326 · 26 April 01
Josie and the Pussycats: Music From the Motion Picture
If "pre-fab" constitutes a music-criticism, to you, these are bad chart times. A dispiriting amount of the current pop environment is filled with "bands" whose approach to music is not appreciably different than a "chef" whose idea of "cooking" is executing a series of deft spins in between punching the microwave-keypad digits necessary to reheat a frozen Chicken Fettucini (sic). There are, of course, a variety of counters to this accusation. Most obviously, it's not new. The craft norms in pop have oscillated back and forth between auteur and puppet throughout the history of the form, if not longer, and if you eliminated everybody who ever had hits with songs they had no hand in writing, arranging, playing or producing you'd decimate large tracts of the canon and sacrifice a lot of worthwhile pop along with the disposable crap (which, after all, would have disposed of itself without your help). Secondly, just because the singer didn't write the song, doesn't mean it was extruded by a machine. There's nothing unreasonable or undisciplined about appreciating the craftsmanship and/or artistry of Holland/Dozier songs, or Julie Gold's, or even Diane Warren's, all of which are usually sung by other people. I've never heard anybody seriously argue that it's inauthentic for actors to perform in films they didn't write, to take a nearby example, so there needn't be any inherent reason why the two processes can't be just as routinely separated in music. And thirdly, some of the time perhaps disposability is exactly what you want. There's an awful lot of frozen- and fast-food consumed in this country, so either a lot of people are making conscious, guilty concessions to expedience, or else I'm being an obdurate elitist.
There has rarely been a better opportunity for a subversive critique of these tensions than the weirdly non-sequitur-ish live-action movie remake of the old Archies-derived cartoon series Josie and the Pussycats. As the real charts swallow O-Town and Eden's Crush, acts whose cynical manufacture has been done entirely in public view, without evident grimace, what could be more seditious than co-opting an old comic into becoming a movie about the force-marketing of a cute pop group? What more trenchant irony could you hope for than a scene in which the band in the movie would be coerced or tricked into lip-synching to a song they didn't actually do, and then become enraged about their principles being compromised, despite the fact that the actresses are also lip-synching the songs the movie band is supposed to have done "themselves"? And if the filmmakers had real guts, they would have let Rachael Leigh Cook, Rosario Dawson and Tara Reid learn to play their instruments and write a song or two of their own, and let the movie end with the entire Wizard of Oz apparatus collapsing and three actual girls, preferably (and probably) scared out of their wits, attempting to entertain an arena full of expectant pop-sheep with something tiny, helpless and half-formed. They would fail, of course, but that's fine. Let most of the audience glaze over and file out. But as they do so, let just a handful of people stand their ground, jostled by the exiting crowds, and then move up to cluster at the foot of the stage, more enchanted by inept honesty than empty artifice. Let the movie end where band stories ought to begin, not with carefully-staged reality-TV auditions and meticulously synchronized publicity campaigns but with three people with instruments and voices who know they want to do something but not what or how, and a few listeners willing to watch while they try to figure it out.
That's not what the movie Josie and the Pussycats turns out to be, at all. The major-label manipulators don't mess with the band's source material, they just mix goofy (and superfluous) mind-control messages into it. The band are gypped out of a principled stand by idiotic plot twists, and at the climactic moment, when the mind-control machine inevitably gets destroyed, and the band is left to face their audience without this safety net, and something productive and true is poised to finally happen, the band and the audience and the filmmakers all effectively just shrug, and then forge ahead, nominally free, with exactly the same behavior the mind-control was intended to engender. I didn't really expect to get to hear the girls play, but I did hope, right up until the last moment, that there would be a twist, that as in The Truman Show the last five seconds, at least, would fleetingly expose not only the machinery of hypocrisy but the public's blank mass-collaborationist streak that allows it to operate. The five seconds never happen. There are some funny scenes, but just as many in which everything grinds to a sudden halt. Every character gets from zero to one identity-developing scenes, which isn't nearly enough even in the one cases, and the script not only squanders Alan Cummings and Parker Posey, which a far better script might have also done, but arguably squanders Rachael Leigh Cook, whom I have not yet seen any reason to regard as a resource, unless you think we are in danger of experiencing a national shortage of girls who are easier to make Winona Ryder dolls of than Winona Ryder. Most damningly, the makers never quite figure out where the line is between satirizing product-placement and implementing it, and as a result the movie's primary potential source of energy amounts to a source of confusion, and the end result is about as close as you can come to being literally pointless.
