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The People I've Dreamed of Being Can Go Back to Sleep
Crowded House: After Glow
I love Crowded House for the simple reason that they made what seem to me to be dozens of basically flawless, ideally-proportioned, chiming, joy-inducing, harmony-drenched pop songs, but they have a different place in my heart from some other bands about whom I feel the same way, musically, and the perhaps-ironic reason is that I didn't always like them. I've reversed my opinions on quite a number of bands I once hated, perhaps most obviously Roxette, but in most of those cases I felt, even when I hated the band, that they were in some way remarkable. Up until "Locked Out" coaxed me into buying Together Alone, however, I thought Crowded House was thoroughly banal. So now that they've come to seem to me like geniuses, all the way back, they've also become my standing reminder to myself that not only do tastes change, which was obvious, but the border between "tastes" and what I think are my neutral observations about art is almost impossible to draw correctly, and might simply be undefinable by its very nature. It's possible, I suppose, that I'm not a very astute observer, and this is my problem, but I'm pretty smart, and I spend a lot of time thinking about these things, so at the risk of egotism I'm going to assume that if I can mistake art I don't yet care about for art nobody should, then the rest of you will, periodically, too. Maybe you throw up your hands, though, and complain that if we can't claim to distinguish between what we feel and what we know about art, then there's no way we can ever evaluate it. I agree. I think you can't "evaluate" art, in any useful abstract sense. You can experience it, and you can try to understand and explain your experience, and even hope to make it possible for other people to have your experience, or some not-entirely-dissimilar variation. But you can't, even though surely it is possible to make bad art, distinguish good from bad with any justified confidence.
This point is rarely made more plainly than by b-sides compilations. The entire premise of Afterglow, this posthumous collection of Crowded House demos and discarded tracks, is that the band themselves, who ought to be in the best position to judge, originally felt these thirteen songs were unworthy. Whatever seems to you like the least distinguished moment on Crowded House's four albums, somebody believed these were all worse. Collecting them for sale is perverse, like a restaurant admitting that today's special is yesterday's left-overs. Who would want such a thing? Listening, defiantly, I can only conclude that the band were temporarily insane. The rumbling drums and pinging guitars of "I Am in Love" are as dramatic and graceful as anything on Together Alone. "Sacred Cow" has a rootsy underpinning, which isn't what I think of as Crowded House's strength, but the chorus harmonies are unmistakable, and the parts where the rhythm sections cuts out and lets the song drift are heartbreaking. "You Can Touch" is ragged but glorious, enlivened considerably, for me, by Neil's charmingly tenuous drumming. I can imagine that "Help Is Coming", a demo from the last session before the band's demise, had a revision or two to come, but I could spend a happy hour speculating about how the album for which this was a beginning would have ended up. "I Love You Dawn" is a jangly love-song to Neil's wife. "Dr. Livingstone" seems torn between Howard Jones and Midnight Oil, but Paul Hester's lurching "My Telly's Gone Bung" is a jovial throw-away. The quiet demo of "Private Universe" is sort of a novelist's vision of an internal world instead of the album version's more cinematic one. The acoustic meditation "Lester" is an actual home demo, complete with the sounds of people bumping into microphones and a guitar solo in only one speaker, but "Anyone Can Tell" is sparkling and grand, and although the liner notes claim it was made at Mitchell Froom's urging by grafting two different songs together, I can't spot the seam. The original 1985 recording of "Recurring Dream", Crowded House's contribution to the Tequila Sunrise soundtrack (and the song that lent its title to their best-of, though it wasn't itself included), predates even Crowded House, and maybe if I'd heard it first it wouldn't have taken me eight years to come around. "Left Hand" is a bit clangy for me, but "Time Immemorial", the finale, twangs and hums like a cross between Soul Asylum and Cyndi Lauper's "Fearless". I've been converted, and I'll probably be a Neil Finn fan now forever. But I suspect these will always be my favorite of his years, and salvaged scenes from them play across my walls like home movies of a youth it's not too late to cherish.
