The Most Remarkable Thing About Standing in Doorways
325 · 19 April 01
My Life Story: Joined Up Talking
One of the logistical difficulties of consuming as much music as I do is that I long ago stopped being reliably able to tell the difference between a band whose name sounds vaguely familiar because I bought one of their albums, listened to it once and didn't like it, and a band whose name sounds vaguely familiar only because I have flipped past their bin in the record store a hundred times while looking for something else. The problem is particularly severe when I am forced by release delays to check a particular section repeatedly waiting for something promised to appear. My Life Story sit in between the bins for My Favorite, who had a recent EP that didn't materialize until several weeks after I heard about it, and Misc. M, where I kept looking for Mishima's debut album until I realized that they hadn't made it yet. The cover of Joined Up Talking, which came out in the UK in early 2000, has nice typography and an elegantly subdued color scheme, but somehow I had convinced myself that I knew what the band sounded like, and that they sounded like a less-pensive Pearl Jam. On second thought, I suspect I had confused them with Lullaby for the Working Class. On third thought, since Lullaby for the Working Class don't sound like Pearl Jam either, I think I had confused Lullaby for the Working Class with System of a Down. This is some wildly tenuous word-association, but as a moment's contemplation should be enough to convince you, investigating every band I don't know whose bin abuts bands I do know is an impractical stratagem. I was extricated from this particular ignorance by a Darla sampler from last summer that I finally got around to playing, which begins with Baxendale's "Music for Girls", and then follows up on my enthusiasm for that song by later including My Life Story's "It's a Girl Thing".
The similarities between the two songs are, to be fair, limited. They both have "girl" titles, but Baxendale's song is a coyly self-referential salute to effeminate New Wave, while My Life Story's song is actually about relationships. Some of the same bands Baxendale mean, My Life Story evoke, but Duran Duran's sleek glamour is about the extent of the real overlap, Baxendale's aesthetic spreading out into the trebly dance-pop territory of the Pet Shop Boys, Bronski Beat and Culture Club, while My Life Story's opts for comparatively solid virtues like Squeeze's poise, early Talk Talk's sparkle and (later) a little of EMF's rattle and energy. The drum machines are twitchy, the synthesizers dizzily phased and arpeggiated, but where "Music for Girls" shares some of "West End Girls"' guardedness, "It's a Girl Thing" is closer to the expansiveness of "It's My Life", "Pulling Mussels (From the Shell)" or perhaps the Tubes' "She's a Beauty".
The one prominent My Life Story element "It's a Girl Thing" is missing is strings. A ten-piece string section plays on most of these songs, augmented in places by a three-piece brass section and on one song by an oddly orchestral harmonica. On Mornington Crescent, the first My Life Story album, which I've now heard as well, it didn't seem to me like the core rock band had quite figured out how to coexist with the string players, and Jake Shillingford's reedy singing, in particular, seemed obtrusively arch, undermining many of the songs in the same way that Neil Hammon and Stuart Staples keep me from really enjoying the Divine Comedy or Tindersticks. By Joined Up Talking, though, he's figured out enough fluttery nuances and sonority that he could probably fill in for Dream Academy, the Boo Radleys or Gay Dad, and the vocal confidence is a critical factor in drawing together the rock and classical instruments. If Shillingford sounds like all good singers should have this kind of composite backing, who are either faction to argue?
