The Isles of Mind
324 · 12 April 01
Placebo: Black Market Music
As ardently as I wish to avoid lapsing into cultural oversimplification, a part of me will always be a fifteen-year-old walking into the old Sound Warehouse on Greenville Avenue in Dallas, turning right, passing the ranks of bins of Foghat and Amazing Rhythm Aces LPs, and making that thrilling turn into the final row, where the little sign "Import" hovered over my own weird little cargo-cult temple. It's possible, I suppose, that the circa-1982 Sound Warehouse corporate buyers really scoured the farthest reaches of the globe, assembling a coruscatingly representative panoply of international musical impulses to fill this section, but in my selective memory, at least, the Import section might as well have been labeled Pasty British Post-Punks, and the only reason I wasn't pastier and more post-punk myself was that I could hardly spend any more time inside, and I'd missed so many episodes of Punk during their first run that I wasn't very clear on what I should be being post- of. I retain, to this day, a habit, rooted way beneath conscious tastes, of dividing the world into three virtual time-zones: the UK, which is where the future is happening; the US, which is where the present takes place; and the rest of the planet, which is where everything that isn't shiny and new anymore goes to die.
The truth, perhaps disappointingly, is that everything looks exotic from somewhere. No, actually, it's worse than that. A part of me wishes I still believed the British Isles were a kingdom of magic, because that's a silly worldview, but it's a silly worldview in which magic still has a kingdom. As we shrink the globe, we push inexorably towards a drabber stasis in which "exotic" refers to increasingly subtle or transient nuances. I'm making a record-buying pilgrimage to London in a few weeks, my first in several years, and as I plan it I'm wondering whether it's the last time I'll be able to sustain the exciting illusion that the journey is anything more practical than a nostalgic ritual. Will this be the trip where I discover that the aisles of their record stores have merged with the aisles of mine? I sometimes find myself lingering over Mexican variety shows, before or after Spanish soccer broadcasts, because bands I've never heard of come on and play songs in long-outmoded arena-rock styles as if they haven't noticed their obsolescence. Lines of demurely pretty Latinas dance in an enchantingly languid sync nobody in the US has had the patience for since the Osmonds, and for a few minutes the hyper-calisthenic dance idioms we've adopted in their place seem hopelessly overwrought and spastic. Is this essentially the same experience I'm having with British bands most of the time, now, except that I'm conflating retrograde with progress because the labels still interfere with my self-awareness?
This sinking suspicion has sunk me especially deeply this week as I ponder two piles of CDs on my desk. The one on the left has CDs on the way to the shelf, and on top of it sit Badly Drawn Boy's The Hour of Bewilderbeast and Coldplay's Parachutes, two albums I bought a while ago, listened to, didn't hear anything remarkable in, shelved, pulled out again months later when they accumulated enough delayed-domestic-release buzz to make me wonder if I'd missed something, listened to again, and still didn't hear anything remarkable in. Even after reading a bunch of articles that purported to explain what was special about them, Badly Drawn Boy still sound to me like a case-study in how uninteresting Kind of Like Spitting and Bright Eyes would be if Ben Barnett and Conor Oberst weren't basically weirdoes, and Coldplay still sound like a machine for generating forgettable Travis b-sides. The implicit third disc on the pile is Kid A, which isn't there because I happened to like it the first time, but together the three records represent the current US interpretation of musical future into which the UK is leading us, and I'm not too interested in following. The other stack, on my left, has all the British bands I am interested in at the moment, and it's a small totem of loud and variously old-fashioned guitar-rock (with a few thin layers of neo-synth-pop thrown in for striation). The new Manic Street Preachers album would be there if I hadn't already written about it. Imminent albums from Stereophonics, Muse and Gay Dad have sent along advance singles as stand-ins. You can plot a water-slide graph of guitar intensity from early Radiohead to Oasis to Travis to Coldplay to Badly Drawn Boy, and all these bands are so far back at the top of it that they may as well be wearing embroidered flamenco costumes and crooning libidinous power-ballads in which the only words I reliably recognize are señorita and corazón. If they are the future, it's a cyclical-history loop that deposits us back around 1993, with Pablo Honey still new and the implications of Nevermind and Loveless still being worked out.
