120 · 15 May 97
Son Volt: Straightaways
I haven't decided whether my friend David deserves thanks for this, or blame, but it was on one of his web pages that I discovered the Boggle server that somebody at Stanford is running. Boggle, if you don't know, is a word game in the same general family as Scrabble, in which sixteen (or, in Big Boggle, twenty five) dice with letters on their sides are jiggled into a four by four (or five by five) matrix, which you peer anxiously at for however long your hourglass runs, hoping to find words that can be constructed by jumping from letter to adjacent letter, in any direction, using each die no more than once per word. When time runs out, each player in turn (and there can be as many as you like, though the physical size of the board in the real-world version will set a practical upper limit) reads out their words, and any word that two or more people found is crossed off of all of their lists. If you're left with any words that nobody else found, you get points for them according to a graduated scale based on word length.
Three variables control the tenor of a Boggle game. One, the number of players matters. The more players you have, particularly if some of them are new to the game, the greater the likelihood that most obvious words will be found by somebody. This can partially relieve the more adventurous player of the obligation to spend the bulk of their time writing down easy words just to make sure nobody else scores with them. Two, the size of the board matters. A five-by-five board produces a lot more word possibilities than a four-by-four one, and increases the risk that one little letter-combination you overlook will be the root of dozens of somebody else's words. And three, players must also agree on how long a word must be to count. The higher you set this threshold, obviously, the harder it is to find words that qualify. The variables co-operate, so with big boards, low minimums and small games you mostly scribble (or, online, type) monosyllables as fast as you possibly can, and at the other extreme you can set high enough minimums on small enough boards with enough players that the games turn into spookily seance-like encounters during which everyone simply sits, motionless, staring at the letters, thinking "There's nothing here. There's nothing here. Unless 'graudapus' is a timid Malaysian tree rodent or the 'd' in 'endocrine' is optional. I doubt it. But maybe I'll write them down, just in case." My personal preference has always been the latter sort of game. Yes, technically words like "lip", "hat" and "urn" are worth a point apiece if they don't make anybody else's list, but I definitely don't derive a point's worth of satisfaction from spotting one. "Epoxied", on the other hand, is worth only five points, but remembering the game in which I found it makes me smile even days later.
The Boggle server's version of the game is able to clean up a number of messy physical details: everybody sees all the letters oriented the same way, which eliminates any chance positional advantages; the computer arbitrates word acceptability, so you don't have to argue or look anything up in a dictionary; the computer tabulates the scores, so you don't have to read through the lists out loud and try to find the other people's words on your list to cross out; and, perhaps most significantly, the computer is able, thanks to thousands of dollars of the most advanced technology the free world can place at its disposal, to produce a random Boggle layout without the deafening clatter produced by shaking an actual plastic Boggle box full of dice. In each case, though, the more I think about it, the less sure I am that it's better this way. The haphazard letter-orientation is part of the challenge of the real Boggle; looking up words is how you learn new ones; reading out your words is a central social aspect of real play; and the computer's expressionless tabulation of results has none of the suspense you can produce by saving "reprobate" for last, revealing it with a grand flourish that turns to pleased mutual anguish when you discover that somebody else found it, too; and self-consciousness about the cacophony of scrambling the next board is often the only thing that gets city dwellers to finally quit playing for the night. The server also lets you play against the computer, which to me is mildly amusing, but fundamentally pointless. Man against machine wasn't a compelling entry in Mr. Day's taxonomy of Struggles in Art when I was a sophomore in high school, and no amount of overwrought Kasparovian sore-loser resentment makes me any more interested. Yes, Deep Blue's victory is a milestone in computer development, but the first car to travel faster than a person could run was a milestone in car development, and like most milestones, both of these cease being significant the moment you pass them. Far cooler is the server's willingness to step aside and simply host games between random assemblages of humans. Casual interaction with strangers is not normally any more appealing to me online than it is in the crowded lobby of a random government agency or car rental outlet, but the Boggle server can provide me with willing Boggle opponents at 2am, which my physical environs cannot.
