A Naked, Pagan Glory
233 · 15 July 99
Ultrasound: Everything Picture
I suspect the media success of the World Cup will turn out, in the short term, to have helped soccer at least, and women's athletics in general. Maybe we'll get a women's professional soccer league in this country. Maybe the event will even speed the continuing process, in countries represented and not, of recalibrating social structures that no longer need, nor in many cases lend themselves to, patriarchy. On the other hand, the night before 90,000 packed the Rose Bowl to see the four best national teams in the world, there were only a few hundred of us in Framingham to watch the Boston Renegades and the Long Island Lady Riders, two teams vying for first place in one of the six divisions of the thirty-three-team W-League, the nascent semi-pro venture that is, at the moment, the highest level of soccer for women in this country. Forty million people watched the final on television; if a fourth of a million are aware that the W-League exists, I'd be pretty pleasantly surprised. We have a prodigious national appetite for watching championships of anything, especially if there's any way to construe our team to be the underdogs (arguably the most important game of the tournament was China's 5-0 demolition of Norway in the semi-finals, which reset expectations for the final into a much better storybook alignment). Brandi Chastain's stomach and triumphant feral grin made Sports Illustrated's cover-choice way too easy. Show me a Sports Illustrated with Shelley Addison-Smith on the cover, blasting the Renegades twenty-yard game-winner into the upper left corner of Kim Wyant's goal in overtime, and I'll be much more impressed.
But whatever the Women's World Cup does or doesn't do for Cindy Parlow, or Wen Lirong, or ESPN, or Nike, its important lasting effects will unfold in an entirely different arena. All these adults, analyzing demographics and measuring market-share and otherwise contorting themselves, are doing so for the benefit of other adults. The organizers and the sponsors are, no doubt, very pleased. But as the players themselves have stubbornly refused to forget, no amount of commercialism can disguise the fact that this grand spectacle was staged, in a very literal sense, for children. The World Cup will fade out of the media's attention like every other event; Arlington Road opened last weekend, and the season finale of Buffy the Vampire Slayer was aired on Tuesday, both of which were postponed because of the Columbine shootings, which puts our cultural attention-span for tragedy at about twelve weeks, and triumphs are even more ephemeral. But the cameras, when they go, leave behind a nation of twelve-year-old girls with tattered pennants signed by Joy Fawcett and Kate Sobrero on their walls, and those memories are indelible. The generation that was young for this event will grow up with a different understanding of their own potential, with a different repertoire of resonances. Mia Hamm and Julie Foudy looked them in the eye and told them that you can be anything you want to be, and then went out and proved it. They will remember. Later, when they're older, they'll realize that a penalty-kick shootout is largely luck, and that the journalists who retro-deduced "reasons" for the US victory were missing the point. When they're a little older still, they'll realize that lots of soccer games that don't end in penalty kicks turn on whims of fortune, too, and the people lamenting the circumstances of victory were missing the point as well. One day they will come across their World Cup souvenirs in an attic and finally think to wonder what parades greeted Liu Ailing and Homare Sawa and Mikka Hansen. If your lasting memory of the World Cup is Anne Chiejine watching Nene's errant cross somehow drift over her head for the implausible third Brazilian goal, or Alicia Ferguson being led out of Giants Stadium in tears after being ejected just two minutes into the Australia-China game, do you grow up weaker or stronger? If Briana Scurry had gone the other way, and Chastain had banged her shot off the outside of the right post, would the nation have understood that the border between defeat and victory is often hopelessly arbitrarily drawn, and embraced their heroines with undiminished ardor? The hum of questions from this World Cup will linger long after the roar of answers dissipates.
As passionate a soccer fan as I've become, though, my own templates for exhilaration don't come from sports. I was a ten-year-old in Dallas when the Cowboys beat the Broncos for Super Bowl 12, and I don't remember a thing about it. I think I watched the Miracle on Ice, but perhaps I didn't. My childhood was wound around books, and later music. That surge we all feel, our hearts accelerating and throats constricting, for me evokes private epiphanies, not shared rapture. I recognize the significance. I don't wish I'd grown up any differently, nor is it clear that the path I could have followed wouldn't have eventually converged with the one I did, but I suspect I might have learned compassion less circuitously. I might make friends more easily, might be better balanced. But then, introversion and imbalance are valuable, too. I find myself looking for cursed rings, and abysses to fling them in, more often than teammates, and trophies to hoist, but as long as there are rings and abysses, somebody has to see that they meet. If I were allowed to select my own geas (and am I sure I didn't?), I'd probably change nothing. Maybe I mostly enjoy the World Cup through layers of intellectual gauze, but if it were any more vivid, I'm not sure I could cope. And those of you who didn't, or don't, grow up with music, miss that incredible feeling (rare, admittedly, but rather less so than American World Cup victories) of putting on a new record and realizing that it harbors, at least for you, the wandering spark from which life itself is derived.
