Football Is Going Home
387 · 27 June 02
The Siddeleys: Slum Clearance
Sixty-two matches down, two to go, and although the last two are momentous and could well be memorable, I'm already disengaging emotionally and starting to sort through the detritus of a month spent watching television in the middle of the night. I'll still be cheering loudly for the Koreans in what ought to be the third-place cast-party for their half of a well-staged drama, and I'll still be rooting for flighty Brazil against the dour Germans, if for no other reason than that I remember the look in Ronaldo's eyes four years ago, suffering what basically amounted to a walking nervous collapse in the middle of the final against France. I hope the final doesn't go to penalty kicks, and I hope the Turks don't discourteously mistake the Korean celebration for a soccer game they're supposed to try to win. There might be great stories in these last two games, even ones with resonances far beyond sport, but I'm just expecting soccer. I've had my moments already: McBride's header against Portugal, Conceicao's shot off the post against Korea, Landon's cool finish sinking Mexico, Ahn's rapture, Joaquin's horror. Senegal is home by now, Landon's already played in a Quakes game, Turkey is packed, the Koreans are starting to contemplate the task of converting this experience into something durable. Except for the relatively minor issue of crowning a world champion, the Cup is over. Regular life can begin again.
And new beginnings are a gift, so what will you do with yours? I've got lists. I'm going to start sleeping again, at least (and at most) once a day. My next Japanese session starts tomorrow, and I've semi-passively allowed myself to conclude that the only viable class time was the one on the same night as one of my two Scrabble clubs, enforcing a little priority reordering. Isolated physical therapy on my knee hasn't been accomplishing all it's supposed to, so I've actually adopted an aerobic exercise regimen for more or less the first time in my post-gym-class life. I've got some house tasks lined up. It's time to renew my passport. I'm going to try dating again.
And I've got these piles of wonderful music, and suddenly hours again in which to listen. Some of these things have been waiting patiently since long before the Cup, for that matter, and although Slum Clearance is a recent release, the music on it has been waiting since it originally appeared on a tragically meager pile of singles, compilation tracks and radio sessions in the late Eighties. Timing, I assume, was the Siddeleys' undoing: a market for bands pleasantly reminiscent of Heavenly couldn't develop properly until Heavenly themselves came along a couple years later. In theory, of course, the Siddeleys could have been the band Heavenly would get compared to, instead of the other way around, but Heavenly had Talulah Gosh to build on, and the Siddeleys weren't on Sarah, and new movements almost always leave somebody deserving behind.
But with a decade of perspective, and these sixteen songs finally assembled in one place, it's easier to imagine that the two bands could have had more similar potential. Johnny Johnson (female; connection to the Waterboys' "A Girl Called Johnny" unclear) sings with much the same artlessly articulate clarity as Amelia Fletcher, and her and Allan Kingdom's guitars chirp and chime in ways similarly evocative of a spun-down version of the manic twittering the Wedding Present were concurrently developing. The rhythms are crisp, the bass line jaunty, the lyrics endearingly gloomy. "My Favorite Wet Wednesday Afternoon" is approximately what you get if you translate "Walking on Sunshine" halfway to the Clientele. "You Get What You Deserve" is dizzily bright and bouncy, despite obstinately grim refrains ("Someone put a rope around my neck on the day I was born", "There's a little red scar upon my wrist to remind me of the joy that could exist if I wasn't built of modern grime and sorrow"). "When I Grow Up I'll Be a God" soars on booming drums and pulsing bass, with Johnny's double-tracked harmonies sighing "I'm not wanton but I'm willing". "Theft" is jagged and insistent, its guitars denser and darker. "Sunshine Thuggery" flirts with jittery disco, but retreats behind burbling horns. The anxious "Are You STILL Evil When You're Sleeping" (which is not, oddly, how the emphasis is sung) has an early-Housemartins-ish urgency and a pair of blaring and bizarrely out-of-place guitar solos. "Love With Blood" is measured and tragic, the horns nearly funereal this time, but the band's punk roots show through in the dry, rattly rendition of "What Went Wrong THIS Time?", which is also graced with an unmistakably Heavenly-esque "bah bah bada" fadeout. "No Names..." is a wistful waltz, but "Bedlam on the Mezzanine" leans toward X-Ray Spex and Penetration. The echoey "Bribes and Bruises" feels