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No Peace for Land
Statuesque: Live From Lake Vostok
I'd think that the first step in naming anything these days, band or child or mocha hair gel, would be to make sure there's a sensible corresponding domain address available. Complicating Statuesque's case, of course, is the fact that Stephen Manning picked the name for his "band" back before the web was quite so ubiquitous. This is presumably how www.statuesque.com came to house a site with the admittedly compelling tag line "At Last!! Beautiful fashion shoes for women in sizes 9½ to 13!", but no apparent reference to music. The next most logical choice, www.statuesque.co.uk, seems to have fallen into the grubby clutches of a domain-squatting company. statuesque.org, surprisingly, is available, as is statuesquemusic.com, and after that we get to the rule that it is unwise to navigate blindly to random URLs involving any words that might be used as adjectives to describe naked women. (Some of you are now guffawing as if you think this rule sounds more prudish than prudent, but trust me, there are a lot of ways to be naked, and some of them you will not want to encounter abruptly.) The band site is, in fact, at www.statuesque.org.uk, which is a poor job of hiding only if you think anybody is actually trying to find you.
And there is some evidence, frankly, that not a lot of people are trying to find Statuesque. They are a British band that never released any records in the UK, and even in the US they only managed one single, one CD-EP and one album, the latter two of which were on a tiny label, even by tiny-label standards. Live From Lake Vostok, the first Statuesque record in four years, is not a live album, is not (as far as I know) available in any store on Earth, cannot be purchased with a credit card or a US bank check, and is not even, physically, a real CD, as Manning's sales projections were apparently so low that he just opted to stick to CDRs. In lieu of any actual production information, I am left to imagine a slow trickle of envelopes with ragged $10s or £5s in them, sent from scattered corners of the globe, showing up one by one in Manning's mailbox, and him in his kitchen diligently burning and labeling a new copy of his "album" for each inscrutable recipient. The web site purports to offer a canonical track listing, but the only thing that keeps Stephen from plugging an entirely different tune into each disc's slot nine (say), is that there's a practical limit to how many distinctly different pop songs one writer can accumulate that employ the phrase "Cable Street Beef" in a plausibly chorus-grade way.
Still, I myself know a handful of people who somehow came to know and like Statuesque, and presumably there are others. The EP was released in 1996, and although four of its songs only really struck me as pleasantly jangly with a few entertainingly snarly bits, I believe to this day that the opening track, "Ton of Feathers, Ton of Steel", could have been one of the great lost Byrds recordings, or a magnificent Pop Art song they unaccountably neglected to perform themselves. The full album, Arbiters Anonymous, was produced at Fort Apache here in Cambridge by studio mainstays Paul Q. Kolderie and Sean Slade. It is louder and rougher than the EP, and to me comes just one charming song short of being an loud, rough album redeemed by one charming song.
Live From Lake Vostok has avoided this fate, in my opinion, by the end of track one. It's called "Dash", and it's as close as anybody has come in nineteen years, I think, to reproducing the endearing, trebly jerkiness with which "Every Word Means No" opened Let's Active's debut EP Afoot. Left to his own devices (literally) again, Manning reverts to a graciously artless self-production that makes me wonder, and not for the first time, why we ever thought studios and professional producers were a good idea in the first place. "Fredo" reintroduces some buzzing noises, but doesn't let Manning's Robyn Hitchcock-esque vocal delivery get dragged down into them, with the result that the chorus soars and flutters something like Let's Active's "Waters Part" crossed with the guitar-processing trick from the Smiths' "How Soon Is Now?". "Innocents Abroad" lapses into a folkish midtempo saunter, but "Stay Broken", laced with sputtery guitar hooks and advance-and-retreat vocal melodies, wriggles like an XTC demo. "Genius Is Static" lurches off into a ditch, for me, but the insanely chirpy "Something to Declare", with Adam Tanner's earnestly sketchy drumming, promptly extricates the proceedings. "Born in Front of a Train" is, for no discernible reason, a garish early-Nineties Manchester pastiche, but "Ex Hubris" reminds me comfortingly of Mexico 70 and the Reverbs and a dozen other humble guitar-pop bands that basically nobody ever heard of. The confrontationally-named "Cable Street Beef" turns out to be a game attempt at a sing-along Fall song. "Global Village Idiot" is another orthogonal style digression, this time into dance-y drum-machine chatter and arpeggiator flights, and although this one I happen to kind of enjoy, I'm still relieved when "I Know Everything" wilts into languid piano-ballad. "Late for the End of the World" is long and anxious, though, where I find myself wanting succinct pop reaffirmation, and then the album's over. Then again, perhaps on your copy the one labeled "Late for the End of the World" sounds like a cross between "Manic Monday" and "Roam".
