New York and the Winter Wind
412 · 19 December 02
There are long-gone bands who richly deserve renewed leases on life, bands that arrived in times for which they were unsuited, or whose genius was manifest in a grammar unfathomable by the culture into which they were delivered. Sometimes they are rediscovered posthumously, sometimes they return of their own volition, sometimes they subsist in obscurity until the world is ready. But there are not many of these bands. Pop music moves forward restlessly and relentlessly, abetted by many of us who claim to love it, and once it passes someone, they can rarely catch up. This is painfully true, commercially, but fairly accurate artistically as well. Those who have fallen out of step, whether voluntarily or not, usually remain out of step. Sometimes they can make this into an identity virtue. Sometimes they hire session players to fill in for all the original members who got real lives, and head out on the nostalgia-tour circuit.
Berlin were hardly ever likely to be an exception to any cynical rule. They were a shitty, opportunistic band when they were worth anything at all, and even in their short first run managed to produced more than enough lifeless crap to conclusively demonstrate the flukishness of their maimed-handful of brilliant moments. If all you know is "Masquerade" and "The Metro", you're better off than me. Terri Nunn made a solo record, which became the occasion for one of the few examples from years of compulsive record-buying of my actually calling a record-store's "If you don't like it, bring it back" bluff. There was a live album a couple years ago, and my archives will testify that I couldn't think of anything nice to say about it.
But they are a presence from my youth, or at least Terri Nunn's hair is, so I am willing to give them another chance, in the seemingly unlikely event that they're willing to take it. Who "they" are exactly, however, is a little difficult to discern. Nunn's picture is prominent on the cover of this album, albeit perhaps-prudently blurred (1982 was kind of a while ago now, and it might be more damaging to Nunn's reputation to admit that she hasn't lived those twenty years in some way from which one shouldn't expect to emerge unscathed). John Crawford and David Diamond, the two original musicians, are nowhere to be found, and looking in the credits to find out the names of their replacements, I see that veteran backing vocalist Linda Dalziel is actually co-credited with vocals. So arguably we have a Berlin in name-rights only, but while this would normally offend me on principle, the old Berlin was nothing to fret over, so the new one can hardly be much worse. The "band", this time around, is mostly producers Mitchell Sigman, Peter Rafelson and Chris Olivas, with some additional guitar help from Dallan Baumgarten, names on which, apparently, given that I remember Crawford and Diamond, I am doomed to waste neurons.
And what do they do? Do they try to recreate a lost age, or adapt one of its survivors to the new one? Either tactic could get ugly quickly. "Blink of an Eye", the opener, suggests a little of each. The drum loops and ACID squiggles are modern standard-issue, but the acoustic guitar (mandolin?) and Dalziel's backing wails are humanizing touches, and Nunn's lead sounds pretty much the same way it ever did, throaty and insinuating. It's no "Masquerade", but it gets the album underway without undue incident. But "Shiny" is an unfortunately generic dance arrangement, "Lost My Mind" never rouses itself much from mid-tempo stupor, and "The World Is Waiting" is a totally forgettable ballad.
But then, to my surprise, things suddenly pick up. "Drug", after some introductory twiddling, snaps into gear with a propulsive (and seemingly real) drum groove and surging guitars, and gets about as close to Curve's textural catharsis as Garbage ever does. "Sacred and Profane", a rough draft reworked with help from Billy Corgan, turns out sinister and heavy, processed percussion snapping at Nunn's guarded vocal. "All I Ever Need" weaves together slithery synthesizers, Dalziel's exclamations and an unhurried pace, and comes out sounding like an actual song. "With a Touch" delves the farthest into the archives, coming up with some particularly vintage bass noises to go with the burbly new ones. "To a King" goes for soundtrack bathos, and achieves it at least sporadically. "Stronger Than Steel" is pretty and barbed, and once or twice Nunn sounds like she might deserve to earn a living as a singer.