The single record that best encapsulates my ambivalence, by far, is the third Placebo album, Black Market Music. I distrust Placebo, didn't like their first album, and grew tired of all but two songs on their second, but I ran across an early limited edition of the new one whose packaging I really liked (it's in this cardboard case called a "BurgoPak" that appears to have been designed by somebody whose training was all in extremely complicated children's pop-up books; you pull on a tab on one side, and the CD slides out in a clever concentric-ring tray on the other), and I'm trying to avoid becoming so cynical that two good songs per album isn't enough any more, so I decided to give them another chance. I like the album, overall, rather more than I expected to. "Taste in Men" is sleazy, warbling and awkward, but the guitar feedback, rumbling bass line and crashing drums keep Brian Molko's dissolute sneer from dominating the aesthetic. "Days Before You Came" is a straight-ahead guitar thrash, differing from Hüsker Dü only (albeit radically) in production and vocal styles. Snippets of faux-sunny background harmony in "Special K" don't sound very convincing to me, but the surging "Gravity, no escaping gravity" choruses betray some sheepish expansiveness. "Passive Aggressive" starts quiet and ends loud, and probably would have entertained me more effectively if it alternated volumes throughout; the whooshy novelty appeal of "Black-Eyed" is marred, for me, by some obtrusively awful lyrics ("I was never loyal / Except to my own pleasure zone", "Borderline bi-polar, / Forever biting on your nuts"); "Blue American" never really gets started. But "Slave to the Wage" is crisp and propulsive, grinding through three-chord verses with admirable blaring simplicity. "Commercial for Levi" tries to go slow and spare, and in doing so places perhaps more emphasis on Molko's lyrics and whine than they merit, but the coda has him repeating "Please don't die" and for a moment, at least, he sounds sincere. The bleak "Haemoglobin" sounds like Schoolhouse Rock for the City of Lost Children, "Narcoleptic" is self-descriptive, and "Peeping Tom" attempts a gradually crescendoing finale (complete with airy intonations of words like "weightless" and "faithless") but to me misses the requisite melancholy (and maybe the band sort of agrees, as the unlisted bonus track ("Black Market Blood"?) tries a second, even slower finale).
But the song I'm most fascinated by, maybe enough that I'll buy the next Placebo album without feeling guilty about it, is "Spite & Malice", the one that seems, on paper, like I'd find it unbearable. Quasi-crossover opportunism of the glibbest sort, it's a fairly ordinary Placebo arrangement lent unearned personality by the expedient of replacing half of Molko's vocal parts with a gruff Justin Warfield rap. I have no empathy for the preposterous chanted refrain ("Revolution: / Dope, guns, fucking in the streets"), but the verses, somehow, Warfield's jumpy hip-hop posturing over the band's clattering howl, recapture some of the wide-eyed thrill of "Bring the Noise" for me, from back when I didn't know yet how much I was going to hate what the idea of a rap/rock hybrid would eventually produce. And when somewhere in the middle Warfield spits out a cathartic "fuck" like he's just found out he's allowed to, I'm left with the perplexing irony that a band whose permanent jaded amorality is the soul of my reservations about them has managed to win me over by hiring a guest vocalist who can sound, even if only for a couple seconds, like he remembers what he's trying to transgress against.
