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Are We Going to Be This Way Forever?
350 · 11 October 01
Heavenly: Heavenly Vs. Satan
The third year of my slow attempt to piece together all the fragments of a history of the genre-defining Bristol indie-pop label Sarah Records is ebbing towards an end, and I'm pretty close. The perfect Sarah collection, of course, would line up every release they ever did, in every format, in catalog-number order with the flyers and newsletters and posters interspersed in their logical positions. I reserve the right to keep going until I've assembled such a thing, I guess, but my actual goal was the somewhat more manageable proposition of tracking down all four hundred ninety songs those releases contained. This allowed me, for example, to buy compilations and reissues and licensed versions where available, and to skip singles if their tracks were all available on album. Arguably, since the liner notes and catalog blurbs were so integral to the Sarah aesthetic, a track-centric approach is fundamentally inadequate, but enough of the songs exist only on their original singles for this not to be a real issue in practice. I made progress according to a schedule any statistician could have sketched ahead of time: quick headway at first, and then the steps forward coming further and further apart, with the money involved generally ascending in inverse proportion. I would have expected me to keep scrupulous track of every step in this long quest, so that I could now produce a coruscating three-dimensional graph of the extent of my Sarah collection and the magnitude of the expenditures plotted against each other and time, but for some reason I didn't do so explicitly, so the fiscal data is now lost, and even the tracks-vs-time graph, which could be reconstructed from my normal record-keeping, would entail more manual data-mining than I currently have the patience for. So all I can easily report is status. The core run of Sarah 1 to Sarah 100 consists of eighty-seven seven-inch singles, three ten-inch, two twelve-inch, three flexis, three fanzines, a board game and a final retrospective. Objectwise, I'm missing nineteen of the seven-inch singles, one of the twelves and two fanzines, but I have CD-singles for most of the missing seven-inches, and almost all the remaining songs otherwise covered. I have the board game, and did try to play it once. As of the beginning of September I had found all but seven of those four hundred ninety songs. Today I have all but two: Another Sunny Day's "Anorak City", from the flexi Sarah 3 or the equally elusive ASD omnibus London Weekend (Sarah 613); and the Field Mice's "Humblebee", the one track on Skywriting (Sarah 601) not included on the two-disc Skinkansen retrospective Where'd You Learn to Kiss That Way?.
The jump from seven to two came courtesy of the long-promised and much-delayed reissue, by the Olympia, Washington indie label K (prior licensees of the bulk of the rest of Sarah's Heavenly/Talulah Gosh repertoire), of Sarah 603, Heavenly Vs. Satan. Those of you at earlier stages in your Sarah efforts will probably get an even bigger boost, as this edition includes all eight songs from the original release (I already had three of them on Elefant Records' This Is Heavenly compilation), plus "I Fell In Love Last Night" and "Over and Over" from Sarah 30, "Our Love Is Heavenly" and "Wrap My Arms Around Him" from Sarah 41, and for good measure "She Says" and "Escort Crash on Marston Street" from a stray Heavenly single K themselves released in 1991.
Finally hearing these five songs is inevitably anticlimactic, and would be even if they didn't constitute five fourteenths of a record I've heard the rest of, because I know both the Talulah Gosh material that preceded them and the Heavenly songs that followed. If it were drama I cared about, I guess I'd have stockpiled everything until I could listen to it in catalog order. But the drunkard's walk I actually traced meant that within only a few months of setting out I'd heard a more or less stylistically comprehensive subset of Sarah songs, and the rest of the journey has been primarily stubbornness. These aren't the best five or fourteen Heavenly songs, by any stretch of the imagination. "Cool Guitar Boy" could just about serve as the encyclopedia entry for "indie kid (male)", and ends with a nice mix of self-delusion and clarity ("He looks so cool in his shades. / Hides his eyes, might be looking my way. / Never speaks, which I like. / Doesn't have much to say."), but even a potentially redemptive "'Cause I know there's heaven, heaven in his arms" chorus can't lever the music out of its mid-tempo languor. Splashing cymbals and springier guitars animate "Boyfriend Stays the Same", which is something of a tour de force of Amelia Fletcher's total refusal to sync up the cadences in the melody to the pattern of stresses semantics would suggest for the underlying text, but after the opening couplet she also seems to lose interest in writing them. "Lemonhead Boy" careens along like a slightly more waifishly sung version of the Housemartins' "Me and the Farmer", and "Shallow"'s bouncy choruses do their best to compensate for verses lost somewhere between the Sundays and New Order, but the "ba ba bada ba ba" choruses on "Wish Me Gone" are a cop-out I'm especially reluctant to tolerate when I know how smart the band mouthing them is, and the handful of out-of-character internal rhymes in "Don't Be Fooled" make the otherwise-charming stress mismatches elsewhere in the song just seem lazy to me. Perhaps only the dizzy, sputtering "It's You", of the eight original songs, hints at the better Heavenly records to come, resolutely sunny melodies bent to unsettling purposes, relating a narrative a little like a self-aware revisit to "He Hit Me (And It Felt Like a Kiss)". "Stop Before You Say It" is an erratic, if adventurous, finale.
