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The Fanfare Spark
367 · 7 February 02
Mistle Thrush: Drunk With You
There are two worlds. In one of them, miracles never happen. We have ages, we surrender to skills, we enroll in expeditions to places whose names sound a little like the places we really want to go. We buy cars, we look up ratios between how far you sit from your television and how large it should be, we try to remember whether the drive-in was invented before or after the permanent. We are human, sometimes humane, every once in a while beautiful. We stand up in front of small crowds and tell stories about being caught shoplifting in Ft. Lauderdale, or we try to find the exact shade of blue that will excite half the people without appalling the rest, or we hang up the telephone and go to bed alone. We maneuver inside constraints and hope it amounts to dancing. We take steps. We occupy ourselves, and between us, we are everything. And somewhere, we end.
In the other world, truth is not a path you can stray from, it is an omniscient emptiness that frames all possible things. The governing principles are poetic; thermodynamics is a judicature of storytelling. In its farthest reaches, the shapes of this second world cannot be mapped onto the shapes of the first, and when we try to talk about them, all that comes out of our mouths is sounds. We have invented an elaborate and arbitrary taxonomy of these sounds, from radio static to the bells of Heaven, but this is a memory trick, not science.
In the middle of the second world, a little nearer, the causes are the same as ours, but the effects are different. This is the stratum of prayers, and of the often-desperate hope that some of the things we know most surely will turn out to have been errors or illusions. This is the realm of denial, the thing we mean when we capitalize Future, why we procrastinate. There is nothing for us in these layers. A miracle is a failure of comprehension, and as ardently as we wish for our merciless comprehension to be incomplete, believing that the things we don't understand have spiritual explanations is no more sophisticated than believing we can turn invisible if we squeeze our eyes shut.
Nearer still, though, where the second world almost precisely overlays the first, we do something at once terrifyingly pathetic and awe-inspiringly simple. We trace. Where the better world glows through into the real one, we line our real selves up with our ideals, and we mimic them. For a year, or a day, or three minutes at a time, we are costumed in the auras of the people we would be. We follow their movements, and thus we do dance. For as long as we can bear or manage, we pretend that the better world and the real world are coincident and coextensive, and we take the first tiny, simple steps of what could, if the illusion were not shattering every moment, be a walk into the infinite. This process, of imitating our abstract, unconstrained selves, is what I think I mean by Art.
And this is why, I assume, I sometimes despise things even though I can see how they are remarkable, or admire things even though I can see how easily they were effected. I hated In the Bedroom and Affliction, and loved Four Weddings and a Funeral and Titanic. The first two were superior acrobatics, but inferior choreography; they were exhibitions in which the dancers deftly executed worthless parts. I would trade them both, in their entireties, for the single moment when Cal yells "I hope you enjoy your time together!", or the one in which Fiona explains that she's always been in love. I don't mean that stories can only be about how things should be, but I think I have to feel like they are told in relation to what should have been. Creation begins by projecting the better world onto the real one, whether it ends there or not. Is that a controversial assertion? I don't know. I'm not sure when I started believing it, and I have no idea when I'll change my mind. For now, it's what I have.
An implication of this conviction, however (and one of the things which, circularly, reinforces my confidence in it), is that there are kinds of art to which I automatically respond because of their form, not (at least initially) because of their individual or independent merits. I assume, based on observation and hope, that this is true in some way for everybody. I wish, for you, that there is something you love so much that not only don't you ask, first, how good it is, but maybe you can't even tell. I often suspect I am this way with heavy metal, or macrophotography, or rants against science errors in nominally scientific fantasy movies, or suspended fourths.
One of these things I love uncritically, in music, is radiance. The real world is dull, not boring but un-aglow. One of the simplest ways music can transcend it, for me, is by shimmering where real noises would be inert. Electricity, amplification, modulation, synthesis, reverb and harmony are all tools for turning stereo speakers into portals. Singing, in a sense, is what talking should sound like. The thousands of names, scrolling slowly up a gauze banner behind U2 during the Super Bowl halftime show, were poignant (and if you ever think that brilliance is a function of obscurity, just remember that those names could have scrolled down), but when the first echoing guitar notes of "Where the Streets Have No Name" started, I could just as easily have closed my eyes. It's much, much too late for killing anybody to be any kind of victory; we have martyrs' anthems ready for every soul alive.
And maybe U2 was the only band on the planet who could have pulled off that particular combination of ridiculous overindulgence and profound reverence, the heart-shaped catwalk and the imported teenagers and Bono's stupid glasses somehow underscoring the cathartic dignity instead of undermining it. REM doing "Everybody Hurts" would have been too resigned, Bruce Springsteen doing "Born in the USA" would have been too empty, Bob Dylan wouldn't have been soothing; probably no American band would have been American enough. I'm not sure any other band of Super Bowl stature has a three-song sequence as evocative as "Beautiful Day"/"MLK"/"Where the Streets Have No Name" (I've read some criticism of "Where the Streets Have No Name" as the third song, but I think logistically it had to be "Where the Streets Have No Name", "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" or "With or Without You", and the other two would pretty clearly have been less appropriate both musically and lyrically). I don't know if anybody but Bono could have pulled off the American-flag jacket-lining thing with even a shred of gravitas.
