A Distraction I Can't Sleep Off
311 · 11 January 01
Meghan Toohey: Romantic Blunder #4
Despite my conscientious support of local record stores, I still do a fair amount of mail-ordering. My home mailbox is normal twenty-first-century-mailbox size, i.e. not big enough for anything except communication bills and rolled-up real-estate circulars, so I have most of the stuff I mail-order sent to me at work. This results in a steady stream of battered packages that, since the professional mail carriers only get them as far as the lobby of our offices, are transported the final fifty feet by our company receptionist. I feel a little guilty about this, in the abstract, since it's easy enough to think of more work-relevant and valuable things our receptionist could be doing, but then again, they're usually not large or heavy packages, I don't make any other reception-related demands, and if the company really felt that taking a few packages down to me were a drag on our collective productivity they could have a small hatch installed in the floor of the lobby, which is on the sixth floor directly above my fifth-floor office, and the receptionist could simply drop my mail on my head.
We've had a large number of receptionists over the course of our four-plus years. Evidence suggests that it is a job for which competent people have limited patience. They've exhibited a wide spectrum of attitudes towards their role in getting me things I buy off eBay from people in Australia, from mock-petulance (actually, it might have been mock-mock-petulance, I was never sure with that one) to deranged enthusiasm. The current one has perfected a method of approaching my office from my blind side and reaching around the door frame to place things on the end of my desk as she passes, so that by the time I register her presence and open my mouth to say "Thanks, M--" she has already vanished out of feedback range. This makes me feel alternately ungrateful, since she has managed to disappear without being thanked, and goofy, since dropping off a package is plainly such a trivial part of her routine that it doesn't merit acknowledgment. Added to this, the current receptionist is a musician, and the historical tendency for musicians to work in record-stores notwithstanding, I feel very self-conscious about making a musician bring me other people's music. My simplest recourse would be to buy some of her records, but until very recently she hadn't made any yet.
She has now. There are two. One, called Eight So Low, is a live recording of a short, genial acoustic-folk set from earlier this year. The other, a proper studio debut with what sounds like a full rock band but turns out, when I check the credits, to be some guest drummers and an impressive amount of self-produced multi-tracking, is called Romantic Blunder #4. Her name is Meghan Toohey, and I'm not going to bother growing fond of seeing the back of her head flitting out of view, because I suspect she isn't going to be our receptionist for very long. I bought both records knowing virtually nothing about the music, which shouldn't really qualify as charity since I buy lots of records I know virtually nothing about, but I did put them on, the first time, in an art-by-friends listening mode, which is different from the mode I use for music I expect to evaluate entirely on its own merits. It's not clear what I intended to accomplish by this, since saying thank-you into space she recently occupied, which is more or less the extent of our acquaintance, is unlikely to provide much qualifying insight, should the records seem mysterious, nor offer any mitigating personal associations were they to prove unsatisfying. I listen intending to make allowances, and discover simultaneously that I have no allowances, and that I need none. This is real music. Both records are self-released (Meghan has a web site at the obvious address), but I have demonstrated an uncanny ability to anticipate the commercial fortunes of independent artists (that is, if you ignore the hundreds of bands you hadn't heard of when I wrote about them and still haven't today, and focus solely on Sarah Harmer and David Gray, and the place in Robert Christgau's new book where he implies that I discovered Paula Cole), and I am telling you now that Meghan is going to be important. I bought her records so I could stop feeling self-conscious about having a musician deliver my mail, and now I feel seven times as self-conscious that a musician and songwriter this good is wasting valuable writing time bringing me out-of-print A. A. Milne books and old Clouds EPs. If there's any reason for Meghan to keep this job, it's only that I don't know offhand what the people who seem to me like her closest predecessors are doing now. Eight So Low is charmed and unprepossessing, but Romantic Blunder #4 (which has studio versions of four of the same songs) is clearly the album on which her future could be based, and it reminds me most clearly of Jen Trynin's Cockamamie, which I have given up on liberating from the dollar bins because I haven't given away all the copies I've already bought, and Tracy Bonham's The Liverpool Sessions, which led to two records that sounded to me like chart-hit ambition had strangled them, and now to Tracy getting written about in The-Music-Industry-Sucks case-studies for which Aimee Mann has become unsuitable. There is a long, sad tradition of promising Boston musicians getting cruelly cursory shots at worldwide stardom, and although I don't recall any of the victims being asked, in retrospect, whether it would have been less painful to turn down the Warner advance and the opening slot on the Stones tour in favor of an administrative job at a software company and continuing to put out your own records and sell them at shows, neither do I know how they would have answered.
