474 · 26 February 04
The Lucksmiths: Naturaliste
Even after a purge of epic proportions, I still have a lot of records. Even as I shift, deliberately, to evaluating possible leads online instead of just buying piles of CDs unheard, I still have a lot of bands I know and like well enough that I will keep buying their records indefinitely. They rotate into and out of my immediate intention, of course, and in my new campaign to not buy anything I can somehow avoid, it's tempting to try to filter my purchasing through both reasoned judgment and whims, so that during J-pop weeks I can resolve not to buy metal albums, and then during metal weeks I can rule out potential synth-pop records, and so on, and as long as I keep the genres in motion I never have to buy anything again.
But never buying anything again is very much not the goal. I'm trying to be a more attentive fan of the things I love, not a hermit in stasis. So I'm trying not to overcompensate, which at times leaves me buying against the grain of my mood, rather consciously. If the mood persists, though a pop record marooned in a metal phase, or any other mismatch, can seem temporarily like a failure of discipline. A record that doesn't immediately grab me quickly becomes a purchasing error. Did I need another Lucksmiths record? I haven't even listened to the last Mountain Goats album enough, and there's already a newer one. Am I really capable of focusing?
And then one day an elusive record snaps into focus, and I remember what I was waiting for. I keep buying Lucksmiths records, even when it feels like I'm really more in the mood for a Glay single on repeat, because I know what a Lucksmiths record will mean to me eventually. I know that ten times through, these hushed songs will just seem small, as if pop's native ebullience has been transmuted into diaphany. The brushed drums will sound hopelessly coy, the singing merely exhaled, the structures minimal through incompletion rather than inspiration. I'll wonder why I don't just put on Two Wheels Good. And then, finally, I'll slip somehow through the facade of apparent inconsequence and actually hear something on its own terms.
On Naturaliste, what I finally find my way into is the very first track, "Camera-Shy". It is nominally a song about two photographs of the narrator, only one of which seems significant, but if the genius of photography is associating implications with instants, then this song does something similar, freezing a desire instead of a movement, and then letting its meanings echo. He isn't actually camera-shy, he's afraid of his uncertainties, or maybe more precisely of having to (or seeming to) admit to them. He's afraid of having to acknowledge how awkward the photographer knows he is, or of having to believe that she doesn't see the same vulnerabilities in the picture that he does. He's afraid of not being able to pretend that he lives up to his own standards at every moment, maybe, or in doing so of granting her the right to not always love him perfectly either. He's terrified that he still feels some of the same doubts, today, that he sees himself feeling in a twenty-year-old photograph. And he's doubly terrified that she just realized all of this about him.
But she has known all along, of course. That's probably part of why she kept that picture. The record is full of these people, dancing among the fears and forgivenesses that shape them. In "The Sandringham Line" a woman sits on a commuter train and tries to figure out how to know whether she's bored. "Take This Lying Down" is a seduction lullaby for people who never got out of bed. In "Midweek Midmorning" they try to escape a season of dread with one sudden embrace of good weather. "The Perfect Crime" is another in the long line of great sad songs about driving home alone together. "What You'll Miss" is an averted goodbye, "There Is a Boy That Never Goes Out" an ingrown hello. "What Passes for Silence" hangs in the bedroom air after their first fight, wondering what it will be like to have survived. In "Stayaway Stars" they just try to wait the tension out, knowing exactly how cowardly that is. "Sleep Well" tries to throw itself into kiss-off, but "The Shipwreck Coast" immediately retreats again, and they're left standing by the sea, letting the terms of their truces crackle wetly between them.
The music is like this, too, hairline graphs of how our hearts skip. In the record's least restrained moments, there are pop songs swirling just below the cloudy surfaces. Bass bounds through the spiky "Camera-Shy", which reminds me uncannily of old Pop Art in both arrangement and phrasing. "Midweek Midmorning" burbles like an unplugged New Order, "What You'll Miss" sighs like the Kings of Convenience. The scratchy "There Is a Boy That Never Goes Out" owes at least as much to the Jam circa "That's Entertainment" as the Smiths circa The Queen Is Dead.
But the Lucksmiths trust melancholy far more deeply than elation, and the center of their records' gravity is always the slow songs. Tali's voice is warm and sleepy, his drumming carefully incidental. Mark's bass throbs like reminders of the world on the other side of paper-thin apartment walls. Marty's guitar chirps furtively. Backing vocals, from the band or their guests, settle across choruses like descending fog. We sing these songs quietly, to ourselves. We sing them, at all, because they tease apart filaments of our dread. And we sing them to ourselves because maybe nobody else needs to know.
