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My Heart Keeps Time
428 · 10 April 03
The Production Club: Follow Your Bliss
I'm sure there are examples of spotlight-averse multi-instrumentalist engineer/producers making excellent solo records using guest singers as front people. Many examples, probably. Many. But I can't think of any of them at the moment. At the moment, all I can think of is Mitchell Froom's 1998 album Dopamine, which I loathed. History does not record what the hell I was doing buying Dopamine in the first place, since by the time it came out I had already gone from thinking of Froom as the guy who made Together Alone and Mercury and Amnesia sound expansive and glorious to thinking of him as a force of colossal evil who had lost the perspective necessary to avoid making everything he touched sound cadaverously cavernous in exactly the same way, no matter how small or alive its own nature plaintively beseeched it to be. Lisa Germano and Mark Eitzel had cameos on Dopamine, that must have been it. It wasn't even vaguely close to enough.
But I didn't hate Wally Gagel yet. Or, more accurately, I haven't heard enough records Wally Gagel produced to have a sense of his own aesthetic. Or else he has managed to produce records without imposing a uniform and indelible personal miasma onto them, a feat of discipline that is arguably the soul of being a producer to begin with. But if the defining trait of a good producer is transparency, then there's nothing inherently compelling, or even wholly intelligible, about a good producer making a solo album. Wally Gagel may or may not be famous enough for his name to be a draw, and he renders this point moot by putting Follow Your Bliss out under a band pseudonym, The Production Club, and burying his only personal credits in the booklet fine-print. I knew what it was because I knew from Emm Gryner's web-journal entries what she'd sung on recently, and Gagel's project was the only one that could conceivably be appearing under an unfamiliar name. I liked the songs on Emm's Asianblue that Gagel produced. Tanya Donelly has a song here, too, and I liked Gagel's production on Lovesongs for Underdogs. Maybe this time that would be enough. Or maybe I just don't learn.
I have now listened to this album several times, and am no closer to being able to attribute a style to Gagel. He wrote the music to all of these songs, and yet it sounds like an album of songs that have, at most, been produced by the same guy, and not even necessarily that. The only group that sound of a piece to me are "Follow Your Bliss", "My Brother Moves" and "Good Things Just Happen", which all belong to the worlds of drum-loop chatter and flown-in lost-era voice samples, like "Standing Outside a Broken Phone Booth With Money in My Hand" born of trip-hop instead of synth-pop, or a Moby who hasn't yet found his car commercials. "Man on the Scene" could be a less-pensive Massive Attack with the Incredible Moses Leroy striking a Pet Shop Boys-ish compromise between Tricky and Liz Fraser. "I Am Released" lays Alan Burke's deliberate spoken-word piece "Woman" over faintly Eastern keening and pizzicato strings. The redemptive "Devil's Kiss", Donelly's song, keeps jerking Tanya into and out of a Carol Decker T'Pau costume, but in the ringing choruses sounds as much like Tanya or Belly as anything. "Everything You Know Is Wrong", with Lou Barlow, could have been lifted straight from a Folk Implosion album. "This Is a New Generation", with its Malcolm X samples, could be an only-partial updating of Fear of a Black Planet-era Public Enemy, and I won't venture to guess who it might incense, but probably none of them will ever hear it. The fluttery "Sacrifice", with the preternaturally mature-sounding twenty-seven-year-old Jewish reggae singer Elan, plays technified world-music about as deadpan as the concept permits. "Leap of Faith" chatters restlessly, the only song to noticeably undermine its singer's usual personality, although John Doe still finds a few crevices into which to wedge his unmistakable braying way of sneaking up on notes from below. The menacing "Rid of You", with ex-Gus Gus vocalist Hafdis Huld, sounds to me like PJ Harvey riding on a tank so big she's started to think she's Ofra Haza. "Let Go of the Reigns" reprises the underpinnings of "Man on the Scene" with less Leroy and more samples.
