Within Half an Hour, You Were at My Door
280 · 8 June 00
Plumtree: This Day Won't Last at All
In the photograph in the booklet, the four girls are sitting on a bed in what must be one of their bedrooms. I assume the two who kind of look alike are the Gillis sisters, and extrapolating from the degree of extroversion represented by their shirts, I'm going to guess that the one on the left is Lynette, the drummer, and the one standing is Carla. Carla shares vocal and guitar responsibilities with Amanda Braden, who I'm guessing is the one in the back, based on a blurry impression that a bass might intimidate her. That would mean the one in the middle is Catriona Sturton, who looks less easily daunted. Carla, if my caption is correctly ordered, is peering at the cover of an LP, and the other three are either serving as her amused audience, or else they're just waiting patiently for the photograph to be taken. I don't know if we're intended to identify the LP, as it's being held with the front cover facing away from the camera, and at an angle and distance that reduce the back-cover to an abstract design, but it happens to be one of the first two or three dozen records I ever owned, and I'd probably know either side of the cover at a quarter of this size. The side she's looking at, which you can't see, is something of a rock-trope masterpiece, featuring a leering skull, a bed with bony talons and a "666" headboard, two leaping rats (one of which is oddly cute, making me wonder if the artist understood all the instructions correctly), and six menacing, naked, genitalia-less demons hovering over a hapless victim with a snake wound around his neck and the sheet across his thigh. Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, it says across the top, in an angular script that presaged all heavy-metal typography to follow. The demon in the top right, blonde and nominally female, made a particularly strong impression on me at the time; I don't specifically remember taking steps to insure that my parents didn't get a close look at this cover, but I must have. The four girls look a lot like my friends and I probably looked, Carla smirking slightly but trying to act nonchalant, Lynette intrigued but a little confused, Catriona belligerently blasé, Amanda wishing she were elsewhere. But they're older than I was when I first studied this cover, and the world is much older that it was when this cover first confronted it. It's hard to imagine that a painting this tame still inspires much illicit thrill.
And so here's my real theory about this scene. Plumtree are Cardigans fans (a hypothesis supported by the languid, elegant "I Love You When You're Walkin' Away", their track for March Records' encyclopedic Moshi Moshi compilation earlier this year), and they were introduced to "Sabbath Bloody Sabbath" by the Cardigans' version of it. They borrowed the original LP from one of their parents, and this photograph catches them having gathered to listen to it, still imagining that they're about to hear the roots of jangly elfin pop, the genre that Black Sabbath and Big Star built and then buried for archeologists to dig up later. I wish they'd included the After picture to go with this Before. Black Sabbath circa 1974 aren't as illicitly thrilling as they once were musically, either, and if nobody thought to tell the girls that this is heavy metal, the idea might not occur to them from listening, but it's still a long way from Ozzy's blasted whine to Nina Persson's coy chirp, and I would have liked to see how their expressions made the journey.
Here's what I think they ended up learning, from one or the other or both: 1) the Cardigans convert all aesthetic impulses into the grammar of modeling, into poses, which is an interesting trick but one that sacrifices a lot of music's kinetic potential; 2) Pop has traditionally been snare-driven, metal kick-driven, but this is a false dichotomy; 3) Once music is forgotten (and most music begins forgotten), it becomes free. This album has roots, but to my ears they're Liz Phair, the Breeders, Sarge, Braid, Sleater-Kinney, endearing label-mates b'ehl and Halifax neighbors Sloan. Carla and Amanda trade sparkly guitar barbs and unforced singing, and Catriona's bass is unobtrusive. If those were This Day Won't Last at All's only qualities, I'm not sure what would have become of it in my house. I know a hundred pop bands that trade sparkly guitar barbs and unforced singing, and they span my continuum of preferences from indifference to obsession, so