You Don't Know What Michael Hart's Been Scheming
401 · 3 October 02
Christine Fellows: The Last One Standing
I have always distrusted tape as a storage medium for anything, so my "video library" in the VHS era had only what I felt was absolutely necessary for survival, a dozen or so of my very favorite repeated-viewing movies and some assorted music videos. I finally did break down and buy a DVD player when Yi Yi came out, last fall, but I didn't actually intend to change my collecting rationale. Yes, obviously I had to buy the Monty Python TV box, and a few other Python-related reference works. And all the Kevin Smith movies, of course. And Spinal Tap, which somehow I'd never gotten on tape. I cleared some space for them at one end of the bottom shelf of a bookcase near the television.
If I'd spent even the smallest negotiable amount of brainpower on predicting my behavior, though, I'd have realized what was really going to happen. DVDs aren't just tape that doesn't have to be rewound or a rental format less subject to wear and tracking problems, they cross my threshold for archival acceptability, and that means I'm now released to deal with movies the same way I deal with music or books. Actually, that's the choice: in music I buy only what I can keep up with, and the pile of new releases I haven't listened to usually gets to zero once or twice a week; in books I buy whatever I want to someday read, and there is no separate pile of things I haven't read yet because there are way too many to store them anywhere but on the same shelves as the ones I have. This is only viable for music because albums are short compared to the time available for dealing with them; on an average weekday I probably listen to six to ten complete albums during time that structurally could not be applied to reading or movie-watching. Movies are longer, decent DVDs of movies are longer still, my watching time is limited. Plus, although I'm under no illusion that today's DVDs are a final format the way I think CD audio (the encoding, if not the plastic) could be, the movie industry is crass and I am quite certain that DVDs will be the final effective format for many of the specific films now being released that way. So I've adopted the same collecting tactics I have for books: I buy what I want to be able to watch. New DVDs are often no more expensive than new hardbacks and import CDs, so if you want to disapprove of my spending levels, you're way late. If you want to disapprove of my bizarre aversions to borrowing and to ever getting rid of anything, that's your prerogative, but I've found that I'm happier that way, and as ways to make oneself happier go, it's pretty cheap.
What this means, though, is that now any time I sit down in front of my television, I've got a waiting library of movies I either know I love or suspect I'm going to. Cable movies are thus superfluous (and anything cropped is now totally unacceptable), and regular TV shows have to be, if not better than whatever I could be watching instead, then at least good enough to justify postponing it. At the moment, the only thing that qualifies is Gilmore Girls, and even that is a stretch. I don't like it as much as I liked Sports Night or the first few seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and I didn't like either of those anywhere near as much as I loved My So-Called Life. The character-depth in Gilmore Girls falls off precipitously after you get past the Gilmores themselves, the plots are rarely better than standard-issue, and I am not generally in the target demographic for the advertising. But I like the relationship between Lorelai and Rory, I can sustain a nice crush on Lauren Graham as long as she's playing a fictional character I wouldn't get along with at all in real life, most episodes have two or three jokes I laugh aloud at, and the music is usually slightly more distinctive than the usual WB fare.
But the music, in fact, is also emblematic of the problem. The show's soundtrack album came out this week, and I brought it to work in a pile of other music, and the pile reminds me how far my experience of Gilmore Girls is from the things I really care about. If an album had the same balance of mildly intriguing moments and long forgettable stretches as the show does for me, it'd be consigned to overflow storage after the second listen. The soundtrack is pleasant, and not without scraps of personality, but right after it I put on Christine Fellows' The Last One Standing, and Gilmore Girls is a horribly pale shadow of the show like it for which this album would be the music. When Luke watches Lorelai leave, or Rory vacillates between Dean and Jess, it's "poignant", in the TV-Guide-devalued sense of the word, and having Carole King and her daughter pleasantly sing "Where you lead, I will follow" seems about right. Whatever drama the show aspires to has to be fit in around the commercials, and end neatly enough that they don't lose too much of the audience for Smallville. There's room for a little pain, some passing tumult and a few shreds of gained wisdom. But without true sadness, without proper melancholy, without the feeling of helpless free fall, there's so little to save. The single crowning accomplishment of MSCL, for me, was that it made me understand and care about Brian and Angela deeply enough that the burned-in afterimage of their final scene together is now part of the haze through which I see the world.