The Lucksmiths: A Little Distraction
I kept all my Lucksmiths albums, but I gave away all their 45s in the purge. EPs seem like a gray area in my new rules, but six songs is more than half of an album by Lucksmiths counts, so I went ahead and bought this slight post-album reprise. If you aren't wholly dedicated to the Lucksmiths, there's not much reason to follow my lead, as at least four of these could be outtakes from the low-key stretches of the album, and the repetitive "Honey Honey Honey" seems like a misguided attempt at something choppier. And if you never loved Pop Art, either, and don't consider "Are You Happy Now?" a Platonic ideal, then you probably won't excuse five songs for the sake of one. But I'll buy a hundred EPs if they can elicit tiny raptures as well as "After the After Party". David Steinhart and Richard Shindell could have worked this out together, and maybe they'd even have talked each other into the half-happy ending. But I'll keep this one just in case.
Ben Folds: Speed Graphic
You can now buy these two Ben Folds EPs in the stores, but for months they were only available as downloads, so they were the first (and remain the only) "whole" releases I bought from the iTunes Music Store. Folds deserves credit for embracing the new world, I guess, but both these EPs run a real risk of having the medium backfire on him. Speed Graphic, the first, opens with a wildly fabulous piano/bass/drum one-man-band cover of the Cure's "In Between Days" that neatly inverts the atmosphere of the original into a plaintive simplicity that makes me feel like I never really heard the song in its other forms. Any four other songs, however, would have a hard time living up to this. "Give Judy My Notice" is played gracefully, and sung bitterly, but isn't the same kind of fun. "Protection" flirts with Joe Jackson complexity, which Folds is certainly adept enough for, but which requires a different listening mode. "Dog" is frenzied, but maybe tries to get through too many measures with the same sawing glissandos. And "Wandering" makes the tactical mistake of ending the EP on its slowest, longest song, and to me doesn't seem quite elegant enough to pull off the switch to pathos.
Ben Folds: Sunny 16
If there's a cautionary tale to be gleaned from Speed Graphic, Folds isn't interested, as he repeats the same unbalanced, per-song-courting structure on the second EP. "There's Always Someone Cooler Than You" is a quick tour de force, glib piano strut and disarming earnestness and show-off technique crammed in a charming snarl into four uplifting minutes. But then "Learn to Live With What You Are", although it has the makings of personal redemption cloaked in theatrical majesty, seems to me to drag along at two-thirds of the pace it wants and so never pushes Ben's control. "All U Can Eat" tries to compensate for underthought music with awkward profanity and overconsumption digs and The Good Girl references, but Ben has confessed to too much genuine emotion for me to have much patience with him reverting to this kind of throwaway glibness. "Rockstar" needs more swagger, and at the end "Songs of Love" tries to play Joe Jackson again, but needs a better orchestra and better wordplay. I'd buy a hundred EPs to get a hundred moments as good as the two on these two, but for ninety-nine cents a song I don't have to.
Fonda: Catching Up to the Future
For the increasingly old-fashioned joy of a whole album of giddy pop with crashing drums and loud guitars and big swoony feelings, though, there's still this happily dizzy Fonda record from last year lingering in my rotation. After a brush with minor soundtrack celebrity (the end-credits theme to Spy Kids), Fonda could easily have decided to try to groom themselves into Josie and the Pussycats or Fountains of Wayne, but instead, to my pleased surprise, this album finds them blurring further into the buoyant wash of their instruments. Why I didn't think, before, that the problem with Helicopter Helicopter is most precisely their inattention to old Three O'Clock records, I have no idea. It takes a female singer to come anywhere near Michael Quercio's voice, but fine. I have no idea what these songs are about, but I rarely had much idea what Quercio's songs were about, either, and certainly never minded. This music make me feel lighter, less bound to the earth. "Electric Guitars" sounds like the Byrds and the Clash and Roxette and a hundred rock gods flirting with river sylphs. "Loving You Made Me Sad" passes My Bloody Valentine and the Lassie Foundation and Secret Shine through the Three O'Clock's filters. "Until the End" simmers and surges, but "Surrender" grinds into a muted anthem delivered, with no evident malice, in fake British accents. The twinkly "I Will Remember You" is the closest to the Three O'Clock in paisley arrangement density, but "Don't Look to Me" disassembles into glittery shards around clomping drums. "I'm Yours" slows down the Postal Service's clicks and beeps, but then converts them into a silky, billowing chorus. "Imitation of Life" is fitful, but "Say Goodbye to Love" rides duet vocals from clipped candor into heady bombast with at least as much aplomb as Velvet Crush or Oasis. And "Breathing In" is a slow finale but an openhearted one, guitar shimmer and breathy vocals and reverberating drums coalescing around more MBV-ish whir.
So as hard as it is to say whether I have the right number of records now, or whether I could buy fewer new ones if I could shake this pathological compulsion to hear what happens next in every story I ever knew part of, I do know this much: if I bought fewer records, these are the ones I wouldn't hear. The Lucksmiths and Ben Folds and Fonda are not my favorite bands. I forget how much I like them, sometimes, which is in itself a measure of how much I like them. But loves are both relative and absolute. I may love a lot of records more than these, but I still love these too. Maybe one day it won't be enough anymore. These records survived one purge, but maybe not the next one. If the next one, maybe not the one after that.
But then, the same is true of us. So we listen while we can.