The Mutton Birds: Rain, Steam & Speed
Given how many statistics I record, it's probably odd that I don't keep track of how many times I put an album in the stack of things I plan to write about on Wednesday night, but reach Thursday morning without getting around to it. I do know the date I got something and the date I wrote about it, though, so I can calculate the gaps, and with the exception of some singles and a handful of albums I intentionally saved to review with the rest of a series, Rain, Steam & Speed holds the current procrastination record by a comfortable margin. At least half a dozen times, over the course of the last nine months, I've reached the end of a brace of pop records only to realize that I'd drifted too far from the Mutton Birds elegiac melancholy for the transition to make sense. If I'd had more Crowded House records to talk about, I'm sure I would have gotten to it sooner, as the Mutton Birds have come to seem to me like the perfect candidate to take over from their fellow UK-transplanted New Zealanders, in the way I thought Hothouse Flowers might take over for the Waterboys, or Manic Street Preachers for the Alarm, or Everclear for Nirvana. As of 1997's Envy of Angels there was still a dark undercurrent that kept the Mutton Birds from achieving Crowded House's pop purity, but an album later one of us must be less anxious, and the pop reveries into which these songs throw me feel uncannily similar to the ones I reach through "In My Command" or "Distant Sun" or "Fall at Your Feet". The verses of "AsCloseAsThis" are sharp and bleating, with compressed rhythm guitar and squeaky lead yelps, but the bass line and breathy percussion smooth out the bounding chorus. The Jules Shear-like "Winning Numbers" is striding and expansive, bright with guitars I keep mistaking for pianos. "Small Mercies" is sparer, nearly a folk song but for Alan Gregg's ascending bass lines; "Green Lantern" is brash and loud, McGlashan's slightly nasal voice sounding more like Bob Dylan than usual. "The Falls", with McGlashan adding a mournful euphonium, lies somewhere between the Blue Nile and Radiohead. The measured, pulsing "Last Year's Shoes", if it weren't for the surges of reverse-reverb backing vocals on the choruses, might nearly fit in on Del Amitri's Waking Hours. "Jackie's Song" is an old-fashioned British folk dirge of the sort Richard Thompson might have written, just McGlashan's reedy acoustic guitar and Don Mitchell's E-bow accompanying the grief-stricken narrative. The clattering drums of "Pulled Along by Love" are closer to Mitchell Froom's treatments of Crowded House, but the snarling guitars and looping vocals edge towards the Frames or the Frank & Walters. Stuart Nesbit adds pedal steel to "Goodbye Drug", and Ross Burge obliges with a country-ish drum cadence, but the honky-tonk swagger is undermined by the ghost of Nick Drake sighing in the quietest moments of McGlashan's singing. "Hands Full" is an odd, refracted tableau, but "Ray", the last song, slides into its plaintive choruses with the same timeless composure as "Private Universe" or Darden Smith's "Little Victories". Perhaps in the end this album is closer to Finn than any of the four Crowded House records themselves, but if that's what the Finns themselves extrapolated from Crowded House, I don't think it invalidates my equation to have the Mutton Birds follow a parallel course.
And there are a few moments, scattered through this album, when I do entertain the heretical idea that the Mutton Birds might one day supplant Crowded House in my affections. Although I love their music dearly, whenever I try to coax the same kind of deep emotional resonance out of Crowded House's lyrics, or go looking for something especially evocative to quote, I rarely get very far. McGlashan's conception of poetry is much closer to mine. "AsCloseAsThis"'s relationship tension is framed in geothermal repression, denied addiction, and a neighborhood geography that seems to be half a childhood suburb and half Hell. The content-with-what-I-have anthem "Winning Numbers" leaves several images behind in my head, but none as specific and vivid as the opening verse: "On a Belgian Airways plane / Here comes an ad for credit cards. / Just what language are those happy children singing? / I'm supposed to feel like joining in." There's not much as alienating as fake community. "You're free again / Now you've thrown in / Your job at the circus", observes the devoted "Green Lantern". "The Falls" is a succinct essay about the hollowness of the temptations that take us away from our homes, one of the few thesis-antithesis-synthesis constructions you'll find in a pop song. "There's a thin strand of winter inside / This long summer hillside / No matter how hot it gets", begins "Last Year's Shoes", and when the chorus repeats "Is this how it feels to find love?" I don't know whether he means that the thin strand of winter is love, and will be part of every other feeling thereafter, or that love, in this metaphor, is the heat, and the cold is the part of ourselves we refuse to commit. "Jackie's Song" is a disturbing soldier's lament, and the ambiguous gender of the title character makes it hard to be exactly sure what's going on, but my two theories are a) that Jackie is the singer's younger brother, killed in a war the narrator dragged him into thinking it would be an adventure, and b) that Jackie is the singer's love, back at home, and it's the narrator bleeding on ground he went to claim for her, imagining Jackie with him because, from his perspective, him dying and her dying are the same. "Goodbye Drug" is about giving up an addiction to failure and farewells, a response to the long-standing sad-pop conundrum most recently described in the Trembling Blue Stars' "Half in Love With Leaving". "Hands Full" is about the simultaneous appeal and difficulty of translating emotions into language. "When he asked if she'd mind saying / What they were doing, she said no at first, / But in a while she found herself warming / To the task of putting it into words. // Before long she had her hands full." We all do, but I'm glad we keep trying.
