Pictures of Your Ex-Girlfriend
400 · 26 September 02
Buffalo Tom: Besides
In the early Nineties, when Buffalo Tom momentarily seemed to be gaining commercial traction, the woman I was living with's brother was in the Bags. The guys in the two bands grew up together, and went to college together, and made first and second albums together in reasonably compatible Boston obscurity. But the Bags followed the usual luckless Boston-band trajectory into sad dissolution, and Buffalo Tom, on at least one level, escaped it. As "Taillights Fade" and "Velvet Rope" hit, back when there was still 120 Minutes to play the videos for such things on television, Buffalo Tom were on the way up and the Bags were on the way out, and I was implicated in the confused family loyalties and enmity. The New Mildness was coming into vogue, and the Bags clearly weren't a part of it but maybe Buffalo Tom were, and for a while I mentally compartmentalized them as another dreary example (according to my personal definitions of "dreary"), à la the Gin Blossoms and Toad the Wet Sprocket. But Boston radio kept playing them, and after a while I realized that I'd internalized about half of Let Me Come Over despite meaning not to. But rephrase "dreary" as "emotionally claustrophobic", after all, and I'm in favor of it. The Bags had finishing ending by then, so there was no principle to be served by continued resistance.
Buffalo Tom got famous enough to appear in Rolling Stone wearing Gap sweaters and make a crucial guest appearance on My So-Called Life, had sufficient market success to make fourth (Big Red Letter Day, 1993), fifth (Sleepy Eyed, 1995) and sixth (Smitten, 1998) albums, and even released a best-of (Asides) in 2000. The only new song on the best-of, however, was a "Going Underground" cover from a Jam tribute I already had, so I didn't bother with it. I wasn't as diligent about Buffalo Tom singles as albums, though, and even if you were, this b-sides collection conveniently consolidates very nearly all of them onto a single disc, along with two unreleased tracks and two more from stray compilations. B-sides are various by their nature, and here they aren't even arranged chronologically, with the bizarre result that Besides manages to simulate a faintly non-linear alternate history of a band that has had what seems to me like one of rock music's all-time easiest-to-follow stylistic arcs (very murky; slightly less murky; murky with melodies; less murky but less energetic; more energetic without getting more murky again; and then finally expansive and revelatory).
But I obtusely insist on reconstructing the order of release. The two earliest songs are the b-sides from the 1991 single for "Fortune Teller". The cover of George Harrison's "Wah-Wah" is a blustery, slightly gallopy throwaway that I'd have probably guessed was a Meat Puppets song without the credits for reference. Chris Colbourn's "Bumble Bee", a fragile piano-and-weepy-guitar ballad in contrast to the band's then-typical guitar blur, now sounds like foreshadowing. The contemporaneous cover of the Velvet Underground's "All Tomorrow's Parties", retrieved from the tribute album Heaven or Hell, is a somewhat ill-advised attempt to construct something slow and grand with tools forged for faster, smaller work, but ends up making the song sound even more uncannily like "The Bells of Rhymney" than it did in VU's hands.
From 1992, the breakthrough year, we get the two b-sides from the "Velvet Roof" single. "Sally Brown", a babysitter ode not quite on the order of Dar Williams', has a kind of ragged later-Replacements jangle. The cover of Dylan's "She Belongs to Me", left over from the same session as "All Tomorrow's Parties", sounds an awful lot more like Let Me Come Over than Dylan, and while this was probably due less to choice than the band's limited range, the composition is just enough looser than the their own songs to dispel a little of their usual reserve, and thus begins to anticipates the next phase. The two 1993 songs (from the "Soda Jerk" single) are the next phase, and in retrospect I think the bouncy "Witches" could have been a Big Red Letter Day single itself. "The Way Back", a Bill Janovitz solo number with acoustic guitar and a little piano, edges over into Mark Kozelek territory, and seems at least as pretty to me as anything Bill later put on either solo album. The two 1994 songs, from the single for "I'm Allowed", hover between interstitial and promising for me in about the same way as Big Red Letter Day and Sleepy Eyed. "For All to See", which was also on the No Alternative compilation, is quick, uncluttered and more than a little Minneapolitan, but although Bill claims in the liner notes that the reedy "Butterscotch" is one of his favorite Buffalo Tom songs, I'll admit I think it's terrible, musically cliched and lyrically grating.