The highlights of the reissue are pretty clearly, to me, the bonus tracks, which I already had on vinyl but am quite happy to get on CD. "I Fell in Love Last Night", with its tense bass-and-drums verses, sugar-arch choruses, swoony quasi-Motown backing-vocal flourishes, twangy guitar hooks and clattering drums, is exactly the kind of skiffle/punk fusion nobody but Heavenly ever quite pulled off the same way. "Over and Over", its b-side, has one of the silliest guitar solos since the Buzzcocks' "Boredom". The squeaky, vaguely Wedding-Present-ish "Our Love Is Heavenly" is the most mature-sounding of these songs, Heavenly starting to seem like they might know what they're doing, rather than merely getting by on enthusiasm (although in fact Sarah 41 came out a few months before Sarah 603). And "Wrap My Arms Around You" finally delivers the rousing chorus "Cool Guitar Boy" seemed to me to demand. The purist in me resents the presence of the two non-Sarah tracks here, especially since "Escort Crash on Marston Street" is a novelty-lyric remake of "Wish Me Gone", but after an A/B comparison I quickly concede that "Escort Crash" is by far the more vital of the two versions, which I guess qualifies it as a coda, label origins notwithstanding.
Although Sarah music isn't literally homogenous, most of it, especially if you concentrate on the bands for whom they put out more than one release, does fit into a fairly well-defined spectrum of fragile, introspective, romantic pop with occasional experimental leanings. Probably the most dramatic exception was the Harvest Ministers, a folk/roots band more akin to Dexy's Midnight Runners or Jackie Leven than the Field Mice or the Orchids, but since I already liked that kind of music, I didn't have any problem with them. The Sarah band it took me the longest to appreciate, and maybe that's why they still seem kind of out of place to me, was Boyracer, who were only ever a pop band in the coy, term-co-opting sense of the Buzzcocks or the Ramones. If the essence of punk, in its original Clash/Sex Pistols/Adverts/etc. incarnation, was the joy of sheer incompetence (which it usually wasn't, but for historical purposes it's sometimes useful to pretend it was), then Boyracer are one of the purest punk bands of all time. Stewart Anderson's self-deprecating streak, more Morrissey than Jello Biafra, generates some unexpected lyrics, but the music is jubilantly berserk chaos. The night I finally understood Boyracer was the night I saw Steward play a solo show, opening up for the Cannanes. He got on stage by himself, with a tiny pink guitar I assume he got out of a Japanese cereal box, hit the Start button on the backing-track machine, and proceeded to thrash through his entire set extracting an undifferentiated jammed-vacuum-cleaner grind from the guitar and yelping utterly unintelligibly into a microphone in shrill tone I would otherwise only expect to hear while watching a badger-derived Pokémon being crushed in a recycling truck. As music, it was an abject disaster, but as spectacle, and conceptual art, and a DIY fuck-you, it was borderline timeless. This degree of solipsistic obliviousness is very hard to find in music. The Shaggs had it, of course, but with the Shaggs it's next to impossible to tell what they thought they were doing, so the music just comes off as surreal. Boyracer are trying to write rock songs, so when they fail as badly as they do in most of these songs, it's on the order of a stoned forest ranger trying to explain to you the "technology" of Stonehenge, or your youngest daughter delivering your "copy", on a folded quarto of mustard-yellow construction paper, of her latest "novel". In what measure that's charming, and in what measure stupid, you'll have to decide for yourself.
