Pleasure and Education
462 · 4 December 03
I apologize to all the records I couldn't love enough. After years of cluttered procrastination, I have finally confronted my dire CD-storage crisis. After years of pretending I could meaningfully accumulate music without ever parting with a minute of it, I have finally accepted that my life is more finite than the music I want to hear. I have finally conducted the purge. For the first time since a many-times-regretted family garage sale when I was still in high school, my music collection has gotten smaller. My collection database, now a historical inventory rather than merely a current one, details 8,798 individual music-bearing objects I have taken note of once having owned. For my entire life as an financial nondependent, the depth and breadth of my music collection, measured most simplistically by one overall total, has been my primary internal metric of my material well-being. I have earned and saved and budgeted and spent around one enduring central principle: the more records, the better. For many years, this process was constrained by money. For the last few, it has been constrained by listening time. It now needs to be constrained by both physical and mental capacity.
Maybe the most telling measure of how far out of control my music collection had strayed is that as I began the purge, I had no idea how extensive it would be. I knew there were some records I never liked, didn't care about, and didn't need to ever play or examine again. I knew there were some I once liked but could now live without. And I knew, at least in theory, that there were some records I liked well enough on their independent merits, but could eliminate on the grounds that there were enough similar records I liked better that I would always rather listen to something else. But before starting the slow process of making a stay-or-go decision on every individual record, I could hardly even make a logarithmic guess at how many I would actually bear to part with. My long-ago-overflowed primary CD shelves can hold about 4,500, but that's stipulating an answer before doing the math. I sat down to pass judgment.
Some decisions were easier than I feared, some were harder than I hoped. Both sorts got made. Of the 8,798 things I would have had today, only 4,293 remain in my possession. Counting just CDs, I have reduced 7,474 to only 4,018. A reasonable person might take exception to the juxtaposition of the word "only", in these contexts, with numbers in the thousands, but a gesture can be measured by what it costs to the performer and the air, not just the audience. I do feel a small sense of loss, perhaps more for the end of an era in my manner of self-comprehension. More than that I feel guilt. In getting rid of thousands of records, and in tracking those thousands so that my decisions about artists won't unmake themselves through buying habit, I have given up on an enormous amount of music that deserved more from me. In changing my attitude towards my collection, I have accepted that for my accumulation patterns to also change, as they must, I have to give up on some music that I haven't even heard. A stubborn part of me hurts at this thought. What am I here for, I would once have rhetorically asked, if not to bear witness to the greatest human art? But this is not a rhetorical question anymore. It never should have been, and perhaps it never was. I am here to listen, but I am also here for other things.
The schema of my collection database is simpler than it once was, too. It is no longer my personal task to catalog recordings, only to keep track of how the universe of recordings intersects my own life. Still, some marginally interesting things can be gleaned from analyzing my data. The database knows when each thing entered my life, and whether it has exited again or not, and from this I can grade my buying years by prescience. Of the first 167 things I'd acquired by 1986, I have kept only 20 of them. Admittedly 109 of the other 147 were vinyl I subsequently replaced with CDs, but many of those CDs are gone now, too. Of the 367 more vinyl things I got from 1987 to 1989, I have kept only 52. I started buying CDs at the beginning of 1990, and the predominance of cherished-LP-replacements that year is evident in the fact that I've kept 66 of my first 93. From 1991 to 1998, the retention rate gracefully approaches 50%, and the growth rate stabilizes. More recently, I've kept two-thirds of what I bought in 2002, and I've bought fewer records in 2003 than in any year since 1993.
But as the statistics for the years in between vividly testify, in 1999 I lost my mind. That was the year I discovered the Field Mice, and then traced them back to Sarah Records, and then realized with a mixture of horror and elation that I'd managed to fall out of touch with an entire underground. I hated this idea violently, and set about buying my way back in. My 1999 buying was nearly triple my stabilized Nineties rate, and in 2000 and 2001 it only subsided to double. The inherent difficulty of exploration is reflected in the retention rates. I've kept more than half of what I got in 2001, by which point I was pursuing specific interests rather than engulfing entire genres and labels. From 2000, when I was still groping in unfamiliar corners, I've kept less than 40%, including only 3 of 89 7" singles. And from 1999, the binge year, I've kept less than a third. Here collects most of my guilt. 1999 was the year that changed my musical world most radically, and in the throes of rapture I overbought so badly that I basically became unable to process. I have had to let go of nearly 2,000 records I bought between 1999 and 2001, and I bet if I'd bought only 1,000 of them I'd have had some hope of recognizing that 500 of those are probably wonderful in some way. I have failed those records.
But maybe I knew that was happening even at the time. I bought to learn, because at the time buying was still the most efficient method. I spent a lot of money doing it, but I will probably spend more money on even sillier things before I am done. I knew I was buying a lot to find a few. And what the rates don't notice is that a third of what I've kept comes from those three years, too. Sarah Records led me to a lot of music that turned out to be ephemeral in my life, but so too to some that is indelible and profound. I apologize to all the records I couldn't love enough, and thank them for their sacrifice that I might love others.
