Tomorrow's Light Will Mourn Our Freedom
340 · 2 August 01
Suran Song in Stag: Cowboys and Indians
There is a long tradition of speculative-fiction stories about alien races that are able to pass their accumulated cultural knowledge and wisdom to their newborns, or else to connect them to it, so a child doesn't have to spend the first half of its life relearning everything its parents already know. As with much speculative fiction, this is usually a mirror examination of the inverse human predicament. We spend a daunting amount of time learning old lessons, so from the standpoints of efficiency and error-reduction, pooling our cultural memory seems very appealing. But (and the better of the stories confront this somehow) this would alter the nature of humanity profoundly. Without progressive discovery to accompany physical growth, childhood would probably be a frustrating nightmare, and without childhood, adulthood would be lucky to function at all. Arguably all but a tiny amount of art consists of reinventing existing ideas, and a large fraction of human progress is achieved by new people doing old things again but making different mistakes. Some of my most cherished music, in particular, holds its place in my life because it was where I first encountered some idea that was really not new. Rush albums more or less introduced me to philosophy as an active concept. The Smiths' "How Soon Is Now?" made me think clearly about homosexuality for the first time. XTC's "No Thugs in Our House" pointed out some important ideas about prejudice and upbringing that I hadn't understood nearly as vividly from nominally related school English assignments. Talk Talk, Runrig, Roxette, Tori Amos, Low, Mecca Normal, Aube and Shampoo all expanded my repertoire of responses to art in ways that no doubt other artists could have, and would have if I'd lived elsewhen. But we live now, and we have to learn everything somehow, and so I try to keep in mind, when some song seems to me to be reiterating something established long ago, that for somebody it's a new idea, and so there's ample room in art for elegant restatements of well-proven theorems.
Another such pivotal step in my dawning cultural awareness was triggered by the song "Open Your Eyes", by the Lords of the New Church. It seems a little implausible to me, thinking back on the chronology, that I heard this song before reading 1984, and even more implausible that I could have read 1984 first and still thought Stiv Bator's croaky anti-establishment paranoia contained new ideas, but somehow that's how it has become encoded in my memory. "Open Your Eyes" is the first encounter I remember with the idea that They use entertainment to brainwash Us. I just dragged out the old LP and listened to the song again. It's not very complex. In particular, the idea that what They are training us for is War, and not just more-advertising-responsive shopping habits, seems hopelessly quaint to me now. And although the Lords of the New Church sounded frighteningly grim to me when I was fifteen, now this song just sounds lumpy and awkward. I'd partially forgotten how much it sounds like somebody has inflated a small air mattress inside Stiv's sinuses, and I'd totally forgotten that there's a braying saxophone in it.
What "Open Your Eyes" used to sound like, to me (and this is why it was on my mind at all), is recreated in unexpectedly vivid detail by the elusive duo-turned-trio Suran Song in Stag, whose second (?) album, Cowboys and Indians, arrived recently, not exactly on the heels of their 1998 debut (?) Pure Agitator. As of Pure Agitator they were primary a bass-and-voice group, Suran singing and William Weis playing, and although they've since added drummer Brad Yablonsky as a credited member, "Open Your Eyes" is still executed with fairly stern minimalist discipline. Yablonsky sticks to heavy kick- and snare-drums and judicious (albeit progressively less so as the song progresses) cymbals. Weis plays with two bass lines for the first few measures, but a single roaring, distorted one the rest of the way. The sax solo from the original is handled, in what I assume is a similar skepticism to mine about its relevance, by a brief flurry of bleating kazoo. And Bator's adenoidal vocal is replaced at first by Suran's clipped, breathy diffidence, and later, somewhat more aggressively, by a second distortion-smeared harmony line. I don't think my fifteen-year-old self would have considered Suran's relatively subdued delivery an appropriate idiom for dissidence, although my vocalist gender biases started getting disassembled by Terri Nunn, Pauline Murray and Claudia Brücken not too long after, so maybe I'm underestimating. But I'm quite sure I wasn't ready for Mecca Normal at the time, and this is as close as I've heard anybody other than Jean and David come to their combination of low fidelity, restricted palette, vehement urgency and emotional candor.
