Songs for the Rain
179 · 2 July 98
Neil Finn: Try Whistling This
All right, I've had enough of this rain. I usually claim to be immune to what happens outdoors, and Boston's presumptions of habitability are certainly not predicated on meteorology to begin with, but it feels like it's been raining ever since the calendar changed, and the waterline has finally reached my mood. It should be summer by now. There are important, summer things waiting to be done, like driving around with the car windows open, blaring That Dog's "Never Say Never" and the Lightning Seeds' "Sugar Coated Iceberg" in alternation, or playing in soccer games where you don't have to dislodge a pound of mud from your cleats afterwards, or lying in a hammock in the twilight talking on a cordless phone with a citronella candle sputtering like a tubercular sentry nearby. And yes, some of these pastimes can be indulged in, if you're persistent and alert, during the three hour pauses between torrential downpours, but trying to be languid and sun-dazed in calculated bursts is, like attending VR seminars on unstructured spontaneity, somewhat fundamentally self-defeating. The rain makes a pleasant sound, splattering on my skylights, and there was a hint of apocalyptic thrill to watching the rising water on my flooded side-street, a few weekends back, temporarily engulf part of my front yard (it's a shame there's nothing growing in that corner, as I don't think I'd have ever needed to water it again), but lightning storms and flash floods are siege states, and the last thing I need, at my current level of loneliness, is a physical metaphor that literal-minded.
Which means, perhaps, that locking myself inside with a pile of melancholy pop albums, however summery the musical form, isn't the wisest course of action, either. But if the weather's demon of solitude hovers outside my condensation-blurred windows, bleary, implacable and accusing, then the spirit that swirls out of my speakers is at least under my nominal control, and there is a sense in which this isolation can be a voluntary seclusion, not an imprisonment. So I check to make sure all the windows are closed on the side of the house towards which tonight's storm is blowing, and I pour myself a glass of Virgin Cola (I have an odd fascination for gimmick sodas, and this one is better than OK Soda, at least, although I can't help wondering if it's really just an elaborate buildup to the inevitable fruit-flavored variant with which Branson will win the bet he made with some friend that he could come up with a mainstream product whose marketing campaign endorses deflowering), and for a few hours, at least, here in the dark where there's nothing to see, it sounds like summer.
Pop has enough dialects that perfect purity is elusive and subjective, but whether he's your vote or not, you could hardly argue with Neil Finn as a nominee. His presence converted Split Enz, his brother's band, from preening New Wave artifice to breathless romantic reveries. Crowded House, the trio he formed next, seem to me in retrospect to have both invented a whole genre of restrained post-Alternative adult pop, and to have done it so well that it's not clear why anybody else bothered. And his and Tim's album as the Finn Brothers, after (on the album timeline, anyway) Crowded House succumbed, in turn, to the fate of having members who no longer thought meandering around the globe in a van was a sufficiently dignified way to live, was as loose and organic as Crowded House's albums were polished and gleaming, but appealing for exactly the same reasons, having nothing to do with the exigencies of the production. In a field where genius is frequently recondite, Neil's songs are arresting for their unerring simplicity. They don't seek to be punk-pop, or power-pop, or Brit-pop, or any other apologetic synthesis, they are content to be graceful and timeless. Neil's songs are what you play for your grandmother, when she starts complaining that since Sinatra, nobody writes tunes any more. His gauzy, effortless, sighing melodies, sung in his calm, reverent, unguarded voice, are like exhalations in a universe where breathing out is an expression of personal grace, not respiratory-tract bacteria.
