Waiting for a Lull to Sort Out What I've Seen
103 · 16 January 97
The Smashing Pumpkins: The Aeroplane Flies High
I bought my first CD with a 1997 copyright on it yesterday, so the new year is officially underway. While it's still sputtering, though, I'll take the opportunity to try and clear out my backlog of singles to mention, starting, because it's really beginning to get in my way, with this imposing package from the Smashing Pumpkins. Worried, I guess, that there are still a few people, even after Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, who haven't had the sheer magnitude of the Smashing Pumpkins' talent for song-production impressed upon them, the band has hijacked a format, the $40 box set, usually reserved for summarizing entire careers, and have instead devoted it to the incidental output from around just one album. The box is approximately a repackaging of the five singles released since Mellon Collie, but with 27 non-album songs, spanning more than an hour and a half, plus another twenty minutes of the five title tracks, plus the twenty-three minute affront "Pastichio Medley", which I expect most people will listen to about a third of, the box amounts to a lavishly packaged virtual sprawling double-album of its own, albeit at something like twice Mellon Collie's price.
Whether you need this comes down, pretty plainly, to how much of a completist you are. No matter how much you love the Smashing Pumpkins, Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness had more than enough of them on it to last most humans straight through til the night when we discard all our unused checks with "19__" printed on them. If that doesn't feel quite sufficient, US residents also have option of buying the cheap domestic versions of these singles, which offer more than half of the b-sides contained here, for around half the price. For fanatics, however, not only is this box more cost-effective than buying the seven UK singles it collects, but it adds five songs, all covers, available nowhere else, and this instantly renders the economic discussion moot.
"Bullet With Butterfly Wings", the first single, had only one b-side on it when it came out, so it was the logical place to stash the five new ones. The cover of the Cars' "You're All I've Got Tonight", aside from being unavoidably more sinister than the original, is basically faithful to it, the major difference being the Pumpkins' willingness to leave the drums and voice alone in many of the sections when the Cars felt obliged to add synthesizers. Conversely, the sawing synthesizers on their version of Alice Cooper's "Clones (We're All)" make it sound like Tubeway Army. Their rendition of the Cure's "A Night Like This" is, if this can be credited, even more depressing than either the Cure or the Smashing Pumpkins usually contrive to be on their own. Missing Persons' "Destination Unknown" gets a methodically mathematical treatment that is actually much more mechanical than the chirpy original. And their version of Blondie's "Dreaming", to me the most interesting reinterpretation of the five, turns the song into a sleepy, drifting, semi-ambient epic, with languid vocals and synthesizers wavering in and out of tune over a brittle, persistent drum loop. "...Said Sadly", the original b-side, a quiet, rolling, mostly-acoustic duet between James Iha and guest vocalist Nina Gordon, is totally mismatched with this exercise in New Wave reverence, but these are just singles.
The disc for "1979" adds five more non-album songs. Three of them, "Ugly", "Cherry" and "Believe", are on the domestic version, which I reviewed last April, saying at the time that with "1979" they formed something like an abstract of Mellon Collie. The box adds the fifth and sixth songs from the UK version of the single: "The Boy" is a straightforward, if murky, pop song; "Set the Ray to Jerry" is more swirling and abstract, drums and bass rumbling ominously under distant, echoey guitar noises and Corgan's introspective howl. The single for "Zero", which I reviewed in August, is identical here to the domestic edition, which contains five perfectly adequate, but not particularly distinguished, Smashing Pumpkins songs, followed by the colossal abomination of "Pastichio Medley", in which the band summarily puts sixty-nine song ideas good enough to have names to their unceremonious deaths, and then plays one inane mock-Sabbath riff over and over again for longer than I bet you can stand to listen to it (and no, there's no reward of any sort, from me or the CD, if you listen to it all). The sad, graceful "Tonight, Tonight" single, which here includes all six b-sides from the UK two-part version, is more coherent, almost a song-cycle, uncharacteristically thematic and focused.
The last single, for "Thirty-Three", was only released on its own a few weeks before the box, so I heard it here for the first time. The domestic version has three b-sides, the UK two-part adds two more, and the one in the box collects all five. "The Last Song" is moody and gentle, with acoustic guitar, piano, a chamberlain (I think), cymbal flourishes and a guitar solo by, apparently, Billy Corgan's father. "The Aeroplane Flies High (Turns Left, Looks Right)", which sounds like a GbV title, sounds more than a little like a GbV song, too, random hissy voice-overs alternating with thick, bruising basso metal riffs and squalls of noise and feedback, except that a Guided by Voices song like this would be one minute long, not eight. "Transformer" is half gruff heavy metal, half Batman-theme groove. Iha's "The Bells" is poised and stately, mostly cello and piano, with acoustic guitar used mainly for rhythm, like a tuned tambourine. And the box ends with another cello/piano song, a cover of the old standard "My Blue Heaven", on which Corgan's earnest attempt to make his voice fit a classic ballad is, to me, disconcerting and not wholly pleasant.