And no network in the current media order would air the show The Last One Standing would accompany, but that doesn't keep me from dreaming it. At times the songs' lyrics are tantalizingly close to a plausible back-story and plot. The narrator of "Regrets", looking back on teenage desperation, escape plans and a partner who failed her, could fairly easily be Lorelai. "Veda's Walk" is a eulogy for a relationship that succumbed under much worse strain than anything they're ever likely to write Rory into. "Lost Overtures" and "2 for 1 (Part 2)" could both be excerpts from Lorelai's inner thoughts if her relationships made her sadder than angry. "A Day in the Road" is perfect high-school angst, if only the show had any characters that suffered from it. (Maybe Paris hides some? No, probably not.) "Bird as Prophet" is a tricky piece of relationship allegory, but just reminds me how little complexity there is in either Lorelai or Rory's romances. How little romance, for that matter. Brian's letter to Angela was beautiful. Dean's to Rory are just envelopes, and Rory's to Jess never gets past the salutation.
But what Gilmore Girls really lacks, I think, is tragedy. American TV doesn't do tragedy, in general, and arguably MSCL's elegiac tone was a large part of why it got canceled. It's next to impossible, and at least surreal, to mix tragedy with commercials, so in this country we usually save it for movies. Non-narrative art can't exactly be tragedy, in the same sense, but The Last One Standing comes close. Spare piano, whirring strings and hissing drums toll and whisper under Christine's unaffected, slightly breathy voice. The somber pace barely ever varies. These are songs for standing alone at windows looking out at the rain, songs for making coffee just to have a task for a few minutes, songs for doomed attempts to forget. They must be pop songs, I guess, but they'd be classical songs if such thing could be done without schooled artifice. Christine extrapolates from sunnier Suddenly Tammy and Ida songs past the Willard Grant Conspiracy into the grays and flickering shadows beyond. What would this look like filmed? The parents' stories in Yi Yi, perhaps, or Maborosi, or anything in a Tsai Ming-Liang film that doesn't involve dancing, urinating or enormous fish eating cockroaches (cockroaches being eaten by large fish, I mean, not the other way around). Moments in Random Hearts or Hurricane Streets or Last Night where pain and loss are given a few quiet moments to themselves. American Beauty and In the Bedroom aspired to this, but without sufficient subtlety or compassion. I haven't had enough sad albums this year, nothing half as hurt as Almost Happy last. There's 1000 Kisses, of course, but for me sad is different from miserable.
And where I faulted 1000 Kisses for lacking the moment or two of life that could redeem all the quiet, in fact, The Last One Standing demonstrates yet again what I meant. There are fourteen songs on this record, and twelve of them are slow and haunted. But two are not. "Surprise!", the finale, while it doesn't quite merit the exclamation point, is an uncanny impersonation of a jarring Throwing Muses rant, guitars keening and Christine even essaying Kristin Hersh's yelpy vocal mannerisms. Forbearance, right at the end, threatens to become fury. It's a non sequitur, but as such it just makes me want to let the album repeat, because I know that if it starts again "Regrets" will reset the mood. And then "Roadkill" will transform it. The title doesn't promise much, and indeed the song dies out rather abruptly in the middle of the third minute, but while it's running it hovers on the verge of grandeur. Strings flutter and pulse, piano surges, drums tick and then explode. Jane Siberry used to write songs like this, songs with heartbreak and salvation coiled up tightly inside. Ben Folds starts them, but can't always resist the urge to let them unfold and unravel. In the TV show Christine's music accompanies, "Roadkill" is the closing theme, the mantra of resilience and stubborn hope that keeps people from giving up before next week. Most of the definitions we learn for tragedy come from Shakespeare, but to me Shakespeare usually got it wrong. Romeo and Juliet is a morbid farce. As a tragedy, it's a cop-out. In the truly tragic version, the lovers make the sacrifices, get what they've paid for, and discover they can't live with it. They lose everything else to win each other, and then lose each other and have nothing at all. Brian watches Angela leave at the end of MSCL, Alyssa goes back to autographing at the end of Chasing Amy, Marcus and Melena are on the train at the end of Hurricane Streets. In a real tragedy, there is no escaping your consequences, and the best you can hope for is a half-chance to start over.