And so it comes as no particular surprise, to me, that Try Whistling This, Neil's first official solo album, sounds like a seamless continuation of his ensemble work. If I go through it with my brow furrowed tightly enough that I can shrug off the melodies and concentrate on the arrangements behind them, I come across all sorts of unfamiliar impulses: the feedback wail in the background of "Last One Standing"; the simmery cello on "Souvenir"; the glassy, Blue Nile-ish keyboard pulses in the intro to "King Tide"; the methodical drums and chiming Byrds-like guitars of "She Will Have Her Way"; the distracted sonic collage of "Sinner", halfway between blues and Björk; the scratchy, drum-and-bass underpinnings of "Twisty Bass"; pealing guitar hooks and a staticky percussion loop on the menacing "Loose Tongue"; surging Hammond swells on "Astro"; synth bloops and epic flanged jams on the retro-ish "Dream Date"; cheesy drum-machine bossa nova under the aching "Faster Than Light"; and an uncharacteristic, slightly Scott Walker-ish diffidence on the quiet conclusion, "Addicted". But if I relax, for even a moment, I lose my grip on all these things, and they vanish back into the contours of his melodies and longings without a trace. The way his voice flirts with falsetto on "Last One Standing", half a love song and half an admission that if devotion is all-consuming the lover's sense of self is one of its victims; the odd admonition "Count yourself lucky / That you don't write the software" on the performer's lament "Souvenir"; the fondness and bravely-feigned impatience in "I don't know why you're so confused; / You're flesh and blood, there's no excuse", in "King Tide"; the air of ominous mutual helplessness in the spare title track, which ends with the frighteningly honest "If I can't be with you I would rather have a different face, / And if I can't be near you I would rather be adrift in space, / And if the gods desert us now I'll turn this chapel into flames, / And if someone tries to hurt you I would put myself in your place"; the defiant optimism of the buoyant "She Will Have Her Way", in which it seems like the narrator's stubborn faith in it is the only thing that makes "her way" something worth anticipating; the accepted pain lurking behind "truth is worth more than pride", in the ringing "Truth"; "You are my first impression / And I can recognise the life that I've been given", in the yearning waltz "Astro", as if it is our responsibility to rescue characters, in life as well as movies and books, from their fictions; the tense clash between memory and resolve in the sultry "Dream Date", as the narrator tries to muster the levity that will nudge a new relationship out of the shadow of an old one; "Praise will come to those whose kindness / Leaves you without debt / And bends the shape of things to come", in "Faster Than Light", much more about patience than speed; "And you wait, and it makes you feel strange, / As if you were afraid", in "Addicted": these are the emotions that animate Neil Finn's songs, observations from where weariness wavers, deciding whether to become resignation or wisdom, from where love learns to embrace its own desperation, from where loneliness holds in its hands a model of what its own nobility would look like, and tries to make up its mind whether this is the most beautiful thing it's ever seen, or the ugliest. These are love songs, but pensive, worshipful and clear-headed, love songs not to the subjects of random infatuations but to anybody who is willing to take their own emotions seriously. This is the theme music for finding transcendence in melancholy, and it would take a lot more than a few studio tricks and one joke line about a horse eating Neil's pants to turn it into anything else.
Hothouse Flowers: Born
The stylistic journey from Neil Finn's exquisite composure to Hothouse Flowers' post-U2/Waterboys atmospheric anthems requires that you squeeze your eyes shut and dash across the space between quiet empathy and expansive open-heartedness, muttering "There is a bridge here, there is a bridge here", but once you reach the other side, you'll find that the emotional terrain, at least, is strikingly familiar. Neil's uncanny sensitivity, it seems to me, is for the way in which the slightest hesitation reveals a reservoir of moral resolve that perhaps even the possessor didn't previously know about; Liam O'Maonlai (who was the "L" in ALT, the "T" being Tim Finn, so at least the personnel connections are easy), by comparison, is a preacher, perhaps the one who comes in after Neil has found the opening, and draws the soul out through it. If Neil's songs whisper that you are bigger than your pain, in a voice that could be your own neglected conscience, Hothouse Flowers' howl at you like the coach of a Zen monastery's basketball team, incensed that you ever contemplated surrender, but these are ways of expressing the same belief in your potential.
Songs From the Rain, the previous Hothouse Flowers album (1993; it's been a while), served a thankless substitute's role in my musical life, as it sounded exactly like the album I wanted the Waterboys to make, before Mike Scott's solo wanderings took him off the path charted by The Waterboys and A Pagan Place. They thanked Scott in the album's liner notes, so I assume I wasn't the only one to note the resemblance, but it rendered my experience of the album inescapably nonsensical. I put off buying the older albums, usually my first reaction to liking anything, because in the context I'd imposed on Songs From the Rain, I couldn't see any way they'd avoid being either a disappointment or a distraction. In the interim, though, Mike Scott himself made another record I liked, and I hoped that somehow this would serve as an expectations reset, so that a new Hothouse Flowers album could exist on its own terms. What I didn't account for, though, is all the other half-abandoned things Born would strike me as an extension of. The bouncy, clattering "Turn Up the Reverb" is precisely what I thought the new Simple Minds album was going to sound like. The giddy, near-gospel marriage paean "Forever More" sounds like a conflation of unmaterialized futures borrowed from the Proclaimers, Del Amitri, the Call and the Rolling Stones. The pulsing, growling "Born", which could easily have been the theme song to The Truman Show, reminds me at once of Gary Numan, Mike Peters and Steve Miller, though it's hard to imagine than an actual collaboration between those three would sound this natural. "Pop Song" is the kind of thing the Primitive Radio Gods album would have had to be filled with to live up to "Standing Outside a Broken Phone Booth With Money in My Hand". "Used to Call It Love" is how U2 might have turned out if they'd kept making albums like War, instead of changing styles just when they learned to play well enough to do the old one justice. "At Last" could be a Scott Walker song if he'd tempered his Jacques Brel fascination with a little more Lou Reed, but refused to part with the Walker Brothers' soaring string arrangements. "Find the Time" is like a Blue Nile song slyly remixed by Pizzicato Five. "I Believe" reminds me of the Call again, though circa Red Moon, not the cinematic era of the obvious lyrical referent, "I Still Believe". And the wheezy, lurching vocal delivery of "Learning to Walk" is right out of Mike Scott's book.
