Trajectory of a Common Crowd
316 · 15 February 01
The New Pornographers: Mass Romantic
I voted, this year, in both the major attempts at consolidating critical opinions about music, Rock and Rap Confidential's International Music Writers Poll and The Village Voice's Pazz & Jop Critics' Poll. I don't know the detailed history, but it's my impression that the IMWP poll was started as a reaction against the P&J, and the terse sentence that introduces the IMWP results asserts, in addition to an implicit meta-point about how plainly results should be presented, that it is the "broadest sampling of musical opinion ever". R&RC does not provide any voting statistics for their poll other than the tabulation of results, but the raw numbers suggest that the numeric differences in this, the twenty-seventh ("or twenty-eighth") year of the P&J and the fourth of the IMWP, are minor. The P&J involved 586 voters; the IMWP produced a total of 4901 votes, so if you assume that some people submit lists with fewer than ten entries but nobody is allowed to vote for more, maybe the average votes per voter is around eight or nine, which would imply that the IMWP had somewhere between 545 and 613 voters, basically the same as the P&J. The P&J results are a little more tightly dispersed, with a total of 1621 albums receiving votes, 1021 of them only one apiece, as opposed to 1818 total albums in the IMWP, and 1248 unseconded nominations. The IMWP has only two albums that received more than 100 votes, and seven that got more than 50, while the P&J has six in triple digits, one more at 99, and the rest of the top ten all over 50. The actual results are about as similar as you could reasonably imagine: the two polls' top sevens differ only in order, P&J going for OutKast, PJ Harvey, Radiohead, Eminem, Shelby Lynne, D'Angelo and U2, the IMWP opting for Radiohead, OutKast, PJ Harvey, U2, Eminem, Shelby Lynne and D'Angelo. The biggest discrepancy anywhere near the top of either poll is Coldplay's Parachutes at 10 in the IMWP and only 30 in the P&J.
The chief appeal of participating in either one, for me, is that it ensured that everything I voted for would be mentioned at least once. And not, as it turns out, much more than that. Both polls take "ten" literally, so my ballot was Joe Jackson, the Loud Family, the Clientele, Camden, Sarah Dougher, Park Ave., Plumtree, the Weakerthans, Sarah Harmer and Nina Gordon. In the IMWP, the Loud Family, the Weakerthans and Nina Gordon got two other votes each, Joe Jackson and Sarah Harmer got one, and on the rest I was alone. In the P&J, five other people voted for the Clientele (two of whose votes are mistakenly listed separately, at the moment, dropping Suburban Light to 234th when it ought to be 153rd), two each for the Loud Family and Nina Gordon, one other for Joe Jackson. One obvious interpretation of this is that I don't have the slightest idea what I'm talking about. P&J editor Robert Christgau, by comparison, voted for Eminem, PJ Harvey and OutKast, and the only one of his choices that didn't garner at least ten votes was Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music, Volume Four, which we can guess was a victim of the elimination, this year, of a separate category for reissues. New York Times' Jon Pareles voted for five of the top seven. Of those seven, I voted for none, reviewed only Radiohead and U2, bought PJ Harvey's album but only bothered to listen to it once, and know of the others only because they've been fairly hard to escape. And therein lies the essential flaw in both polls, and the reason why the P&J is, just due to the way the Voice reports it, far more interesting. In any reasonably large survey, the results will be easy to predict. It took a friend and I all of thirty seconds of deliberation, at a New Year's Eve party, to conclude that the rock votes would come down to PJ Harvey edging out Radiohead, with U2 trailing somewhere close behind, and I'm fairly certain that anybody who keeps up with rap could have told you that race would be between OutKast, Eminem and D'Angelo. The only thing I'm even mildly surprised about is how many people apparently believe "Shelby Lynne" is an alternate spelling of "Sheryl Crow". But I don't need music critics, either individually or en masse, to tell me about albums of which I'm already well aware. By now surely everybody who cares to has heard Eminem, and can make up their own mind. What I need to know is what I've missed, or what I might have underestimated. The IMWP results, at least online, are presented merely as a contextless list of albums and vote-counts, so there's nothing to be gleaned but the obvious, and so nothing to be gleaned. The Voice, on the other hand, puts up a complete hyperlinked database of all votes and voters, so you can totally ignore the tabulation, and instead wander through the ballots in associative order, seeing who voted for your favorites, what else those people voted for, who else voted for the other things the people who voted for your favorites voted for, what else they voted for, etc. A broad sampling of musical opinion is dull by its nature; the P&J is interesting because it doubles as 586 narrow samplings of musical opinion. The other vote for Joe Jackson's Night and Day came from Billboard's Jim Bessman, whose number one was The Best I've Ever Been, by Porter Wagoner, who I've never heard of. (One short research break later: 73-year-old country legend, got Dolly Parton her start; first new album in twenty years!) Stephanie Zacharek, one of the people who voted for Suburban Light, also cast one of the poll's four votes for Black Box Recorder's The Facts of Life, one of the albums I was sad I couldn't fit into my top ten. I didn't think the new Go-Betweens record was very interesting, but almost every one of the 37 voters who did also voted for something I really liked. The ten people who thought Elastica's The Menace was one of the ten best records of the year ought to thus qualify as borderline lunatics, in my opinion, but after looking through their full ballots I'm more or less convinced that most of them have odd but defensible tastes. These are observations I can do something with. The IMWP brings us homogenous anonymity; the P&J gives us that, too, but also little windows into hundreds of souls.
