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It Can't Rain All the Time
Love Spit Love: Trysome Eatone
I really wanted to love the new Echo and the Bunnymen album. A thrill shot through me when I heard that Ian McCulloch and Will Sergeant were abandoning the new-band facade of Electrafixion, roping in Echo bassist Les Pattinson, and reviving one of the groups that my personal experience of New Wave centered around. True, Burned, the Electrafixion album, really didn't inspire me at all, and it would have taken more than a different bass player to change this, but we live as characters in the stories we tell about ourselves, and if Ian and Will were calling Evergreen a new Echo and the Bunnymen album, then I fully expected it to be a linear descendant of Ocean Rain, the 1984 LP that, to me, stands as their defining masterpiece. Somewhere in the intervening thirteen years, however, things changed. I don't know whether my experience of Ocean Rain was just inextricably linked to being seventeen when I first heard it, or Ian and Will's experience of it was linked to their being however old they were when they made it, or whether their and my tastes merely diverged during the time we were apart, but Evergreen made no impression on me at all. It was as if Ian and Will themselves were so overwhelmed by the idea of a new Echo and the Bunnymen album that they, too, sat back and waited for it to appear, humming listlessly to while away the vigil. Somewhere Godot is listening to the album they might have made, and we're left with one whose cover art, to me, is its only tangible link to the past.
Echo and the Bunnymen didn't quite disintegrate, the first time, at the point where I loved them most dearly, but I pretty much stopped paying attention after Ocean Rain, so it felt that way, like their songs were sounds arrested in my youth. I never stopped loving the records, but after a while I did stop listening to them, as you stop playing with toys, one by one, as you grow older, not exactly knowing why. "All hands on deck at dawn", McCulloch breathes, in "Ocean Rain" itself, and for me it could be Peter Pan's crew he's calling to stations. If McCulloch is Peter Pan, though, then the Psychedelic Furs' Richard Butler must be Peter's antithesis: not Hook, because Hook and Peter are opposites only within the narrow moral confines of their dream universe, but something back in the flightless adult world Peter defies. Where Echo and the Bunnymen never seemed to me to grow up, the Psychedelic Furs to me never seemed young. I envied Butler's droning ennui passionately, but I never thought I shared it. Even Johnny Rotten's vitriolic disdain had a destructive vitality I could relate to better than Butler's limitless weariness. Sneering is an assumable attitude; Butler's harsh, mocking laughter requires a different throat. Even now, at thirty, I don't feel that I've caught up to "Imitation of Christ", or "Pretty in Pink", or "Mr. Jones" yet. I'm older than he was, but nowhere near old enough to be that disillusioned.
But perhaps never seeming young is the unavoidable price of aging gracefully. After leading the Furs into an embarrassing phase (Mirror Moves, Midnight to Midnight) that makes infinitely better sense in retrospect as an accelerated mid-life crisis, Butler managed to resuscitate his dignity on Book of Days and The World Outside, and so at least laid the Psychedelic Furs to rest in peace. His new band, Love Spit Love, formed with ex-Pale Divine guitarist Richard Fortus, could hardly escape sounding like the Furs entirely, as there aren't that many notes in Richard's narrow vocal range, but between Fortus replacing the Furs' stiff clamor with more chiming guitars and melodic articulation, and Richard learning to make his tired voice sound a little more like a product of earned wisdom than nihilistic dejection, Love Spit Love came out sounding, to me, not only like a band beginning a new life, instead of attempting to ghoulishly prolong one that ought to have ended long ago, but also like a band whose style was its own natural creation, not a demented (however successful) laboratory graft like David Bowie's sudden conversion to techno.
Trysome Eatone, Love Spit Love's second album (you didn't think they could come up with an album title as awkward as the name of the band, did you?), continues this encouraging trend, confidently enough that it seems to me plenty of bands muster less enthusiastic energy on their real second albums than Richard does here on his ninth. Comparing it to the scathing, mercilessly focused second Furs album, Talk Talk Talk, is dizzying. The relentless Talk Talk Talk was a rallying cry (are there rallying moans?) for defiant superficiality as a defense mechanism against emotional vulnerability; Trysome Eatone in juxtaposition is practically kaleidoscopic and irrepressible. The sturdy "Long Long Time", whirling with fluttery keyboard arpeggios, is a conciliation speech on the order of New Model Army's "Bury the Hatchet". In the surging, chaotic "Believe" rage has been transmuted into just a desire to be alone some of the time. The sing-song rhyme scheme of "Well Well Well" has the cadence of a savant's maniacal monologue, but the song's music is open-hearted and untroubled. "Friends"' mannered strut sounds like a blues-rock deconstruction of a misanthropic show tune, but "Fall on Tears" is a soaring ballad buoyed up on currents of acoustic guitar, pulsing bass (Chris Wilson replacing ex-Fur Tim Butler) and waves of buzzing electric guitar, something like an older, bigger-production Buffalo Tom. "Little Fist", churning and pounding with metallic drive, harmonics squealing like tires on a turn, shows Fortus' awareness of modern guitar idiom and arrangements, but the style sounds no more like Rage Against the Machine's brutish thrash in Love Spit Love's hands than it does in Rush's.