All together, in fact, these elements lend Joined Up Talking a level of serenely kaleidoscopic pop ambition that has not often been essayed since Talk Talk's It's My Life. The Boo Radleys' Wake Up! and Scarlet's Naked were giddier, bis' Social Dancing beepier, the Icicle Works' If You Want to Defeat Your Enemy Sing His Song only this unselfconscious about its grandeur on a few songs. "Empire Line" opens slow and stately, with quiet piano and Shillingford's voice betraying a Mark Hollis-like catch, but swoops into a surging chorus more on the order of Duran Duran's "Rio". The lyrics, interestingly, almost reverse "Rio", attacking the vapidity of the same basic glamour-girl character "Rio" idolized. I bet the sinister, keening "If You Can't Live Without Me Then Why Aren't You Dead Yet" would have done better with non-cliché lyrics, but the sweetly sad "Sunday Tongue" falls somewhere between "Life in a Northern Town" and Everything but the Girl's Idlewild, except for a clanging, EMF-ish break in the middle, which it returns from with the menacing, breathy "He's half your age". Picking on older women who sleep with younger men seems a little mean-spirited, but at least it's not an overworked rock trope. "Yes to Everything" is dark and howling (not, as I hoped for about three seconds, a mis-titled cover of St. Christopher's "Say Yes to Everything"), perhaps an impression of what Nine Inch Nails might sound like if Trent wasn't as embarrassed about his Depeche Mode fixation, but "Walk/Don't Walk" is brittle and lilting, parts Squeeze, the Beautiful South and sultry boy-group insinuation (except that it's hard to visualize the Backstreet Boys doing inane faux-hip-hop hand-gestures to lines like "Now the baby's cold and hungry, / She didn't even feed the tamagotchi" or "In and out the avenues and alleyways, / She's a traffic island castaway". "There's Nothing for Nobody and Everybody Wants to Be Someone" is Jesus Jones busy, which doesn't seem to me like My Life Story's strength, but "The New New Yorker" is a breathless, confectionery triumph, like Aztec Camera simultaneously rewriting "Semi-Charmed Life" and Billy Bragg's "Sexuality". "Neverland" mixes Roxette-like power-ballad swish with an old Spandau Ballet calm. "Stalemate" is quick and grinding, with traces of Jesus Jones again, but the opening of "Two Stars" is sumptuous and undulating, and leads into a bouncy chorus with echoes of "Everything Counts" and (the second time around, when it switches unexpectedly into dub) the Clash and the English Beat.
The album's climax, though, for me, comes one song from the end, under the inauspicious title "I Don't Believe in Love". A simple, spare pop song fleshed out with chiming piano, bubbly horns and silky strings, it's not much different in principle from at least half a dozen Prefab Sprout songs, but there's something about the cadences of the sentimental chorus, "I don't believe in love / When I'm not in love, / But when I am...", that seems just about perfect to me. I don't think there is another art form this well suited to capturing the elusive, glorious, breathtaking sensation of trying to lose faith in something and discovering that it won't let you.
The Frank and Walters: Glass
One of the most mundanely thrilling things about New Wave, although perhaps you had to be new, yourself, at the same time, to appreciate it the way I did, was the widespread sense of excitement about synthesizers. Synths weren't new in 1983, any more than guitars were new in 1963, but treating synthesizers like malleable, abusable rock instruments was new. "Europa and the Pirate Twins" and "The Metro" and "Me! I Disconnect From You" were as different from "Tubular Bells" and Keith Emerson's mellotron as Roger McGuin's twelve-string and Hendrix's "Star-Spangled Banner" were from Steve Cropper. But now it's 2001, and synths passed into ubiquity so long ago that we've been through several full trend-cycles of naturalism/artificialism in their use. For a while samplers were novel (part of the vitality of Schubert Dip and Doubt, to me, was the feeling that EMF and Jesus Jones were still a bit in awe at how cool their toys were), and then a little later drum-loops caught on (I'm obscurely proud of the fact that I wrote a review of EbtG's Walking Wounded without using the term "drum-and-bass" once, although admittedly it was because I didn't know it was a term until later), but there hasn't been an obtrusively cool innovation in music technology since, unless you count that pitch-corrector thing in Cher's "Believe". Lots of unobtrusively cool new technology, especially in digital recording and processing gear, but that's different.
The Frank and Walters are one of the few bands who still manage to sound excited about synthesizers. Circa Indian Ocean and Grand Parade, in 1997 and 1998, they seemed like a fairly straightforward early-Eighties guitar-band throwback to me, but 1999's Beauty Becomes More Than Life had a few twittering synth parts hiding among the neo-U2-isms, and although I bought last year's Glass worried that they'd run themselves into a dead-end, I find that they must have agreed with me about their predicament on some level, because they set out in an almost completely new direction. The jumpy "Underground" is laced with glassy synth shimmers à la OMD. The nervous, snapping "Isn't It Time" mixes heavily processed background percussion and a couple layers of gurgling synths under what otherwise would probably have been an unremarkable pop-rock song. "New York" is a circumspect and slightly Billy Bragg-like lullaby, but "6 Becomes 9" is a swirling, mechanistic dance-groove, backtracking from Nine Inch Nails to Joy Division in search of the common roots of New Order and the Sisters of Mercy. Only a last-minute failure of nerve keeps "Talking About You" from erupting into "Images of Heaven", "Take On Me" or "Enola Gay". "Paradise" is muted and ticking, but "Ancestors" toys with Art of Noise geometry and the redemptive "Forgiveness" verges on Modern English and A Flock of Seagulls. "Facing Silence" drapes OMD/Peter Godwin-ish keyboards over a jittery post-drum-and-bass drum track. "I Will Be King" sounds a little like an old Magnetic Fields song, and "Looking for America" offers a partial compromise, twinkly drum-machine patter under dense, billowy guitar. I don't expect the Linehans' sudden discovery of synthesizers to be influential, the way Gary Numan's was, but I will follow along fondly, happy to know that there remains at least one band through whom I can re-experience the decade of revelations awaiting them.
