365 · 24 January 02
Sloan: Pretty Together
Recently, in a fit of dubious nostalgia, I purchased the entire eight-DVD set of the first season of the mid-Seventies TV show Space: 1999. I have always thought this show was incredibly cool, by which I mean that I thought it was incredibly cool when it originally aired, and I was nine years old, and because up until now I have not seen any of it again, I've had no opportunity to revisit or revise my childhood reaction. So far I have watched the first two discs, which carry the first six of twenty-four episodes. It would be imprecise to say that I am enjoying them, but I'm glad I have the chance to watch them, and I am going to get through the whole set. As serious speculative fiction, the series is startlingly terrible. My nine-year-old self had, unsurprisingly, a very low standard of intellectual excellence. The spaceships were cool (I believe I had a snap-together Eagle model), the guns were cool (and easy to build out of Legos), the special effects were cool, the title font was cool, etc. My adult self is surprised to discover not just that the quality of speculation in the writing is low, but that the stories, or at least five of the first six of them, feel more like dull drug trips than science fiction at all. Given a perfectly fascinating human premise, a three-hundred-person moonbase forced unexpectedly to function as an interstellar colony ship, the thirty-four-year-old me is dumbfounded that the writers would feel obliged to layer on other challenges, particularly idiotic ones like unexplained time warps and "aliens" whose primary alien-ness is talking as if they are very depressed and have head colds. And poor stories would be bad enough, but they are transformed from poor to downright offensive by the fact that the moronic plots force the highly rational characters (who develop through sheer persistence, if nothing else) to behave in ways that make no internal sense. I am frequently outraged on their behalf, and find myself cheering for tiny little moments in which make-believe scientists get to react, however briefly, like real scientists might.
And Space: 1999 was never intended as academic futurism, so critiquing its vision of a future we're now past is a wildly pedantic exercise, but part of the reason I'm still going to watch the rest of the episodes is that they depict a simultaneously mis-extrapolated and poignantly naive idea of the future that has become basically unrecoverable in the two and a half decades since. The technological errors are the most blatant, of course. The moonbase has a single computer (called "Computer", the way you call a stray cat "Kitty" and then get stuck with it), which has the expressive intelligence of a middle-school math teacher and the analytical power of a small toaster oven. Every device and instrument on the base has a special-purpose user-interface, most of which consist of rows upon identical rows of unlabeled buttons, which lends any effort to operate one while on camera the approximate verisimilitude of a four-year-old steering a chair around using a frisbee. The abundant CRTs are apparently only capable of transmitting video feeds or oscilloscope waves, so all actual important data output is produced on little scraps of calculator tape, which technicians are forever tearing off and puzzling over as if they've just been issued a receipt for the last line they spoke. All doors, despite having intricate control-panels on the wall beside them, are opened and closed using what appear to be Sears-surplus television remote-controls, which in close-ups turn out to have telephone keypads that do not contain zeroes. The feet of the space-suits seem to be Converse All-Stars with the logos scratched off, the "miracle" technologies stipulated to make filming easier (particularly the gravity generators) render most of the other gadgets and technical dilemmas incomprehensible, and although episode after episode demonstrates that the base's interior ergonomics are horribly unsuited for its new environment, no evident efforts are ever made to adapt or improve them. About the only two bits of set-design that show hints of insight or planning are both logistical improvements on Star Trek, giving Main Mission a much more open floor plan and better camera-lines than the comparatively cramped Enterprise bridge, and cleverly placing the commander's quarters directly adjacent to it with big pass-through doors, to eliminate much of the tedious business Star Trek had to go through to get important characters from place to place.
