A College of Kisses
358 · 6 December 01
K's Choice: Busy
Was May really a month in this same year, and is Belgium still a country on this same globe? My trip there, back in the spring, now seems to have taken place in some other era entirely. The beginning of December is when I start figuring out what I need to do to complete my year, and usually it feels like it arrives far too soon, before anything like eleven months of life has taken place. This year, in many ways for the first time, December feels finally. I hadn't felt this way acutely until Sunday, walking out of the little Japanese grocery store in the Porter Exchange. After many years of feeling inexplicably alienated by the cheery Japanese food court next to it, I've recently become very attached to its small, affectless sushi bar, and the Japanese bakery counter marooned, bizarrely, in the middle of the wide corridor separating the sushi bar from the entrance to the Gap. Between Japanese food and J-pop, actually, I've developed something of a minor cultural obsession, to the extent that I've begun feeling self-conscious about not being able to understand even the most rudimentary aspects of the language, and am considering signing up for a class. I have not, traditionally, enjoyed learning foreign languages, but "traditionally", in this case, means a really long time ago, since my brief career as a language scholar (two years of high school German, two of French and one of college Swedish) reached its relieved conclusion in 1986. As I walked across the parking lot to my car, I was trying to imagine how to guess if I'm a different person now in that particular regard, so I was thinking about languages as I took a bite without so much sweet azuki bean paste (which is tastier than it probably sounds) out of my dessert donut, and the department of my brain in charge of matching active mental states to stored sense memories linked Japanese incomprehension to French incomprehension, and the sugary donut to a Belgian waffle, and suddenly, dizzyingly, I was back in the Grand Place in Brussels. So I sat in my German car, in a Cambridge parking lot, finishing a Japanese donut, daydreaming about Belgian chocolate, listening to Swedish death-metal, and felt a bit lost.
When you feel lost, back up and retrace. Backing up and retracing my steps since the Grand Place means returning, at least briefly, to the two bands that were my soundtracks for the trip, K's Choice and Roxette. I would happily have left Belgium with a whole suitcase of K's Choice records, if there had been that many of them, but in fact all I could find were the new album, one tour EP, and this single. The Almost Happy version of "Busy" was nearly too much for me, but the single version, remixed by Al Clay, adds some extra twitchy drums that dilute the solemnity, for better and worse. If "Busy" doesn't hurt as much, though, or as well, then the second single track, a heartbreaking mostly-acoustic version of "Almost Happy", compensates in both directions. This is a bit more than I meant by retracing. Closer to what I had in mind are the other two tracks, brightly uncluttered live performances of "My Head" and "Live for Real". "Live for Real", in particular, sparkling guitar figures over a meditative bass hum and a heartbeat-at-rest drum pulse, would be a perfect soundtrack for a highlights reel of the trip, awed and ancient and hopeful.
K's Choice: Another Year
The second single from Almost Happy, "Another Year", came out over the summer, and somehow managed to follow me back to America. "Another Year" and "Shadowman" are the album versions, so the single's only unique virtue is a live take of "All", recorded at the same session as the two live tracks on the other single. There's something even more disturbing about the idea that Sarah and Gert can perform this terrifying, deadening song live, and presumably repeatedly, but this version is a little less steady than the one on the album, as if it's starting to get to them, too, and between that and the burst of supportive applause from the crowd at the end, it seems a little less frightening to me, like maybe it's a song about how things used to be, or will come to used to have been, instead of how they are doomed to forever stay.
Roxette: Real Sugar
And if K's Choice capture exactly the magnificence I aspire to when I'm sad, Roxette encapsulates what I mean by joy. They don't seem to have produced much extra material during the Room Service sessions, though, so the singles are left to make do with alternate versions, remixes and CD-ROM videos. This one includes a "Modern Rock" version of the Have a Nice Day album track "It Will Take a Long Long Time", which doesn't seem especially modern or rock to me, but sure is pretty, and Shooting Star's maniacally twittering techno remix of "Real Sugar" itself, which is kind of a peppy dance track and its own chill-out correlate fused cleverly into one. The video here is actually the one for "The Centre of the Heart", and although I rarely like music videos, and even more rarely like music videos that consist mainly of a faked performance, this one I find unexpectedly enchanting. The performance sequences are endearingly goofy (both keyboardists are playing Eighties-style guitar-strapped synths, and Marie is just funny to watch, period), but the inspired touch is intercutting them with nearly-motionless scenes of various people watching the resulting video at home. They all appear to have been interrupted in the middle of something, some of them in the middle of intimate somethings (there's nothing that explicitly mandates an R rating, but I think American MTV would balk at several bits, particularly a brief glimpse, right at the end, of one of the watching couples resuming an interesting bedroom variation on miniature golf). Most brilliantly, none of them are dancing. It's a propulsive dance song, and the video cast is attractive, and I feel certain that it would not even have occurred to an American director that they could be doing anything but dancing, alluringly, and thus joining the effort to sell the song. But instead, they are just standing, or sitting, or lying on beds, quietly watching the video. It's so beautiful it almost makes me cry. This is what the entire pop industry misunderstands. A great song doesn't have to, or even usually, make me want to buy cola, or run out into the street and join a synchronized dance or a revolution, it makes me want to shut up and listen. Just as with a great book, or a great movie, a great song can make me want to pause my own life, temporarily, and spend just a few moments in somebody else's.