Chapter13: The World From Heaven
I have an extremely high tolerance for nostalgic recapitulations of styles I once liked, but there is still a point beyond which even I think retro gets creepy. The Brighton, England band Chapter13 (who put out one single as Marble Index before realizing, to what would have been my surprise too, that there was already a band from Athens, Georgia called that) are not technically a tribute band, since these exact songs were not previously performed by anyone else, but if it were possible to copyright anything more sophisticated than recordings or sheet music, they'd be in serious trouble. If work on this album did not begin with someone musing "I wonder what the New Order records would have sounded like if Ian had lived", it was only because they felt sheepish about saying it aloud. There are a few moments when I can convince myself, with some effort, that Chapter13 have borrowed an impulse or two from OMD and Peter Godwin to mix in with the Joy Division/New Order gloom, but probably if I knew Joy Division and New Order a little better I could trace the OMD and Godwin touches back to earlier JD/NO roots as well. I haven't heard a band sound so much like they're deliberately impersonating another one since Vitesse's Magnetic Fields pastiche A Certain Hostility.
The catch, though, is that Ian Curtis didn't survive to participate in the New Order days. By the time Peter Hook and Bernard Sumner got into synthesizers on the scale they eventually would, Curtis' haunting presence (haunting even while he was alive) was no longer much with them, so the songs these Chapter13 songs are exactly like, they never quite wrote. The World From Heaven, then, could be Chapter13's explication of what might have been, of dance-club synth-pop for a more self-contained and introspective dance culture, of teen-movie soundtrack music for a generation too prematurely aware of their own mortality to hear themselves in Flesh for Lulu or "Don't You (Forget About Me)". This might, in fact, be the soundtrack of the teen movie I actually lived, or the one I half lived and half remember, less colorful than the ones John Hughes put on the screen, but so too less cartoon-like. Not that movies have to be less cartoon-like, necessarily, but lives do, and it's nice every once in a while to look into a fantasy and see somebody we can imagine recognizing.
Atom & His Package: Redefining Music
Then again, if you want to hear synth-pop that is vividly aware of early-Eighties New Wave, yet bears virtually no meaningful stylistic resemblance to it, there are now four albums of crazed sequencer-rock by Adam Goren's one-man-band Atom & His Package. It is tempting to write Atom off as a novelty act. No, I take that back: "tempting" doesn't do the situation justice. The first three albums include songs about a first homosexual kiss, the correlation between guitar-playing speed and masturbation speed, the metric system, Rob Halford's coming-out, a marriage proposal to Enya, the organizational meetings the Jewish Conspiracy holds on Christmas, a punk-rock high school, a fifteen-hundred-pound hockey goalie, Philadelphia, Black Metal, lots of songs about people Adam knows personally but we do not, and one about the newborn child of people Adam knows but we do not, for whom he (but not we) may one day baby-sit. All these topics are addressed in Adam's nerdy, nasal voice, over manic sequencer backing that devolves, any time he can't think what to do next, which is a dozen or two times per album, into stolen snippets of other people's songs. Next to Atom, Devo were Jethro Tull and the Dead Milkmen were Sting.
Yet I, who normally despise joke-rock, like these albums a lot. After some thought I've come up with a three-part explanation for why. Part one is that although the lyrics of most Atom songs are comedic, the songs contain the jokes, rather than being them. The funniest things about "(Lord, It's Hard to Be Happy When You're Not) Using the Metric System", for example, are Atom's actual jokes about measuring systems, not the fact that it is a punk protest song about the metric system. His lyrics read like anecdotes, not parodies. Part two is that the songwriting is deceptively good. It's easy to get lost in the appropriations and goofy synth tones, and some of the songs on the first two records are not as well thought-out as the ones on the third and fourth, but every album has at least half a dozen tracks that I find virulently infectious. And part three is that the musical canon Adam raids, whenever he's at a loss, is the same one I grew up with, so in a way these albums externalize what it already sounds like inside my head, a constant involuntary medley of random lines from a hundred thousand random pop songs.
