Excalibur As a Guitar
464 · 18 December 03
Hey Mercedes: Loses Control
The electric guitar was a really good idea. Without it you would have to work really hard to produce modern rock music's defining stylistic trope, at least since "Smells Like Teen Spirit", which is when a series of tense muttering sounds suddenly explodes into a huge roar as a visceral metaphor for sudden emotional transcendence. Kurt didn't invent this, of course, and for all the good it did him may not even have understood it. You can make the same point with pizzicato strings, some timpani, one very big cymbal and a lot of frantic baton gesticulating, without even a single distortion pedal, but what that saves in technology it spends in manpower and planning. With an overdriven electric guitar, one person can produce this catharsis after about a minute and a half of rudimentary instruction. Definitionally speaking, the guitar is not a platonic machine on the order of the lever or the wheel, but as an art-making tool in social context it is both elemental and transformative. If you have never personally played a power-chord, and felt it slam back at you out of an amplifier, your relationship with rock music is only a shadow of what it could be. All generalizable intellectual forms cycle through traditionalism and experimentalism, of course, and here in 2003 you could fill a plausible life with music without necessarily including anything centered on guitars. And you could eat fascinating food every night without ever consuming anything grilled, and you could make friends without ever falling in love.
But many possible ideas are also terrible. There is music you should hear that wouldn't exist without guitars. Hey Mercedes may or may not be the most essential current guitar band, but they could well be the most emblematic. Without guitars, these songs would simply disintegrate. With them, they surge and churn and swirl, and the paths of these noises' contortions describe the contours and boundaries of yearning. "Quality Revenge at Last" chops and hums, whispering "Steady now, city sister" in the way that makes this open-hearted thrashing the love theme for quiet claustrophobic persistence. "It's Been a Blast" howls and pounds, slumping from love to oblivion. "Playing Your Song" stabs chords through levity with the methodical bitterness of inexorable imminent loss. "Knowing When to Stop" is a painstaking Sarge/Reputation impersonation, and "The Boy Destroyers" careens from Sugar buzz to Fugazi vitriol. "Unorchestrated" subsides to a distracted chirp, but "Lashing Out" spins back up into anthem minimalism. "Police Police Me" sounds like classic rock played backwards, "The Switch" is TV-theme bold, "Absolute Zero Drive" lurches, "Go On Drone" twitches. "Oh Penny" might stand most synecdochally for the whole, invoking precedents from the Knack to Cheap Trick to "Baker Street" to the Stones. The guitars let up for no more than a few seconds, maybe twice.
The sonic irony of Loses Control, though, is that Hey Mercedes believe so ardently in the power of guitars that they almost forget it still has to be demonstrated. Producers Sean Slade and Paul Q. Kolderie, who have presided over the demonstration of an impressive amount of guitar power through the years, compound the perplexing mistake they made on God Bless the Go-Go's by pulping Bob Nanna and Mike Shumaker's guitar sounds into a mushy paste and then trying to squeeze it out of guitar-shaped pastry nozzles, with the result that these songs indicate their soft-loud jump-cuts without actually changing dynamics appreciably. This is most painfully obvious at about the 1:36 and 1:40 points of "It's Been a Blast", when the guitars cut out and back in with what ought to be riot-inciting drama, and I keep thinking one of my speaker cables has just come loose for a moment. Back when Hey Mercedes was Braid, they would have emphasized the guitar dynamics by shouting over them, yet here Nanna opts to sing in a controlled hush that amplification can normalize but not animate, which I guess might make sense if it allowed him a wider range, but since he still writes melodies that appear to have been composed on light switches, he's left sounding half-asleep. I say that Hey Mercedes are one of the greatest extant American guitar bands, and if Loses Control is how you evaluate my claim, I will seem crazy.
But redundancy and drums were really good ideas, too, and Hey Mercedes salvages Loses Control by letting Damon Atkinson compensate for every dynamic the other parts miss. This is rock's great cheat, arguably, literally imposing rhythm where it otherwise has no internal compositional justification, but that doesn't mean it doesn't work. Atkinson was in Braid, too, and if everybody else in the studio has forgotten how stops clash against starts, and how noise blasts into quiet spaces, he hasn't. Ride and crash cymbals control the textures, sputtering kick drums drive the tempo, and deftly placed snares (hitting beats squarely nine times out of ten and then critically not) change everything. If you could mute the drums, you could turn this into ambient background whir and forget and ignore it. But you can't.
