479 · 1 April 04
I do not pretend to be very good at predicting commercial fates, but every once in a while I get something right. It's usually something about which I didn't want to be right. Picking through the misleading selectivity of Mandalay's label-constructed US "debut" Solace, a couple years ago, I guessed that it revealed dubious motivations, and presaged "a very short and/or unrewarding major-label life".
As I was making that prediction, more or less, V2 dropped Mandalay. By the time I had absorbed the two original UK albums that Solace combined, I had also read two different reports that the band had broken up. I hate arriving at the end of stories. I guess I hate it less than never hearing them, but that shouldn't be the choice.
Then again, sometimes the stories aren't over when they themselves think they are. When there are only two people in the "band", and one of them just drops by at the end to sing, the difference between active and inactive may involve sealing a cat into a recording booth and wondering whether you'll end up discovering that it yowled or not. On Empathy, the first Mandalay album, Saul Freeman had the substantial assistance of producer Guy Sigsworth, drummers Jim Carmichael and Steve Jansen, bassist Danny Thompson and trumpeter Jon Hassell; on Instinct he made do with fewer guest players but still shared responsibility with co-producer Michael Ade. Eventually it must have dawned on him that with a better laptop he could do everything himself. The credits don't actually explain the album's detailed production mechanics, so for all I know Freeman made it primarily by banging together a pair of aluminum ukuleles and a water-logged Speak & Spell inside a large industrial refrigerator. I may also be grievously underestimating the extent of Nicola Hitchcock's involvement by assuming that her co-writing credit refers solely to her vocal lines. But the credits don't say much, and in the absence of data I'm left with what I hear. And what this album sounds like, to me, is Saul Freeman wandering down to his basement for a few hours, every few days for a year or two straight, fiddling with the microsecond onsets of individual synth-flute notes according to a scheme only he fully comprehends, until one day he decides it's all ready, and after a chagrinned binge of remedial tidying invites Nicola down to turn his twittering into pop songs.
This imbalance of tasks really shouldn't work. That is, if I listen to this album and conclude that that's how it was made, I ought to mind. I wish very strongly to believe that even the most austere synthetic music responds to human chemistry, and that you can't simply apply the elements in an arbitrary order and hope they'll integrate of their own accord. Particularly after Mandalay's major-label dismissal, I want their small-label re-/sur-vival to be a stirring object lesson in how two people can look into each other's eyes and see qualities that a thousand record-industry accountants' glazed stares never register. V2 tried to snap together a fake out of biased samples and farmed-out remixes, and I want Saul and Nicola to be holding hands in their defiance. But that's only collaboration in its most literal, and arguably most superficial, sense. That's how jam bands and jazz trios operate, understandings evaporating in the moment concentration breaks or car-doors close. But if Nicola wasn't actually perched on Saul's shoulder through the months of editing this music, her spirit was in his hands, and her voice was in his ears. Anybody could have walked down those stairs, but nobody else could have found these paths through the music waiting so precisely for their step. In the cult of proximity, all music aspires to Eugene Levy and Catherine O'Hara recycling a fake impulse kiss on five-second TV delay. But real people know more, and remember.
And so somewhere, tonight, in a hundred other basements, people are walking back into each other's lives and realizing just how much more they know, and Impermanence ought to be their soundtrack. On the older albums, Saul's music was delicate and elegant and inviting, but on Impermanence it has turned its brittle composure into means toward an embodiment of desperately exquisite anticipation. In the moments before Nicola's voice starts, these songs teeter between shattering heartbreak and suspended hope, and when she finally begins to sing, the music reaches up to her with the eager surety of the one and only pedestal that knew exactly what shoes she'd be wearing, floating exactly how far above the floor. Nicola, for her part, soars half outside of herself, as if her melodies were not so much devised as intuited, or as if she found them waiting in the music, invisible only to everyone else. In my fantasy of this album, these are first-takes born in near-trance, performances that no amount of rehearsal or premeditation could improve, and their sinuous immediacy is twice as breathtaking if it's real, twice as astonishing if it's illusory.
Empathy and Instinct were albums of affect and atmosphere, and largely contentless. You can easily listen to Impermanence in the same glassy mode, too, and perhaps you should. Saul's meticulous receptiveness doesn't really lend itself to semantic deconstruction, beyond the obvious observation that "impermanence" is an evocatively self-aware banner to fly over such plainly painstaking craft. Nicola is a better lyricist when she drifts into tongues than when she tries to back away from relationships, and my favorite passages here read badly enough in print that I don't even entirely bother transcribing them as I listen. Empathy and Instinct were reverie music, to me, dinner themes for sculptural food in modernist dining rooms, and after-moments isolated in hypothesis.