Roxette: Milk and Toast and Honey
The single for "Milk and Toast and Honey" is just four versions of the one song. The single version, the first one, isn't different enough from the album version for me to care about puzzling out the details, but the second and third, remixed by Active Music Production and Shooting Star, are quite obvious. I don't think either of them are among the better Roxette remixes, probably because the original song is so far from a dance track that making it into one, at least expediently, requires a lot of holes to be filled in with techno clichés. This video, courageous in another way, takes a song about waking up alone and relaxed on a peaceful weekend morning, and sets it to a video of Marie waking up alone and relaxed on a peaceful weekend morning. She gets up, she makes breakfast, she walks down to the ocean, she sings to herself bits of her song about waking up alone and relaxed on a peaceful weekend morning. Except for the token shots of Per playing a piano on a lawn, it's one of the rare lip-sync videos in which I believe the person pictured might actually have been singing the song aloud even if the cameras weren't there.
Manic Street Preachers: Ocean Spray #1
My Belgium vacation involved an important side-trip to London, and Manic Street Preachers are currently my mental UK representative. Writing about Know Your Enemy, shortly before the trip, I confessed to not being able to make much sense of "Ocean Spray", since obviously a band as ardently anti-corporate as this would never write a laudatory song about a brand-name cranberry drink. Quite a few of you have since taken the time to fill me in on the story, which is that James wrote it about sitting with his cancer-stricken mother in the hospital, holding her hand until morning, and then going to the vending machine to get her a bottle of the brand-name cranberry drink, after all, because it was the only thing she could keep down. That explains the song, but doesn't necessarily justify it. Ocean Spray, the company, isn't part of any evil multi-national conglomerate, as best I can tell, but I still believe totemizing a brand-name, no matter what the context, is contrary to what I think the Manic Street Preachers want me to think are their principles. I'm aware that it sounds callous to second-guess the lyrics of a song about your mother dying, but if you make art about your life, you have to be willing to have it criticized as art. There must have been at least six other ways James could have written about this intensely emotional experience, and I'm virtually certain that the most evocative one would not have relied on a product name for its title and chorus.
The two non-album b-sides here are slight. The verses of "Groundhog Days" feel to me like they're killing time until the chorus, but the choruses are lumbering and, at least to me, unmemorable. "Just a Kid", despite some clattering drums, is similarly listless, especially when compared to their last song about a kid, "Baby Elian".
Manic Street Preachers: Ocean Spray #2
Part two has the album version, a clanging live performance from the dubious record-release concert in Havana, and two remixes. If second-guessing the lyrical strategy of somebody's song about their mother dying verges on insensitive, what about having it remixed as a dance track? This is grotesque. Medicine, as if conscious of the problem, constructs the first "remix" out of only Bradfield's Japanese intro and the lyric snippet "'Til we can". Kinobe's version, the second one, tries to acknowledge the song's emotional tone, but ends up with what sounds to me like a pain-wracked reggae song on its miserable deathbed. Fitting, I guess, but neither pleasant nor illuminating.
Manic Street Preachers: Let Robeson Sing #1
The first single for "Let Robeson Sing" adds two more new songs, and to me these are much more interesting. "Masking Tape", the first one, is a big, strutting, classic-hearted rock anthem, spiked with gleeful guitar histrionics and a sweet, if sketchy, lyric about living through the winter with the photographs of the summer. "Didn't My Lord Deliver Daniel" is a traditional prayer, and in the moments when I'm able to believe the Manic Street Preachers know what they're doing, I can imagine that they mean to ask whether "And why not every man?" is a question for men or gods.