Smart Brown Handbag: Fast Friends
The same eternal struggle between pop humility and rock bravado that Stephen Manning confronts in two and a half Statuesque albums, David Steinhart has now played out over four and a half Pop Art albums, three more under his own name, and with Fast Friends seven as Smart Brown Handbag. I just listened, coincidentally, to an old recording of an alarmingly young Pop Art playing a radio show at KCRW in Santa Monica, and the sixteen-year leap forward from that to this is bracing. David's speaking voice is different now, and the arrangements and spirits even more so. Pop Art songs had a sort of pervasive Harold and the Purple Crayon-ish improvised minimalism to them, boats and sidewalks and other necessities drawn in underfoot in mid-step, collapse repeatedly averted by the narrowest possible margins. David's solo records and the Smart Brown Handbag ones have become progressively more adept, but improved technique doesn't reliably equate to artistic maturity, and I'm forced to admit, listening to old Pop Art songs and these new ones back to back, that I miss the naïveté of the old days desperately. I hate the notion that we all have to age this way, one-by-one disavowing all our best mistakes and defining inadequacies, wisdom slowly and deadeningly replacing the vital energy of simply not knowing any better. I can't fetishize ignorance and inexperience and then spend so many spare hours seeking understanding and control, it doesn't make any sense. I'm rarely more depressed than I am listening to a new record by a band I once pledged to follow forever who are only drawing further away from me (and thus, as I listen, drawing me further away from me) with every song. I could barely get through the new "modernized" Del Amitri and Simple Minds albums a second time each, and I'm ardently hoping to get a note from Mecca Normal any day now explaining that the total lack of rock songs on their new one was an unfortunate pressing-plant error. "Just like driving backwards", David said on the last SBH record, which felt to me like it might have been the end, and might have been time.
But then, because there's a streak of masochism in my reactions to these records, I get out Just Like Driving Backwards again, to relive two stages of the decline instead of just this one, and almost immediately realize I've been stupid. Fast Friends sounds much older than A Perfect Mental Picture, and two points make a line, but three points don't always make one line, and fourteen points almost never do. If Just Like Driving Backwards was a conclusion, and the solo album after it (Clean) was more words than music to me, then taken as a next step instead of an endpoint, Fast Friends is approximately the last thing I expected: a new beginning. Given a little more context, I realize that the similarities between these new songs and the old ones are actually much more notable than the differences. I love the rushed, brittle drums in "The Sixth Year Slump", and the way the last words of the verses jut cantilevered over the beginnings of the choruses. "Some words that we forgot that I will now recite", David offers. In "Push the Bell" he even sings a little like the old days, but the song edges towards folk-rock poise. "I stand at your front door. / Why did I wear this shirt?" Yes. Yes. This is such a tiny question, but for a moment it's absolutely critical. "It's a Sign", frazzled in tantalizingly nostalgic ways, starts out as if it's going to just be another version of the relationship decline in Del Amitri's "Driving With the Brakes On", but just when I've forgotten the sign in the title, it makes its appearance: "We woke up this morning to a sign on the lawn. / We can't stay here together, / We can't stay here for long. / The future looms large above us now, / We are still trying to work it out." In the old songs, the sign would have marked the end, an omen too unmistakable to be worth resisting. Now, David resists. Your landlord selling your apartment is not an omen, it's just something that happens, and what you let it weaken or strengthen is entirely up to you.
And maybe David, too, is weighing his ages, as the sparkling, cyclical "Something That's Familiar" backs up and tells an old story. Actually, I'm not sure it's old. The girl's in geometry, but elsewhere he says they moved in together five years ago, so "geometry" may be proxy for something else. I'm not going to tell you my specific theory, but it has to do with a word that shares "geometry"'s first and last letters, and the main clues are a) the destination of the errand during whose duration he says things changed, and b) the nuance that that implies in the title. It's a grown-up's mature wish in a song sung with a young man's wonder. "The Long Weekend" seethes and sparks into a plaintive "Give us any weekday night / And a bartender we like" chorus. And "Handlebars", slow and sturdy and pealing, Pop Art couldn't have done. "And now to find you stupid / In the way that I am shy", David says at the end, and this is exactly how revelation doesn't have to be resolution or even cadence.
