177 · 18 June 98
The Loud Family: Days for Days
"Did you get filled up with magic?", ask Ian McNish and Gunduz Kalic, in a piece in the new issue of Adbusters, about the way advertising attempts to convert all human impulses, no matter how abstract, into some form of consumption. The question is their translation of what a parent means when they ask a child if they had a good play, but it is of much more general utility, it seems to me, and if the partitioning of life into the things that fill you with magic and the things that leech it away is only one of several artificial simplifications, at the moment it strikes me as one of the most evocative. (Is it a contradiction to say a simplification is evocative? No, come to think of it, you must simplify to evoke, otherwise you will depict.) Everything you touch, every way you act, participates in the calculus of magic. You can tell the people who haven't grasped the significance of this, because they have no capacity for true joy. Their careening stories are peopled with petty villains and small-time rivals, and turn on superficial triumphs of vengeance and irony. Their jokes are shards of meanness, they're belligerent drivers, and they eat mostly fast food. They're incapable of evaluating the morality of their own actions, because their only measuring tool is Us-vs-Them, a pass/fail grade that Us always passes (with the corollary result that since moral judgment seems tautological to them, they assume it's irrelevant to you). They're always at work after you leave, because they have no passions to pull them away, yet they never have time for foosball games. They keep Evil in business. Worse, actually: Evil at least puts the magic it steals to use.
Obsessive, hyper-analytical people often have trouble with magic. You can extract magic with analysis, but the tricks for doing so are difficult and non-obvious, and as with chainsaws and blocks of ice, you end up with a lot more puddles than mermaids. It's helpful, for the purposes of triangulation, to have at least one passion that is primarily both visceral and self-contained. Mine is soccer. I have a few reasons, none original to me, for believing it's the best human sport (low bureaucracy, very little mandatory equipment overhead, universal, not dependent on freakish physical characteristics, instructively intolerant of discourtesy, based on unnatural elegance, not much stopping, just enough scoring that each goal merits riotous celebration), but my enjoyment of it has nothing to do with its comparative qualities. I don't watch soccer games thinking "Man, this is so much cooler than basketball", I watch them thinking "Stayonsidesstayonsidesstayonsides". Which is to say that soccer games are some of the few times in my life when I'm not trying to construe the experience I'm having to relate to anything outside itself. It's a good state, and pretty much my only such vice, since I don't drink or play video games, so I spend a lot of time in it. My sister and I have season tickets to the New England Revolution, I go to Boston Renegades games (the local top-level women's team), I play and referee in indoor and outdoor leagues year-round, and I watch any meaningful game my TV can decode, including a fair number in languages where although I still don't know what the words actually mean, I do now know the junctures of a game at which they should be inserted. And during the World Cup, which is eight days in as I write this, my life slips into an extremely streamlined pattern: get up; watch the early game if there is one; set the VCR for the other two, and go spend enough time at work to avoid being fired; come home, make a sandwich while the tape is rewinding; watch the games; update my standings spreadsheet, and analyze the possible repercussions of today's results in excruciating hypothetical detail. There are few enough exceptions to this cycle to enumerate them all: Tuesday CD shopping; movies on Saturday and Sunday night, because there aren't any games left to watch; an occasional City Council meeting to beg them to pass the down-zoning petition that would keep developers from building a ten-story office-building outside my bedroom windows; and at least once an hour poking my head out my front door into the perpetual rain to see if I need to start thinking about commissioning an ark yet. And, of course, Wednesday nights. Please, nobody tell me the Italy/Cameroon score until the morning.
