A Shelter for the Cut and Burned
78 · 25 July 96
Midge Ure: Breathe
If I could be any singer in history, for just a moment, and for some reason I was required to select only from my own sex, I've already narrowed the field of possible moments down to two. One would be the first line of any verse of Ronnie James Dio's "Rainbow in the Dark". I wouldn't want to have appeared in the song's video, in which Dio appears to be approximately the ugliest looking creature not known for under-bridge residence and the routine boiling of infants for snacks, and I wouldn't necessarily want to have produced his catalog of work, though his three albums with Black Sabbath are high on my list of great metal records, but his voice, to me, mixing hard-rock aggression and an electrifying howl with an unerring refusal to let either thing derail him from his melodic track, is a perfect heavy metal archetype, and in the way that people wistfully, and perhaps only half-seriously, say that they'd like to look like Cindy Crawford, I'd love to sing like Dio. Mind you, if I could sing like Dio and looked like Cindy Crawford, I'd have ten record-company executives at my door by sunset. (And a hundred exorcism trainees on my lawn by morning.)
The other moment is on stage at Wembley during the early hours of Live Aid, when, during Ultravox's brief set, Midge Ure hits the chorus of "Vienna". "Ah, Vienna!", he sings, and all the love and despair in the universe hang suspended in his heartbreakingly pure voice like prehistoric bugs could be found inside diamonds as well as amber. What the Austrian city had to do with this feeling, if anything, I don't think I ever figured out, and I'm quite sure I never cared. Bob Geldof and Midge Ure were the concert's stars, for me, as the writers of "Do They Know It's Christmas?", and Ultravox's dramatic performance was as fittingly uplifting as Geldof's sheepish run-through of "I Don't Like Mondays", the only other song of his that the crowd could be expected to recognize, was deflatingly anticlimactic.
Other than that moment, Ure's career, even to me, has been somewhat uneven before and since. He took over for John Foxx at the vocal helm of Ultravox in 1980, turning a Bowie-esque glam-punk outfit into an ultra-slick Euro-synth band for whom the term New Romantic seemed custom-made. Their albums Vienna, Rage in Eden, Quartet and Lament are four pillars of New Wave, playing A Flock of Seagulls-esque preening against Gary Numan-like mechanism in a way that avoids both the ludicrous cockatoo plumage of the former and the off-putting Cylon stiffness of the later. I find, though, that at least to my ears, these albums have worn unevenly, so that while songs like "Vienna", "Dancing With Tears in My Eyes", "Reap the Wild Wind" and "One Small Day" retain their original drama, no whole albums sustain that degree of intensity, and despite my usual indifference to compilations, Ultravox's The Collection seems to me like a more than adequate replacement for the material it represents. Ure's first solo album, The Gift, made in 1985 during an Ultravox intermission, has more or less the silhouette of an Ultravox record, but Astral predators seem to have absconded with the band's animus in the course of borrowing its other members, and the resulting music sounds at a loss for a remedy. The final Ultravox album, 1986's U-Vox, despite the presence of my favorite drummer, Big Country's Mark Brzezicki (and bassist Steve Brzezicki, who I assume must be Mark's brother), is a mess that avoided aging poorly only by being so poor to begin with.
At this point, though, even Ure got tired of that idiom, and in a striking change of direction he ditched his banks of synthesizers, bought some new guitars, enlisted the Brzezickis, Level 42's Mark King and keyboardist Robbie Kilgore, and made the impressively simple, bright, open and elegant 1988 album, Answers to Nothing, from which the alert (or British) of you may have heard "Dear God" (not the XTC song), or the Kate Bush duet "Sister and Brother". 1991's Pure found him beginning to elaborate on the spare structures of Answers to Nothing, adding carefully chosen additional elements to the new core of uncluttered songwriting and complex rhythms (Mark Brzezicki sharing time here with session veteran Simon Phillips, who actually took Mark's place for Big Country's album The Buffalo Skinners). Pure, however, was also the point where I noticed how much Ure's world-literate and mature pop was starting to sound like his agent had been reading too many Peter Gabriel sales reports, and while I actually preferred Pure to Gabriel's Us, watching Fish try to turn himself into Phil Collins at about the same time made me very wary of this being a parallel commercial corruption.