I might have loved Plumtree and I might have moved on, according to qualities and reactions neither tangible nor rational. The thing that has kept them in my heavy rotation, however, is surprisingly easy to explain. I believe Lynette Gillis has just (based on far too little evidence, but so be it) replaced Big Country's Mark Brzezicki as my favorite drummer. If this impulse stands up to scrutiny, she'll be only the third favorite-drummer I've ever had, as Brzezicki took over from Rush's Neal Peart, and before Peart I didn't pay enough attention to drummers to have a favorite one. Arguably I have not fully embraced indie pop until my entire personal fantasy band is assembled from its ranks. The rest of my current line-up is something like: vocals and piano, Tori Amos; electric guitar, Mecca Normal's David Lester; acoustic guitar, Luka Bloom; backing vocals, Roxette's Marie Fredriksson; programming, Jesus Jones' Mike Edwards; miscellany, Magnetic Fields' Stephin Merritt; textures, Gary Numan; production, Trevor/hollAnd; and apparently my taste in bass players hasn't evolved since I was in high school, as I'm still torn between Rush's Geddy Lee, Queensrÿche's Eddie Jackson and fretless session veteran Pino Palladino. This demonstrates what an inane idea fantasy bands are, and/or raises some suspicious questions about my tastes (fewer, though, since Tori rendered moot my long-standing internal debate about whether my favorite singer was Ronnie James Dio or Fiona). Lynette, in fact, drums more like a native progressive-rock drummer raised by a pop tribe than like Ringo Starr or Bill Berry. She shares Maureen Tucker's and Mimi Parker's fondnesses for floor toms, and plays hi-hats so deliberately that they sound like they might have been recorded separately, but it's the assurance with which she rumbles through these songs' tricky metric shifts that prevents them from ever becoming evasive, that turns scores that might have stomped like Fugazi into songs that whirl like the Go-Go's. "Was That All?" could be Heavenly crossed with Fleetwood Mac's "Tusk". The jerky "One-Stop" careens from free-fall tom-toms to splashing cymbals and snares to a blocky kick/snare churn. "I'm Not Moving" ornaments a dead-pan garage-band rattle with a hi-hat hiss she seems to be playing incidentally, with an elbow, and in parts reminds me of both Sarge's "Detroit Star-Lite" and the Loud Family's "Years of Wrong Impressions". The pounding, inexorable "Regret" switches from six-beat verses driven by concussive kick drums and whispery hi-hats to blistering nine-beat instrumental choruses that ride on erratically martial snares. "Lies I Tell Myself" is slower, but the kick drum booms, the snare misses all its cues by a few micro-seconds, and the rhythm threatens to collapse at all the intersections when it would conventionally be most decisive. "Hello Again" is what Kenickie might have sounded like if they'd spent more time listening to old Three O'Clock records. "Tonight's Not Alright" starts out with nothing but vocals and reverberating drums, eases into 4/4 for the spare verses, and then girds the roaring guitars in an eleven-beat pattern I swear I could dance to if my ankle were just a week or two farther along, although by the coda they've taken to reinserting the missing twelfth beat, and virtually everybody should be able to follow along. The guitar hooks in the quiet, chiming "Latitude", half-lullaby/half-anthem, remind me vividly of Aden, but Lynette's kick drum circles them like she thinks it's a lead instrument, too. "My My" skips along like Plumtree's answer to Blondie's "The Tide Is High", but "I Could Draw a Line" is wistful and jazzy, not too far removed from Sarge's slow songs. "Thrilled to Be Here", another shoo-in for a year-end top-ten that I'm beginning to fear will end up with many more shoos than feet, might be the basement-to-arena crossover that the Bonaduces, Marine Research, Sleater-Kinney and Letters to Cleo have all been searching for. Most of "Faraway", after that, is staid and anticlimactic, but Plumtree gather themselves for the finale, guitars pealing, drums tumbling, hi-hats fizzing and fizzling. Maybe the revelation they had, as somebody's father's well-worn copy of Sabbath Bloody Sabbath crackled into the room, is that if you listen just right, you can hear the Cardigans in Black Sabbath. Music doesn't have to be fragile to be affectionate, perverse to be propulsive, or anxious to be intense. And if your drummer plays some other kind of music, so now can you.