There's no written law that pop songs have to be about romantic relationships, but something about the form seems to summon them. Or maybe this is just me, always listening to records by myself, and thus invariably conceiving them as dialogues. Whatever causes this delusion, David has long suffered from it too, and it is thus twice as surprising and subversive when a dialogue song, like "Restraining Order" here (complete with title feint), turns out to be about something else. I think "All Summer Long", for that matter, might be about drinking. But the spiky "Allergic", recapitulating a few of the musical Costello-isms of David's first solo records, is back to tectonic shifts in relationships and their associated aftershocks. "I know that you need to leave me behind / So this is goodbye from your favorite punchline", he promises, but listen to it again and see if you still think that's really the point. And then hold on, because no matter how many of David's relationship songs might easily have begun with "Judith it's not a trumpet it's a siren", the deceptively expansive "Done" is not one. It's ostensibly personal, and the only place name is a small town in New Jersey, but its topic is unambiguous however unstated, and I'm not sure I've heard a more obliquely trenchant political song since "Come Away Melinda".
The glassy, "Reel Around the Fountain"-ish "The Angry Mailman" never recovers from "Maybe it's the bitter cold or these tight tennis shorts", and the jumpy "You Believe" seems to force nonchalance, but the album is trying to find its way to an end, and without knowing if you figured out "Done", David can't be sure exactly how much transition you'll need. He doesn't quite ever figure it out, I think, and the strange combination of bluster and frailty in "Some Other Day", the finale, is a hapless compromise. He's done bonus tracks before, and I'm expecting one here, to supply a clearer summary of what he thinks he's answered. But no, the album ends as scheduled. The old albums felt more complete, but perhaps that's how wisdom avoids becoming stasis. We learn enough to stop pretending these thoughts are whole or conclusive. This is an album of rediscovering old freedoms; it would be a betrayal of its own epiphanies if it tried to waive those freedoms again so soon. The album ends without resolving, as do so many of the songs in miniature, and the combination could be the truest and most encouraging thing David has yet used a record to express. He has finally run out of break-up songs, and I am the opposite of let down. Fourteen albums of brokenness, and now the shards will turn out to be the pieces of something better.
Tommy Keene: The Merry-Go-Round Broke Down
Pop Art and Tommy Keene's first EPs both came out in 1984, and although David has made almost twice as many records as Tommy since then, with a more exaggerated style arc, the general progressions are still similar. Snap Crackle Pop Art, my favorite Pop Art record, came out in 1987, and I insist David still owes us a reissue. Keene's masterpiece, Songs From the Film, came out the previous year, and was reissued in 1998. This is the first new studio album since that reissue, but last year's live album was more exciting than live albums usually seem to me, and listening to The Merry-Go-Round Broke Down I find it inspiringly easy to imagine that the reissue of Songs From the Film was a declaration of intent, and the fact that it took Keene four years to produce the thus-promised next album merely evokes the three year wait, after Songs From the Film, for the ultimately muddled Based on Happy Times.
The Merry-Go-Round Broke Down is anything but muddled. "Begin Where We End" starts with Keene's trademark flourish, tense voice and guitar holding off the drums for a few frantic bars, and I'm suddenly convinced that Jon Brion and Bob Mould represent halves of this. "The Man Without a Soul" flirts with blues squawk, horn strut, piano-hall bounce and a striptease, but Keene's voice is as intractably pop, in its own nasal, headlong way, as Michael Quercio's or Doug MacMillan's or Neil Finn's. "Hanging Over My Head"'s guitar riff could be transplanted into Big Country's Driving to Damascus, and reminds me how closely all these orbits pass. "All Your Love Will Stay" is just a sliver of characterization specificity away from rivaling "My Mother Looked Like Marilyn Monroe" for poignantly anthemic splendor. "Technicolor" is measured and a little drunk, "Big Blue Sky" a near-exact impression of a Smart Brown Handbag song redone with more guitar sustain and some keyboard ripples. "The Final Hour" is as heartfelt as anything the Connells ever did, "Time Will Take You Today" as buzzy as any of Mould's. "The World Where I Still Live" is darker than the Finns' "World Where I Live", without the bubbly chorus echoes, but a non sequitur sax solo, in the middle of it, suddenly tesseracts pop history from "Baker Street" to "Blimps Go 90". "How Do You Really Say Hello?" is breathless, "Circumstance" fond, "The Fog Has Lifted" sweeping.
