No Other Place
354 · 8 November 01
Gay Dad: Transmission
I'm always a little disappointed if I go to Boca Grande, my favorite burrito place, and they're not playing some sort of inexplicable Mexican arena rock that appears to have drifted in through a time-warp as well as across a cultural divide. The burritos are sufficient reason to visit, but the little extra touch of alienness, hearing examples I'm not familiar with of music that is the sort of thing I would normally know, is pleasantly disconcerting. If there aren't any Mexican restaurants run by Mexicans where you live, I've found I can get some of the same effect from Christian rock radio. Actually, let me rephrase that: if there are more Christian rock radio stations than Mexican restaurants run by Mexicans where you live, you should move.
When I stopped by Boca on the way home tonight, though, they were playing boring American music. It must have been somebody's personal clandestine mix-tape of boring American music, even, as I could swear one of the songs was by Poco, and didn't Clinton order all of their records destroyed during one of his fights against approval-rating decline? Anyway, after about three-quarters of a grilled lemon-chicken grande worth of contraband MOR, Jackson Browne's old version of Maurice Williams' "Stay" came on. I was ten years old when it was new, and if it wasn't literally the first song that ever entered my life via the radio, it was at least part of the first cohort. When the song hit David Lindley's falsetto version of the chorus, a couple bites from the end of my burrito, it dawned on me that it proves I have been a sucker for weird little noises in my pop songs for precisely the entire time I've been aware of pop songs. I think melody still wins, if there's ever reason to oppose the two, but clever noises, especially quick, crisp, bouncy, artificial ones, still find me largely defenseless. So despite waiting for the second Gay Dad album with nearly debilitating apprehension, torn between expecting them to follow the Stereophonics, Longpigs and Linoleum into oddly banal maturity and expecting them to follow Ultrasound, Kenickie and theaudience into quick dissolution, I was incontrovertibly convinced the new album would be wonderful by the first ten seconds of the first single, more than seven months ago. That was the not-so-promisingly-named "Now Always and Forever", which opens with a few circumspect guitar notes, then a quick blast of chopped-up backing chorus, some ray-gun chirps and then a decisive slam of kick/snare thump, guitar/bass churn and a glassy Close Encounters-grade synth hook. "Ah, future days are here" sighs Cliff Jones at one point, and apparently the differentiating characteristics of the future are buzzy guitars that sweep back and forth like Dalek disintegration beams, twinkly toy-keyboard flourishes, rattly but otherwise straightforwardly snappy rock drumming and a bit of over-the-top hired-gun gospel backing wail at which even the Simple Minds and the KLF would have to nod approvingly. If you missed the single, which you almost certainly did if you live in America, the first track on the album (the title track, and the third single back at home in the UK) needs about eleven seconds to make the same point, this time with a single guitar chord warped and fractured halfway to cubist melting clocks, a cheerfully clicky drum-machine cadence and a joyous squeal of feedback. The processed-guitar trick turns out to be effectively one of the song's hooks, and if hip-hop remixers shared any of my tastes they'd be racing as we speak to see who could be the first to steal it the same way Soho absconded with the opening whir of "How Soon Is Now?" for "Hippychick". The rest of the song tightropes lasciviously between synth-pop burble and glam-rock swagger, never quite convincing me that I know (and maybe Gay Dad also wonder themselves) whether they're dreaming of becoming a bis that isn't afraid to be rock stars or an Oasis that drinks way too much coffee.