Of the pile of albums from last year I'm still working through, several got a vote or two in one or the other poll. The clear critical standout, though, is the Canadian group-project The New Pornographers' Mass Romantic, which got three votes in the IMWP and nine (!) in the P&J. An easy explanation would be that Mass Romantic is benefiting from proximate affection for part-time singer Neko Case, whose own album Furnace Room Lullaby got 25 votes in the P&J and 17 in the IMWP, but looking through the nine ballots with Mass Romantic on them I find that only two also mention Furnace Room Lullaby. I come to Mass Romantic belatedly, in fact, in part because Furnace Room Lullaby was a little too earthy for me, and I assumed Case's presence implied the two would be similar, but this ends up being wrong. Mass Romantic is, if anything, good evidence suggesting that Plumtree's This Day Won't Last at All might have made a few more ballots if more people had heard it. The New Pornographers are obviously older and more experienced (songwriters Carl Newman and Dan Bejar are from Zumpano and Destroyer, respectively, and the other players all have other bands as well), but the records share, it seems to me, an artless, percussive exuberance, bedroom in spirit but garage in volume. "Mass Romantic" itself is choppy and rattling, wiry keyboards crisscrossing over shuffling snares, Case's lucid vocals leaping into the midst of Yes-grade multi-part harmonies in the bridges. "The Fake Headlines" starts off with just an acoustic guitar and one of the guys singing, as if it's going to be a Neutral Milk Hotel or Bright Eyes song, but once the rest of the instruments come in the dense, fondly nostalgic arrangement is closer to Velvet Crush. The clanging, piano-driven "The Slow Descent Into Alcoholism", which might have had a shot at my top ten song list if I'd heard it in time, is as expansive and bouncy as Ben Folds or Sloan at their most shamelessly exhortative. "Mystery Hours" borrows synth tones from some old Cars song, and a jagged rhythm from early Game Theory, but the soaring falsetto in the choruses reminds me of Sunny Day Real Estate. Only unapologetically nasal singing keeps "Jackie" from turning into silky jazz-pop.
The P&J singles poll has five votes for songs from this album, three of them for the Case-sung "Letter From an Occupant". You'll find few better examples, I think, of how a vocal performance can transform a recording. The music here is obsessive and snarled, largely based on long runs of unvarying chords, and even the melody isn't especially articulate or unusual. Case rips through it, though, as if being pursued by Maria McKee and Corin Tucker armed with tasers, but hardly breaking a sweat. Frilly chorus harmonies can't disguise her frightening self-assurance, and eventually quit trying. "To Wild Homes", with group vocals buried under piano reverberations, verges on an blaring indiepop genre exercise, but the swooping "The Body Says No", with a slithering sax part from Davidian Chorley, strays back into Sloan's territory. The angular "Execution Day" falls somewhere between the confessional intimacy of the Weakerthans and the jerky experimentation of Think Tree. The demonstrative "Centre for Holy Wars" could be a kids song if it was remade with a less noisy arrangement and a less menacing title (the refrain, a sunny "Hope grows greener than grass stains", can stay). The galloping "The Mary Martin Show" marries a Michael Quercio-ish paisley-pop ornateness to a frenetic Guided-by-Voices-ish urgency. Only "Breakin' the Law", the slow and meandering final song, fails to capitalize on the album's momentum, to me, shooting for redemption via a "Let Love Rule"-esque crescendo when it might have been better off just crashing to a stop without any pretense at ado. I stand by my selection of This Day Won't Last at All over Mass Romantic, if we imagine this as a category, but at least partly on the grounds that Plumtree's accomplishment is more surprising, so if you don't care as much as I do about context (and both critics' polls and general observation suggest that most people don't), maybe you'll like this one better. Then again, why not buy both and decide for yourself?