1995 is easily the most productive b-side year, contributing five to this set. Bill complains that "Never Noticed" (from a Reading Festival promotional disc) is too fast and too high, but to me it's excitingly close to being "Velvet Roof" redone with a lighter pop-punk production hand. The doltish blues cover of the Stones' "The Spider and the Fly" I can't abide, but the other "Tangerine" b-side, "Breathe", is sturdy and lilting in a Connells-ish mode. Janovitz's throaty, snarling "Does This Mean You're Not My Friend", from the "Summer" single, feels like an attempt at a raved-up folk-song that skipped to the raved-up part without first establishing the folk roots, but its partner, Colbourn's soaring "Clouds", may well be my favorite from this entire era, at once charged and sentimental and magical. The two 1998 tracks are the b-sides from the "Wiser" single, both covers, and while I can't make much sense of the plinky, stripped-down rendition of MBV's "Cupid Come", to me the reverently unpolished version of the Spinanes' "Hawaiian Baby" (itself also a b-side) belongs in the indie-covering-indie hall of fame right alongside Ida doing "Shoe In". The two unreleased songs are both actually of older vintage, as well. "Anchors Aweigh", left over from Sleepy Eyed days, seems kind of directionless to me (in the notes Bill compares it to "Butterscotch", although I think all it would take to rescue this one is a production treatment that dispensed with the misplacedly 4AD-ish background keening). And the version of Teenage Fanclub's "Guiding Star", recorded in 1997, may be the closest Buffalo Tom have yet come to a cover that approximates the personality of the original, although since Buffalo Tom and Teenage Fanclub have similar sounds to begin with, maybe there's no particular mystery to that.
So no, in the end, this record probably isn't an exception to the general rule that if you didn't already care enough to buy some of a band's b-sides, you don't need the rest of them. But I count half a dozen tracks that to me are b-sides only by coincidence, not nature, and I certainly like this better than Buffalo Tom, Birdbrain or Lonesome Billy. And for all the humble bands like this that never got to make six albums, much less a collection's worth of presentable leftovers, I'm happy to celebrate one that did.
Belly: Sweet Ride
Belly didn't. They were born in the chaos of Tanya Donelly's departure from Throwing Muses and short stint in the Breeders, and imploded in favor of her solo career after only two records, and the band's public legacy is now basically contained in "Feed the Tree", as retrospectively emblematic of the brief mid-Nineties swell of "female alternative" bands as the Breeders' "Cannonball", Juliana Hatfield's "My Sister" or Lisa Loeb's "Stay". Two albums isn't normally enough to justify a best-of, particularly when one of the two still seems to me like a true rock classic on its own, but Belly kept busy during their short span, and there's a surprising variety of material to fill this a-sides/b-sides/remixes hybrid. Of the eighteen tracks here, only four are original album tracks: Star's spectral "Full Moon, Empty Heart" and spikily anthemic "Slow Dog" (my vote for that album's best moment, and the best Throwing Muses song Throwing Muses never did), and King's definitively redemptive moments "Super-Connected" and "Now They'll Sleep". Five more of the key songs are included in variously altered form: tweaked single remixes of Star's "Gepetto" and "Feed the Tree" and an Australian radio tape of a fierce live performance of "Dusted", the radio version of King's "Seal My Fate" and the coy French re-recording of "Judas My Heart". And the blaring cover of Jimi Hendrix's "Are You Experienced?", from the tribute album Stone Free, remains notable to me for Belly's bravery in throwing themselves into a distinctly guitar-heroic-less attempt at a song that doesn't really have a lot to it other than guitar heroics.
The rest of this set is filled with b-sides, of which Belly had so many that these aren't even all of them. More often than not, though, I agreed whole-heartedly with Belly's album/b-side decisions. "Broken" doesn't quite get its stop/start cadences right, I think, "Dream On Me" indulges an odd spaghetti-western fascination, the Juliana-aided cover of the Flying Burrito Brothers' "Hot Burrito #1" is hardly going to make me forget Gram and Emmylou's duets, and a spooky clomp through "Trust In Me", from The Jungle Book, is a party trick I don't need to see twice. "Sweet Ride" itself is haunting and shimmery, though, and the playful "Thief" contends that Tanya and Gail could have reinvented the group in an Indigo Girls/The Story/disappear fear folk-duo mold if they'd wanted to.
But the two most interesting songs here, to me, offer two other contrasting and perhaps complementary ideas about what Belly might have turned into if they'd lasted longer. "Spaceman", the b-side which opens the set, is somber and atmospheric, and suggests that the next album might finally have explained what Belly were doing on 4AD. And the one unreleased song here, "Lilith", completed in stages with two different producers, is one of the strangest and most ambitious things Belly have ever been credited with, and my favorite discovery of this whole set. In parts it drops down to nothing but evasive drums and/or Tanya's swooping, straining vocal performance, but in others she careens into a manic falsetto as the music picks its careful way through a sort of gale-force lullaby. I confess to liking Belly better than Throwing Muses because Tanya never seemed as terrified as Kristin of accidentally writing an undamaged pop song, but "Lilith" is an embryonic rock-opera finale, a form Throwing Muses never came near enough to to need to avoid. It doesn't quite make sense to say that I'm sorry Belly didn't get the chance to finish these explorations, since Tanya went on to make "Pretty Deep" and the first four songs of beautysleep, either of which rivals King in my esteem. But Belly was a simple story in my mind, and a completed one, and now it's complicated and unresolved, and I always consider that an improvement.
