With You Under My Arm Like a Football
60 · 21 March 96
The Nields: Gotta Get Over Greta
There is a list in my mind, its membership revolving steadily, of artists I'm almost interested in. It is lined with people I've heard vague good reviews about, bands I think I once heard a decent song by but can't remember for sure, bands who I feel self-conscious about knowing nothing about, attractive women whose albums I would feel sleazy for purchasing on no other pretense, etc. In general, two or three such tenuous citations (depending on their precise tenuousness) are sufficient to get me to buy an album, and anybody on the list who doesn't garner a second recommendation for several months usually gets removed on the grounds that if I've lived that long without them, I can probably go on that way.
The Nields got on the list first because they're from around here somewhere (out in Western Mass., which Bostonians think of as "around here somewhere", and which the people that live there probably don't think of that way, or else what would be the point of living there?). They were on the verge of slipping off again when a friend of mine at work recommended them in the course of a music discussion on Interchange, this online service that he and I worked on whose commercial prognosis could be quickly and accurately assessed from the fact that its music discussions generally involved just him and me. The third and conclusive link came a few weeks ago when I discovered Dar Williams, as Katryna and Nerissa Nields sang backup on her new album's opening track, "As Cool As I Am" (see my raptures on this subject elsewhere), as well as one on her first album, and she and the Nields are now labelmates on Razor & Tie. Who could gainsay such a clear mandate for CD purchase?
I write this review, then, hoping to cut short the amount of time the Nields have to spend suspended in limbo on your version of my list. The Nields are a five-piece band who you might call folk-rock if you were a marketer under the cowardly impression that everything must have a recognizable label or people will gather in the square at night and put it to the torch. Three of the five are Nields in person, as well. Katryna sings, Nerissa sings and plays guitar and writes most of the songs, and David plays guitar and writes the rest of them. David also provides a first-name link to drummer Dave Hower and bassist Dave Chalfant. Their back-catalog includes the 1994 album Bob on the Ceiling, which includes, among other things, a striking cover of Sinéad O'Connor's "Black Boys on Mopeds", and an EP and a live disc that I haven't heard yet because when I ordered them from the band's Web page I got a note back from their manager saying that they were out on tour and it might be a while.
Calling them folk-rock isn't accurate or evocative, but it's still probably the best place to begin. They use acoustic guitars frequently, and both Nields sisters (at least, I assume they're sisters) sing with fragile voices that sound like they'd be most at home in a small-college-town coffeehouse. And though there's plenty of overdriven electric guitar and loud drumming on this album, none of the Nields seem to have mastered the machismatic bluster with which rock drama is customarily executed. So if folk-rock is what you get when people raised on folk try to play rock, that's sort of what this is.
There's more to it, though, because the Nields' upbringing appears to have been a bit more complicated. Or perhaps everybody's upbringing is complicated, and the Nields just reflect more of theirs in their music than most people do. They remind me of Suddenly Tammy, not because the two bands play similar styles of music, but because the family is evident in the music. There's something fundamentally different about the music you get from four random individuals who gather in a basement to become a rock band, and the music you get from siblings and their assorted friends who play music as an extension of their lives together, and while I don't know anything about the real history here, if the Nields the band didn't evolve out of the Nields the people in this latter manner then this is a cunning imitation all the same.
The result is that the Nields have a large number of interesting elements that you would probably not have thought to include in a rock band constituted from scratch. Neither of the sisters' voices are that impressive on their own, but they play off each other instinctively, one soaring into wailing harmony while the other drops into a quiet, elfin confidence. One of them (or both perhaps, it's hard to tell) is fond of letting notes trail off into wild pitch modulation, and at other times they produce passing hints of a Polly Harvey-like whisper, Jean Smith's flat intonation, Sinéad O'Connor's tense circling and even the Beatles' psychedelic flourishes. David's electric guitars produce a range of sounds from a digeridu-like throaty drone to squeaky rhythm chords to a ragged-sounding lead that could easily be coming out of a cheap amp in the family rec room, and they combine this with the folkier acoustic guitars as if having both in a band at once is the most natural thing in the world.