The spark inhabits various shells, of course, and I've learned enough of them to catch glimpses of it almost weekly, but the guise it was wearing when I spotted it first in music, at the age of fourteen or so, was Rush, and so to this day my most deeply rooted reactions tend to be to music that shares, if not Rush's style, at least their ambition, and their sense of scale. I've learned to cherish simple music constructed from the least assuming components, too, art that has stripped some impulse or regret to its essence, but there is still a tiny gland, crouching at the back of my skull, that only switches on when I peer into what I thought was an alcove and discover a hidden city. That's what Rush sounds like, to me; that's why half my favorite authors are science-fiction writers; that's why I loved My So-Called Life and Chasing Amy, why I'm so haunted by After Life, Desert Blue and The Dreamlife of Angels, why I love Buckaroo Banzai and hate Austin Powers. The most cathartic elation, for me, requires a twinge of vertigo. I'm enchanted by labyrinths, disappointed by the treasure. I prefer synthesizers to harmonicas. I adore fog.
I doubt Ultrasound sound discernibly like Rush to anybody but me, but Everything Picture invokes the old chill as confidently as anything has in a very long time. Imagine Fish fronting Suede, perhaps, or Magazine trying to play like early IQ, or the Manic Street Preachers if their idea of arena rock was Hawkwind instead of Bon Jovi. Keyboards swirl, guitars explode themselves and then recoalesce. The songs are sprawling and uncooperative, seven minutes instead of three, built on the canted foundations of epic crescendos with no apparent regard for the way anything you set down slides off the table and smashes on the tile floor. Andrew Victor Wood's tense, bleating lead vocals share center stage with both sinister vocoder chants and Vanessa Best's airy duet parts. Tunes come off their tracks but forge ahead, making appalling grinding noises that nobody seems to notice, until eventually the wheels snap back onto the rails. The tormented corpses of pop songs float up to just below the surface and then submerge again, like Hell has a little Magic 8-Ball window mounted on top, for asking any question to which the answer is wordless screaming. And Andy Peace, in the middle of this caterwaul, drums as if he once got it into his head that the band wanted to sound like Canned Heat, and either they've never been able to disabuse him of the notion, or it's never occurred to them to try.
If Everything Picture gets released in the US, at all, I'm sure we'll get the single-disc version, which will be plenty long for most purposes, but the obtrusive excess of the two-disc UK limited edition is an integral part of the album's appeal, to me. The four-segment gatefold packaging, which I loathe on practical grounds (getting the CDs out is a three-hand task), is an excellent aesthetic complement to the music, and I can almost imagine, holding it, that it has an old double-LP's heft, and it's me that's grown not the format that has shrunk. Disc one opens with the long, graceful, synthesizer intro of "Cross My Heart", like a bleary transcription of dawn in which the morning birds are the creaks of power lines, which give way to the insistent pulse of city traffic as if the transportation infrastructure were the planet's idea. Wood's sentimental benediction for the upcoming enterprise is delivered in a macabre, Ozzy-like warble that I might take as insincerity on its own, but buoyed up by this music it feels more like a caveat, like "I hope you never have to sleep alone" needs to be said because we're about to step into a bond-straining machine, and Wood wants to make sure we understand that this isn't idle amusement. "Cross My Heart" finally evolves into "Same Band", the first proper song, a noisy, slashing guitar anthem set on a strangely groovy rhythm, like "We're an American Band" rewritten for a race of stern sea monsters. "Stay Young" starts off like intermission music for a Who rock-opera, but turns into the kind of corrupted Pied Piper's invitation that makes me suspect Alice Cooper was only the assistant principal in a wig. After a while (these songs don't conclude so much as disintegrate), that's replaced by "Suckle", which is parts rumination, parts languid Sunday-morning pop and parts vicious metallic churn. "Too much time to think", intones Wood, as if the leading cause of misery is getting bored and second-guessing yourself, and I've heard worse theories. "Fame Thing", the first of the two songs dropped for the single-CD version, is a blaring, Fall-like rant, and a fairly obvious choice if you have to cut something, to me, but "Happy Times (Are Coming)", the other one, would be a sad loss, accompaniment like drum-and-bass at a quarter speed, over which Wood and Best spin through a shell-shocked falsetto duet like Meat Loaf and Ellen Foley after spending their night in his car sitting bolt upright listening to Radiohead tapes.