Bike: Take in the Sun
If you formed an idea about New Zealand music from just Crowded House and the Mutton Birds, you'd never guess how much noise you're missing. Bike, my favorite recent Kiwi discovery (the album was released in New Zealand by Flying Nun, but was licensed for the US by the Darla-distributed March Records, who earned my buy-on-sight devotion by putting out barcelona and Kleenex Girl Wonder), aren't noisy in the dissonant sense of This Kind of Punishment, the Cakekitchen, or any of Graeme or Peter Jefferies' other projects, but the arrangements are much denser than Finn's or McGlashan's, and rely much more heavily on waves of distorted guitar. A cross between Jellyfish and Sugar (if the clashing food metaphors don't drive you away) seems like a rather inspired idea to me, and many of these songs approach it, Jellyfish's penchant for exuberant melodies funneled through Bob Mould's monolithic guitar roar. The title track is fast and deliciously bleary, Andrew Brough's boyish singing caroming off sun-bathed walls while guitar noise settles over the seaside like a bioluminescent fog. "Circus Kids" feints towards Radiohead's "Creep" and Oasis' "Wonderwall" before blasting off into a swooning Jon Brion/Jason Falkner-ish chorus. "Tears Were Blue" invokes Badfinger, XTC and Ziggy Stardust. "Welcome to My World" combines the warmth of Velvet Crush with the taut obsessiveness of Verbow. "Inside" is what it might sound like if Jimmy Eat World or Lincolnville tried to write a Beatles pastiche, but couldn't stay in character for the choruses. "Anybody Know" settles into a deeper, Oasis-like rock groove, and "Old and Blue" is massive and lumbering, but "Keeping You in Mine" is like Teenage Fanclub in "Brasilia Crossed With Trenton"'s clothes, and the delicate "Sunrise" could be a murky Merrymakers demo. "Save My Life" sounds like it was steeped in a mixture of the noisier Grays songs and Hüsker Dü's cover of "Eight Miles High". And the muted "Slide On By", which eases off the distortion for the verses, rises into an elegant howl again by the end. Hyper-melodic pop can be precious, but not when you can turn it up and feel like the air between your walls has become solid enough to support you.
The Lucksmiths: Staring at the Sky
If that noise is too much, and New Zealand is a thousand miles too close to the International Date Line for you (and if Y2K was a colossal disappointment from the social-disorder point of view, at least a lot of people learned something about the path midnight traces across the planet), the Australian trio the Lucksmiths closed out the old millennium with their second short record of 1999, this one a six-track EP of new songs recorded in August and September. For many other bands, sixteen songs over fifty minutes would be one album, and the two discs are close enough in style and spirit that I think I'm going to pretend that Happy Secret was side A, and this is side B, and the fact that they were shipped in separate packages is some logistical snafu of no artistic relevance.
