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Disappointment Maps
Jimmy Eat World: Bleed American
The people who pick the music the Foxboro Stadium PA operators play at New England Revolution games, I have concluded, are either total oblivious morons, or else they assume the fans in the stadium are total oblivious morons (or, at least, oblivious to the lyrical subtleties of music for the duration of their stay at a professional sporting event, which I guess isn't an insane thought), or maybe both. Thus we get Tracy Chapman's morose poor-people-gonna-rise-up protest dirge "Talkin' 'Bout a Revolution", Jesus Jones' awed watching-the-Berlin-Wall-fall anthem "Right Here, Right Now" and the chorus of Queensrÿche's shrieking, paranoid metal rant "Revolution Calling", all of which feature the word "Revolution" but are otherwise about as relevant to the spirit and substance of a Major League Soccer game as playing Brian Setzer's "The Knife Feels Like Justice" at a bris. To be fair, I guess I should point out that playing Britney Spears' "Oops!...I Did It Again" while a Japanese sword-fighting exhibition team was attempting their pre-game rehearsal was stroke of surreal genius, and that nothing they play at Foxboro is even half as inexplicable as the corresponding decision-makers for the Boston Breakers opting to build their audio program for the first season of the country's first women's professional soccer league around, and I feel obliged to clarify that I am not making this up, "Who Let the Dogs Out", "YMCA" and, as the team's grand-entrance music despite the fact that the lyrics force them to cut it off right before the chorus, rendering it musically pointless, "It's Raining Men". At Foxboro they try out new songs during warm-ups, and gradually work the successful (by what criteria, I have no idea) ones into halftime, but for as long as I can remember (although logically it can't have been for more than three years) the Revolution exit music has been the same. My whole body has thus learned to trudge slowly up the stadium steps in the mournful grip of "Closing Time", by Semisonic. I assume, from its longevity in that role, that none of the tens of thousands of parents of small children in cumulative attendance have lodged complaints about the song's alcohol-and-extramarital-sex subtext (which I would have called its text except the fact that nobody seems to mind it argues for it being sub-something), but even the mood is depressing. It's not walk-into-the-sunset exit music, it's turn-the-lights-on exit music, a song for shattering whatever illusion anybody was trying to maintain, and confronting drab, unglamorous reality. Arguably, and certainly statistically, this is an apt attitude for the aftermath of Revolution games, which always begin so promisingly (i.e., 0-0), and then generally disintegrate into an extended campaign to get one of the opposing team's normally-mediocre midfielders nominated as Player of the Week. Accordingly, I have perfected the following six-part ritual of reflection for use while walking up the steps listening to "Closing Time": 1) "We are so fortunate to have a professional soccer league again in this country, and a team here in Boston, that it seems wildly ungrateful of me to wish that the Revolution were better." 2) "Nonetheless, it's hard not to notice that they've sucked with such consistency." 3) "Oh well, we do get to see a lot of fine soccer played here, albeit mostly by opponents." 4) "Why are they playing this 'You have to leave now' song? It's not like anybody wants to stay longer." 5) "I'd be tempted to say this is the most simple-minded, mundane and unoriginal pop song ever written, but that would vastly overstate its distinctiveness." 6) "Now, tell me again why 'Lucky Denver Mint' didn't make Jimmy Eat World rich?"