Guided by Voices: Plantations of Pale Pink
The Smashing Pumpkins have only two serious competitors, number-of-songs-wise, and one of them I haven't the sensibility, the patience or the special font to discuss. Guided by Voices are the other one, and the perpetual dribble of GbV songs continues with six more on this seven-inch single. Robert Pollard is sufficiently erratic that his shorter-format releases, for me, run a much greater risk of ending before getting anywhere than his albums, but I think Plantations of Pale Pink is as good an example as any of what a glorious, fitful mess he's capable of producing in even the most constricted space. "Systems Crash" is bleary and disheveled, guitar smeared all over everything like the aftermath of a particularly spectacular cooking accident. "Catfood on the Earwig" is like a short stream-of-consciousness tour through what might eventually have become three or four actual song ideas if Pollard had five minutes more patience. "The Who Vs. Porky Pig", which I think is the first song title to make me laugh aloud in a record store, sounds exactly like the Who and Porky Pig would sound together, provided that by "the Who" we mean a very distorted tape of the Byrds trying to play surf-punk while on acid, and by "Porky Pig" we mean the "Rock 1" preset on a very cheap drum machine. Flipping the thing over (take a moment to appreciate the see-through orange vinyl), we find the desultory "A Life in Finer Clothing", which could be a Roddy Frame title, but sounds basically like somebody either slightly sad and very drunk, or else somebody slightly drunk while singing it, and then the rest of the drunk later when they mixed it. The brief "The Worryin' Song" quickly starts to sound like something Pollard already wrote once, and is forced to bail out to avoid composition collision. "Subtle Gear Shifting", the relatively extended finale, is bombastic, big-hearted, blustery and, best of all, utterly incomprehensible.
Tobin Sprout: Popstram
Tobin Sprout, either formerly of GbV or possibly just on loan to his solo career, follows up his album Carnival Boy with three more songs on a single of his own. The goofy "Toaster" and the long and rather early-REM-ish "Bottle of the Ghost of Time" both feel too slow to me, like first drafts of songs played at this speed just to learn them. "Sadder Than You", though, is a jangly, flawless GbV pop gem, missing only the spiraling harmonies Pollard and Sprout would have been unable to resist adding if they'd both been involved.
Polara's Ed Ackerson is as much of a pop eccentric as Pollard or Sprout, but his dense, noisy songs are products of obsessive layering, not blithe disregard for recording levels. "Pantomime" weaves shivery synthesizer glissandos, thrumming bass, jagged guitar, sighing backing vocals and Ackerson's own plaintive delivery into a deliberate march that sounds halfway between This Mortal Coil and Killing Joke. "Idle Hands" is quicker and more kaleidoscopic, an aspiring anthem only held in check by merciless flanging and the cavernous spaces the cymbals diffuse into. "Light the Fuse and Run", with its sturdy beat and tentative organ hooks, is some gangly but well-meaning relative of rock's classic car songs. "Confusing Times" spins dreamily in backwards guitar, slow modulations and Jennifer Jurgens' frail Juliana-Hatfield-esque duet vocal. There's also a second version of "Pantomime", labeled "Kinder and Gentler Version", but after several minutes of brow-furrowed A-B comparisons I admit that I can't figure out how it's different.
Tanya Donelly: Sliding and Diving
I wasn't much of a Throwing Muses fan, but for a few moments on Star and almost all of King, Tanya Donelly and her post-Muses band Belly overcame Throwing Muses' obstinate insistence on interring even their most compelling pop hooks behind cracked (albeit artfully) prisms. Star seemed like a thinly disguised solo album to me, actually, but on King Belly suddenly sounded like a cohesive and breathtakingly self-assured rock band. The album also contains two of my favorite shamelessly romantic lines in modern rock, a matched pair: "When you breathe, you breathe for two" and "You know the shape my breath will take before I let it out". But Belly are no more, and so Tanya is left, now, to start her formal solo career. This four-song EP seems like less of a preview of it, even, then some preliminary proof-of-concept sketches as she decides what a solo career ought to sound like. "Bum" is churning and quasi-industrial, with buzzing bass, frayed guitar feedback from the My Bloody Valentine school of anti-articulation, and a stomping drum-machine loop, Tanya's foreground and background vocals both processed to shreds. The melancholy "Restless", with Rich Gilbert's mournful pedal steel, is almost country, and "Swoon", with its synthetic strings and raw-throated vocals, reminds me of Sinéad O'Connor. The song I like best here, though, is "Human", a crashing, forceful, full-band rock thrash with pealing lead-guitar hooks, dueling human and machine drums, and Tanya letting the sound sweep her up in its heedlessness. I don't expect her solo career to sound like this, but a great song is its own justification.