This is a surreal immersion to undertake in the US, because while there are millions of people just as possessed, there is very little media acknowledgment. The public version of the American national image is more or less based, although it's usually phrased in some less frank manner, on the conviction that Romania vs Colombia, in anything, is of no conceivable consequence, and there's a sort of xenophobic public machismo that condones being unable to name any thirty-two countries, never mind the thirty-two who are involved in the tournament. This is tragic for many reasons, one of the more obscure of which is that nobody ever bothers to record a US World Cup song. I've been listening to Del Amitri's quiet, fond theme for Scotland (called, with a certain anticipatory ruefulness, "Don't Come Home Too Soon"), as a substitute, but if we were to kidnap something domestic (i.e., "other than 'Tubthumping'") to serve its function, there'd be few better choices than "Why We Don't Live in Mauritania", from Days for Days, the fourth full-length album by the Loud Family, and the tenth or so, depending on how you count, in Scott Miller's winding, variously-credited line of intricate post-Big-Star power-pop. I don't think "Why We Aren't as Fanatical About Soccer as the Rest of the World" is exactly what Scott intended to address (if it was he'd have found a way to turn the entire field into group-by-group rhyming couplets), but the chorus, which explains "we like something else going on", and "[That's] why we all moved to California / And not Saskatchewan, / Or Sierra Leone", could be the rational argument the country would put forth, if ours were a country wont to put forth rational arguments, for our chaotic, myopic sports scene. "You don't see riots outside Bears/Lions games", someone would point out, and I think the relative dearth of sports-inspired civil unrest in this country can be attributed, to a significant extent, to there being more sport here, not less. In countries where soccer is the central passion, its calendar becomes the calendar of the country. Much of the world shuts down for the World Cup, and international sports rivalries plus government mandated idleness plus plentiful alcohol is a pretty straightforward recipe for street mayhem. In the US, the violent element all have ADD (I'm beginning to think everybody here has ADD), and it's ESPN's job to make sure they never get a chance to concentrate. The Super Bowl is enormous, but you've got to conserve some energy for March Madness, and then there's a month or two of NHL/NBA post-season to restock for, followed by the World Series, and then we're back to football again. The local basketball team has a great year, but the hockey team skates like a bunch of peevish walruses with semi-circular-canal dysfunctions, the football team splits its time between being indicted and maneuvering to give up the league's first game-winning safety, and somebody is threatening to buy the baseball team and move it to Puerto Rico. Who can muster the conviction to riot, let alone find the time? But as is often the case with Scott's songs (see also "Businessmen Are Okay"), "Why We Don't Live in Mauritania" isn't actually endorsing what it explains. You have to decipher the verses to discern the ambivalence, and Scott doesn't go out of his way to facilitate this project, but this is the modern era, in which you can get the lyrics from the web site. The song's first verse, in fact, which establishes the emotional thesis, turns on inaudible punctuation: "She asked why my love would last for long, / What in her world I base it on. / I said 'What a "girl" way to relate, / Throw what works fine up for debate' / And let it go, / But I'll admit I didn't know." The real reason we construct an environment of constant low-intensity stimulus is that if we pay too much attention to any one thing, we'll be forced to confront the nature of our relationship with it (we'll be forced to have a relationship with it). "I've called from the outskirts", Scott says, in "Sister Sleep", bookending the album with these confessions, "With road noise at a phone booth, / So we won't hear the whole truth." California is not a moral paradise, it's a gigantic orchestrina for drowning out our own thoughts. Which would you rather have, rioting in the streets every once in a while, or an entire nation atrophying on crappy sofas all year round?