And when you start listening to the lyrics, things really get interesting. It's easy, with many many rock bands, to get the impression from their lyrics that they decided to be in a band first, and only later acknowledged that this suggests that they need to write some words for their songs. I never got the impression, for example, that Steve Perry would have spent his lunch hours writing love poems even if he'd turned out to be an insurance clerk rather than a singer. The Nields lyrics, on the other hand, have the feel of family gossip, childhood pageants, late-night discussions and long-distance confessions. They feel like stories that came first, little dramas that weren't thought up to fill the meter, but, quite the reverse, were what drove the family into music to begin with, searching for the proper setting for their tales. And so we get the charming inside-joke insistence on referring to the philandering older man in "Best Black Dress" by his full name ("Mr. George Fox" they sing, forming the words so precisely that, though no rancor is evident, I feel certain the family is smiling sardonically at remembrances of the man's transgressions), the title-track's ambivalence about growing up (where I particularly like the projection of adult standards onto childhood relationships when they describe the end of a childhood friendship by "there is no divorce more final"), the frank inside perspective on an anonymous sexual encounter in "I Know What Kind of Love This Is", the adolescent dominance games of "King of the Hill", and childhood memory itself in "All the Pretty Horses".
To me the most affecting pair, however, are "Fountain of Youth" and "Cowards", which come back to back towards the album's end. The crisp, bouncy "Fountain of Youth" is almost certainly the most fascinating pop song I can recall about a younger woman's view of her affair with a married older man. "'Here are the keys to my Infiniti', you say to me", she sings, both reporting his come-on and, effectively, her reaction to it. When she dreams, in the middle of the song, about his wife, things could easily take a cliched turn, but Nerissa avoids this deftly by having the dream take a surreal (and perfectly dreamlike) turn, in which the narrator and the wife are discussing the man's immaturity, and wondering if he'll ever have children, despite the presence of lots of photographs in which he already has some. "Cowards" is a stalled-relationship song that gets its authenticity and pathos not from the relationship itself, but from the contrast between the couple's denial of their stasis and the reactions of their friends and family. "Your mom sent out Christmas cards with everybody's picture, / Including mine; / It made me cry".
Even the album's packaging suggests a lineage. The intricate hand-done layout of the lyrics reminds me strongly of the program for a family play, and the profusion of iconographic illustrations suggests an intimate involvement with these songs, as if the contents of this album were selected from an overflowing chest of personal treasures, rather than just being invented to fill the running time. In an era where too many albums sound to me like they were made because the creators had a record contract, it's profoundly encouraging to hear one that sounds like it would have been made even if there were no record contracts, no records, and nobody but the band themselves to hear it. And even though I'm not related to them, I like it, too.
(A design-lesson postscript about the packaging, actually. LP curmudgeons complain about CDs on the grounds (among other things) that album art was much better on the larger LP sleeves, but this only makes sense if you treat CDs like very small LP sleeves. More interesting designs take advantage of the physical nature of the jewel case, and use its characteristics as an advantage rather than seeing its size as a problem. Gotta Get Over Greta reinforces both halves of this lesson, first by using a clear disc tray (and Western civilization does seem to have finally conquered the manufacturing problems that used to result, as recently as a year or two ago, in most clear trays arriving with all the teeth broken out of the middle), which lets them both put additional art behind the disc and also turn the act of removing the disc itself into part of the crafted experience of the album, and then further by making a liner booklet that is cut from the standard four-and-eleven-sixteenths-inch square into a book-like form factor that is no shorter (so it still hooks into the retaining tabs properly), but only three-and-a-half inches wide. This makes the artwork even smaller, of course, but in doing so they not only turn the booklet into something wholly intentional, instead of a de rigueur feature of CD packaging, but also allow the disc and the tray art to show through in the gap left by the missing inch or so of booklet, so that this package actually presents itself as a whole, not just as a cover, which not very many albums manage in any format.)
