First and Second Thoughts
467 · 8 January 04
Ballboy: Club Anthems
I've stopped giving, whether "giving" was ever really the right word for it, a Best New Artist award. This could be simply another part of my general effort to reduce the amount of pointless structure I impose on my random subjectivity, but it's also at least partially an admission that I'm no longer, if I ever was, in any real position to judge newness. I'm not an industry insider, and I don't follow the kind of media I would have to follow to know about bands nobody knows about yet. I don't even listen to the radio. My chief investigative talent is patience, which is useful for uncovering stubborn obscurity, but which tends almost by definition to overlook the introductory and the transient, much less distinguish between them. So by the time I hear about anything new, it's probably not very new anymore. If I'd had to vote for a Best New Artist in late 2003, it would have been Ballboy, an Edinburgh band who by now are already on their third album. I bought Club Anthems, their nominal first album, in 2003, but it was released in the US in 2002 and the UK in 2001, and is only a compilation of their first three EPs from 1999, 2000 and 2001, anyway. I no longer even remember precisely how I did hear of them, as it took me long enough to track down their records down that the fact of my interest became separated from its rationale. I probably read about them somewhere online. Somebody probably wrote something about them that I thought meant I should hear them.
And now that I've heard them, I'm even less sure what somebody said, because it wasn't any of the four things I would now say to myself to get me interested. The first is that many Ballboy songs involve Gordon McIntyre simply talking through small dawnings of self-realization, in his plaintive Scottish accent, over drony two- or three-chord atmospherics. There's nothing inherently innovative about minor self-realization, the Scottish brogue or methodical oscillations, but they happen to be personal weaknesses of mine, independently, and together they turn out to be dangerously mesmerizing. "I Hate Scotland", the title track of Ballboy's second EP and the first song on the compilation, might as well be the archetype of this form, McIntyre reinternalizing the vitriol of Renton's anti-Scotland tirade in Trainspotting and ending up admitting that maybe Scotland has nothing to do with it and he just wishes he were more graceful and his life were simple enough that grace would be sufficient. "A Day in Space", a deadpan monologue about the relative virtues of dreaming about going into space versus dreaming about anything earthbound, is heartbreakingly innocent and earnest. Both songs run for around six minutes, mostly over the band methodically swaying between two chiming chords, like an earth spirit crossing Highland hills in shimmery slow-motion. They ought to get old quickly, but they don't seem to be doing that for me.
The second thing I'd tell myself is that Ballboy provide another impression of what Whipping Boy might have grown into, or maybe what they might have grown up from. This will obviously be useless to anybody who doesn't still remember Whipping Boy's Heartworm as fondly as I do, but that's not my problem. Ballboy are a younger, more naïve version of Whipping Boy in just about every dimension: the music a few steps farther from My Bloody Valentine towards fragility, McIntyre's voice reedier and less confident than Ferghal McKee's, his lyrics more doubtful than defiant. Whipping Boy's elusive self-titled follow-up to Heartworm perversely downplayed their strengths, I thought. Ballboy suggest different emphases.
The third thing I'd say is that Ballboy are the band I've always wanted Belle & Sebastian to be. Or they make the music I think Sebastian would have made if he hadn't met Belle in the story on the back of the Tigermilk booklet, which I guess isn't the band I wanted Belle & Sebastian to be, because of course I'm always in favor of them meeting, but maybe these are the songs he'd write ten years later, when he began to understand that he's been in love with her for most of them. The fourth thing I'd say, which is a rephrasing of the third, is that Ballboy are now the working band whom I think best encapsulate and sustain the spirit of Sarah Records, all the way from the confessional impulses of the liner notes to the sheepish fascination with guitar roar. In the best moments of Club Anthems, I feel like I can hear the Field Mice and the Secret Shine and St. Christopher and Shelley all at once, in a way that I never do when Fosca or Trembling Blue Stars play their living versions of subsets of Sarah's aesthetic, or when Belle & Sebastian stray far from the Sarah template it once seemed like they intended to use.
