Late Summer Grace
395 · 22 August 02
Stretch Princess: Fun With Humans
On the whole, so far, I've enjoyed growing older. The more I learn, the more intolerable not having known becomes. Even in the safety of a thought experiment, I do not wish to go back and do any aspect of my youth again, especially not the parts for which I think I'd now have better approaches. If I knew, then, what I'd be interested in now, I could have started earlier, but I'm not at all convinced that would have been an improvement. Timelines are far easier to wreck than to improve. My childhood was adequately executed; better to move on.
The only thing I really despise about adulthood, or what passes for it, is that summer never comes. Oh, the weather cycles, but I'm not enough of an outdoors person for that to factor significantly into my mood. What I miss, desperately, is the way the sensation of completion segues into the feeling of freedom. I miss the paper-strewn hallways on the last day of school, and the ecstatic vertigo of walking out the doors knowing there were no more tests or papers or homework or anything. Summers were longer, in the old days. Fall was too far away to even ponder.
I know what my best summer was, it's no contest. It floats, out of context, in my memory of my life. My father says it was 1982, which means I was fifteen, but I could have just as easily been ten. And in my memories it's the whole summer, but in actuality I mean three weeks in the middle. My parents went to England for their legendary one real vacation, dropping my sister off with distant relatives, and I was left to myself. True, I was spending the nights at my grandmother's down the street, but during the day I had our house to myself. If my recollections are to be trusted, my daily schedule went approximately like this: 9am, arrive, feed and amuse dog briefly, retire to parents' waterbed for nap. 11am, arise. 11-6, read books. 6pm, feed and amuse dog briefly, decide not to mow lawn, walk back to grandmother's for dinner. 7pm-12pm, read. I'm sure other activities and creatures intruded into this reverie sporadically, but from twenty years' distance they are lost in the haze. In the version of that summer I now cherish, I read books for three solid weeks, and then mowed the lawn once, the day before my parents returned, leaving a huge smiley face of uncut grass to welcome them back.
That's twelve hours of reading a day, at a time when the books I was reading took me an average of three or four hours each to complete. We were supposed to keep a reading list, that summer, and I don't know what happened to mine, but I remember that in those three weeks I read sixty-nine books, and my total for the summer was somewhere past a hundred. (On the first day of English class, the next fall, the teacher had everybody who read at least one book over the summer raise their hand, and then started counting up, with hands falling as she went. Everybody else was eliminated by twelve.) My genre preferences at the time were perfectly conducive, consisting mostly of sprawling multi-book fantasy and science-fiction sagas. Robert Heinlein, Larry Niven, Fritz Lieber, Michael Moorcock, Robert Silverberg, Anne McCaffrey, Douglas Adams, Keith Laumer, Isaac Asimov, Stephen R. Donaldson, Frank Herbert, John Varley, Roger Zelazny: books meant to be devoured, not scrutinized. My parents had left me some bookstore money, and my adult-section privileges at the Highland Park library were well-established. So for three weeks, with no other demands on my attention beyond the most basic and well-assisted self-preservation, I read books.
I need that. For optimum emotional well-being, I think I need one uninterrupted month of nothing but reading every year. In fact, I don't get it. Since that idyll, I never again have. Once college came I had jobs every summer (not taxing ones, mostly, but time-consuming), and I have been continuously employed since the week after my final class. At my current job we get an American-standard three weeks of vacation a year, plus some miscellaneous personal days, which translates into one or two trips and a subsistence supply of long weekends. My reading backlog grows. The maddening sense that I am just holding on until something hovers, and the something never happens. The closest I've come to that feeling of last-day freedom since high school was the day I resigned from my second job. That was a Tuesday. On Wednesday I started the third. I don't know how people live like this. I live like this, and I still don't know how it's done. Weekends are nowhere near enough. Even an extra month wouldn't be enough, because I'd be counting the days. A month, but only a month, might well push me closer to overload and panic, not pull me back.