Another reason it's appropriate for Days for Days to be my World Cup soundtrack (by which I mean the album I listen to at work, when I'm not watching; real soccer fans do not listen to music during games) is that the album and the endless Cup schedule engender similarly familiar joys. Soccer games, for the most part, do not build on each other. You may grow more engrossed as the tournament progresses, but each game has the same structure, and innovation can take place only within it; you can't say "Brazil/Morocco did the whole corner-kick thing to death; let's try something new this time." Likewise, at least for me, Days for Days is just another Scott Miller album. This is, however, a pretty extreme example of the opposite of damning with faint praise (blessing with faint criticism?). In writing about the last one, 1996's Interbabe Concern, I came up with eight reasons why I thought Scott was a peerless musical genius, and all I'm really contending about Days for Days is that it fails to devise a ninth. But eight ought to be plenty, and Days for Days does demonstrate them with a different set of emphases. According to Scott's usual schedule of simple/complex album-structure alternation, this should be another simple one, all real songs instead of half fragments, but he opts, instead, for a strangely methodical compromise, in which the album's nine real songs are assigned to the even track indices, and the odd tracks, in between (with careful pauses at every transition, even when the end of one track would have blended into the beginning of the next), are untitled fragments. The band has gone through yet another personnel upheaval, with the departures of keyboardist Paul Wieneke (the only remaining member of the "original" Loud Family line-up) and drummer Dawn Richardson, the arrival of new keyboardist Alison Faith Levy (a mind-boggling rumor during the search suggested that Emily Bezar might take this role), and the return, after an eight-year sabbatical, of Game Theory drummer Gil Ray (who has apparently recovered from the back injury cited in the liner notes to Tinker to Evers to Chance as the reason for his switch to guitar on the last few recordings before the name change), but Scott somehow manages to make each configuration sound like the one he's been trying for all along, and this quartet (augmented by Circular Firing Squad sound-mangler Tim Walters and some acoustic interjections by Jonathan Segel) is in some ways an ebullient throwback, with the hindsight of maturity, to sparer Game Theory days even before Gil's arrival. Alison is less of a foil, and more of a backing vocalist, than Nancy Becker and Donnette Thayer were before her, but that's in keeping with Loud Family precedent, as a tighter focus on Scott's own presence is about the only decisive musical difference I can identify between the Loud Family and Game Theory periods. Even with the clear nominal boundaries between pop and experiment here, abundant traces of each inclination bleed over into the other. The hooks are as glorious as ever. Scott still sings his way up measures like an X Games rock climber. The lyrics still have real topics, and use real words. And Scott's trademark magnificent romantic melancholy stills carves through the foundations of everything, so that even the bulkiest structure quivers at the faintest touch, and threatens to collapse onto an unprotected heart.
But these qualities, no matter how ecstatic I am to rediscover them every time, are no longer why new Loud Family albums are such milestones in my existence. Although many of my favorite artists, in any media, appeal to me because they seem to come from other subjective universes than mine entirely, alien worlds into which they are granting me glimpses that inevitably conflate scholarly observation with voyeurism, another set fascinates me because they seem, even more uncannily, to be telling stories from my life. The majority of this latter group, perhaps predictably, are writers, most notably Nick Hornby, Douglas Coupland and Richard Powers, but movie directors Whit Stillman and Kevin Smith probably belong on the list, as do goalkeeper Jorge Campos, whoever designs Pompanoosuc Mills furniture, and several of the fictional characters in My So-Called Life. Musical examples, perplexingly, are extremely rare, so rare that if there's another songwriter whose songs have anything like the consistent personal resonance Scott's have for me, the fact that I can't think of them at the moment means I must be having a stroke. Loud Family albums, then, have become one of the ways I chart progress. As each new one arrives, I look back at the dilemmas the previous one stood for, to me, and try to think if I've accomplished anything relevant in the intervening months. This is not necessarily a way to cheer yourself up. Circa Interbabe Concern I was indulging high-school nostalgia (does it sometimes seem to you, too, that aging is the process of accumulating things you think were better before, until you finally sigh "remember when I still drew breath?"), glowing with the vicarious thrill of watching a close friend get married, and thinking about moving to Austin and buying a ranch. Two years later I believe the high-school thing is behind me (but coming up in 1999 is my ten-year college reunion...), and I've purchased a townhouse in Cambridge (see the note about transience in "Sister Sleep"), but one of the two single friends I went to that wedding with is now married and the other is involved deeply enough that I never hear from him any more, and I'm, well, not. I'm still designing business software for a living, which doesn't feel like my destiny. I've learned a lot of new things (or developed a lot of new opinions; it's often hard to tell the difference), but I have no feeling for whether I'm moving closer to something or farther from it, overall, nor what it is or how I'd know if I hit it.