So, some number of my hours in the last week, and there are amendments that excuse me from admitting exactly how many, were spent playing virtual Boggle with virtual strangers. I'm pretty good at Boggle. I don't get to play the real thing very often, but when I do play, with people I know, I usually win. And in my first few online games, playing against whatever random surfers happened along, I won handily. Around game four or five, though, just as I was getting cocky and starting to scan straight to the bottom of the results page to see how much I'd won by, I scanned to the bottom of one and found that I'd scored twelve points, and somebody else had scored forty seven. Scrolling back up through their word list, my first thought was that either the computer had stepped in to play a round, or some hacker had discovered how to get the judging module to accept random typing as valid words. "Roup"? "Raphe"? "Keet"? "Gley"? What the hell kind of words are those? Sure, they're in the Scrabble dictionary (Roup: to auction. Raphe: a ridge between two halves of an organ. Keet: a young guinea fowl. Gley: a soil layer.), but how does a person come to know them? I'd have to quit my job to have time to read more books than I do, and yet I didn't recognize half of this person's word list. I don't mind losing, but usually there's an element of fun to losing, because you can aah, admiringly, at the cortical dexterity exhibited by the person who found a tangled path to "operand". Losing to "gley" isn't amusing at all. I mean, anybody could see "gley", it's sitting right there.
Which brings up a fundamental problem with most games, which I've started to believe is an even more basic problem with large segments of the rest of the world, too. Scrabble and Boggle are intended as contests that reward, and reinforce, actual life skills that are not limited to use within the game. You learn new words, you learn roots and stems and suffixes to build on, you develop the ability to rearrange things in your head, you learn a little psychology about what your fellow players will do. These are all talents you can both bring to the game and take away. What the obsessive player eventually discovers, though, is that the single most valuable bit of Scrabble preparation you can do is not reread Ethan Fromme, it's memorize all the two- and three-letter words in the Scrabble dictionary. Two-letter words are of no use in Boggle, but three-, four- and five- letter words are very useful, indeed, and once you realize this you can dispense with inefficient techniques like novel-reading and caring what they mean, and just concentrate on brute-force list consumption. Now, how the person who proceeded to pummel me mercilessly, game after game, actually came to be so good at Boggle, I don't know. They might be an auctioneer of medical-curriculum paraphernalia married to an avid naturalist. Uncharitably, though, I'm guessing they aren't. A preference for six-by-six games with four-letter maximums is the sign of a person for whom Boggle has become its own end. And this, to me, is its downfall, just as Trivial Pursuit is great fun until you come up against somebody who's gone through the deck so many times that they know the answers, not from history, but from previous games, racquetball is a blast as energetic chaos, but rather grim when every creative mistake is immediately punished, and chess starts getting dull the day you seriously consider memorizing a classical opening or two. The games cease to pertain to anything real.
Of course, nobody much cares what happens to games, and I can easily solve my Boggle problem by not playing against anybody who maintains a Scrabble FAQ (or, as I discovered in the one game I won ("epoxied"), cranking the minimum word-length up to seven letters, where there's no margin in memorization). This recursive mentality creeps into areas of life less easily dismissed, though. Law, which began as an attempt to ensure that justice is applied fairly and consistently, has turned into a self-sustaining economy of legislation and interpretation whose most adept practitioners are not only not concerned with moral justice, but actually expected to disregard it. Physics, which began as an attempt to avoid being hit in the head by falling apples, has now circled in upon itself so many times that it sounds like a comic-book adventure written by somebody whose childhood involved too much Lego and too little sunlight. Money, which began as an attempt to recognize that work benefits a community holistically in ways that one-on-one barter can't efficiently represent, has turned into something you can get by knifing somebody, supplying them with crack, or bleeding all the spirit out of your once-idealistic software company and then selling it to IBM. There was a day, or at least when I read old books there seems to have been, when a general