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The Wake of Your Smile
Low: Dinosaur Act
Once, a-sides mattered. Actually, that's not true. In my life, a-sides never really mattered. I have a lot of singles, but given a choice, buy the single or buy the whole album, I will always buy the album or both. The handful of exceptions in my collection, singles whose albums I don't have, all date back to very early, budget-constrained days: the Pretenders' "2000 Miles", X's "4th of July", Eddie Money's "Take Me Home Tonight", Billy Joel's "Matter of Trust". Peter Gabriel's "Red Rain" and "Don't Give Up", not for budget reasons but because I refused to own "Sledgehammer" and "Big Time". Combine that with the fact that I don't listen to the radio any more, and it becomes extremely rare for me to develop a relationship with an a-side because of its a-sided-ness. If I obsess over an album's single, it's usually a coincidence.
Or else the single came first. In the case of "Dinosaur Act", the single came out almost three months before the album, and in a different calendar year, which in my year-centric tracking of music makes a significant difference. So this single got a lot more attention from me than most, even to the extent that I fetishized the object a little bit, which I don't tend to. It's a shiny black digipack, the front cover half black with just "LOW" in white, half a contrasty close-up of a guitar face that you might have needed a couple tries to recognize if I hadn't told you. The inside cover is black and blank, the tray clear over a blank black back. The back cover and the disc itself are both black with a minimum of white text. It wasn't until I did some research that I realized there was an album on its way, and I suspect at least a small part of my fascination with the song was a function of its apparent isolation. I could imagine, for a few minutes, that Low had somehow moved beyond albums, and reached the point where each individual song would be so exquisite and painful that it would be unbearable to compile them.
But the album did eventually arrive, and "Dinosaur Act" makes sense in its context, too, and now the single is left to hold b-sides. Both the b-sides were so over-shadowed by "Dinosaur Act" that after hearing them for months I still might not have been able to tell you anything about them, but now that they're the only reason for me to play this disc, I can focus on them a little easier. "Overhead" is an ominous, murmuring noise-collage, Alan and Mimi's voices gliding over loops of incidental guitar twitter and a steady, train-like kettle-drum pulse, perhaps Low's own response to their Bombscare EP collaboration with Spring Heel Jack. "Don't Carry It All", the second, is more conventional, a slow, prayerful song buoyed by some spare piano. The reverent repetition of the title phrase lends the song a sort of "Kumbaya"-ish gospel sing-along quality, and for once Alan and Mimi, singing it, sound like they want to be joined, which in a way prefigures the album's openness, but only in hindsight, when prefiguring is no longer very interesting.
k. / Low: (split EP)
After seeing Ida and Low in concert together I'm convinced that there's a joint masterpiece they could make, and probably eventually will. The first tentative step in that direction is this four-song split EP, two songs each from Low and Ida's Karla Schickele (still trading, as if worried that she might not be obscure enough already, merely as "k."). Karla's songs for Ida are among their most magical, for me, but I haven't quite reconciled myself to the comparatively dark atmosphere of her solo songs, or else maybe she hasn't, either. "Regular Girl" begs, to my ears, for a chorus, and ends up sounding to me like four minutes of what should have been the first minute or two of a song that would then unfold into something brighter and more colorful. She fares a little better, paradoxically, with the Flashpapr cover "Were We to Dance", which with Ida Pearle on violin, Matt Sutton on bass and Matthew Schickele and Francesca Levy on wineglasses, turns into ghost bluegrass, and makes me wonder whether the way for Karla to distinguish her solo work from Ida isn't to make it more complicated, rather than simpler.
The two Low songs are both old ones. "Those Girls" is surprisingly amiable for a 1997 Low song, and you might have been able to convince me that it was a cover of some old synth-pop song I'd forgotten. The more interesting track is the "Time Stereo dub version" of the old single "Venus", which, without Things We Lost in the Fire for reassurance, might make me worry that Low are about to be ill-advisedly side-tracked by samplers.