"Untidy Towns" was the showpiece of side A, for me, and I think side B's treasure is its first track, too, the shuffling "Smokers in Love". I never trust my readings of songs involving smoking, since I know, although it constantly baffles me, that not everybody shares my opinion that smoking is a pathetic commercialization of low self-esteem and a noxious combination of suicide and procrastination, but this one really does appear to be condemning the relationship for exactly the kind of deliberate, short-sighted denial smoking epitomizes. Tali White's hushed, accented delivery sounds more like a refined Billy Bragg than ever, the meter of the lines stretched to accommodate plangent insights in just the way so many of Bragg's songs do. "I Can't Believe It's Not Better" adds piano, a purring acoustic bass and doleful horns, but probably even Shania Twain would remind me of Billy Bragg if she sang the phrase "unemployment figures" in a British-Empire accent. "ie, eg, etc." is jazzier, parts reminding me of the Beautiful South and Simon & Garfunkel. The distinctly "You Woke Up My Neighborhood"-like "The Golden Age of Aviation" opens with a section from some earlier-age English aviatrix's bubbly Australian arrival speech, and alludes to Amelia Earhart (one of my two favorite romantic heroines, along with Marie Curie), but turns out to be a surprisingly complex extended metaphor for the way we avoid living our lives by hiding in the outdated dreams of what we once thought they were going to become. The droning, bass-heavy "Before the Sun Came Up" reminds me of the Feelies, but "The Opposite of Coffee" seems to be peering through a window, wistfully, at the Brit-pop bands playing outside, not quite able to dredge up the courage to go out and be a brash anthem itself. Putting "The Opposite of Coffee" at the opposite end of the side from "Smokers in Love" suggests a conclusion of the addiction metaphor, but in fact, despite a concerted effort to interpret this installment as another relationship song, I'm unable to see any way in which it's not a mean-spirited lullaby about the morale-sapping experience of living with a mentally handicapped person. Surely I'm wrong, and a song this pretty can't be that offensive, but I've got no other theories. If it's about a doll, why is she talking? If it's about a pet, why is it wearing a skirt? If it was supposed to be a criticism of the narrator's indifference, shouldn't the tag-line have been something less glib than "She's the last thing I need first thing in the morning"? Then again, maybe I've fallen into the trap of assuming that a musical style implies certain politics, and the Lucksmiths have well-thought-out reasons for feeling that people like this should be in professional care. I don't know, and while it's not quite right to say that I like this particular confusion, it is the first pop song in a long time to offend me in a novel way, so I'm not likely to forget it.
The Mabels: Scenes From a Midday Movie...
One of the more useful characteristics of very small labels is that many of them put out records in an extremely limited range of styles. If you like two records from Apricot, or Marsh Marigold, or Shelflife, there's a pretty decent chance that you'll like some of the other ones, which could never be said about Warner or Sony. The Lucksmiths are on Candle, and so are the Mabels, who seem to me like an incredibly clever exercise in duplicating a band in every particular except one. If there were a knob labeled "Energy" mounted on the back of the Lucksmiths, and you gave it a quick little twist, just enough so their snare brushes turn into sticks, the tempos edge into the rock range, and the harmonies start to sound more like two people encouraging each other, rather than merely exhaling in synchrony, the Mabels are exactly what I'm convinced you'd get. Singer Anthony Atkinson might have as thick an accent as Tali White, but he sings a couple decibels louder, and some of the accent is lost in the volume. The female backing vocals, from bassist Kim Parker, push these songs a few feet towards country, and Atkinson and Warwick Lobb sometimes let the guitars be dragged along. David Kneale drums with a light touch, but doesn't shirk his structural responsibilities. "44 Reasons for Living" sounds a bit like Too Much Joy re-arranged by Nanci Griffith. The impish "Tennis Players Girlfriends" sounds like barcelona trying to do a Son Volt song, and the pealing, urgent "Sitting in a Cyclone" sound like barcelona covering "Caught in My Shadow"-era Wonderstuff. The slow ballad "Ecstatic" is much closer to the Lucksmiths, but "By the River" sounds like a sketch for a Buffalo Tom epic, and if guitars were pianos and the singers' genders were swapped I suspect "Everything Is Different" would sound very much like Suddenly Tammy. The stubborn dirge "Filipino Bride" reminds me of at least five Billy Bragg songs ("St. Swithin's Day", "There Is Power in a Union", "Rotting on Remand", "God's Footballer" and "Tank Park Salute", to be specific). The raspy, reeling "Redeemed" could be the extroverted drunk to match the Lucksmiths' blurry reticence. Parker takes the lead on the slide-guitar-fueled "Small Town Charity Queen", which ends up something like Marine Research channeling Patsy Cline. And "Our Last Photo", the lingering epilogue, could easily be a Willard Grant Conspiracy song, or a Low cover they don't quite get through before the drummer gets back from lunch with an accordionist and a horn section. The Lucksmiths' tranquil self-assurance is one of the sources of my fondness for them, but apparently I'd still like them if they were less patient. Every once in a while it's nice to get to do one of these thought experiments outside of my own head.
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