Boyracer's three Sarah singles were some of the easiest to find, presumably because they came out so late in the run (Sarahs 76, 85 and 96), but if they've gotten rarer since I found mine, four of the obvious highlights are included on this squalling, thirty-three track, seventy-three minute compilation, released by Stewart's label 555 Recordings, which pings in and out of just about every grubby entry in Boyracer's long, oddity-laced discography (including one of the two five-inch vinyl singles I own, for which there is really no sane excuse). The quintessential Boyracer song, for me, is "I've Got It (And It's Not Worth Having)", from B Is For Boyracer (Sarah 76), the choruses blasted beyond all recognition and every stage of the recording equipment's signal chain pegged, but Simon Guild's guitar dropping out for the verses to give them an eerie expatriate-Smurfs-covering-Joy-Division calm. "He Gets Me So Hard" (from Pure Hatred 96, which was Sarah 96) is pretty close, though, like an early REM song flushed down a toilet with a plugged-in hair-dryer pitched after it. The other two Sarah songs are the bleary, and at times distantly GbV-like, "Cog" (from From Purity to Purgatory, Sarah 85), and the delightfully inept "Black Fantastic Splitting" (also from B Is For Boyracer), which might also have traces of REM lineage, if you can imagine extrapolating backwards in time so far past Chronic Town that Stipe reverts to embryonic form and human culture has yet to invent tuning.
And then there are twenty-seven more songs, all played so fast that they pack four or five minutes of exhaustion into two or three minutes of cheerful abuse. Here and there the rictus-twisted visages of other bands press briefly against the surface membrane: the Cure, The Teardrop Explodes, New Order, My Bloody Valentine, the Wedding Present, Dramarama. Intermissions are rare (the acoustic guitar and bongos of the plaintive "My Town" (from a split LP), the subdued chirpiness of "I Am Looking for Somewhere Else" (from a single called Another Side of Boyracer on which the b-side was blank), the plonky mock-country duet "Friend") and I think they just accentuate the relentlessness of everything else. A couple songs digress briefly into electronics, anticipating Steward; every once in a while Stewart lets Nicola Hodgkinson sing, edging toward Empress. Mostly, though, it's the manic howl of a bunch of lunatics absolutely convinced they are the greatest rock band of all time, and far too deaf from their own feedback for you to have any hope of explaining to them how they're wrong. And maybe that means that in a sense they're right.
Empress: Empress (second album)
Boyracer would be much less puzzling to me if Stewart didn't also spend a small part of his time quietly backing up Nicola in their hushed side-project Empress. Plainly he does have some idea what he's doing, at least enough to not do it when it isn't appropriate. Empress appear to be opposed to album titles, but this blue one, on Geographic, is their second. The first one sounded like Low. This one sounds like the first one, but that extra degree of separation from Low, combined with the fact that Low 2001 don't sound like Low 1998 so much any more, either, has introduced enough difference for me to stop thinking of Empress as producers of extra Low records. As Low have expanded their palette, in fact, Empress have restricted theirs, and this album pushes towards a meticulously distended minimalism that has more in common, psychologically, with Stina Nordenstam, later Talk Talk and the Penguin Cafe Orchestra. "Blackpool North" in particular, with Nicola muttering in a whisper over background static and a single three-note cycle, is chilling and inexplicable. "The Last Lane" starts out like early Low ("Violence", perhaps), but slides off into a sort of clockwork ballet. "Billie's Blue" is an asylum lullaby that makes me never want to go to sleep. No, I've said that wrong: I already never want to go to sleep, and this is music for not going to sleep to.
Low + Dirty Three: In the Fishtank
The 2001 Low release I'm destined to forget about, since there's obviously no point in comparing it to Things We Lost in the Fire, is this short disc of songs recorded at Konkurrent, in Amsterdam, as part of the label's ongoing series in which bands are invited to take a couple days out of their European touring schedule to come in and improvise a little strange music. Low brought along Dirty Three, and the two bands go through these six songs (five originals and a Neil Young cover), as a sextet. Low and Dirty Three shared a split single a while back, which was my first Dirty Three exposure, but I confess that despite buying three Dirty Three albums since, wanting the association with Low to be powerful enough to evoke my support, I still find Dirty Three unappealing. So when these sound like Low songs with some extra background noise and a violin ("I Hear...Goodnight", Young's "Down By the River", the stilled "Invitation Day" and even the country-tinged "When I Called Upon Your Seed"), I like them just fine. But when the precedence is reversed, as on the mournful instrumental "Cody" or the out-of-tune-banjo gospel-blues number "Lordy", I discover that Low's endorsement of Dirty Three is no more effective for me when they're standing in the same room to deliver it.