Suran Song in Stag also share Mecca Normal's grave (and/or willful) incompetence in package design. This album comes as a double-CD, the individual discs identified on the back cover as "Karaoke Cowboy Dance Disc" and "Small Change Indian Trance Disc". This caused me some pause, and I already know the band and had been looking for the album for weeks, so I can't imagine it helps attract strangers. "Karaoke Cowboy Dance Disc" sounds like cheesy instrumental versions, and "Small Change Indian Trance Disc" sounds like techno remixes, making me wonder where the actual album is of which these two discs are alternate versions. In fact, the subtitles refer only to the fact that disc one is mostly (seven songs of nine) covers, while disc two is mostly (again seven of nine) originals. A couple programming tweaks and you can separate the two sets of songs entirely.
As cover albums go (and the upcoming ones from Emm Gryner and Tori Amos may well become the new standards for me, a prediction I make having heard almost everything on Emm's and nothing at all from Tori's), Suran Song in Stag's is pretty impressive both in execution (devising versions that reflect their own values without abandoning the spirit of the original) and selection (finding songs where doing this doesn't require radical contortions). The two most obvious choices, at least in retrospect, are the Gang of Four songs "Natural's Not In It" (which, if you believe songs ought to always be titled after their choruses, you might know instead as "This Heaven Gives Me Migraine") and "Essence Rare" (which, if you believe songs ought to always be titled the way they were actually titled by the people who wrote them, you might know instead as "I Found That Essence Rare"), both originally from the first Gang of Four album, Entertainment!. The Gang of Four versions were spiky and polemical, and although it's hard to be as polemical with songs you didn't write, Suran Song in Stag's versions are at least as spiky, and more propulsive. They turn 10,000 Maniacs' "My Mother the War" into a pogoing, noise-laced punk anthem, which seemed downright incredible to me until I dug out the original (on The Wishing Chair) and rediscovered how much more like this it already was. Likewise their relatively subtle transformation of the Chills' quick "Familiarity Breeds Contempt" (from Submarine Bells), except here the conversion of Martin Phillips' chirpy guitars to Weis's surging bass strips the song of any hint of folk-rock. Not much of Duran Duran's robot-on-low-batteries languor persists in Suran's menacing whisper on "Friends of Mine" (from Duran Duran), and she replaces the song's convict protagonist with Eminem, although I'd have to know more about Georgie Davies to judge whether this is incisive or token. The Pretenders' "Tattooed Love Boys" sounds updated but not much altered, and a momentary surge of hope that Suran is going to rewrite the troubling "I shot my mouth off, / And you showed me what that hole was for" in some clever way turns out to be misplaced. The two covers on the second disc are a watery (and unnervingly Sleeper-like) version of the Jam's "Ghosts" (from The Gift) and an exaggeratedly brutal thrashing of Kristin Hersh's already-harrowing "Hate My Way" from the first Throwing Muses album, with my favorite moment on the whole set, Suran's rabid-banshee shrieking of the line "So I said I'll leave in the morning".
The nine original songs, pushed mostly to the end of the set if you listen to the discs in regular order, are left with the unenviable challenge of living up to the covers. This might not trouble you as much if you don't already know the originals these covers go with, but "Hate My Way" happens to be the only one I wasn't personally familiar with, so the originals start from a huge exposure disadvantage. Splitting the set onto two discs was a good idea in this regard (the whole set is only sixty-six minutes long, so it wasn't necessary for length), but leaving the last two covers to tracks four and six on disc two, so there's never really a long unbroken run of originals (the pattern goes CLCCCCLCCLLLCLCLLL, with "L" for "original" because Cs and Os looked silly), badly undermines the separation. After doing a little running-order reworking so I can hear the new songs without distractions, I arrive at a sad theory about why the band chose to interleave them: the original ones have scarcely a fraction of the energy of the covers. "Now Employment as a Right" is choppy and questioning, almost a cross between "Open Your Eyes" and Gang of Four, and "Overman", despite a slow-flange riff in the verses that continually threatens to break into Heart's "Barracuda", is rumbling and inexorable, but those are both on disc one, and the seven on disc two are all slower and built around much more abstruse musical logic. "Heaven" (not, sadly, the Furs song) is bleak and spectral, and "Slow Burn" an eerie lullaby of vaguely Lisa Germano-ish proportions. "An Insect" starts out raspy and oblique, but half builds half decays into an odd combination of Kate Bush-like lead-vocal twirls, sunnily sighing harmonies and a bass line alternating between quarter-note rumble and distracted loops. "Made in Philippines" takes a long time gathering strength for a chorus that ends up not being especially anthemic. "Get Colder" could be a slow Magnapop song, at least until it careens off into a noisy anti-bridge that turns out to be almost a coda. On "Brainwash Soda/Guerrilla Pop" Weis and Yablonsky trade what's left of their aggression for a rubbery, free-jazz-ish groove and brushed drums, like the backing track for a TV sitcom's idea of a Manhattan poetry reading. The meandering "Velvet Cause" has almost no readily identifiable pop elements. I was right to think that I could concentrate on the originals more easily without the covers interspersed among them, but wrong to believe this would improve my experience. Instead I just end up wondering how the band could record all these performances at the same time and not notice that the songs they've loved for years sound like they've loved them for years, and the ones they've just met sound like they haven't even decided whether it's worth memorizing their names.