If you want to know why DreamWorks, Jimmy Eat World's new label, thinks Capitol, their old label, couldn't turn them into superstars on the strength of one luminous masterpiece (on what was otherwise, frankly, a rather prickly and un-mass-market-ish record, Clarity), you have only to juxtapose "Lucky Denver Mint" with the new album's lead single and title track, "Bleed American". "Lucky Denver Mint" was pretty much state-of-the-art when Fueled by Ramen put it out on an EP in 1998. It simmers at an implacable 120bpm, the tempo equivalent of body-temperature, the whispery hi-hats and raspy electric guitars surging along at twice that, the guarded vocals (shadowed by a ghostly falsetto harmony) at half. The arrangement is layered and atmospheric, the drums echoey and the guitars heavily blurred and multi-tracked. The accusative chorus, "You're not bigger than this, not better, / Why can't you learn?", is enunciated abstractly enough for you to imagine that it's saying something more uplifting, especially if you don't try to isolate what. In 1998, when "Closing Time", "Semi-Charmed Life", "Sex & Candy", "Inside Out", "Slide" and "Freshman" all still seemed viable, this looked like a pretty good recipe. By the time Capitol got Clarity out, though, in early 1999, things were changing. Britney/Backstreet groups were starting to co-opt pop in earnest, kids who were too young to be properly upset when Kurt shot himself were finally getting spending money, rock was compensating by turning more aggressive again. The new songs ostensibly in this increasingly neglected vein, for which I take blink-182's "All the Small Things" as cipher, are faster and less emotional, edging back towards punk, or towards a thin, revisionist snow-boarding-as-soda-commercial-fashion notion of punk, anyway. Texture, introspection, obliqueness and poise are burdens you can't afford when you're trying to compete with day-glow puppet pop and brutish rap-metal for flickering attentions.
And you could hardly accuse "Bleed American" of not playing along. Forget about atmosphere and layering. Never mind echoes, harmonies, inviting elusiveness. "Bleed American" is fast (160bpm, and if you don't have a visceral sense of the difference between 120, 140 and 160 bpm go to a music store and spend a few minutes twisting the tempo knob on a drum machine while it plays its demo beats), sturdy (the verses have guitar and bass chugging along in unison eighth notes, hi-hats on quarters, snares on halves), furious (for the choruses the bass switches to a low, blocky groove, the guitar to squall and the drums to a homework exercise from Drumming Like Dave Grohl for Dummies) and rousing (there are a bunch of hard-to-identify mutterings around the seams in the chorus, but "Sugar on the asphalt", "Littering the topsoil" and something angry about "Incorporate" clearly mark this as a song about a bunch of great things like driving your car and telling big companies to blow themselves). A couple of the other tracks on the album have funny references to other bands' songs, and several of them are just as fast and satisfyingly violent as the first one, and if a few aren't, quite, then well, at least it's not fucking Radiohead.
And the first time through, for all these reasons, I was terribly, terribly disappointed. Not surprised, entirely, as the three songs on the EP Jimmy Eat World split with Jebediah last year were starting to drift this way, but the two things I thought were most remarkable about Clarity were the tension between the mainstream pop impulses and the noisy, alienating ones, and the dense, almost tangible atmosphere that hovered over everything. Bleed American has been thoroughly cleansed of atmosphere, and if the band has any significant reservations about shooting for commercial acceptance, they swallow them without an audible gulp. I listened to it the second and third time hoping I'd just been in a weird mood, but it sounded the same. A part of me theorized, with grim satisfaction, that DreamWorks had finally figured out how to put out records that I would resent the same way I usually hate their movies. I believe, as arbitrary as this sounds, that the only reason I did not give up on this record is that one of the other albums I got the same day had a similar-looking case, and seemed to me to be lacking the very obviousness Bleed American suffers from too much of, so I kept playing the two in the idiotic hope that they'd melt together and make one album I'd like instead of two I kept wishing were different.