Your sellout vigils are your own, but after Breathe I'm taking Midge Ure off my suspect list for good. Not only does this album not resort to Gabriel's self-conscious cultural-imperialism-in-the-guise-of-tourism-in-the-guise-of-ethnology, but its effortless effervescence and poise makes me wonder how Ultravox ever made such artificial music, or how Ure ever made stripping his own style down sound like it required such conscious effort. Breathe is no more like Fisherman's Blues than Pure is like This Is the Sea, but Mike Scott's Waterboys transformation from abrasive autonomy to rural collectivism seems analogous to me, nonetheless. There are mandolins and pipes and harps and things on Breathe, actually, but the more significant detail, I think, is not the instrumentation but the consistency of the ensemble. Reading the credits on Midge's other albums, the revolving roster of names always strongly suggested to me that session schedules had more bearing on the personnel of any given song than the song's particular musical needs, but here drummer David Palmer, bassist Jeremy Meehan, percussionist Mike Fisher, keyboardist Charles Judge and mandolinist (and Hooter) Eric Bazillian (who manages to restrain his vicarious-Grammy aspirations so effectively that his nine mandolin credits produce only a third of a songwriting byline) form a core ensemble around Midge and his acoustic guitar, and where on the other albums you can almost hear Midge introducing himself and passing around "The kind of album I'm trying to make" handouts at the start of each take, trying to figure out how to manipulate somebody else's ears and fingers so that his lonely inventions lose as little as possible in translation, this time this sextet actually sounds like a real group, like these songs were born not only of a common understanding between the players, but of the six of them actually sitting in a room together, instruments in front of them, watching each others' faces while they discovered, together, how these songs wanted to shape themselves. And with this solidarity for context, the other players that really do drop by for guest appearances (backing vocals from Shankar, Eleanor McEvoy and Hothouse Flowers' Liam O'Maonlai, guitar from Dean Parks and Robert Fripp, Uilleann pipes by Paddy Moloney and Celtic harp by Noreen O'Donoghue) sound like friends who just couldn't make the whole party, not random people exchanging tapes with Sinatra's PO Box. Now, admittedly, I have a personal fondness for solipsistic compositional styles, and could produce a long list of auteurs whose appeal, to me, suffered a serious blow when they diluted their individuality by letting their backing musicians into the creative process (Michael Penn, School of Fish, TMBG, Shona Laing, Jane Siberry, Patty Smyth, Tracy Chapman, Jonatha Brooke, Carol Noonan, Beth Nielsen Chapman, Jewel and Mary Lou Lord's live bands, for a few examples), but there's no general principle behind those cases, and though the other list, of artists who seem to me to thrive on collaboration even though they may not require it, is harder to construct, it's probably not shorter (let's see: Ian McNabb, Joan Armatrading, Scott Miller, Vince Clarke, Johnny Clegg, Nanci Griffith, Emmylou Harris, Suzanne Vega, Aimee Mann, Mike Scott, Paul Simon, Sarah McLachlan, Stephin Merritt and Bob Mould at least, even if you don't feel inclined to consider Mark Burgess, Meat Loaf and Alanis Morissette self-reliant). If you make better records with friends around then, well, you've found another good use for friends.
I think it's easier to spot the precursors of this album in Midge's other work after hearing it than it is to explain Breathe as an outgrowth of the others, but I'll try one way just the same. He's always had a knack for melodic hooks, so take a couple of your favorites (I'll use the verses of "Dancing With Tears in My Eyes" and the chorus of "When the Scream Subsides"), and sing them under your breath a few times to remind yourself. Now, sing each of them again, and concentrating as hard as you can on the phrase you're repeating, try to proceed on to whatever was next in that song. Did it work? If it did, I've failed to make the point I was working for, which is that for me, Ure's hooks before now only really existed in isolation. Ultravox songs, in particular, seem to me to be constructed of individual impulses that are not so much woven together as they are bolted onto each other, so that compositions have solidity asserted upon them, rather than developing it from their own nature. Some great pop songs get made that way, but there's an element of artistic brutality to the tactic, and when college professors insist that classical music is of a higher compositional order than pop music, this is one of the things they're thinking as they condescend. The great classical works have explicable logic; whether they employ the rules and relational structures of their eras, or invent systems of their own, they subscribe to the notion that each note and each theme, in some sense real enough to write dreary papers about, arises out of what goes before it, and affects what comes after. Compared to this, pop's clapboard three-chord verse-chorus-verse-chorus-repeat-fade prefab and ransom-note-typography aesthetic sophistication are as naive as a child's depiction of a crowd as a line of equi-dimensional stick figures with heads cut out of magazines pasted onto the bodies. Pop, Neil Postman would probably say, reflects the same disintegration of discourse and attention that American television epitomizes, and which thus characterizes our age. If it's acceptable and unsurprising for the nightly news to switch from airline-disaster post-mortems to baseball highlights, then we should be grateful when pop choruses are even in the same key as the verses. And the idea that a whole Haydn symphony got popularly renamed Surprise on the basis of a single loud chord in a quiet section is so quaint to Björk and Butthole Surfers fans as to fall below the threshold of sense. Hell, Björk does weirder things than that chord in interviews.