And so I limp through these summers, wishing they didn't feel exactly like all the other seasons. Without a summer vacation from my job as an excuse, I don't bother taking vacations from anything else in my life, either. The books I'm reading now, I bought two springs ago, or was it three? Summer exists, in my environment, mainly as a marketing campaign for dumb art disguised as "fun". I probably hate "summer" movies as much as I hate "Christmas" movies. And music, for me, is not seasonal at all, so there are no such things as summer songs.
Or maybe there would be summer songs, if I were only willing. Not last week's bombastic metal, though, and not all this Japanese techno-pop I listen to half as verb-form tutorials, and not Propaganda b-sides, or Mary Timony, or Laurie Sargent singing with what's left of Morphine. The A*Teens are closer, but I don't think proper summer music can really be Swedish. It has to be glorious, and sparkly, and just barely tinged with melancholy. In the myth of summer songs, melodies are love spells, soundtracks for swooning gently under shade trees. Longer days for shorter pop songs, until they go by so fast that time seems frozen.
And although we've missed the longest day of the year by a couple months, I am now convinced that I have here in my hands this summer's most perfect pop record. It is called Fun With Humans, and it is the second album by a transplanted British trio called Stretch Princess from whom I'd long ago stopped expecting a follow-up to a glittery 1998 debut that felt an awful lot like a one-off to begin with. But here it is. I am dumbfounded and spellbound. This is the ebullient masterpiece Sleeper never made, the pop record Shireen Liane might have wished for, Juliana Hatfield crossed with the Corrs, K's Choice crossed with Everclear, a 'til tuesday remake with Nina Gordon as Aimee. This band could be the next Roxette, which might not mean much to you but is my way of saying that they could become the standard by which I judge other people's attempt to write perfect pop songs. Maybe it seems like I want too much, asking you to believe, so many weeks, that I've yet again found something almost excruciatingly precious, but the amount of greatness in the world is not mine to constrain. So as much as I want to tell you that only ten of these eleven songs are great, or only seven or eight are beyond improving, I have to admit that I wouldn't change anything. There are other ways albums could be, but I can't see any argument for preferring any of them to this. "Freakshow", the opener, has chirpy guitars, whirring Brion-esque keyboards, simmering strings, chattering drum loops and cracking real drums, stops and starts, hooks and slides. After years in Brooklyn there's still enough England in Jo Lloyd's voice to make "radio" come out "reh-d'jo", which for me is enough to start a new crush even before I realize that that chorus line really is "wishing on the deathstars in the night sky", or get to the inspired singular in "I just want a boyfriend with a brain cell". "You Should've Come" opens with as smoothly blistering a guitar hook as anything since School of Fish, Jo sings "I jumped out of an aeroplane, / I made love to an angel on the way, / I got caught in a wire", and I am lost in waves of sighing "Yesterday"s. "I flew into the sun today, / I saw god on a bike going the other way", she breathes, and Julie Chadwick should at least be glad he's taking care of the thing. The softly incandescent "Angels" slows down and proves that there was no reason in the world for the Spice Girls' music to have been so awful.