The Rondelles: Shined Nickels and Loose Change
The marquee cover on Shined Nickels and Loose Change, the third album by label-hopping Albuquerque teen (actually, they may be in their twenties by now) punk trio The Rondelles, is a crunchy, cheerfully revisionist remake of Madonna's "Like a Prayer" on the order of the Donnas' rehabilitation of REO Speedwagon's "Keep on Loving You" (from the otherwise-treacly prom scene in Drive Me Crazy). Enough theme-compilations have been dedicated to this Nineties-Do-the-Eighties premise for it to qualify as a minor genre, but the Rondelles execute the concept as adeptly and sparely as I've heard it done, resisting not only the format's unique temptation to add unnecessary complexity, but also the routine non-cover punk temptation to hit your guitar strings again before they've finished making the last noises. It's telling, I think, how much busier the arrangements are on the band's original songs; I suspect they have confidence that "Like a Prayer" will stand up to inspection without being overplayed, whereas their own songs they aren't so sure about. On one hand, I feel like reassuring them that I find their songs endearingly artless, and as competently constructed as punk ever needs to be. On the other hand, the frantic, choppy, Buzzcocks-by-way-of-bis style in which they perform them seems to me to already suit the songs just fine, so there would be little point in interfering. If this record had come out five years ago it would have been compared mercilessly to Elastica, I suspect including by me, probably ending up on the short end of the comparison by virtue of Justine Frischmann's reputation if nothing else, but comparing the two after Elastica took an unfathomable half a decade to make what is, in my book, one of the dreariest, most unmusical second albums in history, it's substantially easier for me to hear the elements of relative immaturity on this album as glimmers of potential instead of flaws. The Rondelles' version of punk angularity is sketchier than Elastica's was, and less concertedly evasive, grazing the edges of bubblegum pop on more than one chorus, but this leaves me hopeful that they'll grow into something, and happy to listen to these short, uncluttered songs while I wait to see what.
There are actually two more covers on this brief album. One is a throwaway novelty sprint called "Cafeteria Rock", originally performed (say the credits) by the Shimmy Beckers, of whose existence I could not immediately find independent confirmation. The other, though, is a thoroughly stunning garage-punk rendition of the Christmas carol "Angels We've Heard on High" that makes me wonder what the Shaggs might have done if they'd really learned to play, and will go on, I'm instantly convinced, to be for the Rondelles what "I Fought the Law" was for the Clash.
Kings of Convenience: Failure #1
Part one of the two-part single for Kings of Convenience's "Failure", which I purchased under mild protest since they've already used it on two different albums, has a string-augmented remake of the title track, an imaginatively minced remix of "I Don't Know What I Can Save You From" by KoC's friends Röyksopp and the "Failure" video, but the fourth thing, in a move that's at least new to me, is a reverse cover, not KoC playing somebody else's song but "Failure" being done by reedy Manchester band Alfie. Alfie's singer's voice bothers me intensely, but the playing has a great, rattly expansiveness that partially makes up for it, and the concept amuses me enough for it not to matter that much whether I like the specific performance.
