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What Holds the World Together
315 · 8 February 01
various: Come On Beautiful
I don't create new folders for email unless I expect to put a lot of stuff into them, so it's a clanging testament to mistaken expectations to find one forlorn folder in my list that contains only a single message. The folder is named "AMC tribute", and the one message in it has no title, but is a short note from Paul Austin of the Willard Grant Conspiracy, dated last April, saying that he was assembling an American Music Club tribute album, and asking if I had any interest in writing liner notes for it. My reply, dutifully stored by my email program (and I've only recently started wondering what it's doing to my past to have so much of it frozen verbatim in archives, instead of composting productively inside my head), was a five-sentence transliteration of "Yes", but the next I heard about the project, it was done. In the end the packaging, a simple cardboard slipcase, leaves barely enough room for the credits and a few words of explanation from Paul. The corresponding web site (comeonbeautiful.free.fr, from which the album must be ordered), suffers no apparent space constraints, but after a longer introduction by Paul and notes and AMC reminiscences from each of the participants, it clearly needs no assistance or meddling from me. I got to write a short, admonitory essay for a Pop Art retrospective, a few months later, instead, so I don't feel in any way slighted. Still, I have this tribute album in front of me, and it's Wednesday night, and when you're alone in a room you almost always get the last word.
The only mental note I had for what would have been my liner notes was the potentially self-defeating opening observation that although Mark Eitzel is frequently, and earnestly, described as one of the greatest living songwriters, including sometimes by me, I often have a bizarrely difficult time locating the song in his songs. The performance is invariably easy to spot, but I doubt there are more than a handful of Eitzel songs whose underlying structure, without his voice and the melody, I could recognize, an inequality that is especially evident in his solo shows, where his sketchy guitar-playing repeatedly threatens to disappear, and then sometimes does. Melody is a central component of pop songwriting, of course, so it's fairly obtuse to stipulate its exclusion and then carp about what's left, and I don't have a karaoke machine with which to conduct the obvious tests, but I'm still somehow convinced that in general the brilliance of Mark Eitzel's songs is more a function of his own presence in them than it is for Richard Thompson or Per Gessle (to pick two of my other best-living-songwriter nominees who perform their own songs), or Jules Shear or Bob Dylan (to pick two whose songs I prefer to hear performed by other people). To cover an AMC song, therefore, you either have to disagree with me about the nature of the challenge, or else you have to find a way to fill an Eitzel-size hole in the middle of something hardly any bigger than that to begin with.
On all but one of the versions I like best here, the quasi-Zen problem of mending a song with a song-sized hole in it seems fairly appropriate to me. Ida's version of "What Holds the World Together", with Daniel Littleton's minimal guitar edging warily around the margins of his and Elizabeth Mitchell's hushed, resonant duet, lets the intimacy of their harmonies twist Eitzel's lullaby for John Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands from a haunted requiem into a sympathetic love story. There are booming drums, slithery mandolin and gauzy reverb swirling around in Matt Ward's prayerful version of "Fearless", but they hang awkwardly over him, as if he hasn't quite conceded that his unsteady vocal delivery is exactly what the words want. Jenny Toomey and Amy Domingues' This Mortal Coil-grade reduction of "Last Harbor" to voice, cello, raspy background noises and a few scattered feedback moans infuses the song with a convincingly apocalyptic radiance. Tarnation vocalist Paula Frazer sings "Hollywood 4-5-92" with an arrestingly Carter-Family-ish straightforwardness, almost as if the oom-pah-ing keyboard backing is incidental accompaniment from a nearby carousel. I have to skip over Steve Wynn's garish "Highway Five" and Vera Clouzot's successively bleary and cacophonic "Pale Skinny Girl", but Dakota Suite's languid drift through "This Year" comes as close as anything here to duplicating not only Eitzel's gruff vulnerability but the rest of AMC's particular pastoral manner of staying out of his way.