I'm not appreciably more certain by the end of the album, either. The verses of "Nightclub" sounds like some benefit-album producer with more enthusiasm than judgment locked Grace Jones and Karl Wallinger in a studio together, but the choruses sound like Placebo has plastiqued through the roof to rescue them. "Harder Faster" wants to be War every bit as badly as Lenny Kravitz ever did, but the graceful, unhurried "Plane Going Down", if you can remember when that used to be a romantic metaphor, might be as close as anybody has come recently to the expansiveness of the Manic Street Preachers' "La Tristesse Durera" or Geneva's "Dollars in the Heavens". The restrained "All My Life" brushes against Eno/Lanois/U2 melancholy, and the murmuring "Breathe" may have been conceived under the influence of a little too much Pink Floyd and Radiohead, but for me the surging choruses of "Dinosaur" easily overcome its bleating verses, and then "Shoot Freak" sounds to me like exactly the song (lyrics included) that Placebo has been trying to make all this time. "Keep It Heavy" falls back on guitars and texture, and much of it would more properly have been called "Keep It Swirly"; "Everything Changes" is the token lullaby-with-a-big-noisy-crescendo-toward-the-end. But Gay Dad seem to know exactly how far they can let me down without losing me completely, and just as I'm about to get impatient they clip off the nonsense and roar into the crazed, pounding, squalling finale, "Promise of a Miracle", two strident, blaring, invigorating minutes that reinforce my long-held belief that EMF really should have amounted to something. Transmission is an uneven album, and Gay Dad still seem maddening to me almost as often as they are inspiring (and, perhaps most mystifyingly, they have again relegated almost as many catchy, inventive pop songs to the b-sides of their singles as they have braying, unfocused rock tracks on the album), but if the choice is, as it so often seems to be, between erratic and maddening in one direction, and sleep-inducing and unimaginative in the other, then I'm willing to be maddened. The next Gay Dad album could still be dreary and awful, but at least I don't feel like I already know.
Jesus Jones: London
Let's say it takes ten years, or so, to really find out what a band is going to grow up to be. A decade is a dauntingly long time, on the scale of modern pop life-expectancies, but I think that's appropriate. Most of the girl- and boy-pop stars currently plaguing us are not going to be famous long enough to grow up in public. I believe virtually nobody actually wants them to (although I can't be the only person who suspects Lolita at 27 would have been more interesting than the first book). A decade ago was 1991, which belongs in retrospect to Nirvana, and Kurt is now long dead, so it's harder than it seems like it ought to be to make the case that Peter Pan didn't have a point. My favorite "new" band that year wasn't Nirvana, it was School of Fish, but they're long gone too. Kurt Cobain and Josh Clayton-Felt were both born in 1967 (as, for that matter, was I). Kurt didn't make it to thirty. Josh saw only a few days of 2000 from a hospital bed as cancer finished its work. It's not very uplifting or productive to think of them as the class of 1991, but it's not very sensible, either, since the movements both bands can be thought of as belonging to mostly developed later, though with a lot more cause-and-effect in Nirvana's case than School of Fish's. The class of 1991, for me, was a little knot of four hyperactive British bands run by kids who looked like they might have preferred to be skate punks but came from town without enough smooth pavement. EMF had the biggest initial hit to work with, and for me Schubert Dip has held up admirably under extended scrutiny, but commercially speaking "Unbelievable" was a textbook one-hit-wonder's one-hit. The obdurately less-frenetic second album went out of its way to not capitalize on "Unbelievable", and succeeded; by the dreadful third, even I couldn't see why they were still recording. Ned's Atomic Dustbin were EMF's poor friends who couldn't afford samplers, and so had to make do with their gimmick being two bass players. By the time they could afford to make a techno record it was too late. The Wonder Stuff, folk-pop agitators who tagged along on general shagginess, were the most mature of the four bands, and Never Loved Elvis was easily the most sophisticated of the four 1991 releases, but their bitterness swallowed them, and for me none of the recombined fragments have managed to reassemble the kind of magic that animated "Caught in My Shadow" and "Mission Drive" (of which the recent b-sides collection Love Bites and Bruises and reunion-gig live album Cursed With Insincerity are both vivid reminders, though).
The fourth band of this class was Jesus Jones, and very few songs are as bittersweet for me as Jesus Jones' "Right Here, Right Now" has suddenly become, now that it's temporarily unclear again whether in the early Nineties we were waking up from history or just falling into a happier dream from which the sound of falling airplanes finally roused us. 1993's Perverse seemed to please nobody, but 1997's Already is my favorite album by any of these four bands, and although an album every four years is hardly a youthfully zippy pace, here they still are, stupid name and all, for album five. Already was actually made, once you worked through all the abandoned pseudonyms, by the same five guys that started the band, and the only personnel change for London is the replacement of AWOL drummer Simon Matthews (now in Deckard and/or Regency Buck) with Tony Arthy, most recently from ex-Wonder Stuff singer Miles Hunt's band.
