We Can Always Use Some More Electrical Equipment
488 · 3 June 04
Smart Brown Handbag: The Big Sigh
As I begin writing, about two and a half months after the nominal release-date of the eighth Smart Brown Handbag album and David Steinhart's fifteenth in all configurations, The Big Sigh, Google can find only four mentions of the record anywhere on the web, all of which appear in copies of the same stock SBH band-bio. With human effort I can find one more reference in a Pop Art Related Projects discography, and unannotated mail-order listings at CD Baby and Amazon (the latter not actually offering to deliver CDs until the fall).
For the moment, then, I believe that this is the most underrated album on the planet. Possibly Stonegarden Records also has the worst marketing department in the music business, as the label's own site is among those not yet mentioning the record, but I don't think that's an excuse. David has had a twenty-year recording career, and several of those fifteen records are spellbinding. A new SBH album should be an event, and I shouldn't be the only one celebrating it. So I'm conscripting you into the campaign to correct this inane state. Count off, all of you, starting here to my left. Anybody whose number is a multiple of five, please go at once to CD Baby, listen to the clips, and if you like them, purchase a copy of the album and find somewhere online to enthuse about it. Repeat with the back catalog, and keep at it until I give you this little chopping signal with my left hand, the first two fingers extended.
You see what I mean about how strange it is, right? There are only three other songwriters I even have fifteen or more studio albums by, and they are all major international stars. The style in which Steinhart writes has been continuously popular since Murmur, if not Mr. Tambourine Man, and there's no shortage of bands making current active livings with it. Thousands of artists with more-inherently limited appeals have attracted evangelical cult followings in a fraction of the time it has taken David to get, apparently, nowhere. It's beyond weird, it's suspicious, and we should have started doing something about it years ago.
Well, no matter. At least we'll be ready for the next fifteen. The Big Sigh is as solid a foundation for a David Steinhart appreciation program as anything he's been involved with. Stabs of guitar feedback oscillate and resolve into the spiky jangle of "London to Amsterdam", and the album is underway. David's brother Jeff returns to join John Glogovac and Cindy Albon in the band, and they spin silvery threads of keyboard glimmer and drum-loop clatter into the generally bounding and happily traditional guitar-pop fabric. "Big Sigh" snaps and shimmers and twitters, Glogovac's drums pattering like rain off the wings of passing hawks. "Bulletproof" downshifts and hums pensively, warmly overdriven chorus guitars giving way neatly to just a drum fill as David sings the title. "If I Hear" evokes Pop Art's minimalism, especially in the uninflected lead hooks and David's talky vocal delivery. The pealing "The Middle of The" is as effusive as Let's Active or early Game Theory, and I could spend a pleasant evening cross-analyzing David, Mitch and Scott's singing tactics, starting from the simplistic base hypotheses that Mitch generally let his singing trail the arrangement, Scott usually preferred to run tight circles around it, and David generally swoops and dodges alongside.
"Baseball Season" is gauzy and becalmed, strings chirping through processed guitar blur in a sort of noisy lullaby. "Courtship" traces a coy pastel-pop lineage back through the Cardigans towards Byrdsier origins in Translator and REM. "Half Worth Having" blares and struts like a coherent GbV, but "Pushing Around Pieces" steps back into strummy mid-tempo restraint and heatwave choruses. The awed "This Impossible Mess" slows to a raptured stagger, but "Better" revs back into Del Amitri-ish twang. And the reedy, headlong "Stubborn Is Fine", at the end, may be as close as David has yet come to writing a direct successor to Pop Art's "Mark Came Home". Nothing here affects even a faint twinge of formal innovation, but too often innovation is a hedge against inadequate craftsmanship. Getting simplicity right is hard, and great.
And after fifteen albums, not only is David still one of my nominations for best relationship lyricist, but he's become one of the rare ones to let adulthood and marriage inform songs that would previously have capitalized on failure and youth. "London to Amsterdam" lets love and hope surge into the empty spaces of confusion and distance, making paths through the language barriers, which don't go away just because we know how to talk to each other. "Big Sigh" weighs old expectations against slow understanding, and realizes that the truth can be ecstatic even when it isn't sudden. "Bulletproof" is a mesmerizing study in what from different angles might be commitment or powerlessness, and maybe that's the point. "If I Hear" is the song Justin Currie was never selfless enough to complete, the distraught lover's confidant retaining enough perspective to understand that she may need shelter and release less than a gentle push back.
