Dreaming of America
171 · 7 May 98
Mark Eitzel: Caught in a Trap and I Can't Back Out 'Cause I Love You Too Much, Baby
I hated West, Mark Eitzel's last album. I don't hate albums easily, or often. This is more a product, lest you think I'm bragging about my benevolence, of low tolerance than high. I buy records the way cynical commercial fishermen trawl for tuna, and if I haven't actually killed any dolphins in the process, it's through their wariness, not my consideration. Having done this for a few years now, and paid some attention to the characteristics of survival as new music flops around on my deck (that metaphor had one of the shortest useful lives I can recall), I've become the world's leading expert on what I'm going to like or not. I have a few even more pointless talents (e.g.: I can solve those iron blacksmiths' tavern puzzles just by looking at pictures of them, which would be a great party trick except if you can't do it, too, you'll have no way of verifying that I'm right), but this one, if nothing else, saves me a lot of time. I can usually tell after no more than two playings, and sometimes considerably fewer, whether an album and I have any potential common ground, and if we don't, I move on to something else. The stronger my disgust, the shorter my patience, so getting to genuine hatred is almost inherently impossible, like filling a bathtub to the ceiling.
The things I come to detest most intensely, then, paradoxically, are the records I have some reason to believe I'll like, some misguided bit of stubborn faith that keeps me listening beyond the point where I would normally have given up, so hatred has time to build. In Eitzel's case, I didn't get much out of the solo album before that, the jazzy 60 Watt Silver Lining, either, but his first one, the frayed Songs of Love Live, is one of my two favorite live albums in the world (Runrig's Once in a Lifetime is the other; they have nothing in common), and the seven-album run of his late band, American Music Club, produced five and a half albums (my personal omissions being United Kingdom and the noisy parts of The Restless Stranger) that to me make Morrissey seem, along the axes of both melancholy grandeur and searing miserablism, like a grouchy Power Ranger. And so while the idea of Mark making a record with REM guitarist Peter Buck, whose emotional demeanor usually seems closer to an off-season sports mascot doing a little light yard work, sounded frankly ill-conceived, I was confident that Mark's personality could withstand dilution.
The problem with this theory is it assumes, automatically, that Peter would exert pressure towards good-natured jangliness, which Mark would resolutely resist, thus establishing a profitable tension. It never occurred to me that Mark would cooperate. The amiable, meandering record they assembled made so little sense to me that I played it several times before I could do anything but sit, dumbly, waiting for the real record to start, right up to the second it ended. I felt as if Mark Rothko had been hired to paint a magazine cover, and had turned in a careful portrait of an impish puppy pulling on the pants leg of a cherubic toddler; I kept staring at it waiting for the subversive twist to materialize. There is a subversive twist to it, right? There has to be.
There wasn't. Some time around uncomprehending repetition four or five the truth finally dawned on me. Eitzel was serious. West wasn't flirting with jangly pop conventions, it was a jangly pop album. Placid anticipation gave way in an instant to abject revulsion. I had to turn the stereo off. This sounds like a figure of speech: surely I didn't have to turn it off, I just preferred to. I won't debate the physiology, but I'm reporting my subjective experience truthfully. I felt, literally, like if I didn't turn the album off right that moment, and never listen to it again in my life, something horrifying and irreparable would happen to me. The album is a tear in the universe, through which life-force drains out. But if I keep the jewel case closed, I think we'll be all right. Probably I should get it re-shrink-wrapped, just to be sure.