Alan Sparhawk / Charles Atlas: "Sleep Song" / "Pondcup"
My physical souvenir from the Ida/Low show was a copy of this split 45, on the Milwaukee label Star Star Stereo. Alan's half is "Sleep Song", an understated lullaby for his daughter Hollis that ought, if songs have the power they should, to safeguard her at least through age fourteen or so. Charles Atlas' "Pondcup", for Charles Wyatt's daughter Maia, is a billowy guitar-and-delay improvisation that might work as bedtime music, but is never going to sustain her once she learns to talk and starts asking why there aren't any words.
The Clientele: Suburban Light (US)
The Clientele are one of the few bands I've experienced mainly through singles first. Suburban Light, their debut album/collection, has finally been released in North America on Merge, and for once the domestic edition is useful improvement on the import. The first halves are the same, but then the Merge version drops "An Hour Before the Light", "Saturday" and "Bicycles", all of which were already released here on March's A Fading Summer EP, and substitutes the two important single tracks that the Pointy version left off, "What Goes Up" and "6 A.M. Morningside", and one previously unheard song called "From a Window". Unfortunately for fans back in Europe, "From a Window" is quick, spectral and excellent, with vague hints of "(Don't Fear) the Reaper", a nice little quasi-psychedelic guitar solo, and some trademark Alasdair Maclean lyrics about evenings, exhaustion, drab weather and staying indoors. Plus A Fading Summer is now out of print, so late-arriving collectors may not be much cheered.
The Relict / The Clientele: "Held in Glass" / "(I Can't Seem) to Make You Mine"
The first post-Suburban Light Clientele release is this expensive Johnny Kane single split with ex-member Innes Phillips' spin-off band, the Relict. The Clientele's song, "(I Can't Seem) to Make You Mine", is a duet between Alasdair and Pam Berry (of Glo-Worm, Belmondo and the Castaway Stones, for starters), and although I've liked Pam in other settings, here her calm voice dilutes the Clientele-ness of the music so drastically that it basically ruins the experience for me. Ironically, the Relict's flip-side, "Held in Glass", also featuring a female guest vocalist (a breathy Abigail Marvel, about whom I know nothing else), sounds much more like the Clientele, haunted voices floating above a cycling, "Turn, Turn, Turn"-era-Byrds-ish accompaniment, and until Manic Street Preachers' "Baby Elian" came blasting through, destroying everything subtle and delicate in its path, this was probably my favorite song of the year so far.
The Relict: Along the Avenue
"Southern Way", the first Relict single, didn't do much for me, but "Along the Avenue", the second, released late last year on the new label Smashing Time, seems to me to make decent progress. By "make decent progress", though, it's possible that I only mean "sound even more like the Clientele". Innes warms up his Alasdairian singing voice, the drumming (by ex-Clientele drummer Dan Evans) has that same brittle, not-quite-in-sync shuffle to it, the accompaniment is similarly elusive and atmospheric. The flip side, "Sweeten Your Eyes", is even quieter, the lyrics delivered sotto voce, the production reproducing the weirdly dry, inspired/inept texture of the early Clientele singles almost exactly, the music fading out in lieu of establishing any kind of structure. Maybe the Relict will develop an independent identity, but given the Clientele's low output rate, lack of other close relations and apparent fragility, I kind of hope they don't.
Kings of Convenience: Playing Live in a Room
If Nick Drake invented whatever we're going to call this kind of music, and Belle and Sebastian revived it, I credit the Clientele and the Norwegian duo Kings of Convenience for lending it enough critical mass to constitute a genre. Although this five-song live EP has its own title, it could also easily have been packaged as the single for the first track from Kings of Convenience, "Toxic Girl", which is also the first song here. KoC's album arrangements are hardly cluttered, so I actually have to do an A/B comparison to remember how the album version of "Toxic Girl" differed from this. Oh right, the rhythm section. I quite liked the crisp drums on the album version, now that I'm reminded of their existence, but I don't miss them here, nor do the other four acoustic songs here seem in any way incomplete. "Singing Softly to Me" is restless and jazzy, and more instruments might easily wreck it. "Into the Ring of Fire" ought to win some sort of award for misleading titling, as if it portrays the emotional state of somebody being plunged into a ring of anything, it's probably pillows or a very lightly scented moisturizing lotion. The skeletal, piano-led "Parr-á-Pluie", sung in a hushed French, isn't even that menacing. Only the final track, "Until You Understand", where the guitar speeds up a little and Eirik and Erlend revert to their Simon and Garfunkel harmonies, hints at the larger possibilities of a band arrangement. Often, small rooms are big enough.
