Keep Your Heart Close
423 · 6 March 03
Super Genius: Super Genius
Del Amitri's Waking Hours snuck onto my DID list when I wasn't paying close attention, and has stayed there, stubbornly, while Thunder and Consolation and A Secret Wish and The Speckless Sky and If You Want to Defeat Your Enemy Sing His Song have edged in and then slipped out again. Del Amitri have kept making albums, but each one has felt one more step less perfect and less effortless to me, Justin Currie's serene melancholy fading through subtle shade-changes until I'm not really sure what it is. Until I'm not sure what he thinks it is. Perspective feels damning enough that even Change Everything, which seemed like a close Waking Hours sequel to me at the time, is just now the sound of disappointment beginning. And yet, I'm not sure I would have done anything differently, in Del Amitri's place. They have never been guilty of anything but an eminently reasonable desire to stay, if not up-to-the-moment, at least cognizant of the characteristics of the moment up to which they are not. It would be absurdly petty to resent awareness. And if there was ever a popular movement to which they could have belonged, at least circa the short-lived commercial success of "Roll to Me", it was the tail end of the New Mildness, and there's not much left of that (unless you want to argue that Wilco are it), so what were they supposed to do? I don't have an answer. Or at least not one I can justify. The answer I fear I have is that I wish they'd kept making albums just like Waking Hours. I have a sinking suspicion that I didn't want them to evolve or progress. Not that that ever worked, either. If they'd made more albums that sounded like Waking Hours, they would have done neither of us any good. I didn't really want more albums that sounded like that, I wanted more albums that made me feel the way only Waking Hours ever quite has. Or albums that made me feel, as deeply, something I could connect to what Waking Hours made me feel. I wanted albums that made be believe that this one beautiful, painful, buoyant, desperate, roaring, sighing album was the beginning of something, not the end. I still want them.
I've always referred to Waking Hours as "pop", but the way that term has evolved, I'm not sure it still signifies the same things. Waking Hours was pop out past the way Crowded House and the Mutton Birds were pop, not the way teenage Pepsi shills have capitalized the idea. Del Amitri purred and growled where the Finns sighed and jangled, and the way the borders are usually drawn now, those noises (and the deliberate cadences and unhurried pace and contrastingly restless snarls) make Waking Hours seem more rock than pop. Except that rock, too, has mutated over the course of the last decade, and somewhere along the line the idea that you can have rock music that isn't stridently aggressive has fallen into relative disuse. New labels have been printed. Now Del Amitri are Adult Alternative, which probably means somebody thinks that they only appeal to people who are old enough to no longer want anything new from music. And I'm nearly thirty six, and I've just complained that Del Amitri don't still make records just like Waking Hours, so I might seem to be in a poor position to argue. Except I don't want everybody to make records like Waking Hours. And even if I did, if Del Amitri can't make them, who could?
Mike Barry, who writes the songs for Super Genius, used to be in a dangerously unpretentious Boston band called Pooka Stew. "Pooka Stew" was a really terrible name. "Super Genius" is pretty bad, too. Pooka Stew made solid, wistful rock songs. Just not enough of them. Super Genius has eleven new ones in more or less the same idioms. They are idioms in which I am happy to hear more songs.
But these aren't just eleven songs, they're arranged into an album, and the third or fourth time I listen to it, I realize that I'm not just happy to hear songs like this, I'm dumbfounded to hear another album like this. This, far more than anything Del Amitri has done in the last ten years, is the Waking Hours answer I've been waiting for. Musically, the two bands aren't identical, but the similarities are striking enough that I'm pretty sure I'm not the only person who could think I've heard them. Barry's voice strains, earnestly, where Currie's tended to yawn warmly and lazily, and Super Genius have fewer organs and harmonicas, and less of Del Amitri's bleary guitar distortion (as if they'd figured out a way to make overdrive circuits out of hardwoods). But the rhythms are similarly uncluttered (drums here courtesy of, of all people, British folk legend Dave Mattacks), the songs roll with similar gaits, the changes similarly planned, the resolutions derived from similar logics.
