The Gods in My Eyes
475 · 4 March 04
Big Country: Rarities IV
The Big Country sections are full, these days, and I pity anybody who tries to figure out what the band did in their career by looking through the current CDs. At the stores near me, copies of The Crossing still show up with some regularity (more since I sold them my duplicates...), and there almost always seems to be one or the other version of Why the Long Face. Beyond that, though, it's a quagmire of competing anthologies and externally inscrutable reissues. I used to think of this as Chameleons syndrome, but Big Country are well on the way to taking over as the poster-band for the posthumous destruction of their evident catalog.
A quick and wholly impartial recap, then, for the newly decanted. Big Country were briefly famous in the early Eighties for riding around MTV on ATVs and making vaguely bagpipe-ish sounds on their guitars. "In a Big Country" and "Fields of Fire", their two biggest US singles, were on the dense, heart-wrenching The Crossing, their monumental 1983 debut, which remains one of the greatest first-albums in rock history, and its cathartic intensity was definitively perfected on their alternately vitriolic and elegiac second album Steeltown, in 1984. The Seer, released in 1986, contains more individually strong work, but runs into a bit of a stylistic impasse. For 1988's Peace in Our Time they found an inspired artistic way out by trading textural complexity for airy elegance, and made some of their most movingly beautiful music. Unfortunately, fans fled. All major academies now concede that these reactions were myopic, joyless and ultimately inexcusable, but at the time they constituted a resounding commercial implosion. Baffled and battered, the band skidded into 1991's erratic No Place Like Home in pervasive disarray. That album wasn't even released in the US, and the subsequent ones came out on small labels to decreasing fanfare. The band regrouped and reenergized for 1993's roaring The Buffalo Skinners, though, and 1995's Why the Long Face and 1999's Driving to Damascus both continued to add excellent material, despite never again approaching the album coherency of the first four.
Studio-wise, that's it. Everything else in the bin is miscellany: superfluous concert recordings, overlapping best-ofs, assortments of b-sides, covers, acoustic sessions, extended remixes, soundtrack excerpts and assorted DVDs. The band's leader is dead, and if the universe is merciful, the other members will never become afflicted with brain fever and attempt to revive the group without him.
But if Big Country have no future, and a past increasingly illegible and irrelevant to most of the planet, they still have a manager who loves their music and owns a record label, and enough tapes, apparently, to keep those of us who care going for a while yet. The first three installments in Ian Grant's Rarities series concentrated on completing the migration of the band's b-sides to CD, but IV begins an indulgent and hopelessly fan-only study of album demos. The obvious place to begin is with The Crossing, and so this package's audio disc (there's also a CD-ROM) assembles an eighteen-track tour through the debut's rough draft. Most of the album-track demos are basically finished, compositionally, but hearing them pre-production is a thrill, albeit kind of the same thrill as hearing the radio versions on the band's old BBC Sessions collection. The choppy version of "A Thousand Stars" is a particular revelation, though, and a dry take of what would later roilingly become "The Storm" reveals details the studio version would obscure. The demo of "Lost Patrol" is gruff and lurching, still figuring out where the melody line will go, and if the "Close Action" demo were a new Ted Leo song, acclaim would be profuse.
Of the early b-sides that have been well-represented as bonus tracks on other releases, two different demos of "Heart and Soul" bookend this set, a charged thrash through the harrowing "Angle Park" is as great as Big Country maybe ever sounded, and an arrestingly uncluttered version of "The Crossing" makes me wonder, at least momentarily, why anybody ever thought they needed bigger production. The obvious draws, however, are the four songs here appearing on disc for the first time. "Big City" is a Skids-sounding terrace anthem ditched, presumably, for being rather unmistakably dopey, but a debut-album's mood-killer is a demo-collection's treasured juvenilium. "Ring Out Bells" is a half-folk stomp suffering from dubious Dexy's Midnight Runners delusions, but Mark gets in some good crash-cymbal practice. "Echoes" is the missing synth-weirdness a-side for which "Flag of Nations (Swimming)" would have made sense as the reverse. And the most fascinating thing here could be "Wake", in which fragments of what would later be "Porrohman" are jumpcut into an awkwardly portentous pastiche of what Bill Nelson might have done with the Armoury Show.