The change in sound is quite a bit more dramatic. Jesus Jones' signature noise was always a four-layer arrangement of airy synthesizers, Mike Edwards' yearning voice, driving guitars and a dense, roiling bed of sampler twitter and drum-machine thrash. As the crashing "Message" opens London, at least half these elements are missing or de-emphasized. Arthy's drumming is muscular and unambiguously un-drum-machine-like, Edwards is pushing intriguingly close to his intensity limit, and except for some metallic rattle in the breaks, the musical arrangement is almost wholly a throbbing unison guitar/bass groove. Arthy switches to synth-drums for much of "Stranger", which also has more synth noises and some vocoder backing-vocals, but in the stretches it's again a guitar/bass/drums song that doesn't seem particularly worried about what it's missing. "The Rocket Ships of La Jolla" bounces its guitars back and forth across the stereo spectrum, and lets a synth hook play a somewhat more prominent role, but you're hardly going to mistake it for "Move Mountains". "Asleep on the Motorway" curls around melancholy piano and fretless bass. The gadgets and samples finally show up for the percolating "Hello Neon!", but even with the hip-hoppish "Mo mo mo" vocal blurts to play with the band still opts for a unselfconsciously fiery rock chorus. The strangely lilting "The A Team" (and yes, the reference is at least nominally to the TV show) sounds like Jon Brion trying to make Gary Numan sound like Michael Penn. "Princess of My Heart" might be Mike's belated realization that every British songwriter is supposed to do their answer to Paul Weller's "English Rose" and it's about time he got around to his. "To Get There", commissioned by ESPN for Tour de France 2000 coverage, makes admirably few concessions to TV expectations, but is still pretty sedate by old Jesus Jones standards. Parts of "Nowhere Slow" evoke "Info Freako" fairly unmistakably, but it also has some of the album's most blustery rock tropes. Only the choppy "Half Up the Hill" and the twitchy "Getaway Car" really consistently reproduce the pulsing urgency of Liquidizer or Doubt.
But as it turns out, and as I guess I've kind of suspected all along, the gadget textures aren't what I respond to in Jesus Jones' songs. Or at least I don't miss them when they're subdued or gone. Take them away and we're still left with Mike's grand, wavery voice, his and Jerry De Borg's dramatic multi-part harmonies, and the conviction, both in Mike's writing and the band's playing, that songs should have destinations, and make efficient progress towards them. In the old days Jesus Jones sometimes lost track of where they were going and settled just for motion. (Gay Dad are too easily persuaded to waste time doing donuts in abandoned parking lots. ) And maybe it took this long for Mike Edwards to learn enough fundamental rock/pop songwriting craft for his compositions to support simplified arrangements. Or maybe they could have make this album ten years ago, but it wasn't cool yet.
For that matter, it's probably not cool now, either. But it's magnificent, I think, and I'll take magnificent over cool any time it's offered. "Message" is blistering, maybe the best answering-machine song ever written as an incoming message (but ambiguously: "This was a message for you, / Hope you took this call."), and although it does just fall within the bounds of normal pop-song length (2:20), it leads me off into an interesting meditation on how different Plants and Birds and Rocks and Things would have been if it had started with "Sword Swallower". "Stranger" is insistent, and insistence is hardly new for Jesus Jones, but the whole approach to the rhythm section is different, the drums nearly following instead of leading, and Alan Doughty's bass line galloping up and down his register as if he snuck in and recorded it while everybody else was playing video games. "The Rocket Ships of La Jolla" is kind of orphaned by subsequent events (unless I'm badly mistaken, it's a sympathy anthem for the Heaven's Gate suicide cultists, and I have a feeling they are no longer going to feature in many histories of the tragedies of this era), but both the central realization (that they thought they were about to embark on a great voyage) and the central question ("So what the hell is wrong with fantasy?", meant quite seriously even if it sounds glib) are portable to other cases. "Asleep on the Motorway" is an anti-driving song in an expansive idiom usually conducive only to the opposite. "Hello Neon!", after I get over my initial disappointment that it's not a peppy answer-song to the original Dodge Neon commercials, turns out to be both deliriously exuberant (I think this is what Simian were trying to get at, but they didn't have these blazing guitars) and plaintively self-deprecating ("I'm a heavy passive smoker and a hyperactive drinker / And I'm squashed between two people I don't know"). The pensive "The A Team", it took me almost one too many examinations to figure out, is a sarcastic celebration of the alcoholic's dedication; when before did I ever feel like I was in any danger of not figuring out one of Mike's songs? "The Princess of My Heart", in fact, seems like a private message I'm not intended to decode, but Mike carries off the sketchy acoustic-guitar accompaniment and uncharacteristically confessional vocal surprisingly well. "To Get There" strikes an incredibly tricky compromise between apparent sentiment ("Just trying to be a [something] man", it sounds like he's saying) and cloaked judgment (it's actually "Just trying to be advert man"), and the palpable tension as Mike tries to get through a demanding vocal at an unfamiliarly measured pace, especially the bridge section that begins "All the places...", is welcome evidence that he's still pushing himself. "Nowhere Slow" is the album's second rousing anti-driving anthem, but it's going to take a lot more of them to undo all the environmental damage done by pro-non-renewable-resource-consumption rock songs, most of which weren't nearly this infectious. And I don't know when I last heard a line combine whimsy and menace as deftly as "I saw the apocalypse swinging its hips."