education was enough preparation for a person to participate in the advancement of human knowledge and wisdom, and the improvement of human culture. Fewer and fewer such opportunities remain. Medicine and science require years of specialized training. The economy rewards socially destructive behavior more enthusiastically than it rewards principle. The gentleman has been bred out of us, and nobody who does more than one thing can ever hope to be distinguished in any of them. It's tempting to write this objection off as false nostalgia born of too much Banana-Republic-catalog visions of colonial nobility playing croquet inside a serene walled Johannesburg compound, and dioramas of Pythagoras inventing geometry by holding his toga out of the way while he scratched in the sand of the Agora with a stick that fail to also depict Aristotle lecturing on the spontaneous generation of eels in mud, or to jump to the liberal conclusion that the rarefication of all pursuits is bad because it increases the gulf between the kids who get pre-natal French lessons and the ones who get to eat the cans of marinated button mushrooms their parents will later send them to school with during the annual Food Drive, but I think this tendency hurts us, collectively, in far more serious ways. The extent to which the average educated person can participate in the state of the intellectual art is, I think I believe, directly proportional to the likelihood of any developments in academic thought affecting average educated people in return. When the best minds were obsessing over the shape of the world, anybody could care. When Lincoln and Douglas debated, there were ideas clashing, right there in public. The discovery of the Polio vaccine reads like a science-fair project. But do leptons split into muons, or vice versa, or is Lepton the planet that The Maxx goes to in his dreams? Has any single mortal read the entire body of federal farm-subsidy code? What has relativity done for me, other than set me up for a long series of jokes about things contracting along the axis of their movement that nobody has ever laughed at even once? I fear that in retreating into esoterica, science and politics and most of the rest of human endeavor have relinquished the power to effect substantial change. Government can no longer fix our social problems, because it has defined itself into a scope of consequence within which tenements, layoffs, religious hatred and ethical bankruptcy do not fit. Science will not carry us to the stars, or free us from our labors, because it has lost the power, or perhaps the will, to escape its own event horizon, and the particles, like the turtles, go all the way down. There are only two problems in the world: people who are miserable for obvious reasons, and people who are still miserable even after you deal with the obvious reasons. The hope that these miseries are not intractable is the reason we procrastinate our suicides. Seeker of truth, follow no paths. If you have to run the numbers, I think that means you've already missed the point where the decision should have been made. And so, with each day that finds me more disillusioned with what ought to be taken most seriously, I shift a little more of my emotional energy to the things that can still touch us, and be touched. Art remains foremost among them, particularly music, and particularly rock music. Rock is vulnerable to the reverse criticism, that it remains graspable because it never makes any progress, but particle physics makes me feel useless, and rock songs give me hope to carry on, and I don't know any higher court of appeal than that.
My survival this week, then, can be credited, if that's the right word, to Straightaways, the second album by Jay Farrar's post-Uncle Tupelo band Son Volt. No, there is no sign of progress, in the conventional sense, anywhere herein. These chords have all been used before, and these instruments, I know. The notion of mixing rock, country and punk was somewhat novel when Uncle Tupelo was new, or when Dave Pirner started listening to Woody Guthrie records again, but by 1997 the form is a market niche, just like anything else. Uncle Tupelo and its two successors, Son Volt and Wilco, form a genre almost to themselves, and if you enlarge the circle just a little you get Grant Lee Buffalo and American Music Club and Soul Asylum, and the Jayhawks the Geraldine Fibbers, and before you know it you're halfway to Everclear, Del Amitri, Neil Young and the Rolling Stones. From rock these bands take a centrality of rhythm and overdriven guitars, from punk a tolerance for roughness and untrained voices, from country wiry acoustic guitars and sinuous lap and pedal steels. Between them, whether they've explored the extent of possible rock/country/punk syntheses or not, they've certainly pushed back the line of the frontier far past Son Volt's position.