Marry Me Jane: Marry Me Jane
From the self-sufficient family aesthetic of the Nields, it's a substantial social leap to Marry Me Jane, a band that positively reeks of label-marketing contrivance. As usual I don't know any real background information about the band, so these five people may have been friends since they all were two, and may have been playing music together since their optics solidified enough to focus clearly on keys and frets. But flip this box over and look at the back cover, and that's not the impression you'll get. Here, for those of you temporarily barred from record stores due to legal misunderstandings, I'll describe it. There are five people in the band. Four of them are guys, with a stereotypical array of rock hairstyles (which since this is 1996 means that three of them have it cut short, and one leaves it long) and pointless unshaven tufts lingering in various spots about their faces. The three whose pants are visible are wearing fashionably battered jeans with either scruffy shoes or bare feet. The fifth member, and obviously the leader, is a stunning woman with a porcelain Courteney Cox complexion, red hair cascading in all directions, shiny red-leather pants and some sort of strange boots. The quintet is sitting is some unpretentious setting (on inspection it appears to be an empty classroom, but it could easily have been a bar after hours if it weren't for the roll-up map in the background and a couple corners of desks just visible amongst their legs). The list of song titles, with such entries as "Twentyone", "Misunderstood", "Who's Leaving Who", "Ashes and Stone" and "Lousy Lullaby", could have come directly from a market survey that came back saying that soul-searching, uncertainty and cynicism are this week's most credible rock stances. And putting the major-label insignias in a sort of thought-bubble above their heads is an attempt to put some ironic distance between the carefully (and corporately) non-corporate band and their ultra-corporate sponsors (Sony, via the thin remove of their 550 Music and Epic subsidiaries).
The music, too, could have been deduced from consumer research. Singer Amanda Kravat sounds like the winner of a nationwide search for somebody that sounds like Aimee Mann without being such a pain to manipulate, like Carol van Dijk without being quite so Dutch, Tori Amos or Alanis Morissette without scaring the men away, Christina Amphlett without scaring the women away, Lisa Loeb but sexy, or probably another dozen such demographic wet dreams that you can think of on your own, if you can live with yourself once you realize you're capable of thinking that way. The band mix a Buffalo Tom-like directness with a little extra conventional musicianship for the older listeners, an unmistakable layer of Grunge! The Miracle Sales Topping!, enough acoustic guitars, token mandolins and slow passages to forge an alliance of convenience with the New Mildness, busy danceable rhythms and a few cautiously placed touches of sound processing to maybe get them an opening spot on the next Garbage tour. There is just enough profanity that there's something to censor, but it's carefully placed where the required edits won't ruin the meter.
Even the album's promotional scheme is picture perfect. As a sticker on the front of the case so large that it obscures everything of the cover except for the band's name attests, ten of these thirteen songs appeared in the movie If Lucy Fell, a film featuring Ben Stiller, who you may recall with some queasiness was the person responsible for putting Lisa Loeb on the Reality Bites soundtrack. This isn't a soundtrack album, officially, but getting moviegoers to listen to nearly all of it without realizing that they're being advertised to is a terrific ploy, and if very many people see the movie (which I thought had charming and agreeable performances from Eric Schaeffer and Sarah Jessica Parker, embedded in a plot so predictable that anybody not just today arrived from being reared by ferrets could explain it to almost the smallest detail after seeing the first five minutes), I bet associative reflexes will produce decent sales for this record, as well.
It worked on me, after all. Not counting Harold and Maude, where my parents already had most of the music, and all those Star Wars and Close Encounters soundtracks I bought as a kid because I kept expecting that "soundtrack album" meant they would have the actual audio from the movie, like watching it with your eyes closed, I don't remember the last time I bought a soundtrack because I liked the music in a movie. (Actually, because I'm a compulsive who catalogs everything in his life into databases, I can answer this definitively, if you give me a moment. Ah. One Paradox query later, I can report that while I do own several soundtracks whose films I've also seen, there are only two (not counting this one) where I saw the film first, and seeing it (as opposed to track lists that would have attracted me without the film) is what caused me to buy the album, and both of them are Michael Nyman scores to Peter Greenaway films.) I noticed the music in If Lucy Fell several times, and as the credits began I was thinking to myself that Bettie Serveert might not be quite as dull as I'd previously thought. The song attributions in the credits were a confusing mixture of band and individual names, but I did manage to catch the name Marry Me Jane, and glean enough from the rest to realize that Bettie Serveert wasn't actually involved at all. I rushed to the store and bought the album, and hurried home, trying not to examine or think about it too closely, hoping somehow that by getting it into my CD player with as little physical and mental exposure as possible, I could keep its calculated targeting from swaying me either way.