Five songs out of eleven I like, and only two I skip, are both better results than I expect from a compilation, and maybe less than I'd hope for a compilation of Mark Eitzel songs if I'd never purchased a tribute album before, but I've heard plenty of eminently reasonable-seeming tributes executed with nowhere near this level of acuity or unsentimental reverence. I have all the original AMC albums, though, and after the third time through this tribute I start wondering why I'm not listening to them, or better yet to Eitzel's Songs of Love Live, instead. I think there's a good case to be made that Daniel and Elizabeth's "What Holds the World Together" gives the song a dimension Eitzel himself couldn't, and I could probably keep listening to Jenny and Amy's "Last Harbor" the way I can keep listening to TMC's "Kangaroo" or "Song to the Siren", but the rest of the reverent ones quickly start to fade. The stroke of genius, in my opinion, is the one track here that risks a non-AMC ambiance, a glassy, skipping, beat-box-cajoled "Firefly" by Superchunk leader Mac MacCaughan's home-recording side-project Portastatic. "Firefly" is the opening song on Songs of Love Live, and the only things close to it on my list of Eitzel compositions rendered so definitively by Eitzel himself that trying to reproduce them would be insane are "Outside This Bar" (also in its Platonic form on Songs of Love Live) and "Johnny Mathis' Feet". So Mac doesn't. The reedy, half-falsetto vocals are as out-of-character as the clicky drum-machine loop, the spasmodic noise-guitar squalls part of an entirely different musical grammar than Bruce Kaphan's pedal-steel exhalations. In Eitzel's version the narration sounds like a weary parody of seduction, compliments so self-aware that they disassemble themselves as fast as they materialize. Mac restores just enough na•vetˇ to permit the suspension of disbelief without which at least half the universe's hopeful acts would be impossible. When Eitzel calls the girl a firefly, it's an endearment perverted into a dismissal, a critique both of the evanescence of her sparkle and of his superficiality for letting himself be fascinated by it. In MacCaughan's buoyant, undaunted version, joys and disappointments are not so inexorably linked. Yes, the firefly died after it sparkled, but metaphors are not constrained by biology, and "Firefly", as a pet name, need not evoke the entire life-cycle. To find metaphors for death you have to teach yourself the difficult art of seeing more than what is in front of you. To find metaphors for life you have to teach yourself the even more difficult art of seeing less.
various: Then Covered Now
You'll find few more-focused efforts at intent lightheartedness than the other covers album on my pile at the moment, Hearbox's Then Covered Now, glibly subtitled Hits of the 80's Performed by Today's New Artists. The factual accuracy of the clarification would be improved by inserting "Hair-Metal" before "Hits" and replacing "New" with "Boston", but with a premise this one-joke, it probably doesn't make a lot of difference where the participants come from. Either the idea of a bunch of people you haven't heard of performing songs on the order of "Sister Christian" and "The Final Countdown" sounds entertaining to you, or it doesn't, and if it doesn't, I suspect that knowing the bands would only make the experience less pleasant. I'm not going to be scrutinizing this, either, nor necessarily listening to it again, ever, but I've spent ten dollars and been less satisfyingly entertained many, many times. Brian Charles' human-scale version of Def Leppard's "Photograph" makes it sound like a lost Neighborhoods song. Todd Thibaud's goofy, swaggering, acoustic-blues remake of Sammy Hagar's "I Can't Drive 55" leaves me constantly expecting a soul to be sold, or a sheriff to be shot. My Favorite Relative turns Europe's "The Final Countdown" into a staid Euro-disco reverie worthy of The Virgin Suicides. Quick Fix play Billy Idol's "Rebel Yell" with a gleeful AC/DC smirk instead of Idol's cartoonish sneer. The Sheila Divine do a surprisingly convincing job of reimagining Quiet Riot's "Metal Health" in the vein of the Cult's "She Sells Sanctuary". Ratt's "Round and Round", done by Gravel Pit, just sounds like they're wearing less-binding clothes. Expanding Man's version of Bon Jovi's "Wanted Dead or Alive" fits it neatly into the arena-roots-rock lineage of the Eagles, Skynyrd, Bad Company, Guns'N'Roses and the Black Crowes. Tugboat Annie's calm, acoustic version of Poison's "Every Rose Has Its Thorn" verges on a Christmas carol. Merrie Amsterburg's spectral, sighing rendition of Ozzy's "Mister Crowley" extrapolates creatively from the Cardigans' Sabbath covers. The Control Group dig themselves a little too deep a hole with Autograph's plodding "Turn Up the Radio", but in the choruses, at least, they manage to jump high enough that I can see the tops of their heads over the edge of the pit. The badge of courage, however, must go to Cherry 2000, who confront the apotheosis of arena bombast, "Sister Christian" itself. The verses are a game attempt at re-envisioning the beast as coltish indie folk-pop, but when the choruses come around the song's irresistible inertia takes over, and the band surrenders to their base impulses like Prometheus unchained from the rock and handed a flame-thrower just as the fat, unsuspecting eagle shows up for its daily snack. On the one hand, there aren't many songs appreciably more awful than this, nor many eras of American musical history for which one should be more embarrassed to admit a nostalgic weakness. On the other hand, that's the eagle's price for flight.