Alanis Morissette: All I Really Want
It's tempting to say that not much happened in music in 1996, but I realize that part of the reason for this is that the biggest thing to happen in 1996 was really still Alanis Morissette, a 1995 phenomenon that carried over into 1996 just because there's a large part of the collective consciousness that doesn't really register anything until they've been hearing it for at least that long. She's going to have to put out a second album eventually, but there is apparently time still for one more single from the first one. As with all her other singles, the b-sides here are live versions of Jagged Little Pill album tracks, this time a Sydney recording of "Ironic" and a Brisbane performance of "Hand in My Pocket". "Ironic" was the only song on the album not yet represented in live form on a single, so this disc means that when I find the time to do the taping I can construct for myself the most expensive live album I've ever purchased. "Ironic" won't be the best part of the tape, unfortunately. Parts of this version are spirited and electrifying, but Alanis appears to have gotten bored with the slow sections of the song, and mangles them pretty badly in her attempt to keep herself interested by improvising. "Hand in My Pocket" also seems a little self-consciousness at points, as if the people in the front row are sitting too close to Alanis' microphone for her to relax and sing at her normal energy level. Also, whoever mixed this appears to be the last person left alive who doesn't realize that Alanis' own presence and the tenor of her audience's response to her are infinitely more interesting than her backing band.
I can go months without thinking much about the fact that a very large amount of the music I like comes from an entirely different country, but then every so often another band comes along that seems English in some unmistakably un-American way, and the easily overlooked culture gap yawns in front of me again. The detail that Kenickie remind me of particularly strongly is that the line between obscurity and popularity seems to be much less clearly drawn in the UK than it is in the US. British bands seem to me to form with the base assumption that they will make records and that the records will have an audience, while American bands begin assuming that they will play weekday gigs for their friends for four years until they either give up or luck into a major-label record deal. Being a "real" rock band in England seems to be a decision the band makes, whereas here it is a lottery prize you probably don't win. Or maybe this is less how music is in England than how it appears to be when seen from across the Atlantic, and it's merely distance that keeps me from seeing England's version of American sub-corporate submissiveness.
In the US, for example, flagrantly self-produced early singles have long lists of thank-yous, addresses for booking information, pleas for correspondence and other hopeful self-promotion, as if this release is as likely to be an end as a beginning. Skillex, on the other hand, though only Kenickie's second single, has already dispensed with all of that, and started on the important long-term work of fabricating the band's particular rock-star myths. The sketchy cover art shows the members becoming characters, and the cryptic liner notes find them speaking of themselves in the idioms of legend. Their spirit seethes with the breathless mania of imminent phenomenon.
It also helps to have music that can support and justify the image. Kenickie's is a particularly timely mixture of respectable indie nobility like Elastica and Sleeper, the gimmick notoriety of Shampoo, and a bouncy pop sparkle as if Scarlet's melodic sense has been grafted onto the Buzzcocks' DIY sloppiness. "How I Was Made" and "Come Out 2Nite" lay airily artless harmonies over ragged guitars and giddy hand-claps over battering drums, and end up sounding a bit like another place and time's answer to the Go-Go's. "Scared of Spiders", with its loopy keyboard bits, is a throwaway novelty, but the somber cello ballad "Acetone" hints at depth that Shampoo would sneer at without understanding.
By the next single Kenickie have signed to EMI, hired a slick cartoonist to do their covers, and spent a lot more time practicing. Their resemblances have been refined, with the hectic sprint of "Punka" sounding like double-speed Sleeper punctuated with Jacqui and Carrie shouting the backing vocals; "Drag Race", with its jerky guitar, sounding more like Elastica; "Walrus" (with the timeless chorus: "Oh Walrus / Why are you so ugly?") a little like Penetration; and "Cowboy", with its elaborate sighs and trenchant asides ("She can't respect herself; / At least it makes her interesting"), pure Louise Wener.
Kenickie: Millionaire Sweeper
"Millionaire Sweeper" is where, for me, Kenickie start sounding like themselves. Wener's observational lyric style still echoes in this empathetic portrait of a womanizer's victim (sweeper is a position in soccer, so in England a millionaire sweeper would be a sports celebrity, not an eccentric janitor), and when they get excited Kenickie still forget themselves and let their accents back into their singing voices, but the music has a bubbly swell to it that Sleeper could never execute without sounding tired, and a sturdy churn Shampoo could only simulate. "Perfect Plan 9T6" is disposable, but the grim, spasmodic acoustic miniature "Kamikaze Annelids" (okay, I had to look it up: Annelida is a worm phylum) is unsettling, and "Girl's Best Friend" is the next iteration of their cello-ballad.
