Every Hour That Heaven Sends
240 · 2 September 99
The Sheila Divine: New Parade
In my life with music, recordings almost invariably precede concerts. I'm aware that this contradicts the basic operational premise of local music, which calls for people to support bands who haven't made records yet, in order that one day they might. In the abstract, I would love to participate, but in practice supporting local music involves spending a lot of time in nightclubs, which lend themselves to approximately nothing I enjoy or condone. Seeing groups of humans drinking or smoking depresses me intensely, standing around in the dark waiting for the next band to start makes me restless and irritable, and trying to listen to music from which volume and poor acoustics have eradicated all nuance or detail infuriates me. I subject myself to these conditions fairly frequently, given my distaste for them, but only when I genuinely expect a transcendent return, which means I must know the band's music pretty well, which means they must have made a record and I must have been listening to it. And so the bands I love, no matter how close they live, are nearly always strangers to me. Up until a week ago, there had only ever been two bands I'd spent more time with in person than on record, and the one I've seen play by far the most often, the late Boston trio The Bags, necessitates an asterisk of some sort, since however thoroughly I loved them (and their first reunion show was one of the most uplifting concerts I've ever been to), I was also living with the guitarist's sister at the time. The other band, and there were two only until their album came out and the usual balance could start reasserting itself, was the Sheila Divine. And technically, I discovered them on record first. The record in question, though, was a self-released five-song EP (which they must have given to record stores free, since its list price was $2.98, and Newbury Comics promptly discounted it to less than they charge for empty jewel cases), and while it certainly intrigued me, I doubt I played it more than three or four times, and I passed up numerous chances to go see them. Finally, though, they were booked to open a show I planned to attend anyway (the horrific Sloan concert I recounted last week, as a matter of fact), and I was at least enthusiastic enough to arrive on time.
If you only go see either musicians about whose genius you've already developed an opinion, or ones about whom you know nothing at all, you may occasionally be dumbfounded (Billy Bragg, Living Color and the Leslie Spit Treeo were all totally unknown to me before I saw them open for Echo & the Bunnymen, the Bears and the Alarm, and precious to me immediately thereafter), but you'll rarely be surprised. By the Sheila Divine's second song, any attempt to converse with me would have elicited little but gibberish and arm-shaking. I've felt the electrifying conviction that I'm seeing incipient greatness before, but this was the first time it had ever been accompanied by the faint possibility that I was seeing it early enough for "discovery" to have a non-subjective sense. If I owned a record label I would have been down on my knees on the sticky floor of the club, as their third song began, writing out a contract on the back of a Boards of Canada flyer with pilfered lip gloss. I'm not necessarily saying it would be a smart decision. They have, frankly, no appreciable image. Drummer Shawn Sears looks like someone you'd find still working at Kinko's at an embarrassing age, bassist Jim Gilbert could be the goofy, genial neighbor you always see pushing his three-year-old around in her little plastic fire truck in the evenings, his briefcase sitting on the porch with his suit jacket draped over it because the light's dying fast and he can't bear to disappoint her by going inside first, and singer/guitarist Aaron Perrino looks a bit like a paler, red-haired version of the young Elvis Costello, only without the raw animal magnetism. They all wear thick glasses, and there isn't a dancer's chin between them. Maybe a good stylist could work a Devo-ish angle, but left to dress themselves they muster a collective visual presence less evocative of rock stardom than of getting beaten up for their lunch money. And the music they play, even worse, has no ingredient even remotely in demand. Put them on the stage at one of those MTV beach parties, and my only uncertainty is whether they'd be incapacitated by sunburn faster than the kids could phase out.