Brian Charles: Sadderdaydreaming
And to be fair to Night Ranger, practically none of the egregiously overblown aspects of "Sister Christian" were of their invention. There's a beautiful mid-Eighties interview with Brad Gillis and Jack Blades, I think, which I've seen rerun several times since, in which the interviewer, graduated from How-to-Interview-a-Rock-Star school recently enough to remember some of the lessons, asks them "What makes Night Ranger different from all the other hard-rock bands out there?", and then flips the microphone over to them with the pleased expression of a Little League dad who has just lobbed a ball directly into the path of his own son's eyes-clamped-shut bat-swing. There's a terrifying silence, and then Brad says, hesitantly, as if he thinks it's a fine question but he's never been asked it before, "Um, well, nothing, I guess." And then, brightening slightly: "The songs! The songs are different." He could mean that Night Ranger wrote different kinds of songs than other bands, which would have been false, but at least a distinguishing quality if they'd had it. But I see in his eyes that he doesn't, that he actually does mean that the specific songs Night Ranger wrote are different songs than the specific ones other bands wrote. The question, however, is far dumber than the answer. Night Ranger never pretended to be different than anything. They wrote and played songs that sounded exactly like songs were, at the time, supposed to sound. Today, "Sister Christian" sounds stupid. Two or three years from now, it will sound fine. Two or three years later it will sound stupid again.
The songs that will sound stupid years from now are the ones that sound totally ordinary today. Adjusted for cultural context, Semisonic's "Closing Time" and Third Eye Blind's "Never Let You Go" are the exact moral equivalents of "Sister Christian" and "The Final Countdown". But there were better songs made in the same environments in the Eighties, and there are better songs being made in the same basic production idiom today. One album of them is Sadderdaydreaming, the solo debut by Boston producer Brian Charles, also on Hearbox. It's not quite right to say this is the album I wanted Jon Brion's Meaningless to be, since I wanted Jon's record to have a pop extravagance that only he could have provided, but chose not to, but Sadderdaydreaming sounds to me like what you get when a proficient musician not hamstrung by Brion's dysfunctional savant perfectionism sets out to make a record about which he can say, with a straight face, "It's like Aimee Mann, Michael Penn, that sort of thing." There are plenty of sinuous guitar hooks, breathy minor-key harmonies, enough optigans and mellotrons to make me check the credits to be sure Patrick Warren and Tony Berg aren't involved, tangled blossomy melodies closer to the Posies than the square stair-step scales of "Closing Time", crackly drum-loops that could easily have been swiped from Aimee's sampler, enough Beatles allusions to populate a Rock & Roll Jeopardy category, two songs that use children's toys as relationship metaphors, and two that dispense with metaphor and just sing a girl's name. Fifteen years from now, nobody will remember any of this, but if all you want to experience is the things people will remember, you might as well have yourself cryogenically suspended until 2100 and then just wake up and watch VH1's Top 100 wrap-up of the century you missed. The bulk of a successful life is spent enjoying things you only get one chance to enjoy. When "Closing Time" comes on, in 2015, and your kids look at you like they're trying to assess whether your exposure to it might have induced genetic mutations you could have passed on to them, just smile tolerantly and remember that we had albums like this, too. We had the cheerful clatter as "Impossible" collapses into its choruses. We had the blocky drum-machine shuffle, Rhodes warble and uncluttered two-four strut of "Want You Back". We had "Red Wagon"'s spiraling leads, the silky roar and giddy flourishes of the ninetieth great three-chord pop song called "Christine", the moment when jazzy restraint gives way to power-chord crunch in "Sadderday", the rumbling bounce of "Call It Off", the mention of both Elvis and Van Gogh in "Dreamer's Waltz", the swooping reverse-guitar in "Not What You Need", a charging love song in which the boy realizes how much he loves the girl when he sees a dolphin kiss her, pizzicato strings ripped off from the Nutcracker Suite and key modulations that the Starland Vocal Band would apologize for. We had all this, and they won't ever understand what it meant, so we'd better.