The second disc, to my surprise, bounces into gear with the snappy "Aire & Calder", sort of like Catatonia crossed with Midnight Oil, oddly cheerful sequencer twitters coexisting with Wood's strident chorus vocals. The clattering, nearly-endless coda restores insanity, however, and "Sentimental Song", next, sounds to me like a cross between Fish, Tom Waits, the eerie soundtrack to a Brothers Quay animation, and a vampire remake of "I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing" in which they offer the world an extremely bitter drink with, they claim, some unspecified medicinal value. "Floodlit World" opens with almost a minute of what sounds to me like a dot-matrix-printer solo, but then leaps into the album's most unguarded rock song, Wood's constricted, vaguely Pere Ubu-ish delivery detracting from the Manic Street Preachers-style grandeur somewhat, but Best adding soaring harmonies that pull it back towards redemption. "My Impossible Dream" begins and ends with some distracted tape games, but in between stomps through a lurching, theatrical performance that I think would make excellent sense on either of IQs first two albums, if only Ultrasound didn't perform it as if they're all irretrievably drunk.
If you have any remaining strength at this point, you'll want to gather it, as "Everything Picture" itself, the grand finale, is as trying as the rest of the album put together, a bit like "Strawberry Fields" morphing first into "Karma Police", then into about ten minutes of raw machine noise. I have Aube albums that are more abrasive, but not by much, and ten minutes of machine noise at the end of a rock album is a very different experience from ten minutes of machine noise in the middle of an hour of machine noise. It makes sense, to me, the inclinations towards noise in the other songs finally reaching critical mass and taking over, like a headache that finally drives you into a coma, but I'll report, in the interest of fairness, that when I played this album at work my officemate didn't appear to find the dénouement's logic quite as compelling. There's a stupidly long gap after "Everything Picture", nearly fifteen minutes, in case you need the time to recover, but if you skim through to about three minutes from the end of the disc you'll find a hushed version, just Andrew, Vanessa and a piano, of Ultrasound's second single, "Best Wishes", not otherwise included here. If the gap were shorter, the song might seem like an epilogue, but the gulf between it and the rest of the record is so wide and deliberate that by the time it arrives it's more like a feverish dream of the album in which nothing is quite how it was in life. It's a rare artwork that supplies its own distorted memory.
Marion: The Program
When I said, in 1997, that I thought the Longpigs, the Stereophonics, Linoleum and Kenickie were the beginning of a new generation of British bands I was going to adore, I couldn't know that by two years later the Longpigs and Linoleum wouldn't have resurfaced yet, the Stereophonics would have made a second album that largely disappointed me, and Kenickie would have made a second album I thought was amazing but encountered so much resistance that they gave up, but maybe I was just too impatient, because the second wave is definitely starting to arrive. Marion (who aren't new, but I missed the first album or two) are much less fond of raw noise than Ultrasound, substituting Cactus World News-esque whammy-bar guitar and early-U2 pomp, and the result ends up something like Radiohead's "The Bends" sandwiched between The Cult and Placebo. "Miyako Hideaway", the single, is infectious enough for me to wean myself off of Placebo's "Pure Morning", but the rest of The Program fares considerably better, to me, than the rest of Placebo's Without You I'm Nothing did. "The Smile" reminds me of a brighter Ned's Atomic Dustbin, but charges into a chorus like a slightly more diffident version of Radiohead's "Anyone Can Play Guitar". The spiraling "Sparkle" could be a cross between the Smiths (Marr produced the album and plays on it) and Puressence, part acoustic jangle and part textural distortion. "Is That So?" shows off a little blues swagger, but then eases into chorus arcs dripping with backing vocals. "What Are We Waiting For?" has echoes of Big Country, Afraid of Sunlight-era Marillion and The Unforgettable Fire-era U2, and several of the moments when singer Jaime Harding sounds most like Thom Yorke. "Strangers", with the ardent refrain "You know we need each other /More than we need ourselves", is barbed and choppy, but "The Powder Room Plan" is as expansive as anything I've heard this year, a sweeping "Whatever it takes to get to you back!" goading the chorus higher, as if Radiohead has just rediscovered hope. "The Program" itself is more restrained, simple acoustic-guitar figures and crisp drums gliding underneath Harding's sighing soliloquy, but a fiery guitar solo materializes toward the end, paving the way for the fast, crunching "All of These Days", with its driving verses, trebly Wedding Present-esque guitars and mangled chorus howls. And chiming triplets coax the otherwise Radiohead-becalmed "Comeback" into an uneasy gallop, like cafeteria waltzing for still-recovering misanthropes. If you thought OK Computer was the album of the year, you probably won't approve of The Program's relative trade-offs, ditching paralyzing melancholy and oblique experiment in favor of unsolicited sincerity and unapologetic hooks, but for me Radiohead started from courage and deduced nihilism, so anybody willing to insert themselves into the argument and demonstrate how to reach a more promising conclusion has my rapt attention.