Impermanence, though, is different. I wish I knew how much of the difference is mine, but I always wish that. "Dinner music" implies background restraint, and textural elusiveness. You could play Empathy and Instinct over a movie scene of two people in love, taking bites so small that they never have to disrupt their lovestruck gazes to chew. You could play those two albums quietly in the next room while you are those people eating. But Impermanence is the next level, the music that plays in your head while you are imagining that your love is the one of which the movie is dreaming. Or it's a music I can play in my head, at least, as I realize that the love I'm in is the one I've abstracted from movies, that it's the love I will abstract back upon them from now on. My reality has somehow turned out to be not only more detailed and more complicated than my dreams, but even also grander in the ways that dreams ought to have been unmatchable. This is slow, fragile music for moments in which it is suddenly perfect that we are doing absolutely nothing, quiet flutter that makes me want to turn the volume up to hear the wings of invisible angels hovering in our shadows, lullaby selflessness that makes me want to stay up until dawn pestering it with unintelligible questions.
And it ought to be ominous that an album about true love is called Impermanence, but that too is exactly right. Our most ardent conviction, by its nature, lasts only for the instant before it collapses into smug self-regard. We are purely in love only until the awe or elation or relief of being in love brings us back abruptly to ourselves. And then we are just alive again, trying to figure out how we ever reached that impossible transcendence. And then the impossible is here again, and then it's gone again. And we press the moments closer, until they flicker together and become the frames of the film of the story of our escape.
Ultrasound: Art Echo
I would love to report that Ultrasound, too, have survived their exile. Everything Picture, their 1999 double-album debut, was one of the most inspiringly chaotic introductions in my experience, and quite probably the first-album after which I felt least prepared to guess at the likely nature of a second one. Apparently nobody else could figure out what it would sound like, either, as the band didn't even manage to survive the calendar year of their album copyright.
Art Echo isn't exactly that second album. Ultrasound remain firmly defunct, and press snipes from around the time of their dissolution suggest that they had only a handful of demos underway for what would eventually have been their next record. Reading between the few lines in what pass evasively for liner notes here, I gather that some faction of former band members has wrestled the release rights to old material away from some other faction, but my guess from the wording is that Vanessa Best won this battle and Andrew Wood lost it, which doesn't entirely square with Wood's unmistakable presence on the recordings. Nor do the credits explain, beyond dueling 1999 and 2002 (?) copyrights despite the 2004 release, which aspects of these artifacts are original and which were added later by unknown hands. Helpfully, Red Orange Records have a web site. Fittingly, its splash screen gives me 404s nine reloads out of ten, and I have yet to successfully get any further into it. And except for Wood's voice, most of this record doesn't even sound much like the band it claims to be, which given that Ultrasound sounded like pretty much everything else in the history of music for at least a few seconds each, is a rather surreal failure. And pay no attention to the fifteen listed tracks, as the two titled "10:00" are exactly that much blank space, and the ones titled in pidgin French are useless rehearsal tuning fragments. And four of the nine actual songs are unmitigated disasters, something like Fish trying to croak through a karaoke butchery of Jello Biafra reading aloud the instructions to Schedule D just after he (Fish, not Jello) fell down a long flight of rotting wooden stairs on his face.
I only agree to put up with this nonsense because there are also five incredible songs that don't sound like that. Ultrasound were a grand mess; the Everything Picture liner photos documenting the creation of the cover art (which, despite the title pun here, was about as far from Art Deco as pigment allows) might as well be an allegory of the whole record. But for four songs here, however these actually came to be, the band are not only essentially disciplined (albeit in a shamblingly rough-draft way), they are an uncanny impression of Thin Lizzy as a circa-1992 post-Nevermind guitar band, and thus potentially the prescient spiritual progenitors of everyone else who has recently confessed to Lynott fascinations. "Manifold Pleasures" and "Black Year" both sound like minor variations (one in a minor key) on a Ted Leo "Boys Are Back in Town" cover in which the lead hooks are transposed into rhythm-guitar power-chords. "Fastener" mashes all the Celtic mannerisms of Black Rose into a bleary meta-anthem on the order of Soul Asylum's "Black Gold" crossed with "Loch Lomond". And the heady Best/Wood duet "Cath", which isn't a Bluebells cover but might be meant as an oblique sequel, vividly prefigures the jumpy cadences and seditious chirp of Belle & Sebastian's "I'm a Cuckoo". And if these songs that don't properly exist can't really explain later developments they couldn't have influenced, that doesn't mean that history doesn't make more sense now that I've heard them.
The fifth great song, the final track on the disc after the second silence, is at once both this discarded miscellany's most miscellaneous throwaway, and perhaps the band's defining moment. It's a short, spiky, prog-influenced collage-anthem titled "Abacus", arranged like a Christina-Aguilera/Strokes mashup remixed by the Avalanches, but in a mainstream-enough mode to make me think the title is an "Abacab" allusion à la Trans Am. On the fourth or fifth listen it finally dawns on me why it sounds so naggingly familiar: the intertwined vocals are new (or old, presumably, but unheard), but the instrumentation is a ProTools composite of all the simplest, most coherent pop impulses on Everything Picture. I can identify the restless intro oscillation of "Same Band", the siren-ish guitar/synth/bass groove that ran under the repetitions of "Too much time to pay" in "Suckle", the wiry guitar stabs from "Happy Times (Are Coming)", the burbly synths from "Aire & Calder", the dot-matrix-printer noise-drum beat from "Floodlit World" and the organ whir from "Everything Picture" itself, and I wouldn't be that surprised if there are bits of all eleven of the original album tracks in there somewhere. It was all too easy to say of Everything Picture that Ultrasound had one great song in them, and after four years and two discs nobody, including them, had been able to find it yet, and in that sense "Abacus" is a resigned cannibalization and the final terminal betrayal of the band's extravagant disarray, Plexured into small-minded linearity with about the same doltish obtuseness as the "Love Conquers All" edit of Brazil.