Todd Thibaud: Squash
There used to be a "folk-" somewhere in my description of Todd Thibaud, but one or the other of us has lost track of what quality of his it applied to. Squash, his third studio album, is a more earth-tone hue of pop than Brian Charles' shinier, pastel version, more akin in general to Kevin Salem, Duncan Sheik and the Wallflowers than Aimee Mann, Michael Penn and Jon Brion, but rules and exceptions intermingle unselfconsciously. "Dragging Me Down"'s braying guitars sound like Richard Shindell's composure revved up to Marshall Crenshaw's speed. "Sacred" simmers somewhere between Counting Crows and Luka Bloom. The spare lullaby "Already Gone" is distinctly Brion-esque, the seething "Is It Love?" a "Closing Time" grown restless, the surging "Unbroken" like Soul Asylum if they'd never been punk. "New World Coming" sounds to me like half Melissa Ferrick, half Jimmy Buffet. "Uninvited, Overdue" could be John Mellencamp without the Midwestern drawl. "By Degrees" is a barely-disguised country song, but the atmospheric slow-burn "Wonderful Again" betrays traces of the Grays, and maybe behind those even a tiny hint of Oasis. "After All" is gentle and jangly, "St. Cecilia" conflates Simon & Garfunkel and Steve Earle, and the quiet exit theme, "No Surprise", borrows from Mark Knopfler by way of Richard Shindell, and Mark Eitzel via Neil Finn. And we sink into sleep via the slow, reassuring conviction that nothing horrible will happen before morning.
Miss Fortune: Miss Fortune
When Emm Gryner comes back through Boston, later this month, both the other bands on the bill with her will feature people who work at the same software company I do. Meghan Toohey, our receptionist, will be the show's headliner, and the opening act will be Boston quartet Miss Fortune, whose lead singer, Ryan Link, does second-tier technical support. I don't envy Miss Fortune their task, attempting to build a constituency based on weeknight club-gigs as one of Boston's hundreds of competent and wistfully subdued four-piece rock bands with only mildly silly facial hair, but they do have a few advantages. Brian Charles recorded their self-titled debut album, and Mike Denneen mixed it. Their name is bad in a more endearing way than Poundcake's. And more importantly, they have four sterling pop/rock songs I think they can play back to themselves and know that people have gotten famous enough to quit their technical support jobs based on less. Of the pop ones, "If You Died" finds Ryan careening gracefully in and out of falsetto with just enough androgynous Brit-pop aplomb to make a club audience doubt, and "Day Gets Brighter" has the obligatory pop-signifying Brion-style eerie mellotron. "Peek" is sweet, sturdy, churning rock, textural guitar and crashing drums around the plaintive realizations "You stand before me with arms folded; / I guess I was wrong sending roses" and "I see your boyfriend's over / Through the window of my car". But the one they'll be tempted to reprise, I think, when they make the next album and start sounding like they look in the mirror and see themselves, not cartoons of themselves as rock stars, is "Disappear". There's not much to it, two rhythm-guitar chords for the verses and a couple more for the chorus, a five-or-six-note melody, the same kick-kick-snare groove you've heard a million times before, a bridge so clearly demarcated they might as well raise it to let ships through, lyrics that may even be vaguely gender-insensitive if I'm reading them right. But what is all this culture for, all this context, if not to establish the conditions under which the smallest gestures and insights can be profound? Night Ranger can't really be blamed for "Sister Christian", and Miss Fortune can't take all the credit for "Disappear", but that doesn't make either one less real. You can hear a million songs, and then you can hear another one.
The Douglas Fir: The Vinyl Singles Archive 1999-2000
Brian Charles produced this record by the Cambridge trio The Douglas Fir, too, so I bought it in the same mail-order batch as Sadderdaydreaming, Then Covered Now, Meaningless and Buddy Judge's creepy clown album. The back cover seems oddly anxious to insist this CD is neither an EP nor an album, and declares rather brusquely that it contains "tracks that were all* released on 7 inch VINYL between 1999-2000". The two-year span is a little grandiose, and arguably disingenuous, since the band only released two singles during that time, with a total of five songs on them. It's also my personal belief that if you have to attach an asterisk to the word "all", because you don't mean all, you should pick a word that means what you do mean. Is there something frightening about "Tracks 3 and 4 from our first single, 1, 2 and 5 from our second single, 6 previously unreleased."? Why spend four sentences and a footnote explaining the contents, and then not put a simple track list on the back cover? Also, what is a "voice instrument", and why isn't "tambourine" covered under "percussion"? I don't remember the last time I saw a graphic-element-to-information-design-error ratio this close to one.