But nearly everything can be expressed in the units of something else, and each time I listen to this album it makes more sense to me on its own. Each time through, "You Can Love Me Now", the opening track, which has components of every other song but somehow escapes reminding me of anything, exerts its influence more assertively, suggesting that the other songs, too, have independent identities, if I feel like looking at them, instead of around them. The drum programming is an intriguing adaptation to the departure of Songs From the Rain drummer Jerry Fehily, and the absence of saxophonist/organ-player Leo Barnes also helps explains the drift away from Celtic naturalism. Plenty has happened in music since 1993, and while it would have been impressive if Hothouse Flowers had been able to hold their ground against the currents, I think it's even more impressive that they've managed to make slow, orderly progress in the face of abundant overblown chaos.
The Connells: Still Life
If Crowded House has come to define, for me, a British Empire variant of pure pop championed at other times by Squeeze, XTC and the Beautiful South, the Connells have long seemed like the American archetype to succeed REM, at least in my private world, where REM stopped mattering around Life's Rich Pageant. Back when I discovered them, with 1989's Fun & Games, their third album, they were mired in the most tenacious kind of obscurity, too self-contained to be superstars, but too balanced to be proper cult figures. Still Life is their seventh album, the original five-man lineup changed only, since 1984, by the addition of keyboard player Steve Potak in time for 1993's Ring, and as far as I can tell they have not budged much more than an inch along any axis against which it would be meaningful to measure them. They are still on the same label, they still play the same sort of dizzyingly gorgeous, faintly bluegrass-infused guitar-pop, they are still mired in tenacious obscurity.
I strongly doubt, at this point, that anything you or I do is going to disturb this evidently-comfortable stasis, and thus I commend the Connells to you only for your own good. There are few bands as reliable, so if you've missed the Connells up until now, I don't think it makes much difference which album you begin with, and this one is as good as any. The essential core of the Connells experience, for me, is that listening to their songs is like handling a stone smoothed by centuries of ocean tides. Rock has had an erratic relationship with swagger and stridency, sometimes cultivating them and at other times trying to cover them over with thick layers of make-up, but Connells songs seem to have had all the rough spots worn off by the simple act of fretting over them until there's not a single note left that mars the surface. At worst they'll seem bland to you, at best elemental.
If you've been buying Connells albums before now, this is no time to stop. Doug MacMillan's voice is still frail and angelic, Mike Connell and George Huntley's guitars still know more major chords than the rest of the universe can fit into the scale, Peele Wimberley's uncluttered drumming still propels songs at an unhurried trot. 1996's Weird Food & Devastation was a little more amplified than Ring, and Still Life, while reverting to more restrained packaging, doesn't forget any musical lessons. The credits, traditionally diligent about identifying individual authors of each song, this time retreat behind the "All songs written by The Connells" dodge, but the only possibility this raises is that somebody other than Huntley has learned to write in Huntley's unmistakably goofy polka-esque style, well enough to contribute the rolling piano-hall stomp "Curly's Train" and the slithery lullaby "Queen of Charades", and they're embarrassed to admit it. The high points, for me, are the mordant gloom of "Dull, Brown and Gray", a sequel of sorts to Fun & Games' "Uninspired"; the guitar hooks in "The Leper", which are only processor tweaks away from sounding like Big Country; the chiming harmonic runs and haunting pathos of the slow, surging "Bruised"; the distant Ben Folds echoes of the piano on "Glade"; the Hammond whir and deliberate catharsis of "Soul Reactor"; the drum rumble and leaping choruses of "Crown"; the fluttering falsetto harmonies of "Circlin'"; and the off-center snare cadences of the muted concluding instrumental, "Pedro Says". I wouldn't call any of these touches "new", but when I want new, there are other places to find it.
