Where Last Year's Light Is Shining
77 · 18 July 96
Crowded House: Recurring Dream + Live Album
My CD-shelving scheme recognizes three different interpretations of "pop". The center one, which I called "Alternative" when I started categorizing things, back in 1985, before it became clear that if I didn't think up some better terms 80% of my collection was going to end up under this one, has now been clarified to be the American guitar-centric version of pop that starts, for me, with Big Star, follows Scott Miller and Mitch Easter threads through a thicket of interrelated and largely South-Eastern bands (including, most popularly, REM), loses its geographical coherency in a sequence that goes from Pop Art to American Music Club via Del Amitri, and ends up, at the frenetic extreme, with Too Much Joy. The right-hand one, as you face my shelves (and lean to your right to read the case spines) is my amalgamation of synth-, dance-, power-, trash-, quirk-, geek- and other miscellaneous hyphenated -pops, which covers things from Yaz to ABBA to the Knack to Pat Benatar to They Might Be Giants to the Bobs, with an emphasis, TMBG notwithstanding, on the shiny and ultracommercial. And the left-hand one is, vaguely speaking, the British complement to the American wing, starting at XTC and Joe Jackson, skittering out to the Beautiful South, and from there continuing along a chain of associations past the Smiths to the Icicle Works and out, before you have time to really protest, to EMF and Jesus Jones, which is where you realize that you've lost track of whatever point it is I think I'm making, and are tired of holding your head to the side like that for so long.
Inclusion and position in these genres is rather arbitrary, to be generous, but some minor relevance, at least, devolves from the fact that, while I have a hard time explaining the boundaries of these groupings, I do at least have extremely clear ideas about what bands constitute their cores and make, most purely, the music that I mean the divisions, as sets, to refer to. In the American section it's the Connells, and in shiny commercial pop it is, of course, Roxette. In the Britpop section it used to be the Housemartins/Beautiful South continuum, or maybe it was XTC. Or Squeeze. Or perhaps Prefab Sprout. In fact, that whole section only really started making sense a couple years ago when "Locked Out" turned me suddenly into a crazed Crowded House fan, and I realized that they're the archetype I was looking for. Pop, to me, is the triumph of melody over all else, and its British incarnation achieves this victory unhurriedly, with dignity and grace. Nobody epitomizes this balance of rapturous beauty and smooth unobtrusiveness better for me than Crowded House. Of course, Crowded House aren't technically British, but to Americans, the distinction between Basil Fawlty and Crocodile Dundee was always a little tenuous, and given that most people educated here couldn't get you from Topeka to Toledo without a snorkel and a passport, asking them to remember that New Zealand is yet somewhere else, a thousand miles of ocean away from that funny clamshell building that vies with the big Foster's can for the tiny slot most people free up in their mind for a mental image of "Down Under", is probably overambitious.
As is usually the case with bands I really like, on some level I will always be mystified that anybody would want a collection like this. Crowded House's albums are so great, and there's only four of them, so why would anybody need such a manageable canon abridged? If given the task of whittling the forty-eight songs from the four albums down for the purposes of a compilation, I'd promptly draw a line through "Chocolate Cake", which has always grated on my nerves, and then I'd be stuck. I could eliminate a few more if I started sniping at any song whose chorus didn't immediately spring to my mind from reading the title ("I Walk Away"? "In the Lowlands"? "Tall Trees"?), but if I went and listened to those songs to refresh my memory, I'm sure I'd want to reinstate them. Part of the fractal mastery of Crowded House is that their chiming guitars, aching harmony, and elegant melodies are wherever you look for them. No amount of inspection will reveal hidden ugliness, because it just isn't there. Put the other way, I guess this is their fatal flaw, as well: it is rare for a Crowded House song to really stand out. By sacrificing barbs to escape flaws, they achieve a sort of covert perfection which you have to go out of your way to experience. These are not songs that you hear once and develop a mad crush on for a week, these are songs that you take for granted for years, and then, when some other musical romance sours and leaves you in a state of unusual awareness, suddenly realize that you've gradually fallen in love with, and know that this slow conversion will outlast a thousand seemingly more spectacular affairs. Every one of you who can't say that they hate Crowded House, how do you know that you aren't a tiny epiphany away from adoring them? I'm projecting my own experience onto you again (here, let me get you a napkin), but that doesn't mean I'm wrong. I suppose I'm also revealing my biases about the structure of romance; I don't believe in love at first sight, in dating services, even really in dates. I believe in friends first, and one day, in my versions of all the fables, you marry your best one. This would be a much more useful belief if more of my best friends weren't already married or engaged to other people.