Aberdeen: The Boy Has Gone Away
As I filled paper grocery bags with the rejects, then, ferrying them down to fill my living room in what felt like hours of stair trips, I was humming three songs in rotation like Franny warding off dementia with prayer. Aberdeen put out two singles on Sarah, and then they were nowhere for years, and then they finally made their first album in 2002. They don't have much to show for 2003, numerically: this EP, just two original songs and one cover.
And this is why we tell stories in words, not numbers. These three songs have enough magic to justify three years of hapless flailing all by themselves. "The Boy Has Gone Away" itself flares into life like "That's Entertainment" by way of early Smiths, the drums steady and crisp, the guitars pealing, Beth Arzy's pillowy voice floating over the arrangement without evident means of support. "You know she's missing him", she explains. "She made a bad decision." Somehow the clarity of this breaks my heart and holds the pieces together at once. If only our power over ourselves was this simple. But the music surges, and my heartbeats accelerate, and for a few minutes it seems so obvious to me that sadness is our greatest source of strength. "Miss You Now You're Gone", written by Johnny Joyner (who also plays, but doesn't write, for Fonda), twitters more like a muted New Order, Arzy's voice dropping down into the cloud cover to sing a lost-love lament about someone who used to live downstairs that could be a elegiac sequel to Pop Art's "Roommates". The cover, in Sarah recursion, is of the Field Mice's "Emma's House", which Aberdeen humanize dramatically by replacing the Field Mice's anxious, twitchy drum-machine with real drums pushed further into the beat, and cranking the guitar distortion way up. This is what Sarah was best at, these flights of glorious fragility. This is why I spend so much of my time and money and energy this way, for exactly these moments when stories come together and send me spinning through the spaces I've just emptied, dreaming of all the records I haven't embraced or abandoned yet.
The Steinbecks: Branches and Fronds Brushing the Windows
I never did really warm to the Sugargliders, who put out six singles and a collection on Sarah, but following them through a name-change anyway got me to the marvelous 2000 Steinbecks album Recorded Music Salon, which had, among its several virtues, a quiet protest song called "Karma" that I liked just about as much as I ever like anything. For Branches and Fronds Brushing the Windows the band scales back to the six-song EP format, and maybe if Matt and Clare were running Sarah today it would be an EP label. Fleeting pop sometimes survives in small sets when it couldn't in dozens. And succinct outrage can be more plaintive than strident.
Lyrically, there's some unmistakable outrage here. "Guilty Spring" sighs disgustedly at Australia's participation in the invasion of Iraq, even as it recognizes the sources of complacency in personal inertia. "Arafura Sea" continues "Karma"'s witness to the Indonesian human-rights abuses in West Papua. Out of the news, "Mens Suit Hire" and "Trying Too Hard" dig into the opposite tendency to overact and overextend, when we ought to hold our peace. Sandwiched between these, though, are a song about brushing across temptation at a summer rock festival, and another about watching cormorants preen from a Melbourne pedestrian bridge in the dead of winter.
What transforms this set of thoughts from poetic to bracing, though, at least for me, is the unexpectedly oblique way the Steinbecks choose to set these six poems to music. "Guilty Spring" picks its way through the verses on spindly acoustic-guitar figures and hesitant drumming faded sneakily into the contours of Josh Meadows' singing, and then lets the lyrically-truncated choruses leap into pools of wordless electric distortion, as if guilt tells its own story whenever you shut up long enough to let it. "Arafura Sea" lurches from breathy verses, on the order of Too Much Joy taking Prefab Sprout seriously, to blaring choruses closer to pre-epic Rush. The impishly brief "Song for Today", partly about feeling out of place at a metal concert, could be the Steinbecks' answer to "The Boy Has Gone Away", perkily galloping verses macheteing into half-stop non-choruses and twanged guitar hooks. "Morrell Bridge", which weighs industrial corruption against one good public space and decides that sometimes nature can be improved, this time flits the corner of a Too Much Joy smirk across trenchant rumbles of old Gang of Four angularity and Midnight Oil stomp. The sardonic (and apostrophe-free) "Mens Suit Hire" plays the music slyly straight, as matchingly superficial twee organ/brass/backing-swoon jazz-pop. And "Trying Too Hard" (which you can improve by telling iTunes to cut it off at 2:26), measures muttery sotto voce vocals against slowly metronomic kick pulses and guarded guitar figures. And this adds up to less than an album, but maybe in the same way that a few short stories don't "add up" to a novel, and shouldn't. We wait too long, sometimes, and take in too much before we stop to try to understand it. We let the idea-virus of growth-as-an-end infect our art, when it doesn't even belong in our commerce. So if I need fewer records, I probably also need shorter ones, and longer silences in between.