Kings of Convenience: Quiet Is the New Loud
Kings of Convenience also provide, as the title of their sort-of-second album, what I've taken to using as the genre's name. It's awkward as a record-bin label, and maybe after Josie and the Pussycats the "X is the new Y" formulation itself is worn out, but "Quiet Is the New Loud" captures, as all the -core names do not, the sense that this music isn't just quiet, it's excitingly quiet. Both the Clientele and KoC could use lessons from Belle and Sebastian in release strategy, though. Quiet Is the New Loud is even more perplexing than Suburban Light because it pretends to be an entirely different album than Kings of Convenience. Of the ten songs on Kings of Convenience, though, six of them are repeated here; or looking at it the other way, of the twelve tracks on Quiet Is the New Loud, six are repeats and two more are a two-part remake of "Singing Softly to Me" from Playing Live in a Room, leaving only four songs that are unambiguously new. Add in the observation that four of the six repeats first appeared on singles even before Kings of Convenience, and you have the makings of a case that Eirik and Erlend ought to spend less time playing, and more time writing. These sound like logistical objections, perhaps, but the amount of overlap prevents me from taking this album seriously, or separately. I just skip to the new stuff. The studio version of "Singing Softly to Me" doesn't add much, but I still liked it better without the trumpet and the hi-hats, and the logic of the reprise (as "The Girl From Back Then") escapes me. "Weight of My Words" could use more harmony, "Little Kids" briefly risks cutesiness and then retreats into spindly dueling guitar and piano lines, and "Summer on the Westhill"'s pastoral strings seem overwrought to me. The only new song on par with the older ones, for me, is the stark, sinister "The Passenger", mostly just one raspy guitar and Eirik and Erlend's humming, reverberant duet.
Kings of Convenience: Winning a Battle, Losing the War
The overlapping track lists of the albums are particularly mystifying given that the band do have more songs. The single for "Winning a Battle, Losing the War" adds two. The first, "Manhattan Skyline", is a pretty deconstruction of the old a-ha song, so I can see the argument that for album purposes it shouldn't count, but the other, a meditative and admittedly half-formed piano-ballad called "Envoy", would have provided a nice palette contrast on either album, even in this state.
Kings of Convenience: Toxic Girl #1
The first of the two new singles (there was also one earlier one) for "Toxic Girl" makes the very unfortunate, in my opinion, decision to add cheesy strings to part of the song. "Monte Carlo 1963 Version", it's labeled on the disc, so I know they're aware of the effect. Happily, though, a "Lively version" of "Little Kids", recorded for a radio show, reverts to just Eirik and Erlend and guitars, and improves the song noticeably. The third song here is another cover, this time of Badly Drawn Boy's "Once Around the Block". This is less of a stretch than a-ha, obviously, but they still manage a substantial transformation, almost totally eradicating the original's "Moondance"-ish vagrant-circus energy in exchange for a lurching, confessional pace that reminds me much more of Mark Eitzel than Damon Gough. The "Toxic Girl" video, appended to the single, is worth watching once, as it offers a throwaway punch line to go with the front cover of Quiet Is the New Loud.
Kings of Convenience: Toxic Girl #2
Part two (the digipack one) reverts to the album version of the title song, but for track two allows somebody called "J-Walk" to mess unnecessarily with "Winning a Battle, Losing the War", adding drums and synth pads the song was better without. The war of discretion against valour ends in discretion's favor, though, as track three is a mercifully uncluttered acoustic remake of the intriguingly proto-Style-Council-ish "Gold for the Price of Silver", which originally appeared in DJ-mangled form on a 2000 Tellé Records compilation.
