When the Power Runs Out We'll Just Hum
35 · 28 September 95
Big Country: You Dreamer #1
The second half of the singles roundup I began in #32 turns out to be much more interesting than the first half. Most gratifyingly, to me, Big Country awakens from the b-side torpor that muddled the singles for "I'm Not Ashamed" just in time to atone on Why the Long Face?'s second single, "You Dreamer". In a move that smacks of realized guilt, they sneak nine new songs into the world under this song's aegis, including three on the 12" vinyl version that don't appear to be available elsewhere. The first single (TRAX 1012, the yellow slimline jewel-case version, as again they aren't clearly numbered) adds two new Adamson compositions, "Ice Cream Smile" and "Magic in Your Eyes", and a Stuart/Tony collaboration called "Bianca".
All three are superb. "Ice Cream Smile" is a gentle lament with a seductively interwoven fabric of steel-string, nylon-string and octave-shifted acoustic guitars. The high guitar plays a keyboard-like part, sketching arpeggios against the rhythm/solo interplay of the lower instruments while Tony and Mark contribute an understated rhythm track, and Stuart's vocal is soft and tender. "Magic in Your Eyes" is edgier and folkier. The drums speed up, the guitars switch to insistent fingerpicking, and Stuart and Tony switch into their trademark harmony formation. The verses are almost country in their loping twang, with Stuart letting his voice slip into an unforced drawl. Both of these songs sound complete as is, but both could easily pass for acoustic versions of electric anthems. Perhaps some day we'll hear electric versions in some other guise.
The single only explodes in earnest, though, on the last song. Stuart and Tony's previous collaborations have tended to be among Big Country's hardest rock songs ("One Great Thing", "The Selling of America", "Chester's Farm", "God's Great Mistake"), and "Bianca" follows the pattern, with concussive cymbal crashes battering against vicious rhythm guitar and a bucking solo line. The text is uncharacteristically personal and vicious, with the bitter chorus "Bianca, you're funny because your folks have money. / You want it, they buy it. I think your hair's a riot. / Bianca, you're stupid, you think I came from Cupid, / But me I'm still lucid, and I did more than you did." It's a rousing finale for the triptych, and its vehemence makes a fitting end to the build-up in "Ice Cream Smile" and "Magic in Your Eyes". Three more eloquent arguments for a great big Big Country Complete box set.
Big Country: You Dreamer #2
The second CD-single (I have the white limited-edition (5000 copies, numbered -- oooh...) digipack version, TRAD 1012, but my impression is that there will also be a jewel-case incarnation of the contents) returns to a tradition the band inaugurated with the Ships singles off The Buffalo Skinners, and includes three covers. Their material this time includes Alice Cooper's "I'm Eighteen", Lou Reed's "Vicious" and Canned Heat's "On the Road Again". "I'm Eighteen" they play as a "Smoke on the Water"-esque mid-tempo slab-guitar extravaganza. I'm not sure if I've heard the original, but I'm very sure that I'd rather hear Stuart sing this than Alice. Reed's dolorous "Vicious" is unmistakable, thanks to Stuart doing a pretty plausible impression of Lou on the verses, but the instrumentation is buoyant and chirpy, with cowbell percussion and the central guitar riff turned hilariously jaunty. I'm not sure what Lou would make of his song being rendered so that "vicious" could almost be mistaken for "'licious!", but I think it's an inspired transformation. (And note that the US release of Why the Long Face?, which is now available, adds both "Vicious" and the redone version of "Big Country" from the single for "I'm Not Ashamed" as bonus tracks.)
Tony Butler takes falsetto lead vocals for "On the Road Again", which is stripped of its original blues fitfulness in favor of a stompingly imperturbable beat and a seething overdriven solidity that reminds me a little of Mechanix-era UFO. Mark Brzezicki's escalating drumming as the concluding solo wends its way home is bone-rattling, and the whole treatment manages to take a song I would switch off after three seconds and turn it into four minutes that I'd gladly put on repeat. These tracks are eminently worth additions to Big Country's unlikely cover-catalog, joining songs by Smokey Robinson, Roxy Music, the Rolling Stones, Eddy Grant, Neil Young, Black Sabbath, Blue Öyster Cult, David Bowie, Fleetwood Mac and Joni Mitchell. Now I'm just waiting for the covers of "More Than a Feeling", "Kayleigh" and "Reap the Wild Wind"...
