Gracelessly Incontinent Stalagmites
124 · 12 June 97
Papas Fritas: Helioself
I have no idea what the temperature is in this room. I have a thermometer, but I'm too drained from the heat to think which disorganized plastic bin full of miscellaneous speaker wire, unused mounting brackets, expired batteries and dueling-nun puppets I last saw it in. Outside, it's a beautiful night. It's warm, but pleasantly so, faintly hazy and just humid enough to be unambiguously summer. It would be a very good night, I suspect, for chasing fireflies, or for sitting on a patio drinking lemonade, mulling over particularly amusing examples of the opposing team's incompetence in a narrow softball victory just previous. We would idly inscribe spiral patterns in the condensation around the base of our glasses, listening to the distant keening of fire engines en route to rescue tree-stranded house-pets, and talk about TV stars we had crushes on when we were nine, or the pop songs our high school bands used to mutilate during half-times. This would be a good night for hovering right where the glow from inside meets the streetlight darkness of outside, listening to a friend laugh, trying to remember what you got up to go in for. It would be a good night for driving somewhere you could reach entirely by city streets, windows open, listening to the choppy Doppler hiss of your engine noise reflecting off the parked cars you pass.
All these idylls, though, as disparate as they seem, revolve around proper air circulation. Or so it feels to me, here in the 9x12 room I write in, directly above my dangerously overheated apartment building's boiler room, vented only by an aperture more porthole-like than a window, in front of a wheezing computer that was lean and powerful when I bought it, four years ago, but which is rapidly becoming the Tom Arnold of my technology collection. The cool breeze, merely the ghost of which would turn this climate into a paradise, halts at my window, peers in suspiciously, and then makes a little strangled noise in the back of its throat and scurries away. I wave my hand in front of me, and the air shifts truculently to allow its passage, moving as few molecules as will placate the laws of physics, and even those only as briefly as can be arranged.
But I welcome these stifling conditions. I welcome them like I welcome the reproachful drip my kitchen sink's faucet has been cultivating, the strange splattering noise of imminent plumbing disaster that emanates from somewhere behind my bathroom wall, the grim industrial brown of my carpet, the way the massive and misaligned ceiling slabs in this building seem to be shifting steadily, intimating that whole place may eventually collapse backwards into the parking lot like a not-yet-perfected card trick. The hotter it gets in this room, the happier I am. The gloomier this charmless, low-ceilinged apartment seems, the wider my grin, because my real estate agent called me today to say that she just got the signed copies of the Purchase-and-Sale agreement back from the people in Illinois who are selling me the townhouse they no longer live here to inhabit. All of these things I chafe at, from the perpetual sauna to the fact that some previous tenant broke the mode knob on the oven, so that it spins, cheerily, but I can only determine if I'm broiling or defrosting by empirical observation, posthumously, of whatever it was I was trying to cook -- all these things' conversations with my life are now contractually finite. I will spend a few more weeks in this room, while the bank assesses the sanity of lending me vast sums of money, and the lawyers flirt with each other in coded faxes, but long before there is no summer left to appreciate, I will actually have a patio to sit on. This column, somewhere around issue 130 or 131, will move into its new production facility, a room as airy as the one I'm in now is oppressive, a loft-like study overlooking my new living room. I said, a couple months ago, when I turned thirty, that I felt ready to be older, to no longer feel like adulthood is something I'm only pretending to experience. Buying a house is, arguably, my first wholly adult act. My car, my professional career, relationships, this column: all these things flow seamlessly out of what, if only because of the way my hair was, would have to be considered my adolescence. But buying a house is different. The specific detail I've been fixating on, frankly, is nothing about the money or the property, but the idea that, among other things, I am about to own a tree. What does that mean? This will be my first pet. My current apartment hasn't a single domesticated plant or animal in it, unless you count a long-neglected head of garlic that has sprouted a runner out of boredom. I'm not sure I'm ready for the responsibility. Will I love it enough? Too much? What if it gets Dutch Elm Disease? Is it even a Dutch Elm? I have no idea. There must be a community college course I can take, that will teach me to understand how it expresses its needs. God, what if it hates progressive rock?
Anyway, it's very possible that I'm projecting my life-state into music, or subconsciously seeking out records that complement it, but nonetheless, it does seem to me like I am not making the pilgrimages to adulthood and summer alone. After a cold, petulant 1996, 1997 finds Veruca Salt transforming themselves into stadium-pop colossi, Robert Pollard making an unapologetic rock record, Mark Eitzel relaxing. It's the year, at least reckoned by US release dates, that Sloan converted to pure pop. Perhaps this is the year that low-fi grows up.
