The Ringing in My Heart
108 · 20 February 97
Veruca Salt: Eight Arms to Hold You
I ended last week's issue, lamenting the commercial obscurity of Canadian intelligent-pop band Odds, with the hope, but hardly the anticipation, that the music world was due for a return to melody. We've had some noisy, angry, shouty years, and there were many very good things about them, but I think it's time for the default sound of the radio and MTV to enter another period where you can hum along, instead of snarling. How, exactly, these mood shifts happen continues to puzzle scientists, but I suspect the phenomenon has much in common with how wildebeest cross a river. Which, for those of you who didn't see the same twenty minutes of a Discovery Channel program earlier this week that I did, they do by crowding worriedly down to the edge of it and sniffing suspiciously at the water like it contained crocodiles or something (a reasonable worry, given that right before the commercial one had erupted out of a watering hole and eaten a zebra) for several minutes, until finally some random wildebeest, out of an intrepid sense of adventure, an awareness that the cameras were running, or perhaps just an inability to hold the idea of "danger" in his short term memory any longer, suddenly stumbles out into the current and starts swimming across. In an instant this idea, which had been popularly deemed rank idiocy mere moments earlier, starts to look eminently sensible to a broad demographic of wildebeests, who, evidently confusing crocodiles with land mines, appear to be under the misapprehension that nothing bad can possibly befall them if they just walk exactly where the first one did. The procession then looks remarkably coordinated for about twenty seconds, until the wildebeest begin piling up at the far shore, at which point it starts to become clearer why there are not very many wildebeest sitting on couches with remotes in their hands and stupefied expressions on their faces, watching specials about us. Understandably anxious to get out of the water (it's got crocodiles in it, they suddenly remember), the wildebeest assault the riverbank and their brethren who got to it ahead of them with equal abandon. Ants do this, too, climb all over each other, and it never seems to do them much harm, but an ant is very very small, and heavily armored, while a wildebeest is a great, gangly creature whose primary defense mechanism seems to be that he tends to smell bad and look too matted to make a half-decent coat out of. As a result, some fraction of the herd is unceremoniously trampled to death by their own best friends, muddy testament to why, even before the Who in Cincinnati, zoning restrictions proscribed placing your general-admission entrance on the other side of a river from the stage.
But after a moment of silence for this pointless waste of wildebeest life (which is more respect than the wildebeests themselves demonstrate), the point of the analogy is that although prior to the crossing none of the wildebeest, whether follower or about-to-be-leader, could provide a succinct explanation of what was wrong with the near side of the river in the first place ("The grass is greener on the other side", supplies the narrator, with no audible trace of anthropomorphic irony), eventually the immediate overcrowding, if nothing else, spurs one of them into action, and that small catalyst essentially suffices to motivate the entire rest of the herd.
And so, likewise, in the music world, with the bulk of the herd gathered around, snorting noisily on the overpopulated bank labeled "surly, disenchanted alternative rock" (though somebody has recently scribbled out "alternative" and written in "modern"), a mass surge over the river into the verdant open spaces of delirious melodies and wide-eyed enchantment requires that some band take the first step. Time will show whether Veruca Salt is the leader who gets them across, or the leader that gets eaten by crocodiles (and I concede that my inability to resist betting on what I want to have happen, not what I think is necessarily likely, makes me a dangerously erratic gambler), but caught up in the euphoria of Eight Arms to Hold You, it seems to me that the music world could be on the verge of a sweeping change, much sooner than I had any right to expect.