Manic Street Preachers: Let Robeson Sing #2
I'm not sure dance remixes of a biographical ode to a late political activist make appreciably more sense than dance remixes of a song about your mother dying, but Ian Brown and Felix Da Housecat gamely attempt a pair. Brown was in the Stone Roses, who I detested, and I detest his funky, Stone Roses-esque version of "Let Robeson Sing" correspondingly. The Felix Da Housecat remix sounds like a cross between "Funkytown" and Nine Inch Nails, and while I can't think of any narrative rationale for this, it's entertaining enough. The grand triumph on this single ought to be the concert recording of the song. "Went to Cuba to meet Castro, / Never got past sleepy Moscow", they sing, on the stage in Havana themselves, having successfully made the very trip Robeson didn't. But switching a couple lines to Spanish sounds forced and patronizing, and if the crowd understands the geopolitical ramifications of the sentiment, it isn't evident in the short burst of polite cheering at the end of the recording. In the video, in fact, shot at the Havana show and appended here, it's baldly evident that they have no idea what Bradfield is saying, or perhaps do but don't care. The camera pans blank faces. But why should they care? The band is playing a song about a man who wasn't allowed to come to Cuba to an audience who was born there and isn't allowed to leave. It's embarrassing. And yet, the people in the audience don't look embarrassed. They are clapping, they are waving their red Manic Street Preachers flags, they are swaying back and forth in unison. Maybe now I'm the one being patronizing, but I don't think they even care what band it is. It's rock and roll. For one night, the only political ideologies are in a mercifully foreign language, and they are left alone with the music.
Gay Dad: Now Always and Forever #1
Manic Street Preachers might still be my favorite b-sides band on overall catalog strength, but my favorites on recent merit are clearly Gay Dad, in quantity because they don't bother with remixes, and in quality because their idea of whether any given song should or shouldn't go on one of their albums appears to have little correlation to how much I'll like it. The first single for their second album, Transmission, came out way back in March, almost seven months in advance. In addition to the beepy, snarling title track, which kept me happily anticipating the full record all that time, part one of the single-set adds the non-album b-sides "Estigon" and "God Has Moved On". "Estigon" is fast and crisp, like a Sloan song that has traded about half its innate sunniness for a sneer, and more than a little like the boisterous b-sides Manic Street Preachers used to make before Richey flipped out. "God Has Moved On" is a simmering, vaguely Unforgettable Fire-ish instrumental paced by backwards drums and airy guitar feedback, and it's probably about time to consider whether Gay Dad have actually supplanted Simple Minds as my pick for the best instrumental band who don't generally play instrumentals.
Gay Dad: Now Always and Forever #2
Part two provides two more. "Surprise Party" might have had some potential, but singing the chorus in a garish, distorted falsetto shriek pretty much amounts to giving up on it. "Captains of Industry", on the other hand, is another long, evolving instrumental (at least if you count a vocoder as an instrument), and strikes me as what Trans Am might have sounded like if they'd grown up with my record collection instead of theirs, particularly Rush's "Digital Man" and some random Tears for Fears remixes.
Gay Dad: Harder Faster
I didn't like "Harder Faster" much the first time, and I still don't. "Without Sound", the one b-side, borrows a bass insistence from "Owner of a Lonely Heart" and a chorus yearning from any of several Alarm songs, and ends up like the first draft of a disco remake of "Savage Earth Heart". The rest of the disc is given over to a video interview with Cliff Jones that you certainly won't need to watch twice, so you might as well get a head start by not seeing it at all.
Gay Dad: Transmission #1
By the third single, though, the band is back at work. "Art Since 1978", the first of two new songs on part one, is an inspired instrumental that switches between a slowed-down Devo-esque synth-rock throb, faintly progressive "choruses" and a space-acid finale freakout, while somewhere in the middle somebody intones a short, stern roll-call of modern artists. "Dead Man", the other, is the pretty song Radiohead and the Smashing Pumpkins are terrified of accidentally making, and perhaps the b-side from this set that most obviously ought to have been on the album.
Gay Dad: Transmission #2
"The Aim of the Game", the first of the pair of b-sides on part two, is easily the strangest of the set, a grinding bass line over a brittle drum loop and a slowly pinging keyboard arpeggio, enlivened by dialogue samples and a host of eerie sound effects. Speed it up and add a sung chorus and it might have had a chance at brief novelty-song stardom à la "Everybody's Free (To Wear Sunscreen)" or "Standing Outside a Broken Phone Booth With Money in My Hand". As it is, it sounds more like a Zoolook remake by Jean Michel Jarre's rebellious son. "Young Heart Attack", the other, is short, spare and blaring, like a pop band trying earnestly to make a new-world "Kick Out the Jams", and failing adorably.