For the time being, though, triumphs and betrayals are safely sequestered in the future, and in the present we have records. Romantic Blunder #4 opens with a restless, ticking hi-hat and muted guitar, soon joined by a warm, buzzing bass. Meghan starts narrating "Turn Around" in a hesitant, half-spoken murmur, as if on the way to Suzanne Vega's folk/pop restraint, or perhaps past it to Ani DiFranco's poetic intensity, but when the choruses kick in, electric guitars blurring, the lead Meghan arching into the refrain while the backing Meghans sigh angelically, it's plain that they mean to make a rock record. There are twinges of Vega and Rickie Lee Jones' reticence, and perhaps even of Jewel's flutter, in Meghan's singing voice, but also hints of Jen and Tracy's rock urgency, and theories, maybe, about what Bonnie Raitt gave up to become Eric Clapton, or Melissa Etheridge to become Bryan Adams. A delicate fade-out, faint piano circling around a wisp of scat, gives way to the metallic, Brion-esque percussion that opens "Seed", the album's loudest and most old-fashioned rock song, all churning rhythm-guitar hooks, fake LP surface noise, crashing drums, a wailing guitar solo and an incendiary chorus duet. "Pulling Me Under" is more circumspect, a mid-tempo relationship-misfire ballad that might, if it were glossier, and traded the "While My Guitar Gently Weeps"-ish solo for something more LA, have suited Patty Smyth. "Another Sleepless Night (Test)" ought to be the first hit, the guitars leaping from pop chirp to monster-blues swagger, Meghan throwing herself into her vocal part as if it should be perfectly obvious that Ani, Dave Matthews and Aerosmith are instantiations of a single form. Parts of "Four Months" simmer and crackle like Melissa Ferrick's "Drive", the verses smeared out by doubling the vocals through a cheap megaphone, but the chorus is brittle and sparkling, acoustic guitar and delicately martial drums framing a falsetto vocal as airy as Paula Cole's on "Bethlehem". "Billy" is the album's one unreconstructed folk song, kin to early Jewel and Patty Larkin, restless acoustic strumming and textural E-bow whir under a compassionate portrait of a lonely divorcé suspended between alcohol and his own dissolving memories. "Everything" is as close as Meghan comes to the grind of Juliana Hatfield's Total System Failure, but the verses are bluesier, the harmonized choruses faintly country. The sprawling "Test Drive" animates a well-worn car/relationship metaphor with girl-group "ooh"s and an oddly torchy refrain. "Even the Rain" is pensive and subdued, layers of piano reverberations washing over breathy singing, like the soundtrack for an overcast dream.
But if I had to reduce the case for Meghan's imminent stardom to a single song, which is exactly what it often takes, "Locket" would do. Tutorials on the art of pop songwriting could be built on far less, as Meghan contrives to snap together five of what I think of as some of pop's quintessential tropes in the space of less than three and a half minutes: the lumbering Phil-Spector-ish opening of the Jesus and Mary Chain's "Just Like Honey", the shimmering guitar arpeggios of the Pretenders' "2000 Miles", the bleary chorus elegance of Echobelly's "Insomniac", the massed vocals of the Bangles' "Hero Takes a Fall" and the sunny, handclap-buoyed neo-Grand-Funk-Railroad guitar exuberance of Sloan's "The Good in Everyone". Instead of wasting measures on segues, the song gets its cohesion and momentum from subtle, clever touches. The guitar speeds up just a tiny bit before it drops out for the stop-start entrance to the choruses, so the free fall seems to last a fraction of a beat longer than it really does. Handclaps in the second verse anticipate the bridge, and the bridge itself prefigures the fadeout. Letting the backing-vocals crescendo in the middle of "color me your clown" covers for the fuzz-guitar's exit so the ends of the choruses can evaporate brightly into nothing. The lyrics aren't especially ambitious, but the tension between idealized pasts and tangible presents is timeless, and in the reversal at the end the narrator gains glimmers of both self-awareness and empathy. You don't need this many elements to make a three-and-a-half minute pop song, of course, but nor do we need bright colors, ice cream, Christmas lights, or an unexpected gift of clarity and transcendence from a stranger passing in the hall.