Overall, though, I think Voyeur ends up stretched between the hooks of two conflicting impulses, each present most vividly in a moment towards the end. The hidden bonus track is a live acoustic recording of "Pleasure Victim". It's a lot more sultry in this form than in its original album guise, but for me Nunn's self-objectification is only really tolerable when it's moving by too quickly to entirely register. When she lingers on it, like this, I quickly begin to feel impatient and a little clammy. This feels like the performance that she means as affirmation of her place in the music world and its history, and for me it's all too successful. "Stranger on the Bus", on the other hand, is exactly what I think Terri Nunn ought to want us to believe she's there for, singing closer the edge of her control, the band sparking behind her (synths, but growling bass, pealing guitars and clattering drums, too). Public transportation worked as a theme for her once before, but this time she bends it into a sexual power-fantasy about lolita temptation and teasingly feigned resistance, which isn't remotely politically correct but at least sounds like fun, or like she thinks it might be, or wants us to think she once thought it might have been. This is Olivas's one track in charge (he even contributes a brief but intriguingly Human-League-esque male vocal cameo), and I think my recommendation would be firing everybody else. Sigman and Rafelson behave themselves professionally, but that's precisely the problem. I need professionalism from Terri Nunn like I need a whisper-quiet fuel-cell drive on a Harley. I think Olivas might understand that. I don't know which one he is in the liner photos, but my guess would be the one on the right, a young kid in eyeliner and leather. Berlin songs are fun and irresponsible or they're nothing. Nunn's only real character is a willing siren you only can't have because she moves too fast, and for this one song I remember what it felt like to watch her go past.
Future Bible Heroes: Eternal Youth
The polar opposite of Berlin's approach to synth pop, if there can be polar opposition in these realms, would probably be something from Stephin Merritt's assorted project catalog. Merritt's presence ought to be most dilute in Future Bible Heroes, where he is nominally responsible only for some co-writing and a scattering of synth beeps, but for me main player Christopher Ewen's style reliably sounds like a deliberate emulation of Merritt's, and by now Claudia Gonson's voice is almost as indicative of Merritt's presence as his own. Compared with 69 Love Songs, to whose ambition Merritt is understandably taking his time to return, Future Bible Heroes are a flagrantly trifling amusement. At least, that's clearly supposed to be the official position, but Merritt's distinctions between the superficial and the profound are always coy and complicated, and it seems to me, after more listenings than I anticipated, that Eternal Youth isn't quite as disposable as it pretends. "Losing Your Affection" is based on a springy "Just Can't Get Enough"-ish synth groove, but Gonson's languid delivery holds it back, and turns it into a wistful meditation on the possibility (inevitability? experience?) of loss where it could so easily have been a frothy litany of facetious lengths to which she doesn't believe she'll ever have to go. "Doris Daytheearthstoodstill" and "Find an Open Window" are both those kinds of Merritt arrangements (cf. "When I'm Not Looking, You're Not There") in which he employs every silly noise at hand to divert attention from what would otherwise be a simply winning little pop song. The short, watery instrumental "Bathysphere" is nearly diagetic (or perhaps the inverse of diagetic, where the story is contained in the music), and leads to the ebullient "I'm a Vampire", in which Gonson hilariously deadpans a voice-over and then pulls off one of Merritt's "let's see you sing this" rhyme-schemes involving "Blanche", "stanch", "avalanche" and "tarantulas". "From Some Dying Star" (a response-song to "I'm a Vampire", strangely) booms with unnaturally-sequenced mock-orchestral percussion, as if to finally explain to Trent Reznor where he went wrong. "Smash the Beauty Machine", with peppy finger-snaps and an arsenal of pastel Spandau Ballet synth patches, is a surreal bit of destructive fury recast as glib lounge-disco. "Kiss Me Only With Your Eyes" is a cute portrait of a lifelong prude told in almost Gorey-ish verse, building to a brilliant moment in which the woman smacks God himself with a fan for, presumably, approaching her with a suggestive air while she was filling out the entrance paperwork for the afterlife. "No River" is a humming paean to the power of love, except for the one nagging line "...and I won't love you next time." And "The World Is a Disco Ball", the jittery finale, might be the most succinct summary of Merritt's competing ambivalence and whimsy, with layered synthesizers building slowly and Gonson sighing the song's title as if trying to explain some unpleasant grown-up truth to a child who has just turned old enough to understand.