Just because a spot is inside your fences, though, doesn't mean you've necessarily stood there yet. What Straightaways manages to do, for me, that Grave Dancers Union, Copperopolis, Being There and Anodyne all did not, is blend country's mournful flair and punk's informality into rock so seamlessly that it feels like they were never separate. I keep wanting to say that this is "the most perfect pure rock album since...", but when I start to fill in the blank I realize that the Who never played fiddle and banjo, and I never liked the Stones or Neil Young, and the Eagles never struck me as a rock band, so what can I possibly mean by pure? In fact, if I can be allowed to court hypocrisy for a moment by fixating myopically on details, I can explain the unhealthy addiction I've developed to this album as a product of exactly two sounds. The first is Farrar's voice, which seems to me like Richard Shindell's storyteller's openness tempered by some of J Mascis' nasal reticence, and which he seems to push around the corners of these songs' melodies as if it's a cart he's steering from the back wheels. He sounds like reversed footage of people waving ribbons looks, like each new note is pulling him toward it, and he'd almost rather stay where he is. There is weariness and reluctance in it, but not resignation, and not sadness, exactly. This is the voice with which you say things that lift you up not because you know anybody hears them, or have even figured out who should, but because your ability to say them at all, even to the air, reminds you that you aren't dead yet, so there's still a chance that you'll find the people you're looking for. I can't imagine that a happy person would like this music. They might not hate it, as it at least doesn't wallow in hopelessness the way Eitzel used to (note to self: keep Peter Buck away from anybody else I love), but I can't imagine what they'd find in it. If you can be totally happy, in this world, you are either too far into Zen to own stereo equipment, or else you are oblivious, and this is the wrong soundtrack for sunny oblivion.
The second detail is the sound of drummer Mike Heidorn's snare drum. I've heard lots of great snare drums, actively great ones, where for a fleeting moment I think interactive albums might be an okay idea after all, just so I could solo the snare track and drink in every nuance of the noise. This snare is great for just the opposite reason: even in headphones, at the highest volume I can take without putting in earplugs (and wearing earplugs and headphones at once is more idiocy than even I can condone), I can't make out anything about it at all. It is without identifying marks or unique character, an archetypal snare without any trace of individual variation, a drum that cannot be separated from its rhythmic function.
These two details must be why I feel so helpless to escape this album's well, because nothing else seems sufficient when I scrutinize it. "Caryatid Easy" sounds like Soul Asylum's "Without a Trace" with a little Gin Blossoms smoothness fighting against Bob Mould-ish intensity, yet as it plays my right leg twitches frantically, plotting a kick-drum line that bears no relation to the song's stolid kick, snare-kick, kick-snare groove. "Back Into Your World" could be Richard Shindell's "By Now" filled out with late-Byrds backing tracks, but I never thought "By Now" needed more noise, and I just got finished listening to the second batch of Byrds reissues and didn't hear anything I liked as much as their earlier albums. "Picking Up the Signal" howls like Art Alexakis fronting the Wallflowers, but where did Art get this drawl, and how has he suddenly learned to see his pain as something that doesn't haunt him, but rather makes him whole? How does "Left a Slide" sound like a rock song to me, despite such a slow, methodical, invariant gait? How does "Creosote", despite banjo-like guitar phrasing and a walking bass line that makes me think at least part of the band is actually performing while on horseback? There's no rock mystery to the roar of "Cemetery Savior", but why am I reminded of Michael Stipe's old way of slurring, even though I can follow this song's lyrics fine, and why do I keep thinking of Grant Lee Buffalo, when the only trace of haunted deserts in it is some sand mixed in with the sawdust on the floor? "Been Set Free" threatens repeatedly to break into a forgotten old folk lament, but it never picks up enough speed to sustain a sing-along. "No More Parades" does, but by then Farrar is singing a melody that doesn't telegraph its movements, and lyrics like a stream-of-consciousness back-country Blue Nile. And the record concludes, where I know a rock record should fire a final blast, with the quietest, most restrained song of the set, "Way Down Watson", which would have fit in perfectly on Emmylou Harris' Wrecking Ball. So I should feel let down, yet I feel buoyed up. This isn't the answer I'm looking for, quite, yet, but it will feel something like this when I find it. It will be an answer, like rock and roll, that you know even from its silhouette, and the way its weight shifts when you say hello. I won't find it with equipment or compromise. It's here, somewhere, where I know I should be, right where my hand might next fall, beside me in this dark.