370 · 28 February 02
Ramona Silver: Death by Candy
Most people who see the inside of my house eventually end up asking me one or more of three questions. The most common one, easily, is "How many CDs do you have?" This is less an inquiry than an exclamation. I have a lot of CDs. Usually the person asking the question is standing in front of most of them, so unless they mean "How many of these are fake, and why the hell would anybody line a wall with fake CD spines?", they are probably observing that their quantity-estimating skills and my sanity are both badly out of range, and wanting a number with which to measure the deviation. The second question, also fairly common, is "How do you listen to them all?" This is generally a real question, and it has a real, albeit multi-part, answer. I listen to music almost constantly; I listen to recent acquisitions obsessively, but any individual older record very rarely; I am temperamentally incapable of getting rid of things, even if I don't like them; and I am perfectly willing, as most people are not, to buy a CD and listen to it only once or twice, just because I want to find out what it sounds like. We can probably assign approximate multipliers to these four factors: let's say I spend twice as much time listening than the average person, that my listening distribution tends to double the number of albums I go through, that most people would sell at least one of every five CDs I have if they disliked them as much as I do, and that another one in every five they would have borrowed from a friend or just forgotten about. I also have a job that pays more than the median income, and I'm single, so we'll guess that together those two things might as much as double my collection. Adjust for these inflations, and I would only have about five hundred CDs. That's still a lot more than the average person of any sort, but the average thirty-four-year-old male who cares about music at all probably isn't too far behind. If there is sense to these numbers (and there well may not be), they suggest that my level of sheer music fanaticism, independent of all the other considerations, only needs to account for a factor of two, and surely I could be twice as interested in music as the average person (or half as diligent) without being considered insane.
The third question, however, is far more revealing. Not everybody asks it. The ones who stare blankly at the wall of CDs will ask their two questions, and then we'll go back downstairs and play Scrabble. The ones who love music themselves, though, and so can imagine that they and I differ in numbers, not in kind, will usually step closer and spend a little while scanning the spines instead of just pondering them en masse. This quickly rules out the otherwise-reasonable hypothesis that I simply have no quality filter, and buy everything they've heard. And thus the third question, which often comes out as merely "How...?", followed by a long pause that never quite gets filled in. What they mean is, what non-indiscriminate selection process could possibly produce this many CDs? My tastes aren't exponentially broader than average, my collection is not especially deep chronologically, and I don't listen to the radio or watch MTV on my own initiative, so never mind all that dividing and multiplying, how do I even know about these thousands of CDs, in order to be in the position to decide to buy them?
The answer is that I have a lot more Ramona Silvers than you do. In 1994, I bought a Boston compilation album called Girl, because it had a track by my girlfriend's brother's girlfriend's band. I only really liked a handful of songs on it, but when the same label put out a sequel compilation a few years later, I bought that, too. The second one, Girls! Girls! Girls!, I adored, so much so that I resolved to buy anything I could find by anybody who was on it, even if I hadn't particularly enjoyed their track. Ramona Silver's was one of the tracks I hadn't particularly enjoyed. I only liked a few songs on her then-current album Ultrasound, but I still went back and tracked down two earlier ones. I only liked a few songs on either of those, as well. And after being only sporadically pleased by three albums, I still showed up early for Elizabeth Elmore's new band's show here, last week, to see Ramona play. I assume most people would have drawn the line somewhere earlier. I am stubborn. It would be flattering to call it loyalty, but it would be more accurate to think of it as paranoia. I've liked just enough Ramona Silver songs to be inanely fearful that the moment I stopped giving her a chance, she would produce a transcendent masterpiece and I'd miss it. She played for about forty minutes. I only liked a few of the songs, and most of those were old. And after the set I went over to her table and bought her new album. That's how I got all these CDs.
The two obvious punch-lines to this story are "This is exactly the masterpiece I was terrified of" and "I like a few of these songs, too". I like a few of these songs, too. I like Ramona Silver's songwriting best when it doesn't feel like she's trying too hard. On my favorite of these she leaves the cheap keyboards off, doesn't give drummer Jim Weston or bassist Wil Marth any complicated instructions, and demonstrates that she could be a pop star. Slather another layer or two of lip-gloss on the reverent love-song "Hang My Head", the opening track, and it might nearly pass for Josie and the Pussycats, or at least Kay Hanley's real band. "The Saint at 99", a touching tribute to, I assume, Ramona's grandmother, is parts Aimee Mann, the Supremes, Juliana Hatfield and Sloan. "Motherbee" is bouncier and a little more coy, faintly New-Wave in the Katrina-and-the-Waves mold. The swooping and gnashing "Care Package" is a fascinatingly deceptive little song about gestures large enough to temporarily hold a relationship together but too small to justify it. And the swoony "The Other Guy", quite possibly the only bubblegum-pop song ever written about turning away from Satan (Silver is on the late Mark Heard's CCM label Fingerprint, although this is the first time I've actually noticed religious content), sounds like an excerpt from the original-cast soundtrack for a pastel taffeta hybrid-staging of Jesus Christ Superstar and Grease. With five more songs like these, Death by Candy could have been one of the more radiant examples of Boston rock transcending its usual self-imposed aura of glum melancholy.