The 6ths: Hyacinths and Thistles
The 6ths are the Merritt project in which he writes and (usually) plays the songs, but recruits a collection of other singers to sing them. On the first album under this name, 1995's Wasps' Nests, I didn't think the conceit worked at all. Having a different singer on every song proved ultimately destabilizing, to me, and left me with an album I could basically glean no sense of, even though many of the individual songs had what seemed to be the right ingredients. The second 6ths album, Hyacinths and Thistles, came out in 2000, and quickly vanished into a tall pile on my desk whose official rationale was things I intended to file away and never think about again, but only after listening to them at least one more time. Hyacinths and Thistles must have come around at about the time I established this pile, in fact, because it ended up being the absolute bottom of it, and as other piles filled in the space around that one, it became more or less impossible to do anything but draw from the top of it. As so there it lingered.
At long last, though, I have made it to the bottom of all my major "pending" piles. I rediscovered Hyacinths and Thistles a few months ago, and not really having the patience to sit through it all at once, stuck it in my car changer. It came up, in rotation, on a weekend filled with short driving errands, and thus I listened to it, for what I meant to be the last time, in fits of a song or two each. To my surprise, I enjoyed these immensely, but when I took the album inside again, encouraged, and tried to listen to the whole thing in a focused manner, I realized why the fractured experience had been different: If I'm only listening a few songs at a time, I don't need coherence. Certainly two songs may have two different singers without upsetting me. Three songs may have three singers, and even four feels fine, like Merritt is laying out his rules. 69 Love Songs had five singers, although that was over the course of a much longer collection. After about four songs, though, I have to stop this album and come back to it later. But that can be done. Actually, now that I have an iPod, it can be done quite easily. It feels a little strange, like trying to look at an eclipse via pinholes and shadows, but it seems to work. At least, I guess it's working, because I'm now convinced that this is not a time-filling novelty act on Merritt's part, but actually his sneaky way of returning to the 69 Love Songs thread of his work without the crushing pressure of having to somehow produce something even grander.
His cast of guest singers, this time, is drawn from more-various genres than it was on Wasps' Nests, but as they're all effectively conscripted into his service, it doesn't make nearly as much difference who they are as you might think. The quietly sparkling opener, "As You Turn to Go", features Momus doing an eerie impression of Tricky auditioning for the Clientele. A half-expansive, half-diffident "Give Me Back My Dreams", with Sally Timms in both breathy normal voice and vocodered lilt, hovers on the brink of turning wholly epic. Bob Mould is nearly unrecognizable as he moves gently through the piano lullaby "He Didn't", with the piano itself handed over to Kenny Mellman to keep Merritt from deconstructing it by playing it himself, although this doesn't stop him when he subsequently strands a bleary Melanie in "I've Got New York" with erratic toy-piano cascades from Margaret Leng Tan, neither of whom can quite locate the tempo. "Just Like a Movie Star" is less oblique, keyboards and strings swirling thickly around an earnestly campy appearance by Dominique Á. "Kissing Things", with St. Etienne's Sarah Cracknell trapped in a very large box, sounds like a demo tape by the other band the organ-grinder's monkey plays in, back at the zoo. "Lindy-Lou" starts out as a throwaway prank (it's sung by Cibo Matto's Miho Hatori, who despite living in the US for many years still can't (or was told to pretend she can't) pronounce "L"s), but the implied language barrier lends the song's love story both relationship challenges and plaintiveness that the lyrics by themselves wouldn't contain. Neil Hannon of the Divine Comedy is the victim of an even more subtle trick, as Merritt strands the guest most likely to be taken as a competitor with the album's least inventive arrangement, a muted piano flutter with a pervasive early-lesson simple-mindedness to it. The most egregious stunt-casting, I'd think, is the use of Gary Numan for the busily pulsing "The Sailor in Love With the Sea", but as with Mould, Merritt has Numan sing softly and warmly, and only in a couple twists at the ends of lines are any of Numan's usual robotic mannerisms discernible. "Volcana!", with Soft Cell's Marc Almond declaiming over the white-noise of crashing surf, is a waste of three useful minutes, but I forgive it instantly, as the following track is a stunning "Waltzing Me All the Way Home" performed as an unadorned duet between ageless folk-singer Odetta and accordionist Daniel Handler (better known for his children's books as Lemony Snicket, a couple good adult novels under his own name, and the interview in the 69 Love Songs booklet). "You You You You You", with Squirrel Nut Zippers' Katharine Whalen, can hardly help being a let-down after Odetta, but Merritt pulls out one more ingenious arrangement for "Oahu", with Miss Lily Banquette, synth sweeps like twenty-five-foot harp glissandos washing over her as if she's marooned on a beach in a universe in which the oceans are made of music. A splattery noise-drum blurts in the background, and owlish synth-winds hoot in tight spirals. At the three minute mark, exactly, everything but the harp waves stops, and for the next twenty-five minutes Merritt slowly (and I mean slowly) adjusts dials while they repeat. How fast your patience for this will run out, I don't know, and I'll save you any suspense by reporting that there aren't any surprises waiting at the end. Eventually you can't hear the waves any more, and then the album is over. This part is not so good chopped into three- to six-minute lengths in the car, but when I get to it at home I find myself reluctant to turn it off. Of course, I thought Metal Machine Music was soothing.