The ultimate irony, of course, is that there's no way of knowing whether I succeeded or not. I like this album a lot, but is that because all the deliberate positioning has infected me exactly like the boys in the Sony labs intended, or is it because this really is a good band that happens to look like a designer drug through no fault of their own, or is it that Sony's most cynical contrivance has produced some great songs despite itself? I can't tell. I'm trying not to infect you by describing it, but maybe it's just too insidious for either of us to defend ourselves against.
Because the painful truth is that, for whatever reason, this album punctuates its overall undistinguished adequacy with almost as many moments that I surrender to without a hope of resistance as there are songs: when the tambourine and bass kick in as Amanda edges into the chorus of "Twentyone", and her voice hits a hairline crack right before the line "I'm not twenty-one"; the trace flanging on her voice as she sings "Life's a little too intense", before "Misunderstood" gets into gear; the way she skitters across the top of a choppy three-chord guitar riff in the verses of "Bad Loser"; the sad beauty as she sings "I'm wrapped around your favorite overcoat" over an acoustic guitar swell in "You Didn't Kiss Me" (reminding me of another classic borrowed-coat song, "Pretty in Pink", though all right-thinking people detest the version that was redone for the film); the soaring harmony on the chorus of "Athena", and the pseudo-unplugged bongo-drums behind it; the simple, raspy throb of "Who's Leaving Who"; the ominous keyboards simmering in the background of "Candy"; the utter melodic perfection of the lines "I don't wanna be in your fantasy. / I wish you'd move to China or the moon", which deserve to be sung by Marie Fredriksson to half a million reverent and delirious Brazilians; the stutter-step drums of "Secretly Waiting"; the mournful slide guitar and hushed out-of-step vocals of "Lousy Lullaby".
And so if this is just cynical exploitation of a market segment, I'm afraid I'm sold. A part of me wants to insist that, no, these are great songs that transcend their origins, whether their origins are evil or sainted, and that this is thus a ringing victory for human and individual inspiration over mindless premeditation by committee. But isn't that exactly what I'd say if I'd been drugged and brainwashed? I think this means that anybody who's heard this music is an untrustworthy witness to its quality, so how you'll figure out whether to give in, yourself, I can't imagine. Of course, if Sony's A&R reps are worth anything at all, these songs will be plastered over radio and TV with a sickeningly Sheryl Crow-like omnipresence for the next year or two, at which point the defensive procedures to avoid exposure will become too difficult for anybody other than CDC employees to essay. And so if by fall the streets of our cities are lined with dyed-red-haired, vacant-eyed people, traveling in unnaturally cohesive groups, humming "What's it gonna take for you to cross that line" with the mania of an ultimatum, and trying to get you to drink something bubbling and noxious, then I guess we'll know. So if by six months from now you haven't heard anything from this album, you'll know it's okay to buy it, and if it infects you in the meantime, I'll see you in the collective mind.
Odds: Good Weird Feeling
Speaking of cynical marketing, we are going to do an experiment, you and I, to answer a question that has been bothering me for some time. The question is: do major-label PR sleazeballs actively seek to promote music made by idiots over songs that display unmistakable signs of intelligence, or do they not recognize or pay attention to the difference at all, and it's just numeric dominance that results in the preponderance of moronic drivel? Good Weird Feeling, the third album by the Canadian band Odds, will serve as our test subject. It contains thirteen songs that, judging strictly from their musical structures, ought to fit seamlessly into The New Mildness, the high volume sales genre currently occupied by the spectrum of bands from Hootie and the Blowfish and Don Henley to Counting Crows, Collective Soul, the Gin Blossoms and Deep Blue Something. There's a bit more of a Squeeze-ish pop skip to their style than some of those other bands', and perhaps a little too much dB's country bounce to a song or two, but the engaging guitars are there, the friendly drums and the steady bass, and if "Breakfast at Tiffany's" and "Runaway Train" can sell millions, then Odds should be able to do just fine.
