Steadfast in Pursuit
345 · 6 September 01
Grant-Lee Phillips: Mobilize
I suspect the truth is that I don't really like Grant-Lee Phillips' voice. It has a Dylan-esque wheeziness, sliding in and out of notes as if he has limited resources to allocate across pronunciation and frequency, and so can only really reach the target pitch during the held syllables in the middle of words. And as my reactions to the singer's voice go, so usually go my responses to the music overall; I'm dependent enough on vocals for it to be extremely rare that I dislike a singer but still like the band (and, instructively, similarly rare for me to feel very strongly about instrumental music). In the case of Grant Lee Buffalo, Fuzzy and Mighty Joe Moon both basically did nothing for me. On Copperopolis, though, the music changed everything. Phillips didn't alter his singing style that much, but in the context of the album's tense, anthemic surges, it suddenly made sense to me, like finally finding a recipe that depends on some spice I never liked in isolation. It made me wonder, in fact, whether my tastes are as vocal-dependent as I thought. Perhaps more precisely, what I think of as my reaction to a voice is probably often, if not always, a composite reaction to the voice and its relationship to the music around it. This seems like an incredibly trivial insight as soon as I say it. Of course the context matters. Maybe the real question is whether the context is decisive. Conceivably for each voice I hate most violently, there exists some setting in which I'd adore it. This is a difficult theory to test, obviously. (Mariah Carey's people didn't seem very enthusiastic about the idea of getting her to front Sentenced for an album.) (The guys in Sentenced professed openness to the proposal, actually, but there was some rather worrisome internal muttering before they said so; if any reader knows offhand what "If we bend her legs back, she ought to fit in one of those smaller pentagrams meant for goats" would sound like in Finnish, please drop me a note.) But if my working hypothesis was that I only liked Grant-Lee Phillips when he was surrounded by a specific grade of grand, melancholic, sepia-toned Americana, my total failure to connect with the only minorly more upbeat and colorful Jubilee offered further support. And I didn't hold out much hope for his first solo recording, last year's self-released, mostly-acoustic Ladies' Love Oracle. Sure enough, left alone with his acoustic guitar, harmonica and a few other stray toys from the corners of Jon Brion's basement studio, Phillips came up with nine songs I didn't really even want to hear twice.
But I am fairly stubborn, to begin with, and I'd just been vividly reminded by new Ian McNabb and Chameleons albums that electric comebacks are entirely possible, so I gave Mobilize a chance. The new songs are still largely a one-man show, written and performed by Phillips, but this time he gets co-production, mixing and "programming" (as distinct from "performing") help from veteran LA engineer Carmen Rizzo, and so comes up with an album that is a fairly radical departure from anything else he's done. So why does it sound so familiar to me? I ponder this question for at least fifteen seconds before it dawns on me how uncannily Mobilize resembles an American version of David Gray's White Ladder. Gray and Phillips have somewhat similar voices, very similar palettes and strikingly similar folk-infused-rock catalogs (none of Gray's albums seem nearly as heroic to me as Copperopolis, but I probably prefer all the other Gray albums to any of the other Grant Lee Buffalo ones), so maybe it shouldn't be especially surprising that the results are similar when they start to embrace programming, although anyone who thinks Americana plus programming can only turn out like this hasn't heard Mark Eitzel's new album.