Brighter: Singles 1989-1992
I knew, as I was methodically checking my way through the Sarah discography itself via a whole lot of eBay sniping, that some part of that effort would end up being at least musically superfluous. A few of the Sarah bands had already had post-Sarah reissues and compilations, and it seemed like a fairly safe bet that a few more eventually would. Eight years after the finale of There and Back Again Lane, though, much of the Sarah music remains uncooperatively elusive. Most of the East River Pipe songs are available on Merge albums, most of the Heavenly songs on K, all of the Wake ones on LTM, and all of the Springfields ones on Action Musik's Chastain/Menck compilation, but until very recently that was about all you could expect to find new. Glaringly missing are the Sea Urchins, the Orchids, Another Sunny Day, the Sweetest Ache, Even As We Speak, Blueboy, the Harvest Ministers, Action Painting, the Hit Parade and the Sugargliders, never mind all the bands that only had one or two singles. Even Shinkhansen's ethos-summarizing double-CD Field Mice retrospective has itself gone out of print in turn, and Shinkhansen, which is Matt's new label, has devolved into a Cody/Fosca/Trembling Blue Stars boutique.
But what Matt won't do for his own history, others may take on. Brighter had Sarah singles 19, 27, 56 and 69, and a ten-inch EP as #404. Laurel, the EP, remains in hiding, but the fifteen songs from the four singles (one of which was also, confusingly, a ten-inch, but the 1-100 catalog numbers are law) are revived, in order, on this compilation from heavily Sarah-indebted California indie-pop label Matinée. If, in particular, you mainly know the Sarah style from Heavenly, this Brighter comp offers an excellent contrasting sample of the gauzy dream-pop end of the label's spectrum. Brighter's earliest songs wrap dense, pastel reverb around fairly simplistic guitar lines and reticent bass, into which drumless haze Keris Howard sings with a somewhat shaky grasp of vocal tuning. They got a drum machine and some keyboards later, and Keris improved with practice, but even at their most anthemic (the nervous "Does Love Last Forever?", the Kings of Convenience-anticipating "Poppy Day", the New Order-ish "Killjoy", the onomatopoeially shimmery "Hope Springs Eternal") they sounded like they could have used some multi-vitamins and still would have been useless in a company-picnic volleyball game. "Never Ever" and "End", the final diptych, sound like they're being sung out of a dream under comforters. And this was both why Sarah was never destined to be another Matador or Dischord, and yet how these small haunted records could touch a few scattered lives so deeply.
Secret Shine: After Years
Dream-pop, left unchecked, can develop into fully fledged shoegazing. Sarah's one serious shoegazing band was Secret Shine, who had 53, 61, 71, 89 and 615. This compilation, produced jointly by Clairecords and Tone Vendor, leaves off the anomalous pop from 53 (even though that's where the collection's title comes from) in the interest of the stylistic consistency of all the rest. The full Secret Shine album, Untouched, is one of my personal Sarah favorites, and one of the few that I find myself listening to without consciously thinking about the fact that it was a Sarah record (not that Sarah awareness is a bad characteristic of my experience of the others). Waves of guitar feedback crash over banging drums and driving bass, with delicate tendrils of coed vocal harmonies snaking through the noise. I can happily float in this whir for hours.
Secret Shine seem doomed, however, to have two asterisks permanently stapled to their foreheads. One notes, ruefully, that "noise" is relative, and what was radical and bracing in 1993 may be hopelessly twinkly and precious ten years later. A lot of industrial and metal bands learned from shoegazing, and a lot of neo-shoegazing bands learned from industrial and metal in return, and as a result many circa-2003 listeners, particularly those accustomed to hearing contrivedly menacing, rather than airily artless, vocal timbres over their noisy music, will find it hard to hear Secret Shine as anything other than a period piece, however charming.
The other, bigger asterisk is there because Secret Shine didn't invent this sound, either. That credit is customarily assigned to My Bloody Valentine, who for most practical purposes invented the style on their 1988 album Isn't Anything and perfected it on 1991's Loveless, only to find the whole experience so draining that twelve years later their next one is still bemired in Kevin Shields' studio. Secret Shine heard both MBV records before making their own, and so should you. And even if you don't decide, after hearing them, that that's all the shoegazing you actually need, a self-educational curriculum would probably trace the ideas through later developments and implications (Curve, Lush, Catherine Wheel, Garbage...) and earlier influences and precedents (Metal Machine Music, Cocteau Twins, This Mortal Coil, The Jesus and Mary Chain...) before spending any time on another example that just reiterates the central impulse. After Years, then, is a gift for the devoted, a gift for you only if you've moved through comprehension into hunger. But this, too, is an integral part of my experience of music. I love the rare sound of invention, but I think I love, even more than that, the sounds we insist on making in the lost days between changes, the songs we sing when we don't claim sudden revelation, only persistent faith.