Dream Sweetly of Kissing
378 · 25 April 02
Tullycraft: Beat Surf Fun
If you need a shield behind which to make art, self-sabotage is one of the best available. Who will have the heart to point out obvious awfulnesses? And if they do, you have only to look back blankly. Well, of course it's bad. Do we sound like we think we're King Crimson?
There is no danger that any reasonable self-aware person will ever say that Beat Surf Fun, the new Tullycraft record, is Great. Greatness can be achieved naively, and it's even possible to fight against it and lose, but you have to concede something. Greatness isn't exactly a contest you have to enter, but exempting yourself from its onus is a simple matter. Step to the side. You are rarely more than one step away from trivial. Take it. Steal your bass lines and hooks from New Order, but play them too slow and out of tune. Keep singing like you're sixteen when you're more than twice that. Refuse drum-machine upgrades. Write songs about other bands too trivial to possibly be Great or Awful, slyly contending that they're Great or Awful. Write songs about your own music like it's somewhere between a lifestyle and an eBay auction nobody will touch. Write songs about your own old songs. Sing like you think in-jokes are a form of assonance. Sing like girls are what you win if you ever complete an unfinishable video game. Play like all your gear was salvaged from an old Partridge Family set. Record like you're late for a candlepin bowling game. Make fun (gently) of anything you don't understand, and try (gently) not to understand anything. Aspire to nothing deeper than cuteness. Be sure to appear on a label whose other bands are named for school supplies or include the word "Summer". Write the title of your album different ways on each edge. Dream of kissing. Dream sweetly of kissing.
Beat Surf Fun, the new Tullycraft record, is Great. We are not supposed to notice. It is glib, coy, dizzy and quick, and I think they figured that would be camouflage enough. No one will ever confuse this with The Joshua Tree or Graceland. But Great stories can be told by simple narrators. There are A Tale of Two Cities and The Unbearable Lightness of Being, but there are also Huckleberry Finn and Catcher in the Rye, and if we don't demand, indignantly, to know how old Samuel Clemens was when he pretended to be thirteen, then maybe we can excuse Sean Tollefson still singing in his boy's voice. This is a record about what it feels like to still be scared and hopeful, the record Donnie Darko might have made if they'd given him the right pills, the record Mathew Fletcher is writing in Heaven. It is heroic in miniature, exquisitely grand in a few plain moments, far too fragile to be precious. Any day now, it knows, I will lose my patience and hate it, and in the meantime it mocks my procrastination. It's smarmy and small-minded and history will forget it.
But I won't. I was hopeful before the first song began, and probably half won-over in the first minute: chiming guitars, fluttering drums and Sean sighing "Well she wakes up every morning to the sound of Sarah Records / On a compilation tape a friend had sent to her from Paris". I have had a weakness for songs about girls listening to music in bed since "Magic Power", I guess, but in "Magic Power" she's climbing into bed at the end of a bad day, and in this one the morning is pastel with potential. The album may be produced like we're supposed to think they don't know that "production" is a thing, but the slap-back echo on the guitar here is inspired, like wings against lenses, and the tiny, scratchy hi-hats and tentatively plucked hook confess that they know of wider worlds. "She said 'I may not beat my sister at this stupid game of Uno, / But at least I know the difference between a Boscoe and a Bruno. / Sick of stickin' round...'", goes a bit in the middle, and "Sick" is shifted across the bar so it sounds like "(sic)", although I admit I don't know whether it's Frank Boscoe or Franklin Bruno he's making fun of, or both. "She said 'Hey, hey, hey, there's just one thing I know, / You'll find more Posies in the used bin than there're people at the show'", and I'm paralyzed by the vision of a world so enchanted that the Posies are the enemy. Even the chorus wriggles away as I try to touch it. I think the proper punctuation, semantically, is "You can keep the punk rock ska rap beats and house; / Fuck me, I'm twee", but sung it's "You can keep the punk rock ska rap beats / And house-fuck me I'm twee", and after a month of idly wondering what house-fucking would entail, I still feel it's probably something you can do without removing (or even endangering) a prized cardigan.
