Westbound and Alone
337 · 12 July 01
Prefab Sprout: The Gunman and Other Stories
I believe we are supposed to think that Prefab Sprout leader Paddy McAloon has a thing about the Old West. The front cover of this album features a man on horseback, crossing a barren ridge. The back cover has two more horses, and mountains in the distance. The thank-yous are a tour de force of awkwardly appropriated idioms: "Gracias Amigos", Stetsons, new guns, the posse (at, hilariously, EMI), a home on the range, a ranch to be back at, a fort to be held and some rather unexplained wild frontiers. In the sepia-toned liner photos the band members are wearing leather vests, cowboy boots and spurs. The track listing: "Cowboy Dreams", "Wild Card in the Pack", "I'm a Troubled Man", "The Streets of Laredo / Not Long for This World", "Love Will Find Someone for You", "Cornfield Ablaze", "When You Get to Know My Better", "The Gunman", "Blue Roses", "Farmyard Cat". There's a banjo on one song, slide guitar on a couple. The lyrics careen through outlaws, judges, sheriffs, ambushes, poker games, tractors, harvests, saddles and the importance of sitting where you can keep your back to a wall and your eye on the door.
Whatever it is McAloon likes about the West, though, it doesn't appear to include much Western music. This is easily one of the least cowboy-ish cowboy albums ever recorded. McAloon's sweet, breathy, clearly enunciated voice never had any appreciable twang before, and doesn't develop any here. "Cowboy Dreams" itself attempts what might seem on paper like a Western shuffle, but ends up sounding like it's derived at least half from skiffle. "Wild Card in the Pack" opens with a saxophone lick like he thinks cattle ranchers routinely patrol their perimeters with saxes lashed to their backs. "I'm a Troubled Man" is more or less a piano-bar lullaby. The cover of "The Streets of Laredo" is blocky and heavily programmed (including some unspecified work by a "D.J. Salinger", a brilliant joke-name I immediately feel chagrined I didn't think of years ago). The sentimental "Love Will Find Someone for You" is dead-pan soft-rock just waiting for somebody to pick up Michael Bolton's tattered mantle. The self-deprecating "When You Get to Know Me Better" (the second half of the line is "You'll learn to love me less") tosses in an Elvis reference that makes me wonder whether McAloon has a clear idea of which side of the country Memphis is on. The airy, swirling music to "The Gunman" mostly reminds me of Clannad or Capercaillie's movie-soundtrack pieces. "Blue Roses" sounds a bit like the Dream Academy trying to write a graceful children's song. And "Farmyard Cat", the ludicrous musical-comedy finale, falls somewhere between Joe Jackson's Night and Day II, Barnes & Barnes' "Fish Heads" and Aaron Copland moonlighting as a Dance Dance Revolution composer.
But I had no reason to want Prefab Sprout to make a cowboy record, so I don't much mind that this isn't one. All I really wanted, in fact, after 1997's Andromeda Heights made no impression on me at all, was for this album to contain some distinguishable Prefab Sprout element, and it didn't really matter to me whether it was one of the ones that used to distinguish Prefab Sprout, or something new. As it turns out, both the two things I like best about this album's overall demeanor, and the two individual songs I've fixated on, resuscitate classic Prefab Sprout virtues. Paddy McAloon's singing is still enchanting, hushed and untroubled by machismo. The sumptuously restrained production, this time by Tony Visconti, evokes Thomas Dolby's polished jazz-pop pastels on Two Wheels Good and Jordan: The Comeback. If we had to define my idea of pop by example, which is probably the only way to assemble a coherent portrait, there aren't more than a handful of starting points as apt as Prefab Sprout's "Appetite", and both "Wild Card in the Pack" and "Cornfield Ablaze" remind me of it vividly enough to make my heart-rate abruptly accelerate. Both are dangerously overextended metaphors, the former casting love as a grizzled gambler's wild card, the latter making it a summer brush fire, but in both cases the point is belabored long enough that I move straight through irritation into bemused affection. "When she walked in I was losing", Paddy sings at the beginning of "Wild Card in the Pack", and later he comes back to "Here's how to beat the odds: You seat someone smart beside you". The silliness in between can't quite distract me from the song's essential romantic candor. The album's masterpiece though, in my opinion, is the bounding "Cornfield Ablaze". Quick, tapping drums, shiny synth-brass stabs, jangly guitars and what sounds like a harpsichord hum and spike under Paddy's strategically echoed vocals, brushed with a few careful strokes of falsetto harmony. It begins "I saw you from the tractor, the harvest had begun; / You were the love child of two gods, I was the farmer's awkward son", and although the lyrics wander steadily farther off course as the song unfolds ("Pa don't be angry, the fields that were host / To the corn and the wheat: the fact is they're toast", and later "You wild pyromaniac daughter of Pan!", Paddy completely forgetting which mythology he's supposed to be employing), I take it as a love song delivered in character, delirium taking hold. Just as with "Appetite", this song fills me with an inexplicable urge for head-banging, despite having none of what I usually think of as rock music's power elements. All its individual components are dry, muted, glassy or near-subliminal, and yet the combined effect on me is inexorably kinetic, the same sort of science-baffling leverage-trick that probably explains how the Easter Islanders got those statues down to the beach, or why arches work, or how it's still possible, after so many centuries, to write new love songs.