Caught in a Trap..., to my profound relief, is a return to what I think of as Mark's essential genius and correct character. Although there is a wide spectrum of arrangement styles between the parts of Songs of Love Live when, alone on stage with nothing but a microphone and his guitar, he completely forgets about the guitar, and the florid orchestral rush of AMC's "Johnny Mathis' Feet", they are linked by a pervasive aura of emotional desperation. Mark's songs hurt, like he has been stabbed with a pain so sharp it runs straight through him and draws blood from us, too, all the way on the other side. His music wraps around the blades of his lyrics in various ways, sometimes leaving them out to rust and sometimes working them into intricate wrought-iron fence-work. As long as you have the sense to say no to pastel balloon-animal menageries, there's no real shortage of possibilities. Much of Caught in a Trap... is just Mark and his guitar, again, and the handful of band songs also tend toward the minimal end of his spectrum, compared with the slide-guitar and sighing country harmonies AMC often favored. The difference between the stage and the studio, however, is enormous. On Songs of Love Live, and when I've seen him play solo, in person, it's pretty clear that playing guitar and singing, at the same time, is hard for him. I have the same problem, myself. But where I attempt to compensate by just hitting my guitar harder, hoping to frighten misshapen chords into the proper alignment, Mark instead scales back his accompaniments to the smallest possible number of notes required to give the impression of musical context. In the studio, with the luxury of multi-tracking (which did wonders for me when I figured it out, too) (OK, maybe "wonders" is the wrong word), this isn't necessary. Eitzel's idea of a "full" guitar part hardly impinges on Mark Knopfler's territory, even so, but it's more than enough to make Caught in a Trap... sound thoughtful, rather than trapped in the middle of a total nervous collapse. "Are You the Trash" pulses with a series of odd, oblique and insistent chords, like Philip Glass trying to write a Ramones song. "Xmas Lights Spin" is like an Ani DiFranco riff slowed down to one-eighth speed. The delicate "Auctioneer's Song" is the weary ghost of a half-remembered etude. "White Rosary" is strung across unresolved two-note oppositions that beat against each other like bells. "Atico 18" could be Paul Simon in an introspective moment. "Sun Smog Seahorse", despite the Guided-by-Voices-like title, is the album's most abstract interlude, more like a pair of Calder mobiles tangling slowly than like folk music. Of the songs where he has help, "If I Had a Gun" sounds like Bruce Cockburn under sedation, "Goodbye" is languid and distended, "Cold Light of Day" noisy and strained. Only a couple songs edge particularly close to mainstream pop equanimity, "Queen of No One" building from a spare snare tick to swirling, passionate choruses, and "Go Away" easing into a steady, if harried, mid-tempo canter.
And anyway, as with every other record of Mark's that I like, eventually I stop hearing the music on Caught in a Trap..., altogether, and am left in the grip of his words. (This is perverse, since I believe he is one of the greatest living songwriters, but the scale of art has always had much to do with what you can afford to waste.) There's no lyric sheet, but he sings clearly, so all you have to do is listen. Perhaps the most arresting thing, to me, about Mark's songs is that almost every one has some awkward moment or two, passages where the phrases are half-formed, or only half fit into the meter, or hang poised above an obvious rhyme for an agonizing moment, but finally can't think of any way to evade it, as if his need to say these things is so pressing it precludes polishing the verse, and yet almost every one also has some insight that freezes me in its glare. (This is probably true on West, too, for all I know, but I can't remember anything he said, and I'm not going to risk opening the case again.) "He's always giving you free advice / On ways you can avoid telling him 'No'", starts "Are You the Trash", eviscerating a relationship so thoroughly that it makes no difference how the rest of the song tries to make amends. A host of images whirls by in "Xmas Lights Spin", but "Words ten feet high made of teeth" and "Just another saint that was made broken" stay with me. "The camera eye pans slowly over the sheets", opens "Auctioneer's Song", and I'm caught wondering whether the camera eye is us, or the subject's own longing to wring drama out her (?) predicament, or somehow both. "If I Had a Gun" is the emotional inverse of Bruce Cockburn's "If I Had a Rocket Launcher", indignation turned restlessly upon its owner. "He's brittle as Goodwill dishes", "He's good only for leaving quarters behind", "He's a gold mine in reverse", "He's the crocodile who swallowed the clock", goes the litany of "Queen of No One", on the way to fashioning a defiantly triumphant chorus out of "Raise a toast to being empty inside". "It's two in the afternoon, I've been here since seven a.m. / I've been hiding out on somebody's private property", he says in "Cold Light of Day", but I don't know whether this is a straightforward description of homelessness or an admission that seven hours in a lover's house (or his own?) amounts to the same thing to him. "Atico 18" is a merciless catalog of disappointments, but the twitch in Mark's voice as he says "Craig and Jose"'s names is the only trace of hope I need. "The prison guards just try and sell me these little yellow pills", he cries in "Go Away", which I take (but would Mark know the 20/20 song?) as a plaintive rejection of the healing power of sunny pop music. But different injuries respond to different treatments, and if sunny pop music and Mark Eitzel's desolate clarity don't right the same sets of wrong, then by playing both we can fix twice as many.