like a b-side (specifically, Big Country's "All Fall Together"), and "Falling Off of My Feet Again..." seems to me to be grinding along at two-thirds speed, but on "Wherever You Go" the band abruptly and refreshingly sound like kids again. "Something Almost Brilliant Happened Last Night" may be the most accomplished song here, with elegant backing vocals and a confident, spectrum-filling arrangement, but I prefer the twitchy, crashing, Smiths-like "Every Day of Every Week", its "I want instant everything please!" mantra sung in what I have a hard time believing isn't a conscious Morrissey impersonation. "I Wish I Was Good" is back to sounding like Heavenly. Why, you might ask, given that all the Heavenly records are still or again in print, was it necessary or valuable to revive a long-dead band who kind of sound like them? But why, you might as well ask, revive anything? Matt and Clare said pop should be evanescent, after all, and this is very much the pop they meant. I believe they're profoundly wrong, but in a way this album is one of the better arguments on their side. I'd never heard of the Siddeleys, and I've still really only got the liner notes' word for it that they existed. I was doing fine without them, and I'm sure there are a dozen equally deserving and more thoroughly forgotten bands I'm still doing fine without. I like these songs, and you might like them too, but will they be important to either of us? Perhaps not. But you can't live in highlights. I don't mean that you don't have the right, I mean the highlights aren't highlights without context. I play this record like I watched Belgium play Tunisia: because if you knew ahead of time which parts of the story were going to turn out to matter, you'd never learn anything.
Would-Be-Goods: Brief Lives
One of the things you won't learn, if you don't have the patience for records you can't necessarily justify individually, is what stories they make in combination. You'd miss, for example, some key chapters in Matinée Recordings' stubborn odyssey of anachronism. Sarah and Harriet are long gone, and none of their heirs are literal polemicists like Matt and Clare were, but as record labels with coherent musical agendas, arguably Matinée, Shelflife and Library are even more focused than Sarah was. Matinée's catalog splits time between the archives and the present, but with a sure enough sense of purpose that missing decades hardly register. Slum Clearance was old songs and Brief Lives is new ones, but the Would-Be-Goods are an old band, and this third album, arriving a decade after their second, continues more or less the same style-derivation from Heavenly that the Siddeleys began. The Would-Be-Goods have the advantage of personnel overlap, having recruited Heavenly guitarist Peter Momtchiloff, but to me they stretch the form further than the Siddeleys, despite the connection. Singer Jessica Griffin enunciates like Amelia and Johnny, but her voice has a sultry whoosh to it that the other two lack, edging towards Dominique Durand of Ivy or Sarah Nixey of Black Box Recorder. The Would-Be-Goods' songs are more restrained than the Siddeleys' or Heavenly's, a little more pastel than sparkly, more simmery than bubbly. At least half these songs seem to have been yanked, blinking, out of the Sixties, uneasy hybrids of folk-song and chanson for whose limited appeal Donovan's not-so-enduring greatness is testament. Frenchness is not generally a positive pop trait in my taxonomies, but for me these songs walk the border between cloying and intriguing, and somehow this makes the ones that stray onto my side seem all the more alluring. The galloping "Mystery Jones" could belong to the same archetype chronicle as the Psychedelic Furs' "Mr. Jones". The winking, breathy "Vivre sa vie" sprouts ragged guitars in the choruses. "Flashman" ticks and flutters, but does eventually settle into a groove. The cycling guitar and pinging vibes on "Fancy Man" are spare and sad. "Dilettante" is cheerfully uncluttered guitar pop, complete with twangy quasi-solos. "Rich and Strange" is both, the arrangement layered with strings, keyboards and a particularly inspired harpsichord twinkling atop them. A talking-blues digression, "Elegant Rascal", doesn't strike me as a good decision, but it's brief, and gives way to the elegant finale, "1999", Griffin's melody lilting over murmuring strings, a baroquely picked acoustic guitar and a few tiny flourishes of some faked wind instrument. One of the reasons Heavenly can't tell the whole story they began is that Marine Research represents only one of the paths Heavenly could have taken. Matinée collect others, and I'm happy to join them. Brief Lives is a glimpse into an alternate future Heavenly, mellowed and Euro-ized, old enough to realize that anything you're still rebelling against after a decade or two, you're probably rebelling against wrong.