But whatever the factors that militate against this collection's construction, the task was assigned to somebody less convinced than I of its futility, and so we have Recurring Dream, a nineteen-song synopsis of Crowded House's oeuvre for the completist and the novitiate alike. Looking over its track listing, it's clear that the first tactic used to avoid my paralysis was starting from nothing, not everything. Without all forty-eight songs protesting their cases at once, it becomes possible to make a few unassailable selections: "World Where You Live" and "Don't Dream It's Over", certainly, from the debut; "Into Temptation" and "Better Be Home Soon" from the underrated Temple of Low Men; "Weather With You" and "Four Seasons in One Day" from the dual-Finn-ed Woodface; "Locked Out" and "Private Universe" from Together Alone. Surely these choices could hurt nobody else's feelings. And then, on a second pass, you take a couple supplements from each record. They're all good, so it doesn't make that much difference (and if you move quickly the omissions won't have time to hurt): "Something So Strong" and "Mean to Me", "When You Come" and "I Feel Possessed", "Fall at Your Feet" and "It's Only Natural", "Pineapple Head" and "Distant Sun". These are all great songs. Yes, if you go back and itemize the ones left behind, you can make yourself sad (no "Hole in the River"? no "Sister Madly"? "There Goes God"? "How Will You Go"? "Catherine Wheels" and "Together Alone"?), but just don't do that. These sixteen tell the story as well as any sixteen could, and there's only so much room on a CD.
Filling the rest of it, in fact, are three new songs, included to sell a few more copies to fanatics like me. The first of these, "Not the Girl You Think You Are", is a bit slight for a "Very Best of", unless George Harrison homages are much more to your liking than they are to mine. "Instinct", though, simmers and breathes like a demo for the fifth album that never was, and the rumbling "Everything Is Good for You", which concludes the collection, acts as the band's farewell in a way that none of their existing songs, inextricable from their contexts of beloved familiarity, could have. Crowded House are gone now, Neil's energies turned with Tim to the Finn Brothers, and so this album is both a celebration and a requiem. It's rare that a set of songs serves both purposes so admirably.
(And since no good wake is complete without an encore, my early import copy comes with a bonus live album. Live versions have adorned the backs of many Crowded House singles over the years, and while the band's anti-pyrotechnic nature may make concert recordings seem like a less than exhilarating prospect, for me the original versions of their songs seem so unalterable and necessary that I always find hearing them done any other way to be unexpectedly thrilling. When Neil's voice dips here, ever so slightly, on "Don't Dream It's Over", in a place where the album version doesn't veer, it makes me pay closer attention both to this twist and to the place in the original where it isn't, and my devotion to both versions becomes all the more fierce for their interplay. The bonus further endears itself to me by rescuing several of the songs I missed from the first disc, including a set-opener of "There Goes God" and a breathtakingly beautiful rendition of "How Will You Go". For people with no Crowded House to their name, the flimsy argument against buying the four albums falls apart most of the rest of the way if you admit that you're willing to sit through two and a half hours of them, since the full catalog just grazes three, but for devotees, this is like a b-sides collection that simply (and, for those of us buying the singles at this end of the trans-Atlantic levies, mercifully) skips the uncollected step.)
Hunters and Collectors: Living...In Large Rooms and Lounges
The application for a rock band license in Australia and New Zealand must include some blanks for sibling endorsements that aren't present in the American version. In addition to the obvious other Finn, Crowded House's bass player, Nick Seymour, is the brother of Hunters and Collectors' singer Mark Seymour. Somewhere I even have Crowded House covering H&C's trademark anthem "Throw Your Arms Around Me". Disappointingly, perhaps, this two-disc Australian Hunters and Collectors live album doesn't feature any Crowded House covers. Then again, perhaps it's just as well. Crowded House's gentle reworking of H&C's storming love theme was electrifying in its restraint, but subjecting Crowded House's meticulous trio pop songs to H&C's pack-the-stage volubility might easily come off as unpleasantly brutal.
Like Crowded House, Hunters and Collectors are, in my opinion, unrivaled masters of a particular song form. They do catharsis. Every H&C song has the same aim, which is to make you simultaneously sweat like you're being wrung for humanade, and howl like a Valkyrie in a stretch limo is swooping toward you with your name on a golden airport placard shining like the sun. Whatever the lyrics actually say, the message in all these songs is either "It's over and we won", or "It's not over yet, and we're damn well going to win before it is", and in good Ouroboros style, the distinction between the two is frequently trampled on with gusto. The Alarm were good at this, too, in their day, but H&C makes them sound like Frippertronics. Part of it is Seymour's bar-fight delivery (he sounds like he's on the verge of voice death even in his best moments, and hearing him fight through a throat infection on the first disc is awe-inspiring), and part of it is the fact that there are practically more people in H&C than there were in the Alarm's whole hometown, so that I get the distinct impression they could form a decent-size uprising without even resorting to outside recruiting. And part of it, too, though maybe this shouldn't matter, is that the Alarm are gone, and they went messily, without the good sense to quit before they embarrassed themselves, while H&C, despite some problems getting distribution here in the US, have soldiered on for eight or eleven albums, depending on how you count, as if there really is no force that could deter them.