But then there's the album. I bought it a couple weeks before the movie even came out, having liked the songs in the preview, and here it still is, after I've seen the movie. The music, on the one hand, is fairly pre-fab. Deborah Kaplan and Harry Elfont, who wrote and directed the film (after writing and directing Can't Hardly Wait and writing A Very Brady Sequel and The Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas), had their hands in several of the songs, most of the ones that play central roles in the film were produced by Babyface, and although thirteen tracks seems like a proper pop album, two are hideous boy-pop pastiches credited to the Pussycats' predecessors in the mind-control scheme, DuJour (including the one they lip-sync in the opening scene of the movie, a unsettling ode to anal sex that isn't funny at all without Seth Green and Breckin Meyer preening around to it, and maybe not then, either), and two are perfunctory covers of "Real Wild Child" and "Money (That's What I Want)" that I don't for a second believe the band in the movie would really have done. The rest are pre-fab in the sense that the girls in the movie certainly were not involved, but if you forget that there was a movie, and just take the album on its own terms, the issue is cloudier. Kay Hanley of Letters to Cleo (last seen, movie-wise, playing a Cheap Trick cover on the roof of the school at the end of 10 Things I Hate About You) provides Josie's singing voice and Bif Naked adds some back-up. Adam Schlesinger (of Fountains of Wayne and Ivy, and That Thing You Do) wrote one of the songs and produced half of them. Dave Gibbs of Gigolo Aunts co-wrote five and co-produced all the Babyface tracks. Other participants with real credentials include Jason Falkner, Matthew Sweet, Jane Wiedlin, Adam Duritz of Counting Crows, Anna Waronker of That Dog, Steve Hurley of Gigolo Aunts, and Michael Eisenstein of Letters to Cleo. And most of the songs, despite an overall this-is-not-how-a-three-girl-garage-band-would-sound overproduction intended, I assume, to give them chart parity, do also have recognizable pop virtues. "3 Small Words", the quasi-punk centerpiece, has some unexpected strength under its puppy-dog exuberance, like a bubble-gum Social Distortion. Schlesinger's "Pretend to Be Nice" is bouncy and a little sleazy, with a becalmed, faintly "Crimson and Clover"-ish chorus. The quick pop mannerisms of Gibbs and Duritz' "Spin Around" don't entirely disguise its old-fashioned Knack/Boston-grade FM-rock ambitions. The syrupy, mostly-acoustic ballad "You Don't See Me" could be the early sketch for what will, after a lot more overdubs, become a Nina Gordon song. Duritz, Gibbs and Waronker's short "You're a Star", with its shouted gang-vocals, comes the closest to simulating some of the DIY energy the band ought to have been defined by. Hanley and Eisenstein's "Shapeshifter" sounds like their attempt to write a Cheap Trick song of their own, marred only by the lazy "Whatever, dude"s at the ends of the choruses. Waronker's "I Wish You Well" is murky and surging. "Come On", though, credited to Gibbs, Kaplan, Elfont, Babyface, Falkner, Hurley, Dee Dee Gipson, Wiedlin, Schlesinger and Hanley, probably shouldn't have required ten writers to assemble what sounds to me remarkably like the Donnas doing a Badfinger cover. And the "Josie and the Pussycats" theme song, under Schlesinger's supervision, almost, but not quite, transcends TV-music obviousness.