Ballboy: A Guide for the Daylight Hours
But Club Anthems has non-best moments too. The simplistic compositions work well for me in dense, urgent arrangements, but sometimes lose too much inertia when the songs pare back to acoustic guitars or slow down. McIntyre often has more presence talking than singing, I think, so sometimes an eminently laudable attempt at melody backfires. The four-song stretch from "Swim for Health" through "Dumper Truck Racing" concentrates far too much listlessness in one place, and undermines the whole collection's energy.
A Guide for the Daylight Hours, the second album and the first one constructed as a whole, avoids this pitfall. There are only two really gentle songs, and one of them is only a minute and a half long and they aren't sequenced together. The other eight are all at least rich or quick, many of them both. At points the band swirls into Neutral Milk Hotel bleat, impish mock-country shuffle, perky organ twitter or tragic string elegance, but mostly they just apply themselves to their steady, rhythmic surge. McIntyre speaks only two, but he's learned to sing the sung ones with more conviction, and he's also found a kind of half-sung compromise to give himself a third option. The effect is dreamlike and cinematic, even as the texts still read like journal entries.
It is very tempting to think that these journals are what defines Ballboy, that McIntyre's rueful melancholy is this music's soul. Here are the titles of these ten songs: "Avant Garde Music", "Where Do the Nights of Sleep Go to When They Do Not Come to Me", "You Can't Spend Your Whole Life Hanging Around With Arseholes", "I Wonder If You're Drunk Enough to Sleep With Me Tonight", "I Lost You, But I Found Country Music", "A Europewide Search for Love", "Something's Going to Happen Soon", "Nobody Really Knows Anything", "Sex Is Boring" and "Meet Me at the Shooting Range". I can't think of another album that conveys as much of its tone in its track listing. The ones with the most evocative titles really do live up to them, and the simpler names are misleading. The daylight hours are filled with loneliness and rejection, and love overflowing without a direction, and maybe we all already knew that loneliness comes from having too much love, not too little, but that doesn't mean we didn't need to be reminded that either way it's important.
Ballboy: The Sash My Father Wore and Other Stories
But if McIntyre's words defined this band, then I should still like The Sash My Father Wore and Other Stories, their (sic) third album, which I managed to mail-order a copy of just a few days before the year I discovered them ended. Surely the absence of the other three band members can't matter much. McIntyre's sketchy acoustic guitar and a few careful strings should be enough. It's an odd decision to do three covers, but the contrast of his treatment of other writers' words with his own should be interesting and perhaps informative.
Sadly, I'm bored nearly to stupor. This is a whole record of the lowest ebbs of Club Anthems. McIntyre's half-singing timbre is useful as an alternative, but here it's his only voice. Sparkless music, charmless singing, no dense atmosphere, no driving rhythms, no talking in Scottish accents. The titles aren't interesting, and the arrangements are too tedious for me to concentrate on the rest of the words. A desultory drum-machine loop elevates one song in the middle, which only makes me more conscious of how lifeless the others seem. These are scribbled notes for what might eventually have been a journal of what eventually might have been songs.
Belle & Sebastian: Dear Catastrophe Waitress
But if Ballboy suddenly seemed like the band I wanted Belle & Sebastian to become, and then almost as abruptly didn't again, maybe it's time for Belle & Sebastian themselves to reassume the role. I can't exactly explain what happened to me with this record. I've had it for three months, playing it periodically, and up until a couple weeks ago couldn't have told you anything coherent about it. But I put it back into higher rotation to think about how it relates to the Ballboy albums, and I'm baffled and stunned by how much I now find myself liking it. Intellectually I think the band is still indulging in the kind of coy genre pastiches that have failed to endear their last few singles to me, and taken a song or a verse at a time, I can easily mistake these moments for fragments of other people's music: the Left Banke, Bacharach, Simon & Garfunkel, the Byrds, the Hollies, the Bee Gees, the Mamas and Papas, REM, Pizzicato Five and even Ted Leo and 2003's third explicit pop Thin Lizzy reference. But woven into the structure of an album, with some close attention to unifying production aesthetics, they finally start to make visceral sense to me as components of a single band's complex style. Maybe this album is the musical equivalent of what Down With Love did with its old movie references, lovingly reviving their spirit and replaying their quirks with full awareness of the new context. But Down With Love was my favorite movie of 2003, and maybe Dear Catastrophe Waitress now means that I've once again managed to go less than a week into the new year before wanting to change the previous one's top-ten.
