238 · 19 August 99
bis: Social Dancing
It's happening again, and I'm not sure I can't stand it. This record, another incredible leap of faith, I can feel chasm air under its feet. Did nobody learn anything from what happened to Kenickie? They were standard bearers of youth power, and then they tried to make a second record that traded some of the irrepressible, shouty punk glee for undisguised musical ambition. I loved it, most of the rest of their fans freaked out, and they imploded. bis' parallel course could hardly run closer. This Is Teen-C Power! is the EP the kids from South Park would grow up to make, if their monotonous suburb orbited Glasgow instead of Denver. The New Transistor Heroes is insular and shrieking where Kenickie's At the Club is urban and prematurely jaded, but the two debut albums strike me as expressions of the exact same restless impatience, punk re-imagined through childhoods filled with cheap keyboards, secret societies and too many records (and, in bis' case, anime), rather than battered guitars, pub brawls and too few. If the first punk wave was destructive indiscriminately, self-abusive almost as often as it was critical, then this wave of punk is a critique by secession, a subculture not trying to shred the mundane world but to extricate itself and start over. If there were a calculated, historically-aware manifesto behind this music, somehow coping with the fact that calculation and historical awareness are, at least superficially, anathema to the form, it would have something to do with the absence of creativity in nihilism, with the extent to which nihilism, as a reaction to a social establishment, is inevitably the establishment's victory, the nihilist's tacit acknowledgement by constraining the domain of viable options they have left no way not to endorse conventional values but to have no values at all. This is a variant of art-school punk that actually paid attention in art school, that isn't trying to use art as a euphemism for disaffection; if punk, in fact, twenty years ago, was the sound of disaffection, then Kenickie and bis could be the sound of affection, the new generation cruising by in somebody's beat-up convertible with a Mr. Microphone, yelling at everybody to climb in and light a sparkler.
But adolescence moves at a sprint, and record companies at a crawl. Short of Menudo's holistic approach to eternal youth, or a Ramones-like arrested development, I suspect that it's nearly impossible to get a second album out of a teen punk band that sounds much like the first one. Too much transpires. The second album is only valuable if the first one was hyped, but hype ages you. In retrospect, it's easy to hear things starting to unravel on Intendo, last year's brief between-albums miscellany: "Ninja Hi Skool" was brash, "Kid Cut" delirious, "I'll Get You Back" machine-gun abrupt, but "Statement of Intent" was halfway to Gang of Four, "Girl Star" was closer to Devo than the Buzzcocks, the burbling percussion and chirpy, banjoish guitars on the demo of "Famous" bled towards pop, and "Cookie Cutter Kid" sounded to me like David Holmes trying to pass for the Beastie Boys. Add in Gang of Four's Andy Gill in person, arrived to produce Social Dancing, and bis seemed poised for something daunting, oblique and beyond naïve, a record they'd be tempted to call Plastic Machine Music or Houses of the Homely.
Which is not even remotely what Social Dancing is. I expected Au Pairs; what we get is closer to the B-52's crossed with Ultravox, a bounding, slashing, deceptively glossy, serenely care-free New Wave pop epic with scarcely a trace of low-fi reserve. My first time through was a forty-three-minute heart-plunge. Compared to this, Kenickie's Get In was solemn and mellow. I can hear the rhetoric of betrayal self-organizing into condemnation before the album is even halfway over. A clear-headed observer should wonder how anyone could ever have imagined "Teen-C Power" to be sustainable, but whatever it was, this isn't it any more. The New Transistor Heroes set out to be the sound of kids postulating their own universe, the aesthetic of xeroxed fanzines translated into audio; Social Dancing is an only barely reluctant coming-of-age, perhaps not maturation exactly, but no cheerful ignorance recast as DIY triumph, either. Its aspirations don't become its subject, as they tend to on Ultrasound's Everything Picture, but I have the same visceral reaction to both records, dumbfounded awe flickering in and out of spasmodic rapture. I learned to love Kenickie's Get In as much as I loved At the Club, but I came to bis later than I did to Kenickie, and now I can't imagine ever going back. The earlier records were charming; this one is electrifying. "Making People Normal" is part baggy Manchester groove, part "Love Shack" exuberance, part bedroom synth solipsism, the chorus either a sarcastic plea to be reshaped into the contours of media images, or else an attempt to recalibrate the media images themselves, so