The Posies get off lightly. They suffer a couplet, and they're sufficiently famous to survive it. Poor Orange Cake Mix, though, Jim Rao's gauzy basement-studio project, who haven't taxed anybody's patience for at least four years but still find themselves the subject of a meticulous deconstruction complete with monotonous repetition and an intentionally botched OCM-parody outro. Also in the joke-song vein, at least taken one-by-one, are the bouncy "Christine, ND" (a favorite Tullycraft setting), the neo-beach-movie bop "Wild Bikini", the itchy gallop "Cowgirls on Parade", the martial break-up lament "I Kept the Beach Boys" and the self-explanatory "Radio Theme". But behind the cartoonish organ whirs on "Christine, ND" is a jubilant pop groove, and I think the wobbly solo is a thinly disguised kazoo. "Wild Bikini" reminds me pleasantly of Guadalcanal Diary's "Watusi Rodeo", and the non sequitur "selling secrets" at the end of "She sure looks cute / In her pink swimsuit, / She's breaking hearts and selling secrets tonight" seems perfectly observed and perfectly endearing to me, in the same way that I thought Lauren Ambrose and Seth Green locked in the bathroom nearly salvaged Can't Hardly Wait. The backing-vocal whoops in "Cowgirls on Parade" are laughable, but when everything else cuts out and the ride-cymbal is left nakedly decaying, I again suspect that the seemingly artless production is at least half an affect. The words on "I Kept the Beach Boys" are mixed shyly low, but you can piece together a relationship's plaintive doom if you listen closely. And writing the theme song for your own radio show is only a step above writing the rules for who's allowed in your clubhouse, but if we suppose that some twenty-three-year-old would be playing Tullycraft songs if Sean didn't, then it's hard to see why he shouldn't.
But intertwined with these sillier songs are a few grander ones, and album grace is not calculated by averaging. Every component of "Glitter & Twang" is assiduously simplistic, but to me their syzygy is positively hypnotic, and as much of an answer to "Magic Power" as "Twee". The partridge-in-a-pear-tree countdown is goofy in the high numbers, but plaintive by the time it gets to two and one. I'm pretty sure "DIY Queen" is about somebody specific, but the references elude me, and I find my theories oscillating crazily between Courtney Love and Geri Halliwell, either of whom the song could profoundly humanize. And drum-machine rot or not, this is one of my favorite percussion performances since Plumtree. "Knockout" and "Who Needs That" are both covers, the former bashed out with abandon and the latter hissing like acid runoff, but "Sent to the Moon" is about as close to the perfect gadget-pop song as mortals come, implacably ticking drums and twittery keyboard noises. "Point the way to the sky; / You prayed that emo would die". And though I still like shouting, too, for 4:15 it seems like a reasonable counter-argument: why strain so much, so intent on catharsis, when so many true moments are so much quieter and more easily replicated? If I am this pleased with what people are capable of after a record of scene put-downs and second-run juvenilia, then aren't the boys who make such a big deal of sweating while they play vastly overcompensating for their own frailty? Does Ian MacKaye really have no stories about cute girls in bathing suits or how Shudder to Think spent a whole month in Europe too scared and cheap to eat anything but Big Macs and Powerbars? Huck is Great, of course, because his journey carries him into the world; Holden is an icon and a cultural martyr. But imagine if Huck had taken his raft trip long after slavery, and Holden had gotten into Brown and done a joint major in social anthropology and musical acoustics. Take these people, as most of us are taken without our knowledge or consent, from their drama of circumstance, and leave them to find better-hidden meanings. Would they? Will we? We should be proud to make small, sweeping records like this, and unashamed to tell stories nobody can entirely follow, without heroes or monsters. We should not be afraid to dream of the things we expect, else how will we be ready as one after another they come true?
The Lucksmiths: Where Were We?
And if I'm tempted to wish Beat Surf Fun had been done differently, a little more breathy than precisely boyish, perhaps, or less frightened to admit to melancholy, then I'm talked out of it by the Lucksmiths' small, quiet collection of stray singles and compilation tracks, Where Were We?, not because this is the record I would have asked for and it's awful, but because this is the record I would have asked for and now I have one. Whatever I could want Tullycraft to be, instead, somebody already is, so why shouldn't Tullycraft stay themselves?
I've heard about half of these songs before, but scattered in ones and two across various releases they never seemed very memorable to me. Collected this way, though, they seem to underscore and support each other for me, as if all the singles lacked was critical mass. These are such small songs, maybe, nearsighted and so easily lost. They band together for warmth, and call to each other to navigate.