If any of this sounds intriguing, the place to start is either Redefining Music or A Society of People Named Elihu. Elihu has more fragments of other songs, but I think Redefining Music is preferable on all other grounds. It's the most musically proficient (and features Adam playing some enthusiastic guitar in addition to the sequences) and least readily sidetracked of the four albums, but no less willful, lyrically, than any of the others. The chattering "Undercover Funny", about Adam's partner in an indie label, is charmingly insecure, and the opening couplet ("With a fellow, I run a record label, and its name is File-13. / He's a tall, dark, Arkansasian motherfucker, and I couldn't say for sure if he actually likes me.") is as good a demonstration as you'll find of how harmless and un-obscene profanity can be (and one of the very few examples in rock of the correct pronunciation of "Arkansassian"). "Trump" is a stomping mock-rock-opera march about card games. "Shopping Spree" is, after a long, grumbling intro, a thrashing punk rant ripped off from a band Atom and Sean Na Na once saw in Flagstaff, Arizona. "Anarchy Means I Litter" is sneakily trenchant, "Mission 1: Avoid Job Working With Assholes" is sneakily inane. "For Franklin" is a sort of robot-bluegrass tribute to a friend's band. The hammering "Cross Country Atom and His Package Tour Via Bicycle" is an unapologetic speed-punk anthem with an unexpectedly Hüsker Dü-like chorus refrain. "Atari Track and Field/New Controller Conspiracy" is a great idea for a geek tirade, but the cheerful, blasting rock song it's attached to, with a pellucid guest-vocal by Aliza Rabinowitz, doesn't turn out to have anything at all to do with superfluous video-game peripherals. "If You Own the Washington Redskins, You're a Cock", on the other hand, is entirely on-topic, a charging emo protest against naming sports teams after minorities. Rabinowitz and Brian Sokel both sing parts of the buoyant "Upside Down From Here", something like "Solsbury Hill" at double-speed. And to make up for the lack of song-fragments, compared to the other albums, there is a mangled, spasmodic cover of Madonna's "Open Your Heart" that sounds a lot like They Might Be Giants accompanied by an irritable bell choir and a very large vacuum cleaner.
But the most surreal detail, for me, has to do with the pile I put the other three Atom CDs in, to indicate that I wanted to listen to them a few more times before shelving them, the rest of which is a stack of albums by the Mountain Goats, on no better common grounds than they are both DIY one-man bands whose back catalogs I bought all at once. DIY notwithstanding, Adam's chatty synth-kamikaze approach to pop is a few worlds removed from John Darnielle's oblique lyrics and sketchy (and scratchily recorded) acoustic accompaniments. Yet Redefining Music, which came out a couple weeks after I discovered Atom, and a month after I discovered the Mountain Goats and started that particular pile, turns out to contain three Mountain Goats covers. Adam turns the wistful "Seed Song" into mallety synth-pop with monster-guitar choruses, and rebuilds "Alpha Desperation March" around a one-note synth riff a lot like the one in Tribe's "Abort", but the stand-out remake for me is the galloping, half-spoken version of "Going to Georgia". "The most remarkable thing about coming home to you is the feeling of being in motion again." "The most remarkable thing about you standing in the doorway is that it's you, and that you're standing in the doorway. And you smile as you ease the gun from my hand." A joke band couldn't write this, but a real joke band couldn't play it, either. It's a song about letting another human being save your life, which requires that you learn how to take another human being seriously, and how to take yourself seriously. And apparently that's what I need, in order to laugh at songs without hating them, some tiny suspicion, no matter how elliptically derived, that there is pain lurking beneath. I need that pain, I think, for the same reason that I can't trust happiness without some kind of loneliness for it to be rooted in. Joy is a transformation, not a stasis, and these synthesizers and drum machines are just the latest tools for making us into it. The "New" in "New Wave" might seem short-sighted, in retrospect, but it's an integral part of the premise of the style, and of the faith that there is progress, and of wondering, as you first touch something you remember what it's like not to fully understand, how you'll be able to let it change you.