gauging your reflection against them might make some sense. The robot-reggae thrash "I'm a Slut" glides on soaring harmony and insidious hand-claps, only to crash into churning metal in the middle, but the musical bluster is cover for a stark portrait of an abusive relationship, sung, both disconcertingly and reassuringly, in a post-Human League coed duet, the male and female voices both taking the woman's point of view, as if the man's, in this situation, belongs to another kind of animal altogether. "Eurodisco" is almost what the title implies, a menacing, relentless quasi-remake of "You Spin Me Round (Like a Record)", except the band's tempered vocals keep it from skidding out into glam, and real disco isn't supposed to have lyrics you're tempted to pay attention to, anyway, much less lyrics that question the genre's own premises. Similarly, "Action and Drama", a deadpan summer anthem of the same basic order as "Brimful of Asha", with an added hint of Madness, is a plea for exciting pop stars instead of anonymous DJs, with which I clearly sympathize, although the song could easily be rendered exquisitely ironic if an anonymous DJ remix of it turns out to be a club smash. "Theme From Tokyo", on the other hand, alternates between hammering, stentorian rap and a measured, pulsing, Propaganda-esque string-quartet, mashing genres together with Björk's indifference. "The Hit Girl" sounds to me like edgy, frantic Berlin, where a frantic edge is exactly what I thought too much of Berlin's music lacked. "Am I Loud Enough" could be a hybrid of Public Image and Missing Persons, Lydon's blaring stasis straining to hold Dale Bozzio's squeaky vivacity in check. "Shopaholic" might be grown-up Shampoo, which is fine with me, and "Young Alien Types", despite the Devo reference and a writhing synth-bass line, is largely a blaring guitar rant, the combination reminding me a little of EMF, another band I learned to miss just in time to miss them. "Detour", with Lois Maffeo on vocals, is slinky techno-r&b I can readily imagine Neneh Cherry singing. "Sale or Return", all brittle drum loops and choppy guitar, sounds to me like bis' simultaneous answer to Ennio Morricone, Elastica, Blur and the Talking Heads. The anxious "It's All New" marries the surge of early Gary Numan to the howl of Sleater-Kinney. And the swooping, excitable "Listen Up", the finale, plays like the misspent youth Duran Duran never had, but turns out, under the frothy, Spice Girls-style "Listen up! Listen up!" chorus, to be a disconcertingly candid complaint about the usual lyrical fare of such songs. "I don't want to hear boys sing about girls / In the way that makes them an enigma. / It's just 'cause they can't talk and say their feelings, / No wonder we are stuck in the dark." And later, "I'm a boy but at least I'm comfortable", as un-rock-and-roll a confession as you're ever likely to hear in a rock song.
I know the pain this record will probably cause, the preconceptions into which it will fail to fit, clanking against the sides as people try to wedge it into the slot they'd prepared, confused and hurt that it doesn't settle with a click. bis know it, too, I think; the liner notes read altogether too much like the ones on Get In, anticipating objections, trying to explain decisions that are going to be rejected, not questioned, like an epitaph in the future tense. But what were bis' alternatives? If they couldn't stand still but couldn't move forward, then progress could only come at the expense of the structure. If this album destroys the band, then it had to be destroyed. Self-destruction, in this case, is not nihilism, it's the necessary precursor to metamorphosis. Social Dancing might kill bis, but it wins them my loyalty, and enters into my pantheon of great late-Nineties pop transformations, alongside Get In, the Boo Radleys' Wake Up!, Everclear's So Much for the Afterglow, Veruca Salt's Eight Arms to Hold You, Buffalo Tom's Smitten, the Dambuilders' Against the Stars and Liz Phair's whitechocolatespaceegg, journals of the struggle to contain uncontainable faith in our own resourcefulness and humanity. I feel, sometimes, when I'm in the mood to look for grand human truths in pop records (a dubious strategy, on the face of it, but where do you expect them to be manifested?), like we're inside a demonic-possession movie inverted, like around me on the street random people are suddenly awakening into helpless magnificence, random bands unexpectedly making albums to represent our most uplifting potential, just in case the millennium turns out to entail a final accounting after all. If you want to believe that this arbitrary approaching point finds the species collapsing, or that it finds us standing still, there are no shortage of signs, so I cling resolutely to the few omens I can construe to hint at higher states. We don't become new without some pain, but if the ordeal of emergence is this spectacular, the new creature itself must be dazzling enough to panic light.