So I'm torn. I enjoy these songs. Take out the DuJour tracks and the covers, and market this as an only-semi-tongue-in-cheek Kay Hanley record, and I'm sure I wouldn't have subjected it to such cynicism. If the movie has nothing serious to say, maybe it's just entertainment. I was entertained, watching it, and I was entertained some more listening to the album. The songs aren't important, but I don't think they think they're important, either. Is entertainment and clear self-assessment enough, though? Not for me, at least not for long. Not compared with all the albums waiting that are what Josie and the Pussycats barely pretends to be. Surrounded by a thousand real stories of what it means to dream and play, stories uplifting and devastating and poignant and pointed, stories that involve people and music in a way this one doesn't bother to, why waste time on a story whose most enduring insight is that with enough money you can make a lot of incurious people wear stupid hats? Or, less charitably still, that they'll probably end up wearing stupid hats even if you leave them alone.
astrid: Play Dead
Besides, there's no shortage of peppy, understated pop bands you can support without contributing (at least not directly) to multi-national corporate malaise. One of my pet such bands is the Scottish quartet astrid, whose second album Play Dead is out now on (and whose merchandise composes most of the current catalog of) the London label Fantastic Plastic. What story astrid will turn out to be telling, I don't yet know. Play Dead is only minorly different from Strange Weather Lately, their first record. They still sound, more than anything else, like a teenage version of the Byrds on sugar-highs. Traces of incipient maturity are subtle, and I can't promise with complete confidence that I'm not imagining some of them, but judge for yourself: the quiet, controlled acoustic arpeggios under the verses of "It Never Happened"; the languid horns and timpani rumble on "Tick Tock"; the REM-like introversion of the humming "Wrong for You"; the late-Jam-style brass-led jump of "Crying Boy"; the sighing orchestral melancholy of "Alas"; psychedelic twinges in the interstices of "Play Dead", which on the first album they probably would have played half again as fast and thus stripped of nuance; "Just One Name" dreaming of "Love Grows (Where My Rosemary Goes)" and "Walk Away Renee"; "Paper" hushed and Simon and Garfunkel-ish; tendrils of falsetto carrying "Modes of Transport" towards Bee Gees territory. But "Fat Girl" is dizzy and unapologetic, "Hard to Be a Person" is practically pre-Beatles, "What You're Thinking" is a much better impression of what I imagine a post-Nirvana Archies band would sound like than the Pussycats, "Taken for Granted" lets some of the Byrds' country influences seep in, and "Horror Movies" is remorselessly inane. The "hidden" bonus track, though, is slow, patient and poised, so maybe it's the harbinger. Maybe astrid's story will be nervous, restless youth unfolding into thoughtful, less-easily-satisfied young adulthood. Maybe it will be enthusiastic, naïve youth crumbling into desultory fragments of its motivated self. I don't know, and I don't expect Play Dead will turn out to have been much more than a continuation of the beginning of it. But I follow along, like I don't read the second half of books first, because in the real world, outside of the movies, discovery and self-discovery don't happen in a week or an hour or three minutes. Three minutes a month, or if you're lucky an hour a year, is a lot of revelation for one band, even the ones that already know what shape their revelations should take. The rest of them won't ever find themselves without our help.
Guided by Voices: Isolation Drills
The stories, however, aren't all good. Not only do some of them end badly, but sometimes they end badly and we're partly to blame. I wish dearly that I hadn't read anything about Isolation Drills. Without any imposed context, I don't think I would have figured out that in trying to live his rock-star dream Robert Pollard wrecked his marriage. More: that in helping him living his rock-star dream, in encouraging him to believe it worth living, in glamorizing his drunken, boorish act, we helped wreck his marriage. I don't, of course, know anything about his marriage. Maybe it was terrible for twenty years. Maybe he hated every day of being a kindergarten teacher, recording songs on crappy equipment with his friends in their basements and inventing the shambolic and labyrinthine fictional Dayton underground seemingly-lovingly pseudo-compiled on Suitcase, and only now, drinking in anonymous tour hotel rooms, is he finally happy. He would hardly be the first artist to see his pursuit of art destroy his personal life, either, and it didn't ruin the work of lots of the other ones for me, so why should I let it ruin GbV? Why am I sitting here thinking that I've wondered off and on whether by buying Guided by Voices I am supporting something I disapprove of, and the doubts were correct after all, far more correct than I suspected? I like way too many songs about breakup and divorce and the debilitating effects of obsessions on the obsessors to suddenly take this moralistic stand.