This band and album are a fitting choice to lead the crossing, for more than one reason. I didn't actually buy Veruca Salt's first album, American Thighs, but my girlfriend at the time got it (once a year I'd allow her to buy one CD before I did; when we broke up she had to make a very expensive trip to the record store), so I heard it several times through. It seemed to me then, and still seems to me now that I've purchased a copy of my own, like an album firmly in the grip of 1994. Perched, stylistically, somewhere along the Belly-Breeders-Hole axis, Veruca Salt wrote loud, buzzy, fitful, obliquely menacing and vaguely desultory songs, which Nina Gordon and Louise Post sung in breathy, largely untutored voices. After some study I concluded that "Seether", their squalling and fundamentally monotonous hit, derived its popularity from some unidentifiable enzyme it secreted, rather than any bit of structural ingenuity I could isolate, but then I officially gave up trying to explain hits after "Da Da Da". If any one album can stand for the "normal" state of the art of female-voiced mid-Nineties post-Nirvana neo-post-punk, I think my short-list of candidates begins with Tracy Bonham's The Burdens of Being Upright, Magnapop's Hot Boxing and American Thighs.
All three of these albums, actually, have veins of glittering pop ore running through them. Veruca Salt's next move, however, the 1996 EP Blow It Out Your Ass It's Veruca Salt, was in precisely the opposite direction. American Thighs was produced by Brad Wood, who at the time was still fresh from having done Liz Phair's epochal Exile in Guyville; for Blow It Out Your Ass the band recruited Steve Albini, notorious for the way his ostensibly naturalistic recording techniques always seem to bring out the ugliest, most jarring facets of his subjects' personalities. The four songs on the EP, despite the suggestive retro-pop allusion in the title of "New York Mining Disaster 1996", are brutal, bleak and venomous, Louise and Nina shrieking over a tidal wave of guttural guitar and bass noise, Jim Shapiro's drums smashing around them like the band would just as soon be Soundgarden as Velocity Girl. The only way to get a cheerful noise out of this CD, and I discovered this purely by accident, is to hold the forward-search button down during track three.
To anybody following the band's choice of producer and studio sites as leading indicators, Eight Arms to Hold You was bound to be a revelation in some form. After Wood and Albini, both heroes of low-gloss less-is-more discipline, and recording at home in Chicago (actually Blow It Out Your Ass doesn't say, but I'm guessing), the new album finds them abducted to, of all places for a quartet of grim urbanites, Hawaii, where they find themselves imprisoned in the castle of one of rock's biggest advocates of obtrusive studio manipulation and bombastic excess, Bob Rock. I know Rock from his having been in Payola$, one of my favorite also-ran Canadian New Wave bands, and the 1992 debut of his own big-haired metal band, Rockhead, is one of the most shameless displays of unmitigated testosterone superfluity your local cutout bins are likely to contain, but the connection that improves the story the most is that he produced Metallica's self-titled 1991 album (the one with the totally black cover, unless you take it up to the top of a working lighthouse and hold it in the beam, in which case you can just make out a snake and the ghost of their logo), which in retrospect I credit with being the death blow that felled heavy metal. Having killed one genre (actually, even this one may be rising, golem-like, out of the grave, but that's a topic for another week), Rock sort of owes us the resuscitation of another one.
Eight Arms to Hold You begins, however, as if not that much has changed. Howling guitar feedback introduces the pounding "Straight", a monolithic, bludgeoning prologue on the virtues of temperance (or else I can't find the sarcasm) featuring no more than three guitar chords and about four vocal notes (three of which are only used in the chorus). Rock's presence is only just discernible in the reverberation of the concussive drums; otherwise the song is, if anything, even grimmer and less accommodating than last year's EP. The concluding crash of "Straight", however, is the album's decisive farewell to muscle-bound sulk. I don't know whether the band themselves decided to make an jubilant and explosive pop album, or Rock talked them into it, whether his presence caused the sound of this album or just enabled it, or whether there was simply something about the looming specter of Mauna Loa that reminded band and producer alike of their mortality and their youths, but however those elements balanced, the synthesis sounds to me like the beginning of a new era. Happening across the video for "Volcano Girls", the lead single and second track, is why I bought the album. In it Louise and Nina are turned into possessed crosses between Alice, Dorothy, Oz's flying monkeys and what Gwar might have been if it had been formed by fashion models instead of subscribers to Fantasmagoria. Suspended on bungee cords, bouncing off walls and the stage while playing, they sing like the video is actually documenting the recording process, their voices filled with the exhilaration of defying gravity. The guitar lines slash like every pair of chords they combine threatens to reduce them to helpless giggles from the sheer naked metal bravado of it all. There's a lyrical and musical nod to "Seether" about two thirds of the way through, the guitar dropping to a muted throb, but Louise's ahhing fairy-tale background vocals ruin any chance the spell has of working the same way a second time, and the ecstatic count-off that ushers back in the chorus shows that they didn't want it to.