But the other five have different ideas. "Death by Candy" itself is angular, squeaky and organ-hued. "Renter's Hell" is throw-away cartoon blues not appreciably redeemed, for me, by local name-dropping. "Manatee" is a little more B-52s-ish than I like. "Residue" is sunny and sighing, but ungrounded. "Halo" has some engaging harmony, but obfuscates it with an unnecessarily jumpy rhythm and more twittery organ. People who like this album will, I suspect, call it "diverse". For me that is rarely a compliment. I have a whole wall of diversity, and some extra piles of it in the next room. From ten songs I want dogged single-mindedness. To me it seems like Ramona Silver has spread two infectious pop albums across four discs, and if I have twice as much time for this as you do, maybe this is precisely the kind of yield I can afford, but you can't. But then maybe it's my job to keep giving her chances, and when she goes three for five you'll thank me.
Paula Kelley: Nothing/Everything
I had to go back and check the track listings for Girl and Girls! Girls! Girls! to be certain that Paula Kelley's old band Boy Wonder didn't appear on either of them. They didn't, so I don't remember offhand how I heard of them. My Boy Wonder experience was a lot like my Ramona Silver experience, and when I bought Nothing/Everything, on my first trip back to the record store after 11 September, I was nowhere vaguely close to the right mood for it. I played it once, it ended up on the bottom of a pile, and I didn't get back to it until the January-doldrums desk-cleanup project was underway in earnest. "Cleanup", in this usage, largely amounts to picking up whole stacks of CDs mentally labeled "need more scrutiny" and quickly whisking them upstairs to the "never to be scrutinized, after all" vault before they really understand what's happening to them. But the stack on top of Paula was a little too tall for one trip, and I was a little too maudlin to make two, so she got an unscheduled second chance.
And it's no big surprise that my frame of mind is different in the middle of a bizarrely mild New England winter than it was amidst emotional World Trade Center debris, but I'm still startled by how strongly I now feel about a record I thought had initially made no real impression on me. I don't often think I hear Loud Family resemblances in other musicians, and neither this album's low-fi jangliness nor its jazzy Europop/Beach-Boys-esque flourishes come very close to Scott Miller's intricate arrangements or oblique progressions, but there's something in Paula's girlish voice that reminds me of Scott's reedy falsetto, and just enough ambition in these iterations of pop expansiveness to make me think Paula and Scott share secret hopes. The range-jumps and second vocal (from guitarist and co-writer Aaron Tap) on "The Light Under the Door" are particularly early-Game-Theory-ish, and "Nothing" falls somewhere between Real Nighttime and early Blake Babies. "Showdown" is more Blake Babies-like still, complete with endearingly shaky tempo shifts, and reminds me that long ago I used to think of the Blake Babies and Game Theory as contrasting examples of more or less the same kind of underlying art. "Two Possible Answers (The Road)" is at once a little more brash and a bit shinier, perhaps like the Go-Go's crossed with Jellyfish. On "Girl of the Day" Paula sounds uncannily like Jen from Barcelona, for whom the Duran Duran reference would also have been in character (although "I know that Barry Gibb was wrong" casts back farther than Barcelona usually did). "Everything" pushes into the Euro-jazz-pop domain of Shelflife or Siesta, but with a few tiny, invigorating guitar jabs, and "You Gonna Make It?" banks gracefully into handclap-buoyed Boo Radleys/Cardigans-ish ebullience. "For Someone" lays shimmery strings under waifish innocence, like a sketch for a becalmed "The Sun Will Come Out Tomorrow" from a 4AD Annie. "All Request Hour" layers lush mellotron cellos and pinging guitar arpeggios before segueing into galloping piano and tambourines and back. "Ordinary Mind" seems to me like half Kelly Hogan, half Ben Folds and a paper-thin sliver of "A Day in the Life", and then "Slug" is a deadpan quasi-period waltz very much in the mode of Hogan's Because It Feel Good, and the violin-fringed "Lucie" even edges toward honky-tonk, weirdly reined back by Paula's totally un-country voice.
I do have a theory about why this album didn't grip me the first time. I don't think it has a center. No two or three of these songs stand out, for me, and none of them prompt me to examine their lyrics, so I get to the end not much changed. It was Scott Miller who pleaded "Don't entertain me twice", and I can't point to anything about this record that does more than entertain me. And yet, I've been entertained a lot more than twice, and don't appear to be losing patience with the sensation. The catch, I think, is that our responses to art always involve layers that are difficult or impossible to coherently explicate. By seeming to merely entertain me, while reminding me of the idea that it should do something more, this album is doing more. In between all the disparate things it reminds me of are holes it might fill in my jigsaw puzzle of how overtly-uplifting pop music works. The flip-side of "all these notes have been played" is that every pop song doesn't have to reinvent music or recapitulate moral philosophy. Some of the songs can just chime, and whir, and trust that if they can make us smile, we'll think of something to be happy about.