Big Country: You Dreamer 12"
The three tracks exclusive to the 12" (and don't think I don't resent having to buy more vinyl, guys) are from the House in the Woods Tapes, presumably demos recorded in some band hideaway. If these three are representative, I'm thinking about hiring some out-of-work KGB spies and sending them into the Highlands in search of the whole reel. Blisteringly intense songs as strong as most of any Big Country album, this is the most impressive b-side set since the REL tapes on the 12" for "Peace in Our Time" revealed hints of the fourth album that never was (though, just to make my position on this pivotal Big Country question clear, I think the album Peace in Our Time is a masterful collection of beautifully produced and grievously underrated songs, and I don't care that even the band has started routinely making excuses for it). If you were yearning, even after Why the Long Face?, for some old-style Seer-period Big Country intensity, this is the item you must immediately locate. In fact, I can't prove from the sound of them that these songs aren't left-over from the late 80's. I'd prefer to think that they're new, though, because the thought that there are even more old Big Country songs sitting around in crates somewhere, unheard, is just too upsetting to contemplate.
The first side provides "Hardly a Mountain". This is, quite simply, vintage Big Country. If you can imagine a sped up "Seven Waves" being recorded around the time of Steeltown, that's about what this sounds like to me. I tried to A-B compare the two songs to assess this as an actual theory-of-origin, but I kept not wanting to switch off the one I was listening to, so I eventually gave up. The theory is bolstered, however, by the extent to which "Golden Boy Loves Golden Girl" sounds like a very early demo for "The Selling of America", complete with some of the references to "mother" that survived into the final draft.
Talk about vintage Big Country, though, the spare "Can You Feel the Winter" is a minor epic, complete with a break that leads to a completely different section of music, in the manner of "The Sailor" and "The Red Fox" (though this time the A section returns at the end). "Have you any measure what just one of us is worth?", Stuart asks, a very early-Big Country question. But if this song too is related to something on The Buffalo Skinners, the connection eludes me. Having heard every song Big Country has ever recorded more times than I care to admit, though, it may just be that I'm actually too familiar with songs' final forms to spot what to a casual observer would be obvious structural similarities. Whatever the case, and whatever this song's history is, it gives me the same sort of chills that hearing "Wonderland" the first few times did, eleven years ago. I adore the new album (I suspect I've made that clear previously), but every stage in the band's development is precious to me, and hearing new bits of what sound like an era I thought we'd exhausted is a profound experience in its own way, like discovering a hidden room in your house that you'd lived there in ignorance of for a decade. Tentatively I enter the room, wondering whether I'm dreaming or near-death, afraid to admit that there might be another possibility. There's a window, but I'm too scared to look out, unwilling to face the possibility that it opens on a different outside as well. Turning away from it, I scan the room. There's a chair. There are two speakers. There's a stereo. And there's a stack of records beside it. They're all Big Country records, and I've never heard of any of them before. In a daze I pick one up at random, and put it on the turntable. I press Start.
At this point in the dream I usually wake up. Now I can sleep for three more songs.
Radiohead: Fake Plastic Trees #1
Every once in a while the world and I seem to agree, for just a moment, on a pivotal song that seems to me to both capture and represent the state of things. The last time it happened was 1991, when Jesus Jones' "Right Here, Right Now" struck me as a perfect summation of an instant in history. This year, every new time I hear "Fake Plastic Trees" come on the radio, I think it may be happening again. The song doesn't have the overt topicality of "Right Here, Right Now", but its desperate malaise captures something essential about what 1995 feels like, to me, and presents it in a form that I can't seem to get sick of. And so even though I already have the song on the album, for some reason I felt an irrational obligation to buy the single, too, regardless of its contents, just as a gesture of loyalty to the song.