Chris Whitley: Dirt Floor
Although my disappointment with Richard Thompson's last few albums hasn't reached the level of my aversion to West, it's still severe enough to bother me. Richard and Linda's I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight and Shoot Out the Lights are two timeless classics, in my taxonomy, moments of the solo live album Small Town Romance are on par with Songs of Love Live, between them Amnesia and Rumor and Sigh have at least five more songs I adore, and Watching the Dark is only an inane out-of-chronology running order away from being the Platonic Form of a career retrospective, but the only thing on Mirror Blue I ever feel the need to hear is "Beeswing", and the double-album you? me? us? can't even muster enough appeal to alleviate my irritation at the typographic unwieldiness of the title. It's as if Richard's allowed his withering sneer to envelop him, so that his songs are now wholly constituted out of bitterness, instead of just being edged with it. I don't know what has become of the effortless melodies of "Walking on a Wire" or "Galway to Graceland" or "When I Get to the Border", which it seemed to me could carry a singer's voice, rather than vice versa. Now Richard slides off the edges of all his words, as if the weight of his loathing is too much for any single note to support.
I'm not sure what I really want from him, instead. More songs like "1952 Vincent Black Lightning" sounds like a great idea on paper, but "MGB-GT", the vehicular sequel on Mirror Blue, is not what I meant at all. I thought "Turning of the Tide" was electrifying, but that sort of big-production rock seems so unlike Richard's recent work that I keep thinking I've misremembered and it was really a Warren Zevon song. He's not going to reunite with Linda, and between her memory and his entrenched solo identity, I suspect duets are no longer possible (then again, I bet Patty Griffin and Gillian Welch could both hold their own with him). It may be that I don't want anything new from him, at all, and can happily spend the rest of my life accumulating stray covers of his old songs.
But one of the reasons I'm reluctant to accept this simplistic notion of closure is the surge of excitement I feel listening to Chris Whitley's new album, Dirt Floor. Whitley's last one, Terra Incognita, reminded me of Amnesia, and had some noteworthy guitar histrionics, but it doesn't take a very long or cleverly engineered bridge to get from Richard's most conventional moments over to the nearby mainstream. Since then, either Whitley got tired of angling for an adult-contemporary crossover, or else Sony got tired of it for him, and Dirt Floor is about as far away from Terra Incognita's sculpted howl as you can get without invoking the word "Flamenco". Recorded in one day in a cabin in Vermont (the credits don't actually say it was a cabin, but if it wasn't it should have been), with almost no overdubs that I can detect, and released on Messenger Records, about whom I know nothing, this album (provided nine songs in twenty-seven minutes qualifies as an "album" in your system) is startlingly close in feel to Richard's Small Town Romance. The two men's guitar styles aren't especially similar, but the wiry timbres of Chris' steel guitar and banjo are similar enough to Richard's trademark tones to reinforce the parallel regardless. Chris' voice goes from candid twang to a few fleeting moments of sweet, tentative falsetto, but keeps circling back to the same sort of pinched, but earnest, low flutter Richard used to sing with, winningly unsteady, like he'd rather not sing these songs himself, but has temporarily run out of other options. The record's only percussion is Chris' foot stomping, to keep time, but since that was the one thing I liked about Chris Smither, who is otherwise too much of a blues traditionalist for me, I'm pleased to hear the simple device translated into an idiom I like better. In the end the record is a little too brief, in conception as much as in duration, to be a decisive advance of the state of the art, but it does suggest that there's more life left in Richard Thompson's old methods, yet, and if nobody can pry him free of his contempt, maybe we don't need him in person after all.
The other stray bit of Anglo/Americana I've been listening to this week is this unlikely experiment in cultural synthesis from ex-Hooters leaders Rob Hyman and Eric Bazilian, and producer Rick Chertoff. I wasn't a Hooters fan, originally, and the people pelting Joni Mitchell with beach balls and chanting "Hooters, Hooters" were the low point of the 1986 Amnesty International concert at Giants Stadium, I think, but I've found Hyman, Bazilian and Chertoff lurking behind enough albums I did like since then (notably Cyndi Lauper's She's So Unusual, Patty Smyth's Never Enough and Joan Osborne's Relish) to recognize that their tastes and mine have some resonance. I went so far as to buy a three-for-a-dollar vinyl copy of Nervous Night, at some point, to see if it sounded better to me, now, but it didn't. The loose end has nagged at me, faintly, ever since. Largo, then, finally supplies the shared past they and I ought to have had, from which their other work can now conceptually, and retroactively, be derived.