As a successor to 69 Love Songs, of course, this is all still rather slight, but that, to me, is its central virtue. Merritt couldn't possibly follow 69 Love Songs directly. What's he going to do, 245 Songs About Death, Lou Gehrig's Disease and the KC Hyatt Regency Walkway Collapse, sold either as one blue-green-plaid suitcase or ninety separate Edison wax cylinders? Mainly, then, Hyacinths and Thistles' task is just to exist, to be more Stephin Merritt music without any crushing expectations weighing on it. I suspect, though, that this record will come to have a different role in context with whatever comes after it. The challenge of following 69 Love Songs isn't that it was big, it's that it was complete. The next album can be small, but it has to find somewhere new to go. I'm not saying Hyacinths and Thistles finds such a place, either, but at least it sounds like Stephin Merritt experimenting again, leaving the blocks he's mapped, wondering what kind of people live outside them, and whether one of them could ever be him.
The opposite, in turn, of an album of other people singing your songs, is an album of covers. The current vogue for this has done more harm than good, in my opinion, and is overdue to be abandoned, but if we can slip only one more in before the expiration date, I hope it's this airy, affectionate set from Dominique Durand, Andy Chase and Adam Schlesinger's trio Ivy. Schlesinger is something of a polymusic already, not always to his benefit (I'm not a Fountains of Wayne fan), so a covers album could easily be overdone, but either he has more sense, after all, or Durand and Chase reign him in, as the resulting performances are magnanimously restrained and uniformly buoyant. The Cure's "Let's Go to Bed" turns crisply bouncy. Nick Heyward's "Kite", augmented with Gary Maurer's mandolins, ends up somewhere between Sarah Records and Hyman & Bazilian. Papas Fritas's "Say Goodbye" is morphed into a sort of Pet Shop Boys rapture, but the Go-Betweens' "Streets of Your Town" is played as straightforward, chiming guitar-pop. The House of Love's "I Don't Know Why I Love You", stripped down to voice, drums, acoustic guitar and a few electric-piano notes, turns out to be as sparely graceful as the Lucksmiths or the Arrogants.
Those first five recordings are new to this record. The second five are compiled from previous appearances on singles and compilations and the like, and sadly, don't seem to me to be of the same vitality. A jazzy rendition of Steely Dan's "Only a Fool Would Say That" relies too much on one bleating synth hook. The band seems a little too pleased with themselves to be doing the Blow Monkeys' "Digging Your Scene", and Serge Gainsbourg's "L'Anamour" remains way too French for me. But a dolorous, near-liturgical incantation of the Ronettes' "Be My Baby" wanders way past discretion into some whole other domain. And an elfin version of Orange Juice's "I Guess I'm Just a Little Too Sensitive" amounts very nearly to a Sesame Street appearance.
But anyway, I think we're done with this now. If this was the last covers album, it was pleasant and exactly why we don't need any more of them. Anybody who hasn't released their covers album by now, back up your files, clean off your workspace, and start writing something of your own. Enough covers, enough guests, enough side-projects. We needed some time off, perhaps, but now we've had it. Take a couple weeks to gather your thoughts, but after that, everybody back to work.