Gay Dad: Leisure Noise
If the emotional cycle goes from awe to relief to joy (and watch Brandi's face in the replay next time if you think it doesn't), the third step in this imported progression, for me, is Gay Dad, whose debut, Leisure Noise, doesn't monopolize my life the way Ultrasound and Marion's records have, but anything it lacks in consistency it makes up for in moments of brilliance. "Dimstar" is a little too spacey for me, a bit too close to Manchester dub, but "Joy!"'s combination of power-pop, drum-machine twitch and gospel exuberance sounds timeless. If "Oh Jim" is about anything, it's lost on me, but the choruses are delirious, the bass runs are ecstatically overwrought, and the guitars would lay down their lives for you. "My Son Mystic" is about the closest thing I've heard to a British band producing a George Huntley song, and "Black Ghost" never musters enough energy for my tastes, but the giddy "To Earth With Love" combines the most uplifting elements of Sloan, the Waterboys and Neil Diamond, and the revving "Dateline" confuses the Who and the Stones with endearing unconcern. "Pathfinder" is undulating and affectionate, like Fountains of Wayne doing an Iain Matthews song. And "Jesus Christ", the poignant conclusion, could be Radiohead and World Party's collaborative update of "Let It Be".
Brian: Bring Trouble
Joy, however, is not the end. I went through awe, relief and joy almost as fast as Brandi did, after her shot hit the net, and I think we both made our way back to awe, but somewhere in the middle was a moment, for me, and probably considerably more than a moment, for her, of rapture. For just a few seconds, I forgot about my long list of theories about what the World Cup might represent, forgot that I'd just watched the most riveting 0-0 soccer match I've ever seen in my life, forgot about how hard these women had worked to get to this. For one priceless moment I put aside everything calculated and became part of the team, my hand on the World Cup alongside everybody else's. For a moment I pretended that a sports victory isn't a metaphor. Instead of superb Chinese soccer players, for a moment the adversary became an abstraction of every doubt and disaster humanity could ever be plagued with. True victories are perilously elusive; if we don't savor these invented ones, we won't know what sensation it is we're trying to replicate. This is why we have penalty-kick shootouts, why we don't just declare the game a draw and saw the trophy in half, on one hand, and why we don't just flip a coin, on the other. Sharing the championship would be more civil, and more accurate. The Chinese players did not deserve to feel defeated. But then, neither did the Swedes, or the Canadians. We agree to suffer all these defeats, we accept them as part of the premise of sports, because it is only by accumulating defeats that we can construct the rapture of victory, the brief sensation that life is utterly flawless. The World Cup is, whatever other purposes you assign it, a complicated but extremely effective method for allowing twenty women to glimpse perfection. The moral satisfaction of sharing the trophy isn't the same. Flipping a coin would be logically equivalent, but emotionally useless. Better that one side loses, even if it's your side, so that somebody gets to touch Heaven. And with forty million Americans watching, and a generation of twelve-year-old girls digging their fingers into their fathers' arms, I don't think it's bad that this time the Americans won. The Chinese will win too, I suspect, before long, but this one was our turn.
My soundtrack for unreserved rapture, this week, after the awe of Ultrasound, the relief of Marion and the joy of Gay Dad, is Bring Trouble, the long-awaited second album by Brian, the band identity of Irish songwriter Ken Sweeney. It's possible to analyze this record, I expect, but I'm not about to. It is heartbreakingly gorgeous, and that is more than enough. Whatever it is that I respond to in the music of the Pet Shop Boys, New Order, the Lightning Seeds, Prefab Sprout, the Blue Nile and the Field Mice, Sweeney has isolated it, and made a record composed of nothing else. I know I can't hold my breath for thirty-six minutes, but that's the only reason I suspect I keep breathing while this album is playing. I'm too in love to think, but I doubt, even if I weren't, that there's any album that fulfills its own promise, for me, more effectively than this. "Bring your trouble", it insists. "I'll see what I can do". I bring my troubles, and they evaporate the instant these songs touch them. I sit here, oblivious, blissful, limp, devastated, euphoric, insensate. We won, we won, we won. We are winning. We are always winning. This rapture will never entirely desert us, ever again. We persuaded the universe to temporarily align itself with our personal goals, and once it's done that, it can no longer cross us like it used to. This is the legacy of championships, and great books, and great records, and every other game we invent to bootstrap ourselves out of our collectively mundane lives. Winning is unforgettable. We wave at the radiant women we picked to experience it on our behalf, and go back to dreaming that next time it's us.