The album's ostensible rationale is rather more complicated and ambitious. Starting from Antonín Dvorák's "Largo" theme, from his ninth symphony, the record sets out to construct a sort of patchwork musical encyclopedia of the mythic America that inspired it. Given the confusion of ethnic impulses that intermingled, often uneasily, on the way to forming a distinct American identity, this project is bound to touch on a dizzying array of referents, so it shouldn't be too surprising that the record's guest list ends up looking like one of those people-of-the-world murals commissioned by well-meaning city councils to go on the blank side of some building that would have had windows there if it were in a better neighborhood. Dvorák's theme, to open the album, is provided in a yearning Celtic style by the Chieftains. Taj Mahal arrives to add a bluesy wail and some Juluka-ish guttural African grunts to the simmering "Freedom Ride", which otherwise has a distinctly Hooters-esque hum to it, including farfisa, hurdy-gurdy and Hooters drummer David Uosikkinen. Rob Hyman and Cyndi Lauper duet on the quiet lament "Cyrus Moonlight", Rob's sparkling piano and Cyndi's bowed dulcimer mirroring their operators' vocal waltz. David Forman and Levon Helm alternate lead vocals for the gospel exhortation "Gimme a Stone", the Dixie Whistlers supplying a chirpy background riff. "Hand in Mine"'s duet finds Hyman doing his best Tom Petty impression, and Joan Osborne her Emmylou Harris. Hyman then plays the theme again himself (because that's what you do with a "theme" in classical music, right?), this time on a Hammond organ with a stiff, church-like cadence, whose trills must be intended to have some Indian flavor, since the track is titled "Vishnu Largo", but I don't hear it. The predatory "Disorient Express", with Forman singing again, must be a nod to Chinese railroad labor, but using banjo in place of sitar gives it a kind of embarrassing fast-food-ish inaccuracy, and I'm relieved when Cyndi returns to slither through the sultry "White Man's Melody", whose conflation of Elvis, Caruso, Jolson, Liberace and native Americans makes more sense sung that it does written down in the booklet.
The African chapter comes next, ushered in with Taj's voice-and-dobro performance of Lightnin' Hopkins' incantatory spiritual "Needed Time". "Banjoman", though, sounds more like "Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner" than anything else, and the prominent use of a Jew's harp in the song raises more cultural questions than it answers. "Largo's Dream" has another African protagonist, but between Forman's calm singing, Hyman's restrained piano and Giovanni Hidalgo's gentle percussion, the song ends up sounding like a cross between Santana and Bruce Hornsby. There's no time to linger, though, so we're off to Garth Hudson's saxophone-heavy version of the theme, which threatens to slip into "Amazing Grace", and from there to the clattering Celtic reel "Medallion", with Willie Nile doing a wildly unconvincing job as the song's narrator, who's supposed to be a Pakistani cab driver. The song slips, though, without warning, into a bizarre, soulful and inspiring melodic rewrite of "The Star-Spangled Banner", with some semi-African backing-vocal chants whose absence from the official version seems glaring and insulting once I've heard them here. Just when the history is starting to achieve some ethnic traction, though, they abandon it completely for Carole King's "An Uncommon Love", an achingly pretty and stunningly irrelevant pop song with Carole and Joan Osborne trading vocals and the Chieftains, Rob Hyman and William Wittman (another frequent associate; he recorded and mixed Nervous Night) filling in the rest. The Chieftains try to get things back on track with a reprise of the theme, but it's not enough, and the perky finale, "Before the Mountains", with Little Isidore, Johnny Stompinato, Jr. and an Isley Brothers quote, wanders off in some other direction entirely.
But the more chaotic this album feels to me, and every time I listen to it it seems like another little bit of it unravels, the more fiercely fond of it I become. It's difficult to imagine what Dvorák would have made of Hyman and Bazilian's corruption of his motif, and I doubt he would have recognized his inspirations in their explications of them, but the album itself is a magnificent example of exactly what it fails to explain. The Great American Spirit, with which Dvorák was so taken, is not calculated, balanced, sensitive or analytical, it's a boisterous, unruly outpouring of unchecked enthusiasm. It doesn't incorporate other voices, it drowns them out by cheering, and then ends up imitating them, badly. The nonsensical clamor of America is its most endearing and identifying trait, and the country's microscopic attention span is often its best incentive for change, its myopia the necessity that gives rise to its best inventions. What could be more American than a history textbook that decides, halfway through, to be a detective novel instead, with a bunch of pictures of Cindy Crawford in the middle because, well, she's pretty? This explains, in case you were wondering, why the rest of the world often treats us like their neighbor's idiot son. But it also explains why, even when we're basically behaving like imbeciles, we're still generally having a lot more fun than they are.