The pace slows down again for "It Hurts When I Laugh", and here, in the rough edges of Butler's bruised tones, Love Spit Love actually remind me of the Psychedelic Furs for the first time. The worn choruses, Butler's itemization of sources of pain, echo everything I thought was still great about the Furs' first few softer songs, "Forever Now" and "Love My Way" particularly, and even remind me why it took me so long to turn my back on Mirror Moves. You can either hear "The Ghost in You", Mirror Moves' opening track, as the beginning of the end, or you can hear it as a first draft of a future the Furs never got around to, where Richard lets down his guard, risking disappointment for the chance at empathy, and to me "It Hurts When I Laugh" finally gathers the necessary courage. There's a woman in a colored dress, again, like in "Pretty in Pink", but where Caroline, the earlier woman, was helpless and abused, Annie, the new one, has candles around her bed to light, and this time it is the narrator, leaving, who receives the weight of the pain she displaces. It occurs to me for the first time that "Pretty in Pink" is as much about its narrator's comfortable reproach as it is about the woman it memorializes. It is easier to justify never opening your heart if you portray callous exploitation as the relationship norm. If the people you might open it to are stronger, after all, then you cannot use their fragility as an excuse, and a closed heart is a product of your own weakness, not a fear for others. It does hurt, of course, to let other people into your life, but that kind of pain is bio-feedback to tell us we're on the right course.
Butler also has, I think, a unique capacity to invest emotional nuance into words that in other singers' songs might be no-ops, and there are two quintessential examples here. At the ends of the lines of the chorus, where a mad-lib for this song form would probably have you insert a woman's name, repeated, to hold the chorus together, Butler instead sings the "and it" that joins one "Hurts when I..." to the next. I hear an incredible number of things in this tiny conjunction, from constant surprise that there's another pain, to an awareness that another pain is better than emptiness, to a hopeful conviction, each time another "and it" hangs for a moment suspended, that a new clause means a new sensation, and perhaps this one won't be pain. Orson Scott Card once explained his propensity for beginning sentences with "and" and "but" by observing that the Book of Mormon does it quite a bit, and reasoning that he must have absorbed this style during his upbringing and come to associate these connections of ideas with the expression of truths. That can't be where I got it from, though, so I believe there must be something more universal to it, that they aren't the fingerprint of a single search for truth, they are the signs (or perhaps even the tools) of the search for truth itself. Purposeful language proceeds by association and syllogism the way a climber moves from grip to grip, and the effort marks you as surely as the climber's passion is evidenced in the contours of their calf muscles.
The other word that nobody sings quite like Butler is "Yeah". In pop "yeah" is often used as a nonsense syllable, but there's a linguistics dissertation to be written, if it hasn't already been done, about the difference between "yeah" and "yes", and Butler's rendition of "yeah" would merit a chapter to itself. "Yes" accepts, "yeah" only acknowledges. "Yes" says that things are proceeding as expected, and "yeah" confirms that they are not (taking the function, sometimes, of the French "si", yes when the expected answer is no). "Yeah" admits irony and sarcasm. This might be generational, but "yeah", because of its informality, also seems to me to be harder to fake; "yes" is something you say, "yeah" is something you feel, and it's easier to say something you don't mean than it is to feel it. When the Beatles sing "She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah", the "yeah"s are part of the social self-image they shared with (and described for) their audience. When Richard Butler sings "yeah, yeah, yeah", it is the abstract of a minor eternity of inner turmoil. (When Oasis sings "yeah, yeah, yeah", it is vapidity.)
The second half of the album to me is a symmetrical return trip through most of the same styles as the first half. The alternately pretty and powerful "7 Years" is a lot like "Fall on Tears", "Sweet Thing" combines an industrial stomp similar to "Little Fist" with a snarling rant reminiscent of the Furs' "Soap Commercial", and "All God's Children" (with more loaded "yeah"s) could be another tune from later in the same rock opera as "Friends". The processed, mechanical "More Than Money" is Love Spit Love's bid to get on the next movie soundtrack that Filter and Stabbing Westward are too busy for (but I think the song will need a remix to beat the earnestness out of Butler's "And love, love, love / Will open your eyes and sing") and the album's epilogue, "November 5", bears a strange resemblance, for three of its four minutes, to jazzy Mister Rogers exit music, with a minute of disconnected jam in the middle. As much as Butler has tempered his fury and scorn over the years, though, I still don't think I'd recommend subjecting impressionable young children to it.