This double-disc set's ostensible organizing rationale is that the first one was gleaned from three nights at a small Melbourne cafe, while the second came from "venues with full scale production". Don't bother expecting MTV-Unplugged-style acousticity out of the first half, though. You could lock H&C in a closet with nothing but picnic plates for gear, and they still wouldn't sound unplugged. Somehow they'd figure out how to convert static electricity into overdrive, and make trumpets out of the plates, and your neighbors would be phoning the police before you could cram a sheet of Bounce into Seymour's mouth. Yes, technically there are acoustic guitars in some places on the first disc where there would normally be electrics, but no mere instrumental substitution can alter H&C's emotional palette much. Any venue large enough to fit the whole band at all is large enough for them to transform into a virtual arena by their very presence. Still, the Continental songs are notably rawer and the frayed state of Seymour's voice is arresting, while the "full scale" songs sound a bit more like you're hearing them from the back of a very large crowd, with some of the protection from their intensity that that distance affords, and the contrast of these makes the halves an interesting pair.
The bulk of this material is drawn from 1994's Demon Flower (the choppy we-survived-our-brush-with-evil anthem "Courtship of America", the squarely mid-tempo "Betrayer", the prison-guard's-home-life song "Back in the Hole", and the scornful slow-brass meditation "Ladykiller" on the first disc, the bluesy ballad "Mr. Bigmouth" and the raspy "The One and Only You" on the second) and its predecessor, 1992's Cut (the amiable "True Tears of Joy" on 1, the chattering dance track "Head Above Water" and the eminently arena-scale "Where Do You Go?" on 2). Both discs also have versions of Human Frailty's angular lead track, "Say Goodbye" (the first disc actually has two), and Cut's buoyant single "Holy Grail", which seem to have become the band's dual standard-bearers, and Demon Flower's cartoon-blues opener, "Easy". The rest of the first set has the immortal "Throw Your Arms Around Me", from 1986's Human Frailty, the similar "When the River Runs Dry" from 1989's Ghost Nation, and a lone track, "The Slab", exhumed from the early album The Jaws of Life. The second disc pulls out two more old ones, "Chalkie" and "42 Wheels", and then moves on to Human Frailty's wistful "Stuck on You" and desperate "Everything's on Fire", Fate's pounding "Do You See What I See?", and Ghost Nation's deliberate "Blind Eye". Human Frailty and Fate were the albums I discovered H&C with, so naturally I miss some of my other favorites from them, like "January Men", "Back on the Breadline", "Faraway Man" and especially the harrowing war song "What's a Few Men", but the token treatment of the disappointing Ghost Nation and the somewhat unapproachable early albums seems about right. And while it's sad that the US seems to have left H&C behind, it's encouraging that the feeling appears to be mutual.
Now, on to the next one.
Sarah McLachlan: Rarities, B-Sides & Other Stuff
Until last year, I would have laughed at the very idea of a Sarah McLachlan b-sides collection. Her single output through her first two albums was most remarkable for the total absence of new songs anywhere in it. Aside from a couple of covers, the rest of the track slots were made up of remixes (and not always new ones) and radio sessions, and while some of them are quite good, it would have been silly to make an album out of them, especially next to 1992's limited edition live album, which featured several of the same songs. Around Fumbling Towards Ecstasy, though, Sarah loosened up a little, putting an impressive cover of Joni Mitchell's "Blue" on the single for "Good Enough", contributing "I Will Remember You" to the soundtrack for The Brothers McMullen, covering "Dear God" (if stiffly) on the unfortunate XTC tribute Testimonial Dinner, and consigning my pick for the year's fourth coolest song, "Full of Grace", to the bowels of Nettwerk's expensive tenth-anniversary box set Decadence. Suddenly a b-sides comp made some sense. I felt bad about telling even die-hard Sarah fans that "Full of Grace" justified buying a five-disc $60+ box, but a $20 import b-sides collection is a much more easily condoned indulgence.