Mecca Normal: The Family Swan
But the risk you take, when you don't design in an escape point from the beginning, is that you may actually end up without one. Mecca Normal albums have always seemed to me to deliberately court this fate, song after song of Jean's grating voice and David's abstract guitar, but at the last minute they've always broken down and granted me one or two rock songs to rescue it. In concert they are a force, on record they are a trial. The Family Swan starts out well, with the luminous, echoing "Is This You?", Lester setting out to prove that you can make the Edge's guitar effects sound like the inside of a small room as readily as the Grand Canyon. The roar I hope for never starts, though. "What About the Boy?" takes the same echo tricks and mats them into a tangle. "Revolution#Pine" wheezes but doesn't quite muster the violence to thrash. And then, for me, the whole thing goes to hell. "In January" is directionless and ghastly. "Every Wrong Word" taunts me with the right guitar tone, but wastes it on rhythmless squalls. "I Hear You" is random noise. "Family Swan" itself may be the most painful thing I've sat through more than once all year, an eight-minute ordeal of placid guitar noodling under Jean's horribly bleak story of bitter family dysfunction, grossly misallocated blame and psychotically bottled-up resentment. "Foolishly I asked, / 'How did mom get cancer?' / Oh, turned out I was to blame. / The answer: 'Having a child later in life, / And not breast feeding caused the cancer.'" I don't want this. I'm willing to believe Jean and David consider this their important work, and will think I am hopelessly trivializing it by just hoping David will play louder and Jean won't undermine him. But when he finally starts to, on "Ice Flows Aweigh", after they've had eight songs in whatever grim mode they want, it seems astonishingly petty to me that she won't do her part. She sings it like a stream-of-consciousness funeral dirge for a Speak & Spell, skewing off into talk when I need her to yell. I want venom and vengeance. I want a better chorus than "What I really want to know is / Why'd you throw that huge glass of / Chocolate milk at me / When I said I was moving out / At seventeen." I want another song like "Don't Shoot" and "The Revival of Cruelty" and "Excalibur". Ten songs on this album, couldn't they spare one for me? I've bought nine Mecca Normal albums, and I can't yet fill a single CDR with the songs that make me claim they're one of rock's most important bands. The Family Swan and Sleater-Kinney's One Beat came out on the same day, on the same label, and I wanted to be able to say that this is the bass-less, blade-voiced punk album every critic should be compelled to listen to. But instead, it's a morose dud. Can I really ask for tragedy and then feel aggrieved when I get suffering?
Tuuli: Here We Go
But The Family Swan's worst betrayal of the cause, to me, is that it leaves me wanting an antidote. I meant to have a coherent week of elegant sadness morphing into muted fury, to demonstrate how electrifying such a discreet transfiguration could be, and instead I'm left aching for bubblegum punk after all. I want to construct the definitive argument against Sleater-Kinney, because it seems to me that somebody ought to, but it's never going to work if it starts with some perky teenagers who make the Go-Go's sound like Suran Song in Stag. I start off demanding the universe in which Josie and the Pussycats is unfilmable, and end up just wishing for a lip-gloss guitar band that I don't feel gross about liking. No wonder TV is shitty. But so be it. Sleater-Kinney can rot without my help. Let TV be as shitty as it wants, I have the Criterion Collection. There will be plenty of tragedy waiting when I need it again, but tonight the Revolution made it into the semi-finals, so all things are temporarily possible.
Let the miserable songs pile up in a corner, then, because I have Tuuli. They're just kids, they don't know very many notes and even fewer whole chords, in maturity they're somewhere between Shampoo and early Kenickie, and in sophistication they're Canadian. Their idea of relationship angst is a smirky denunciation of rockstar boyfriends, and they look like the Corrs after a salon disaster. They can't possibly be important. But most things aren't important of themselves, they're just good for something, and Tuuli is good for making me feel better, and then for making me feel OK about feeling better from nothing more than a silly pop record. The guitars are studio'd to anonymity, the backing vocals are doll-simple, the songs are little more than Buzzcocks raves in Veruca Salt masks, but they're the catchiest new band I've discovered since the A*Teens, and there's even some reason to believe they can play instruments (not necessarily the instruments heard here, but some instruments...). "Here We Go" is a Primitives "Crash" cover for the royalty-averse. "Wake Up" is the obnoxiously energetic morning-after rebuttal to Kenickie's "Nightlife" and "Come Out 2 Nite". "It's Over" is the Bangles as bratty kids again. "Thousand Stars" is the Cocteau Twins as bratty kids again (again?). "Whipped" is "Volcano Girls" for those baking-soda volcanoes you made for your first science fair. "10 Miles to Go" is as selflessly, ecstatically stupid as anything since the Bay City Rollers. "Heartbreaker" is Pat Benatar as bratty kids again. "Denial" is exactly what I thought the Donnas never quite pulled off. The remix of "It's Over" (half-credited to the band's label exec) turns it into one of the year's best clicky drum-machine anthems. You don't even have to envy your friends their Sleater-Kinney and Aimee Mann bonus EPs, because you can probably still find copies of Here We Go with Tuuli's extra disc, which has two colorful (albeit useless) videos, two more new songs they could easily have put on the album, and three dizzily unpolished (and even more exuberantly Buzzcocks-like) tracks from the band's now-deleted debut EP. Sleater-Kinney, of course, is the future of rock and roll, and Aimee Mann is the future of independent marketing. Tuuli are the future of nothing. Frankly, they're barely self-aware enough to be the past of anything. But when I listen to Sleater-Kinney, I just want to order Corin Tucker one of those "Believe" pitch-shifters so she can finally hit the implied third note in between the two she knows how to sing. I listen to Aimee Mann and I wonder if she ought to consider switching back from decaf. And then I put the future away where it won't depress me until tomorrow, and play this again instead.