Some fast songs, then a slow one. Nobody ever said making pop records was particularly complicated. "Breakfast for Champions" accelerates again gradually. Strings swell up in the middle, and at the end Jo sings "Here I go again", making the end a beginning, and reminds me that pop songs can be so short because life is so much longer. Guitar stabs bounce playfully from side to side as an Alanis-ish drum groove introduces "All I Want", which could be the theme song from a merger of Josie and the Pussycats and the German Bandits. The soaring "Happy Now?" is the closest thing here to a K's Choice song, but Jo sings like the worst possible response is "mostly". "Time and Time Again" starts out like their Sarah McLachlan lullaby, but Tracy Bonham drops by to add some sweeping strings, and the song ends up more like the sentimental ballads Colleen Fitzpatrick must have been dreaming of. And I hope Tracy stuck around to listen, because "Favourite Lunatic", with only a little bit more guitar noise, seems to me to pretty much obviate her catalog since "The One", along with anything from Garbage's that Curve didn't already deal with. The album stomps into the final triptych with the twangy, Slingbacks-ish strut of "Dying to Begin", and finishes up with open-hearted pleas spiraling unhurriedly out of the atmospheric "Over and Over", but the moment of perfect sadness, to complete the case for hope, is hidden in between. James and Dave step back, Jo sits down at the piano. Emm's covers and Marry Me Jane's heartbreaks ghost their benedictions. The first verse seems misplaced in its peevishness, complaining about a best friend's new boyfriend, but this turns out to be a poignant stalling maneuver to put off admitting, in the second verse, that what she's really upset about is her father's new relationship. "It's just like me to be struck by lightning", she complains, seemingly oblivious to the absurdity of this as a synthesis. But then, as the last line dies away, her composure fails for just a second. The last grandly tragic chord is poised to fall, but she giggles delightedly at the prospect, and then can't bear to actually play it. And if there's anybody still contending that pop won't last, or shouldn't, then Jo's laugh is the latest addition to my standing counter-argument. There are two poles (at least) from which art may approach truth, and Bach's variations, Mondrian's lines, Kundera's omniscience and Fermat's lost proof come from one, revealing the origins of beauty in molecular structure and necessity, but some of the best art comes from the other, from the unsupportable proposition that we are most human in whatever we least understand. Jo's laugh in this song is the Mona Lisa's grin, Franny locked in a bathroom, Harold playing the banjo after Maude dies, Brian's oblique definition of irony. The schism between "serious" art and "popular" art is pathetically mischaracterized. There is good work and crap, of course, but on both sides. The real difference is not qualitative but methodological. What we usually call "serious" art is the art of abstraction, of extracting the universal from the specific and mounting it in isolation. Pop is the art of discovering the glimmers of the universal where they are, embedded in whatever mundane fixative. Abstraction demands clarity, and arguably is best appreciated after the artist has been safely relegated to abstraction themselves. Pop is best while it's still alive, and beset with complications. The songs you forget in the fall were a waste of time in the summer, too. The good ones will defy your attempts, however motivated, to manipulate your own equanimity. They will be saddest on cloudless days, and most transcendent in the middle of the night.
Emm Gryner: Asianblue
Emm Gryner is going to make a perfect pop album one day, too. I am as sure of this as I am of anything I've felt like predicting. By now, four years after I first heard "Summerlong", I may have seen Emm play more often than any other single performer. I have heard her sing in living rooms, watched her kick out the tap-tempo on her bass pedal, worried about her shoes, complained repeatedly about her refusal to play her "Freewill" cover. She is a flawless pop vocalist, her impish voice uncluttered by apparent technique. She is an excellent pianist, not on Tori's level but probably more technically skilled than Kate Bush, which is plenty. She writes melodies as well as anybody. She is apparently willing to tour incessantly. She is willing to put out her records on her own label rather than subject herself to major label ugliness again without proper safeguards.
Asianblue isn't the perfect pop album she's eventually going to make, but it's very, very, very good, and demonstrates several of her uncanny skills. Most obviously, every song here has at least one shiny pop hook, if not three or four. A clinky electric piano paces behind the arching choruses of "Symphonic". The mock-country clomp of "Northern Holiday" doesn't keep its chorus from dizzily flipping registers. "Free" is set up like a Garbage song, but the choruses turn prettier, not more aggressive. "Young Rebel" could have been Portishead frozen, but Emm sings it back to a glow. "Siamese Star" could have come from any year I've been alive, including several during which Emm wasn't. "Lonestar" is as gorgeous as anything on Nina Gordon's Tonight and the Rest of My Life. The pinging piano of "Christopher" invokes Kate Bush's "In Search of Peter Pan" (and relevantly, at that). "East Coast Angel" is as sweet a lost-love song as "Missing You", and tosses in a mischievous parting barb Jane Siberry's "The Taxi Ride" wouldn't stoop to ("Maybe you'll miss me when you hear me on the radio..."). And "Green Goodnight", like a second thought, plays the sad farewell again without it.