Other People's Children: "Transatlantic" / "Mood Music"
Jason Sweeney's Sweet William could have had a place in the genre, too, but they broke up before even pretending to put out a second album. Sweeney first resurfaces as the one-man synth-pop project Other People's Children, under which name he contributed to a few compilations, put out a 1999 Library single called "Skywave", and then this one last year, also on Library. I heard "Transatlantic" shortly before hearing my first Marble Index / Chapter13 single, and it was thus briefly my vote for the most shameless Joy Division/New Order redux available, all clicking drum machine, beepy synth lines, laconic vocal delivery and an oppressive gloom masquerading as dance-floor self-containment. "Mood Music", the b-side, is a little more imaginative, playing with a digeridu-like buzz, sunnier synth timbres, a less insistent rhythm and less to say.
Simpático: Postal Museum EP
Why Sweeney switched names for his next EP, released on Matinée under the name Simpático, I don't know. The instrumentation is less obdurately synthetic than OPC, but the roots are similar, and it's not far from this to Sweet William, either. The sparkling, slightly wheezy "Union Station" sounds like a lost Field Mice demo. "Pheromone Stars" rattles along on a New Order-like toy-jackhammer beat, but "The Postal Museum" is becalmed and blurry, drifting towards Trembling Blue Stars territory. "Song for Steven" might be the one with the most potential, jittery drums dopplering in and out under chiming, Smiths-ish guitar and distracted vocals. I'm still not sure whether I expect Sweeney to contribute any extrapolation to this canon, in addition to the interpolation, but there are certainly plenty of EP-sized holes to fill if that's the role he wants.
Barcelona: Studio Hair Gel
I still have one left-over single from Barcelona's last album, while I'm nearly on the subject of synth-pop. If Barcelona were from Barcelona this would be a two-part single with a couple remixes on one and a couple new songs on the other, but here in America we have developed the technology to put five tracks on a single compact disc. The Figurine remix of "Studio Hair Gel" makes it sound a little too Commodore-64-ish for me, but the second remix, a deliciously sleazy seven-minute house/EMF/air-raid reworking by Baxendale, turns the track into something that could have been playing at the club in the song. Of the two new songs, the bouncy, easy-going "You're Not Far Off" starts of like it's going to be Barcelona's New Order homage, but Jason Korzen refuses to imitate anybody else's singing style. The real justification for the disc, though, is the muted, burbling "Buying Records Won't Make Me Feel Better", Jen Carr picking carefully through a plaintive lyric about a post-relationship record-buying trip that could be the epilogue to the relationship "Studio Hair Gel" tried to start. Music brought the couple together, and after they fall apart, she looks to the same music for comfort. It doesn't work, records aren't consolation. Consolation, in this case, would be a lie, and the records can't do that. All the records can do is tell her she's right. If they were people, they might apologize, because some of the blame for what she put into the relationship, and now has lost, is theirs. But I think she'll find, after the initial pain dissipates, that much of what she thought she invested in the relationship, she actually invested in the music that surrounded it. The boy is gone, but the records aren't, and might be more valuable.
hollAnd: Drums
Barcelona producer trevor/hollAnd has a new record of his own, as well. It is only twelve minutes long, and so ought to qualify a single, or an EP at most, but it has seven songs, only one of which exceeds two minutes, and between quantity and variety, listening to them feels more like listening to an album, to me. "Oh Death" is jagged and distorted, like NIN without the goth affectations. "Tranquilizer" is spare and sour, but breaks into echoes and falsetto in the middle. The 1:19 "White-Hot Minimal" is sturdy mid-tempo synth-rock that somehow manages not to seem rushed despite lasting a third of what should have been its natural length. "Sparks" (the set's epic, at 2:10) is anxious and a little spastic, some airy female backing vocals contrasting with trevor's own sinister voice-over. "American Eyes" is chirpy Barcelona-grade pop, slithery monotonic vocals over springy sequencer runs, and might be hollAnd's single best claim, so far, on being the American Vince Clarke. "Ambient" is instrumental and fragmentary, but "Your Face" is a jerky, Devo-esque sequel to "Neoprene So Tight". And then it ends, a little too early. With one more song, maybe two at most, I think it could have sounded complete. Your Orgasm was twenty-six minutes long, with fourteen songs. trevor has obviously improved his efficiency in the four years since then, but not quite, I think, by a factor of two.