Papas Fritas are every bit as unlikely candidates to participate in this migration as the other four. Their breath-takingly naive debut, released in 1995 (on Minty Fresh, also Veruca Salt's label), was very nearly as artless as it's possible to be while still making art. I shelved it between Guided by Voices and the Magnetic Fields, not so much on strict aural similarities (Pollard and Merritt hardly resemble each other stylistically), as on the grounds that I know of few bands as willing as those three to make their music with whatever means come to hand. It was a pop record, if you had to classify it, but its pervasive minimalist informality, by comparison with which Jonathan Richman sounds a little like GTR, rendered the question of genre largely moot. It was far too self-possessed, I thought, to belong to a category, in any meaningful sense. As with Sloan, though, I vacillated between being charmed and irritated by this. Like Twice Removed, Papas Fritas was an album that, about half the times I played it, just failed to thread into my mind properly, right at the beginning, and if I wasn't in the mood by the end of fifteen seconds, I wouldn't get into it in the next half hour, either. But later I'd find myself humming some fragment of it, and put it on again, and it would seem marvelous. Helioself, if the Sloan parallelism were to hold, would have to alienate me firmly, at first, only to win me over months later when some logistical occurrence prompted me to reevaluate it.
Maybe I do occasionally learn from my mistakes, though, because Helioself's version of the resistance/acceptance progression was drastically abbreviated: the first time I played it, I wasn't sure what I thought; by the second time, I had a theory. The theory, which has held up admirably under extended scrutiny, and I mean in complete seriousness, is that this album, like One Chord to Another, is a modern pop masterpiece. Getting two of these in one year is pretty unlikely, so maybe I'm just happy about my house; it's hard to see how the reverse could be true, and this album could be responsible for my finding the place, though it's never wise to underestimate causality. If Sloan's triumph is in restating elemental early-Beatles pop songcraft as a dialect of indie guitar-rock, then Papas Fritas' is in reconciling their uncluttered performance aesthetic with pop's more maximal ancestors, from Ben Folds and the Posies to later Beach Boys experimentation, to Broadway musicals to Sesame Street and The Partridge Family. The idea of Gang of Four doing Donnie and Marie songs is pretty disturbing, I admit, and probably isn't how this will sound to anybody but me. Imagine the gleeful pop spirit of Hanson, maybe, incarnated in Lou Barlow instead of the brothers. Queen or Elton John without the flamboyance? The Dambuilders doing the Mamas and Papas? Velocity Girl doing Propaganda doing Jellyfish? Evan and Juliana doing "Free to Be You and Me"? (I think the heat is getting to me.) "Helioself", with its play on "Heal yourself" and the prefix for "of the sun", is a rare bit of wordplay cleverness that is genuinely meaningful: this is a record about healing yourself by being your own source of warmth and light.
The album opens with "Hey Hey You Say", the advance single. If you can imagine an impish psychedelic remake of the Comsat Angels' "Independence Day", filling in the spaces between the oblique drum figures, ominous, atmospheric bass and buzzing synthesizers with whirring sitar peals and ragged, but exuberant, vocal harmonies, you're close to this. With its off-center AABBA verse rhyme schemes and inhalation-like chorus phrasing, this sounds to me in parts like the Human League, refracted, and in other parts like the Rentals trying to work out a Milla song. The chirpy refrain is contentless, but the bridges to it, obsessively chanting "Man on the telephone / Will never let me--" and "It's all the same, it's all the same", lend the song a sinister reserve that "MMMBop" does not possess.
"We've Got All Night" breaks out the guitars, thin, trebly and distorted, slashing through the center of the arrangement and wheeling off in miniaturized solos. The wordless backing-vocal sighs, though, the rhythm-track canter, the sotto voce choruses and the narrative's late-night love affair, yearning and loneliness both captured in, and dispelled by, the radio and the telephone, are all helplessly earnest, and empathize more with the way you look at a rock hero's poster on a bedroom wall than with the heroics the poster depicts. Although this and Veruca Salt's "With David Bowie" take somewhat different approaches to the subject, both, to me, are attempts to distill out the real emotional strengths that are why what seems like shallow adulation can still have such power.