But those complaints are all very petty. If we designed Space: 2029 today, everybody would have LCD panels and QWERTYUIOP keyboards, which are likely to seem just as inane and short-sighted once the nominal date finally comes around. Far more striking, to me, are all the ways in which the show's designers overestimated intervening progress. In the show there is, after all, a fully functional moon colony, whose day-job, before it goes hurtling off into space, is storing radioactive waste. Before it blows up in the first episode, there's also a deep-space exploration craft ready to launch. Small spaceships have achieved the approximate ubiquity and simplicity of operation of city buses, most medical procedures are non-invasive, and the communication system has a predictive algorithm that obviates the necessity of telling it whom you're trying to contact. Outer space, once the moon hurtles off into it, turns out to be densely populated and routinely fascinating. In the real 1999, radioactive waste is an intractable problem that has impeded progress in alternative energy, the closest thing we have to deep-space exploration is a screen-saver, and our idea of transportation innovation is a Weebles-wobble-but-they-won't-fall-down scooter that's too expensive for anybody but the government to buy, and makes the rider look like they are attached to a push mower via a pole stuck up their ass. And most plaintively, we have not been back to the moon since the TV show went into production, let alone anywhere farther. Gloat all we want about how much more sophisticated our gadgets are than the Alphans', but with oscilloscopes and marks-a-lots they got off this shrinking rock. We're still down here complaining about the weather. The nostalgia I'm indulging by watching Space: 1999 ends up not being my own memories of watching television, but our collective social memories of what it was like to believe so much was so possible.
I am having, I think, a somewhat related experience with music these days. If flashy sci-fi used to be the center of my storytelling tastes, then jangly guitar-pop used to be the center of my musical tastes. Arguably both of these things are partly still true. Speculative fiction (albeit not the kind I read as a kid) accounts for about a third of my reading; melodic guitar-based pop-music produced by young white people accounts for at least that much of my music buying, maybe closer to half. But these are both reduced numbers, and they receive severely reduced shares of my emotional energy. The centers of my tastes may not have moved, but I spend a lot less time in them. Science-fiction and guitar-pop have gone from genres in which I expect to like most practitioners to genres in which I expect not to care about new work unless it is in some way atypical. I've given up a lot of writers whose books I couldn't defend as literature, and I haven't mail-ordered anything from Parasol in a long time. Every once in a while, though, something slips through, and I'm reminded of the difference between my chosen priorities and my instinctive reactions. I just read Steven Gould's novel Helm, as straightforward a science-fiction story as you'll ever find, and thought it was marvelous. Peter Jackson's staging of The Fellowship of the Ring resonated through all the years since I first discovered The Hobbit. And after a month or so of jarring alternation between brutal heavy metal and elfin J-Pop, this week I find myself confronting a pile of familiarly jangly pop records, expecting to be resistant and dissatisfied, and discovering that I am not.
The guitar-pop band I was most ready to eliminate from my life, having dispensed with Guided by Voices a while ago, is Sloan. I've never forgiven them for one of the worst concert experiences I've ever had, and in between records resentment starts to crowd out whatever I felt about the last album. I don't trust them, so even though I've repented repeatedly in the past, every time they put out a new record I figure this will be the time I don't. This will be the album on which their coyly half-playful rock-star ambitions turn garishly sincere and alienate me completely. The record will start with some stupid crowd noise, the first song will be big and blaring and dumb, and they'll spiral off into contrived braying and never bother winning me back.
And, in fact, Pretty Together does start with some stupid crowd noise, and "If It Feels Good Do It" is very big, very blaring, and very dumb. A sickly I-told-you-so grin starts to spread across my face. "In the Movies" isn't big or blaring, and kind of reminds me of the Crowded House doing a Thomas Dolby song, but it's just dumb enough for me to cling to my pessimism a few minutes longer. But then "The Other Man" starts, and the idea that I'll ever hate this music becomes ludicrous. The song is a paean to instigating infidelity, and I'd hate that if I could hate anything, but it's just too lovely. The verses putter along on tapping drums, a plucked bass pulse and shimmery guitar chords, the chorus swoops into airy harmonies, and I'm helpless again. "Dreaming of You" is positively glorious, evoking moments of pop grandeur from "Dream Weaver" to "Baker Street" to "Life in a Northern Town" to Ben Folds. "Pick It Up and Dial It" is strident and doltish, but the sighing "The Great Wall" is the kind of song the Odds could never string together a whole album of. "The Life of a Working Girl" is spectral and reticent, and "Never Seeing the Ground for the Sky" tries with uneven success to marry AC/DC guitar bluster to XTC lilt, but "It's In Your Eyes" is sure and uncluttered, reviving some old Posies-ish innocence. "Who You Talkin' To?" seems to have been retrieved from a storage locker the Mamas and the Papas forgot about, or maybe It's a Beautiful Day. The theatrical "I Love a Long Goodbye" walks a line, for me, between the disappointing greyness of Jon Brion's Meaningless and the insufferable preening of Rufus Wainwright. The goopy "Are You Giving Me Back My Love?" is such unapologetically overblown soft-rock it's a shame Marilyn McCoo/Andy Gibb-era Solid Gold can't be revived for just one episode so that the band could lip-sync it in its proper setting. And then, just when I'm ready to concede that I'm converted for good, they end the album with the lurching "Your Dreams Have Come True", punctuated with frilly faux-jazz horn twitter, and my doubt gets a lifeline. Next time, I fear, I'll have to go through this same rediscovery process all over again. I always seem to enjoy it, though, so maybe that's fine.