"The Middle of The" bounces out of relationships for three minutes of cheerfully self-deprecatory career self-reference, and I'm happy to take the title as a promise that obscurity won't deter them. "Baseball Season" overcompensates by plunging back into a relationship story too abruptly to salvage it, but "Courtship" rebounds into sly seduction, or at least into the geekily self-aware kind of seduction that can only happen after the kids who take it seriously clear out. "Half Worth Having" is a defiant anthem of romantic faith, or maybe stubbornness, if that's different. "Pushing Around Pieces" is the flip-side, gnawing suspicion and obsessive reduction, but "Impossible Mess" counters again immediately, basking in the wonder of the most mundane annoyances, crossed work schedules and dog hair and the perfect moment when she and their child get out of the car. "Better" might be the most subtly brilliant song here, a sunny driving ode disguising a haunting revelation about how it feels to pull away a little and then let go and not know for an instant whether you're going to be snapped back. And "Stubborn Is Fine" ends with ringing confidence in the power of a few good days to get you through the hard ones. And if nobody has heard this yet, that doesn't mean it isn't true.
The Mountain Goats: Tallahassee
The mysterious thermodynamics of obscurity have been somewhat warmer for John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats, who would be nearly to his fifteenth studio album in half David Steinhart's time if we don't take the "studio" part too literally. By my reckoning, the 2002 album Tallahassee is his twelfth, and first on 4AD, which is not exactly the label on which you expect to find people who have spent much of their preceding career singing into a half-broken boom-box. Dressing up for the occasion, Darnielle and for-now bandmate Peter Hughes actually decamp to a genuine recording studio. If, like me, you had tired of listening to the motor of Darnielle's boom-box grind, this is an appreciated step. If you're expecting it to radically alter his performance style, though, you will be deservedly disappointed. Mountain Goats songs are still jittery acoustic-guitar cycles cast into one of a handful of standard cadences, over which Darnielle sings in a reedy, declamatory bleat. As on most of his albums, a few of these are rather pretty, and Tallahassee's expanded palette allows him to take the pretty songs a little more seriously, adding quiet piano reveries and meditative organ in a few useful places. Few qualify as pop, exactly, and fewer would be described as conventionally catchy, but Darnielle does have a weakness for deceptively elegant vocal melodies over his methodically repetitive chord-changes, which depending on your tastes might be a worthwhile substitute.
I am sure, statistically, that there are people who enjoy the Mountain Goats without paying much attention to the lyrics, but I won't pretend to understand them. To me, Darnielle's albums exist for their words, and all I really ask of the music is that it stay mostly out of the way. When I like Darnielle's writing best, he manages to tell micro-stories and macro-stories at once, so that as I listen I can either pick my way through individual striking phrases, isolated from their narrative context, or step back and try to deduce an emotional gestalt that isn't precisely a product of particular lines. Usually I do the former for a while, because the latter requires some commitment. My top six, this time: the scattershot imagery of "Window facing an ill-kept front yard, / Plums on the tree heavy with nectar, / Prayers to summon the destroying angel, / Moon stuttering in the sky like film stuck in a projector / And you"; the ominous specificity of "Bad luck comes in from Tampa"; the plaintive desperation of "I am not going to lose you, / We are going to stay married / In this house like a Louisiana graveyard, / Where nothing stays buried"; the free-association metaphor-hunt of "Our love is like the border between Greece and Albania"; the semi-rhetorical "Name one thing about us two anyone could love"; the manic "Guy in a skeleton costume / Comes up to the guy in the Superman suit, / Runs through him with a broadsword".
In Tallahassee's case I've kind of been skipping through lines for a year and a half, and only recently remembered that I meant to see what they amounted to. Darnielle usually makes a point of stating what his songs are about. This would be considerate if there was anything complicated about deciphering them, which there isn't. It would be efficient if he were entirely trustworthy on the subject, which he mostly seems to be, but then that makes me really suspicious. So far, though, I haven't managed to figure out what he's hiding. Tallahassee is, exactly as described, an unswervingly thematic study of a couple who have drunk themselves into a sort of imminently self-destructive equilibrium. Some days they love each other, some days they hate each other, some their opinions differ, and in all permutations it is not really the conversation they're having. They're not having a conversation, they're drinking, and it's no longer clear whether they're drinking to avoid the conversation or simply out of habit. I strongly suspect that there's nothing at all wrong between them, and it's a kind of mutual mercy to pretend that there is, so that their drinking has an ostensible motivation. The drinking, in turn, allows them to perpetuate a malicious tension that simplifies their lives together into a series of meaningless fights and correspondingly superficial reconciliations. This war exonerates them from making long-term plans, which would all be considerably harder than drinking, especially since any reasonable one is going to start with both of them stopping drinking. "We are going to stay married", he insists, but staying married in a manufactured crisis is an exercise in patience and execution, not in emotional judgment or imagination. Sympathy is always easier than empathy. In truth, it's probably the hard days that get you through the good ones.
