Notes to Tape to the Heavy Machines
310 · 4 January 01
Joe Jackson: Night and Day II
If I ever give up on pop music, I suspect that it will not be due to having lost the ability to enjoy it, but because, as with Olympic gymnastics and greyhound racing, I have run out of ways to believe that it doesn't constitute abuse. In gymnastics, informed adults take uninformed children and manipulate their tendons to entertain other adults. It is remarkable, admittedly, what movements a child's body can be trained to perform, but this is only a temporary trick. By the time a human is old enough to understand what their body means, and so old enough to be an audience for their own accomplishments, they are too old for competitive gymnastics. (Greyhound racing is marginally more humane, since there are charities devoted to finding retired racing dogs new homes where they can nap peacefully without constantly being reminded of their irretrievable pasts.) Commercial pop music, especially now, operates far too similarly, exhibiting naïfs for traits over which they often have little control. Pop stars are not supposed to develop, they're supposed to flare, and then fade away quietly, somewhere around album three, so they can be replaced by fresh ones. Menudo was only unusual because they were honest about it, and they kept using the same group name for different kids. In a just world, you would not be asked (or allowed) to perform for anybody but your peers and your parents until your legal independence. That would eliminate movies about children, I realize (if you want to tell a story about children, write a book), and radically alter the financial strategies of every university that currently has a televisible athletic program, but those are sacrifices we are, as adults, responsible for making on each new generation's behalf. It is our public and cultural obligation to learn to be better entertained by wisdom and dialectic than by the stomachs of virgins. And so the album of the year, for me, is at once a lesson in history, innovation, observation, self-awareness, humility, proportion, obsession, whimsy, poignancy, doubt, confidence, social anthropology, the relationship between high art and low, the tension between chaos and beauty, how we scare and comfort each other and ourselves, and the sounds we make when we think we aren't saying anything. The closer I examine Night and Day II, the more fascinated I am, the farther I back away from it the more awed. It is a sequel that calls into question the finality of art, a pop album with a symphony's sophistication, a New York record for a universal city. It is an argument for experimentation, maturity, perseverance, loyalty, empathy and a fair amount of self-preservational contempt. To an audience that worries what it will become, which is the only audience art ever really has, it suggests that it is worth surviving to find out.
The Loud Family: Attractive Nuisance
And so, too, Night and Day II is why I know that Attractive Nuisance will not be Scott Miller's final music. It could be his last album as the Loud Family, this phase concluding, seemingly oddly (but as did Game Theory), on a normal cycle of his weird/normal album-structure oscillation, and it could be the last work of scale we get to hear from him for a while, but it is not the end. You cannot write songs like this and then never write songs again. You cannot care this much about how we tell the stories of who we are and then stop writing your own. It's intolerable, but more importantly, it's impossible and unnecessary. What is the antithesis of savant? I used to think Scott was being coy when he professed to have no sense of rhythm and dislike his own voice, but I've finally concluded that he's being honest, and that he makes intricately paced, exquisitely sung music not because he has a gift for it, or some kind of energy he could exhaust, but because he wants to so badly that physiology and predisposition are too intimidated to intervene. Maybe he could have backed out fifteen years ago, let Blaze of Glory, Pointed Accounts of People You Know and Distortion be his Seymour Glass stories and Real Nighttime be his Catcher in the Rye, and spent the rest of his life in hiding, but it's too late for that now. The roads from "Sleeping Through Heaven" to "720 Times Happier Than the Unjust Man", from "In a Delorean" to "No One's Watching My Limo Ride", from "Too Late for Tears" to "Blackness, Blackness", do not end here. And if it is days before he returns to them, or years, we have this triumphantly hopeless farewell to keep us company. Patience will be painless, and the days of waiting serene.
The Clientele: Suburban Light
Camden: Reel Time Canvas
Even my favorite beginnings, this year, are more luminous than incandescent. I've seen both these bands play, and can report that all seven members appear easily young and scruffy enough to have formed Buzzcocks clone-bands and become fleetingly notorious if they'd wanted to. Instead the Clientele set about writing the wistful love songs a derelict Yellow Submarine sings from the ocean floor to half-glimpsed whales, and Camden attempt to simultaneously reconstruct all the surging, inexplicable guitar albums that, in a less easily side-tracked world, Radiohead, Braid, the Chameleons and My Bloody Valentine would have made by now. Both records are more than a little evasive and may well be almost as baffling to themselves as they are to me. But uncertainty is transformation's most reliable catalyst.