And yet, listening to Isolation Drills, I feel awful, maybe as bad as any album has made me feel since OK Computer. I hate the fact that when Pollard alludes to what's happened to him he does it in the same cryptic style in which his lyrics have always been written, as if getting divorced is no more significant as a source for ideas than getting drunk on cheap beer and writing down gibberish. I hate that in the face of evidence that GbV's development has been bad for him, he can think of no better way to cope than to make a record on which he tries to advance the same development even further. I hate that his friends play along. I hate that Do the Collapse, on which it seemed to me like GbV showed the potential to be something bigger and more inventive and less slurred, turns out now to have been so clearly Ric Ocasek's doing, for which Pollard feels obliged to make this album at least partly an apology. The songs here are fine, coherent and cohesive and surging, but it doesn't help. The pealing "Fair Touching", the stomping "Chasing Heather Crazy", the roaringly anthemic "Glad Girls" and the ticking "The Brides Have Hit Glass" are as good as anything Pollard has ever written, I think, but it's too late, and too much. We have to draw a line somewhere. We have to refuse to help people destroy themselves. I wish I had written down my mental review of In Utero: "This record should not have been made, and having been made, should be unmade, whatever that takes. It is a death-rattle; Nirvana is done, and the best thing that Kurt can do now is to shut it down and do something else. Make music of another kind, if he can think of one that won't eat his stomach lining, but if not, be a librarian, or open a skate park, or teach night school. Nevermind was enough. The rest of it is not worth a life. In Utero is the sound of something that will never be worth a life inching closer to exacting that price." Not that it would have helped. I don't reach enough people to save lives, and if I did, I'd probably have my own problems. It makes little sense to stop buying GbV albums now; I don't expect Pollard to do any more damage. I should have quit after Bee Thousand, ideally, but perhaps more realistically when the Fading Captain records started, or after I saw GbV play for the first time. I couldn't pretend, after seeing Pollard on stage, that I condoned what he was doing, but I kept buying the records because I'm a record collector and collecting is harmless. But it isn't harmless. What we collect, we generate. So no more. I've have bought my last Guided by Voices record. Better vacuous sugar-pop than this. Pollard may turn the story around, for all I know. Would I have stopped buying Steve Earle records when he was arrested for heroin possession, if I'd been following him then, and thus missed the ones I like best, made after rehab? Perhaps. But I can afford to miss a few albums. There's a whole wall of albums behind me, and there are a dozen on my desk I haven't played yet, and a dozen more I think I'm going to like come out every week. Maybe Robert Pollard will stop drinking, and make one of the greatest pop apology albums of all time, and get his family back, and I'll miss it because I foolishly sold low. Maybe if I thought that was more likely, I wouldn't be giving up. And maybe if I didn't like the music, I wouldn't feel like I need to. But I don't think it's going to happen, and I don't want to watch it not happen, and I don't want to participate in it not happening, and I don't want to spend my time finding things to like about music I don't want to like, so for me this is the end. You want to stick with Guided by Voices, you're on your own. My loss? Maybe, but the losses I'm cutting are mine already. I can afford them. What I can't afford is thinking that my beliefs about good and evil are so idly held that I would overlook them for nothing better than loud guitars and a few more propulsive choruses where I already have so many. I can't afford the strain of my body wanting to sing along with something my heart despises.