The Weekend: The Weekend
And if you're going to buy two, might as well go for three and complete what feels to me like a firmly linked trilogy of clatteringly upbeat Canadian pop albums. The Weekend and This Day Won't Last at All are about as close as two albums get to being tactical variations on a single principle, to me. The Weekend cede a fraction of Plumtree's naïve imagination in return for a little more musical confidence, which is a reasonable tradeoff in either direction. Singer Andrea Wasse has a classic alternative-pop voice (I think "alternative" is now old enough for there to be "classic" instances of it), part Harriet Wheeler's waifish airiness, part Kim Deal or Tanya Donelly's bracing chirp. Bassist Lorien Jones and drummer Ben Playford stomp along happily, and synthesizer player Lincoln Cushman enlaces them all with hooks irrepressibly beepy enough to put him in line for a spot in Wolfie or Mathlete. "The Single" takes no more pains to disguise its pop ambitions than the Salteens' "Bubba Da". The surging "New Fast (Right Behind You)" owes as much to L7 as to the Go-Go's. The band then slides through the constricted, evasive "My Way", the unhurried "What I Die For", and the churning feints of "Fleetwood" before finally giving in to sing-along impulses again on the burbly "High School America", but all three turn out to be, to me, a long build-up to the miniature grandeur of "Drummer", which belongs to the same anthemic tradition of uncomplicated radio-pop, I think, as That Dog's "Never Say Never" and the Breeder's "Cannonball". "Maracas", with its long guitar-and-organ intro, is darker and more Liz Phair-like; "Cindy" even reminds me a little of Suzanne Vega. "Heard It on the Radio" bookends "The Single" appropriately, insistent Pixies-like guitar lines emptying into choruses edged with summery keyboard runs, which serve a function similar to the Pixies' nods to surf-pop. The reason I stand by my selection of This Day Won't Last at All over The Weekend, as well, comes after a short silent gap. I don't know what the extra song here is called, but it seems to have been recorded live into a not-particularly-well-placed room mic, during a problematic rehearsal take interrupted several times by coughing and laughter. The song is plainly at an early stage, with a couple drafts and a lot of production in store for it before it comes up to the standards of the rest of the real tracks on the album. And I wish they were all like this. As with the acoustic version of "Lovesick" at the end of the Arrogants' Your Simple Beauty, last year, this throwaway one-off, apologetically uncredited, has a spirit I didn't realize, until I heard it, that the other songs lack. What's wrong with a little coughing and laughter in a song? Why do we devote so much energy to pretending that for the duration of a recording the players have purged themselves of every frailty that makes them people, not just musicians? Oh, I know why, it's the same reason I don't simply mumble into a tape recorder while I'm listening to records and then print the transcriptions, and why movies are more effective at storytelling if the actors don't just wear their own clothes, and why we cook food. It's in trying to seem better than we are that we become better than we are. Sometimes, though, we allow our ambitions to distract us from our achievements. The Weekend are good enough at playing songs that even when they're not quite sure what they're doing it sounds wonderful, but just self-doubting enough to believe that that's insufficient. Maybe all 585 of those other voters did hear this, and This Day Won't Last at All too, and left them off because they sensed that both bands could have made more professional albums if they'd tried harder. And I voted for Joe Jackson, so I'm clearly not against professionalism on principle, but there is a valuable place, too, for music that trusts its own flaws.
Rainer Maria: A Better Version of Me
The P&J poll registered two votes for Rainer Maria's A Better Version of Me, which seems unfair to me because the album didn't reach stores until January, but I retract my objections as soon as I read Spin and East Bay Express writer Chris Baty's ballot, one of the ones on which A Better Version of Me appears. Not only does Chris' album list include Neko Case, Belle and Sebastian, Death Cab for Cutie, Mascott and a Richard Buckner record I wished I liked better and am glad somebody else does, but his singles list includes a Plumtree song, B&S's "Women's Realm" (one of only four songs on my singles list that anybody else voted for, the two other heartening ones being a vote apiece for Low's "Dinosaur Act" and Aimee Mann's "Red Vines", and the one token agreement between my ballot and the rest of the universe being the 96 other votes and #4 finish for U2's "Beautiful Day"), and Mark Kozelek's "Find Me, Ruben Olivares", which was going to be my song of the year right up until I realized, when I went to say why, that "Ruth Marie" haunted me even more.