Sarah Dougher: The Walls Ablaze
If Liz Phair plans to return to Exile in Guyville, once she's old enough to no longer feel comfortable leaving it unqualified, she will now have to disentangle her own responses from the senses in which Sarah Dougher's second album reconceived Exile's spare aesthetic, and find some way to improve upon a philosophical revision that extracts a vivid, petulant Lolita and writes in, in her place, a chastened Virginia Woolf.
Park Ave.: When Jamie Went to London...
Plumtree: This Day Won't Last at All
Another advantage of not distributing children's art is that it will ensure that the kids who still want to perform once they grasp the implications will begin their public careers at the most anxious and fearless possible stage of life, and we will get more albums like Park Ave.'s brief, desperate, erratic, soul-wrenching portrait of first-love heartbreak and Plumtree's fierce, crashing, expansive demonstration of what the Shaggs might have amounted to if the music lessons had taken, or how the Go-Go's might have turned out if they'd grown up without ever seeing a B movie or a Germs show.
The Weakerthans: Left and Leaving
With the Bonaduces and Too Much Joy both apparently gone, somebody had to take over their responsibility for acute insight and unexpected dignity disguised as glib, manic buzz-pop. Left and Leaving would be the year's second-place album if I judged solely by lyrics, or first-place if I'm not allowed to count one I don't pretend to understand.
Sarah Harmer: You Were Here
It took Canadian rock musicians to make the best album of traditional Americana I've heard since Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, a living-room recording by somebody who'd made three and a half albums already to produce what might be the most accomplished folk debut since Living With Ghosts, and two copies of this record, on two different labels, to convince me that it was possible to cross Gillian Welch with the Leslie Spit Treeo and come out with something as reticent as puppetry rehearsals and as redemptive as walking up a dirt road to where the world starts.
bis: Music for a Stranger World
[DARYL]: Communication: Duration
My two favorite derivations of New Wave from this year are both EPs, bis' frenetic electro-punk stopgap extrapolating from last year's defiantly shiny Social Dancing with renewed unselfconsciousness, [DARYL]'s prefatory sampler extrapolating from an alternate dimension in which of course both of an emo quartet's guitarists also play keyboards.
Nina Gordon: Tonight and the Rest of My Life
The Corrs: In Blue
Without the Corrs, I might have retreated to a principled objection to Nina Gordon's blithe post-Veruca Salt sugar-pop catharsis on the order of my revulsion at Colleen Fitzpatrick's post-Eve's Plum make-over as Vitamin C, but put the two bands together and it's pointless to pretend that the rational fraction of my mind has any power to overrule all the endorphin glands that begin cheerfully infusing me with the firm conviction of ecstatic personal well-being and ineradicable global elation the moment any hook from either of these albums gets through an ear.
Meat Puppets: Golden Lies
I didn't like that many real rock records this year, even fewer not asterisked by fringe-genre connections, and I almost never like any record with a song about zombies, but the Meat Puppets' bounding, all-directions-at-once romp treads on a couple decades of hard-rock bluster, reclaims some of the guitar noises that Nirvana borrowed, and makes a weirdly plausible case that They Might Be Giants could, at least for a little while, survive a martial-law dictatorship administered by Foghat.
I tolerate ties in these lists, so cutting one down to "ten" usually only means getting it to thirteen or fourteen, but this year my song list hit its more-or-less-irreducible length at twenty three. I glared plaintively at it for a few days, hoping it would disassemble itself out of sheer contrition, but it held together with a clumpy stubbornness. For every individual song I tried to take out, one of the remaining ones whimpered pitifully until I returned its mate to it. So I have capitulated to what is, evidently, the structure of this part of my 2000 experience, and assembled a list not of ten songs, but of the a- and b-sides of ten imaginary singles.
Mark Kozelek: "Ruth Marie" (from Rock 'N' Roll Singer)
The Arrogants: "Lovesick" (acoustic version, Your Simple Beauty bonus track)
Only an idiot, of course, would try to make a single out of the saddest song I've heard since Sally Fingerett's daughter asked her who was going to take care of their neighbor with AIDS, but somebody has to remind art, after the Corrs are done explaining how young they are, that people get old, too. The b-side is far smaller, a wistful, unlisted throwaway at the end of a sunny pop EP, but the unforced grace is the same, and struggles with emotions you understand but can't defend yourself against start long before you die.