Melting never happened, for which I guess the interior of my CD changer is thankful, but to my somewhat enduring surprise I've ended up reconciling myself to this album. I still wonder about the band's (and label's) motives, and I still think they've given up on some worthwhile things they could have become the masters of, but these songs are supposed to be infectious, and apparently I'm not immune. I guess (I think as I succumb) it could have been worse. The muttering noises in "Bleed American" turn out to be real words in a skeletal diatribe against sedated consumer culture, and when I realize that the "alright, uh-oh" at the end of the chorus is actually "our lives, our coal", I start thinking of this as a perceptive scrap of rock Americana up there with Soul Asylum's "Black Gold" and Grant Lee Buffalo's "Bethlehem Steel". Track two is another glib sprint, in some respects, but Green Day was never going to name anything "A Praise Chorus", plus the coda mashes together bits of "Crimson and Clover", "Our House", "Rock and Roll Fantasy", "Don't Let's Start" and something that's either a Replacements line I can't place or Mötley Crüe's "Kickstart My Heart". "The Middle" is an inspired impression of the Connells performing, from sheet music, a rockabilly rave-up someone told them was a lost Devo song, and the hesitant "Your House", with Jim Adkins backing off from his punk delivery, sounds more than a little like the Connells doing their own songs. "Sweetness" is the new, streamlined, pounding "Lucky Denver Mint", and the song compresses better than I might have guessed. "Are you listening?", Adkins asks, anxiously, and I take "Sing it back" as the checksum. The slow, hushed "Hear You Me", with Rachel Haden (from that dog.) providing airy harmonies, sounds the most like a song from Clarity, although an implied cello part is vividly absent. Haden, bassist Rick Burnch and the Hippos' Ariel Rechtshaid all sing on the alternately chirpy and swoony "If You Don't, Don't", in which the band sounds so caught up in their own creation that my confidence in my glib account of their style-change wavers noticeably. "Get It Faster" is lumbering and thick-necked, and the chorus sinks into a cynical "Cheating gets it faster" without any means of escape, but the ticking, pulsing "Cautioners", like a lullaby for infant Mondrian ghosts, appears to have been inserted into the running order covertly, during the masters' transit from label offices to plant. For the finale I think the label even relented and let them put in a slow one, "My Sundown", with bells, piano, Ida-esque harmony (Haden again), little sighing noises and a reverent fade-out.
The song that finally ends my internal argument about whether I'm genuinely enjoying this or not, though, is "The Authority Song". It isn't a cover, but the John Cougar Mellencamp song figures in the plot ("Put my last quarter on, / I play 'Authority Song', / The DJ never has it. / JAMC Automatic..."), and is alluded to in the music. Mellencamp's version was about as obvious as rock songs come, and the only additional musical complexity in this one is some harmony the credits don't mention, but that turns out to be exactly the subject: "Honesty or mystery? / Tell me, I'm not scared anymore. / I got no secret purpose. / I don't seem obvious, do I?" He does, of course, but when he explicitly asks the question suddenly I feel like I've way overthought everything. One of my standing gripes about the 90% of indie music that I dislike is that it sounds like obscurity by elimination, as if the writers selected each next chord by figuring out which one pop formula would dictate, and then picking anything else. OK, maybe this is Jimmy Eat World trying harder to write hits, but I thought "Lucky Denver Mint" should have been one, so it makes little sense for me to begrudge them another try. DreamWorks didn't screw up eels or Elliot Smith, so why should I assume this is their doing just because it seems to align with their interests? I remember the version of me that thought the Jesus and Mary Chain was automatically cooler than John Cougar Mellencamp, too, and I'm pleased to no longer be so sure.
The Go-Go's: God Bless the Go-Go's
After my Bleed American epiphany I went back, with renewed optimism, to the new Go-Go's comeback record, about which I'd been having similar reservations. The Go-Go's aren't exactly in the same position, since they were never anything but ebulliently obvious to begin with, but they do face some fairly self-generating questions, finally getting their collective act together, after several previous comebacks for cash-in tour purposes and only a scant few new songs (three, to be exact, and that was 1994), for a whole new album. Youth and irresponsibility were integral parts of their old identity, and although Belinda Carlisle has found a route to adulthood, Jane Wiedlin's recent non-Go-Go's work seems to me as much like a complicatedly botched attempt to cope with growing up as like a career in music, Charlotte Caffey owes most of her gravitas to Behind the Music spilling her old drug experiences, and I don't know what Kathy Valentine and Gina Schock were doing before this and neither do you. There's a triumph of sorts implicit in the mere fact that they managed to make this album, reconstituting themselves despite all the contravening factors (not least of which is reinhabiting selves whose flaws VH1 has just spent a few hundred repeats detailing), but showing up and not killing each other, which was enough for a tour, isn't sufficient for writing new songs and recording them. They have faced the past; next comes the future.