Nik Kershaw: To Be Frank
Nik Kershaw wrote "Wouldn't It Be Good", another entry on my short list of exemplary demonstrations of restrained pop's charm, and I liked his 1999 album 15 Minutes well enough, but it made few enough concessions to modernity that I was still a little surprised to discover that he'd found a record company to put out another one, at least until I noticed that it's Eagle, who have already taken on such commercial misfits as Hard Rain, Marillion, New Model Army, Gary Numan, Mike Peters and Then Jerico, and so either have some clever plan I'm not thinking of, or else don't mind simply losing money. The clever plan might be as simple as a defiant faith that buoyant, sparkling pop records that filter their authors' New Wave roots through a layer or two of adult-alternative singer/songwriter maturity can't stay a fringe concern forever. Aimee Mann seems to be doing well, at least. Rick Springfield is still working, the Go-Go's are back together, Cyndi Lauper and a-ha have quietly endeared themselves to me, Joe Jackson made my favorite album of 2000; maybe they're right.
If so, To Be Frank probably reflects a good solid investment strategy. "Wounded", the opener, is a boisterous, "La Bamba"-ish strut laced with Roddy Lorimer trumpet, clanging piano, mariachi pirouettes and cheerful backing-vocal trills. The slower "Get Up" might be Nik's nod to Michael Penn, and in places his vocal delivery grazes the edges of Thom Yorke's angelic distemper again. The consolatory "How Sad" bridges some of the gap between Live's intensity and Rufus Wainwright's elegance. "Take Me to the Church" might be the song you've been waiting for if you empathize with Midge Ure's musical impulses but find his singing too mannered. "Hello World" balances choppy verses against effortless choruses that make me hope Ron Sexsmith won't give up on therapy. The spare, ticking "Already There" sounds like Nik's try at a White Ladder-ish David Gray mood. "One Day" is pleasantly Crowded House-like, the clanging "All Is Fair" perhaps a touch too Mitchell Froomy. The epilogue, "Show Them What You're Made Of", a single acoustic guitar joined in sections by a string quartet, shows admirable discretion by not breaking into standard rock thump at any of the points where cadences seem to be foreshadowing it.
But my favorite stretch of the album is a diptych back near the beginning. The whirring strings in "Die Laughing" are even more of a Penn/Brion/Berg/Warren sound than anything on "Get Up", but a springy bass line, chattering drum loops and Kershaw's slithery singing turn the song into a sort of rueful, bouncier setting of the repetitive structure of Alanis Morissette's "Ironic". ("Feel sorry for the bug, the one that's up his ass", Nik admonishes us at one point, which finally explains what became of the black fly from Alanis' chardonnay.) "Jane Doe", the second half of the pair, leans into an uncluttered power-pop surge, scritchy rhythm guitar and splashing cymbals playing against pealing electric-guitar arpeggios and Kershaw's sighing benediction for a scared soul. If kids tried this, I think, it would more likely end up like astrid, fuzzy and Byrds-esque via Teenage Fanclub, vocal harmonies at the expense of instrumental texture. But Nik knows, as the kids will eventually learn, that he's not going to grow up to be the Byrds or the Beatles or even the Happy Mondays. The question about growing up isn't whom you'll be, because you'll probably just be you, it's how you'll sort your fears and your fetishes into what you'll transcend and what you'll learn to call "judgment".