Kings of Convenience: Failure #2
Part two, though, has two standard-order covers, and I find them arresting and astonishing, respectively. The arresting one is an initially-quiet acoustic version (with some loud electric bits towards the end) of Joy Division's "The Eternal", the same song that was the central inspiration for the Nàu Ensemble's ambient 1998 album of Joy Division variations. Eirik somber lead vocal is just reminiscent enough of Ian Curtis that when Erlend joins in for a few scattered moments of Simon-and-Garfunkel harmony I feel like some major portion of musical history has abruptly upended itself. This is only a stunt, really, but the second cover is a unmitigated tour de force, a heartbreakingly pretty concert-duet setting of Tom Petty's "Free Falling" accompanied most of the way through only by a single acoustic guitar, and then for about a minute and a half of collective a cappella that depicts the absence of gravity more perfectly than music has a right, by the crowd doing the backing-vocal loop while Eirik and Erlend share the lead. I would have complained that it doesn't mean much, this endless repetition of "Free falling, and I'm...", but in a minute and a half of presumably unplanned work, the denizens of a small Rome nightclub re-convince me, as I periodically need to be, that we can turn the mundane into the profound just by taking it into our hearts.
Nightwish: Over the Hills and Far Away
And that's still not my favorite cover of the week. At the moment there are exactly two bands in the world to whom I am so obsessively addicted that finding anything of theirs I haven't heard before makes me borderline delirious with excitement. One is Roxette (an old copy of the "Fireworks" single I found in a cut-out bin has been one of the highest-rotation discs in my house for weeks running), the other is the hyper-dramatic Finnish metal band Nightwish. Nightwish are so new to me that I haven't even gotten in the habit of checking their web site, so this new combination EP/live-retrospective (three new songs, one old song remade and concert recordings of two songs from each of their three albums) materialized before me in a record bin completely by surprise, and marks the first time, since my new car made this possible many months ago, that I have actually purchased a CD, unwrapped it during my walk out to the parking lot, and put it directly into the car CD player to listen to on the way home. The two new original songs here, "10th Man Down" and "Away", are histrionic and glorious just like I wanted, the former fast and blustery, the latter a sweeping power ballad. "Astral Romance", the remake, gives guest vocalist Tony Kakko (of Sonata Arctica) a chance to fix the male duet part that keyboardist Tuomas Holopainen botched horribly on Angels Fall First. The live tracks are thoughtful (albeit small) consolation for the fact that the band's current tour comes no closer to Boston than Pratteln, Switzerland.
The title track is the cover, a Gary Moore song I'd never heard but have now tracked down. Moore's original is revelatory to me in its own right. It's from his 1987 album Wild Frontier (or more accessibly, his 1998 best-of Out in the Fields), and 1) it is only through a heroic act of will that I can shake the conviction that it's a lost Big Country song, and 2) the fact that an Irish blues guitarist recorded a song in the mid-Eighties that so precisely prefigures a Finnish metal band who wouldn't put out their first album until a decade later suggests to me that I've been badly oversimplifying a great number of things. And although it's stirring and aspires to a certainly timelessness in Moore's version, once Nightwish get their hands on it they turn it into a fable of historic magnitude. Jukka Nevalainen replaces the blocky, programmed drums of the original with a thundering performance that nonetheless retains the original's distinctively stiff character. Holopainen and guitarist Emppu Vuorinen storm through the Celtic hooks with fanatics' glee, and Tarja's careening vocals elevate the sternly melodramatic narrative to a level rarely visited, in my world, by anybody but Loreena McKennitt. A man is wrongly accused of robbery, but because his alibi involves adultery with his best friend's wife, he accepts ten years' imprisonment rather than betray her confidence; if his sense of honor is so keen I should wonder why he didn't draw the line against adultery to begin with and save himself all this trouble, but in context that question is irrelevant and insane. He loves her, that's enough. Somehow, although the song doesn't go into these details and needn't, he also loves his best friend, as does she, and his silence is in part a gift to them both. I'm sure there's something wrong with this reasoning, but I can't work my way out of it without leverage, and the music is keeping me suspended in air. I know I've said more than once that I'll understand if you don't like metal, just like I expect you to not pester me about hip-hop. I believed that, and I'll probably believe it again by morning, but right this second it's eminently reasonable and utter nonsense. I don't care what you think you know you like, you should hear this. If there are hip-hop songs this transcendent, and I fully assume there are, you should follow me around with a megaphone, berating me until I agree to listen to them. We owe each other that much. A million better stories may have been told, but for a few minutes I believe that none of them have been told any better than this. And if I can be this overwhelmed by the deserved plight of a deceitful philanderer impaled on his own splintered morality, no wonder I fall so helplessly, over and over, for the tiniest hissing sparkles of irrational poignancy that can't make up their minds whether they are piercing the night outside my window or holding it up.