Black Box Recorder: The Facts of Life (US)
I didn't buy any of the singles from The Facts of Life, but ended up getting a couple of the b-sides as bonus tracks on the domestic version of the album, anyway. Listened to straight through, this version of the album makes almost no sense. The first eleven tracks are single-mindedly consistent, and "Goodnight Kiss" is unmistakably the end, so when the jumpy "Start As You Mean to Go On" starts, like Sleeper at their most effervescent, it's like some other band has stolen Sarah Nixey's voice. The jazzy Euro-isms, unhurried paces and seductive slurs are suddenly abandoned, replaced by whip-crack snares, slashing guitar hooks and a boingy synth-bass. "Brutality", the other track, is short and clipped, and stays on theme by mentioning drinking and driving, but plays more like Au Pairs feeling sentimental, or the Go-Go's channeling Marilyn Monroe. And when it ends, abruptly, and with it the album, I'm left thinking that whatever other band this is, these last two songs, they're not as sexy as the first one, but they're a lot more sincere, and I have a feeling that I'd like their album even better.
Manic Street Preachers: Found That Soul
Manic Street Preachers released two advance singles for Know Your Enemy, ostensibly so as not to have either one misrepresent the style of the album. I found that neither single told me enough, and it wasn't until I heard the rest of the album that even the two a-sides resolved themselves in my mind. The single for "Found That Soul", the angry half, adds two more similarly excitable songs. The rushed "Locust Valley" flips back and forth between power-chord surge and groove-box diffidence, and never sounds very convincingly attached to either, but "Ballad of the Bangkok Novotel" is an unapologetically bleary punk sprint, with borderline non-musical Nicky Wire vocals, and may be as close as the band have come to sounding dangerous since The Holy Bible.
Manic Street Preachers: So Why So Sad
The single for "So Why So Sad", the swoony half, adds a busily kaleidoscopic remix by Bobby Dazzler of the Avalanches that blankets the song with exactly the same recorded-in-the-middle-of-an-inattentive-midway ambiance that stopped amusing me by track three of the Avalanches' own album. The other b-side, "Pedestal", wavers in and out of register for me, the keening verses absent of charm or melody, but the choruses blustery and, if not exactly appealing, at least inexorable.
Roxette: Don't Bore Us, Get to the Chorus
The last thing on my pile of minutia this week is another US version of a European album, which I bring up purely as a consumer advisory. Don't Bore Us -- Get to the Chorus!, with the em-dash and the exclamation point, and the nice five-color typography, is Roxette's 1995 greatest-hits album, which was my vote for the fifth best album of the Nineties, and in my opinion is probably the most perfect single-band best-of ever assembled. Don't Bore Us, Get to the Chorus, with the comma, no ending punctuation, degraded cover art and hastily re-edited liner notes, is Edel America's resequenced 2000 version. Do not confuse them. The US version deletes three of the four songs that were new to the original compilation (the giddy "June Afternoon", the tragic hymn "I Don't Want to Get Hurt" and the charging "She Doesn't Live Here Anymore", the last of which was my pick for the best song of 1995), the underrated Joyride track "The Big L." and the sweeping Crash! Boom! Bang! ballad "Vulnerable", lamely attempting to compensate by adding the not-very-successful US single "Church of Your Heart" (from Joyride) and "Wish I Could Fly" and "Stars" from the 1999 album Have a Nice Day, which did not even come out in the US. The resulting sixteen-song collection still has the majority of the same brilliant pop songs as the eighteen-song original, numerically speaking, but it was perfect before they messed with it, and now it's not as perfect. There is no excuse for this, and after I take over the planet, it won't be allowed.
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