But where Waking Hours is (or has become) insular and self-contained to me, Super Genius adores its influences. "Real Love" rides on splayed guitars, kettle-drum gallop, organ whir and TV-theme-grade hooks, except I imagine for a TV theme they'd have transposed Barry's vocals up an octave to make it more "cheerful". The methodical "Nothing Is in My Head" could be a 54-40 song (and thus presumably could be a Hootie and the Blowfish song), but Barry and Ramona Silver's chorus duets lend it charm and spin, even as Mattacks snaps impishly at their heels, Dean Cassells' bass lines dodge around them, and the coda slides through an unmistakable Bob Mould modulation. The soaring "Maybe I Am" retreats towards mid-Seventies classic-rock ragged-glory ballad swagger, complete with a guitar solo that might be even happier played through Peter Frampton's mouth box. The love-struck "Just Another Boy and Girl", with Silver again, mingles Fleetwood Mac, Chris Isaacs and Richard Shindell. The glibly (and unconvincingly) cynical "The Cult of Money" balances Sugar and Warren Zevon. "Wait for a Beautiful World" flutters and hums something like a Peter Gabriel song in slow motion, Barry tracing and retracing the same melody lines as the band kills time, circling. Julie Barry supplies a musically vital (but lyrically inexplicable) vocal counterpoint on the exhausted but gradually reawakening "This Time", parts of which sound to me a little like a Dire Straits spaghetti-Western soundtrack. Much of "Careen" (nominally a girl's name, not a verb) verges on an homage to the Bears, complete with wobbly Belew-esque guitar bits. "Lies", sadly, demonstrates once again the persistent peril of calling a song "Lies" (namely that you'll be unable to resist simply repeating the word through the chorus, which is dull and unsatisfying for repeat listening), but "Understand", remade from Pooka Stew's In Our Minds, bounds like a Boston-rock standard you could expect to hear closing out Middle East sets any loud night.
And although Barry's lyrics don't have, on paper, quite as many vicious twists as Justin Currie's, they are expressions of the same intensity of sentiment and dream. The love-drained "Nothing Is in My Head" skitters through clichés by way of demonstrating its point. "Maybe I Am" is a litany of denials the title finally undermines (and is a love-song, I think, but could be an agnostic's equivocation, or both). "I never thought everything falls down", Barry says in "Just Another Boy and Girl". "Maybe that's why I never slept around," as if chronic infidelity is in a way a single act (and didn't Currie say exactly that, somewhere?). "This Time" is an extended promise to leave that the narrator never intends to keep, and the fractured relationship dynamic implicit in "She told me about the boy again" probably lurks behind many of Currie's (except his narrators don't always listen). This version of "Understand" skids through its words in the way you learn to after singing them a few hundred times, but there are still two brilliant lines in it ("Now that the morning's here, all that I needed to hear / Is 'I don't need you, don't want you here'" and "Waking up anywhere, wearing your underwear-- / It happened again, but we're still friends") which together hint at a whole relationship's worth of divisive hang-ups and underlying bonds.
And maybe I wouldn't have felt the Waking Hours link so strongly if it weren't for "I Used to Be", the album's last song. But last songs matter, and that's only one of the things deeply wrong with the dollar-a-song jukebox life the music industry is going to want us to live once they realize how much better it is for them. "I Used to Be" returns to the triangle from Currie's "Empty", and supplies the old boyfriend's stubborn hope to face down Currie's venomous condemnations. "Now you're all she can see; / I used to be", he points out, the truncation of the second line underscoring the helpless simplicity of his faith. "Empty" was better poetry, but "I Used to Be" is kinder. And maybe that's the new thing we old people are still asking for.