What I comb Days for Days for, then, is the next set of clues, phrases that Scott's mouth forms, but my soul speaks, the twinges of pain that tell me, maybe not where I will go from here, but at least where, by the time the next album comes along, I won't want to be any more. The most obvious one, which reads a lot like a Desiderata for those of us who want to be unsettled, not reassured, is an entire verse of "Way Too Helpful": "Live a day not as if it were your last, / But as if at night, and that day had just passed, / ... / And all that's left of you is what your mom and dad / Understand, and lovers might / Yell in your face late at night, / Which could get proved wrong in the faintest light". I take this to be a reminder that our frailties are even more essential than our strengths, and I should try harder to follow my fears. But what does this mean? My old boss keeps telling me that there are lots of single women at his Unitarian church, but please tell me, the chiding about snap intellectual resistance to spirituality in "Mozart Sonatas" notwithstanding, that organized religion isn't the answer. Maybe this rezoning battle, the first time I've gotten seriously involved in my community, counts. Oh, god, please tell me a future in local politics isn't the answer ("To be a doctor, learn how not to be the president.", advises "Good, There Are No Lions in the Street"). But if "Crypto-Sicko"'s "Kristine, tell me to be quiet, / 'Cause I've got some quiet to say / And I'm not sure I know how to get out of its way" is a reiteration of the same idea, then perhaps the next stage is somehow inexorable. I'm not sure if that makes it depressing (see "Deee-Pression") or encouraging. I suspect I should work on my occupation while I wait, as spending my days fashioning elegant truncheons for commerce seems increasingly inane with every passing month, but I don't know what to replace it with. I make good truncheons, well balanced, with comfortable handles. I always used to say I wanted to "be a writer", but I always knew there was something wrong with that statement, something too generic, like it didn't matter what I wrote when it clearly did, and Scott's troubled "I'm not sure I've done more / Than call the kids to see the fights" ("Crypto-Sicko" again) isolates it: I don't want to be a journalist, or an archeologist; I don't want to report, or discover, I want to connect, and construct. I want to stop fights. Or do I want to start them, or do I want to be in them? Between the metaphor and me, at least one of us is confused. It is not enough to locate the confusion, I need to see what confusion occludes. And if it sometimes feels like I'm squirming randomly, trying to get a better view, then as "Sister Sleep" also observes, "Just by chance, maybe not more, / We can touch what we live for".
The closest approach to prescription this Tarot reading of Days for Days makes, maddeningly, suggests that figuring out what I really should be doing with my life is going to be, as I guess I knew it would, more of a pilgrimage than a job search. "When the wind's died down completely", Scott asks, in "Cortex the Killer", "Is all air now where it should be?" This is what I'm missing. I want to reach the point where natural processes (for some value of "natural") seem to align with moral virtue. I want to do something that makes society more likely to operate according to its wishes, not its urges. Software-design comes close, at times (the character of the tools you give people influences what they build, sometimes profoundly), otherwise I doubt I'd have lasted this long, but there must be something that reaches a broader audience than all these management consultants, or touches people when they're more vulnerable, when they aren't wearing emotional uniforms that double as armor and masks. I don't feel like I'm filling people up with magic. I don't feel like I'm building places where they go to be filled up. I'm not sure all this virtual sleight-of-hand qualifies as magic at all. I'm pretty certain the dizziness my truncheons instill is a poor substitute for the excruciating rapture these records snare me in.
Donnette Thayer: Chaos and Wonder
And if the path forward leads through fears, then perhaps it's time to confront an inexplicable detail I've been putting off about this very subject, which is that even after thirteen years with Scott, my favorite Game Theory/Loud Family song has almost none of the features I claim define them. It shouldn't be, but every time I start thinking it's not true any more, and put on Lolita Nation to check, halfway through "Mammoth Gardens" comes clattering in, disheveled and mesmerizing, I find again that the veiled mania in Donnette Thayer's voice informs all the rest of Scott's songs in a way his own singing and words do not. Even an amateur can interpret this: if I think of Scott as me, then a Scott song without his words and voice, which are what I identify with most strongly, demonstrates his willingness, however temporary, to cede control of the part of his craft he values most. I cede poorly.