"Don't Make Me Prove It", with its half-spoken intro and circling guitar undercurrent, feints like it's going to be a return to savagery, but the twinkling of a toy piano belies its true nature just before the chorus bursts in, and the bridge into the final refrain flips unapologetically from Lita Ford to Susanna Hoffs. The album only takes flight in earnest, though, when "Awesome" rolls around at track four. "Goodbye twenty-five", the girls sing, dismissing their younger selves doubly ("25" was a song on American Thighs, and I presume they're also now no longer that age). "Goodbye indolence...cowardice...humility", goes the litany of farewells, and in three words they trisect the soul of my prior disappointment with them, and too my nagging dissatisfaction with what much of rock has lately become. To be honest, I never liked Dinosaur Jr., and the Lemonheads could have quit after "Second Chance". Making an album is a colossal act of ego in the first place, so to me you might as well dispense with underachiever reticence and try to make something tremendous. The chorus of "Awesome", with delighted harmonized squeaks straight out of Scarlet, captures the moment of this capitulation to potential perfectly, like an anti-horror movie in which the pivotal molting transformation finds the skin peeling off of L7 to reveal the Bangles. To "Pretend We're Dead" this is "Admit You're Alive".
Following up on these hints, "One Last Time" opens at an easy 3/4 canter that wouldn't have been out of place on a Jane Wiedlin record. "Euphoria has just been here / And she's looking terrible", Louise and Nina sigh, and I think that if she isn't out of earshot yet, she can't help but perk up at their concern. And she'd have to be pretty far away to not hear the Godzilla-ish roar the song rises to, an extravagant flurry of rock flourishes complete with massed sturm-and-drang guitars, plaintive howls, kamikaze flanging, a sillily heroic solo and "Na na-na"s to shame Journey. The surrender to pop reaches completion with "With David Bowie", an irrepressible cowbell- and handclap-crazy tribute to walkman nirvana that reminds me not of Bowie but of Game Theory. I assume this is intentional, since Post and Gordon have cited Scott Miller as a songwriting influence, and Nina sang on one song on the last Loud Family album, but if Bowie is their idol and Miller is one of mine, maybe this song is a doppelganger that shows each listener a different face. (Though if anybody sees Lou Reed in this, I give up on commonality of experience altogether.) A year is a long time, but maybe this is already this one's best song. If nothing else its chorus, "My heart skips around when I hear the sound", is a perfect description of literally my favorite sensation I know of. I'm only 29, I'm not married, I don't have children, I've never saved a life or anything, but everybody is entitled to their own catharses and superlatives, and right now to me the moments when doubt is most firmly banished are the ones when a song lifts me up and twirls me in its hand so vertiginously that I can spare a thought for nothing else. Which I think means that this song is the longest onomatopoeia ever constructed.