Neil Finn: One Nil
Were it not for Aimee Mann's ingenious use of her record-label travails as a publicity device, I'm fairly certain that we'd be able to agree that the current grand master of gracefully grown-up pop songwriting is, and has probably been for most of a decade, Neil Finn. I'm a little surprised to realize, when I go back and count off the albums he's made in the last ten years, that there are only four proper ones: Crowded House's Woodface in 1991 and Together Alone in 1993, the Finn Brothers record in 1995, and his first solo album, Try Whistling This, in 1998. That doesn't seem like enough songs to account for his stature in my canon, even if you throw in the impeccable Crowded House best-of Recurring Dream, a bunch of b-sides and some Split Enz rediscovery on my part. But his songs are so recognizably his, his writing and performance styles so carefully circumscribed, that he probably could have established them with even less material. A dozen songs might have sufficed. Any three or four of the twelve on One Nil could stand for the whole set.
The good news and the bad news about One Nil, then, are pretty much inextricable. I don't think anybody alive on the planet is better at writing these supple, unforced, gracious pop songs and delivering them with this unpretentious aplomb. Neil may not have achieved superstardom by doing this, but he's accumulated enough clout to get Jim Keltner, Mitchell Froom, Tchad Blake, Lisa Germano and Sheryl Crow involved, assuring his compositions of eminently professional treatment. Here are another dozen of them, and I see no reason to believe he's anywhere near running out.
But I'm starting to think that running out of these songs might be the best thing for him, at least from my perspective. When I go through them one by one, they all seem excellent, like if I'd heard them before "History Never Repeats" and "World Where You Live" and "Locked Out" any of them could have been part of my personal representative selection. Taken as a set, though, they drain and depress me. I hate letting the medium become the message, but all these songs, whatever their real words, start to morph into "I'm still brilliant, and still not very many people care" in my mind. I don't want to be reminded, again, that Neil's songs aren't the universal blueprint for mainstream pop music. He's said all this before, and shouldn't have to say it more than once; repeating himself, while perfectly understandable, is also obscurely tactless, and uncomfortable to witness. I want him to move on, to pick some new point to make, something he won't sound so sure about. Getting Wendy Melvoin's co-writing help on a few of these was an inspired impulse, but either she didn't interfere brazenly enough, or else Neil didn't let her. Maybe he should try Björk, or Kristeen Young, or Jane Siberry. Maybe he should get Dave Grohl to drum, instead of Jim Keltner, or Bob Rock to produce instead of Blake and Froom. I want to lock him in a studio for a month with Madonna, or Meat Loaf, or Sister Bliss. I want him to write an album for Terri Nunn like the one Elvis Costello did for Wendy James. I want him to make a record backed by the Moffats, or Trans Am, or Bond. I want to hear him give the world something it can't say it's already made up its mind about. I want him to give me something where I won't think, the first time I hear it, that the interesting moment in which I had to make a new decision about how to react happened so long before I ever hit Play.
Mark Seymour: One Eyed Man
And if Neil Finn heads out on the voyage of exploration I want him to undertake, I'd like him to drag ex-Hunters and Collectors vocalist Mark Seymour along, too. One Eyed Man, Seymour's second solo album (King Without a Clue, the first, although I only recently reviewed it, came out all the way back in 1997), finds him settled into a comfortable rock groove on the order of Tom Cochrane or whatever mildly-successful artist you'd prefer to substitute, some patently decent craftsman you wouldn't remember for ten minutes if you didn't have a sentimental connection to his past life. This is a good album, filled with good songs, and I can't imagine a single reason to recommend it to you unless you already love H&C enough that their memory alone is worth an album purchase. I listen to it like I'm visiting an old friend in the hospital, happy to see them and glad to be part of the process of sustaining their spirit while the doctors work on their body, but it's not much of a spectator sport. I want to hook Seymour up with Pete Townshend, or Mike Edwards, or Tricky. I'm proud of him for learning to write his own songs (with and without help), so he can keep being a musician without his old band, but if he went on tour and played nothing but old H&C songs, none of these new ones, I doubt anybody would complain much. And I think he knows that. I was proud of him for making it through King Without a Clue's bonus live EP without retreating to any H&C songs, but it didn't last. "On My Way Home" ends, nominally the last song on One Eyed Man, there's a weird little instrumental throat-clearing noise, and then in one violent twitch Mark undoes all twelve steps of his post-band recovery effort by marching, oblivious to the consequences, through a wholly unnecessary new version of "Throw Your Arms Around Me". As he comes audibly alive, singing it, the rest of the songs on the album crumble and disappear. They so clearly mean so much less to him than this one old one, why should I care differently?