barcelona: simon BASIC
There are other reasons to pretend New Wave was a single coherent style than just historical laziness, but in fact it encompassed a wide range of variously incompatible impulses. The DC quartet barcelona use some of the same technology that bis do, but where Social Dancing is lit by glitterballs and sirens, simon BASIC is pale and luminous, its New Wave referents much farther removed from punk. I imagine barcelona half descended from the wing of New Wave that was really just pop wearing the prevailing fashions, people like the Lucy Show, the Human League, Howard Jones, Nik Kershaw, Peter Godwin, Shona Laing and Modern English, the kinds of artists who rarely get cited as seminal, but who made records I still return to, personally, long after my interest in some of the more influential ones has become academic. The other half of the band's lineage, plainly, is indie pop, and in many ways simon BASIC seems to me like the album Wolfie and Sarge might have made if they'd traded some untutored exuberance for restrained confidence, not that I wish they had. barcelona sound a little older than Wolfie (but Hanson often sounds older than Wolfie), certainly more muted than Sarge, and rather less insular, at least musically, than most of the other things I have from March or Darla Records. A pair of reedy synthesizers drive the beepy opener, "Why Do You Have So Much Fun Without Me?", but their methodical interplay reminds me of Our Daughter's Wedding, and both Jason Korzen and Jennifer Carr's vocals are treated with a faintly metallic sheen that allows them to blend into the music as if they're another instrument. "Sunshine Delay" is janglier, and I can see the outlines of what could be a brittle Wolfie song or a crashing Kleenex Girl Wonder anthem with slight changes of emphasis, but barcelona keep the elements in impeccable balance. "Indian Names" invokes early Game Theory, Heavenly and Tullycraft, but never turns plaintive. "C-64", mostly just strummed guitar and an airy sine-wave whistle, sounds to me like They Might Be Giants on Sesame Street, trying to sing something that that will neither frighten nor mystify an audience too young for irony or deconstructed polka. "Fabled Age" starts out like it's going to be "Da Da Da", but ends up sounding more like early OMD intercut with pastel guitar and hopping drums. The slower, swirling "Space Guy Blues" might be what you get when you impose the calm ambience of Echo and the Bunnymen's Ocean Rain onto the frame of a Guided by Voices rant. "I Know What You Think of Me", with Jen's elfin lead vocals, is the most Sarge-like of these songs, surging into guitar blur before settling back into the hesitant verses, a little New Order-ish hook buried in the coda. The duet vocals and jazzy lilt of "1/2" remind me of some of the quieter indie pop bands I didn't know about a year ago, like Kissing Book and the Autocollants, but the rawer "Unreal" is back to a mixture of Wolfie, Game Theory and Sloan. The slightly nasal "Summer Songs" takes me back to Let's Active, the Reverbs and the Primitons, oddly, not any of the dancier synth-pop bands the song is actually about. And "The Downside of Computer Camp", the final track, sounds to me like barcelona's token attempt at a massive pop hit, like Jimmy Eat World's "Lucky Denver Mint" redone with a synth chorus borrowed from the Rentals, or Fountains of Wayne filtered through a Sebadoh hush. I doubt it will actually turn them into superstars, but I'd cheer every flare of overexposure if it did.
Even if there weren't logistical obstacles between barcelona and stardom, however, I'm pretty sure the first thing a major-label handler would make them do is write dumber, more accessible lyrics. The nerdy indie tendencies that they were largely able to sublimate in the music aren't tempered at all in the words. "I stay up late on IRC, / I hide out in my room and read for hours", admits "Why Do You Have So Much Fun Without Me?", ruining any hope the song has of trenchant romantic gloom. "My skateboard won't roll through the ice", goes "Indian Names"' bad-weather lament, and the housebound kids' idea of fun is playing Donny and Marie. "C-64" is an encyclopedia of hacker technology nostalgia that may as well have been written in the hopes that it would earn the band a plug on Slashdot. "I believe in digital!", sighs "Fabled Age". The glib title of "Space Guy Blues" conceals a sketchy but morbid eulogy for an astronaut who makes it all the way back to splashdown, only to have his capsule sink before the pursuit boats can reach him. "I Know What You Think of Me" isn't so different a title from the Romantics' "What I Like About You", but "I hear things behind my back, / I read Vonnegut and won't look up in Calculus class" isn't exactly "Tell me I'm the only one, wanna come over tonight". "Summer Song" starts out promisingly, a sunny ode to the progression of seasons, but are teenagers really going to flock to download MP3s of a song for which summer means OMD, Alphaville and When in Rome? And it hardly even matters what "The Downside of Computer Camp" turns out to be about. Not only is this album informed by the internet, made by the first generation of people for whom computers and connectivity are simply features of the world, but it's also made for those people, for people to whom IRC and Commodore 64s have the mythological stature others attribute to strip clubs and Camaros, a distributed nation of shut-ins that you could never reach without the net. Sweeping technological changes have happened before, in the music business, and left the world virtually unchanged in their wake, and so they will again, but big non-changes are invariably accompanied by smaller ones that can have disproportionate effects on a few individual lives. The net can't turn barcelona into Boyzone, or install lonely web-surfing as our heroic national narrative, but maybe it can link some of these island rooms, these hopeful faces lit by monitor glow. Maybe it can give us a way of listening to each other's lonelinesses, and later telling each other about the songs we made out of what we heard.