And Emm, who is why I bought this, actually only contributes occluded backing vocals to the two Lou Barlow songs, and I don't think I'd ever have known she was there without the credits. But I keep playing this album. And it still doesn't feel like it has an author, to me, but if it sounds like a compilation, then it's the first compilation in years that I find myself wanting to listen to repeatedly. It's an anthology of sounds from a well-visited room with still more toys than visitors, and if Gagel isn't its author, he's at least an archivist with nuanced taste. It isn't Dopamine this reminds me of, in the end, it's Largo, Hyman/Bazilian/Chertof's project-band explication of American myth. Follow Your Bliss is the present to Largo's past, the music of the light-dazed cities that are now arguably as much of our identity, or at least our public identity, as the frontiers or coasts or lineages they were built to synthesize and oppose. It's car-commercial music for cars that are really too big, maybe, too sure of themselves or too armored. But those are impulses that are integral to our culture, to expand and protect and overwhelm, and if we can contain them to songs, instead of cars, we will bleed the planet more slowly, and the roads will be safer.
Throwing Muses: Throwing Muses
The other record I bought over internal objections, because of Tanya Donelly's presence, is this new one by Throwing Muses, described in some quarters as her return to the band although the return actually amounts only to backing vocals on less than half of the songs. Throwing Muses are an important band you'd be well within your rights to like with or without Tanya, obviously, but it's been my sad personal experience that each of their albums contains at least zero songs I like, and at most one. On House Tornado, which a younger version of me described as the record that reminds me to listen to the Go-Go's Talk Show more often, it's zero. On Hunkpapa it's one, the ebullient "Dizzy". On whatever album "Counting Backwards" was on, it's "Counting Backwards", but by that point I'd reluctantly learned to just buy the single. On the rest it's nothing, which makes it thirteen years I've spent not buying Throwing Muses albums, although admittedly this is less impressive if you take into account the seven years the band has spent not making them, mostly as an expression of not existing.
My standing gripe about Throwing Muses songs was that Kristin Hersh seemed unwilling to quit fiddling with each one until it broke somehow, which is probably also her genius if you think she has genius. Which means that if you do, I have no clue what you'll think of this album, which was slammed out in three manic weekends in November 2001, and then left methodically alone for a really long time, and turns out to sound gratifyingly exactly like I imagined Throwing Muses songs always secretly wished to. Or like I will now claim to have imagined, and hopefully you won't track down anywhere where I said their big flaw was a fear of pop, because this album's solution to my problem turns out to be more or less the opposite. There's nothing I'd even ironically call a pop song on this loud, fast, mercilessly raw, venomously noisy record. David Narcizo pounds his kick, snare, hi-hats and crashes through sudden-jerk tempo-changes, Kristin saws at her guitar with violent discipline, bassist Bernard Georges rumbles along on his own mission, and Kristin's singing claws and snaps as if the guitars are all that's keeping her from your throat. "Pretty or Not" has the spare verses of a more accessible song, but then howls into buzzing choruses like Christina Amphlett fronting her croaking version of Jane Wiedlin's Frosted. The angular "Civil Disobedience" sounds like it could be Kristin's attempt to explain to Tanya what she meant about how "Slow Dog" could have been the best song the Amps didn't record. "Pandora's Box" is becalmed and then stomping, Kristin yelping "I'm right behind you" as if nobody is sure whether that's a threat of retribution or an admission of shared fate. "Status Quo" slips from oblique slashes to a relaxed gallop and back to distracted swirls, but "Speed and Sleep" purrs and peals with cycling guitar hooks that almost amount to leads, and later morph into lumbering riffs on a nearly Sabbathian scale. The cathartic "Portia" hops through its chord changes with pop dexterity, but transmutes most of that energy into rock surge instead of melodic lilt, which the sly "Like frat boys who sleep together" (that's what she's saying, right?) rides into a defiant "I am unshaken" chorus, the whole thing sounding weirdly like Tanya singing for the Buzzcocks to me, although this isn't even one of the ones Tanya appears on. "SolarDip" sprints and feints as if taking evasive action, but "Epiphany" segues from eerily Pixies-esque clomp to an unexpectedly gentle chorus. "Los Flamingos" has the missing Pixies-esque title, but is the closest thing here to an old-style Muses throwback, to me, the ostensible melody line careening around the staves in leaps of obstinately irregular heights and directions, the guitars spiking off at perpendicular purposes. "Half Blast" starts out stripped of rhythm and nearly paralyzed, only to explode into a punishing two-chord chorus, like "Brasilia Crossed With Trenton" and "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" mashed into something that ends up more than a little like the later propulsive parts of Belly's "Seal My Fate" and "Super-Connected". And "Flying" cheerfully writhes and crashes, veering unnervingly towards an impression of Voivod sung by cats, before fading out in a long, mournful wail of quavering guitar feedback. I distrusted Throwing Muses for what I thought of as a wearying adherence to contrarianism, only to find that when they let me hear their songs in their least adornment, the band isn't the Go-Go's with low self-esteem and nihilism issues, they're Mecca Normal with grudges they'd rather exorcise than itemize.