Idlewild: 100 Broken Windows
The opening act on Placebo's maybe-misguidedly-optimistic month-long North American tour, in May, will be the Scottish band Idlewild, who I've long assumed sounded like Cornershop based on the nearly-airtight line of reasoning that a) their name is also the title of an Everything but the Girl album, b) EbtG and Belle and Sebastian are similarly twee, c) Belle and Sebastian have an album called The Boy With the Arab Strap, d) there's also a band called Arab Strap, and e) that guy in Cornershop is Indian. Those among you with the benefit of expensive liberal-arts educations may have spotted the logical hairline-fracture in this deduction, which is, for the rest of you, that the band Arab Strap were formed and named before the B&S album. And that's not what Idlewild sound like. The first album, 1998's Hope Is Important, now that I've heard it, seems to me to be a muddy, impatient, punk-derivative mess on which the fast songs lack individuality and the songs that aren't fast lack that, too. I guess it's nice to hear a band who sound like they could be on Epitaph whose British accent isn't faked, but only like it's "nice" to see Bush keep a few bad campaign promises. Album two, however, 100 Broken Windows, is a quantum leap in maturity. Some of this might be the result of better production, three songs recorded with Albini compatriot Bob Weston and the rest handled by MSP producer Dave Eringa. But mostly, I think, the band has learned how to write rock songs (as opposed to punk screeds) that bear scrutiny, ours or theirs. "Little Discourage" is urgent and pounding, like a midpoint between the original pogoing ecstasy of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and the crinkly updating of it in Blur's "Song 2". A similar Nirvana/Elastica hybrid, in "I Don't Have the Map", doesn't work out quite as well for me, but the more carefully paced "These Wooden Ideas" comes off something like Bush doing an REM song (except with an extra keyboard hook I can't place). "Roseability" reverts to "Song 2" start-stop again, but unlike Blur, Idlewild don't sound like their volume and distortion are ironic, and I like the idea of hordes of sweat kids screaming "Gertrude Stein says 'That's enough'" enough to hope that this song totally supplants Blur's in the modern dance canon.
The closest the album comes to plain grunge is the roaring choruses of "Idea Track", but the verses are spare and chiming. The heartfelt "Let Me Sleep (Next to the Mirror)" rises from gruff, Whipping-Boy-ish verses to a sweeping chorus that for a moment I imagine could be precisely the cunning synthesis of Travis and Semisonic necessary to rocket Idlewild to dizzying American stardom. The grim, slashing "Listen to What You've Got" is the most like a first-album throwback, and more than a little reminiscent of Voivod, but the succinct "Actually It's Darkness" has all the makings of future nostalgia, bouncy verses, blasting choruses, the infectious sing-along tagline "Why can't you be more cynical?!" and even a bit of genuine emotional tension ("You don't look the same in the photograph; / I need to look the way I did in the photograph", related by singer Roddy Woomble (who, surely, made this name up for entertainment value of forcing American journalists to use it in articles) in an impish Scottish lilt of whose Ewan-McGregor-esque market value he's perfectly aware). The sludgy "Rusty" sounds like Voivod again, and I think would have been better with a melody, but "Mistake Pageant" is confident and fully-realized, something like Billy Bragg crossed with Stereophonics, with a little Mike Mills-like chorus harmony. "Quiet Crown" is generous and obscurely elegant, like a much louder Luna. And although "The Bronze Medal", the last song, resorts to the familiar cop-out of switching to an uncharacteristic slow-and-quiet at the end of a fast-and-loud album, where I would have much rather they'd risen to the challenge of devising a satisfying conclusion that could be performed at speed and volume, I am pleased to know that Idlewild have this much range. I would probably downgrade this album sharply, in retrospect, if the next one didn't seem to me to be as big a leap as this was from the first one, which perhaps seems cruel, but I think it means I hear more in this album than I'm sure the band put there, and I'm excited to see how much of it they can figure out.