And here is where the test comes in. Because where "Breakfast at Tiffany's" or "Runaway Train" (at least without the video) are unlikely to lead people to interpolate anything dangerous, like their mind, in between their wallets and the nearest mall CD outlet, Odds songs tend to be smart. Worse yet, they tend to be smart in ways that are hard to overlook. Enough people bought "Roll to Me" to get Del Amitri into the American top 10, but Justin Currie's songs are subtle, manifesting their intelligence in the careful choice and placement of otherwise ordinary words, so it's easy enough to sing along without processing what is being said, at least for single songs taken in isolation. The same can't be said of songs with lines like "Smokescreen, oil path, road full of thumb tacks, stiletto umbrella, / Steel bowler hat and spectacles made of bulletproof glass, / Armour in the rat race, vaseline for when it chafes, pepper spray necklace, aerosol mace, / The mail's got to get there so puppy gets it in the face", "Now I can dance like Nureyev / With these wings on my body; / St. Peter complains that it's too loud down in the lobby", "A cross between a dime-store witch / And a whirling, painted Martin Sheen", "Seems like you sleep with anybody else but me", "My heart's getting bigger, so I need a new pant size", "Put your sword in the stone / And leave it there" or "Your tear walked down from my fingertip / Like a ladybug sidetracked from its fated trip". Never mind a song that begins "Carrying your ashes from bar to bar, / I'm in a mess and you're in a mason jar. / With you under my arm like a football / I'm not ready to let go and that is all." And worse still might be "Drinking like a teenager, / Using up the Kleenex, / Staring at the CD rack asking myself which fuzzbox band would sound the best", which commits the unpardonable sin of calling the flaws of the insincere and the flailings of the superficially cool to their attentions.
And perhaps this is the key to the trouble. Skittish AOR programmers must sense, almost subconsciously, that their world is being made fun of, and by implication, they are too. And so they don't add "Radios of Heaven" or "Eat My Brain" to their playlists, the listeners don't leave their Tauruses or their cubicles, nobody sees their shadow, and we have six more weeks of "All I Wanna Do".
Which is a shame, because Odds' arrival at strategic commercial accessibility is happily coincident with their resolution of their own internal musical tensions. 1991's Neapolitan, their first album (at least, I think it's their first), had some beautiful slow songs, some nice mid-tempo songs, and a couple of abrasive blues-rock bits that made me uncomfortable, and I didn't think the album as a whole made coherent sense out of these divergent impulses. Bedbugs, in 1993, struck me as even more schizophrenic, mixing some more nice pop songs with painfully mock-macho Mojo-Nixon-like joke-rock numbers like "Heterosexual Man" and "Jack Hammer". I bought this third one prepared to abandon it in mid-play if it continued on the path charted by the first two, but instead it rationalizes the band's contrary impulses, and forges from them a mainstream pop-rock musical approach that acts as an intriguing counterpoint to the involved lyrics. It is commercial, but I don't get the feeling that that was the motivation, and I suspect that this album would have sounded like this even if the rest of the world was snapping up polkas and bell-ringer epics.
So we'll see. If these songs are hits, and Odds become big stars, I'll relinquish some of my imprecating hypotheses about PR people. If not, though, I think the evidence of conspiracy is mounting precipitously. Not, of course, that you or I are influenced by their feeble efforts at centralized control. I bought this album of my own free will, as part of my ongoing outreach program to help supply beleaguered Canadians with greener currency. And you'll buy it because I said it was good, as part of the program you're all about to start to help me establish my reputation as a powerful controller of public opinion, so that I can turn this time-consuming hobby into a means of making a living, and won't have to get another real job if I get laid off from the one I have sometime in the near future.