Low: "Dinosaur Act" (single)
Ida: "Man in Mind" (from Will You Find Me)
Low and Ida are the two most beautiful bands in the world today, in my opinion, live acts who suggest that we should simply abandon nightclubs to the DJs and never again try to listen to serious music in anything but perfect reverent silence. "Dinosaur Act", the booming, horn-drenched advance single from a Low album due in February, might be the loudest quiet song ever, and presages an album against which Secret Name will sound faint. The defining moment of Ida's album and live sets, for me, is the tension of Karla Schickele's clanging piano-runs threatening to undercut one of their slowest, purest harmonies, but in the end only framing it.
Sarge: "Detroit Star-lite" (from distant)
Star Ghost Dog: "Knock Down" (from The Great Indoors)
Sarge folded this year, too, but the goodbye compilation includes three songs intended for what would have been the third album, and this one, furious and rueful, bitter and bittersweet, encapsulates what I loved about Sarge as well as any single thing they did. "Knock Down", Star Ghost Dog's belated answer to all the chirpy punk-pop songs with waifish female lead singers that haven't been popular since 1994, sighs with a matching rueful recognition that it belongs to an era that has passed without exactly ever happening.
Belle and Sebastian: "Women's Realm" (from Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like a Peasant)
Cinerama: "Because I'm Beautiful" (from Disco Volante)
What I used to think of as Brit-pop, before I was pummeled into believing it means Oasis and Blur, has its center somewhere around the Beautiful South, fey and campy and sneakily cynical, but always musically uplifting and, on the best songs, with a girl singing, too. The legacy has been marginalized, but it lives on in Belle and Sebastian's impish, meandering quick-step and Cinerama's coarse, galloping devotional, coy coed struts for when school museum field-trips break into choreographed song.
hollAnd: "Neoprene So Tight" (single)
Mathlete: "Steel Wheels '89" (from Telstar Parthenon)
Synth pop has rarely been as synthetic as trevor/hollAnd's robot-menace dance-hymn to uncomfortable clothes, rarely as blissfully inept as Mathlete's clunky, affectionate flashback.
Juliana Hatfield: "Choose Drugs" (from Beautiful Creature)
Juliana's Pony: "The Victim" (from Total System Failure)
Juliana provided her own moral apposition, answering a hushed, terrifying ballad of drug-induced relationship collapse, on the quiet album, with a venomous, throttled rant on the loud one in which she grimly assumes the other character.
Aimee Mann: "Red Vines" (from Bachelor No. 2)
Michael Penn: "High Time" (from MP4)
Mature, melodic pop didn't exactly make a resounding commercial comeback this year, but the combination of bad-label-experience press and spill-over Magnolia acclaim revived Aimee Mann's erratic fortunes once again, and between her new album and her husband's, there was almost enough old-fashioned songwriting craftsmanship about for "Beatlesque" purists to stop missing Squeeze and Crowded House.
Mascott: "Birds That Cannot Fly" (from Follow the Sound)
Emmylou Harris: "The Pearl" (from Red Dirt Girl)
Emmylou Harris has so thoroughly transformed the art of background vocals that even in a year when she didn't do that many, two of my favorite songs derive directly from her harmony aesthetic, Sally Timms playing her role on Mascott's airy lullaby and Emmylou managing to make her own lead, on her album's hypnotic opening track, sound like backup to something unheard, a performance with an unnerving tendency to dissolve into ambience the closer I try to scrutinize it.
Jimmy Eat World: "No Sensitivity" (from Jimmy Eat World / Jebediah split EP)
Verbow: "Dying Sun" (from White Out)
No Bob Mould records in 2000, either, but his buzzsaw drive is now embedded in the culture, and my two favorite examples from the year were Jimmy Eat World's churning emo/power-pop hybrid, squandered on an obscure EP, and the epic layered-cello whir of former Mould protégés Verbow's anthemic opening track.
U2: "Beautiful Day" (from All That You Can't Leave Behind)
Radiohead: "Idioteque" (from Kid A)
I'm always sad if I get through a whole year without liking anything popular. Between U2 and Radiohead, Nina Gordon and the Corrs, and that one sparkling line in "Stronger" where Britney Spears sings "My loneliness ain't killing me no more", this was actually a fairly good year for me. "Idioteque" doesn't really work correctly out of the context of Kid A, for me, and "Beautiful Day" gets dragged down a bit by scattered impulses on the rest of All That You Can't Leave Behind, but put together they let me end the year in a mood to give the next one a chance.