Drummer Shivika Asthana takes over lead vocals for the near-lullaby "Say Goodbye". She sounds at least marginally more confident than she did in her parts on the first album, but she still sings cleanly, without flourish or histrionics, as if singing is something anybody can do, and so not inherently remarkable. The song, a steady, gentle pulse, is a bit like a cross between the Blue Nile and Squeeze, torn between ethereality and infectiousness. "Small Rooms", on the other hand, sounds more like the Judys, blasts of guitar and skittering "La la la la" harmonies roaring over the sprinting bass and hi-hat. The song's sentiment (they like small rooms) is the opposite of mine, but we live with so much irony, already, that making something into an anthem for its inverse in our heads is almost second-nature. I do a similar transformation with "Live by the Water", the album's most Sebadoh-like interlude, which is really a meditation on the psychological cost of living in a city, but which can be taken as an argument simply for assuming control of your life, not letting it drift in familiar patterns.
"Rolling in the Sand", with its sunny expositional vocal clarity, opens like it's going to be a children's fable, but the background vocals keep threatening to turn into "A Hazy Shade of Winter", the lyrics end up being about jealousy, violence and disingenuous non-involvement, and the song jerks to a stop before drawing any moral conclusions, instructive or otherwise. "Words to Sing", with its boy-girl vocal dialog (an underutilized device, in my opinion), sounds like "Don't You Want Me" barely able to resist slipping into "Puff the Magic Dragon". But for "Sing About Me", the conclusion of the music-about-music trilogy, the band abruptly decides to channel the spirits of Josie Cotton, "World Shut Your Mouth" and the lost era of Girl Groups, and with Asthana doing a surprisingly good job of singing like a siren, not a spectre, they careen through the pastiche like a hyperactive coed Go-Go's.
This frantic segue leads to the album's quietest stretch, "Just to See You", which I didn't think much of as "Hey Hey You Say"'s b-side, and don't take as much more than an intermission here, either. It leads, though, to the sprawling story-song "Captain of the City", which at less than four minutes can't really qualify as a rock-opera, but whose linearity of musical and lyrical development make it feel much longer than its actual duration. I think much of the childlike quality of this music, for me, derives from how natural it feels to bob my head to the left on the first beat and to the right on the third, smiling brightly, like I'm about to link arms with Dorothy and skip off down the road toward Oz. This tale of ill-considered juvenile delinquency and betrayal hardly fits with the head-bobbing and mindless grinning the music instills, but that contrast is part of the charm of the song. The album starts to edge into its finale with "Weight", the record's one low-fi holdover, a reedy piano, some clattering tap-dancing and an unsteady vocal, all of which sound like they're coming over a telephone. The conclusion, though, "Starting to Be It", returns to focus, with languid piano and recombining vocal exchanges spinning past each other in careful, if understated, choreography.
The album's brilliance, I think, lies in its accomplishment of two amazing things. First, it manages to take the brightly-colored directness of children's music and musicals, and recast it in idioms that preserve the forms' immediacy and sense of wonder, but are not cloying or superficial. Very few current bands risk coming anywhere near this corner of the style, and it seems backwards to brandish something overtly adolescent as a symbol of adulthood, but if it is possible to grow out of the Muppets into the Spice Girls, then I don't see why it shouldn't be possible to grow out of Live and Bush into Papas Fritas. Recognizing the powers of childhood can only be done from outside childhood (have you reread Pooh and Alice since you learned to drive?), so children's music for adults needn't be a contradiction. And second, Helioself is, as even One Chord to Another is not, an object lesson in how else low-fi independent pop can evolve. As other pop bands turn, prominently, to rock, regressing collectively to the mean, even if many of them are evolving, individually, somebody, for the health of the genre, needs to preserve the extent of the genre's scope. Papas Fritas are caretakers of another flame that pop, once (now that?) the Lollapalooza era is over, will need again. We've been, stylistically, through something of a winter in popular music, which in a way began when Nevermind heralded the leaves changing color. Winters are dramatic, but also often grim, and we survive (and even enjoy) them in part because we know we will get through them, and feel summer's warmth again. Helioself is a summer album. Shorter records for longer days. I think that means there's time to play this one twice.
Future Bible Heroes: Memories of Love
Another feature of childhood that falls into regrettable disregard in adulthood is the practice of putting puzzles on things. Anything marketed to children is half what it is, and half an adventure game. Cereal boxes have word-searches, restaurant place-mats present six extremely similar airplanes for disambiguation, the back of the action-figure carton implores you to show Tobor Seven the way out of Zortar's evil labyrinth. Why don't things made for adults do this, too? Shouldn't connecting the cow spots just right on the Gateway 2000 boxes form a crude portrait of Grover Cleveland? Instead of reading about riboflavin percentages on the spine of our organic bran-flake cartons, wouldn't we rather help Ernie the Harbor Seal evade the oil spills and poachers' Zodiacs and escape to the open sea? Why don't the owner's manuals for stereo components have quiz questions that you color in with those magic yellow markers to find out if you got the answer right? ("Yes! 'Impedance matching'! Four points.")