Shalini: We Want Jelly Donuts
Shalini Chatterjee put out an EP and an album as Vinyl Devotion, both of which I dutifully bought on the grounds that they involved contributions from Mitch Easter and Scott Miller, either one of whom ought to have been able to infuse power-pop irresistibility into a recording of oak petrifying. For reasons I didn't have enough patience (or cruelty) to analyze scientifically, though, Shalini's songs not only didn't seem irresistible to me, they didn't really even seem like songs. The chord changes felt arbitrary and unmotivated, the choruses never made me want to sing along, Shalini's singing seemed featureless. Several people who otherwise appear to share my power-pop tastes disagreed, but whatever I was missing in Shalini's songs, it couldn't be restored to them by argument, so I gave up on her. Or I would have, but she's on Parasol, one of the labels whose new releases I buy regardless, so a copy came, and then I had to play it at least once.
And to my considerable surprise, I liked it. In fact, I liked it a lot. I liked it enough that six months later, despite having been bumped from several issues, it's still in my pile of things to write about. The reason is simple: this album sounds more like a new Let's Active record than anything Mitch Easter has been involved in since Every Dog Has His Day, and arguably since Cypress. Undoubtedly Mitch himself is responsible for some of this, as he wrote four of these songs, sings on a few, played on them all, and produced the album, but it's still Shalini's band, so I assume it sounds this way in larger measure because she wanted it to. In between Vinyl Devotion's Floor Model and We Want Jelly Donuts she changed cities and relationships, in addition to band names, so I choose to believe that one of the missions she has picked for her new life-phase is resuscitating Mitch's original springy American guitar-pop legacy, which even in his own production work has lately been supplanted by a more solemn Byrds-ian glow. Mitch's "Telepathic World", the opener, is spiraling and half-psychedelic, rumbling timpani, glittering bells and twittering synthesizers filling in spaces in the otherwise straightforward rock frame, the echoey processing on Shalini's vocals a vivid Let's Active touch. "Get Free", another of Mitch's, flips into jittery, skipping pop, a sharp, grumbling bass groove and snappy drumming anchoring an airy guitar cycle, the yearning choruses splitting the difference between Velvet Crush and the Three O'Clock. Shalini's "Creepy Emily" starts off with a menacing metal guitar riff and half-chanted vocals, but in the choruses she plays with the same vocal pitch-bender imitation Mitch and Angie Carlson used to do in Let's Active, and the composite effect ends up nearer to Veruca Salt than L7. The quick, choppy "Pandora at Sea" balances spiky early-Game-Theory flourishes against the oblique translucence of Belly and Throwing Muses. Much of the instrumentation of Mitch's methodical "Emotion Bomb" sounds like it was left over from Let's Active's "Route 67", and I haven't decided whether I get a weirder little thrill from hearing Mitch's reedy voice again, or from recognizing the Alesis HR-16 drum sounds. The words to Shalini's "This Is Telluride" don't quite explain why I should care about a Colorado ski resort, but her unsteady vocals have an appealing gothic pallor to them, and with a slightly eerier drum treatment this one might be able to pass for sirensong or old Mistle Thrush. Bubbly drum-machine twitch, boingy synth-bass and surging guitars goad the cheerfully mechanical "Connection Overturned", but the murky "Desperate for Dawn" veers closer to Sonic Youth. "Around the Eyes" somehow conflates Neil Young's "Heart of Gold" and Joan Jett's version of "Crimson and Clover". But Shalini and Mitch save their best Let's Active energy for the finale, Mitch's "Destination Anywhere Else", which for me invokes "Waters Part", "Blue Line", "Flags For Everything", "Co-Star" and "Room With a View", just for starters. This song is as simple as Meghan's "Locket" is intricate, one verse hook and a chorus closely derived from it, the tone and tempo only varying for a couple bars in the middle. A guitar shadows Shalini's vocal throughout, Mitch tripling it at times, as if the melody is almost too important to risk diluting with harmony or accompaniment. The lyrics are happy nonsense, as best I can tell, but "Make Up With Me" and "Every Word Means No" weren't T.S. Eliot either, and it takes no effort at all to imagine, if they'd done this song when I was sixteen, "Spaghetti for breakfast, / Hors d'oeuvres on the dashboard" and "Be ready to roll, / Systems go to get lost; / I want some control, / A distraction I can't sleep off" becoming personal mantras for precisely their silliness. The guitars say dawn light, the drums say drive your parents' car faster. I suppose I understood the alternatives only sketchily, at the time, so I would have been as much naïve as defiant, but either way I knew this was a feeling you could live for, pop too impatient for its own skin but too wrapped up in how beautiful it is to breathe to give up on anything. I doubt I've been that viscerally idealistic for more than three minutes since. Maybe nobody has. We know too intimately now that cloth is woven out of thread, and thread made of orbits and spin, and our songs all end up being about unraveling and ballistics. But every day we forget a little more science, and so become a little more whole.