Fosca: Supine on the Astroturf
The second Fosca album is supposedly due out some time next year, but if I were in the band I might argue for giving up on albums and just making a grand series of little singles like this one. Three songs is enough time to make a point, and not enough time to belabor it, which suits Fosca's somewhat precious synth-pop style quite nicely. "Supine on the Astroturf" itself is bleary, infectious and effervescent, like a new lower-fi OMD making soundtrack music for a new more-self-aware John Hughes. My fondness for the second song takes a hit when I check the track listing and realize that Dickon is singing "You're the square in the social circle", a disposable scrap of wordplay, and not, as it still sounds to me, "You're the Slayer in this social circle", an insightful generalization of the peer dynamics in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The single concludes, though, with a fabulous, swooning dance-pop gem, "My Body Isn't Me", all synth-bass bounce, drum-machine thump, mock-string washes and co-ed vocals, which to me belongs in the same tradition of expansive anthems for frightened introverts as "September's Not So Far Away", "Love Will Tear Us Apart", "Never Never" and "There Is a Light That Never Goes Out".
Mishima USA: Twist My Arm
This EP came taped to my copy of Mishima's similarly reticent debut album, Hold My Breath, which is an oddly literal approach to promotion, especially since two of the four tracks here are straight from the album, and the third is only a minor remix. The fourth, though, is one of my favorite covers of the year, a hauntingly minimalist rendition of the Cars' "Just What I Needed" tailor-made for anybody who heard Mark Kozelek's version of "All Mixed Up" and wished his covers album had been of Cars' songs, instead of AC/DC's.
Low: Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me
Where Kozelek and Mishima turned upbeat songs into sad lullabies, though, perennial minimalists Low doing the Smiths' "Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me" seems like a perverse recipe for depressing the miserable. For the first minute and a half or so, in fact, that's what it sounds like, too, echoey and ominous and potentially interminable. Then, abruptly, a string quartet joins in with violent gusto, revealing the undercurrent of fury that Morrissey was always too self-conscious to admit to, and for me this loud section in the middle renders the long, claustrophobic fade-out painfully poignant, the song a musical sketch of the same gift-given-then-taken-back story-arc as Flowers for Algernon. "Because You Stood Still", the new Low song they pair it with, is a sinister, distended epic that more than justifies the decision to include only two audio tracks on this disc, but doesn't go very far towards convincing me that I wouldn't be better off just listening to Things We Lost in the Fire again. The third track is the video for "Dinosaur Act", and although I admire filmmaker Marc Gartman for trying something nonobvious (he sets this slow, oblique song to a frenetically compressed stop-motion mini-documentary of Low's last tour), I find that I would rather watch his short film with the sound off, or listen to the song with the picture off, so I guess that means I think it didn't work.
Jon Auer: 6½
It's been a very busy year for covers, even without Emm and Tori putting out whole albums of them. Jon Auer, sporadically of the Posies, settles for a seven-track EP (giving himself half credit, I assume, for the opening instrumental version of Serge Gainsbourg's "Bonnie & Clyde"). I haven't always liked the Posies' covers, especially towards the end of a concert set in which they've been taking frequent refreshment breaks, but Jon plays these with admirable affection and attention to nuance. Most Chameleons songs require dense textures, but Jon pulls off an uncluttered arrangement of "Tears" with a few deft cello-ish hums, a couple well-timed guitar blasts and a vocal performance somewhere in between Mark Burgess and Nick Drake. I don't know the originals of Swervedriver's "These Times" or Ween's "Baby Bitch", but I'm guessing neither one is as jangly or intimate as these versions. A breathy, reverent guitar-and-voice translation of Grant Hart's "Green Eyes" (from Hüsker Dü's Flip Your Wig) either complements or makes amends for the Posies' "Grant Hart", depending on how you think Hart felt about that. Auer doesn't try to mimic Richard Butler's hoarse singing on the Psychedelic Furs' "Love My Way", but slathers on enough surging guitar noise to keep the overall buzz level about the same. The only experiment that goes awry, in my opinion, is a tense, mostly acoustic version of Madonna's "Beautiful Stranger" that loses track of the song's momentum and winds up reminding me of a Donovan demo they haven't put the drums onto yet.