various: Respond II
When you put compilations into the iPod, every artist represented shows up in the main artist list. That's what's supposed to happen, and there are specific features to allow it to happen. But it means that suddenly the artist list is full of all these people you may or may not care about, just because they have one song on some compilation. There's actually no "various" listing in the artist list, so to play a compilation you have to look it up by title in the alphabetized list of every album you've ripped, which is more awkwardness. Plus, I did finally fill my 20 GB iPod, and now every new record has to displace something else out of current listening. Under iPod-space-justification scrutiny, compilations rather readily disassemble into their component songs, especially two-disc compilations with no more-cohesive rationale than that all the singers are female. My first pass through the thirty-two songs on this set based on my song-reactions turned out to successfully eliminate every song by anybody I didn't already know I liked, which was disappointing, however productive. After a little more thought, I also deleted a number of tracks taken from albums I didn't need to be reminded of, and a few more that seemed like the wrong examples to carry around with me of the work by people I otherwise like. This left me with all of three songs, which isn't a great yield, but it's a benefit album, so I didn't buy it as an investment. After a few more listens I even realized that Kay Hanley's straightforward "Sheltering Sky" really was on her solo album, Cherry Marmalade, which I apparently deleted from my brain as well as my iPod, and that Tanya Donelly's spectral "Last Rain" was a b-side on the Sleepwalk EP. Which leaves me with one song.
And even this last one will eventually appear on another album, or the album it's on will eventually be available for purchase from the usual places you buy albums, but for the moment this is the easiest way you'll find it. It's called "Silver", it's by Meghan Toohey in her new band-guise as the So and So's (credited here, transitionally, as "Meghan Toohey and the So and So's", but the plan is to drop her name), and maybe this is the one that will change her life, like "The One" changed Tracy Bonham's or "Here and Now" changed Kay Hanley's or "Voices Carry" changed Aimee Mann's, even if maybe none of those did in the real world what they did in mine. But in the version of Boston rock history I write in my mind as I walk around, this is another signpost, and another moment when I wish I had the power to impose my geography onto the real places. Guitars chime and intertwine, some from Meghan, some from her brother Sean (visiting from the Red Telephone). Mark Britton's drums sweep in and out like escorts or foreshadowing, John Sands supplies an intro loop whose graft doesn't quite take, and Rodrigo Monterrey mostly keeps the bass from getting in the way. And Meghan sings two parts, one low and confessional and close, one high and feathery and wordless, except when they switch on the fly and the words soar off into the air. The song is at one of those tempos we don't have good words for, too solid for a ballad but not charged enough for pop, like the helpless speed hearts beat. It's pretty, and strong, and the lyrics aren't much, and half of the best parts don't say anything at all. And it's silver, the consolation metal, and at a couple points you can tell it's a demo, and I hope she never does a gold version, like I never want a "Luka" remake reeking of Froom's ichors. Some songs need weeks of machinery, but some just need an hour of inspiration and four minutes of tape. Some weeks need a whole week to be perfect, and some are redeemed by a glance.