Amy Rigby: The Sugar Tree
Amy Rigby was married to dB's drummer Will Rigby, which ought to qualify her as power-pop DAR, and parts of her 1996 debut album, Diary of a Mod Housewife, especially the poignantly geeky crush-song "Knapsack", seemed to me like as illustrative examples of where the genre was headed in the mid-Nineties as anything. I thought the 1998 follow-up, Middlescence, tried way too hard, and lacked most of what seemed so endearing about the first album, but since then Amy has moved from New York to Nashville, traded producer Elliot Easton for Brad Jones and recruited a new corps of backing musicians (including Will Kimbrough, Wilco drummer Ken Coomer, and bunch of people who have played with either Marshall Crenshaw, Steve Earle or both). The Sugar Tree, the resulting third album, comes out part guitar-pop, part country-rock, part stand-up-comic, like a cross between the dB's, Cheri Knight and Christine Lavin, and although not all of it sounds as sure of itself as the songs I like the best, there are enough of the songs I like the best for that not to be a problem. "Wait 'Til I Get You Home", with its odd-beat woodblocks, slide curls and guitar crunch, sounds like a second-hand Lucinda Williams composition patched up with a few parts from an old AC/DC record. The Aimee Mann pastiche on "Happy for You" isn't as effective, to me, but the pealing "Rode Hard" is like a neurotic Steve Earle rant, the sardonic verses not so glib that the choruses can't be earnest and redemptive. "Let Me In a Little Bit" is a deadpan country ballad, "You Get to Me" a skeletal solo performance, but "Balls", an expansively confused failed-breakup ode, could be the real song of which LEN's "Steal My Sunshine" was a ghastly chemical simulacrum. Thin out the overloaded meter of "Magicians" a little and it could be the first step on Amy's way to joining Nanci Griffith and Emmylou Harris. "If You Won't Hang Around" is honky-tonk rockabilly, which I can't abide, and "Angel After Hours" is a little syrupy for my tastes, but "Better Stay Gone", despite Sesame-Street-grade melodic lilt and some clownish brass, is a rare meditation on the logic of separation that has the heart to contemplate reconciliation, but the sense to reject it. "Cynically Yours" is a joke-song Christine Lavin would be proud of (with, in the middle of a list of underwhelming endorsements, perhaps the album's best line, "Plus, you claim to love my ass / (And I have a tape to prove it)"), and although I recognize intellectually that it's a musical throwaway, I haven't gotten sick of listening to it yet. "Stop Showing Up in My Dreams" is a garish hybrid of Madness, surf music and Dire Straits' "Industrial Disease", but "Sleeping With the Moon" is a credible attempt to write a new song with the hypnotic grace of REM's cover of VU's "Femme Fatale". "I'm sleeping with the moon / 'Cause you've gone away", Amy explains, "But what'll I do during the day?" And here, in the middle of the night, it's hard to remember how insomnia isn't a form of misanthropy. If I liked people better, wouldn't I be in bed now, so I'd be ready to get up and go see them in the morning? If I'm trying to understand how human beings relate, isn't staying up listening to pop songs alone self-defeating? No, I don't think so. I'm hardly alone, after all. I have these records, thousands upon thousands of letters from people for whom loneliness is compelling enough that they stayed up one night (or worse, one day) to write down why. And so I sit here, taking a shift while the rest of you sleep, writing back. And these loops circle around us, and inexorably, no matter how slowly, draw us closer.