Except White Ladder was recorded in London and Mobilize was done in LA, and of course they're not literally identical. White Ladder is colder, sparer, brittler, Mobilize more relaxed and a little more organic. If you only dropped in for random moments, in fact, conceivably you could hit half a dozen on Mobilize that don't dictate the White Ladder comparison at all: the slow, undulating acoustic-guitar strumming and mock-strings in the first half of "See America"; the simmery keyboards, slinky rhythm and falsetto vocal flourishes of "Love's a Mystery"; the "China Girl"-era Bowie-esque groove of "We All Get a Taste" and the particular sardonic expansiveness with which Phillips yelps "Journalism broke that man"; the clipped, sputtering title track, like the Waterboys' "Soviet Army Blues" redone by gadgety clowns; the loping piano of "Beautiful Dreamers", halfway from Madness to Bruce Hornsby, and the swooping, obliquely Bowie-ish chorus; the lullaby grace of "Sleepless Lake"; the airy backing-vocals of "April Chimes". But the twitchy drum-machine loops on "Humankind" are an indisputable link to Gray's "Babylon", to me. The sighing choruses and post-chorus half-stops in "Sadness Soot" (sung like "sadness suit", which would be unfortunate, but as written "soot" might be right) would both fit nicely anywhere on White Ladder. The tinny guitar (mandolin?) on the cornered "Like a Lover" is more Phillip's heritage than Gray's, but the tension between the terse chord changes and the pattering percussion track is very much Gray's mood. Moreover, the two records seem to me to take identical attitudes towards their new technology, starting from skepticism and carefully incorporating only a few elements, instead of attempting a complete personality transplant. And if White Ladder was one of the definitive examples of finding an implied, but overlooked, niche (and a good argument against the purists' insistence that nothing can be "slightly unique"), then to me Mobilize starts with White Ladder's premise and pushes it one step further from home-studio introspection as night-sky open-heartedness towards studio-toy embellishment as natural exuberance. The pivotal instant for me comes almost dead-center in the album, as the sketchy, cycling verses of "Spring Released" burst, with a tiny thrill, into a bounding chorus not that far removed from Luscious Jackson's "Ladyfingers" or LEN's "Steal My Sunshine". Just then, with a decision to make about where he will cast his emotional allegiances, Phillips takes a big breath, momentarily abandons any notion of gravitas, and barks "Damn, this floor is thumpin'!", a sentiment as charming for its earnest enthusiasm as for its hilariously antiquated notion of what dance-club energy is like these days. But I've been pleased to watch David Gray have some success, even if it means his delicate little songs are subjected to the usual sad battery of superfluous remixing, and I'd be just as pleased if somehow "Spring Released" caught on as this year's buoyant farewell to summer. It might be a long way from the haunted empathy of "Bethlehem Steel" to a heaving dance floor, but given the choice, even displaced steel workers might prefer the latter. "Pale heart", Phillips says later in the song, "Don't cut your wrist up". Put that way, mordant self-criticism seems cheap, self-indulgent and trivial. And if it doesn't seem that way to you, yet, wouldn't you like it to?
Bill Janovitz: Up Here
If we're lining up icons of the old notions of American alternative music for conversion to new ones, Buffalo Tom singer Bill Janovitz can't be far behind Grant-Lee Phillips. Buffalo Tom's early albums were murkier than Grant Lee Buffalo's, born of grim New England thunderstorms instead of Western desert heat, but the two bands followed roughly parallel evolutions, and if Copperopolis was a salute to a dying way of life, and an attempt to understand which of its values ought to be preserved (and whether by "preserved" we mean kept alive or stored in a museum), then Let Me Come Over was the internal version, what it feels like to try to live amidst dying, and Smitten, years later, was part of a portrait of how claustrophobic desperation can be slowly transmuted into radiant faith. Buffalo Tom had a guest-appearance on My So-Called Life (back before Buffy's The Bronze gave random TV-writers' favorite semi-obscure bands a regular venue), and Grant-Lee Phillips had a recurring cameo on Gilmore Girls. In fact, just to complete a particularly meaningless connection, Mobilize was released by the Cambridge label ZoŽ, which is also currently home to Juliana Hatfield, who also appeared on MSCL. (Note, for future reference, that this line of association could also get us from the Violent Femmes to the Bangles, should any occasion for that arise.)