This is, of course, a really stupid reason to buy a single, particularly an expensive imported one, particularly an expensive two part imported one. Fortunately, there turn out to be other reasons to recommend both these disks. This first one includes two non-album songs, "India Rubber" and "How Can You Be Sure?". "India Rubber" is a lurching, muted song that trails off into a tense sample collage at the end. It's a very cool song, but it would have been bizarrely out of place in the transcendent context of The Bends, which makes it an ideal b-side. "How Can You Be Sure?", on the other hand, would have been completely in character on the album (and from the production credits it's clear that it's an outtake from those sessions). With the deft guest backing vocals from Dianne Swann, in fact, I think it would have been a standout track on the album if they'd included it. I can only imagine that they were set on having an even dozen tracks on the record, and swapping this for any of the songs they kept would have disrupted the flow in some way they didn't like. Whyever, this single is easily worth its price for rescuing these two tracks from the abyss.
Radiohead: Fake Plastic Trees #2
The second single backs up "Fake Plastic Trees" with three acoustic recordings from a London show that Thom Yorke and guitarist Jon Greenwood did without the rest of the band in evidence. The first of these is the acoustic version of "Fake Plastic Trees" itself. This version is dear to my heart, as it is the song that plays on the soundtrack of the movie Clueless as explication of what Alicia Silverstone's character means by "complaint rock", her dismissive summary of college-radio "alternative" music. I loved the movie, and love both the movie and the song that much more for their association. The other two songs here are "Bullet Proof...I Wish I Was" and "Street Spirit (Fade Out)". These seem like odd choices to me, as they were two of the songs on The Bends that I would least have said stand on their own particularly well. "Bullet Proof" is a little too slow and morose to begin with, and this minimalist reworking to me seems to grind most of the way to a halt. "Street Spirit", on the other hand, seems to take on a totally new life when its instrumentation is pared back to little more than a recurring picked acoustic-guitar figure, and starts to remind me of some lost Led Zeppelin epic. Thom's emotive singing is also even more impressive laid bare here than it is rising out of the tumult of sounds on the album. If alternate versions bore you, then obviously this single doesn't have much to offer, but if you don't rule it out on principle I endorse it only a little less than the first part. The limited-edition packaging contains a poster; unless posters send you into convulsions of delight by their very medium, this one should not be a factor in your purchase decision.
Radiohead: Fake Plastic Trees US
The domestic version of the single takes a representative sample from several UK issues. The "Hexadecimal Mix" of "Planet Telex" is from one of the singles for "High and Dry", and "Killer Cars" is from the other. The acoustic version of "Fake Plastic Trees" rounds out the four-song selection. The "Planet Telex" remix, done by Steve Osborne, is a jittery dance treatment, laced with splintered sample intrusion and a sort of high-level digital artifact introduction. It's kind of interesting, I guess, but I don't find it very inspiring or compelling. "Killer Cars", however, is a very cool track, a raw guitar squall of a song that reminds me of what the Wonder Stuff might have sounded like if somebody switched their usual amps for a bunch of rusty Marshalls. I think Capitol could have done more with this single, particularly including at least one of the two non-album tracks from the UK version, but at domestic prices it seems petty to quibble.
Radiohead: Just #1
Did we need yet another remix of "Planet Telex"? I didn't, personally, I'm confident of that. I also really didn't need a remix of "Killer Cars"; when I take over the world you will not be allowed to fill b-side slots with remixes of songs that were b-sides to begin with, and I don't care how many sonar-pulse sound effects you add.
Radiohead: Just #2
The second half of this set switches from remixes to live recordings, and fares much better in my opinion. In fact, these live versions of "Bones", "Planet Telex" (I think this is the fifth version of this song to appear on a Radiohead single) and "Anyone Can Play Guitar" are no less than awe-inspiring. "Bones" is menacing and huge, with Yorke's falsetto sweeps dancing on the edge of dementia, and the storm of guitars slashing through the space around him like vultures on speed. "Planet Telex", as tired as I admit I've begun to get of it, is still also marvelous in this electrifying form.