But because "Right Here, Right Now" summarized the state of the world in 1991, for me, both then and now, a part of me insists on looking for a comparable song for 2001 here, even though the record was completed in August, before everything changed. Uncannily, almost frighteningly, Mike managed to come up with one song back in June that, while every other work of art conceived before 11 September is being carried downstream away from relevance, stubbornly paddles the other way. The airplane disaster "In the Face of All of This" starts with is actually Lockerbie, but the point is a general one about the arbitrary intrusion of death into what should have been the middle of ordinary lives. The survey of the rest of the planet's underreported woes ticks off the now-apparently-not-so-pressing Chinese human-rights violations and an anonymous mudslide on the way to its one dumbfoundingly topical couplet, but if there was a single other rock song already wending its way through the release process on 11 September that mentioned Afghanistan in any capacity, I'd be very surprised. "Down in Afghanistan", goes the line, "They've killed a woman who dressed like a man." That was years ago, and provoked comparatively little response. As long as the Taliban were content to abuse people we don't know, we didn't much care about them. Bazooka some cliff carvings, on the other hand, and suddenly you've got the world's censure to defy. Harbor a terrorist who gets lucky once, and you become a practice range for a couple decades of pent-up military technology. But I hope nobody thinks, no matter how many simplistic leaflets (and "culturally-neutral" rice cakes) we litter Afghanistan with, that we're there to liberate its citizens from barbarism, even in passing. We're there for violent vengeance, straight out of the Old Testament. We're there for self-defense, hoping the next terrorist will be more frightened by Dan Rather's explanation of "bunker busters" than impressed that all it took was nineteen gullible disciples and a few hardware-store exacto-knives to become the first Arab whose name the entire non-Arab world can pronounce correctly since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. We're there because there's oil in Turkmenistan, and Afghanistan is on the shortest pipeline route to the nearest ocean. We're there to save Bush from the walking irony of having to try to be the education president. We're there to shore up defense budgets and call a lot of purported allies' bluffs. We're there because we needed to bomb something we aren't investors in, and there weren't many alternatives. We're there for a lot of reasons even more obscure and morally dubious than these, I suspect, and of course we're also there because we are hurting and we don't want anybody to ever have to hurt this way again. The cynical goals will probably be frustrated just as readily as the noble ones. "In the face of all of this," Mike Edwards asks, "What troubles do you and I possess?" The same ones. We had our own troubles in June and August, and we still have them in November. Except now we can also flinch every time an airplane passes, or we open our mail.
But here's the larger truth, and the key to any meaningful victory: we've gained a few troubles, and lost a few joys, but in the eternal war between troubles and joys, troubles only ever win the tiniest skirmishes. Eventually the bombs will catch up with their targets, or vice versa, and athletes will stop wearing FDNY caps, and we will all go back to the old normal, or a new one a lot like it. We will not be driven off this earth by jihad or anthrax or plague of locusts, and when we finally are driven off, we won't be driven off the next earth by any of those things, either. We will wake up from history and drift back into it a hundred million more times before history finally gives up and leaves us alone. And for every global horror, just as for every infinitesimal heartbreak and painstaking triumph, we will have songs twice as beautiful as death. Kill one person, we will write two songs. Save one person, we will write two more songs. Do nothing, more songs; do anything, more songs. What troubles do you and I possess? Fear, mourning, guilt, doubt? Hardly. More like: more songs than we have time to fall in love with, or share; more joys than our bodies can contain; more words, if we only didn't have to sleep. More than this. More than this.