Thursday: War All the Time
As of the two bands' last albums, two years ago, Thursday seemed to me like a simplistic exaggeration of Hey Mercedes' aesthetic. They still do, but this time exaggeration is exactly what I think Hey Mercedes' aesthetic most plaintively needs. Thursday scream whenever they can't think of the right next note, and spasm any time they lose their balance, which is no real substitute for discipline or grace, but half the point of rock, and three-quarters of the point of electric guitars and drums, is that enthusiasm can temporarily trump craftsmanship, and Thursday sound like kids who still vividly remember what that first power-chord felt like. Of course, they also still remember way too much about the absurd pretensions that seemed brilliant when they were fifteen, which tends to curse their lyrics with a less-well-read-Rush gangliness and lull them into the occasional counter-productive "thoughtful" aside (trust me, you'll be happier if you uncheck "This Song Brought to You by a Falling Bomb" before ripping this album), but most of the time they have the sense to keep flailing around with an inspiring abandon, and by the end of the record most of the room is in cheerful splinters. Braid and Hey Mercedes are fundamentally seminal, and Thursday are profoundly derivative, but taxonomy is not the same as listening. Sometimes, maybe even often, greatness lies in what your intentions corrupt, and what you inspire others to steal.
Ted Leo: Tell Balgeary, Balgury Is Dead
One of the strangest things about the centrality of the electric guitar in rock music is how seldom anybody makes records with just an electric guitar. There are millions of acoustic-guitar-and-voice records, at least hundreds of which qualify in one sense or another as rock, but the canon of ragged-electric-guitar-and-voice records, or at least my own personal subset of it, is basically a couple Billy Bragg albums before he succumbed to band temptations, a few Mecca Normal records before Peter Jefferies showed up and refused to go home, and a handful of thoroughly magical Paul Weller demos on one of those Jam rarities albums.
Billy Bragg's Life's a Riot With Spy Vs. Spy had seven songs. This Ted Leo EP claims to have ten, but you can delete the pointless seventh and tenth noise-tracks, and while you're at it go ahead and excise the title track, which is simply taken from Hearts of Oak, and then cross out the now-inaccurate Pharmacists reference on the cover art. The seven solo tracks you're left with are as close as anybody has come to making another Life's a Riot since Bragg made the first one.
Bragg, of course, wrote seven songs for his record, and Leo did not. "The High Party" is a solo version of the Hearts of Oak album track, and three of the others are covers. This does not reduce my enjoyment of the record at all. The solo version of "The High Party", recorded for a DC radio session, careens along as if Leo is hearing a backing band that we aren't and don't need to. "The Sword in the Stone" (recorded, as were the other five, by Ida's Dan Littleton with breathlessly little ado) finally pulls off the soul-infused minimalism that Bragg's "Levi Stubbs' Tears" implied. The haplessly headlong "Bleeding Powers", with the suspended chorus mantra "And the road leads somewhere, but it's not yet to your door", marries the disparate melancholies of "The Wind Blows Away My Words", "Cowboy Song" and "I'm Gonna Be (500 Miles)". In the covers section, Ewan McColl's "Dirty Old Town" is harried halfway from the Pogues' leer to a Woody Guthrie picket-line stand-fast, the Jam's "Ghosts" could be a letter to Weller's youth, and the swooping celebration of Split Enz' "Six Months in a Leaky Boat" is probably the best thing with a Finn's name and an asterisk near it since Crowded House covered "Throw Your Arms Around Me". And "Loyal to My Sorrowful Country", the wearily glorious finale, is the objector's unelaborated answer-song to "This Land Is Your Land", and a chastened anti-national-anthem for starting over. One voice, one promise, one electric guitar. That's one more guitar than we had when we started over last time.