Tragically, at least from my point of view, the future proves far less tractable. I've got the old records, and I've seen the band play the old songs again. It would be different if they'd stayed together all this time, churning out new records every couple of years, but the only point I can see in making a new record, after everybody has gotten so used to the idea that they weren't going to, is to accomplish something different on it. Not only don't they, they seem positively petrified of striking out in some new direction by accident. With the sole exception of the nineteen seconds of random piano clanging at the beginning of "Talking Myself Down", these songs all sound to me like they were created by Caffey, Carlisle and Wiedlin trying to retrieve the pieces of their independent styles that came directly from the Go-Go's and reassemble them into a golem of what the band used to be, the rhythm section patiently standing by waiting for the glue to dry. From the distance, after the make-up people have been in, it almost works. The body-image anthem "Throw Me a Curve" and the Billie-Joe-Armstrong-assisted post-breakup snipe "Unforgiven" are clearly supposed to be the supporting beams, and the other songs don't have to be that great because even if we discard as outliers my beliefs that Talk Show is basically flawless, and Vacation almost completely awful, I like to imagine we could agree (without this constituting much of an insult) that once Beauty and the Beat has "Our Lips Are Sealed" and "We Got the Beat", it doesn't make a lot of difference what (for example) "Tonite", "Lust for Love", "Fading Fast", "Automatic", "You Can't Walk in Your Sleep (If You Can't Sleep)" and "Skidmarks on My Heart" sound like. But when I look closer, the skin tone of this album is ghastly. "Unforgiven" is propulsive, but Armstrong's presence is so implausibly insulting I can't even think of an analogy to explain it; "like Billie Joe Armstrong 'helping' with a Go-Go's comeback album" sounds like an intentionally insane analogy for something else. The American obsession with weight loss is a pretty good topic for a dizzily infuriated pop song, especially one by an all-female band, but for most people who are not a famously beautiful woman close enough to the sex-symbol norms she's nominally railing against to be appearing in Playboy as a forty-two-year-old at the time of this album's release, "I'd rather be a pin-up girl than zero size!" probably misrepresents the actual dilemma. The autobiography "Daisy Chain" is maudlin and dreary, there's no way the inane "Sonic Superslide" required five writers, "La La Land" badly needs real lyrics and "Stuck in My Car" and "Kissing Asphalt" come off, to me, like some patronizing label bastard told them pop songs need to be about cars or girls, and they were only alert enough to get pissed off about the girls.
But all that could easily not have mattered. The Go-Go's were never complicated. I think Talk Show is one of the most perfect pop albums ever made, and I'd be hard pressed to argue that there's a single incisive line or inventive chord-change anywhere on it. It is superficial and formulaic, but to me it's one of the most uncluttered, unself-conscious and (perhaps most critically) unapologetic exemplars of superficiality and formula. In my canon it represents the perfection of this particular formula, and one of the definitive demonstrations of exactly how much you can accomplish in pop without any substance at all. It's possible that in another setting I'd think these songs were every bit as wonderful (and it's possible I wouldn't), but the production gives me no chance to find out. I don't know whether the normally competent Paul Q. Kolderie and Sean Slade came down with brain freezes while they were mixing this, or the band badgered them into it, or what, but to me it's almost Talk Show's opposite, cluttered, self-conscious and painfully desperate to apologize for what ought to be it's most endearing feature, that it's the Go-Go's, and they're all adults now. I literally (and I don't mean "literally" figuratively) cannot listen to more than three of these recordings in a row without starting to feel uncomfortable. Everything is too compressed, too loud, too murky. If I turn the record up far enough that it doesn't sound like it's coming from another room, I