Which is all by way of saying that the songs on Breathe, to me, do exhibit the natural coherency that much of pop, Ure's or otherwise, lacks. I'm not sure they'll stand in for Mass in B Minor in music theory classes, but the melodies do not pause every time Midge takes a breath, they wind through whole songs. The parts of the arrangements are woven together, not layered on top of each other. Midge's soaring voice sounds more human than ever, and it is a part of these songs, not the contrail the other players eyes follow; where he soars, here, it is because the songs soar. Or, to toss in one more unrelated metaphor (and support the point about my generation's slot-machine notion of mental discipline), in Ultravox Midge was an engineer, or an architect, and on his previous solo records he was a puppeteer at the softest; on Breathe he's a gardener, and as much as I hate gardening, personally, after a hectic week of bridges, skyscrapers and puppet shows, there's something to taking an hour to just sit on a sturdy wooden bench under an old shade tree, watching earthworms crawl across sundials, and let the flywheels of the rest of your life spin down and, for a few rustling songs, stop their incessant whine and spark.
Spirit of the West: Two Headed
If you're still in the mood for organic ensemble work and folk-pop of a vaguely Celtic bent, but need something to ease your transition back into slightly more aggressive environs, the new album by longtime Canadian neo-traditionalists Spirit of the West would be my current recommendation. As of the other album of theirs I have, 1994's Faithlift, they were still a little too mild for my tastes, sincere in just a few too many places where I wanted a little bile, prone to a little more musical humility than I wanted to hear. Two Headed, released in 1995 in Canada but only recently issued in the US, works in a few more loud electric guitars and barbed lines like "You drive, I'll drink", "With a staple gun and a can of paste / We'll paper the streets with your face" and the bit about "G.G. Allin and Tipper Gore", and so gets my attention the way the previous one didn't.
How this relates to Spirit of the West's long career, though, I have no idea, and whether the band's devoted fans think of it as the culmination of decades of development or the betrayal of a thousand sacred oaths, I can't tell you. In fact, although this says Spirit of the West on the front, to me this band has suddenly become the new vessel for the wandering soul of the Wonder Stuff, another band entirely, and so it is the Wonder Stuff's history and unfulfilled promise that form my context for this album. I realize this is an absurd perspective from which to evaluate a record, but I insist that Hothouse Flowers' 1993 album Songs From the Rain was that year's best Waterboys music, despite the Waterboys having an entry in the category themselves, so clearly it takes more absurdity than this to exceed my tolerance. Your tolerance is your own business.
As it happens, there is a literal connection between Spirit of the West and the Wonder Stuff, but I think of this fact as a result of the band's natural stylistic affinity, not the cause of my association. The two bands knew each other, somehow, and in 1990 they both were in London, so they all crowded into a studio and recorded a rousing version of "Will the Circle Be Unbroken", which event features in the Wonder Stuff's charming (and refreshingly un-Spinal Tap-like) tour film Welcome to the Cheap Seats, and which track appears on the first part of the double single for the film's title song, along with the Wonder Stuff's brilliant version of the Jam's "That's Entertainment". After 1991's sparkling Never Loved Elvis, though, the Wonder Stuff disappointed me by making the much darker and angrier Construction for the Modern Idiot, and then disbanding. The thing that drew me to the band, the expansive acoustic churn of "Caught in My Shadow", which "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" (and, for that matter, "That's Entertainment") echoes, was never, to me, satisfactorily explored. I didn't want them to make a furious Brit-grunge record, I wanted them to make a bouncy folk-pop album bristling with barbed wit and gleaming with a sheen of vitriol. But I do not get to vote, and so they didn't make the album I wanted. And it doesn't look much like We Know Where You Live, the new band that several ex-Wonder Stuff members formed, wants to make it, either.
But it turns out that there's no need, because Spirit of the West have made it. Two Headed picks up both musically and lyrically where Never Loved Elvis left off. Musically, Never Loved Elvis's key innovation for me was the wholesale incorporation of violinist Martin Bell, who also played mandolins and other extraneous instruments as the will possessed him, and Spirit of the West's extensive use here of flute, whistles, E-bow, banjo and accordion, all without any sign that the band considers them odd elements of rock arrangements, produces much the same effect. The folk-dance glee turns what might otherwise be a normally-structured alternative band into something fresher and more intriguing, and the rock aggression turns what might have been a mild-mannered folk band into something more exciting.