The Salteens: Short-Term Memories
But lest either of us mistake my fascination with Lynette's tempo-changes for prog-rock recidivism, the third of the four records I've had cycling as a set, for the past few weeks (Plumtree was the second, the Park Ave record I wrote about last week was the first), is big, jubilant pop of the cheeriest, most precedent-fond sort. Short-Term Memories and This Day Won't Last at All reached me in the same Canadian mail-order, having been released more or less simultaneously by endearing, and it's possible that I've never listened to one without the other. I would have said this pairing, and indeed the whole four-album sequence, was a logistical strategy, as much as anything else, playing several short albums back to back so that they can add up to what my body wants to think of as album lengths, but I just checked the running times and discovered that however concise they feel, This Day Won't Last at All and Kings of Convenience are no shorter than anything I grew up with. None of the four resemble each other, stylistically (by which I mean that most human beings couldn't tell them apart, but it's possible to train yourself to block out everything about them but their tiny differences), yet my experience of them shares a character. All four bands were new to me, all four styles are uncluttered and charming, and all four albums leap from one song in whose embrace I melt to another with few enough interruptions that I never have a chance to organize resistance. Short-Term Memories crashes in with the airy harmonies, sighing horns and plaintive celebrity-crush nostalgia of "Kelly Nicoll", like Sloan in "Beat Surrender"-era Jam costumes. "Bubba Da" filters its traces of Sloan through the reedy synth-pop glee of Wolfie and the epic melodicism of Jellyfish. Pastel vibes suffuse "The Best Thought" in a jazzy glow, but the nasal vocals belong to the tradition of Tullycraft and the early Posies, and the springy guitar solo towards the end is pure Byrds. "Crash the Market" reminds me of astrid and the Leslies, warm and wistful. "Culture" is Sloan cut with just a little Weezer. "Guy Dog" drifts towards later Posies, more Byrds than Beatles, but all the slinky "Caught at the Cusp" can't decide is whether it wants to be "Paperback Writer", "Eleanor Rigby" or Madness covering "Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah". "Showstopper" nearly collapses under the weight of its harmonies, but "Emptyhead" is an uncanny impression of what it would sound like if 54-40 covered New Order. And "Nice Day", with its electric piano, staggered harmonies and hand-claps, is how I imagine Papas Fritas' Buildings and Grounds might have turned out if they'd spent the time since Helioself driving around Europe in a school bus full of Apricot and Siesta bands instead of holed up at home listening to Rumours. I'll admit, I can't think of any reason to claim this record is significant, but neither is ice cream or table tennis. Things don't have to be significant to be valuable and even important. Begrudging yourself trivia isn't discipline, it's anti-social cruelty: whatever you did today instead of listening to these ten superbly meaningless two-and-a-half-minute pop songs was probably just as frivolous, far less satisfying, and much more destructive. Tomorrow, pick twenty-five minutes of it not to do.
Kings of Convenience: Kings of Convenience
The fourth album in the sequence is similarly special-purpose, for me. Kings of Convenience are a Norwegian duo, who I knew only from their song on Kindercore's Christmas Two compilation, "Deilig er Jorden", an a cappella rendition of a traditional Norwegian Christmas song from which conclusions could not realistically be drawn. Their album turns out to be my second answer (the first was the Clientele) to anybody who wishes Belle and Sebastian still sounded more like Nick Drake, and Elliott Smith still sounded more like Simon & Garfunkel. I imagine that if Jonathan Richman could have rescued Drake, together they might have gone on to write dozens of songs like the tripping "Toxic Girl". The relationship lullaby "I Don't Know What I Can Save You From" reminds me of Paul and Art in structure, the Lucksmiths in timbre. The music behind "Failure", ticking drums, winding bass and elliptical acoustic guitar, vaguely resembles David Gray's White Ladder, but the harmony on the chorus is breathtaking, like "Pink Moon" restructured to be an unironic rejoinder to "So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright". The guitars on "Leaning Against the Wall" are faintly flamenco, but "Brave New World" rests on a skeletal kick-snare groove, a looping guitar figure and some shiny finger-picking, Eirik Glambek Bøe and Erlend Øye singing their parts as rounds instead of harmony, like they've just invented Gregorian drum-and-bass. "An English House" is breathy, unadorned folk, like "April Come She Will" rewritten as Wallace or Gromit's interior monologue on a quiet night in West Wallaby. "Days I Had With You" breaks into pinwheeling guitar arpeggios, but "Parallel Lines" is reticent throughout, even the harmonies hiding down in the bottom of Eirik and Erlend's ranges where they're hard to pick out. "Winning a Battle, Losing the War" is a graceful, soothing love song, perhaps the one he'll sing to Cecilia, the night after the party in Paul and Art's song, as she sleeps it off and for a few peaceful moments neither of them have to pretend not to care. And "Surprise Ice", the conclusion, is perhaps the quietest song of the set, my idea of what Billy Bragg's "The Myth of Trust" might have sounded like if he'd never heard of punk or abortions. By the time this album ends, I am very calm and very aware, and ready for Park Ave to start again.