Aberdeen: Homesick and Happy to Be Here
Aberdeen actually were on Sarah Records, but only barely. Not only were their two singles catalog numbers 93 and 97 out of 99, well into the period the purists were already starting to gripe about, but they were also one of the label's very few American bands, although possibly somebody cynically assumed that Scott Miller was the only American who knew the name of anything north of Glasgow other than Loch Ness, so they must be secretly British. (This case was later bolstered by singer Beth Arzy turning up in London as the replacement for Annemari Davies in Trembling Blue Stars.) Whatever their effective nationality, though, they put out one post-Sarah single on Sunday and then broke up.
And seven years later, after being broken up apparently lost its charm, here is their first album. None of the songs are literally reprised from the old singles, but the mood is certainly familiar. Beth's voice is airy and clear, John Girgus' graceful harmonies follow a familiar blueprint, and the bulk of the arrangements hover between guarded and sprightly. Aberdeen circa the last days of Sarah Records was a bedroom-pop duo, though, and for this record Beth and John have recruited a couple members of Fonda, and ex-Mighty Lemon Drops guitarist David Newton to record and produce, and the resulting new songs have an obvious California openness where the old ones tried a little harder to curl vicariously in Bristol melancholy. Of the ones that might pass for the old days, "Clouds Like These" percolates on a tinny Field-Mice-ish drum-machine rustle, "Thousand Steps" dissolves into guitar shimmer and trumpet hum, "Homesick" twirls mournfully in place, and "That Cave...That Moon" is thoroughly becalmed. Guitarist Johnny Joyner's "Cities & Buses", the one song here Beth and John didn't write, is an odd side-trip into a kind of mostly-acoustic cross between Polara and Live, "Drive" builds into a sort of Sundays-ish springiness, and "In My Sleep" toys with a little Portishead reticence. But "Sunny in California" borrows a New Order riff that you'd think had passed into the public domain by now, and weaves it into an unhurried acoustic pop song in what's left of a much-handed-down style that the Mamas and the Papas probably didn't invent, either. Of my two personal favorites, "Handsome Drink" bounces like an early Blake Babies song spiked with occasional shards of perky harmony Juliana would have picked out with tweezers, and the verses of "Sink or Float" sound even more like Juliana on one of her early solo albums, except that the choruses turn a little too unselfconsciously heroic. This, then, is yet another Sarah extrapolation, and one that hints at ways to bridge all sorts of interesting gaps. If we can get from Heavenly to the Blake Babies, after all, then we can get from Boyracer to the Lemonheads, and from the Wedding Present to Weezer, and after a month of heartwarming globalism, my mind finally starts turning from bridges to walls.
Boyracer: To Get a Better Hold You've Got to Loosen Yr Grip
Any attempt to get from Boyracer to anything else, however, will have to be essayed with Boyracer themselves, stubbornly still extant, plunging their collective tongue into your ear up to the stirrup and then suffering a simultaneous sneezing fit, epileptic seizure and throat-singing rehearsal. Last year's retrospective, Boyfuckingracer, is a masterful summary of a band that made so little sense it can't possibly be sane to try to summarize them. Buoyed by this surreal gesture, apparently, Stewart Anderson has put his side project Steward on hold and reconstituted Boyracer as a revolving cast centered around him and bassist/vocalist Jen Turrell. Since my impression from seeing Stewart in person was that years of volume abuse had stripped him of the ability to distinguish noises from each other, and Boyracer's songs tended to be splattered wrecks even back when he could, a new Boyracer record seemed like a fairly appalling prospect to me. But I don't mind being appalled occasionally, and then again I might be wrong.