But halftime at the Super Bowl is unique, and for the other 99.9977% or so of the year, our redemptions do not have to scale like that. A year needs three songs big enough to encompass the whole planet, and 131397 big enough to fit around you and me. Fewer if we ever sleep, but still, a lot. There is plenty of time for smaller raptures, for shimmery, radiant songs by bands that still do in-stores at Newbury Comics because the lead-singer used to work there. If you live in Boston, Mistle Thrush's third album, Drunk With You, is now available. If you live somewhere else, it will be there shortly. If you've been waiting since Super Refraction, like I have, it's been almost five years, so a few more days shouldn't matter. I might have given up on them, by now, but one of the benefits of trying to follow two thousand bands at once is that it's easy not to notice the ones that haven't made records recently.
I started caring about Mistle Thrush because they made densely atmospheric pop music. They toyed briefly with abandoning the "densely atmospheric" part, but returned to it on Super Refraction; "Moth-like", in particular, could have been gothic-pop's national anthem. Drunk With You's justification for its protracted gestation is that the pop songs under the atmosphere (or over it) are an order of magnitude more cohesive. My standard points of reference for music of this sort are Curve and Garbage, the former my personal standard-bearers and the latter both the commercial exemplars and an aesthetic cautionary tale, and with these new songs I think Mistle Thrush has kept up with Curve well enough for me to resent Garbage equally on the two bands' behalves. "Small" plays "How Soon Is Now"-ish reverb quiver against a grumbling bass groove and slashing guitar buzzes, and the little vocal pirouette just as the chorus roars in is the kind of detail I can't extricate from my mind even if I want to. "3 Girls Walking" is bouncier, a painting in silver that 10,000 Maniacs would have done in earth-tones. "Fanfare Spark" revives some of the spirit (and methodical hook-construction) of Tribe's "Abort". "Enginehead" is swirlier, "Heavy-Set John" choppier and more menacing, but "Lilies" has the weird lilt of a child's dream. "Give a Little Love", with guitars weaving and flaring around an intently poised drum cadence, might be the great mid-tempo pop song Chainsuck keeps refusing to write. "Jody Stone" is the most "Moth-like"-like, blurry and becalmed, Valerie slipping sporadically into an impishly evasive chirp. "Neil Diamond"'s title isn't entirely glib, as the verses do have a vaguely "We come to America" gallop to them, but the swooping choruses and serpentine connecting bridges don't resemble Tin Pan Alley in the least. "Birdmouth" counterbalances an overall gauzy ambience with a tricky lurch in the rhythm. My favorite single moment, I think, is the blustery, jagged "Drowning for William", a complex, kinetic rock song that mashes together bits of the Divinyls, 10,000 Maniacs, Jefferson Airplane, Rush and the Nields with the familiar Curious Ritual, Fledgling and Rose Chronicles traces. But "God's Enemies", the finale, is easily both the album's simplest song (the first minute is only Valerie and one oddly-processed acoustic guitar, and the rest is noisier but structurally just as spare) and its creepiest ("God knows his enemies, / Keeps them in a bag by the door", Valerie intones. "God feeds his enemies, / ... / And I wish and I hope he feeds me well.").
U2 are not big on creepiness, obviously, nor are Runrig, who play the role in my personal life that U2 plays in our collective one. Drunk With You will probably never be the music for halftime of anything. But then, the Super Bowl halftime show could have been exactly as dreadful as it usually is, and I wouldn't have counted it a big loss. It might be the most widely heard musical event of the year, but it's still a three-song lump in the pancreas of an advertising leviathan masquerading as a sporting event. I'll remember it, but not because it was important. My relationships with U2 and those songs were already formed, and if I end up associating them and the roll of September victims with each other in any way, it will be because tragedies fall into the traps we've prepared for them, not the other way around. Mistle Thrush, then, are laying new traps. These luminous moments are now mine, and that's one more album's worth of pain I'll be able to bear when I have to.