Joe Jackson & Friends: Heaven & Hell
If mature wisdom and proving that rock doesn't have to be the artistic equivalent of crowbar blows don't appeal to you as themes for aging, though, there's always willful eccentricity. Anyone whose last contact with Joe Jackson was "Is She Really Going Out With Him?" may look with understandable skepticism on a new album I've seen described, no doubt at the advice of somebody's lawyers, as "(classical)", but people who have followed Joe's career a bit more diligently will have long since given up being surprised by his abrupt style shifts. I've only tuned in sporadically, myself, as several of his phases, particularly early on, have not been to my liking at all, but his sophisticated New York jazz-pop album Night and Day (the source of "Steppin' Out" and "Breaking Us in Two") is on my list of modern masterpieces, his four-tour-spanning Live 1980/86 double album is one of my three favorite concert records of all time (not to be coy, Runrig's Once in a Lifetime and Mark Eitzel's Songs of Love Live are the other two), and I'm also oddly fond of the largely neglected 1991 album Laughter & Lust, the only phase of his career where his music doesn't seem to me to be overtly stylized at all. His last album, 1994's Night Music, alternated between mannered pop songs and four nocturnes for viola, ondes martenot, cello and oboe. The interleaving threads didn't relate to each other very well, however, I thought, and so while I liked all the tracks well enough individually, the pop songs seemed too much like apologies for the nocturnes (or perhaps vice versa), and the album as a whole struck me as a failed experiment that was too oblique to be pop, but didn't take itself seriously enough to be chamber music.
Heaven & Hell takes the Short Path to coherency by simply sweeping aside the line between rock and classical as if it could have no possible significance. The "Friends" alluded to on the cover include violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, classical vocalist Dawn Upshaw and a full string section, but also Suzanne Vega, Jane Siberry, basso comico Crash Test Dummies singer Brad Roberts, session drummers Dan Hickey and Kenny Aronoff and Times Square bucket drummer Jared Crawford, and the familiar assistance of singer Joy Askew and percussionist Sue Hadjopoulos. Joe himself sings, plays several varieties of keyboard, and handles whatever programming occurs to him.
These elements rarely combine in configurations that lend themselves to easy classification. The "Prelude" is mostly a Salerno-Sonnenberg violin solo, but it leaps from Bartok-like angularity to a sentimental sweep that wouldn't be out of character as a black-and-white melodrama soundtrack, and at one point accompanies the violin with a meandering bongo track, as if Nadja were a beat poet. "Fugue 1 / More Is More" (a sticker on the front cover helpfully explains "Joe Jackson explores the seven deadly sins", and the songs are labeled in the booklet, this one obviously for Gluttony) is like a sputtering Conlon Nancarrow player-piano exercise (except with synthesizers and a drum machine instead of player pianos) that breaks periodically for Jackson's vocal narrative episodes. "Angel" (Lust, though this sin isn't eviscerated as thoroughly as Gluttony) alternates between a half-spoken Suzanne Vega narration accompanied by ringing piano, repetitive, sawing violin and a tinny drum-loop, and Dawn Upshaw singing in Latin with just a trace of the drum loop bleeding through. "Tuzla" (Avarice; the lyrics make more sense if you read the New York Times article about wartime capitalism in Bosnia that is ghosted behind them in the booklet) is a collage of wordless Dawn Upshaw sighs, Joy Askew sounding a lot like Shona Laing, Joe muttering through processors and a host of strangers reading the entries in a bizarre table of barter equivalencies, backed by dub bass, pizzicato strings and shuffling martial snare rolls. "Passacaglia / A Bud and a Slice" (Sloth, but the text seems more like a criticism of cultural small-mindedness than laziness to me) employs Roberts to lend banal lyrics inexplicable drama in exactly the way he does with his own band, and Judy LeClair's bassoon gives the music a baroque lilt. "Right" (Anger) is, fittingly, the closest thing to a rock song here, with Hickey and Aronoff playing rattling near-twin drum grooves (one in each speaker, a very strange effect if you listen to it with good stereo separation), and Jackson pounding random note clusters on the piano to emphasize his verses of staccato expletives (the angry part). The choruses are played as straight rock, but the song derails several times for side-trips into piano scales, Times Square percussion and traffic, and a humming bass groove. Jane Siberry takes over vocals for the jazzy "The Bridge" (Envy, though I barely see how), and I temporarily forget that Joe Jackson is involved in the album at all, but he's back for the long, slow orchestral-crescendo finale, "Fugue 2 / Song of Daedalus" (Pride; it ends with the cry "Call me God", which, regardless of the point you're trying to make, you should not attempt to end an album with at home).