Ida: The Braille Night
Low leads inexorably to Ida. Maybe too inexorably, now, in my mind, since Ida's new album, The Braille Night, also seems to keep diffusing into the glow around Things We Lost in the Fire, for me. In this case there's also an explanation that has nothing to do with me, as most of the songs on The Braille Night are leftover recordings from the sessions for Will You Find Me, with a couple later tracks slotted in to get to an album-like running-length. And despite my position that Amnesiac represents Radiohead trying Kid A again and getting it right, and my belief that Emm Gryner's covers album is one of the most beautiful things I've heard this year, I'm only growing more firm in my opposition to shortcut albums. If you don't have the energy to make a real new album, just don't. We'll wait until you're ready. There are plenty of other artists who could use our attention, in the meantime, for records they've poured their souls into from scratch instead of sweeping together from scraps.
The problem with The Braille Night, I think (not that you're under any obligation to agree with me that there is a problem), is simply that it doesn't have enough highlights. I love Ida most when they are quiet and hauntingly beautiful, maybe more in the most static interstices than the airiest choruses, but this dynamic range relies on having both extremes represented. The Braille Night is too uniformly solemn. The only songs here that would produce that precious heart-lurch if I heard the first few notes of them in concert are Karla Schickele's swaying "Arrowheads" and Dan Littleton's nervous "Blizzard of '78" (from whose lyrics the album title is taken; "The Braille Night" itself is an instrumental), but both of these are mid-range, by my standards for Ida. They are "Triptych"s, maybe even "Down on Your Back"s. But this record needs a "Shrug", a "Man in Mind", a "Past the Past", a "Don't Get Sad". It takes more than ten more songs to make a new piece of art. You need a new soul to give it, an independent life for it to live, some question only it knows why you ask.
k.: New Problems
After a single and a split EP with Low, Karla Schickele finally takes advantage of the lull in Ida work to make her album debut as a solo artist with New Problems. I am waiting to be convinced, not having been by the other few songs, that she has a coherent idea of what she wants to accomplish by herself, other than simply publishing on a more aggressive schedule than Dan and Elizabeth's new family responsibilities allow. There are twelve songs here that have a chance. Well, eleven after you eliminate the nineteen-second instrumental intro. Nine after you get rid of the single tracks "Not Here" and "Bad Day at Black Rock (Regular Girl)", neither of which I've warmed to. "Reminder" gets buried under its production, so eight. "Play by the Book" has clarinet where it needs Dan and Elizabeth's voices, so seven. "Hip Flask" has their voices, but neglects to provide parts worth their presence, so six. "Fighter Dove" and "Telegram" both sound to me like a decent beginnings of ideas that Karla attempts to resolve with trick production instead of actually finishing writing them. "Knoxville" is noisy to no end. "Got a Feelin'" is an unconvincing costume turn.
That leaves two. The first, "Always So Good", is nearly enough. Double-tracked vocals over only double- or triple-tracked bass, it's brief without feeling unfinished, arresting in its simplicity, I can hum parts of it afterwards, and it's clearly something Ida would not have done. I'm probably not really suggesting that Karla make a whole album accompanied only by bass loops, but the other songs, and other instruments, and other players, need this kind of bravery to follow.
But what they get, on the album's final track, is rank cowardice. Almost to the end of a record on which, if she failed to define herself, at least she tried, she breaks down, repeats Mark Seymour's disheartening error on One Eyed Man, and ends with her demo of Ida's classic "Poor Dumb Bird". The fact that she did write the song can't change its ownership. Ida made it immortal, but immortality isn't transitive. Not only do you need to give new songs new souls, if they're to have any hope of surviving you, but you have to give yourself a new soul, if you want a new life. And it's hard, but who ever said you were due more than one?