Masters of the Hemisphere: I Am Not a Freemdoom
My changer has a fifth slot, though, and my last order from Kindercore also had the second album by Athens duo-grown-to-quartet Masters of the Hemisphere. It is a concept album, complete with a comic book, about a long running battle between an evil (but cute) dog named Freemdoom, his awkward bodyguard Gorgar, a small blob with feet and one mechanical arm called Ed, and a fish named Mal who waddles around on land wearing a helmet filled with water. This sounds pretty dumb, but I assure you, it's much, much dumber in execution than outline. Marijuana plays a pivotal role in the plot, and I strongly suspect it also played a pivotal role in the conception of the project. The band were just coherent enough to realize that it's impossible to follow the story by listening to the lyrics of the songs, so they gave them long titles. They must have titled them while stoned, however, so the titles make no sense, a problem they addressed by adding a set of "Song Descriptions" underneath the title list. This too they appear to have composed while stoned, so it's not much of an improvement. Unwilling to move backwards, they opted to recapitulate the entire thing in a horribly inept comic book, but they drew it while stoned, which necessitated the writing of an error-riddled prose abstract of the comic book to fail to explain it in turn. That makes five separate botched attempts to tell a worthless story, which combine to constitute an excellent demonstration, in my opinion, of the embarrassing difference between using a drug that convinces you you're brilliant and actually being brilliant, and one I'll think of, from now on, every time somebody claims that drugs expand your mind.
Once you put the comic book back in the digipack and forget about it, though, the album gets a lot better. "So What About Freemdoom", the opening track (which tells the end of the story, so no wonder nobody can follow it), is an enviably simple pop song built on measured drums, a burbling bass line, humming keyboards and one of the best two-note guitar parts since the Buzzcocks' "Boredom". "Gorgar wants to destroy Freemdoom", I found myself singing for days (further confusing the story, since Gorgar is obviously a monster, so if he wants to destroy Freemdoom, the dog must be the hero). "Who Is This Dog?" is wriggly and clattering, something like Neutral Milk Hotel covering Steve Miller's "Jungle Love". "The Dog Who Controls People's Lungs" is sunny and relentless, "The New Commotion" balanced between Euro-jazz-pop and Elephant 6, "Gorgar's Room" sketchy and excitable. "Freemdoom's Lab" is a frilly synth/sample collage laid over a burpy drum-and-bass thump. "The New Freemdoom" is a beaming reprise of "So What About Freemdoom", which segues oddly into the understated "The Sun in the Afternoon", but "Summer in Krone Ishta" is pretty, delicate and self-contained, and it's almost possible to imagine that it's a love song for a girl the singer met at summer camp, the strange stuff about the life-wrecking dog just a malformed metaphor. "Mal Needs to Talk About the Things He Wants to Say" is a sort of pop-punk polka, and "Mal's Throes" reminds me of Vehicle Flips without the wit, but the falsetto trifle "Calm Calm Coma" is harmonized and dreamy, and "The Fearsome Duo", however useless at wrapping up the story, does have just enough of the good-humored jauntiness of "Puff the Magic Dragon" for me to imagine that we've reached a happy ending. If Short-Term Memories is trivial music that makes me think we'd improve the world by doing as little of our jobs as we can get away with, then I Am Not a Freemdoom is a useful contrast, one that encourages me to get back to work by being far too idiotic for me to just sit and listen. And so my life oscillates, pop songs alternately pulling me away from and pushing me back towards everything I don't know whether to cherish or renounce.