Lyrically, I'm not quite sure what to make of this. There are some incisive lines in almost every song, but the seven deadly sins are pretty much the archetypical easy targets, and Jackson rarely indicts anybody surprising in his examples. Musically, though, I think the album is inspiring. There should be a middle ground between rock and classical; rock musicians who aren't inclined to essay eternal youth need something to develop into that has more in common with rock, in terms of process, than academic composition. This is only one attempt, not a paradigm for a new genre, but that's exactly how these things get started.
The Call: To Heaven and Back
The most popular way to approach aging in pop music, of course, is to just keeping doing the same thing you've always done, and hope that your audience doesn't lose their taste for it, either. Over the course of seven albums, from 1982 to 1990 (The Call, Scene Beyond Dreams and Modern Romans are represented on CD by the best-of The Walls Came Down; Reconciled, Into the Woods, Let the Day Begin and Red Moon are available individually, and also summarized on the recent collection The Best of the Call; both compilations include the band's one genuine hit, the anticipatory (1983!) anti-separatist anthem "The Walls Came Down", whose "I don't think there are any Russians / And there ain't no Yanks, / Just corporate criminals / Playing with tanks" came long before Sting's revelation about the Russians loving their children), the Call quietly established themselves, to me, as one of the rock world's masters of cinematic grandeur. I have come to think of them, though certainly not for commercial reasons, as America's answer to U2. You could argue, of course, that U2 themselves have become America's answer to U2, but I consider the late-model U2 to be Las Vegas' answer to U2, and Vegas is never what I mean by America. I actually don't mean California, either, which is its own culture, nor the quasi-European closeness of the East Coast, where I live myself, so I guess I mean Middle America. Middle America, at this point, is probably nearly as mythical as Middle Earth, but America has always been a country of its mythology as much as its terrain, so this is appropriate. The Call's music represented America not by actually capturing the gold of Kansas wheat fields, but by encapsulating the feelings of expanse and spiritual humility that the millions of us who never visit Kansas, but do buy records, imagine the wheat fields engender. What this lacks in historical authenticity (Robbie Robertson did a much better job of accounting for indigenous influences, for example, in an otherwise similar style) it more than makes up for in anthemic pomp.
The Call disassembled after Red Moon, but I guess the break-up didn't take, because both drummer Scott Musick and guitarist Tom Ferrier turned up to play on leader Michael Been's unmistakably Call-like 1993 solo album On the Verge of a Nervous Breakthrough (The Best of the Call includes two songs from this album, including my favorite, the hidden-track alternate version of "To Feel This Way"), and by the end of the tour to support the album the group was being billed as Michael Been and the Call. Keyboard player Jim Goodwin, the missing member, rejoined the others at some point, and The Best of the Call also includes two songs from the reunited band, "Become America" and "All You Hold On To".
Sadly, though, the compilation, on Warner Resound, appears to have much better distribution than the band's new label, Fingerprint, and its release was also delayed several times, so the liner notes end up describing the new album as if it's just the germ of an idea for something they might do in the future, when in fact it is already done and out. The seven year gap between official Call albums has had little apparent effect on the band's sound, and To Heaven and Back more or less resumes the trajectory Red Moon was on, leading away from synthesizers (Scene Beyond Dreams is the most synthetic of their albums, I think) towards arrangements closer to folk and blues roots. The cycling "Criminal" seethes with organ stabs, the gentle "Love Is Everywhere" mixes acoustic guitar with whirring Byrds-ish backwards electrics, "Musta Been Outta My Mind" is inflected with roadhouse boogie and "Confession" sounds uncannily like the Doors. Nonetheless, epic sweep remains the band's calling card. Musick's drumming is square and steady, Been and Ferrier's guitars ring clearly, and careful, but understated, harmonies supplement Been's warm, reverent voice. "Soaring Bird" is mostly built on just two chords, one used only for a single line in the chorus, but the spare structure of the song makes the simple chord switch disproportionately dramatic. "World on Fire"'s choppy guitar weaves in and out of a humming organ drone. "All You Hold On To" is driven by a quick-step snare snap and barbed guitar interjections. The bouncy, infectious "Compromise" is descended from "The Walls Came Down", but substitutes an appealing mid-tempo canter for the earlier song's New Wave jaggedness. "What Are You Made Of" has a blues jam somewhere in its ancestry, but sticks to a percolating rock groove and dense, growling guitars. And "Become America" could easily be inserted somewhere in the running order of Reconciled. The Best of the Call is still probably a better place for the tentative fan to begin, but if you find that the Call's vision of America's expansive soul matches yours as well as it does mine, then To Heaven and Back is the difference between our collective hallucination being an honored legend and a living myth.
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