Velvet Crush: Heavy Changes
If you push a bit further into the American pop tradition, closer to Big Star and the Byrds and the dB's, in where Matthew Sweet (who produced the first Velvet Crush album, In the Presence of Greatness) and Tommy Keene (who toured for a while as their second guitarist) make their homes, where the ghosts of the Beatles co-exist with some of the Ramones' shambling low-slung buzz, you'll arrive before long at Velvet Crush. The band's core, drummer Ric Menck and bassist/vocalist Paul Chastain, are here joined by new members Jeffrey Underhill and Peter Phillips, and Mitch Easter, who produced their glorious 1994 album Teenage Symphonies to God, returns in the same role. If I went back and did a careful A/B comparison, I'm sure I'd discover that Teenage Symphonies to God and Heavy Changes are different in some significant way, but this music doesn't inspire me to do careful comparisons, it inspires me to lean back in my chair, slack-jawed (probably not the best idea until I figure out exactly where these tiny spiders, descending onto my monitor from somewhere above me, like the world's worst-prepared paratroopers, are coming from), and bask in the sound of pleasantly reedy multi-part harmonies draped over immaculately ragged three-chord guitar frames, a pop formula perfected and re-verified in countless garages ever since the first wistful teenage electric guitarist was banished there. However dissimilar the two albums really are, Heavy Changes reproduces my memory of Teenage Symphonies to God to such detail that after playing it I find myself walking around humming "My Blank Pages", which is actually on the earlier album. But progress, when stasis is this heartfelt, can wait.
Sloan: Navy Blues
There's a Canadian variant of pure pop, too, or at least there has been since 1992, when the Halifax band Sloan invented it for their debut album, Smeared. I'm not sure anybody else has succeeded in contributing to the style yet, though, as Sloan seems intent on completely revising it every time they make another album. Smeared was a catholic amalgam of contemporary American and British low-fi icons, but Twice Removed dispensed with most of the current heroes in favor of a sweeping throwback to a wide-eyed, tambourine-heavy past that probably never really existed. One Chord to Another, the third album, updated the formula to give the Posies and Cheap Trick approximately the same significance as the Beatles, a strange but, to me, intoxicating notion. Navy Blues, continuing along what is starting to look like a trajectory, disposes of some of the innocence and glee of One Chord to Another, and replaces it with enough mid-Seventies poster-idol rock strut that it's impossible to dismiss it as facetious. Like the booklet photos, dramatic one-light shots of each of the band members, identified only by their first names, printed in shiny black on the matte black background, the stadium-titan flourishes in the music don't rely on sincerity for their efficacy, so you can enjoy them and laugh at them almost simultaneously. Indeed, I'm not sure it's even meaningful to distinguish between the two reactions. I'm still grinning at the gall of opening the album with the sound of somebody coughing, and wincing at the sleaziness of the wocka-wocka guitar groove of "She Says What She Means", when the song suddenly bursts into an effortless harmony slide and the deadpan inquiry "Do you have another jump I can hoop through?", and then, while I'm still adjusting to that, cartwheels into some Led Zeppelin-esque bluster, and then back into a chorus sequence that sounds like the Knack trying to play the theme from Shaft. "C'Mon C'Mon (We're Gonna Get It Started)" backs up the inane title with a song I could easily imagine Shaun Cassidy singing, except that it keeps lurching into a strained piano section that sounds like an excerpt from Sgt. Pepper. "Iggy & Angus" oscillates between Velvet Crush and Thin Lizzy, the baroque "Sinking Ships" is an eerie Jellyfish pastiche, and "Keep on Thinkin'" mashes BTO and Badfinger together with blithe unconcern for how either will fare. "Money City Maniacs" opens with a series of corny air-raid sirens, and then slams into a song that sounds for all the world like AC/DC until it gets to the reeling chorus (which goes "And the joke is / When he awoke his / Body was covered in Coke fizz"). "Seems So Heavy" sounds like Ben Folds with spasmodic guitars. Over striding piano verses and a blasting quick-step guitar chorus, "Chester the Molester", perhaps the song that wraps up Sloan's charms and genius most compactly, for me, strings a portrait of a sleazy jerk that keeps sinking, despite their best efforts, into residual affection for his blasé ineptness. The plaintive "Stand by Me, Yeah" sounds like a left-over from Twice Removed, and "Suppose They Close the Door" jolts back and forth between distended guitar freak-outs and a jangly, galloping pop chorus that has almost nothing in common with the rest of the song. "On the Horizon" rhymes "horizon" with "capitalizin'". The sunny "I Wanna Thank You" invokes ELO, and the shuffling exit theme, "I'm Not Through With You Yet", makes a sad farewell out of "Now you wait one / Cotton-pickin' moment". I won't pretend I have a clear idea where any of this leads, but it won't be the first time I've ended up somewhere unexpected and wonderful because we were having too much fun ridiculing the street signs to navigate properly.