But however right conditions were for Bill Janovitz to make a burbling techno record, and however intriguing you do or don't imagine that such a thing might have been, this isn't it. It is, instead, arguably an even more restrained and acoustic set than Janovitz's first solo album, Lonesome Billy. But where Lonesome Billy sounded tangential and uncompleted, to me, Up Here starts sounding like Janovitz has realized that as the logistics of making Buffalo Tom records become increasingly problematic, his solo work is going to have to develop some identity that doesn't depend on them. Lonesome Billy found him discovering that it was fun to work on a little project of his own; by Up Here he's realized that it can also be serious. Most notably, I think, this means that there is no requirement that these songs sound like they would never have ended up on a Buffalo Tom record. A few of them are left-overs from band days, but I wondered on much of Lonesome Billy if Janovitz was deliberately sandbagging, and here I don't. "Atlantic" is a gorgeous, sparkling, finger-picked folk-ballad, nudged from folk towards rock only by the deep, assertive reverb on Janovitz's vocal, and although it and Runrig's "The Mighty Atlantic" have fundamentally different densities, to me they have traces of the same awe. "Best Kept Secret" edges towards country, with Phil Aiken adding the world's most understated honky-tonk piano part and Janovitz obdurately refusing to affect the mandated Southern drawl. "Up Here" is deadpan enough for me to imagine that there's a version of it on some old Judy Collins or Joan Baez record. The hushed "Your Stranger's Face", with a clever duet combining Janovitz's two singing ranges, could almost be a Christmas carol. "Minneapolis" sets out to be a Steve Earle road ballad, and does a pretty good job in the verses, but once the choruses kick in Janovitz forgets the cynical sneer with which he's supposed to round off the ends of lines. He almost lets the storytelling take control (as it would in real folk music) in "Like Shadows", and then finally gives in completely for "Light in December", his exhausted-Simon-and-Garfunkel lullaby for his daughter Lucy. And the album's one brash deviation from the overall sedate mood is the rousing sing-along finale, "Long Island", like the Indigo Girls doing the Barenaked Ladies (or vice versa).
But the clear standouts on this record for me, and the songs I hope point the way towards the next one, are the three for which Janovitz again enlists Fuzzy singer Chris Toppin. Janovitz's voice is something like Elvis Costello and Joe Jackson's early bleat leavened with Tom Petty's nasality and Warren Zevon's gruff warmth, and Toppin's is a bit like Steve Nicks' airy elegance crossed with Tanya Donelly's breathy intimacy; it takes no great effort at all for me to imagine them becoming one of rock's great duos. Although Janovitz technically has the lead on the mournful, Jules Shear-caliber "Half a Heart", in that there are stretches when he sings but she doesn't and none of the reverse, the duet sections are unusually well-balanced, palpably two-part harmony instead of lead and backing. "Goodnight, Wherever You Are" sounds perhaps the most like Buffalo Tom circa Let Me Come Over, to me, Toppin's twangy backing vocal (and this time it's definitely backing) taking the place of everything the rest of the band would have provided. And "Like You Do", shakily self-conscious delivery notwithstanding, is a breathtakingly unironic love song of which John Denver would be proud, and Toppin's muted second vocal, joining in the latter half, probably qualifies as a dramatic cliché (man singing alone of his devotion, so you wonder whether it's returned, and then woman joining in to show that it is), but if many of our needs are long-standing, universal and familiar, then so too will be some of the most resonant songs.
David Steinhart: Clean
I long ago stopped placing much importance in whom David Steinhart's records are officially credited to. I understand the personnel and process differences that explain why they stopped saying Pop Art, and why this one is officially his third solo album instead of the seventh Smart Brown Handbag record, but as a listener I really don't care. They all have his songwriting, his playing, his voice, his lyrics and concerns. I still almost never meet anybody who has heard of him, and every time I see an email with his name on it in my inbox a part of me expects he's writing to tell me the sad news that he's shutting down Stonegarden and redirecting those energies to a family, or a new career, or a circumnavigational yacht-race or something, even though it's plainly insulting that I, of all people, doggedly pursuing an unsolicited avocation that shows no signs of ever making me rich or famous, would keep thinking David is about to give up his. But last year's Pop Art retrospective, Really Blind Faith, for which I provided a short, stern sermon to serve as liner notes, could easily be seen as the putting of some affairs in order. I'm enough of a confidant to get mailed advance copies of these things, but not enough that he tells me about them before they're done, so I'm as surprised as anybody by each new one. (Except David recently contracted the computer virus that sends messages to random people in your address book with titles taken from random files on your hard drive, and one of the ones I got was titled "SBH 7", from which we may provisionally conclude that another Smart Brown Handbag album has been contemplated at least once.)
