons like the Smiths channeling ABBA, but the chorus opens with "But of course none of this has happened at all, yet", revealing the fantasy and redrawing the line on the floor that invariably cordons self-aware romantics off from Dancing Queens. "Model Spy" (one "Dance, Girl, Dance" b-side) is a sort of ersatz Bond theme, but the string-lined ballad "Crusoe" (the other) is plaintive on the order of Del Amitri, the narrator suspended between breakup self-righteousness and a friend's empathy ("You can't start a sentence like that and not end it" but "You can't write a letter like that and not send it", "You can't get a phone call like that and not tell me" but "You can't lie with him in our bed and not smell me"). "Pacific", a 45 a-side, is my favorite song here and maybe the smallest, eerie mellotron-ish synth loops over ticking drums and springy bass, Sally Murrell's vocal lead sharing melodic responsibilities with restrained flute and piano runs. The broad delivery of "King's Cross", the b-side, deflects attention from an inspiredly convoluted relationship song, a repentant adulterer's apology to a disappointed mistress, whose chorus, "I thought that you and me were never meant to be; / Now why would I think that?", keeps intimating that her disappointment is an affectation. In this context the fourth a-side, "Manhattan", with its spindly harpsichords and solemn horns, is an arresting atavism, an unornamented explanation of why the narrator isn't going to sleep with an alluring stranger. "Film" would be a surf pastiche if Gedge and Murrell didn't insist on singing over it, but the gloomy de- and re-construction of the Smiths' "London", with numbers-station samples for texture, turns the song into something that could as easily have originally been Ennio Morricone's, Leonard Cohen's or Nick Drake's. And although the Valvola remix of "Ears", the one non-single track here, contorts it into a coy, Pizzicato Five-esque pose, which isn't usually my idea of improvement, at least it's not too slow any more. I'm not converted, quite, yet, but I'm ready to let the second Cinerama album do what it can.
Cinerama: Disco Volante
And for thirty seconds, as "146 Degrees" opens with dry conga-drum patter, misplaced guitar swagger and ominous backing-vocal sighs, I think Disco Volante is going to squander its opportunity after all, but then the real cadence picks up, the strings materialize, a pounding EMF-worthy piano joins in, and the song pushes towards its arching, voyeuristic chorus. The production this time around is a bizarre hybrid. The band, a revolving cast over the course of the singles, has now resolved to Gedge, Murrell, Wedding Present guitarist Simon Cleave and Goya Dress bassist and drummer Terry de Castro and Simon Pearson, and their central parts were recorded by Steve Albini in Chicago in his usual bare-walled manner, but the overdubs (horns, winds, strings, an accordion and some extra vocals) were added afterwards, back in London with Dare Mason. Evidently Albini's contract doesn't have a clause preventing that. It would be my first guess that he hates the result, but the combined effect, to me, is not that different from his recording of Miles Hunt's post-Wonder Stuff trio Vent 414, simultaneously stripped and hopeful. The songs nearly amount to variations on a single theme, more than half of them centered not on the moment in which you make a mistake, but on the moment when you decide whether you're going to or not. "Lollobrigida" (yes to the mistake), a mallety and confused invocation of the Italian actress' glamour, seems slight to me, but "Your Charms" (yes, but ruefully), galloping and giddy, sounds like a frayed Mutton Birds outtake, or the loudest Lucksmiths song ever, and could serve as Cinerama's new signature. The surging "Heels", a flirt's confidant's memoir, never exactly clarifies the narrator's own feelings for the girl, but the slinky "Unzip" (yes), with its slithering falsetto chorus invitations ("Just unzip your inhibitions", the third syllable of "inhibitions" stretched out over three), flips back to the seducer's amoral perspective on infidelity. "Aprés Ski" (yes; the accent aigu is either a mistake or a French joke that goes over my head) is a woman's confession about allowing herself to be seduced ("It didn't mean a thing, it's not embarrassing, it was just disappointing"), the music somewhere between the Cardigans at their darkest and the Manic Street Preachers at their lightest. "Superman" (no) has a waltzing Swedish lilt, but Billy Bragg's sobriety. The sedate, clipped "Let's Pretend" (no) is