And if this disc is the battle spoils of Best and Wood fighting over the scraps of their meager legacy, then it's doubly ironic that their legacy now ends with what we could easily hear as a love song. But then, what if Ultrasound's short, cacophonous life actually makes a pretty decent recompressed love song? The problem with Brazil was that it made a horribly shitty romantic action movie, not that romances shouldn't exist. If Ultrasound did this in full awareness, it's an ingeniously absurd and enchantingly self-destructive self-critique. And I love their hapless real album twice as much if I think I'm right in hearing how well they understood what it could have been and wasn't.
Milla Jovovich: The Faded Colors of Now
Mandalay's survival is unexpected, and Ultrasound's encore is perplexing, but neither belong to even the same order of magnitude of unanticipatability as the three albums now variously credited to model and actress Milla Jovovich. The Rupert Hine hyper-produced The Divine Comedy, her exquisite Baroque-acoustic 1994 debut (as just "Milla"), is far enough from actress/model dance-pop expectations to stand as one of recorded music's most paradigmatic examples of playing against type. The 1998 recording The Peopletree Sessions, released without her full awareness and eventually against her retracted consent, is one of the lamest examples of directionless home-studio noodling masquerading unconvincingly as planned music.
The Faded Colors of Now, arriving so long after most people gave up on Milla as a musician that maybe she's free to do anything she wants, in many superficial ways is the album cynics might have expected her to make the first time around. The production, by Hine again, aims for a midpoint between Madonna's Ray of Light and Kylie Minogue's Impossible Princess, and provides plenty of glitterball sparkle for Milla to spin in, synth-pop soundtracks for catwalk preening. Her voice is heavily reinforced by processing throughout, and on several songs by "harmony" vocals (including some from Cleo Harris of the Boston dreampop band Helipad) that practically amount to guide tracks. The booklet photos vary from exploitative to just contrived. There is a chorus that repeats "You spin me around" six times and another one that moans "I need love" four times, two different songs with verse couplets that rhyme "touch" with "much", and one rather protracted (but not especially convincing) orgasm simulation.
But there are also two prominent elements of this album that fit no star-pop formula. The first, if we are to accept the song-by-song credits as authoritative, is that Milla herself provides the cheerfully snarly guitars on all but three of these songs, and contributes at least part of the drum programming for more than half of them. In neither case is much technical virtuosity on display ("Better Horror" has exactly one chord, both "Dizzy and Dazed" and "Replay" get by with two, and the three fastest songs all lean heavily on loop work by Danish remixer Marcus Hern), but as a foil to Hine's cautious professionalism, Milla's enthusiasm is far more interesting than her skill, and the resulting combination of studio gloss and gleeful energy seems like something Shampoo might have matured into if they were lucky.
The other startling detail is that Milla's lyrics for the album, apparently all self-written, are done entirely in character. Calling this a concept album would be a little misleading, since the songs tell unrelated stories, but they are unified by their meta-story. The narrator of all of them (except for the irrelevant but abundantly rousing hidden-track cover of the Manic Street Preachers' "Baby Elian", providing another roundabout Kylie Minogue link) is an unnamed fifteen-year-old girl who dreams of being a singer (and not, mercifully, a model or actress). The liner notes introduce each song with snippets of her journal meditations, half idle fantasies and half disgusted eviscerations of her own imaginary presumptions. In general the notes are most interesting when the songs are least, particularly a spasm of body-image self-loathing in the crush-story setup for the inarticulate "It's Easier to Say" and a sketchy glimpse of the girl's family life before the frustratingly vague "No Place Like This". Aptly, the one song with the biggest lyrical ambitions, "The Shield Maiden and the Prince of the Air" (which reads magnificently like a smart fifteen-year-old in the throes of having just simultaneously discovered Margaret Atwood and Loreena McKennitt), seems to most elude her usual facility for undermining everything by context.
It shouldn't be too surprising that a precocious kid's best way forward lies in taking her ambitions seriously, and it even makes sense that an older girl famous first for her appearance could be in a position to inspire her. But the difference between the surfaces of Impossible Princess and the substance of The Faded Colors of Now is the difference between flipping through a magazine that hires good photographers and reading letters from your own future with magazine clippings from the future folded into them. When you're fifteen, the magazines are exciting and inspiring, and the letters are preachy and boring. But when you're twenty nine, or thirty seven, remembering how the magazines made you feel won't keep you from wanting to annotate them and send them back. And if you can't really correspond with your own past self, maybe it's your present self that needs to be reminded about the difference between visions and insight, anyway.