And so here it is. Besides those four songs, it also has otherwise unavailable (I think) dance remixes of "Fear" and "Possession" (decent ones, too, not generic house loops with two-second samples of the singer's voice on top, like on some recent Tori singles), old-fashioned pre-techno extended mixes of "Vox" and "Into the Fire", both from the Vox single, the "Violin Mix" of "Shelter" from the Into the Fire single, the live version of "Drawn to the Rhythm" from the limited EP (fair, since "limited" appears to have been a genuine claim), the dark "Gloomy Sunday" cover from the Drawn to the Rhythm single, a Gordon Lightfoot cover ("Song for a Winter's Night", whose origin eludes me; I fear I have missed a Lightfoot tribute), and a Manufacture track called "As the End Draws Near" that Sarah sang on. For destitute completists keeping score, this is a good sample of the available obscurities, but it leaves out other remixes of "Steaming", "Vox", "Into the Fire", "Fear" and "Mary", radio versions of "Sad Clown" and "Black", a MuchMusic performance of "Drawn to the Rhythm", and a particularly good live version of "Good Enough" from that single. But if they put any more tracks on the disc they couldn't fit the blurry QuickTime version of the "I Will Remember You" video on the CD-ROM portion, and I'm sure you'll want to watch that time after time, memorizing the delicate nuances of pixels the size of Legos.
Linda Thompson: Dreams Fly Away
Rykodisc, on the other hand, you can rely on to brook no nonsense when it puts together a collection. Watching the Dark, the three-disc compendium they assembled for Richard in 1993, was virtually a model for a career retrospective (my only quibble concerned their decision not to sequence the songs chronologically), and Dreams Fly Away was compiled with the same care and concern (and, in fact, by the same compiler). In addition to album tracks from Sunnyvista ("Lonely Hearts", "Sisters"), Pour Down Like Silver ("For Shame of Doing Wrong" and "The Poor Boy Is Taken Away"), I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight (the title track) and Linda's one solo album, One Clear Moment ("Telling Me Lies"), it has the version of "Walking on a Wire" from the never-released Rafferty/Murphy-produced sessions for Shoot Out the Lights, an unreleased cover of Sandy Denny's "I'm a Dreamer" from the same sessions, demos of "I Live Not Where I Love" with Simon Nicol and "Sometimes It Happens" with Brian Patten, British TV performances of the traditional "Shay Fan Yan Ley" and "Blackwaterside", a charmingly overproduced remix of "One Clear Moment" itself, its b-side "Talking Like a Man", a demo with Richard of "First Light", a frighteningly intense German radio recording of Richard and Linda doing "Pavanne", a live version of "The Great Valerio", the stunning demo a cappella duet "Many Dreams Must Fly Away" with Betsy Cook and another Cook co-composition demo called "Insult to Injury", and a bizarrely countrified 1987 LA studio remake of "Dimming of the Day" with Jennifer Warnes singing backup and Bruce Hornsby playing piano. Twenty tracks, fourteen of them new to the public, seventy-eight minutes of music, and no disposable multi-media clutter. Let this be a format lesson to everybody else.
The big difference between Richard and Linda Thompson, of course, is that Richard is a major and prolific figure in modern folk and rock music, who is widely considered to be one of the finest guitar players and songwriters alive, while Linda was a singer of uncertain technical merit who sang the songs he wrote until their marriage self-destructed, made one solo album, and then stopped singing entirely. I bought this not knowing whether it was going to document an artist underappreciated in her own right, or expose someone whose success was entirely a product of her context. And in a sense it does both. The best of her moments, to me, are the plainest, the ones in which she sings with the least polish or affect. Her fear and uncertainty, often, are palpable, but even more than that, she sounds harrowingly normal. She sounds like somebody who got to sing on records because she was dating people who made them, and her performances are rivetingly personal because they have to be, because she has no technique to hide behind. Her singing is chilling for exactly the same reason that Meryl Streep's version of "Amazing Grace" in Silkwood was chilling: because she sounds like a person, not a singer. She is not performing, and we so rarely hear singing stripped of its performance that I'm not sure we know quite what to make of it when we hear it. It's tempting to somehow construe the effect as artistically dishonest, or to consider Richard as the real author of Linda's singing, on the grounds that the real creative act was putting her in front of a microphone, like she's a found sound-producing device, not a independent entity. But she's not a robot or an idiot, she's an intelligent person, her singing is compelling, this collection is better than most whole careers, and I refuse to hold her streak of great luck with material against her, or Richard's presence against her, or her presence against Richard. Their making albums together seems to me like the most natural thing in the world. Frankly, and this is pertinent to another Linda's case, as well, if I ever have a band and a wife, and the wife wants to be in the band, she's in, and she can sing or play whatever, and however, the hell she wants to. If I've married somebody, it's because I care more about what she wants then all the rest of you put together, and if she wants to be part of the band then the band, by definition, is whatever she and I make it.
I'm working on the liner notes for our Rykodisc collection already.