Garnet Crow: First Soundscope
I'm sure there is a Newbury Comics equivalent in Tokyo, and I'm betting Garnet Crow keyboardist Azuki Nana used to work there, and still drops by Friday evenings on the way to a show. Somewhere, tonight, Garnet Crow are playing for a few amazed people who don't understand why they aren't world-famous. In some tiny room, these four people whom I strongly suspect of having been to music school are playing music that should never be boxed. I remember Laurie Sargent, then of the promising Boston New Wave band Face to Face, once sacrificing most of her band's local credibility by telling a reporter that they thought of themselves as a national band, and I'm sure there was a better way to say it, but I understood her point. There are local bands who sound like local bands, as if they fully expect to have to win fans one at a time, begging and cajoling until people just can't bear it any longer. There are "national" bands that sound like this, too, for that matter. And then there are bands who are good enough, and ruthless enough, to skip the plaintive first stage entirely and just start writing the kind of placeless pop songs that are native to nowhere but radio and TV commercials and shopping concourses. If Mistle Thrush's idea of radiance is something like moonlight on obsidian, Garnet Crow's is sunlight through pellucid leaves onto lake ripples, or the winking of a city of traffic lights. If Every Little Thing are a younger Japanese Roxette, Garnet Crow could be a younger Japanese Corrs. Their version of shimmery pop is pastel and weightless, inflected with old Everything but the Girl jazziness, Motels melancholy, Bruce Hornsby polish, Sirius-era Clannad sweep, Donna Lewis delicacy, Parachute Club exuberance and Steps-ballad restraint. The arrangements center on glossy keyboards, airy drum-programming and singer Yuri Nakamura's silky, faintly breathy voice. If any of these songs misfire, it's by overshooting, not underestimating themselves. Track one (something about a mermaid) sounds to me like a fluttery updating of Shona Laing's "Soviet Snow", gossamer arpeggiator-runs bubbling past airbrushed studio piano. The elfin second one ("Good Night for You"?) sounds like a Destiny's Child that grew up on Freur and Windham Hill instead of Mariah Carey and Missy Elliott. The third (something about a dream) is clicky romantic-comedy-soundtrack-grade pop, the fourth ("I Can't Read"?!) simpler and more TV-ish, perhaps a Tokyo-pop replacement for the Rembrandts' twangier Friends theme. Track five is a sweetly effervescent ballad with an elegant chorus pushing towards Titanic-soundtrack territory, but "HAPPY DAYS?" is faster, reminding me again of Shona Laing or perhaps the Eurogliders. "Mysterious Eyes", the song I fell in love with on a random J-Pop compilation, takes what seems to me strikingly like the verse melody of Suzanne Vega's "Luka" and reimagines it as the core of one of the most effortlessly graceful pop songs since "(Glad I'm) Not a Kennedy". "Rhythm" is sinuous and one of the album's most Corrs-like interludes, but "Holding you, and swinging" tries to reconcile a hip-hop drum-loop, oddly wispy vocals and an over-thought retro-funk bass line, and for me only salvages itself when it briefly trails off into distracted muttering like an Alanis Morissette outtake. Track eleven's jumpy drums are a little too prefab for my tastes, but "wonder land" shows a little wider range, and makes me wonder what Astrid Williamson would do with Nanase Aikawa's "SEVEN SEAS". The epilogue, a spangly remix of track three, adds instruments but removes layers, and might actually be the song's original demo.
This album's pop masterpiece, though, and the thing that might conceivably have pushed "Love So Pure" or "SEVEN SEAS" off the top of my 2001 song list if I'd first heard it sixteen days earlier, is actually First Soundscope's closest thing to an under-produced pop song, "flying". The key line in the chorus is ostensibly in English, "flying fall down", but I'd never have guessed that without the lyric sheet. A simple, twitchy drum line marks the way through the understated verses, with synth, piano and acoustic-guitar figures twirling alongside. An electric guitar starts a quiet grind as the chorus approaches, and then suddenly the song lights up, pinging vocal parts interweaving high above a clattering drum riff, like there's nothing anybody should care about between sky and ocean, or this sky and the next one. The central melody is very simple (basically a two-note oscillation that slides down some grace-notes at the end), the "bridge" is little more than a brief isolation of the background parts, the reprise at the end pushes the song way past the standard three-minute cut-off (although not nearly as far past it as "SEVEN SEAS"), and of course the whole thing is in Japanese, my studies of which so far consist solely of opening the textbook to random pages and barking out practice dialogs in incorrect phonetics, so I have no idea what, if anything, it's about. And apparently none of that matters, because this song seems to be doing the same things for me that "She Doesn't Live Here Anymore" or "The Look" did before it, the same things as Aimee Mann's "Red Vines" or Michael Penn's "High Time", the same things as Astrid's "Hozanna" or Kylie's "Some Kind of Bliss", and ultimately in some sense the same thing as even "MLK" or "Where the Streets Have No Name". This music is reverent storytelling, not in the mundane narrative sense, but in evoking the wonder and clarity of inhabiting the perfect world whose shadows we try to impersonate. In the other world, where miracles aren't the name we give to the times we let the gods we invented convince us that we're flawed, wind blows through trees and makes this music. Pop sounds perfect, or whatever sounds perfect to you sounds perfect, because it is what we know everything would sound like, if we had the courage to be the things we pretend. We listen, transfixed, hoping these will be the notes that ensnare us in ourselves.