The master stroke, though, is the delirious performance of "Anyone Can Play Guitar", the studio version of which was on Radiohead's first album, Pablo Honey (and was also on the This is Fort Apache compilation). Slurred and cacophonous, the playing here can't hide the fact that this is one of my favorite world-ending songs since Ultravox's "Dancing with Tears in My Eyes" (and "standing on the beach with my guitar" in many ways strikes me as an even more enviable reaction to the apocalypse than the earlier song's tragic dancefloor stand, though maybe I'd feel differently if I hadn't learned to play guitar myself, after a fashion, in the years between the two songs' releases), and in a way the intentionally sloppy delivery just makes the strength of the underlying structure even more apparent. I've come to like Pablo Honey pretty well, after putting up some initial resistance, but it may be that this one live track conveys its spirit better, and a whole lot more concisely, than the album itself actually manages to.
As with "Fake Plastic Trees", this second part is again housed in a bigger cardboard sleeve, and this time offers the added incentive of "two free postcards exclusive to this release". Uh, thanks.
The Cardigans: Carnival
In case you didn't get enough of the Cardigans doing perky pop covers of macabre heavy metal with their version of "Sabbath Bloody Sabbath" on Life, this single finds them doing a syrupy a cappella version of Ozzy Osbourne's "Mr. Crowley" for some Swedish radio show. The Cardigans aren't quite the Bobs or anything, but hearing the rest of the band go "bum bah bah bum bum" in earnest harmony while Nina sings "And they scatter the afterbirth" is worth $8.99 to me all by itself.
The single also includes a short, wordless song called "Emmerdale". I can only assume this is intended to further confuse potential buyers of Cardigans material, as their 1994 album, whose track listing overlaps Life's by five songs, is also called Emmerdale, but doesn't include this track. Luckily for them, I'm a Big Country fan, and so have long since stopped being fazed by the tactic of removing the song you named the album after, and putting it on the b-side of a subsequent single.
Velvet Crush: Why Not Your Baby
Just to prove that American bands can make import singles just as well as British ones, here's a laggard bit of promotion for Velvet Crush's lovingly crafted 1994 album Teenage Symphonies to God. The title track is a mournful, plaintive bit of devout southern guitar pop filled with sweet slide guitar. It keeps company here with one new song, one remix, and one live track.
The new song is the rousing guitar anthem "It's Been Too Long and It's Too Late Now", whose galloping drums, strained lead vocals and smooth harmonies make it one of my favorite things the band has done, actually, even though it doesn't quite fit the sepia nostalgic tone that the band mastered so completely on the album. The remix is a Mitch Easter reworking of "Time Wraps Around You", which was one of three songs on the album that Scott Litt mixed instead of him. I'm sure this version is different than the original. I mean, why would they bother doing a remix if it wasn't different? So, like I said, I'm sure it is. If I put both versions on, I'm sure I could tell a difference. But life's so short... Oh, okay, damn it, I will; if reviewers don't have the patience to investigate these things, who in the world is going to? Hold on.
Okay, I've played the two versions side by side now, and I can report that Mitch's advance over Scott's mix appears to consist mainly of cleaning the heads of both the tape decks and their operator. Compared to the clear, balanced version here, the album's mix is murky, lost in reverb, and generally indistinct, as if it was done at the end of a long day of production, and nobody could tell whether they were doing a good job any more. This one is much better. It's a shame we can't just slip it into the album, but I suppose getting it as an update is better than living on, as I had been, enjoying the original just fine, thank you. Probably.
The last song is a concert recording of "My Blank Pages", and is the reason I bought this single, as for the purposes of touring the band had recruited a temporary second guitarist, perhaps emulating REM's tour tactic of sporadically drafting Peter Holsapple. The guy they got, though, is one of the few icons of American guitar pop even dearer to me than Holsapple (and more important to me than Velvet Crush themselves, truthfully), Tommy Keene, who I consider a criminally underappreciated songwriting genius, and a national treasure. Here, mind you, in the middle of a Velvet Crush concert, there's not really much call for somebody else's songwriting, so he just plays guitar. This produces a killer live track, but no dramatic evidence of Keene's presence in particular. Now, if only Velvet Crush would return the favor and act as Keene's backing band on his next album, then I'd really be pleased.