Lyrically, the Wonder Stuff were good at both biting wit (lawnmower mutilation as vengeance in "Welcome to the Cheap Seats", a jab at Michael Stipe in "Maybe", a slash at religion in "Donation", and withering self-deprecation in the liner notes for everything else) and oddly observant detail (discovering claustrophobia in a small town in "Caught in My Shadow", the idea of naming a child "Inertia", the relish with which Miles proclaims "You know that I've been drunk a thousand times" in "The Size of a Cow", followed by the tinge of regretful awareness in "And these should be the best days of my life"). Nobody in Spirit of the West has quite Miles Hunt's fondness for spewing venom like a burst pipe, but in their somewhat more oblique fashion they do sap at the walls of political campaigns ("Pin Up Boy"), forced life-support ("Unplugged"), war toys ("Pretend Is Fun"), political correctness ("Tell Me What I Think") and Hollywood ("Blood and Honey", though I'm kind of taking the liner notes' word for it that that's what this is about), while at the other end of the spectrum "Two Headed" is an affectionate admission of human ambivalence, "Mildred" is an ode to an underwear inspector, and "Wishing Line" is an affectingly poetic meditation from a climb to the top of the Koln Cathedral. The crucial difference between these songs and Miles Hunt's is that Spirit of the West empathize with their subjects, even their enemies, and Hunt only barely empathized with himself, let alone anybody else. That makes these songs, for me, much more complex and rewarding.
Which I guess makes the Wonder Stuff one of the few bands to actively keep improving even after they split up.
Taking a further step back into the mainstream, after our refreshing interlude ashore, the literal Celtic threads by which I justify the segue to Zoe are frail filaments: One track here is co-produced by Common Ground complier Donal Lunny, another is co-written by ex-Waterboy Anthony Thistlethwaite. But there are mandolins, violins, Uilleann pipes, bouzoukis, sitar, bodran and tambora scattered about this album, and "I Once Loved a Lad" is a traditional folk ballad in the best Celtic tradition, and if this sometimes produces a feel more of gypsies than of crofters, highlands or peat bogs, then gypsies are folk, too. I bought this album, to disclose my own indefensible motivation, because Q gave it one star. In dismissing it as awful they compared it to Maria McKee, Mike Scott and Jim Kerr, and the combination of these references and the potential for the album to be extremely something was too suggestive to leave uninvestigated.
To me the marketing logic behind this album is painfully clear, and has nothing to do with Maria, Mike or Jim. First, observe the successes of Hole and Jewel. Zoe, with big black boots, chipped black nails, blonde hair and an angelic, if slightly demented, face, looks the part of coffeehouse waif and avenging demon simultaneously. Her throaty voice is strong enough to be taken seriously, and rough enough to be taken seriously by the people who don't care how strong it is. Next, observe Alanis Morissette and Glen Ballard's simple instrumental strategy, based around appealing but largely unobtrusive patterns. Surely if Ballard can win a Grammy and Butch Vig can get a recording deal for a band that's never played live based on having produced Nevermind, then Youth, who has a more impressive writing and production resume than either of them, can navigate this album into the ocean of money. Then note the critical success of Milla Jovovich's cross-over from modeling and bad acting into music, based largely on the eclectic anachronism of her album The Divine Comedy, and so the strange instruments, the traditional song, and the Amazonian chants sampled on "Early in the Morning". Toss all this together, and it could hardly fail to succeed. Right?
The problem, I think, is that there's another lineage this album fits in with that suggests little other than underappreciated obscurity. Take Shona Laing, who had a minor hit with "Soviet Snow" and has barely been heard from outside of New Zealand since, and have Zoe sing like that. Take Sinéad O'Connor as she'd be remembered if she'd only ever made her first album, where the churning guitars and deliberately murky production were years away from her singing Prince covers and torch songs, and never done news conferences. Graft on some cursorily updated, clunkily mechanical drum programs that Killing Joke discarded because they were neither fast enough to dance to, nor apocalyptic enough to not dance to. Let the look and the menacing demeanor remind you not of Courtney Love and tabloid celebrity but of Joolz and intense poet/punk performance albums. Now you've probably got a more interesting record than you'd anticipate from the other recipe, but expecting it to be staggeringly popular would require a voluntary suspension of disbelief of the scale not normally essayed without chemical assistance.
If I gave out stars, though, I'd have a lot more than one for Hammer. I like the way the slow drum tracks percolate along at just over idle, better for swaying than dancing. The gypsy-band jangle of exotic instruments goes well with the pace, suggesting that these songs could be marching anthems for an unhurried migration to friendlier lands, exit songs for unwanted nomads who leave with their pride intact. They play them out of boom boxes lashed to the backs of their carts, the tempo emphasizing that their deliberate retreat is of their own volition. No children flock out to join the parade -- these aren't those sorts of songs -- but their parents, watching from porches and street corners with disapproving frowns set, can't help but pulse, almost subconsciously, in sync with the music, and so even as the foreign cadences and timbres wrap the departing tribe in its own insular independence, defying the townspeople to feel accomplishment in their explusion, so the insidious rhythms assert the common humanity of everybody they reach, and so the parting, even though nobody objects, and perhaps because of that, is touched with sadness.