The Clientele, Camden
Making first albums that sound like fifth albums is impressive; now I begin the long wait to see whether these were the fifth of twenty, or of five.
Big Country: Come Up Screaming
New live versions of old hits are a dubious marketing tactic, and often wildly disappointing to me even when I like the band. This double album from Big Country's 2000 tour, however, has probably leapt into second on my all-time live-album list, after only Runrig's Once in a Lifetime, and I'm willing to consider the heretical possibility that these renditions of the early songs (knowing this is the last chance, they do eight of the ten songs from The Crossing, everything except "1000 Stars" and "Close Action") should supplant the original studio versions as the definitive performances. They say they won't be touring any more, and Tony claims he's left, so it's possible they're done, period, but if so they have gone out with a two hour affirmation that they and I know they were the best rock band in the world.
Ida: Live at Carnegie Hall
An Insound promotional disc, and thus only barely a real release, this is by far the worst packaged, most sloppily recorded and most clumsily edited live album I know of that does not involve Guided by Voices. But it contains recordings of Ida playing live, including an especially mesmerizing version of "Coda", covers of Dolly Parton's "The Pain of Loving You", Prince's "Dirty Mind" and "Uptown", Maybelle Carter's "Are You Tired of Me My Darling" and (almost inaudibly) Bill Monroe's "Blue Moon of Kentucky". And it has, so far, the only official recording of what may be Karla's masterpiece, "Honeyslide", complete with the explanation of why it is sometimes referred to as "FacePants".
The Alarm: Alarm 2000 Collection
Until somebody else volunteers to supplement eight CDs of their collected works with a CDR containing a one-off performance of any song from their catalog you want, I expect to hear nothing but polite consensus that this is the standard against which all box sets must be judged.
Pop Art: Really Blind Faith
Half of the songs from the only album in my top twenty that is not available on CD, plus I wrote the liner notes.
Barcelona: "Sunshine Delay (Holland Shower remix)" (from Robot Trouble CD5)
I'm guessing that the hard part about getting trevor/hollAnd to do a remix of something he produced the first time isn't convincing him to do a remix, it's getting him not to already have done fifteen of them.
Juliana Hatfield: "Every Breath You Take" (The Police; from Beautiful Creature/Total System Failure bonus disc)
Finally, a performance in which the narrator sounds like a stalker.
Kind of Like Spitting: "Little Time Bomb" (Billy Bragg; from One Hundred Dollar Room)
The stripped version Billy should have done to begin with.
REO Speedwagon: You Can Tune a Piano, But You Can't Tuna Fish (1978)
There was nothing wrong with the Seventies that a truly abysmal title and cover, a bunch of songs about rambling, haircuts you wouldn't be allowed to give dogs and production so saccharine it would embarrass ELO couldn't fix. Every household should have a copy of "Roll With the Changes", if only to obviate the need for keeping any of Journey's records in print.
New Order: Power, Corruption and Lies (1983)
There was nothing wrong with the Eighties that a cheap drum machine, a bass made out of rubber bands and drinking straws, and enough reverb to make a large chipmunk sound like a small squirrel couldn't fix. I can't believe I survived for seventeen years without the ability to listen to "Your Silent Face" at a moment's notice.
Not Drowning, Waving: Circus (1993)
The belated discoveries of the year for me, though, things I didn't know about, as opposed to things I'd just been resisting, were Not Drowning, Waving and My Friend the Chocolate Cake, David Bridie and Helen Mountfort's two atmospheric Australian groups. It wouldn't surprise me if My Friend the Chocolate Cake, the acoustic and subtler of the two, turns out to be the one I grow to depend on, but for the time being this 1993 NDW album is the point around which the others all orbit, for me, like Crowded House's pop purity bolstered by Hunters and Collectors' energy and Luka Bloom's patience. And it has "Spark", which has now edged past "I Melt With You" and "Missing You", on my list of great pop love songs, and has started eyeing "Ana Ng". Maybe it's time to stop firing bullets through globes, trying to find you, and concentrate instead on possibilities that might lead to something. Why did I ever think "majestic glow" sounded better than hearing fond stories about your family? How did I never notice that "Ana Ng" isn't romantic, it's an excuse for perpetual dissatisfaction? "Ana Ng and I are getting old", it goes, but what are we learning? Maybe nothing until we wonder.
For the original reviews of releases cited in these lists, see: