Worms and Angels
46 · 14 December 95
Echobelly more or less demand to be compared with Elastica, Sleeper and Salad, and I'm not going to fight the logic. All four are young bands with female singers, and all play edgy British guitar music. They're all now represented, on my CD shelves, by piles of imported singles and the occasional album, all of which are about as contemporaneous as could be expected without conscious planning. Echobelly actually hold the edge in output, as On is their second full album, following 1994's Everyone's Got One.
As inescapable as the grouping seems, the four bands are easily distinguishable. Elastica are the closest to punk of the set, with Justine Frischmann's love of Wire giving them a raw and experimental explosiveness. Salad seem to have spent more time with their Throwing Muses catalog than the others, and tend to favor more elusive musical structures around somewhat fewer melodic hooks. Sleeper mix a wistful vocal guilelessness with a less willful musical style that even displays glimmers of rock and roll traditionalism every once in a while.
Echobelly are probably the most accessible of the four. They favor big, thick guitar arrangements in which the verses are often only slightly less anthemic than the choruses. Songwriters Sonya Aurora Madan and Glenn Johansson seem to approach every song as if it could be the one that gets their countrypeople to finally stop obsessing about the Pixies in interviews. Second guitarist Debbie Smith brings with her some of the churning power of her previous band, Curve, without attempting to replicate Curve's atmospheric density or somewhat single-minded senses of pace and rhythm. The focal element, though, is undeniably Madan's voice. She is easily the most technically adept singer in any of the four bands, but she is probably also the most distinctive, which two things don't always go together. She sings with an open-mouthed enunciation that reminds me of X-Ray Spex's Poly Styrene and a little of Pauline Murray from Penetration (very young readers may need to ask their parents about these old punk bands, only please try to make it clear that Penetration is just a band name, as I don't want to see any more TV specials full of concerned parents valiantly defending their progeny from the creeping Internet pornography menace than are absolutely necessary), and in certain moments of heightened theatricality there is an unmistakable trace of Morrissey in her delivery. The result is a rousing music merging some of the most appealing traits of indie guitar rock, stadium grandeur and sophisticated Britpop.
An Echobelly song typically consists of several elements. First, you need an inexorable, warmly distorted rhythm guitar part to provide the song's musical foundation. Second, you need a good melodic guitar hook, preferably a short, simple one that can be repeated many times to the increasingly rabid delight of the crowd. Third, Madan needs some opportunities for showing off her electrifying and beautiful vocal trill. Those are the principal ingredients. Of course, you also need a solid rhythm section and some lyrics, but those often seem like afterthoughts, relatively speaking, especially the words. It's not that Madan is a bad writer, it's just that she seems a little too willing to take filler lines like "lie, lie, lie, lie, lie, lie, you're a liar, liar, liar, liar, liar, liar" and animate them through her delivery. Sure, I find myself singing the songs to myself in the parking garage in the evenings as I walk to my car, but I don't find myself thinking about them, because I haven't the slightest idea what, if anything, they mean.
The definitive Echobelly song for me is probably still "Insomniac", from their first album, which has one of the most infectious choruses in modern times. Several songs here come pretty close, though. "King of the Kerb", with its oscillating guitar line, stamping drums, and chorus that feels like it's being delivered to an enraptured throng of millions, is my personal favorite (and the album's second UK single). "Great Things" (the first single) is optimistic and steady. "Natural Animal" is unforced and plaintive, with some sparkling acoustic guitar (or possibly just an uncharacteristically clean electric). "Something Hot in a Cold Country" is controlled and elegant; "Four Letter Word" is boisterous and charged. "Nobody Like You" has some very Smiths-like sighs. "Dark Therapy" is moody, atmospheric and menacing, with some eerie slide guitar. And "Worms and Angels", which ends the album, is like a familiar slow dance to conclude a therapeutic evening of pleasant abandon.
In the end, my allegiances are somewhat split between this and Everyone's Got One, which I went back out and bought right after I heard On. On one hand, I think the band is improving, and the overall quality level of the music is higher on the second album. On the other hand, I still probably like "Insomniac", "Give Her a Gun" and "I Can't Imagine the World Without Me", all from the first album, better than any one song on On, with the possible exception of "King of the Kerb". But on the first hand again, coming fourth to those is no disgrace by any reckoning, and both albums would receive my official stamp of endorsement, though why a band would consider bearing such an emblem to be an advantage to them I can't imagine.
Papas Fritas: Papas Fritas
Echobelly and Papas Fritas' albums were both mixed at Fort Apache, here in Boston, by Fort regulars Paul Q. Kolderie and Sean Slade. That's about where the close similarities end. Papas Fritas are proud bearers of the low-fi American Indie pop standard. They are a trio, consisting of singer/guitarist/pianist Tony Goddess, bassist/singer Keith Gendel and drummer/singer Shivika Asthana, and while their self-produced arrangements are often surprisingly ambitious (a string quartet even makes an appearance), they generally make no attempt to exaggerate their technical acuity. Asthana's drums are totally unprocessed (or sound that way, at any rate, which could be the result of drastic studio manipulation for all I know, though I bet it's not), which when combined with the usually spare guitar and bass parts and the deliberately artless and peppy singing, gives the music an earnest demo-tape simplicity. If you can imagine a cross between Let's Active, the early Blake Babies, and Suddenly Tammy, with a fondness for do-it-yourself candor gleaned from listening to lots of obscure Kill Rock Stars, spinART and Harriet 45s, you might be hearing something like Papas Fritas in your mind. You also might be having a stroke or a bad flashback, so if the feeling doesn't pass by the time you finish reading this, you might start thinking about medical attention.
Simplicity, as Papas Fritas are far from the first band to demonstrate, is far from inimical to good, catchy pop songs. This short album has thirteen of them. "Guys Don't Lie" is the first. A bouncily picked four-note guitar line and plain drum part fade in, and are eventually joined by an ensemble chorus vocal that, between the three cheerful voices and the text about "Girls and boys should be as one", sounds more than a little like a Saturday morning kids-TV-show sing-along. "Holiday", with some distorted guitar stabbing and a claustrophobic narrative about self-loathing and some unspecified medicine of possibly illicit nature, is a lot more adult-sounding, but the "ahh bah-da-bah" harmonies and chorus rondos still give it some beach-pop giddiness.
"Wild Life", with its strange buzzing noises, slapback percussion echoes, cowbell, pizzicato guitars and a narrator who rides public transportation, is more like an early Game Theory song. The slow "Passion Play", with acoustic guitar and the string quartet, is like a Sonic Youth / Kronos Quartet collaboration might sound, kind of angular on the part of both factions, but perhaps more appealing than either on their own. "TV Movies", quiet and jazzy, is calming, especially when the childlike female voice sings "TV movies, made for TV" over and over, like a lullaby. The more-upbeat "My Revolution", with its folkily good-natured acoustic guitar, toy-sounding piano, and nonsense harmonies, sounds like a teenaged B-52s doing silly Violent Femmes covers in somebody's rec room.
The mood then shifts somewhat. The short "Kids Don't Mind" has the same goofy group singing, but the drums are fast and firm, and the delicacy of the tinkly bell hits just emphasizes the driving energy of the bass line. "Smash This World", next, is still fast, and the jangly acoustic verses contrast sharply with the noisy, strained chorus. The duet "Lame To Be", its insistent piano dueling with a fuzzy guitar, is probably the most presentable candidate for alternative-radio single (and is, fittingly, how I heard of the band to begin with). And the manic, charging "Possibilities" is practically a rock song.
The band's quirkier instincts then reassert themselves. "My Own Girlfriend", with its thin falsetto and trebly piano, is sad, odd and short. The stop-start "Explain", about some sort of family tension I haven't taken the time to fully piece together, is like a sketch for a rock song to be executed later in some other medium. The band finally kicks into rock in earnest only on the final track, "Afterall", where they sound a little like a faster Replacements, but with interestingly non-Westerberg-ian lyric lines like "'Something special in the end', / Said the dotted line to the fountain pen". The fact that they can do this makes it even more interesting to me that they usually don't, and vice versa.
My Papas Fritas experience is very much like my experience with Sloan. They always seem to be reminding me of some other band, but not always the same band, and sometimes when I inspect the feeling I find that they're reminding me of something that I can't place, because it doesn't actually exist. And with both bands, the litany of comparisons fails to capture the sort of unconcerned, referentless self-confidence that animates the music, making it seem like an import from some unfamiliar culture whose alienness is subtle but pervasive. With Sloan, who came from Halifax, it was tempting to just assume that cultural differences were somehow responsible. Papas Fritas are from right around here somewhere, though. Which shows that culture is more in the mind and the music than it is in the streets and the towns. Maybe.
Tracie Smart: Echoes in the Dark
Tracie Smart's label, Stone by Stone Records, is located in North Cambridge, the neighborhood of Fort Apache. That will have to do as a segue, as her music isn't even vaguely related to Papas Fritas' or Echobelly's. She's a folksinger, I suppose, if you need a genre label, but conflating her with Tracy Chapman due to their names and Boston connections will result in you not having the slightest idea what Tracie Smart sounds like (and possibly purchasing the new Tracy Chapman album, which I would not advise). Smart is a folksinger in the tradition of Tim Buckley and Nick Drake, not Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, and the music on Echoes in the Dark is closer to This Mortal Coil and early Happy Rhodes than to Four Bitchin' Babes or the Indigo Girls.
It begins with Tracie's voice. Though she's able to hit breathy high notes when she needs to, her natural singing range is incredibly low for a woman's. October Project's Mary Fahl is the only other female singer I can think of who habitually sings this deeply as a rule, though Happy Rhodes and Jewel both do it when they need to. The combination of her range and the cathedrally reverb it's given on most of this album makes her sound otherworldly and wraithlike. She emphasizes this with precise, practically classical acoustic guitar playing of her own, and similarly styled accompaniment from small rotating subsets of a host of musicians, including violin, viola, cello, piano, synthesizer, bass, guitars, accordion and some percussion, though very little that you would call drumming in the usual sense. The music that results is like the soundtrack to a weathered statuary, where gargoyles are frozen in mid-grimace and doomed to have rainwater slowly chisel grooves around their ears, where playing children are arrested in marble and copper, to turn green and streaked, somber parodies of adolescent energy and elan.
The stories in these songs are like that, too. Whatever life they would have led on their own, in this context they become immobilized for inspection and immortality. The affectionate maternal musings of "Watercolors" turn, not morbid exactly, but darkly symbolic, as if the singer could be atoning for some heavy regret. "Find Your Way", with mothers calling their children in and soldiers returning from wars, could be domestic and encouraging, but Tracie sings it like she's the angel charged with sitting at the gate of Heaven and sending back weary supplicants whose suffering lives they are not yet to be relieved from. A cheery accordion opens "I Am Falling", and then shuts up like Tracie just came into the room and caught the guy at it. The backing vocal on the word "down" in the chorus of the song makes it sound like Tracie's voice has just hit the resonant frequency of the maze of ancient tunnels under the city, and hundreds of years of hidden ghosts and history are responding to her call.
"I Feel Like a Nut", on any other album, you'd expect to be a sardonic reference to the Mounds/Almond Joy commercials. And here it is one of the album's most lighthearted moments, but only by comparison. The full sentence in which the title appears reads "I feel like a nut that's been cracked open, / Lying on the ground, shattered, broken". (I'd be impressed if anybody ever tried to sell candy that way, but I still wouldn't buy the candy.) The counting in "1 Through 13" could be the counting of bars in the windows of a medieval prison cell. "Circle Me Island" sounds like an old seafarer's death lament. The Alaska in "Leave Them Alone Now" sounds more like a mythical vanished realm, an Arctic Atlantis, than it does like the modern US state.
When you get past the strange auras, though, most of the lyrics are intriguing in perfectly human ways. "Letter in Jazz" is a captivating study in relationship ambivalence. "Hell on Earth" finds a singer watching news footage of a desperate refugee climbing into a truck, and trying to send him hope (sort of the converse of Del Amitri's "Food for Songs", come to think of it). "Watercolors" is a mother both encouraging her children, and letting go of them, torn between fear for what they face and the understanding that she can't face it for them. "I Am Falling" confronts the eternal question of whether free will is an illusion. "Pajaro" I take to be a farewell to a bird that the singer has nursed back to health, with the affecting line "Come find me when I die, / Bury me in your sky". These are not happy songs, but they are songs, and there is hope even just in the singing of them. There's a Brecht quote on the first page of the liner: "In the dark times / Will there also be singing? / Yes, there will also be singing / About the dark times." Every night we sing through, even if the songs are sad and quiet, we are one day closer to light.