Rainer Maria have hovered around the fringes of my awareness since I came across them a year and a half ago, one of several bands (Death Cab for Cutie, the Delgados, Jejune...) that I'm pretty confident I like, but would be hard-pressed, if interrupted on the street, to explain why. I think, from hearing A Better Version of Me, I've finally reached a useful operating hypothesis about Rainer Maria, at least for the moment, which is that they have found another idiom in which to express the same sort of delicate, melancholy sobriety that I loved so dearly on Suddenly Tammy's We Get There When We Do. Many of the details are different, inevitably, as Suddenly Tammy were a quiet piano/bass/drums trio and Rainer Maria are a guitar/bass/drums rock band who rarely go a whole song without reminding me of their stentorian emo roots, but Caithlin De Marrais' delivery has become the element in control of the music's emotional level, to me, and apparently guitar feedback lends itself to poetic clarity as readily as damper-pedal breathing. If you expected punk thrash or pop munificence from this record, I bet you'll find it disconcertingly becalmed, but to me the pervasive sense of suspended animation is electrifying and evocative. "Why is this technology an anathema to me?", Caithlin asks in the plaintive "Artificial Light", and on one hand it's bizarre to pick lights, of all the intrusive and destabilizing technology around us, as the center of the problem, but on the other hand we probably can't resolve our attitudes towards machine translation and life-support until we address our relationship to the underlying premise of technology. "Thought I Was" pulses and wails, but its cathartic revelation is the terrifying "I'm not the way I thought I was", and we need more anthems of recognizing what certainties we've lost. "Ceremony" is tentative and swaying, a lullaby in search of the will to live. The faintly Rose-Chronicles-like "The Seven Sisters", its guitar parts all channeled feedback, is a war over metaphors. "Save My Skin" isn't quite a song, musically, I think, as much as a textural monologue, but it's my favorite poem here. "The first thing I want to do is to overcome my temperment", Caithlin sings (the misspelling of "temperament", which she echoes in her pronunciation of it, reminding me pleasantly of the point in my last song where I clearly say "obstinance" instead of "obstinateness"). "Tried to mention all my sins," she says, "But I didn't know where to begin. / Should I forget them? / Or should I let them begin again?" And of course, I think, forgetting and accepting, and not renouncing and pursuing, are the correct options, stripped of the illusion of conscious control. One of the men takes an unsteady lead-vocal turn for the obsessive litany "The Contents of Lincoln's Pockets", but at the end, after he's finished the inventory, Caithlin's return question goes "Slammed to the back of your head. / You've never been hit before. / How can you deal with that kind of information?" In a way this is a question, physical experience processed as intellectual data, as embedded in the character of emo as angst about "The center cannot hold" is in the nature of progressive rock, or the petulant craving for a Pepsi in skate-punk. But it's a little too late to tell us we shouldn't become alienated from ourselves, and even harder to see how we're going to undo it without figuring out how to phrase the imperative for self-inhabitation in anything other than the very grammar that encodes the problem. The hushed "Atropine" is the worst lullaby in the world, a memento mori for the brink of sleep, when you least want it, and one that gets louder at the end, to boot. The pealing "Spit and Fire" is something like a rewrite of Juliana Hatfield's "Choose Drugs" in which we give the half-remembered magic of what the relationship used to be one more chance to shine through the chemicals. "Knowing that you've opened up yourself to me is no victory", she acknowledges, "But a consolation prize will suffice tonight", leaving hope that in the morning they can keep trying. And the album's fastest, least guarded song is its finale, the writhing "Hell and High Water", Caithlin slipping for once back towards the cadences of Fugazi and Braid. I can't decide whether the girl in the story, the improved version of the narrator that the album title refers to, is literally the narrator's boyfriend's next girlfriend, or whether it's her own next self the narrator is imagining, wondering if she's willing to relinquish who she is in order to make the relationship work, but I'm leaning towards the latter, and either way it's harrowing. "Every time I try to get out of her way, / The day's full of kids giving you the finger / And speeders gonna kill you on your tiny street." We give up on ourselves for the noblest reasons, or for the simplest, because we're so flattered somebody thought to ask us to. And under the guise of improving, we disappear.