451 · 18 September 03
Helicopter Helicopter: Wild Dogs With X-Ray Eyes
If Helicopter Helicopter were from somewhere else, you might have heard of them by now. But they are from Boston. We have a perfectly good music scene here in Boston, and have had it for decades. We've had a lot of bands people should have heard of. Helicopter Helicopter play a surgingly melancholy pop not too structurally dissimilar from Jimmy Eat World, and add an excellent female second singer, and I'm sure many people would enjoy the combination.
But here on the shore of the cold North Atlantic, where maybe the Pilgrims should have camped for a season and then headed further south, people are trained to undermine themselves. We distrust anything with ambition, cover over glamour with winter layers, seek ever-lower denominators. This is a fishing port where we insist on frying everything, and a college town with institutionalized anti-intellectual politics, and a traffic nightmare we're trying to solve by burying our worst road. And we watch our bands for the faintest telltale sign of bigger dreams, and turn on them the moment we think they want more than our curt nods.
So Jimmy Eat World go for pop with every twitch they can align, and Helicopter Helicopter stand aside. These songs could have been sharpened and polished. With another guitarist, and different lighting on Julie Chadwick, Helicopter Helicopter might have fit the New Pornographers' niche. Instead, they let each riff die into the space where another one could have been crammed. They might have been louder, or funnier, or trenchant. They might have been amazing.
But amazing isn't our style, and so Helicopter Helicopter are as good as a rock band can be without risking greatness. "Helicopter Fight Song" pings squalling guitar hooks off of sinewy bass runs like parrying sabers. "Harsh Light" sighs like exiled ambulances staring across oceans towards home. "You can haunt the air, / But leave us alone", they enjoin in the careening "Talented Socialites", Chris Zerby stumbling over words he can't quite line up with the music. "The Devil" is slurred and cowed, but Chadwick's "1234" keens and thrashes, howling tensely like she can't decide whether she used to dream of being in Salem 66 or X. "Like Detroit" is a thrilling pop song hand-braked to a shuddering crawl. "The Misfit" has the swells of a bigger, happier song, but somehow never quite finishes painting a foreground. "Talk the Flyer Down" is like a compilation of every mainstream impulse Mission of Burma ever had. "August" lurches and grinds, but won't let Chadwick sing her part like Neko Case would. Guitars chop at "Time Machine" like a Meat Puppets rehearsal, but the catharsis doesn't have enough dynamic range. "Pine Trees on Fire" is a hushed acoustic break.
But it's not that we don't understand grandeur, it's just that we don't like to make a big deal about it. We've seen too many years of what salt water does to gold paint. Helicopter Helicopter is gruff when a poppier band might have been radiant, leaning on two chords where a less patient band would have scattered six, clipped and grounded where somebody else might have been defiant or ethereal. But all the same things eventually get said, no matter what the accent. Wild Dogs With X-Ray Eyes builds to the glorious, moonlit, valedictory "Waves Roll Into Boston". "I've never been the kind to open up". "I've lived in murky air". "Trains pull into stations". "Animals, lonely kids, workers and invalids". Maybe we know too well how many years we will be content to just survive. The streets may not look like much, but we levered half of them up out of the swamp. If our bands aren't as glamorous as yours, maybe it's just that we understand better what we need from them. We don't need idols and sorcerers. We just need to come in out of the cold.
Dave Derby: Even Further Behind
The bands that can't cope with this move away. Dave Derby was the bassist and singer in the Dambuilders, a self-effacing Boston band that finally broke down and made the ambitious record they weren't supposed to, the dizzying Against the Stars, and found that it didn't do them much good to be great. Derby made a couple of under-crafted solo albums credited to Brilliantine, and now finally admits to one with his own name. Here in Boston we make solo albums by locking ourselves in basements, but now that Derby has moved to New York, he's allowed to invite over everybody he knows, which turns out to be a lot of people (including David Poe, Adam Lasus, Kendall Meade, Phoebe Summersquash, Colleen Fitzgerald, Lee Mazzola, Bruce Kaphan, Michael Kotch and Joan Wasser, plus all the ones whose names I don't recognize).
Together, ironically, they mostly make a sad, quiet, elegant album, halfway between Lloyd Cole and the Red House Painters, that Boston would understand instinctively, but probably couldn't have made. "Middle Class Hero", spinning on shaker rustle and twangy guitar chirp, could be the understated (if belated) rejoinder to the Dambuilders' "Teenage Loser Anthem". The weary "Still Bored" sounds like a punk text grafted to an old soft-rock ballad distilled out of CSNY and Bread. The mutedly bouncy "California Nervous Breakdown" could be Mark Kozelek simultaneously disassembling "California †ber Alles", "California Dreamin'" and "Santa Monica". "The Dream Is Over" is listless and weepy, but the jangly title track, with Leila Mack's elfin harmony vocal dragging the proceedings back from the brink of Buffalo Springfield by way of America, sounds like a country song Buffalo Tom and Juliana Hatfield might have made together. "Sad Northern Town" approximately unravels Dream Academy's "Life in a Northern Town", and knits its strands into something practical, with sparkly acoustic-guitar pirouettes about where the "Hey ma ma ma"s would have been. "Undertow" sounds the most like an old Dambuilders song in more skeletal form. The eerie, redemptive "Brooklyn" slows down towards Red House Painters calm. "Cigarette Cowboy" could be Lloyd Cole redoing the Church's "The Unguarded Moment". And somewhere in the middle, the blaring two-minute megaphone rant "You're My Plus One" bashes everything else around a little.