Mary Timony: The Golden Dove
Mary Timony and Helium are, I think, what you get if you combine Kristin Hersh and Tanya Donelly into a single conflicted person. When she's in the right frame of mind, Mary can write unapologetically effervescent pop songs, and I file Helium's The Magic City alongside Veruca Salt's Eight Arms to Hold You, Everclear's So Much for the Afterglow, Buffalo Tom's Smitten and Liz Phair's whitechocolatespaceegg (though I'm not totally sure anybody but me could find anything in this filing scheme, which is a large part of why it's no longer how my actual shelves are organized). Catch her in a contrary mood, though, particularly in concert, and you could be in for a remorselessly discordant deconstruction of anything she thinks you might otherwise have enjoyed. I don't pretend to have any sense at all for how she negotiates between these impulses in her own mind, nor even if she perceives them as conflicting in the first place. No matter which mode she's operating in, however, Mary has two stylistic trademarks that could potentially be your entries into songs that try to push you away, or the pressures that drive you out of ones that are otherwise inviting. The first is a particular flavor of guitar (or occasionally keyboard) hook that sounds something like the idle late-night noodling of a weary Scotsman who's been living in India just long enough to start confusing the idioms of bagpipes and sitars. The other is a weirdly mathematical insistence on repeated melodic elements, usually either the vocal doubling an instrumental part (somehow it always sounds to me like they come in that order, not the instrument doubling the vocal), or else vocal parts paralleling each other. As is often the case with ostensibly avant-garde art, we could debate whether these are conscious style choices or products of the artist's technical limitations, but probably they're both, and maybe there's rarely a practical difference between the two.
And The Golden Dove is not a bouncy pop record, even by Mary's own constrained standards, but its internal logic is mostly scrutable, and I find I've been drawn back to it repeatedly as I try to process my crushing disappointment at how much I hate the way the new Mecca Normal album resolves Jean and David's version of the same underlying song/noise dilemma. In The Golden Dove's most melodic moments, like when the drums kick in for the chorus of "Look a Ghost in the Eye", or when the narrator of "Blood Tree" matches an eminently impish tune to the chilling confession "You showed me pictures of your ex-girlfriend / On the beach without her shirt on, / And it made me sick, / And I didn't tell you it did", I find myself letting down my guard just enough to get cut by the next mood swing. At the abstract extreme, "The Mirror" sounds to me like music for circling a primed witch-burning pyre, "Dr. Cat" could be Mary phoning her empty house to have a word with her player piano, and the relentlessly funereal kettle drum in "14 Horses" booms like a monastery's call to collective ritual suicide. The triptych at the end of the album is especially puzzling, "Dryad and the Mule" an alternate-lyric reprise of music from earlier, "Ash and Alice" a static instrumental study in short repeated scales, and the "hidden" "I Prithee Send Me Back My Heart" something like a short Renaissance-Festivaled reduction of "Scarborough Fair", which one could argue was more than adequately Renaissance-Festivaled to begin with.
In between these extremes, though, are compromises I'm finding durably fascinating. In parts of "The Owl's Escape" the piano wanders in what seem like inexplicable patterns, but they turn out to just be extremely long melody lines with the payoffs way at the end. The synth drones and cello asides in "Musik and Charming Melodee" point thorns outward, but the contrast when the cheerful hand-clap riffs start up is surreal and inspired. "Magic Power" is a far, far cry from Triumph's power-of-radio effusion, but it oscillates from breathy Suzanne Vega-ish narration to an eerie chorus refrain that sounds like the new Seven Dwarves' work-song heard wafting in from offstage in a hybrid Snow White/Waiting for Godot remake with Melora Creager in a straitjacket as the only character. The opening of "Ants' Dance" might be a revision of the "Discovery" movement of 2112 in which the guy finds the old guitar at the bottom of a well he's fallen into and immediately knows he can't climb out of, but the middle morphs into a kind of slow-motion Adrian Belew. I still don't feel like I know who Mary Timony thinks she's playing this music for, but one of the elusive thrills art can provide is the slow realization that the artist has deduced the existence of an audience they've never met and can't prove exists, followed by the sudden epiphany that it might be you.