I was wrong. Stewart may be hopeless in concert (and I've only seen him once, so even that might be an anomaly), but under laboratory conditions he retains just enough of his faculties to put together recorded songs with sporadically discernible structure. In fact, as long as it doesn't trouble you unduly that parts of many of these songs seem to have been recorded inside a running vacuum cleaner, and not infrequently by cartoon voles, you might agree with me that quite a few of them are in essence surprisingly cute. "Sarah and Sarah" doesn't seem to have anything obvious to do with the label, sadly, but it's a giddy thrash revolving around the plangent romantic insistence "You deserve much better than he is capable of". "They're Making Money Off You" has an enormous descending bass hook, maniacally clattering drums and a blur of everything else. Jen sings a spirited cover of the Primitives' "Nothing Left" that blasts off most of the original's production sugarcoating but still ends up tasting fine. The convulsive "Tell Me Where My Hands Should Go" has a glockenspiel part the Union of Glockenspiel Repairmen will probably sue to have removed, but the lyrics are about romantic confusion and so in its own way is the music. A Stewart solo-recording called "Glitter" actually leaves some space in the arrangement, letting a gangly drum shuffle and a couple wiry guitar lines play out a song idea mostly without the usual intruding squall. Tracey Thorn's "In Love" gets rudely transmogrified into hoarse garage rock, but holds up well enough that now I'm thinking this, and not drum & bass, may have been the direction EbtG should have spun off into. "Yr Arrogance Is Not Lost" is fairly whiny, even by Boyracer standards, but "Razor" is demented to an end, romantic obsession channeled into both a halting acoustic guitar and the usual searing buzz, while Stewart, I think, pleads with the girl not to let her new boyfriend convince her that he (Stewart, not the boyfriend) is suicidal. I suspect that this character and Elizabeth Elmore's in the Reputation's "She Turned Your Head..." could make an impressive amount of trouble for each other. A bleary cover of Kenickie's "Come Out 2Nite" is no substitute for the original, but I'm glad to hear I'm not the only person who remembers it. "Heaven Is Not Broken" sounds like it might have been a Jam song before it got left in somebody's pocket and accidentally laundered. The stomping "Kachina Doll" doesn't quite conceal some delicate backing vocals from Jen. "Priorities" sounds like a New Order song performed by wounded terriers. The ballad attempt "Everyday Is Christmas With You" wisely thinks the better of acoustic intimacy halfway through and lays in distorted marching-band drums. And the thing ends, after twenty-two tracks in thirty-six minutes, with a startlingly well-cleaned-up redo of "Temper" and an unexpectedly plausible solo-acoustic version of "Sarah and Sarah". I'm pretty confident that the current market for bands that sound like Alec Empire without the robots is small, but punk is pretty much always due for a comeback, and Boyracer are certainly ready to lead something somewhere. This, too, is part of Sarah's legacy, the gloriously destructive part I usually forget about. If we can get from Heavenly to Boyracer, then we can get from Everything but the Girl to Ministry, and from Judy Henske to Lolita Storm. But this is romantic nihilism, where the Sex Pistols' and the Stooges' and ATR's nihilisms were all essentially reactive. This is riot music for kids smart enough to do real damage, but probably too preoccupied to bother. Soccer, for all its allegorical grandeur, operates within very specific emotional constraints. A soccer game can express triumph and defeat and quixotic futility and courage and cowardice, but a team sport is no good at loneliness, and a competition can usually only show love and hate in opposition, and neither the striker nor the goalie can change the terms by which we interpret the goal. Soccer is a test, and a celebration, but soccer games are so much shorter than years, and stadiums so much smaller than countries. Probably the last thing we needed, during a World Cup, was riot music, but the Cup is almost over now, and it's four years until the next one (or about fifteen months until the 2003 Women's World Cup in China), and there are a lot of things that need to be pounded to shards and rebuilt from scratch before we'll earn the right to play at world unity again. And yes, none of these little songs, soothing or seething, are going to change the courses of history themselves. I buy these not-quite-world-class records, like I watch Kansas City play Colorado, because the effort is noble, and botching little things is how we learn to get big ones right. Songs change nothing, but your music changes you, and you might change the world, and so any song might matter.