Lyrically, Emm is a master of evocative first lines with exact meanings held just out of reach. I think "Dust from a dim southern star", from the Science Fair opener "Serenade", remains my favorite, but Asianblue adds "You're running through the underground, / Hiding your real first name" ("Symphonic"), "Drive to the kicked-in radio" ("Northern Lullaby") and "Tryin' to shake my indigo in June, / I'm off to some kind of start" ("Green Goodnight"), plus the less evasive "These are the times / You hold the deed to my insides" ("Free"). Most of these songs are rueful relationship post-mortems of one sort or another, half journal half letter, but the one with an identified external subject, "Christopher", could easily be the best ever pop tribute to a veteran astronaut (and certainly the best to a Canadian one). The bass-and-echo-box concert version of "Disco Lights" has long demonstrated her willingness to experiment with arrangements, and here she tries Alanis-like loops ("Symphonic" and "East Coast Angel"), chill-out twitter on the order of Mandalay ("Free" and "Young Rebel"), a sort of robot country-western ("Northern Lullaby") and several midpoints between solo piano and rock band. The only major thing missing, it seems to me, is her knack for disarming covers, given an earned rest after supporting an album and a couple years of touring.
Emm has been playing some of these songs on those tours, of course, but the one around which my trepidation and anticipation have hung, for months, I've never heard her attempt with just a piano. On one of her trips to Boston, though, she held a demo-listening party, and played us two songs she'd recorded with Boston producer Wally Gagel. The first one was called "Beautiful Things", and I've been waiting in agony since then to find out if she'd include it in that same dancey, synth-pop form, or decide to reconstruct it somehow. It is Asianblue's second track. I only heard it that once, so I can't be sure this is exactly the same form, but it's close enough. Anybody wishing to dismiss my claim that Emm will one day make a perfect pop album will have to find a way to say that she will never come even an inch closer than this, and even then I'm not sure the case is solid. The drums chatter, the keyboards slither and pluck, the bass surges, an acoustic guitar chimes, and a choir of Emms spins through an anthem of defiant wonder. "You say times, they've changed, / I said 'Yes, I know, but some beautiful things remain'". If Emm's tiny, earnest promotional effort has any effect at all (not that it's likely to), "Beautiful Things" should be at least as big a hit as Vanessa Carlton's "A Thousand Miles", with the enormous added benefit that Emm actually has a whole non-fucked album in store for the listeners so enticed, and a back catalog for good measure.
But "Beautiful Things", I've realized after much happy scrutiny, isn't quite my idea of pop perfection, nor yet is this whole album. Emm herself sings magnificently, plays piano elegantly, plays bass adeptly and plays guitar adequately, but so far she doesn't drum, and to me these songs are let down, almost methodically, by the exact balance between mediocrity and invention in their hired drum programming. Alanis got away with banal loops by letting their banality function as background, and it is certainly possible to base transformative pop on extremely simple rhythms. Too much of the programming on Asianblue, though, it seems to me, is just fractionally too obtrusive to ignore, without being interesting enough to reward the implicitly invited scrutiny, a lingering non-Emm element in songs I'd rather hear simplified to nothing but her. "Beautiful Things" works best for me because the drums run in sync with several other elements, but I still imagine that there is a slightly different rhythm track with which the song would become wholly immortal. I won't be at all surprised if Emm finds it, and soon.
In the meantime, though, she can still be our secret. For a few more months, perhaps a year. Perfection is neither urgent nor even necessary. The non-Tori elements on Little Earthquakes and the non-Kate ones on The Kick Inside were both far more obvious than this, and haven't kept those from becoming essential albums to me. Emm has the connections to have been the next Sheryl Crow already (and a Sheryl Crow with Rob Zombie and David Bowie behind her, at that), but better to learn these lessons than to be excused from them. Next year Emm Gryner will make one of pop history's handful of perfect records, and every copy of this one you buy helps pay for it.