Gedge's entry in the roll call of songs about giving her stuff back, from the Nails' " Things You Left Behind" to Big Country's "Somebody Else". "Wow" (maybe), Albini mashing the guitar into a tuneless grind but the strings subverting his hostility, comes off like a Vent 414 song daydreaming about Jethro Tull. "Your Time Starts Now" (no), though, the finale, survives unscathed, David and Sally gliding over bare acoustic guitar in parts, subdued strings in others, as close as they come here to Belle and Sebastian or Starlet. But the pop song for the ages, if every album has zero or one of them and I'm the person who chooses, is the cart-wheeling call-and-response volley "Because I'm Beautiful", like a Marine Research remake of "Don't You Want Me", David's character a composite of all the "yes" narrators, Sally's the archetype of all the centers of attention. "Everybody wants to know", she says, "How every party seems to become my show. / They ask me why my life is never dull, / I just say 'Because. / Because I'm beautiful.'" And he says "Oh, I'm sure there's no man you can't pull", and she protests "But that was just a joke", and he counters "I saw his face when you spoke". He claims later to believe her act is unintentional, which it obviously isn't (at least they're both quite aware of it, although awareness and intent aren't synonymous), but I'm inclined to think that they deserve each other, that he's finally realized that she puts herself in the center of attention because she's scared of not having anything to say to herself if she were alone, and that she has tacitly acknowledged that she needs somebody willing to see through her act and yet still pretend to treat her as a trophy. Together they are a couple who actually love each other for their defining flaws, pretending to be a couple who pretend to love each other for their apparent virtues. And similarly, this is a subtle, studious, mature pop album pretending to be a subtle, studious, mature pop album pretending to be glib, noisy and kitsch. We needn't believe, but we ought to be polite enough to act as if we do.
David Bridie: Act of Free Choice
David Bridie was the lead singer in the Australian sextet Not Drowning, Waving, a muted mainstream pop group that developed atmospheric world-music aspirations. The old band was still operating when he and NDW cellist Helen Mountfort started their other sextet, My Friend the Chocolate Cake, an atmospheric acoustic chamber/world-music ensemble with muted mainstream pop aspirations, but after a few years of coexistence (1991-1994, more or less) NDW folded and MFtCC took over. Both groups made eminently soundtrack-friendly music, and Bridie ended up, unsurprisingly, doing a number of soundtracks in various capacities (NDW scored Proof and Hammers, Bridie and NDW compatriot John Phillips did What I Have Written, The Myth of Fingerprints and various TV and theater pieces, and David did In a Savage Land by himself). Act of Free Choice is his first official solo album, but various NDW and MFtCC players participated in one way or another, and while the production style is more insular than NDW and much more studio-centric than MFtCC, the prevailing ambience is fairly similar. As with the Wedding Present, I've consumed the NDW/MFtCC catalogs in large retrospective gulps, and I so far have only a murky idea of how they fit together, but that's enough background for me to make two observations. One is that Act of Free Choice gives David a chance to apply the micro-structures of movie soundtracks to pop songs, so even if the songs are the same kind of music he would have written for NDW or MFtCC, bands will tend to produce arrangements that sound like bands, like several humans interacting, and composers sequestered in home studios will tend to produce arrangements with fewer personalities, with simpler elements because there's nobody to be underutilized. Ensemble interactions are their own justification, and NDW and MFtCC are two particularly compelling examples, but as a solipsist, at heart, I'm reliably fascinated by what happens when a single person takes control of as many variables as possible. It isn't that these drum machines and synthesizers and samples reveal the true souls of these songs, which cellos and violins and basses never glimpsed, but band and solo songs inform each other, showing where execution falls short of inspiration and where it's vice versa. We can pretend that this is how David's songs always sounded in his head, and thus understand better how they had to be adapted for the other players.