But the small album this could have been turns into a larger one, for me, as it drapes itself over two key songs. The first one, holding up the record's center, is the half-whispered pop gem "U-Bahn Girl". The credits insist Derby wrote this, but it sounded so vividly like a cover to me that I wasted most of a lunch hour trying to trace it back to some early German New Wave band, before finally realizing that it's familiar because Derby used it on the second Brilliantine record. New or not, it's unprepossessingly fabulous, meditative guitar strums and papery drum patter giving way to somber piano, tinkly marimba, Wasser's pizzicato violin, fuzzy electric-feedback drone and airy harmony vocals, like Kraftwerk redone as lullaby.
The other one, six heartbreaking minutes one track before the end, is called just "Boston" on the back cover, but "Move Back to Boston" in all the credit notes. There aren't many words, but they matter. The narrator finds an old photograph, and remembers the look in the girl's eyes more clearly than the terms of their separation. "If I move back to Boston?" he asks, letting all the second halves of the question hang in the air, dust in sunlight. By itself, this is lonely and maybe pathetic, trying to ascribe hope to something that has already failed. But Derby trades verses with Mascott's Kendall Meade, while tendrils of cello, violin and guitar swirl deferentially behind them, and thus the song becomes a shared monologue. "What we had down on Harvard Street, / It resembled a life that you and I could have reached / If we didn't let go." In this admission, I suspect, is supposed to be new potential. I like it better simply as realization. They don't need to get back together, they just need to understand what they could have had. And maybe next time they'll trust themselves.
Some Girls: Feel It
If Boston's civic penchant for self-defeat were to have a public-awareness campaign, which would obviously be pointless as well as inherently out of character, I have the design for the first poster. The backdrop is a plain cement wall. On the left, in front of the wall, stands Juliana Hatfield, looking pallid, gaunt and dour. On the right, cut into the wall, is the silhouette of an absent Aimee Mann, probably from the "Voices Carry" video so we have some prayer of recognizing her outline from the hair. Through the Aimee-shaped hole we see the blue ocean under a noon sky sparely patched with diaphanous clouds.
Aimee escaped. It wasn't an accident. 'til tuesday knew what they had to risk, and gave up their Boston credibility for a chance at MTV's definition of stardom. The band didn't make it, but their push gave Aimee enough inertia to slingshot around a few major-label gravity wells and ultimately get to somewhere else.
Juliana had some minor hits, and moved away for a while, but refused to play into anybody's marketing agenda, and returned to the city and comfortable obscurity in some cross between decline and retreat. Bed was almost angry enough to break out again, and releasing two albums on the same day, a couple years later, still suggested ambition. But then, when she might have started building up momentum or even name-recognition again, she opted to re-form the Blake Babies instead. And while that move at least had history behind it, however footnotal, it seems to me like sheer evasion for her next record to be made as a trio called, as if to spite anybody who would contemplate singling them out for any virtue at all, Some Girls, complete with a mis-exposed cover photograph in which that's exactly what they look like.
I can understand wanting to just be left alone to make records, and I can understand wanting to make them as part of a band, and I can understand wanting to be part of a band that makes the kind of simple, uncluttered, unoverthought rock songs that three people can play together in a room. Only, I discover, understanding those things doesn't give me the power to actually listen to these songs without wondering if the gift they need from me is dreaming of better things on their behalf. If Juliana weren't Juliana, I don't know who would have put this out, and while one could crabbily contend, with equal meaningless subjectivity, that that was true of one or two Aimee Mann records as well (and for a while, in fact, being Aimee Mann wasn't enough to get her records released), I hear too much restraint here to believe that I'm imagining it all. This is another record full of eminently respectable songs, whose craftsmanship is sufficient to prove that they can exist, but where is the spark that explains why they do? If we're not supposed to care which girls these are, then we need to care what they've done, but if these songs carry something vital they passionately believe, I can't find it. The sleepily inexorable pace, wavering little from mid-, doesn't help. The choruses, circling peaks instead of ascending them, don't help. The poems preempt and disarm everything that could have been punch lines, and meticulously perforate what could have been insights with listless repetition and lazy cliché. A part of me wonders if those are supposed to be the points. The current prevailing girl-band models are all louder or faster or brasher or more cynical than this (and no, three women don't have to be a "girl band", but I didn't choose their name), so maybe Some Girls mean to revive possibilities. There are, no doubt, lots of girls who want some option in between the Donnas and Bond, who don't want to be in Throwing Muses or A*Teens, who don't dream of growing up to be Sleater-Kinney or t.A.T.u. In a world posterized into extremes, Some Girls could be anti-heroines.
But to believe that, I'd have to listen to this record less closely. Studying these songs just makes me tired. A part of me fears that all the ways in which it is understated are the least of its problems. It's worst if I scan: hearing the first ten seconds of each song, in a row, I have the grotesque suspicion that Juliana is actually sandbagging. She has never been an overly complicated performer, but these songs are morbidly simplistic even by her standards. I've heard a lot of deliberately and thrillingly simple music, and so has she, and I can't convince myself that she thinks this is more of it. For me this record has wandered through understated into stating nothing, and out the other side into implicitly stating something ugly. I fear that Juliana loves her band too much to notice how much they are holding her back, or worse, that she notices, and clings to the patronizing hope that they don't. And this is what too much taciturn, attention-deflecting, self-protective humility can do to you: you forget that distrusting ambition was only supposed to be a defense mechanism. Lowered expectations protect against failure. But failure is not inevitable. You have to try something. Following the fallen does not constitute rescue. Juliana could write better songs than these, songs that sound like they're not just alive by default. I'm not asking for another 0304 or Liz Phair, or even another Bed or God Bless the Blake Babies. Frankly, I'm not asking for anything from Juliana Hatfield anymore. And listening to this record, anyway, I wonder if she got to make it because nobody else is asking anything of her, either. And maybe that seems like a definition of freedom, but if you're not asking anything of yourself, then what are you making sounds to answer?