Big Country: Rarities V
Instead of advancing chronologically, though, Grant next opts to skip ahead to No Place Like Home. Only people who have already listened to The Crossing at least a hundred times should even contemplate buying Rarities IV, but V isn't quite as esoteric. This is fortunate, since there are bound to be far fewer people who had the patience to spend that much time with NPLH. "Any funny memories from this era whilst recording the album at Rockfield?", Grant solicitously inquires in the booklet questionnaire. Tony's response, in its entirety: "No." Elsewhere in the notes Butler blames the record company for many of the album's woes, producer Pat Moran for some of the others, and bad band chemistry for the rest. In my own hindsight I offer the additional insight that some of these songs are garish and basically horrible. The dustbowl-guitar-bluster thing was the band's own idea, and it makes some of the album's key songs shrill and wearying. "Republican Party Reptile" is a joke-blues throwaway the band should have known better than after "King of Emotion". "Dynamite Lady" has what could well be their most listless chorus. "Beautiful People" is cloying and tedious.
The demo versions come inspiringly close to redeeming this record. I still don't like "Republican Party Reptile" or "Dynamite Lady" much, and for me the squawky demo of "Beat the Devil" moves it into their regrettable company, but there are ten other songs here from which a bright, quirky, uplifting album could have been made. The demos are loose and jangly where the studio versions are pinched and sharp, the guitars chirpy instead of bawling, the drums crisp instead of wincing. Song after song invokes the old, light magic of "Wonderland" and "Winter Sky", ephemeral impulses the band never managed to string a full studio album around. For the first time I like "We're Not in Kansas" better quieter. "Leap of Faith" shimmers glassily. "Ships" is gossamer and reverent, pushing melancholy towards Marillion's grace. "The Hostage Speaks" threatens to dissolve back into "Just a Shadow". "Beautiful People", to my considerable surprise, turns out to be genial and pretty where I always thought it sounded like a banjo who had read way too many self-help books. Exuberant b-sides "Kiss the Girl" and "Return of the Two-Headed King" should have been on the album, and their snarl gives the set edges without tipping it into cliché. The non-album single "Save Me" still sounds way too much like the Eagles for nobody to have spoken up, but a patient, faintly "Porrohman"-like demo of "Heart of the World" serves as a fine finale. Even in this form NPLH wouldn't have been their best album, but it might have lived up to the first four. And without NPLH as a low, The Buffalo Skinners could have been a continuation instead of a comeback, and maybe everything would have been a little different.
It doesn't really matter, though, as nobody on earth is going to walk into a record store, pick up an album labeled Rarities V by a band they don't know, and think "Well, that sounds promising." The front cover is meaningless, the back cover bilious, the notes riddled with typos and short on clear answers to obvious questions. Promotion and distribution are scant. It's as if Grant is defying us to care. I do believe he is doing a great labor, but he's doing it ineptly in every way except the most important one. I wish I could tell you to overlook all of this, that you need to hear this music. But it isn't true. Either you're with me already, or it would take way too long to catch up. If you don't already love Big Country, spend the energy learning to love some band still finding itself, not this beheaded one ruefully cataloguing its entrails. Just know, I guess, that your young bands will also age. They will come apart, and err, and lose you, and then win you back when you find out that you secretly never stopped loving them after all.
Tori Amos: Tales of a Librarian
I can divide my life, on at least one simplistic axis, into the Big Country years and the Tori Amos years. This is a succession, not a progression. Tori has let me down a couple times, too, with a space-filling covers album and a tour band I'm sick of being deafened by. But catalog confusion is not yet one of her problems, and Tales of a Librarian is her first compilation. Strange Little Girls and Scarlet's Walk are out of range, so that leaves twenty slots to cover her first five solo studio albums.
Here, for the nonbelievers, is what you've missed. Little Earthquakes, Tori's solo debut, came out in 1992. Abridging it is inherently absurd. I made a top-ten-song list that year in which the only competition for Little Earthquakes tracks were b-sides from the singles. The production is dated, now, but the songwriting and performances are very nearly peerless. Tori has been the greatest living musician, in my opinion, ever since. Under the Pink, the 1994 follow-up, didn't change much, but 1996's Boys for Pele spun off in several directions at once, and Tori's first three albums thus follow the structural precedent of Kate Bush's The Kick Inside, Lionheart and Never for Ever almost exactly. 1998's from the choirgirl hotel, though, telescopes Kate's next three albums into one sweeping masterpiece, and was my choice for the album of the decade. 1999's to venus and back paired a concert disc with a disc of somewhat random new songs.