No later-day Bangles replacement would be complete without a tearfully romantic ballad, and Eight Arms to Hold You gets its with the heart-wrenching "Benjamin", which seems to me like what 'til tuesday's "David Denies" might have been if Aimee Mann had ever been willing to write a beautiful sad song without coating the thorns of the roses in it with Aztec blowgun poison first. Saccharine fake cellos whir emotively, acoustic guitars strum melancholily, and Gordon (she wrote it, I assume she's singing it) proves that her voice is capable of taking her gracefully through a whole song without resorting to a single punk twitch. Some chain-saw guitars swarm in towards the end, but by that point the song is so caught up in its own swell that they essentially serve as a compact orchestra. Electric crunch returns immediately for "Shutterbug", though, a wailing old-school metal blast which, except for the muttering ambient bass-and-background-noise interludes, is my idea of what Swank might have sounded like if they'd mixed a few Dream Theater records into their Black Sabbath diet. From there the album swoops up aerobatically to its second tremulous pop high, "The Morning Sad", which I think even with the furious post-Cobain guitar noises could take a time-machine back to 1985 and bump "Manic Monday" off the charts. And the Quarterflash/Missing Persons-esque "Sound of the Bell", with its simmering bass and processor noises, could be the single's flipside, though I fear that in a world still three years from the first Vixen album, the song's raging choruses would be the anachronisms that betray its origin.
The album begins collecting itself for the grand exit with "Loneliness Is Worse". In parts this is the companion ballad to "Benjamin" (perhaps "Benjamin" is the pretty version, and this one is the power-ballad, Veruca Salt's answer to "Sister Christian"), but it's also the longest, most complex song thus far, and it weaves together such divers impulses as snare drums that seem to well up from somewhere beneath us, "December" sung so delicately that I wish to believe it an explicit allusion to Kate Bush's "December Will Be Magic Again", a trembling bridge that could be 'til tuesday again (and are those E-Bows?), fiery guitars that could be Frosted rescaled for stadia, and an unprecedented moment in which one of the singers slips into a startlingly plausible and expressive blues wail. For a dramatic crash-ending you also need inertia, and so "Stoneface", which sounds like Metal Church locked in a room with Throwing Muses, and "Venus Man Trap", which alternates between anticipatorily blistering guitar churn and an oddly evasive duet chorus, both pump extra kinetic energy into the system. By this point, though, all vectors lead to "Earthcrosser", the album's finale. It opens with a minute of distracted guitar and ghostly piano that could be either an invitation to This Mortal Coil to cover this or else a letter to Lisa Germano asking her to be the opening act on their upcoming tour. But the guitars, straining at the tempo, crash through, unwilling to give up just yet. The second quiet interlude sounds a little like Liz Phair, and, in the vocals partially swallowed by the production, a lot like Lisa Germano again. The second surge of guitar noise, filled with airy gasps, is halfway to Rose Chronicles. The third quiet segment introduces a mournful, almost-country slide guitar, but the tranquillity of "it's two am and it's quiet again..." is shattered by the blood-curdling shriek of "...where's my lip gloss?" (which is something of a paradigmatic pop question, really). The methodical march of guitars resumes one last time, and only determined flights of reedy synthesizers can restore order for a few fleeting seconds, like an aural ellipsis, before the album ends. There is an implicit equilibrium around which the finale oscillates, I think, and ending this way, pointing to it but not coming to rest, seems to me in hindsight like the only way an album poised at this one's nexus of history could end. Nothing is finished here; this album is intentionally incomplete. "The ringing in my ears / From playing too loud", it muses, and it seems unsure whether this is an emotional state or a physical one, and just as unsure, but excited, about what to do next.
Of course, if you're determined to stay angry at the world, this all may well be much too breathlessly uncritical to swallow. We've been angry for a while now, though, and all it really got us was a roll call of dead twenty-seven-year-olds, more Starbuck's locations than mailboxes, and a lot of AOL discs that don't even make good coasters, so maybe it's time to try something else. Personally, I'm ready to trade defiance for pride. With this album ringing in my ears, I feel sure that the vibrations I'm hearing are of something much closer to the center of my existence than just tiny bones in my head. I don't know what to do next, either, but after a night with Eight Arms to Hold You I'm content to wait for morning, serenely confident, for once, that I'll wake up and the world will be different. Or maybe not the world, only me, but maybe, if the crocodiles are just sluggish enough in the morning sunshine, that will be enough.