A detailed simulation of what the world might be like, if this practice were adopted, is available on the packaging of Memories of Love, the first album by Future Bible Heroes. Not only are the lyrics to each song presented as a different puzzle (real ones, too, not jokes; for example, the words to "She-Devils of the Deep" have been re-sorted according to length, and then alphabetized, and have to be fit into a crossword puzzle grid; this is probably the only album ever made where you have to listen to the sung words in order to figure out what the written ones are; on the other hand, it's one of the few puzzle-packages where the thing in the package solves the puzzle, which would be very hard to do with cereal unless the puzzle was "Help Gerald the Wheat Germ Find His Way Through the Alimentary Canal"), but the track sequence on the back of the jewel case is also itself a puzzle, and even the band name and album title on the front have to be unscrambled. There is an answer key for the running order, and the band's name is printed on the spine, but the album title is not ever directly revealed, so I've given you a head start by telling you what it is.
Future Bible Heroes, once you get bored with the games in the booklet and decide to listen to the CD, is one of the several concurrent projects helmed by rococo Casio wizard Stephen Merritt. Merritt's primary outlet, at least numerically, is the band The Magnetic Fields, for whom he writes the songs and lyrics, usually plays most of the instruments (although some records feature an ensemble, as do live performances) and either also sings, or leaves this role to Susan Anway. In The 6ths, so far a one-album project (1995's Wasps' Nests), he plays the instruments but recruits indie-celebrity guest-vocalists to do the singing. Future Bible Heroes finds him collaborating, for songwriting, with Christopher Ewen, who then plays all the band's instruments, while Merritt and Claudia Gonson (the Magnetic Fields' manager, as well as sometime drummer and extra vocalist) trade off vocal chores.
While Merritt's presence lends an unmistakable Magnetic Fields aura to this album, and Ewen and Merritt are clearly kindred spirits, musically, Merritt's retro keyboard tastes often seem to be nostalgic for another century (I always think of the Magnetic Fields as what Beethoven really would have played in that scene in Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure where they get him to try a department-store Yamaha with the auto-rhythm on), and Ewen's only hark back to the early Eighties. Compared to his detailed reverence for the decade, though, Pulsars are practically forward-looking. "Lonely Days" is a spitting image of the Dream Academy; "Hopeless" (which appeared previously on the Red Hot + Bothered compilation) sounds like a Pet Shop Boys song with a keyboard hook purloined from Echo and the Bunnymen's "Never Stop", and some ancillary noises swiped from Ultravox's "One Small Day"; "Death Opened a Boutique" could be a b-side from Thomas Dolby's The Flat Earth; "Blond Adonis" is, except for Merritt's morose voice, nearly an Erasure tribute; "But You're So Beautiful", without the flute and Gonson's lilting voice, might be Depeche Mode; "Real Summer", with glossier production, could be the Pet Shop Boys again; the ethereal "You Steal the Scene" might be Hex. Of the others, "She-Devils of the Deep", with sinister vibes and Merritt's gruff mock-macabre nonsense-lyrics, is like Bauhaus crossed with the goofy last movement of Jean Michel Jarre's Les Chants Magnetiques; "You Pretend to Be the Moon" would be gauzy and elegant if Gonson's delicate singing and the breathy keyboards weren't encumbered with a cheesy stutter-step rhythm track that sounds like one of the Casio presets even Casio doesn't really expect you to use; "A You You Never Knew" starts out like it's going to be a Yaz song, but Merritt sounds nothing like Moyet, and Vince Clarke would never have stood for the bloopy noises used in place of drums; and "Memories of Love" itself is close enough to pass for the Magnetic Fields, proper, under dim light.
Whether you need this album depends on where the voids are in your life. If nothing else, if helps bide the time until the next Magnetic Fields album, and Merritt's resonant, doleful voice is, if you like it, always worth hearing more of. Or, if you loved mid-Eighties synth-pop as desperately as Christopher Ewen obviously did, this will help keep you happy until Superman spins the planet backward fifteen years, and you get to live through its heyday all over again.