The tracks Tori picks to summarize these records are not always the ones I would have, but they're pretty close. She includes half of Little Earthquakes ("Crucify", "Winter", "Silent All These Years", "Tear in Your Hand", "Precious Things" and "Me and a Gun"), and after I accept that seven is really too many and part with "China", our picks match. She adds the b-sides "Sweet Dreams" and "Mary", and I'd only have swapped "Mary" for "Flying Dutchman". For Under the Pink she uses "Cornflake Girl", "God" and "Baker Baker", and I can't really argue with the first two, since they were successful as singles, and "Baker Baker" is a sensible lower-key contrast even if I'd probably have tried to wedge in both the elegant "Pretty Good Year" (which she includes on the bonus DVD) and the more angular "Past the Mission" instead.
Boys for Pele seems to be hard for both of us. She settles for the brief "Way Down" and "Mr. Zebra", and Armand van Helden's pounding "Professional Widow" dance mix. I hate the remix, and would have gone with the halting "Putting the Damage On" (which is also on the DVD), the sly "Muhammad My Friend" and the wistful "Hey Jupiter", for sure, and then thought hard about the singles "Caught a Lite Sneeze" and "Talula". But we're back in synch on from the choirgirl hotel, where she picks "Spark", "Jackie's Strength" and "Playboy Mommy", and I'd just have added the rumbling "Pandora's Aquarium". The only to venus and back song she uses is "Bliss", and I personally prefer "1000 Oceans" and "glory of the 80's", but agree that "Bliss" is more representative.
But the twenty songs Tori picked aren't just collected, they're updated. "Mary" and "Sweet Dreams" are re-recordings, and nearly everything else has been remixed and/or remastered, subtly or strikingly. Even if you have heard these songs a hundred times, you will perforce hear them anew here. This approach violates some very basic rule about respecting your own past, but since Tori hasn't altered the original versions on the original albums, which you ought to have bought by now anyway, giving the compilation its own identity is such a good idea I'm now instantly inclined to fault everybody in history who didn't.
Walking through the A/B comparisons of the new and original versions might as well be the new standard textbook of what wiser perspective and better machines can do for music. Song after song, the new versions are clearer and more detailed, instruments rising into focus that were buried in the originals. Whatever muddled mess the bass has become in Tori's live show, she has mastered it in the studio, and the new versions of the older songs, especially, have a low end they were effectively missing, including the priceless damper-pedal thump in "Tear in Your Hand" finally getting its due. The later songs mostly have their production actually simplified, shedding processing and playing down gimmicks. Even "Me and a Gun", in which I could detect nothing new before close scrutiny, has been cleaned up a tiny bit, and recentered to correct a slight right-channel list in the original. The few substantive additions are done carefully, and although I don't know why Tori thought the new performance of "Sweet Dreams" would be improved by her muttering "Who's your daddy?" intermittently, the gospel-choir cameo on "Way Down" is mesmerizing, and the half-rap late in "Tear in Your Hand" would make T'Pau proud. The stately new version of "Mary" is actually my favorite thing here, deftly reconciling the piano-centricity of the original with the solidity of the current rhythm section.
There are also two new songs. It would be hard to argue, I think, that "Angels" is one of Tori's twenty best accomplishments, and even if you like it, it belongs to Scarlet's Walk's aesthetic, and is thus out of place here. "Snow Cherries From France", however, sounds like the Happy Phantom haunting the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, and although I'd probably have left it off in order to get one more old song updated instead, if it's what the next album is going to be like, I will start the vigil right now.
But that isn't what I'm thinking as I listen to these records of befores and afters. I'm not thinking about what's coming next, out of vaults or fingers. I'm remembering what it felt like to love these songs when I was fifteen and twenty-five, and I'm breathless at what they can still do to me. I'm in love with the persistence of rapture, and ready to love everything I've ever loved forever. These records aren't occasions for my faith or justifications for my hope, they're only small rewards for a few good days of dedication and belief. But if we cling to our prizes, some nights, we will call it comfort, and rest for new loves tomorrow.