But standing there, listening, paralyzed, ecstatic, spring breaks and Kid Rock and stupid facial hair were nowhere near my thoughts. Inside the few square feet the band and I shared, a dream I've had before shimmered into being again, the dream in which U2 never met Lanois and Eno, and REM and Oasis are playing colleges but Cactus World News and the Armoury Show are superstars. Epic passion and anthemic sincerity were never supplanted by arch nihilism, smug irony or peppy superficiality. Singing is the act of forcing all the air and hope out of your body and into a microphone. Perrino opens his mouth, and it no longer matters what he looks like, or where he comes from, or where the walls of this club end, or whether we're going to be able to divert the asteroid in time. The last Boston band that tried this, Cliffs of Dooneen, derailed on their second album and never made a third, and maybe that will happen to the Sheila Divine, too, but for a few months, at least, I can sustain the illusion that it won't, and the fond fiction that intent commitment can be as charismatic and compelling as La Vida Loca. For a dozen songs a long list of hopeless and half-forgotten ideals seem viable almost to the point of tautology. In the opening lines of "Automatic Buffalo" Perrino sighs like Thom Yorke, but by the time he gets to the title refrain I think he's grasped that most people's plights mix nobility and futility in roughly comparable measures. The pounding "Like a Criminal" could be a defiantly simple answer to "Karma Police". "Awful Age" clatters, hums and surges, its plaintive "I'm at an awful age" applicable to any of them. "Hum" is a venomous self-critique that reverses the blade just as the chorus ends, howling "god don't make the laws", leaving you to deduce who does. "Spacemilk" is calmer, the vocal harmonies on the chorus uncannily reminiscent of the Armoury Show. "I'm a Believer", not a Monkees cover, churns like U2's "Gloria" in the hands of Catherine Wheel, and although I'm disappointed that the last couple choruses haven't actually morphed "I'm a believer" into "I'm a belaborer", like I initially thought they had, the song's sketchy narrative is arresting nonetheless, something about feigning desire and then realizing that it's possible to deceive yourself, too. "The Modern Log", clunky title notwithstanding, is like "Two Hearts Beat as One" with its romantic aspirations scaled down to an eighth of their original selves, a paean to soulmate unity rewritten as a desperate warning against the insidious lure of inaction. The betrayed catharsis of "Opportune Moment" is only a couple "Ah-ooh"s and whammy-bar swoops away from Cactus World News. "The Amendment" starts out airy and adrift, but rises into a soaring coda, Perrino's guitar finally catching up to Sears' steady, patient groove. "New Parade" takes a sort of bleak "Fake Plastic Trees" inertia and turns it into the converse of Millennial panic, the fear that we're actually counting on the calendar digits to transform us. The aching "Kitchen Song", another track that it seems to me could easily be transplanted onto Cactus World News' Urban Beaches or the Armoury Show's Waiting for the Floods, jumps from MBV-esque electric whir to pensive acoustic to rhythm crunch to rousing crescendos. The only song whose role I don't really understand is the last one, "Sweep the Leg", a minute that sounds like Radiohead picked up on a spy satellite followed by a minute that sounds like the spy satellite, bored with Earth music, just twittering distractedly to itself. I wanted this record to gather itself for one last atmosphere-shattering scream, on behalf of everybody who once sang this way, heart and lungs in sync, and doesn't any more. But maybe I'm rushing things, asking the Sheila Divine to redeem an entire aesthetic in one album. Maybe that's why the others failed, overextending themselves and being consumed from inside. If the truth lies that way, then this irresolution is the best possible omen, a horizon with bigger dreams than simply holding still long enough to conceal the sun.
The Frames: Dance the Devil...
If the Sheila Divine's Irish tendencies leave a stylistic trade deficit, then The Frames, who are Irish but whose lead singer, Glen Hansard, here sounds to me more like a cross between Michael Penn, Matthew Sweet and Verbow's Jason Narducy, must redress some of it. The last Frames album, 1996's Fitzcarraldo, made little lasting impression on me, so I bought this one as the ritual last-chance, and am thus immensely pleased to find myself becoming a little obsessed with it. I thought Fitzcarraldo lost a puzzling amount of the energy of 1992's Another Love Song, but Dance the Devil... relocates it, fitting it into unlikely spaces in an overall structure much more ambitious than either of the other two records. "Perfect Opening Line" (a courageous thing to call a first song) is self-contained in the verses, but drops its guard for the straining, half-chanted choruses. The tentative violin on "Seven Day Mile" purrs like Penn's chamberlains, but the song ebbs and flows like a version of Live's "Lightning Crashes" that shifts some of the drama out of Ed Kowalczyk's voice into the string section. "Pavement Tune" is a propulsive stop-start rock anthem with the same kind of flair as Sweet's "Sick of Myself", Everclear's "Heartspark Dollarsign" or Soul Asylum's "Black Gold", but the hushed "Plateau" sounds more like Ellis Paul cleaning up Billy Bragg's "God's Footballer". "Star Star * *" is breathtakingly bare, a backing-vocal part close to inaudible in the background, as if they hired Stina Nordenstam to help out but couldn't convince her to enter the room. The fitful, clashing "The Stars Are Underground" sounds as much like an Alanis Morissette song as I suspect anything could without her voice. "God Bless Mom" is succinct and repetitive, as befits a benediction, a grinding chorus saved from banality by weird vocal experiments and a riff that uses six chords where there would usually be just three. "Rent Day Blues", a jangly dirge laced with eerie falsetto high-harmonies, can't quite decide whether it wants to be Prefab Sprout, Joe Walsh or Ween. "Hollocaine" alternates between brittle Appalachian twang and crushing industrial sample-loop stomp. "Neath the Beeches" is a simple acoustic folk song, and the finale, "Dance the Devil Back Into His Hole", starts out that way as well, but revelry fit to banish demons needs dervish mania, and Hansard builds to it inexorably, counterpoint guitars slipping into squall, violins sawing. And then, like New Parade, Dance the Devil... simply expires. The surge dissipates, there are some odd mechanical chirps, an acoustic guitar figure wanders past on its way out like somebody just came back to retrieve it, and suddenly the album is over. This must be another step on a way, perhaps towards a reconciliation between Long Fin Killie and the Wonder Stuff, or between the McGarrigle sisters and the Call, prickly insularity yearning to be epic and sweeping grandeur secretly wishing it were small.
Echo & the Bunnymen: What Are You Going to Do With Your Life?