The Knack: Normal as the Next Guy
Sloan are cool. Here is how you can tell they're cool: they're from Halifax, where nobody is ever cool; they dress extremely badly; most people don't know about them; they borrow styles from uncool referents; they don't stand for anything in particular. The Knack, conversely, are not cool. Here is how you know: they're from LA, which is the world headquarters of media cool; they were once arguably the definitive icons of a major fashion movement; they once sold a lot of records and their biggest hit gets reused and re-embraced every five years or so; they swiped most of their style from the most famous and enduringly popular group in the history of the world and they've kept making increasingly competent and assured music like that in obdurate defiance to intervening market trends.
But that's life, and if it bothers the Knack they've learned to conceal their irritation. Think they're uncool if you want, but if they adopted pseudonyms, Doug Fieger learned to sing with a slightly different voice, and they snuck out their albums on some Spanish bedroom label, I'm convinced they'd instantly be the subject of a massive critical groundswell. I don't think there's a band on the planet currently doing a better job of making the kind of buoyant, jangly pop music that first made the Beatles popular, and remains the core of their appeal. The primary difference between the Beatles and the Knack, it seems to me, is that the Knack had the advantage of loving this kind of music before they started playing it themselves, which means that they can't count as innovators, but also that they arrive at this music without any doubts. They know people want a living band like this. The only stubborn mystery is why, "My Sharona" aside, the people persist in pretending otherwise.
But if Zoom, which I thought was as solid a pop album as you could request, didn't garner the Knack a horde of apologists and reassessors, Normal as the Next Guy probably won't either. It's just another dozen-song album of effortlessly infectious power-pop. "Les Girls" and "Normal As the Next Guy" both have a nasal, Wall-of-Voodoo-ish novelty-song twang, but "Disillusion Town" verges on the Swimming Pool Q's and Tommy Keene, the pulsing "Girl I Never Lied to You" could be a jangle-pop transliteration of the Alarm's "The Presence of Love", and "Spiritual Pursuit" is spangly country-pop in the same basic tradition as Guadalcanal Diary's "Watusi Rodeo". "It's Not Me" is pop as primal as early Cheap Trick or That Thing You Do, "One Day at a Time" is a sentimental ballad, and "Seven Days of Heaven" is somewhere in between. And if "Dance of Romance" and "The Man on the Beach" are missteps, one maybe Al Stewart where they needed Rod, the other a falsetto Beach-Boys-ish piano-ballad that fails to constitute an exception to the rule that all pop songs with "Sail away" in the chorus suck, "Reason to Live" could still be a new generation's "Keep On Loving You". And "A World of My Own" is as breathless as anything on Get the Knack, the kind of adult homage to your own younger self that I was so sad I didn't think God Bless the Go-Go's was. When everything pauses, just before the coda, and then the drums splatter in in that time-honored walk-breaking-into-a-run rush, they bring with them every simple pop joy I can temporarily recall, everything Mitch Easter and Matthew Sweet ever stood for, the East and West Coasts folded in on each other, continental drift mashing the Beatles' Liverpool into REM's Athens, and for a happy moment I can't think why anybody ever reverted to wide ties.