Llama Farmers: El Toppo
I wasn't wholly convinced by the first Llama Farmers album, Dead Letter Chorus, either, but the band members were still just kids when they made it, so pretty much anything could happen on their second album, and I was twelve dollars curious to find out what would. They share Idlewild's fondness for jumping in and out of guitar noise, but where Idlewild go about soft-loud-soft-loud with a rock band's enthusiasm, I think Llama Farmers are more interested in the loud parts for their textural My Bloody Valentine-ness. Many of these songs have sharp angles where rock songs normally call for curves, hover where they should have galloped, grind where they might have soared. Neither Bernie nor Jenni Simpson, who share the vocals, are really promoted as if they're meant to be identity-defining lead singers, but the combination develops an interestingly elusive personality. At the most confrontational, this results in oblique interludes like the harsh, hammering title track, with its groaning bass line, distracted vocals and keening guitar hooks; the dreamily muted verses and blaring, metallic choruses of the dense "Snow White"; the glassy idylls of "More Salt"; the insistent, battering "Ear the C", which sounds like Ned's Atomic Dustbin being sucked into a white-noise machine; and the simultaneously repetitive and meandering "You Bore Me". At the more song-like end, the dismally-named "Doggy Fudge" inverts the usual formula by buzzing through kinetic verses only to fall apart completely in what ought to be the choruses; "Postcards & Moonrock" and "Same Song" are both spacey lullabies; "Note on the Door" is buoyant and heroic, injecting some of the Foo Fighters' cheerful exuberance into a Chameleons-like sense of scale and atmosphere; and "Movie" is the most straightforward, clipped verses segueing, for once, into the sawing choruses you'd probably expect. Maybe the song in which these conflicting urges are balanced the most effectively is "Feathers", pealing guitar more laced through the syrupy choruses than arching above them, the drums mostly kick rumbles at times and hissing crash-and-snare washes at others, the vocals effectively just another instrument. Idlewild excite me because I can so vividly imagine them maturing into a good, solid rock band; Llama Farmers excite me because I think they're headed in the opposite direction, towards unoccupied territory. Statistically speaking, that probably means I'm more likely to find the third album unlistenable than mesmerizing, because in many cases unoccupied territory is unoccupied for good reasons. But somebody has to have the courage to explore, or else we'll all be left cowering in our foyers, desperately trying to remember whether it was three chords from here to the front door, or four, so we can get there, get the mail, and get back, without risking opening our eyes.
AC Acoustics: Understanding Music
And my favorite album of this set, in fact, is the one that is, I'm virtually certain, the least successful in any familiar sense. I have two other AC Acoustics albums, 1994's Able Treasury and 1997's Victory Parts, about which I couldn't tell you anything, offhand, other than that I enjoyed listening to them well enough that they haven't been relegated to the backup shelf. After listening to Understanding Music once I couldn't have told you anything much about it, either. A second and third pass yielded no more explicable detail. After I listened to it a fourth time and found myself still clueless, but not yet bored, I began paying closer attention. Many more sessions later, I can report with authority that I do not know how this album works, and when I try to take it apart the pieces slip right through my fingers. Although I can recognize some song-like qualities of the individual tracks while I'm listening to them, I experience the album as if all its moments are simultaneous and co-extensive. The music is bleary and shimmering, along the same path that led past MBV, Puressence, Whipping Boy and the Lassie Foundation, and Paul Campion's vocal style is even more evasive and muttering than the Simpsons'. I think this is what the people who reacted so strongly to Sigur Rós' Ágætis Byrjun hear in their music, but to me Sigur Rós' nonsense lyrics are too obvious, too cheap a way to bias the music away from objects towards liquid. The songs on Understanding Music all have real words, some of them even spoken narrations, and yet they still all blur together for me, an epic vigil against wearying coherency. "God knows my name", someone whispers, in the middle of it, and suddenly I'm almost incapacitatingly aware of how prayer-like my experience of this album has become, how detached my repetitions of it have become from anything it might be literally construed to express. This is what Kid A should have been, too, ambient suspension without giving up guitars or faith. There's no "Idioteque" here, and I would have thought a Kid A without "Idioteque" would disincorporate. Which, I suppose, is what happens. Understanding Music is just about the most pretentious album title outside of Terence Trent D'Arby or Cursive, but I feel like they've earned it, like this isn't a music lesson for me, exactly, but that in listening to it I've heard the sound of them learning something integral and profound about their relationship to music. Does it translate? I don't know. Maybe all I'll ever get out of this album is the visceral jolt of seeing, in somebody else's eyes, a spark of comprehension whose context, much less substance, neither of us can explain. But that's fine. If I suspect this record is a masterpiece merely because I have no good way to assess it, so be it. The experience is the same. I'd enjoy this album less if I thought it concealed a code. I have plenty of puzzle boxes, not enough monoliths. I grow more fond of this one, after every helpless circuit, precisely because I can't think of any other way to deal with it. With each encouraging failure I grow more confident of its indivisibility. I'm not religious, and I don't know what it means to orbit something I can't enter. I don't know if it's therapy or self-abnegation. But I think I need to find out. My world has been so well mapped, yet here is an elsewhere. Maybe I'm drawn to it for no better reason than a lack of other elsewheres, but that will do. I've been looking for a way out of myself, and the circumference of this disc, if I walk it one more time, might be the path from here to there.