Circa Ocean Rain, my senior year of high school, Echo & the Bunnymen were one of my favorite bands not only for that gorgeous album, but also because the bright yellow and pale blue sleeveless concert shirt I got at their show, in the context of my conservative high school, managed to be simultaneously effeminate and menacing, like the gang colors of a subculture other kids were scared they'd be recruited into by proximity. Confusion and fear, even in small doses, were delicious reactions to provoke at that age, particularly since there wasn't anything about my lifestyle that even vaguely justified them. The sleeveless shirts (I had another one from the local dissident community radio station that was bright pink, both a color and style I've since, sadly, become too self-conscious to wear), like the bandanas around the knees and ankles, had no stated purpose, but in retrospect it's clear that they served as circumspect implications of androgyny. The only reason androgyny was threatening, of course (and the only reason I could imply it with such trivial affectations), was that none of us actually knew anything about the subject. The only person our age who came close to admitting nonstandard gender impulses was an ungainly girl who insisted on being called Adrian, and since she customarily came to school dressed in chain mail, carrying a disconcertingly plausible-looking broadsword, and smelling like her medieval fixation extended to her attitudes towards bathing, she wasn't persecuted so much as avoided. If we'd had any open homosexuals, the natural assumption is that they would have been hounded mercilessly, but now I'm not sure that's right. I suspect it was really far easier to fear the blank unknown than it would have been to fear some guy named Mike who was funny and nice and knew how to get fake IDs. The only reason an Echo & the Bunnymen shirt was intimidating is that nobody knew what it meant, and so associated it with all the other unknown menaces. To this day I can't tell you what a single song on Ocean Rain is intended to signify, but I know exactly what the album meant to me.
In the fall of 1985, though, I went off to college, where a very large number of things that had previously been mysterious were elucidated (though relatively few of them, in my case, through personal experience), and an even larger number of things I hadn't previously contemplated were promoted to mysterious. By the time Echo & the Bunnymen came out, in 1987, the idea of the band had lost much of its potency, for me, and presumably as a result, the songs no longer seemed to have the same aura as "The Killing Moon" or "Ocean Rain". To this day I haven't gone back and filled that hole, and half the time I forget that Reverberation, the 1990 album without Ian McCulloch, even exists. But when McCulloch, Will Sergeant and Les Pattinson reunited in 1997, for Evergreen, I bought it, glossing over our falling out and hoping the band and I could pick up where Ocean Rain left off. Either the record was drab, though, or I simply couldn't re-inhabit the proper emotional context, or both, and the harder I tried, the more my resistance infected my overall feelings about the band, until I started wondering whether I really liked the early records that much, either.
And although obviously McCulloch and Sergeant have to make records in their own contexts, not mine, once they let What Are You Going to Do With Your Life? out of their hands they can no longer control what I do with it, and so as I play it, here in my solipsist's aerie, it becomes an apology and a truce. The apology is for however many directions they strayed. Ocean Rain was the core, and this album obediently returns to it, McCulloch's rich, gentle voice gliding languidly over swirling strings, rustling drums and sparkling, textural guitars. None of these songs has quite "Ocean Rain"'s haunting reserve, but instead there are impish hints of other bands, like Echo themselves have forgotten exactly where their role in New Wave started and ended, the bouncy "Lost on You" charged like Flesh for Lulu's "I Go Crazy", the opening figures of "Morning Sun" ripped off almost verbatim from "The Blue Hour", by Raise the Dragon, the verses of "Get in the Car" pastel and jazzy like Everything but the Girl. The glittering title track sways from glassy acoustic guitar to somber, elegant cello. "Rust" reminds me in places of U2's "One". The simple, beautiful "Baby Rain" plays like a patient lesson for Oasis on the proper roles of discretion in composition, and of the lungs in singing. I'm pretty sure if I heard Mike Peters doing the unadorned piano-and-voice lullaby "History Chimes" I'd have to check the credits to be sure it isn't an extra set of verses for the Alarm's "Walk Forever By My Side". McCulloch and Sergeant have succeeded in re-learning the art of writing songs that sound like Ocean Rain, and I'm much happier thinking that that was their goal than I was, after Evergreen, thinking that they only ever aspired to be loud. The truce, then, and however odd or underwhelming it sounds, it is important to me, is that in return for this apology, I agree not to listen to this album any more. It has given me back a band and a record I once loved, and thus recovered a lost piece of my life, which by now I might be properly prepared to understand. I want to be grateful, but I can tell, as soon as I recognize what it's done for me, that from here on I'm going to like What Are You Going to Do With Your Life? itself less each time I hear it, so the best thing to do is stop. I have now stopped. There's a weird and comforting sense of accomplishment from consciously deciding to be done with something. We assume that if a record is important to you, you'll keep listening to it, that a handful of your most familiar disks could transform a desert-island prison colony into paradise. But there are many crucial experiences in my life that I don't need or want to repeat. Some of my favorite books I'll never re-read, some of the most memorable movies I'll never see twice. And so we should attach no disgrace to an important album that you never plan to play again. That may be one of the greatest challenges of listening, in fact: knowing when the last gift a record has for you is a record-sized opening in your life, a clean, silent interval ready to be filled by new songs.