The Lucksmiths' answer to "Twee", I think, is "The Cassingle Revival", taking the Sarah-Records mix-tape one step further into an imaginary universe in which official releases are just as humble. A keyboard whistles, acoustic guitars rustle, brushed drums patter. "Myopic Friends" is faster, but sketchier, like the Housemartins channeling the Proclaimers. "A Downside to the Upstairs" settles into a Simon and Garfunkel hush, even the bass line assuming a mid-Sixties bubbliness. Tali's singing voice falls between Paul's and Art's, but Pam Berry's delicate harmony is about the right distance past Art's falsetto for the combination to work out, especially when they sing about seasons and weather. "Can't Believe My Eyes" leans towards lilt, and in other hands I can imagine it becoming anything from a Jonathan Richman stomp to Murmur-era REM.
The tracks are organized by origin, and maybe even in chronological order, so it's a stretch to ascribe any importance to the running order, but it turns out that knowing that doesn't keep me from perceiving a flow and structure. "Can't Believe My Eyes" feels like a quarter-stop, to me, and another section begins with the springy, cycling, wistful "I Prefer the Twentieth Century". A fibrous kick-snare groove adds hi-hats on the downbeats, as if somebody just read a Mix article about Motown, but the folky guitars and drony keyboards refuse to participate in any kind of aggrandizement. Isn't complaining about the century, so soon, an entry in the same catalog of maudlin woes as Morrissey fantasizing about bus-crashes? "T-Shirt Weather" is the Lucksmiths' version of a party anthem, and listening to them ease through it on borrowed instruments that could just as well be the surfaces of laundromat appliances, a part of me is trying to imagine what it would sound like rearranged for Britney or the Spice Girls. I'm not sure about the lyrics, but musically, it's ready, and for a moment I'm blissfully adrift in what the chart-pop world could be if there were only enough Lucksmiths to be Eloi to the hordes of Morlock Max Martins. "A town without a football team", Tali says pityingly in "Tmrw vs Y'day", and in a supposedly-great country full of towns without soccer teams, it's easy to see how nearly anybody can find a way to feel sorry for nearly anybody else.
I can't decide whether I think this version of "Southernmost" is the end of that section or the beginning of the next one, but clearly by the angular chord-leaps and organ bleats of "Even Stevens" (which ought to have been called "Seven Years of Scrabble", but then they'd have to worry about trademarks) we're into something else. The demo of "The Great Dividing Range" is too slow and lost in too large a space, I think, and "Friendless Summer" tries to force a few too many multi-line rhymes. A bass groan on "Goodness Gracious" doesn't seem to know its place, but the arching melody pulls the song along like it's dangling from talons.
And although "Welcome Home" opens with some throwaway mock-jazz chords, and twitters on about the weather and superficial nostalgia without ever mustering much more gravitas, the little backing-vocal echoes of "Welcome home" are just sincere enough for the contrast to feel a little touching. And the squashed vocal processing on "Mars" is a self-unimportantly low-fi touch I normally think of the Lucksmiths as knowing better than, but the music underneath is the set's strangest, laced with plinky banjos and odd humming noises ("Tibetan singing bowl", the credits claim, but maybe that's just an overly literal translation of the Tibetan term for "cello"). Drums arrive just in time to go away again, and as my changer clicks I realize that in a way the whole album has arrived just in time to go away again. I don't know what these songs have accomplished, and I doubt I could isolate any tangible way they've improved me, yet I persist in believing it's happened. Tullycraft are defiant, and the Lucksmiths are demure, but these are tactical deployments of the same fundamental defense mechanism. Music like this stipulates an upper bound on its own power, and maybe it doesn't do it intentionally or exclusively to preempt criticism, but I have a hard time believing these people aren't aware of the effect, and if so, it's their decision to let it obtain. This isn't even an album, it's just a kindness for fans with sprained completeness flexors. But maybe this music knows that. Left to their own devices, these songs have catalogued and sequenced themselves. Not only do we not always know what we've achieved, we don't even always know what we're doing. We write songs and take steps, because songs and steps are within our ken. Maybe they will not combine. Maybe the only way to make steps into a journey is to know, all along, where you're going. But I doubt that. We so seldom know where we're going, yet we so often find ourselves somewhere new. We fall, again and again, into traps, and escape so reliably that we'd never believe our own lives as movies. They are at once too big and too small. They lack grandeur, and sometimes badly, but grandeurs are our wishful shortcuts, and we know better. We build houses were we dream of towers, and walk paths over which we dream of soaring wings. We dream of kissing. We are content, both in dreams and awake, with such tiny fractions of what is possible. But we are right. Houses are right, paths are right. When we kiss, we are people. This is our gift, I'm suggesting, not our curse. These songs are so simple, we could fill the oceans with them. There are enough perfect instants to drown us; but enough too, if we hold still and let them, to bear us up.