And although I've stopped mail-ordering from Parasol, in part it's because I've found I can just as easily buy most of the same records at the store. And in larger part it's because Parasol the label hasn't been putting out much. In the last twelve months they've released only two proper albums, and subsidiaries Spur and Mud haven't done even one. Hidden Agenda has been busy, but the only two bands they have that I like are Vitesse and Fonda. Of my two favorite Parasol bands, Starlet hasn't been heard from in a while, but one of the records Parasol did put out last year was Be, the second album by Chicago trio Autoliner, who were called Life on Mars back when their then-self-titled debut first came out. The classic Parasol aesthetic is extremely focused, and when they were putting out a dozen albums of it a year I found I could do quite easily without nine or ten of them. And whether the drop in production is intentional, or just a side effect of being distracted by Soundtrack of Our Lives reissues, I don't think it does the overall cause any harm. The Parasol style was perfectible, and I think Autoliner have more or less perfected it: it involves (according to my current alchemical disassembly) about four parts The Byrds, four parts Translator, and one part each of the Posies, the Left Banke, Jellyfish and Hunters & Collectors. Bassist John Ross, guitarist Brian Leach and drummer Tom Curless are all credited with both lead and backing vocals, and on many of these harmony-dense songs they do mean at once. The lyrics are rarely worth reading (what sounds like "Are you ready for the weekend?" turns out to be "Are you ready for the weakened?", which is kind of interesting, but "Supersonic Baby (In Disguise)" pretty well cancels it out), and although having three different lead singers seems like it would help distinguish the songs from each other, in practice I find that the three-part harmonies tend to blur them together more. But since for me this record is encapsulating a style, ten songs blurring together is actually apt. There aren't ten aesthetics at issue here, there is just one, and thirty-six minutes is exactly how long the dream should last.
Lovelight Shine: Makes Out
Add a little glam to your power-pop, though, and suddenly a lot of people who thought it was beneath them start to get interested. I've customarily been somewhere between leery and hostile towards slumming indie snobs playing rock-god, but although Jejune, of whom Lovelight Shine is essentially the party-rock alter-ego, are usually called an emo band, they remind me much more closely of the old Swimming Pool Q's / Guadalcanal Diary / Let's Active axis, and their attempt at teen-icon strut manages to avoid the glib soullessness I thought ruined the Jellyfish / Imperial Drag experiment. Makes Out is only a five-song EP, which is probably about as much as the conceit is worth, but I'm happy as long as it lasts. "Freedom Fighter" is jumpy and brash, goaded along by twitchy tambourine rustle and lots of dive-bombing pick-along-string guitar noises. "X-Ray Vision" is churning and anxious, with heavy overtones of "Bang a Gong" and the Stones. The epic, swirling "Earth's Last Lifeline" is more ambitious, pushing towards Jellyfish, ELO and Boston. "Foxxmeat", despite a title that sounds like sci-fi porno, mixes an Autoliner-ish vocal part with bruising guitar noise and battering drums, and reminds me a little of what EMF tried to do on Stigma (i.e., after the sampler riots of Schubert Dip and before skidding off into the amelodic garbage of Cha Cha Cha). And the breathtaking "The March Is On", to me clearly the song that makes the rest of the project necessary, sounds like a succinct Queen-via-Guns-N'-Roses rock-opera recast in an idiom distilled out of Blue Öyster Cult's Agents of Fortune, Spectres and Fire of Unknown Origin, and not entirely unlike what Sunny Day Real Estate arrived at when they started to go prog on The Rising Tide. Of course, it irked me when people who would never admit to owning Rush albums swooned over SDRE sounding like Rush, and it bothers me when I think that Sloan and Jejune are being "allowed" to make superficial music solely because they have underdog reputations to trade on, while the Knack, who have dedicated their whole career to making the best superficial music possible, are stuck wheedling with Audities geeks that their new record is worth as much as a Rooks reissue. That line of reasoning is mostly inane. There are probably a hundred bands I like more than the Knack who never had anything remotely resembling "My Sharona"'s chart success. Space: 1999 limped through forty-eight episodes; my four favorite television shows only made it to six (Police Squad), twelve (Fawlty Towers), nineteen (My So-Called Life) and forty-five (Monty Python). But in a way that's exactly the point: it's wearying always feeling like my loves are obscure and embattled. It's a great relief to me every time some stray thing I care about finds a little critical (Tori, Low, 69 Love Songs) or popular (Alanis, Jewel) support. I am an elitist by elimination, not by policy. The more company I can get in my elitism, the better. I want to believe that if "My Sharona" can resurface every few years, and people still buy new compilations of old Beatles songs, that the Knack could be huge again. I want to believe that you will help me hold Sloan to a higher standard, and that between us we can convince them to hold themselves to it, too. I want to believe that somebody might eventually do a science-fiction TV show that doesn't insult its own characters. I want us to be able to look back on how we looked forward and say that we were wrong about absolutely every detail of the future, but right to believe that it will be amazing. Right to insist.