Kenickie: In Your Car #1
"In Your Car" takes the fast-Sleeper-with-Shampoo-backing-vocals blend from "Punka" and fleshes it out further with frantic guitar, galloping drums, a little ensemble dialog between the lead vocals and the backing ones, and even some horns. "Can I Take U 2 the Cinema", after a momentarily quiet opening, slams into a crazed minute-long rave-up. Kenickie then join Shampoo in paying their Gary Numan debt, by covering the Telekon album track "I'm an Agent". They use guitars for some of the synthesizer parts, and any Gary Numan song sung by humans, not a cyborg, is bound to sound bizarre, but otherwise their version is surprisingly faithful.
Kenickie: In Your Car #2
The second disc of the set adds the vicious romantic skirmish "Private Buchowski", which has some Numan-esque vocal mannerisms and a wheezy synthesizer line despite bearing little overall resemblance to Gary's style, and the darker, edgier BBC session "Killing Fantasy". I assume the band is making an album. I will be buying it.
Slingbacks: No Way Down
Another album I'm impatiently waiting for is whatever the Slingbacks are working on. A hyperactive female-led Irish punk band produced by American pop master Mitch Easter, they sound like an unholy but inspired genetic merger between the Runaways, the dB's, the Sex Pistols, Sugar, Social Distortion, Lone Justice and McCrackins (or in an alternate formulation, Four Non-Blondes, the Goo Goo Dolls, Green Day, the Pogues and the Cranberries). "No Way Down" is hoarse and heated, the cover of "Chinese Rocks" lives up to the original's abandon, "Make Me Famous" is like a square dance for vandals, and the expansive "Lions & Cars" is the slower song they, like Kenickie, throw in just to establish that they can.
Manic Street Preachers: Australia #1
It took them until the fourth one to get around to it, but the Manic Street Preachers finally have released a single for what I think is Everything Must Go's most instantly enthralling song, the soaring, cathartic anthem "Australia". "If only they'd play this on the radio here", I catch myself thinking, but nothing useful ever comes of those delusional reveries. The first of the two singles' b-sides are all covers. Primal Scream's "Velocity Girl" seems kind of simplistic to me, and the Manic Street Preachers don't quite find a hook of their own to sink into it, and Andy Williams' "Can't Take My Eyes Off You" is played in much the same unironic manner as their version of "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head" on the Help compilation. The middle cover, though, is Camper Van Beethoven's "Take the Skinheads Bowling", and as fervently as I support the new, less suicidal Manic Street Preachers, hearing them play this seminal bit of geeky punk-pop inanity produces entirely too much cognitive dissonance.
Manic Street Preachers: Australia #2
The part-two b-sides are, as usual, remixes. Lionrock's "remix" of "Australia" is exactly the kind of remix I abhor, a musically unrelated ambient/techno composition that has a few short snippets of "Australia" vocals at the beginning of it. However, this single's Stealth Sonic Orchestra versions (in the familiar regular and karaoke variants) are not of "Australia" but of the 1992 single "Motorcycle Emptiness", from the band's debut album, Generation Terrorists. A haunting, beautiful song already, SSO turn it into a dramatic symphonic overture, with a string hook borrowed almost verbatim from the old Simple Minds cover of "Street Hassle".
Vent 414: Fixer
Vent 414's singles are particularly low-yield, and I passed them by twice, but in the end I couldn't let any Miles Hunt song go unheard. This one has the album tracks "Fixer" and "Kissing the Mirror", along with a goofy instrumental solo experiment by bassist Morgan Nichols that I don't care for, but that's the price I willingly pay for Miles' bare voice-and-guitar piece "Give It Whole". It's hardly his best song, and I wouldn't trade anything on the album for it, but I'm helplessly in thrall to his voice, and this is more than four minutes during which he's almost always singing.
Vent 414: Life Before You
Album tracks "Life Before You" and "Last Episode", and another Nichols oddity, "Manfold36boro". But: "Your Latest Innuendo", another Miles solo outing. More unsteady than most of the rest of the Vent 414 material, but riveting for precisely that reason.
The Assembly: Never Never
And to end with, just another plug for one of my favorite footnotes from the New Wave era. Various reissue labels are doing good work rescuing important early-Eighties albums, but the Assembly, a Vince Clarke/E.C. Radcliffe project band who were supposed to make a series of singles with different vocalists, but never got to the second one, never made an album to have reissued. Fortunately, you're allowed to reissue singles, too, so Mute has simply made a four-track CD out of the regular and extended versions of the single's two songs, "Never Never", with ex-Undertones singer Feargal Sharkey, and the instrumental flipside, "Stop/Start". Synth-pop nirvana has permitted few closer approaches. And none that make me resent everything Erasure ever did as deeply.