Scott does too, and this must contribute to the turnover rate in his bands. Donnette stuck around for Two Steps From the Middle Ages, but her role was noticeably diminished, and whether for that reason or vice versa, by the metamorphosis she was gone. Her next collaborator, the Church's Steve Kilbey, who admittedly had his own band to relieve the artistic pressure on his work with Donnette, let her lead the way. Hex, their first album together, was stiff and stark, like This Mortal Coil without the fog machine and mood lighting, like Donnette had reduced pop music to its unrecognizable component parts and only gotten part way through putting them back together again. For the second Hex album, Vast Halos, Donnette and Steve recruited drummer Jim McGrath, and the trio started edging back towards what I wanted her records to sound like. The songs were ominous, still, the electrifying unsteadiness of "Mammoth Gardens" visible nowhere in Donnette's composed delivery, but if Hex felt like a frozen chapel, icicles hanging from the buttresses, then Vast Halos felt to me like the moment when the ribs of the chapel start moving, and you realize that you're inside a machine or some sort of creature, not a building after all. I had a host of wild expectations for the destruction the machine would wreak once it built up some momentum. But instead, it vanished. Seven years, no new Donnette Thayer records. And even now that there's a new one, her first album under her own name, released in 1997, you'll have to have more than a casual bin-flipping interest in what's become of her, because to get a copy you'll need to mail her a check ($14.95, to PO Box 1354 / Hollywood, CA 90028). I was easily $14.95 curious (actually, I was probably $27.99 curious; why didn't I write the check for that?), and until we flood her with orders she sends a nice thank you note along with each record, and while supporting independent musicians isn't tax-deductible, it does improve your karma.
Seven years feels like about the right amount of time to account for the stylistic distance Donnette has covered since Vast Halos. The pallor and proportions of the audio-cable Medusa on the front cover bear a close resemblance to the cover of Dalbello's 1996 album Whore (which you won't find in US stores, either, so you'll have to look them up on the net to see what I mean), and though calling Chaos and Wonder a midpoint between Hex and Dalbello probably overstates the angularity, it does offer some orientation. The arrangements and productions here, courtesy of Donnette and an eight-piece band, are much bigger, warmer and adventurous than Kilbey's minimalism, and whatever traces of Belinda Carlisle artlessness Donnette's singing with Game Theory once had, Chaos and Wonder is closer to the theatricality of Kate Bush, Happy Rhodes, Emily Bezar or Sheila Chandra. "Earthly Powers"' evasive percussion gives way to crisp, mid-tempo pop, and then to waves of industrial noise. The sweet ballad "Make It Now" sparkles with harp and acoustic-guitar glissandos. The sinuous, menacing "Black Salt" sounds like something Loreena McKennitt might have brought back from a polyglot future instead of an Arab/Celtic past. The swaying "My Room" sounds to me like a less-repressed descendant of Hex's "In the Net". "Sleepwalker" plays a thunderous percussion rumble against bleary washes of guitar, banshee vocal effects and growling bass. The exquisite "Lemon Tree Home Away" combines enough harp and restraint to remind me of Art in America. "Holotown" whirs, "Gabriel" soars. "Other Winds" takes "Make It Now" and feints towards the Eurogliders. And the solemn "Heavenly", with quiet organ swells, harp cascades and oblique wood-block patter, sounds like Jane Wiedlin after a prolonged bout with Gnosticism. The magic that spills out of "Mammoth Gardens" isn't all here, either, but Chaos and Wonder offers two more theories to go with the batch from Days for Days. First, if Scott and Donnette made something together that neither of them can reproduce by themselves, then progress may be a matter not just of turning from your confidences to your fears, but of turning your confidences toward your fears. And second, if this is how good fears can sound, by themselves, then I'm not sure "fears" is the right word for them.