feel like the five of them are standing a foot from my face screaming at me that they're still vital and important. Stop, already. Belinda's albums never sounded like this, Jane's albums never sounded like this, the old albums never sounded anything like this. Take a deep breath. You're the Go-Go's, you don't have to prove anything. You don't have to compete with every other gutless, braying pseudo-punk band on the planet, you've earned your seniority. Cut the sarcastic God Bless crap. You know perfectly well how much people like you, that's why you keeping getting back together in the first (and second, and third) place. So give us a little credit. We know how old you are. It's Belinda's forty-third birthday this very day, in fact. Gina's is in a couple weeks, Jane's was earlier in the summer, Charlotte is forty seven and Kathy is forty one. If we wanted a band that sounds like a bunch of irritable sixteen-year-olds hanging out in the drummer's garage because Tino hasn't shown up with their fake IDs yet, we've got Donnas records we could be listening to. Instead we're sitting here, our hands cocked to begin applauding maniacally, waiting for you to just be yourselves, now. We know the story so far, we don't need you to try to tell it all over again. Give us a new chapter. There are universes upon universes of records you couldn't have made seventeen years ago, not because you didn't have Billie Joe's amp, because you were still those girls, trying frantically to finish a record before you fell apart completely. Well, you did, and you recovered, and probably so did many of us out here listening, from trials of various sizes. So quit pretending none of it happened. God Bless the Go-Go's proves you can still work together. Great. We assumed you could, and now you know you can. This record has served its purpose. So now throw it away, and go back and make a braver one.
[DARYL]: The Technology:
God Bless the Go-Go's is red, and Bleed American is white. The other white album with emo roots I was listening to in alternation with Jimmy Eat World was The Technology: (the dangling colon does appear to be part of the title, but I will omit it from here on), the full-length debut by Dallas emo/synth now-quintet [DARYL]. I actually put their first EP, Communication:Duration (they have a thing about colons, evidently) on my 2000 best-albums list, and between the inherent dubiousness of putting EPs on album lists, and the fact that even my indie-geek friends look at me blankly when I mention them, they'd seem to be prime candidates for second-guessing, but I've just listened to the EP again, and I like it just much as I said I did, and I've been eagerly anticipating their first full album more or less ever since. The Technology doesn't repeat anything from the EP, which is a decision I support in theory, but in practice I find myself missing something, here, and it takes me a while to decide whether I think simply including a couple of the earlier songs would have provided it.
Judging from the back cover, this looks like a nine-track album, or maybe really a seven-track album, if the two songs with untranslated Japanese titles are interstitial instrumentals. In fact, it's a seventeen-track album with eight interstitial instrumentals that do not have titles at all. The chief appeal of the EP, for me, was how fluently the band combined emo vocal (and occasionally guitar) intensity, synth-dense borderline-New-Wave arrangements and old Big-Music-like expansiveness. The album initially seems to me to move backwards on all these fronts. Jeff Parker and Dylan Silvers' singing seems more forced and barking, less graceful. The arrangements don't seem as adventurous, and the synthesizers, in particular, are given less-interesting roles to play. Too many songs fall back on repetition like the band gave up on the writing process prematurely. And just when the reach what feel to me like they ought to be the brinks of things, the band (and/or the producer) find excuses to turn back and never quite soar into the beckoning spaces. You couldn't have put the EP tracks on this album, they'd sound too incongruous. If Jimmy Eat World mostly abandoned their sophistication for Bleed American, it feels like [DARYL] got lost in theirs for The Technology, and forgot to fall in love with their own songs before recording them.