Dear Leader: The Good Times Are Killing Me
I wondered whether Aaron Perrino could sustain the pensive truces of the War Chords EP over the length of a full album. Here is the album. Perrino helps his own cause by keeping it to an old-fashioned ten songs in forty minutes, and recruits a little more help by getting Jack Drag's John Dragonetti to produce and help play, and bringing Blake Hazard back to sing a few more pretty harmony lines. If Perrino's other band, the Sheila Divine, tried to extrapolate what U2 might have sounded like if they'd never discovered Eno, Lanois or media self-consciousness, Dear Leader imagine another alternate U2 that deduced Eno and Lanois' restraint on their own, and so came to studio machinery via restless introspection rather than ironic extroversion or thinly disguised god-complexes. The Good Times Are Killing Me is thus a quiet, ticking, haunted record of overnight vigils and balanced disappointments, of drum-machine mood poems and restricted-palette landscapes of rain-swept streets, of stubborn candle-flame hope and anthems too aware of how much they ask. At its most menacing, like in the pulsing "Our Motto" or the stomping "If the House Spoke", it still can't hide the way compassion blurs the straightest lines. At its bounciest, like in the quick, twittering "Vigorous Cravings" or the patient "Culture Vultures", it still can't pretend that the silences in the rewinds don't reawaken doubts. Minutes drift into languid elegance or atmospheric calm. In my favorite isolated moments, "Ice Age" almost apologetically reconciles the Alarm and Curve, and "My Heart Is a Ghetto" admits sheepishly to aspirations to symphonic timelessness, but if the Sheila Divine were rousing, and the shorter Dear Leader EP was half grounded and half aloft, then The Good Times Are Killing Me defers to physics and takes on gravity. There are songs for dreaming that we can fly, and songs for knowing that it's no defeat to stand on the Earth.
Loveless: Gift to the World
But we make small noises with our real bodies, the ones stuck to the planet, and part of the point of guitars is that they can slip some of these implacable bonds. I know Dear Leader is the sound of accepting the night's loneliness, but recognizing maturity is not quite the same as inhabiting it. Loveless's Gift to the World was produced by Mike Denneen, who did some early Sheila Divine songs. Paul Kolderie loaned them some gear, and Loses Control and Gift to the World share both a studio and a drum tech, and I end the night where I tried to begin, after all, caught up in what guitars can evoke. The guitarists, this time, are Boston veterans Dave Wanamaker (from Expanding Man) and Jen Trynin. Trynin's presence is why I bought this, which meant I had to get over the disappointment that Loveless are no more Trynin's band than Helicopter Helicopter are Julie Chadwick's, but that took four songs, at most. Trynin sings a little, but this is an ensemble band, not a showcase with a pseudonym.
And it's an ensemble guitar band, at that, and as such must confront, almost immediately, the traditional Boston dilemma about local humility and global ambition. Trynin has been through this, and hated it enough the first time to quit music entirely for a while. The right answer, as Helicopter Helicopter and the Red Telephone have demonstrated, is that these winters build character, and in isolationist spiritual geography the highways curve around to meet the coasts like concentric moats.
Loveless get it grandly wrong, and it'll probably go badly for them, but courage is still greater than discretion. Loveless is what Garbage could have been with less gadgetry and fewer fetishes, or what Muse could be in Half Cocked's clothes, or how the Smithereens could have turned out if they'd grown up on Hüsker Dü or 'til tuesday on Guns N' Roses, and between Loveless, Ted Leo, Wheat and Super Genius there have been enough great rock records made in Boston this year that we don't have to care what anybody else thinks. The choruses of "Go" peal and the verses of "A Gift to the World" bray, "You Wore Me Out" stretches out and "Beautiful" soars into air, "Stick to the Girl" circles and grinds and "This Is a Way" eddies and burbles, "Suicide Machines" struts and "She Could Be Something Good" collapses into poses. And there it is, 2:56 into "Go", the thing guitars and drums do better than any other devices we've invented yet: the roar and crash turns into a muted plucking for just a few seconds, empty space yawning under one guitar and a voice, and then the drums swell back up and the guitars bash back in and I'm lost in rapture again. I nearly didn't know about this album, and only bought it on mistaken expectations, and if we are so small and so powerless and so beholden to coincidence, then how is it that infinity resonates so readily at our most glancing touch?