In the meantime, here's one that nominally isn't. Except it's produced by SBH producer/drummer John Glogovac, and SBH bassist Cindy Albon plays on one song, and if I've already talked you into anything else David has done, this should sound pleasantly (or whateverly) familiar. "Not So Smart" has a sketchy little guitar riff that could go all the way back to Pop Art. "It's a Sign" skips along on artlessly cheerful drums and a mixture of smeared electric guitars. Glogovac's jazzy vibes on "The Smaller Person" are the only reference I notice to the marginally more pastel palette of David's first solo phase. "From Now On" starts with some echoey programming, like he's going to follow Eitzel's lead, but the scratchy drum loops, tendrils of trumpet and sinewy fretless bass don't overshadow the pensive acoustic guitar or David's muted singing enough to usurp the mood. "Drive" transposes the usual guitar into stand-up bass, viola and violin, to intriguing effect, but "Waiting for That Ride" is exactly the kind of quick, jangly pop David has been making for, now, nearly two decades. "Good Sense" slips into the space between singing and whispering, but "Like You" is distorted and whirring, "Summer Confession #12" pinging and kaleidoscopic, "Cold" crisp and shimmery. David switches to his plaintive falsetto for most of the "The Cat Song", and again for the last three ironic words of the becalmed conclusion, "Grace".
But I don't listen to David's records for the music anymore. It's not that his music is expendable, it's that he has basically perfected it as accompaniment for his lyrics. The thrill I start anticipating the moment I find out he's done another record is hearing a few more searing relationship truths. I don't know what David's personal life is like, not even the obvious question about whether the author of so many break-up songs is still breaking up and being broken up with, or is now working from remembered pain. But his songs have, for whatever reason, become more often about the difficulties of staying together than the difficulties of breaking apart. "Are we ready for this?", he asks in "It's a Sign", a couple about to be pushed to a decision they've been avoiding. "We woke up this morning / A little sore from fighting -- / Well, not exactly fighting, / But not exactly talking." "Are you going to be mad / From this moment forward?" "The future looms large above us now, / We are still trying to work it out." In "The Smaller Person" he admits "All I write are sad love songs", but then immediately contradicts himself with "From Now On", quite possibly the most evocative pop song ever written about deciding to stop having birthdays after the thirty-ninth. "We drive together or follow each other, / We share all of our CDs," he explains in "Drive", "But still some nights when you / Leave your car keys by the door, / I wonder, in a city of perpetual motion, / How can I be sure if you're coming or going?" But wondering about the car keys on the hallway table is an encouraging step from SBH's "Unholy Union", a fabulously bitter break-up song in which he steals her car keys to make sure she comes back. "Waiting for That Ride" starts out like a losing fight against maturity ("The line is not as thin / As I'm remembering / Between fucking up and feeling free."), but ends with a cheerfully (if ruefully) resigned "So up and bury me / In my new SUV / North of the 10 freeway / And tell all the world that I loved LA." "Good Sense" is a bitter break-up song ("Her goodbye was an urgent kiss / Placed on your 'best friend''s lips. / She'd say 'Spite- and vodka-fueled', / She'd say 'He knows he drove me to it'."), but shifted to the third person. Drunks wander down a street in "Cold", lamenting "Monochrome art photos of these mile-high buildings / Are all that we'll have to show / For wandering aimlessly through downtown / Full of ourselves", but the refrains ("Tell me I'll spend all my Christmases with you" and "Four more hours until we get home, / You're dead asleep / And me, I am finally warm") are unapologetically hopeful. "The Cat Song" is a break-up song as ugly as David's best ("It's true that I hardly knew your cats; / I cringe when I hear you sum it up like that, / Your new party joke."), but the finale, "Grace", reads like a direct address: "I'm thankful for nights like these, / Simple talk and a beer buzz, / And when grace finds you in its many forms, / You don't dare ask 'Will you stay long?' // I'm steadfast in my pursuit of nights that make us feel like gods, / And when everything falls into place / I know that I've been touched by grace." And then, in a tiny voice that sounds like it's being broadcast from inside his head without any involvement from his mouth: "Cheer up now". Who is saying that, and to whom? I'm not sure I could do a good job of lining up all these characters on one side or the other of the line between the admonishers and the admonished, and I'm even less certain which side David or I fall on. It's possible that the things we advocate become harder for us to experience in the process, that the more we try to understand our lives the harder they become to live. But I don't see any other acceptable options. I realize there's something deeply disturbing about admitting that I'd rather understand something and not experience it than the other way around, especially (and ironically) if that means none of my theories can really be verified. The hope, I think, David's and mine and anybody else's who cares to join this prayer, is that we're making all these things harder to some end. We hope, we trust, that we're not defying grace, we're just deferring it until we're ready. And then we sit here, starting to feel ready, wondering if it's coming back.