But all of Tommy's albums have moments I love. This is first one since Songs From the Film that affects me as strongly as a whole. This is a new great loud-guitar-pop record by one of pop history's all-time greatest songwriters, an unabashed return to one of my favorite rock idioms, and it's a telling measure of its surety of purpose, to me, that I am genuinely astonished to discover, only upon inspection, that what I experience as a twelve-song collection of short, electrified pop songs is actually an hour long, including a dumbfounding sixteen-plus-minute epic in the middle that I swear I would have told you was 4:45 at the outside. In many ways, of course, none of this is new. But everything changes, too much, too far. I'm not even old, and I'm already worried about what's left that I loved when I was a kid. I can list a thousand ways in which it's better now than it used to be, but that doesn't mean I don't need proof, periodically, that for every thousand improvements there's at least one way in which the world is still exactly as great as it was.
Boston: Corporate America
Of course, when Songs From the Film came out, I was already in college. If we want to talk about how great music was when I was really a kid, we have to go back a ways farther. I began taking control of my musical life in about 1978. My first favorite album, my first love in a much more real sense than any girls until far later, came out that year, and sat on record-store shelves for months until I convinced myself that the guitar-city-ship on the cover was cool enough to compensate for the fact that I didn't know what the music sounded like. Don't Look Back, the second Boston record, was thus my first wholly speculative album purchase, and to this day remains one of my most successful gambles. It has resulted, I concede, in my living with the stigma of being essentially the only supposedly-thoughtful person on the planet who thinks Don't Look Back is better than Boston, but dammit, "Party" is less bad than "Smokin'", and everything else is interchangeable, so I still think I'm right. My parents let me pick out a record to celebrate my graduation from middle school in 1981, and I opted to hold out a few months until the imminent third Boston album came out. I ended up holding out for five more years, including an entire school cycle and graduation, until Tom Scholz finally stopped fiddling with Third Stage and let us hear it in 1986. Gallingly, it was a dud. At least we weren't as surprised or disappointed when it took him eight more years to make Walk On, and it was worse.
And if even I had lost track, probably you had too, but here are those dates again: Don't Look Back, 1978; Third Stage, 1986; Walk On, 1994. The next year in the series is 2002. Surely Scholz doesn't imagine we'd hold him to that. What would be more hopelessly irrelevant, by now, than another 1978-style Boston album? (Or, conversely, what would be less convincing than Tom Scholz trying to make any other sort of record?) A new Boston album is bad enough, but one called "Corporate America", with exactly the "protest" text you imagine, verges on unacceptable. Was there ever a more corporate band than Boston? Scholz basically established the ground rules for FM radio exposure for a musical generation, and it's a straight production line from the first Rockman to Asia to Roxette to Britney. "Don't Look Back" is the pinnacle of an inherently debased American art form.
On the other hand, though, our understanding of these issues might be a little more sophisticated now than it was the last time they came up. Boston may have ended up defining some parameters for manufactured big-commerce pop, but Scholz still made his records in a basement, with a band as goofy-looking as anybody ever assembled. Remember the glitter-encrusted All-Stars? The rambling liner notes? If Tommy Keene is a national treasure, then Tom Scholz should be too. Nirvana didn't mean to start grunge either, after all, and if you blame Britney on Scholz, you're going to end up blaming a lot of things you hate on a lot of people you love, and that's not going to help us. The likelihood is fairly overwhelming that a new Boston album will sound like old Boston albums, but we've put up with too much retro in the last decade for that objection to suffice any more. It's time to admit that Scholz has as much right to make new albums as Eddie Vedder and Elvis Costello, and is just as qualified to comment intelligently on our times.