Having made my peace with Bleed American, though, I redoubled my efforts to connect similarly with The Technology, and although I'm usually an album-as-the-artist-meant-it purist and stay away from the Program button on my CD player unless I feel my sanity is in jeopardy, in this case a little judicious dissection turns out to be revealing. Taken each on its own, the eight instrumentals on this album all strike me as soothing and elegant. Track one is synth twittering and a mournful violin; tracks four, nine and thirteen are elegant piano solos; seven is beepy noises, slow swells and tense, Nyman-esque strings; eleven is piano and strings; fifteen is strings, an acoustic guitar and a distant whine. I haven't tried to chart the actual derivations, but the instrumentals are all plainly variations on a limited set of themes, and track seventeen, the album's fade-out, reprises the key motifs with a vocal snippet from the song before as a unifying touch. This is an ambitious way to approach a debut album, something like a cross between Scott Miller/Game Theory/The Loud Family (who would have filled the interstitial tracks with experiments, instead of instrumentals) and David Bridie/Not Drowning, Waving/My Friend the Chocolate Cake (who would have pulled the instrumentals out and made a whole separate album of them), but for me the interleaving destroys the flow, forcing me to repeatedly switch listening modes and so never become fully engrossed by either thread. Separating them helps a lot. Taken as a single segmented sixteen-minute instrumental, the interstices seem much less arbitrary. More importantly, the nine-song, thirty-one-minute rock album their removal leaves behind comes a lot closer to recapturing the EP's energy and concision for me. "Motion in Progress" is subdued and prefatory, a dry, Gary Numan-ish intro seguing through guitar feedback into a strangled catharsis. "Style of the Trace" is disassembled and a little lost in its space, but when it finally settles into its oddly erratic groove it takes on some of Marillion's intricate solemnity. Track five, the first Japanese-named one, is urgent and articulated, like a prog epic origami-folded into two-and-a-half minutes. The vocal melody on "Play to the Exits" hammers on one note with a mystifying stubbornness, but the pealing guitar hooks nearly make up for it. "The Stare" is muted and thoughtful, but when it speeds up and throws itself into the refrain I finally hear a trace of the Cactus World News resemblance that seemed so unmistakable on the EP. The crisp, bouncy "Casual Glances" is the closest thing here to a single, crunching guitars and vocal rounds and slashing choruses, and the second Japanese-named track, from whose lyrics the album title comes (both the tracks with Japanese titles have normal English lyrics) seems to have in mind an only-slightly-shoutier modernization of "Turning Japanese". "The Informant Vs. the World" turns on the telling chant "All this information has gone too far", and "Was Not My Function", with waves of shimmery Chameleons-like guitar, repeats "Play to the Exits"' overused-note mistake, but right at the false end finally figures out the melody it should have thought of at the beginning, and clatters through the return with renewed self-assurance.
Except then the album ends, right where it's starting to turn into something. The EP didn't do that, even with just five songs. Unlike Jimmy Eat World, who decided for the length of one album to trust instincts they were used to subordinating, or the Go-Go's, who spent an album petrified that they'd reveal something everybody already knew, I think [DARYL] have fallen victim to the least complex failing in all of art: they didn't work hard enough. The songs needed sharper hooks and suppler melodies. They needed to write some more words so they wouldn't have to repeat the ones they had so much. The production is too lifeless, they should have taken the time to remix the record so the parts have more body and interplay. They should have reassessed the song/instrumental structure, and either abandoned it or done something more to lend it a rationale. So they, too, I'd send back to do this work over. Maybe they'd tell me that part of what I liked about the EP was the result of naïveté, not assiduousness, and that this is what those songs were intended to sound like. And maybe the Go-Go's wanted Beauty and the Beat to be as pummeling as God Bless the Go-Go's, and Clarity was meant to be non-stop pop songs. None of these bands, obviously, are under any obligation to try to please me. But this is one of those rare times when I feel like that isn't what I'm asking. We do no favors for each other by writing off minor failures of major potential as miscalibrations. The people we have no hope for, we should just leave alone. It's the ones we fall in love with with difficulty, or incompletely, with whom we have enough in common to communicate, and enough different to offer change. We shun ambivalence and regret, but they can be far more transformational, by definition, than the certainty and rapture with which we seek (as we should) to replace them. Our doubts and disappointments are the maps of the open spaces in the world between us, and if we don't know, yet, whether it's you that should move into them or me, at least we have started to understand what might separate us, and what might not, and eliminated one more useless place where we couldn't possibly be wrong.
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