Besides, if the Douglas Fir really wanted to be forthright, the sentence the back cover of this should have included is "This package contains music that sounds like Buffalo Tom playing old Blue …yster Cult songs." Romeo and Juliet don't figure into "My Favorite Thing", but Hitchcock, Coltrane, Baudelaire, Manet, Neptune, Byron and Callas all do, and the guitar hook is even closer to "(Don't Fear) the Reaper" than Nirvana got. "Sometimes" is drony and becalmed, but "Unwelcome" crosses the elegance of Agents of Fortune with the tension of "Taillights Fade" and "Velvet Roof". "When My Day Is Done" returns to a more muted, but still "Reaper"-like, guitar-cycle, but delivers the chorus through a distorted megaphone. "You Were Never Mine" mainly reminds me of the Flying Nuns, another minor Boston band I had hopes for who never amounted to much, but the guitar on "The End of the Beginning" sounds like the second derivative of "My Favorite Thing" for which "When My Day Is Done" is the first. There's not enough here, really, to guess at futures, and the disclaimer could probably cite Wheat and Morphine with as much justification as Buffalo Tom and Blue …yster Cult. But if you have to start somewhere, you might as well start ruling out the places you aren't.
The Red Telephone: Cellar Songs
And if we remember only one of these Boston records, my bets are with Cellar Songs, the second-and-a-halfth album by The Red Telephone, and first full one back on their own label, Raise Giant Frogs, following the traditional major-label ordeal (which they wisely opted to get out of the way first). I liked last year's Aviation EP pretty well, but didn't pay much attention to the credits, and so didn't realize, until Meghan Toohey introduced her brother Sean to play lap-steel at a recent show, that this is the band he's in. Self-produced at home in Charlestown, Cellar Songs is parts Cheap Trick, the Connells and Michael Penn, or maybe a rock version of what Jellyfish was to pop. There's nothing here quite as effusive as "The King Is Half Undressed" or "Joining a Fan Club", but a similar exuberance flits through almost all of these songs. "Pennsylvania" opens with shrill, theremin-like feedback whistles, before curling into a measured, echoey, eight-minute portrait of small-town restlessness with elements of Penn's "No Myth", Live's "Lightning Crashes" and Bob Mould's "Brasilia Crossed With Trenton". "Somewhere Far" is a comparatively concise slow pop song, chiming and Connells-ish, but "If You Weren't So Clean" breaks down Amazing Disgrace-era Posies roar until I can hear again how it arose from REM and Cheap Trick. Much of "Last Day of May" sounds like an impression of the Byrds doing "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald", but the brash, spiky "The Possibility Shop" might be what Dramarama would have evolved into if they survived long enough to have a sweeping pop transformation like Buffalo Tom's on Smitten, and the galloping "Institution Street" sounds even more like Dramarama did before they gave up. I finally stop hearing these songs as equations just in time to melt into the embrace of the majestic "Teenage Mother Earth". "Well it must have been a beautiful time", Matt Hutton begins, as if we can't be sure until later, and with drums cracking on all four beats, guitars squealing in pure octaves and backing vocals cascading off of the most redemptive chorus ever to invoke the dingy city of Medford, I sail into a rapture of the dizzy, weightless sort that I don't know how to sustain without noise. "I Am Sunday" is probably the album's most uncomplicated rock song, but the bubbly "Pollyanna" is rococo pop again, and then "On the Railroad" is alternately evasive and kinetic, hi-hat lattices streaked with guitar noise and Cactus World News-esque oohs. "Two O'Clock" twangs menacingly before pushing into crescendoing catharsis, only to fall out the back into the wiry opening movement of the dense, turbulent, ten-minute finale, "Burned by the Sun". Pop bands, of course, don't make ten-minute finales, but then Pink Floyd didn't record in their living rooms, either. And maybe our tributes to each other, it turns out when we turn them around, are more or less the same things we would have said on our own. The differences between resignation and resolve, research and memory, iteration and imagination and stasis and rest are the contact points between expectation and self-will. Our hopes turn into songs, as do our fears and our disgusts and our loves, because if you can learn to sing right, you'll find that the holes in everything are song-shaped.