OK, well, that last part is stupid. A new Boston album is apt to sound like Scholz has had his head in liquid nitrogen for several years too long, and if we're going to hope for cogent social criticism from the author of "Cool the Engines" and "Amanda" we might want to think about checking our old page-a-day Ziggy calendars first. The release-date obsessive among you may realize that this album came out only two days before this issue, and it's my usual policy not to write about things until I feel like I've fully absorbed them. In this particular case, though, I'm playing the record for the fourth time as I write, and I'll be flabbergasted if there's any more "absorption" left to be done. There are exactly three sorts of songs on this album. The first sort are meticulously not-quite-exact clones of songs from the other Boston albums. The second sort are songs that are not quite as good as they would have been if they'd been cloned from other Boston songs with a little more care. The third sort are the ones on which Scholz takes temporary leave of his faculties and lets one of the other participants get at the controls. None of the three sorts belongs in anybody's required curriculum.
But the more inexplicable and indefensible this album gets, the more helplessly I adore it. My discovery of music preceded my discovery of cynicism by not very long. Boston's place in my life would be taken next by Rush, and 2112 leads straight to Nietzsche. Don't Look Back is thus the soundtrack of what I now think of as the last days of my completely sheltered innocence. Emotionally, Mom and Dad took me to Sound Warehouse and bought me Corporate America, just like they meant to do for Third Stage, and all those wide-eyed feelings come flooding back as it plays, amazement and nebulous dreams and the beginnings of the tendrils of restlessness. This is the music in which I was formed, and far from embarrassed, I'm elated to hear it again. So many pieces fit together because of these sounds, wings of my taste as seemingly disparate as Magnum and Roxette, metal and pop spiraling off in opposite directions, Crowded House and Hüsker Dü, Tommy Keene and Richard Thompson. And while I could have heard these sounds again by playing the old records, playing old records is comforting, not elating. The thrill here is not that the structure of the universe hasn't yet precluded the reproduction of this kind of noise, it's that some people still get together in Tom Scholz's basement and relive these particular dreams. Guitarist Anthony Cosmo's three songs have their own MOR personality, and backing vocalist Kimberley Dahme's one sultry acoustic-guitar number (see encyclopedia entry under It's My Band, And I Say My Girlfriend Can Sing In It) is so far out of character I don't even process it. But Scholz's own songs, especially when Brad Delp comes by to sing them, are magic power embodied. "Didn't Mean to Fall in Love" is this album's traditional reprise of the same stuttery guitar hook that drove "More Than a Feeling" and "Don't Look Back". "I Had a Good Time" has the obligatory chorus oohs. The Rockman has never sounded more like a toy that hyper-intelligent aliens gave us because they figured we'd hurt ourselves with anything more powerful. You can tell when a chorus is just about to start, because on the last beat of the preceeding measure Scholz can't stop himself from making that same infernal sci-fi swooshing noise.
And yes, the showpiece, the title track, by far the album's most flagrant inanity, is everything you fear. "You can take your bottom line and shove it"; "You and I; DVDs, SUVs and cyberspace"; "The reckless ride of modern man / Just took the corner way too fast, / Flattened everything that stands"; "Veal crates, ozone holes, and toxic waste." Drum machines mutter, sound-bites interject. The vocals are processed halfway to Funkytown. This is to real, visceral, Marshall-stack rock-and-roll what room-temperature soy-milk is to a double-chocolate milkshake with live watch batteries, and to activism what a Hallmark parking ticket is to Irvine Welsh reading your grand-theft conviction. But who ever said Boston was supposed to be visceral or profane? Yes, they go to write an acerbic protest song and end up just overdubbing sunny "Gotta get away"s for six months, but I have other sources for acerbity. What I don't have is enough bands this cheerful and selfless. Just look at Scholz in the liner photos. He's never going to write a jangly little pop song that turns out to be about a pregnant grade-school teacher from Weehawken getting blown up by a Palestinian suicide bomber in Haifa, or about wandering the streets of Hollywood trying to figure out if your girlfriend's pregnancy test is the beginning of your real life or the end of it. All the real questions are hard, and nothing Tom Scholz says is going to help me answer them. But what I know faith and optimism feel like, those things are essential. We can't aspire effectively to joy unless we remember what it feels like, and Boston are one of my guardians of the reference sensation. This is the most irrelevant album you'll hear in a year that probably nothing but total irrelevance can hope to even briefly transcend.
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