Until the Darkness Sparkles
443 · 24 July 03
Manic Street Preachers: There By the Grace of God
The good news, from the music industry's point of view, is that now that I have an iPod, I listen to a lot more singles. More than half my listening is done away from my home stereo, and if I have to carry around CDs, I'm going to carry ones with more music. The iPod not only eliminates this objection, but also gives me many more opportunities for short-duration music-appreciation. I have singles with me, and I have minutes. This news is of no consequence to the American music industry, of course, as they gave up on making singles years ago. But the British might care.
The bad news, from the British music industry's point of view, is that even though I now listen to more singles, I buy fewer. When listening to singles was a special activity, with the attendant physical ritual of uncasing and recasing individual discs, it was easier for me to sustain the illusion that the activity merited the cost. On the iPod, a two-part UK CD-single set becomes a five-song EP. Less than twenty minutes, more than twenty dollars. This is not a good ratio. I have other things I could do with money. Import singles are a dubious extravagance, and I indulge less and less frequently.
But the rate hasn't reached zero yet, and probably only will because the format is dying anyway. There are still bands for whose music, given the chance, I would employ different budgeting math. Manic Street Preachers might not be one of these on the strength of their recent albums, but they'd be one of my votes for a short list of the b-side era's greatest b-side bands, so I feel like they and I should see the era out together. There is a two-disc b-sides compilation, called Lipstick Traces, that was just released in the UK, but it wastes a disc on covers (MSP would not be among my votes for the best cover band), and the thus-cramped original-b-side disc ends up leaving out several of my favorites (starting with "Montana/Autumn/78", which was my vote for the best single song of 1998). I didn't get a lot out of Forever Delayed, the recent best-of, either. It had two new songs, and one of them was also released as a single. Called "There by the Grace of God", without sufficient confidence to assure me that the band know they're reversing the saying, the song is lyrically underdeveloped and musically unassuming, and does nothing that the Manic Street Preachers haven't done six times before with more-evident enthusiasm and more-palpable commitment.
But the singles add four more b-sides, none of them included on the b-sides comp. As the intro to a rousing EP, "There by the Grace of God" starts to make better sense, and together these five songs leave me a little less confused about having once thought the Manic Street Preachers were the next in line to be the world's greatest rock band. "Automatic Teknicolour" opens with glitchy noise-drum twitter, and paces uneasily through its verses, but roars into the pealing choruses with abruptly recalled fervor. I'm not convinced the lyrics add up to much ("A bitter-sweet kaleidoscope, /A sorry-heart ritual, / The trust of a Medusa, / Evidence of memorials"?), but at least they fall apart with style. "It's All Gone" booms and rumbles and echoes and slashes, like a slow, dignified walk through a twilight botanical garden with a flame thrower. "Unstoppable Salvation", stripped down to simple drums, gruff bass, muted acoustic guitar, scattered electric chords and alternately clipped and airy vocals, inverts most of the band's usual epic patterns, and is exactly the sort of cheerful defiance of expectations that used to make their singles exciting for me. And the deftly poised "Happy Ending", gliding on piano cycles and drum rustle and guarded hope (or surrender, and after Richey's departure these two kind of merged for the Manic Street Preachers), arcs beautifully into its swelling, concluding catharsis. "This will be / A happy ending", it ends. And if this were really the end, as maybe it should have been the day Richey didn't come home, then maybe these last few songs could be the band's apology. These songs aren't Manic Street Preachers' glory, but at least as they play them they sound like they know this. Richey took their moral compass, I think they could admit that now. With him they brushed across the verge of greatness, and when he steered them away from it, they trusted him and followed and never again came close. These songs could be the reconciliation, their way of no longer trying to undermine his farewell, and perhaps even his way of releasing them from his service. And perhaps my way of releasing them, too.
The Sheila Divine: Secret Society
As the b-side era ends, though, a new EP era could be beginning. The virtualization of music opens the way for the resurgence of single songs, obviously, but this is only the most straightforward commercial implication of deposing the album as a format of necessity. If you can sell three minutes, instead of forty, then you call probably sell twenty-five minutes, too. This is an artistic opportunity, not just a logistical convenience, as the EP is an underexploited medium with its own formal characteristics. The best twenty-five minute EP may not have been made yet. There are things you can't say in one song, and can't stretch to fill an album, and we mostly haven't been saying them.
A new era will take a while to get underway, and 2002 may end up seeming like its prehistory, but it could be years before anything again captures the new form's potential as vividly, for me, as the Sheila Divine's six-song Secret Society, released last year to what must be woefully inadequate acclaim if even I haven't mentioned it until now. Before this I would have told you that the Sheila Divine were a great band who hadn't made a whole great album yet, but now I think this judgment begged the question by implying that recorded greatness is primarily measured in albums. It's extremely difficult to keep up the kind of anthemic energy the Sheila Divine are best at for a whole album. They tried to interlace other energies, and to me they weren't that good at any of the other ones, but why should they have to be anymore? The roll-call of long-ago precedents Secret Society evokes, for me, could be the roster of bands that might have discovered this if they'd been here now. U2 didn't have any reason to realize what War, or even The Joshua Tree, could have been at shorter lengths. Cactus World News had an album and singles and missed the possibilities in between. Echo and the Bunnymen put "Never Stop" on its own disk and hinted at what could have been. Pablo Honey and The Bends might have been the raw material for shorter records, but Radiohead careened off towards exactly the opposite extreme. Manic Street Preachers should have made EPs. And maybe Hunters and Collectors, and maybe the Comsat Angels.