But part of my confusion, I'm sure, is that Belle & Sebastian aren't turning out to be the band they started as. They were once library pop, a band for grey afternoons in quiet reading carrels, and for romances conducted in passed notes and seduction coded in catalog numbers. It's a long way from making Tigermilk as a school assignment to hiring the guy who produced 90125. But then, libraries are only grim and silent if you can't or won't read. If words and stories matter to you, the stacks are crammed breathless with implications and potential. Libraries are, more than any other spaces we build or find, the storehouses of our greatest passions, no matter how brittlely expressed in paper and film and discs. So if this album of magnificent longing doesn't sound like stadium epics or fight songs, why should it? Dear Catastrophe Waitress isn't less intricate than 90125, it's just built out of more organic components, Shaker where Yes were Modernists, which doesn't mean it requires any less planning or craftsmanship.
I'm willing to adapt. You also better be willing to listen closely. "Step Into My Office, Baby" bounces along, sunnily, like a new soundtrack for Desk Set, but the office rhetoric is relationship metaphor, sidling up to tacit morals about constructed expectations and the appeal of colorfully hopeless tasks. The quick, skittering title track marshals nearly every instrument in the orchestra in service of a wry elegy to persistence disguised as a mock-salute to self-destruction, or maybe vice versa. The chirpy "If She Wants Me" weighs ambition against allegiance, and sides with friends and persistence. "I took a book and went into the forest. / I climbed the hill, I wanted to look down on you, / But all I saw was twenty miles of wilderness, so I went home." Finding people is hard, but finding unoccupied moral absolutes is harder, and far less rewarding or fun.
"Piazza, New York Catcher", a hushed voice-and-acoustic-guitar solo, makes a lot of lithe Paul Simon and Dan Bern songs sound stilted. "Asleep on a Sunbeam", with Sarah Martin replacing Isobel Campbell as the occasional breathy female singer, is probably the most straightforward pleasant pop song, but the galloping "I'm a Cuckoo" is Thin Lizzy via the later Jam, which strikes me as a perfectly great idea. "You Don't Send Me" retreats partway into spy-music vogueing, but "Wrapped Up in Books" pares down to the early Jam via (ahistorically) the Byrds, and makes me wonder if this isn't what the Clientele would have sounded like in sunlight. The pace flags only once, for the baroque "Lord Anthony" (the British retelling of Patty Griffin's "Tony", more or less), but after a slow piano-intro transition "If You Find Yourself Caught in Love" returns to effervescence, and the brassy "Roy Walker" is the closest thing to a full-scale Sixties throwback. But then "Stay Loose" jumps forward to the Eighties, flitting through Bowie and Gabriel and Schilling and Elvis Costello and Joe Jackson just to show how easy the lines and decades are to cross. And although I don't pretend to know all the older references, at least I understand the perspective within which they're made. This is why we let grown-ups keep making records, and why I keep listening past when the thrill happened or didn't. It matters that this is Belle & Sebastian's fifth or sixth album. It matters that I know what 90125 sounded like. It matters that I care. All these things change the way I hear it, which from inside of me is the same as changing the way it sounds.
So if I'm no longer any authority on the New, it's no great loss. There still have to be first chapters of everything, and I will keep taking my turns supporting a few more. Maybe my top-ten list was fine, after all. A Guide for the Daylight Hours was the sound of a moment, and a year is partly about its moments. A lot of songs can sound like the greatest three minutes ever for three minutes, once, but only if you still remember how to feel stabs of irrational joy. Yes, finishing the story is harder than starting it, and continuing the story, in all that endless blank space between the beginning and the end, is where art really happens. Maybe loving first albums is only easy when they're new, and only meaningful when they're old, and Best New Artist is a nonsense award, because any journey can start at any point. So I fall in love with new bands by pretending they have inherited old obligations, which is ridiculous however kind, and if I fall out of love, I do it carefully, knowing that leaving is only the least of the ways we prepare to return.