Tanya Donelly: beautysleep
I liked very few Throwing Muses songs, and only parts of Belly's first album, Star, but King continues to seem to me like one of the last decade's most underrated rock albums, and "Pretty Deep", my favorite song from Tanya Donelly's solo debut, Lovesongs for Underdogs, came one Mecca Normal thrash's width from being my favorite song of 1997. I thus can't very well pretend to have been anticipating Tanya's second album with the same mixture of seasoned skepticism and inexplicable hope I applied to Ramona Silver or Paula Kelley, but it has been almost five years, and retrospect tends to flatten the past, so I come to this record no longer feeling like I know what I expect it to be. We were a lot younger when Tanya did "Feed the Tree"; by now there's an almost infinite supply of other impulses and alternate aesthetics she could have decided to prefer. This could be her Talk Show, or her Tilt.
Not only is it neither, it's something for which I don't think I have any good existing precedent. It's my belief that The Joshua Tree's claim to immortality is secure after its first three songs, but I actually like most of the rest of it, as well. I will go one step further, with beautysleep, and declare that if and only if I stop this album after track four, it seems to me that it may be one of the most haunting and beautiful records I've heard since Wrecking Ball.
Seventeen years after Tanya and Kristin Hersh became the first Americans signed to 4AD, "Life Is but a Dream" is as succinct a 4AD summary as anybody ever made without Ivo Watts-Russell's personal involvement. A heart-beat pulse provides the rhythm, an owlish keyboard blur and a julienned synth-flute are the only music until Rich Gilbert provides a brief Adrian Belew-ish guitar solo, and Tanya drifts through an allusive preface. Against this introduction, the guitar blasts that open "The Storm" are shocking, and "Look, I can't watch you / Sleep-walking through this", its opening couplet, seems to announce an attempt to disassemble a dream-world from inside. But the song fades back almost immediately to muted organ hum, and Tanya's vocal, parts Sue Tompkins, Sinéad O'Connor, Neil Finn and Sarah McLachlan, keys a wonder-struck reverie in which it dawns on her that end-of-the-night weariness can be triumphant retirement rather than exhausted surrender. "The Night You Saved My Life" begins with Garbage-scale bluster, but quickly reverts to a sparkling "Feed the Tree"-ish calm. "The moon was paper white the night you saved my life", goes one of my favorite ostensibly meaningless lines in recent memory, as she says goodbye to everything she only now realizes he rescued her from. And then the swelling coda fades, the wind rustles a glockenspiel, and suddenly it stops, and the magnificent "Keeping You" begins. A martial drum rattle, quiet guitar and airy keyboard ambience; Tanya's lullaby, finally turning her attention from the terms of her own acceptance to the terms of his; as the second verse starts, a simple bass line that leaves me dumbfounded, settling on a wrong tonic in a way that somehow makes it preferable; and in the choruses, guitars roaring with diffident elegance. Tanya plays her own understated guitar solo, toward the end, and touches a few piano keys to guide the song out. "I'm keeping you", she repeats and promises, completing what might as well be a four-song wedding vow. Lovers have written each other grander odes, but rarely, I think, has anybody come closer to capturing the selflessness you have to achieve in order to allow the ideals of a romance to coalesce into an actual person. These four songs are a rebuttal to everything Justin Currie ever despaired of, to any histrionic delusion that falling in love requires you to stop the world or invert it, to every nominal love song that tries to substitute the thrill of being desired for the serenity of knowing that you've found someone whose most mundane burdens you're entitled to share. Life is a dream we control; the storms can end as soon as want them to; we overrate our instincts and miss the moments in which we are transformed; we will do the rest of this together. There is the outline of a proof, of the deduction for which we seek premises. There is a four-song suite for every two people on the planet.
In a sense, I guess, nothing could be more profoundly appropriate, after that, than a record that simply continues. The first day of the rest of your life is followed by the second. You get married, and then you run errands, and then you go back to work. You might momentarily want the instant when you agree to do the rest of this together to last forever, but if you've made the right promises, doing the rest of it is the best part, even though it's hardly the most dramatic. And so the rest of this album fills some more of the disc. There are eight other songs, some spectral and some blaring. There is nothing in them, for me. "This is not what I should be doing", I think as I try to listen to them. I am a voyeur at the wrong window. Tanya and Dean may have answered some questions I'm still asking, but following them around afterwards looking for clues to how they did what they've already done is just procrastination. So many thousands of CDs, so many thousands of hours making notes about other people's dreams. Tens of thousands of songs, and at least a hundred more every week, and maybe all I'm doing is making it harder to find the four I need.