Bart & Friends: I Was Lonely 'Til I Found You
A danger of mixing covers with your own songs, though, is that one can easily upstage the other, and if you don't know which is which, it probably means your songs aren't the victors. In this case Bart & Friends mix four of their own songs (some of which originated with their alter-egos The Cat's Miaow and Hydroplane) with three covers, and because all three covers are long-cherished favorites of mine, I forget the originals the moment they end. The chirpy bedroom-pop rendition of the Buzzcocks' "Boredom" seems like the most imaginative, to me, embodying and even cherishing boredom a little, instead of simply raging at it. Magazine's "A Song From Under the Floorboards", continuing the Devoto homage, is blurry and abysmally mixed, but I find it oddly comforting. The EP's one supremely surreal moment, though, is a gangly, low-fi cover of Kate Bush's "Hounds of Love", complete with a spot-grafted New Order bass line and unhurried acoustic-guitar strumming. I don't hear anything like this when I listen to Kate Bush, and I'm enthralled by the idea that someone does.
Tori Amos: Strange Little Girl
If anybody ought to finally break down and do a Kate Bush cover, of course, it's Tori. The songs-by-men rationale for Strange Little Girls didn't contribute anything, for me, and there are at least five songs on the album I think she could have excised in favor of "The Man With the Child in His Eyes", "In Search of Peter Pan", "Houdini", "Hello Earth", "Love and Anger" or anything else of Kate's she wanted to essay. This single would have been a fine opportunity to follow up the album of songs by men with just a couple songs by women, for contrast. One of Kate's, and then maybe one of Jane Siberry's, or Cyndi Lauper's, or Lita Ford's. Anything, I'm afraid, would have been better than these two, which might be the clearest case of outtake b-sides in my recent memory. Gloomy left-hand piano chords rumble aimlessly as Tori edges through David Bowie's "After All", never really locating a melody, and perhaps only belatedly realizing, at the end, that the song doesn't have any female characters for her to have herself made up like. "After All" is merely dull, though, compared to the ghastly misjudgment, which I'd take as self-parody if I could come up with any remotely plausible argument for the idea, of doing Alice Cooper's nauseating "Only Women Bleed".
The Corrs: "Would You Be Happier?" / "Make You Mine"
My favorite moment on the new Corrs compilation is also a cover, their stunning acoustic version of REM's "Everybody Hurts", but if that's new to you it just means you missed the Corrs' excellent Unplugged album. A Corrs compilation is a fairly sensible idea, even though they've only had three studio albums, since the albums are not uniformly dedicated to the kinds of songs they've had hits with, but The Best Of screws up the relatively simple task of compiling all their purest pop moments by substituting poor and superfluous remixes for a few key songs, and an unplugged version for another, so I wouldn't recommend it. But it has two new songs, cruelly, and one Canadian compilation is cheaper than two British singles. You needn't follow my lead, though. The two new songs are pleasant enough to keep completists from feeling cheated, but neither one belongs on a best-of on its own merits. "Would You Be Happier?", the opener, follows the right pop formula, but perfunctorily. "Make You Mine", at the end, is jangly and delicate, and hints at country ebullience, but poorly-considered studio-toy touches drain off much of the energy I'm pretty sure it could have had if the Corrs had leaned into it with their usual instruments and zeal. Buy the albums.
Jewel: Standing Still
This was all supposed to add up to a retracing of my year, and it hasn't. That's the problem with trying to treat music as metaphor: it keeps stubbornly being music, as well. Jewel did a single for "Standing Still", though, so if we elide the ugly parts of the year, jumping straight from spring sunlight on Bruges to the last few autumn leaves collecting against the hammock frame in my back yard as a New England winter begins (and the more I think about September, the less compelling remembrance seems), the parallel might still work. "Standing Still" is the year I wish I'd had. It's a buoyant, oblivious rock song about our own small problems, and maybe singing oblivious rock songs about our own small problems is how we make them small. Or maybe it's irresponsible, but I'd like to hear "Standing Still" a million more times, and I don't want to hear "God Bless America" again once, so I'll be irresponsible, too. The b-sides here are two more solo live recordings, like the final bonus pair on This Way. "The worst fear I can imagine", she says on "A Long Slow Slide", "is for the mystery to be named." "And I moved his ex-old-lady's things out of the closet", she admits on the Dylan-esque "Stephenville, TX", "the same closet I had to move my things back in." Bombs and viruses and great evil only get a few of us. The rest make our heroic stands against mundane ugliness, routine inertia and insidious self-doubt. We build ramparts out of books and records, out of short-stories and b-sides, out of words and screens and noises. We go back to our lives. We go back to our lives. Forget monument parks and benefit concerts, this is our memorial. We go back to our lives, and try to live them some way worth not dying yet.