Kathleen Edwards: Failer
And any ongoing attempt to segregate music by age is going to have to figure out what to do with twenty-three-year-old Canadian alternative-country singer Kathleen Edwards, who sounds like a younger Lucinda Williams only until you pay enough attention to the lyrics to wonder which direction the age-difference goes, and like an alternative-country singer only until you notice that somehow alt.country has become the only genre in which you're still allowed to use the mannerisms that used to belong to rock until rock got new gadgets. Edwards shares management and label with Sarah Harmer, and some of each of their photographs look like shots of the other one, but I'll assume the business intersections aren't simply artwork efficiencies. And although a common genre could be circumscribed around Sarah and Kathleen's styles if that were some kind of rodeo event, Failer is much more of a rock album than You Were Here, most of these songs done with five- or six-piece bands and spiked with tiny flourishes that owe as much to Thin Lizzy or the Replacements as to Gillian Welch or Stina Nordenstam. "Six O'Clock News" intertwines twanging electric hooks, wiry banjo and double-time tambourine rustle. The faintly Linda Thompson-like "One More Song the Radio Won't Like" is oddly becalmed, and might have been funnier if it had been harder to see the radio's point. The atmospheric "Hockey Skates" reminds me of Cheryl Wheeler's "Driving Home" and of Dire Straits again. "The Lone Wolf" might be a relocation of Suzanne Vega's "Ironbound" from a city schoolyard into the wolf's unfenced countryside. "12 Bellevue" and "Maria" both veer towards Maria McKee's Life Is Sweet squall, but the elegiac "Mercury" sounds quite vividly like Sarah Harmer (and maybe a little more like Sarah's old band, Weeping Tile, than most of You Were Here did). The music for "Westby" is effervescent, but Kathleen sings wheezily over it, deflating much of the fizz, and on "National Steel" she plays her own string section, but never quite lets the song gain any momentum. But "Sweet Little Duck", the finale, is a lullaby bracingly reduced to little but Kathleen's acoustic guitar, her double-tracked voice, and a few washes of pedal-steel ambience. If the "younger" in the Lucinda Williams comparison has any descriptive function for the music, it's probably that Kathleen still sings and writes more unsteadily than Lucinda, and Failer thus retains some of the excitement of uncertainty that the more confident Car Wheels on a Gravel Road and Essence have outgrown. If Kathleen gets to make more records, she'll need more than naiveté to distinguish them.
So it may help that she's already a stunningly good lyrical storyteller. If this same album of music had had factory-issue lyrics, it might easily have passed for alt.country's answer to Norah Jones (and, marketwise, still might), and I wouldn't know how to predict whether Kathleen was really ready for a career of this. But the lyrics (which are not in the booklet, but available on her web site) are worth reading even if the music seems like anathema to you. "Six O'Clock News" follows a short police stand-off, like a rewrite of Richard Thompson's "1952 Vincent Black Lightning" in which the action doesn't take place off-screen, and into five short verses packs a lover's troubled history, the tableau, the police, the woman's dreams and the end, and I think we can be sure Kathleen knows what she's doing from the mere fact that she repeats the tender "Peter, sweet baby" late enough in the song for it to be shocking. "Hockey Skates" is as bleak as relationship surrenders get, but the tired couplet "I am tired of playing defense / And I don't even have hockey skates" is both a lyricist's brilliant conversational insight and the narrator's surprisingly cogent attempt to reformulate her dissatisfaction into her audience's vocabulary. "Lone Wolf" shows how lost a real-life storyteller can get in an extended metaphor, and except for one exasperated line "12 Bellevue" can't figure out how to draw faceless characters, but the spare "Mercury" (in its entirety: "Wanna go get high? / Mercury is parked outside under the light. / Wanna take me to / The parking lot of the old high school? / And it's like you said, / I would've turned up dead in the car.") knows exactly who both of its people are. "Westby" is the provocative one, about a motel affair with an older married man, but the best touch, to me, is the deliberately obtuse line-end word-repetition in "If you weren't so old I'd tell my friends, / But I don't think your wife would like my friends", at once a bad formal decision and a moment of character clarity. There's not much to the break-up/bug-out rave "Maria", but "I want my bubble car", in the middle of a sand-blasted country-rock blare, is a little glittering smile. "National Steel" wanders in unmarked territory until suddenly considering the exact financial implications of "Trading a daughter and two thousand dollars / For a National Steel". And "Sweet Little Duck", the finale, walks familiarly dissatisfied paths right up until she says "And on Tuesday I'll be back for my things", before setting out for an unexplained job "down south", and I'm suddenly gripped by a vision of all these heart-broken, bubble-car-less people limping south down the edge of the same road where the ghosts of the people who didn't escape in "Fast Car" are driving north. It could be any road, I guess, or every one, and maybe I finally understand why we have so much traffic. Every lost soul thinks distance will change something.