The Mountain Goats: We Shall All Be Healed
For the thirteenth (?) Mountain Goats album, Darnielle not only goes back into the studio, but this time takes a full band with him, more people but fewer instruments. He and Hughes play guitar and sing, Hughes plays bass, Christopher McGuire drums, Franklin Bruno plays piano and organ, Nora Danielson adds some violin. Or that's how the credits read, anyway, and the record seems to want us to believe them. Of these thirteen songs, though, only five are really arranged for the whole band, and they're clustered at the beginning (three of the first four) and end (the last two) of the album. The rest are about evenly split between the songs that add a little piano to the guitar and the ones that don't. One weird watery thing towards the end sounds, in parts, like something other than a Mountain Goats song, but the rest, whatever their elements, still seem to me to clomp and cycle in Darnielle's unmistakable form. And if having drums overcomes obtuse objections from anybody who can't recognize a folk song through a snare thwack, I guess I don't mind.
And if you had any doubt about my reading of Tallahassee as a portrait of addiction before people, We Shall All Be Healed should settle the argument. Of these thirteen songs, at least the first eleven are an addict's helpless unraveling. We're way past alcohol as a relationship catalyst, this time. In half of these songs the narrator is locked in his head alone, and in most of the remaining ones other people are only vague presences, the webs between them far too thick to contemplate trying to reach through. The closest thing to a relationship song involves creeping, half-blinded, into a hospital to visit a more-lost victim in intensive care. I'm much more interested in people than drugs, so I'd expect to find this less rewarding than Tallahassee.
But where Tallahassee was largely a single extended study of a single period in one relationship's course, We Shall All Be Healed follows a longer and more circuitous story-arc. "Slow West Vultures" is like a reverse-GbV parody in which the weirdness ("Sanding numbers off the monojets'!) has a direction. "Palmcorder Yajna" turns "And I dreamt of a house / Haunted by all you tweakers with your hands out" into one of the most rousing snarls I've heard this year. "Letter From Belgium" is totally besieged, and by "The Young Thousands" paranoia is taking over. "The ghosts that haunt your building have been learning how to breathe. / They scan the hallways nightly vainly searching for a sign. / There must be diamonds somewhere in a place that stinks this bad." The breaking point, "Your Belgian Things", is the album's centerpiece for me and maybe Darnielle's saddest and most compassionate song. Bruno's piano rings, Hughes' bass bubbles, and John sounds like he's rewriting Richard Shindell's "Are You Happy Now?" for realism, cute kids in Halloween costumes replaced by an overdose aftermath and a biohazard crew. "I can see you in my sleep, / Playing the points for all you're worth, / Walking gingerly across the bruised earth." It's not the earth that's really bruised, of course.
From here the story limps forward almost involuntarily. "Mole" is the hospital visit, a frightened dart into the normal world's glare. "Home Again Garden Grove" tries to reconstruct the sordid present out of old dreams, and doesn't get very far. "All Up the Seething Coast" is fixated on new distractions (and changes musical tone), and I think that means that withdrawal and recovery are underway. "Quito" finally confronts the possibilities, and "Cotton" embraces them.
And the last two songs seem to be part of some whole other story, or two of them, but I think they are two unsteady steps from the other side, fantasies of what comes next. In the hypnotic "Against Pollution", like half-speed acoustic New Order, he's a cashier in a desert town, wondering what he could tolerate. And in the buoyant finale, "Pigs That Ran Straightaway Into the Water, Triumph Of", the relevance of whose title I'll leave to your own speculation, he's drawing paths into the future, and then backtracking along them into what would have to have been his past. And if our pasts are fixed, then of course this is wishful and foolish. But nothing wishful is ever entirely foolish, and the past has some room to adjust. It's too easy to feel trapped in who you have been. But until you decide who you want to be, maybe you don't have the slightest idea who you are.