Ian McNabb: Ian McNabb
I am extricated from my antipodean dissatisfaction, this week, by the correspondingly pleasant surprise of the new solo album by ex- (as of quite a while ago, now) Icicle Works leader Ian McNabb. It's his fifth solo album, and there are things I like a lot about at least Truth and Beauty, Head Like a Rock and Merseybeast, the first three, but the acoustic A Party Political Broadcast on Behalf of the Emotional Party struck me as a) a logistical cop out, and b) disappointing evidence that Ian's songwriting, stripped down to its essentials, wasn't so impressive any more (which also prompts the ugly question of whether it used to be as good as I'd thought). The acoustic live album Live at Life, released last year, only served to accelerate the sinking of my suspicion that Ian had, like Jane Siberry, somehow lost the courage to make real records. The eponymy of Ian McNabb, though, suggests a new beginning, and it's a real electric record, with a band and studio manipulation and everything, including later-era Icicle Works bassist Roy Corkhill and some Pro-Tools fiddling by Icicle Works producer Ian Broudie. It might be one of the characteristics of true pop that the arrangements don't much matter. I found the old CD-single for Roxette's "Fireworks" when I was in London recently, and the unplugged version of "Dangerous" included as a b-side sounds just as marvelous to me as the full band version on Look Sharp. Rock songs, on the other hand, the way I've traditionally distinguished between rock and pop, need noise. If pop is about melody, rock is about sound, and the crashing and roaring is as much part of the art as the notes and text. Ian McNabb is a rock record. The revving, Tommy Keene-ish guitars on "Livin' Proof (Miracles Can Happen)" are important. "Whatever It Takes" grinds and thrashes, backing up the Marc Bolan quote in the credits with a loud "Bang a Gong" insurgency. "What You Wanted" falls apart and puts itself back together again repeatedly, the verses nearly tuneless and the choruses massive and unarticulated. "Liverpool Girl", the one song here remade from Emotional Party, sounds a thousand times better with blaring guitars behind it, not just because it's louder but because the character study itself sounds different this way, ironic admiration displacing some of the acoustic version's awkward insincerity. I could do without the swoony "(If We Believe) What Love Can Do", but the concussive cymbals and simmering synthesizers of "Alright With Me" win me back partway. "Hollywood Tears" immediately squanders that progress, although maybe you'll feel differently if you like Jon Brion's somber Meaningless more than I did, but the bleary "Open Air" revives some of the Crazy Horse lessons from Head Like a Rock. Muttering bass, watery organ and an even more stentorian vocal performance than usual push along "Nothin' Less Than the Very Best", but "Hotel Stationary" lapses into pedal-steel cliché, and although it wouldn't have taken more than a line to make the title into wordplay, the line never comes, which means it's a typo. "Rockin' for Jesus" is a painful joke-song I don't ever plan to listen to again, but Ian pulls himself together for the cathartic three song finale. The implacable, stomping "Friend of My Enemy" bristles with lead-guitar barbs, thick rhythm-changes and spiraling backing vocals. "Moment in the Sun" idles in the verses to set up the slashing choruses. And for "(I Wish I Was In) California" Ian even comes up with something new, for him, a blend of Velvet Crush exuberance and "Da Do Ron Ron" dizziness. In isolated and absolute terms, I suppose my feelings about this album are nearly the same as my feelings about One Eyed Man: not for a second do I consider Ian McNabb to be on par with the Icicle Works' If You Want to Defeat Your Enemy Sing His Song, which may have dropped out of my top ten but is still easily in my top thirty, nor The Small Price of a Bicycle, which I think is a slightly more coherent album but has no individual songs that can compete with "Evangeline" and "Understanding Jane" in my estimation. I'd even hesitate to compare this solo album to Ian's first three. But I don't have to like it that much, I'm just happy to know that Ian is making real records again, records he's willing to plan and think about and craft, instead of just sitting down in front of a microphone with a tape-recorder running. I am content to let this be a new beginning, and wait to see where it leads him. Maybe nowhere. Maybe guitars and drums and talking about love have all become too close to Ian, and he no longer has a fulcrum to move them with. Everybody has to do their best work sometime, and the combination of statistics and the opaque future means that for most of us, our best work will not be our last. But the same statistics offer us one chance to atone for the mistakes we're making right this second: make more. Keep making as many mistakes as you can, as grandly as you can figure out how. The grander the mistake, the more precarious its failure.