And perhaps even Aaron Perrino doesn't understand. Maybe this is all he had time for. Maybe the Sheila Divine meant this to be an album, and conceded defeat when their studio time ran out. But in my history, this is the breakthrough. In my hindsight biography, the band recognized that twelve anthems in a row is too draining, but six isn't, and instead of writing six other songs, they just didn't. "The Swan" murmurs and builds, swirling into a maelstrom and then carefully unwinding out. The blasting "We All Have Problems" makes Everclear and Live look like stooped pelt-clad hominids on a chart of how we learned to wear collarless shirts and sing upright. "Dramatica" stretches out and sails, like an "Ocean Rain" clipper outrunning a summer storm. "Back to the Cradle" suggests what Sugar could have been capable of if they hadn't been constrained by Bob Mould's narrow conception of dynamic range. The at-once measured and open-hearted "Calling All Lovers" would be my short explanation of what's wrong with everything on Radiohead's Hail to the Thief. And the haunting, pinging, swaying, redemptive "Black River" flips some switch in my head, and from now on the Sheila Divine will be how I gauge Cactus World News and the Armoury Show, instead of the other way around. I got through my Best of 2002 without mentioning this small, grand EP, and I think that means my album/single list format needs to be rethought. Freed from plastic, music forms its own scale.
Dear Leader: War Chords
The Sheila Divine are on hold for the moment, apparently, while Aaron Perrino finds out what might become of a near-accidental solo project, which for reasons that escape me he has chosen to release under what seems like another band name. Apparent collectivity notwithstanding, Dear Leader is Perrino on all noises except drums (Orbit drummer Paul Buckley) and some backing vocals (Blake Hazard). Solo records remind me how alone my experience of music can be: how many of you instinctively measure them against David Steinhart's two records after Pop Art and Murray Attaway's remainder-binned departure from Guadalcanal Diary? How many of you automatically compare Perrino to Paul Hyde, or Mark Hollis, or Mark Seymour or David Bridie?
But maybe Perrino is going to lead us into the EP era, as this, too, is a six song record with a coherency a longer one probably couldn't have managed. "My Life as a Wrestler", the introduction, is shaped like a Sheila Divine song but scales every level down, pensive acoustic guitar where the band would have been yearning towards roar, easing into an unhurried canter where the band would have howled "Freedom!" and charged the English lines. The aching "Lonesome Together" channels a Boston muted-jangle heritage that winds through Buffalo Tom, O Positive and Cliffs of Dooneen. ''Rivalry" shudders and hums, and then steps up to a brink off of which the band would have cliff-dove (the same cliff where the Manic Street Preachers lost "You Stole the Sun From My Heart", I think), only to flutter down safely on parachute wings and drum-machine wires. "Last One In" finds a link between the frustrations in Billy Joel's "Captain Jack" and Radiohead's "Fake Plastic Trees". "Flames" bounces along always half a beat behind itself, and for me single-handedly obviates the need for Coldplay and Travis and everything Stereophonics have done since "Local Boy in the Photograph". Only at the very end, on the straining choruses of the pounding "Weakness", does Dear Leader revert to Sheila Divine intensity. How Perrino will resolve the tensions and affinities between the two, I don't know, but for six songs at a time, maybe he doesn't need to.
Wheat: Too Much Time
If we're going to jump-start an EP era, we may have to do a little conscription. Wheat have an album on the way in the fall, but for the summer we can pretend we don't know that, and take this preview EP in isolation. Hope and Adams, the last Wheat album, was quiet and beautiful in a way that swallowed its individual songs; stripped down to just five songs and about eighteen minutes, quiet beauty rather readily resolves into individual detail. The spikily ambivalent "I Met a Girl" ("I met a girl I'd like to know better, / But I'm already with someone...") tries to imagine what Weezer-esque novelty-pop could have sounded like if Jeff Buckley had made it. "Don't I Hold You" crosses the reverie notions of the Gin Blossoms, the Blue Nile and Pedro the Lion. The reedy, inward "Headphone Recorder" sends me out of my chair and across the room to shift my copy of the new eels album from the might-care pile to catalog-reference. The eerie, crinkling "Flat Black" broaches the idea that my dissatisfactions with Radiohead and Bright Eyes might be solved by simultaneous equations. And I don't know what to make of the "naked version" notation on the not-obviously-naked "Closer to Mercury", but if clothing doesn't obscure its swagger, it might augur a majestic oblique-pop album we could back-solve out of Ben Folds by excising Seventies nostalgia and fake irony, or out of Papas Fritas by suppressing naïveté and sun glare. But for the moment, while we can pretend it doesn't augur anything, it ends an EP that flares and flirts and fizzes, scattering impressions like public clues for a secret mystery. In the EP era, we will be tantalized more often than transformed, and maybe that means our fewer transformations will be better informed. We will smile at suggestions, and learn to lie suspended between answers, and maybe find better solutions for ourselves. We will salvage simplicity from passing chaos, and maybe our machines will save us despite themselves. We will find more space for fewer songs. We have been archivists and archeologists, lost in stacks and troughs, and maybe we will now see our histories and legacies already wrapped around us as poems. We will be harder to overwhelm, and easier to awe, and maybe silence and darkness and time only seem like such enemies because we fight them.