The other observation, which has nothing to do with NDW or MFtCC, is that this is the album Gary Numan should have been ready to make by now. David and Gary have the same tools, and Gary could have been to Greenland or Latvia as easily as David has been to Papau New Guinea, so why is David's record so awe-inspired and open-eyed, and Gary's so bitter and masked? "The Koran, the Ghan and a Yarn" opens the album with a crackly, haunted requiem for the persecuted Afghan camelmen after whom the train route to Alice Springs is named, and if Gary had tried to write the song it would have ended up being about torture, self-doubt, or perhaps a monorail. Percussion loops, flyby guitar feedback hums and a breathy, bass-buoyed chorus reminiscent of NDW's near-perfect "Spark" animate the eloquent and eerie "Dive", like a landscape oil of the neglected, earth-reclaimed hills above Numan's bunker. "Breath" has a slow, Numan-esque drum-loop, but weird ululating backing-vocal samples, a redemptive vocal line in which David sounds surprisingly like Alison Moyet, ringing piano and a thin tendril of oboe. The cinematic "Kerosene" sounds like a secret collaboration between David Gray and Bruce Hornsby. "The Deserters" is a glassy, Arvo Pärt-ish orchestral lullaby with David's warm voice noting, quietly, "You can tell so much about a place / By the way they treat their own deserters". "Float" is more muscular, buzzing synth-bass and chattering drums under "Bullet the Blue Sky"-like incantations; "Sad" is more distracted, echoey synth-bells and muttering bass pulses rattling along, funereally, but as if Death is less a destination than a landmark. The watery "Talk Mister Nation", with a children's conversation running under it, sounds like a threnodic variation on Gavin Bryars' The Sinking of the Titanic for the kids in the drowned school bus in The Sweet Hereafter. The lumbering, incantatory version of the old MFtCC song "Salt", now subtitled "(I Don't Want to Go No Further)", could be Nine Inch Nails talking blues laced with strands of the piano from Tori Amos' "Precious Things". The gruff, 3/4 wake "The Last Great Magician" reminds me of Whipping Boy, as if barrows and outbacks' differences matter less than our shared relationships to hidden lands. And the last song, "Found Wanting" (with, weirdly, another numbers-station recording as backdrop), could be overlaid across just about any track on Gary Numan's Pure, but David is patient, Gary paranoid, and which story would you rather inhabit? "I'm so scared / I can't breathe", Gary complains, too fascinated by his fear to bother trying to escape it. "Some things are better left alone", David counters, and in walking away, arrives.
Donnie Munro: On the West Side
It doesn't make any literal sense for an atheist to have holy music, but you can believe in spirituality without thinking it has to derive its authority from anywhere outside ourselves. And if real holy music celebrates the eternal, bigger than life, then it's appropriate that my holiest music, Runrig's Amazing Things, celebrates the eternal that is exactly as big as life, wonder that is endless not because the afterlife is infinite but because the human heart is infinite, even trapped in these bodies.
Original Runrig lead singer Donnie Munro left the band in 1997 to run for election to the Scottish Parliament. He lost, and has since found time to record this studio album and a live album I haven't found yet, and tour, which is as much as Runrig has accomplished in his absence, so the petulant part of me, which hates politics as much as all the other parts of me, wishes he had simply stayed. It's Donnie's loss, though, as Bruce Guthro has taken over his duties in Runrig with admirable aplomb, while Donnie's solo album, despite his beautiful voice and Chris Harley's overtly Runrig-like production, seems to me to tread too often on either Scottish or soft-rock clichés, sometimes both.
For the length of a single song, though, the airy, aching title track, he either avoids the clichés or else they happen to align just the way I prefer them, and it's like a parting gift, an extra Runrig song as effortlessly resonant as "Healer in Your Heart" or "Wonderful". "We walk the road", Donnie sings, drums pattering, synths gleaming, bass rumbling, a simple four-note guitar cascade cycling in the background. I don't know what city's West Side he's dreaming of, but it doesn't matter. Draw any shape on the earth, and then walk to an edge and look out. Now your story has a plot, and a symbol system. What's behind you, you have claimed; what you see, and what was once unknown, even if you eventually cover every foot's span, will forever stand, for you, for the courage to take, in whatever direction you've never moved before, that one next crucial step.