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388 · 4 July 02
Desert Hearts: Let's Get Worse
At the record store I go to on Tuesdays, imports and domestic releases are filed together. At the other branch I go to on Fridays, there is a separate import section. I don't believe the two stores have coordinated this difference for my benefit (although economically speaking, that would be a pretty good reason), but it's helpful all the same. The Tuesday scheme is much more convenient for reference and a breadthwise scan for new developments. The Friday layout is better for catching delayed arrivals from abroad. I don't go through the whole import section every Friday, but I do it periodically. And each time, I get to the U bin and feel a simultaneous thrill and pang for the one lonely copy, which has been there now for several months, of Everything Picture by Ultrasound. It turns out to have been a bad decision not to go with a normal 2CD jewel case; this copy has suffered some bin-flipping abuse from somebody other than me, and is now looking more than a little beleaguered. On the one hand, I'm happy that it's there so somebody could buy it. It's been pink-stickered down to an eminently reasonable $14.99 from its original import rate, and I was already a supporter at full price. On the other hand, the band is long gone, the album made no discernible headway in the US, and even my review of it has receded into the reaches of the archives where all but the most intrepid (or idle) fear to go. It's hard to imagine a rosy future for this poor record; it will get marked down a few dollars more every few months, eventually washing up in a $4.99 clearance box along with all the Lighthouse Family singles and the music-inspired-by pseudo-soundtracks. There it will sit until the biannual 4.99-means-1.99-just-take-the-damn-things sale, when somebody will finally buy it thinking it's something else, listen to half of the first disc, attempt to sell it to some used-CD store further down the food chain, fail, and end up just throwing it away because the package contains no reusable parts. A sorry fate for my eighth favorite album of 1999. I play out my own little Good Will Hunting scene, hoping one week I'll get there and it'll just be gone. So far, no luck.
Paying my respects to Everything Picture reminded me, though, that it has been a while since I had any new British bands of similar character to become emotionally invested in just in time for them to break up or go nowhere. In part this is probably due to the British music industry currently being on various tangents in which I have little personal interest, in part it's probably a function of my overseas attention being diverted to Scandinavia and Japan, and in part it's probably the price I pay for having run out of patience with Q. There was Mandalay, but they're also now defunct. There's Life Without Buildings, but if they're working on a second album their web site isn't saying. I've got high hopes for the second Idlewild album, and I assume Gay Dad will do a third. But what am I supposed to listen to in the meantime? The other 1632 records I've bought in the last two years? Very funny.
But this is the information age, by which we mean the online shopping age, so it took me about an hour to track down half a dozen new bands with potential (i.e., victims of venomously dismissive reviews that made me suspect the reviewer was an asshole and the band was fine), and not much longer to get their records in the mail. Of the two that were exactly what I wanted, the one that bears any vague resemblance to Ultrasound is Desert Hearts, a coed trio from Belfast whose debut album, Let's Get Worse, came out last year on Tugboat. Ultrasound's genius and weakness, at once, was a total lack of fear of the unknown, which led to a haplessly unwieldy sprawl of a double-album that any responsible person with their future in mind would have insisted they edit down to coherence. Let's Get Worse is the kind of album this exercise might have produced. There are bursts of noise that don't turn into apocalypses, mechanisms that retain human nuance, roars that subside into becalmed grace, traded vocals, cryptic references, surging catharses, strangled panics. "DSR", the opening track, is somber and implacable, a square drum-machine groove hammering under Mooney's muttered, Whipping Boy-ish verses before the chirpy guitars usher in the distracted choruses. "I36" is a bouncy instrumental, kind of like a noisier LWB backing track. The subdued verses of "Florida Keys", with Charley Mooney's unsteady singing and Roisin Stewart's demure backing sighs, remind me of Luna, but the choruses abruptly flip into angular free-fall à la Au Pairs or Gang of Four. "This Is This" somehow glues together a burbling, New Order-ish bass line, a measured Stewart lead-vocal in which she sounds strikingly like Suzanne Vega, and compacted sections of blaring disharmonic guitar clamor. "Crown" is quiet and wistful, the noisy sections (or most of them) disarmed by the alarmingly simple tactic of switching off the guitar distortion. The instrumentation of "No More Art" veers towards the Chameleons, but neither Mooney nor Stewart are willing to cloak themselves in vocal-reverb grandeur, so what might have been an anthem comes out small and a little frightened. "(3.39)" sounds like almost the same song to me, but sped up and stressed out, and with an oddly jaunty coda tacked on to fill out the minute's difference in running length. "May Gold" is solemn and drifting, a weird sort of cross between Big Country's "Porrohman" or "The Storm" and, maybe, "Freebird", perhaps as a result of some bored Southern Rock ghosts hopscotching across the British Isles in search of fossil evidence for the theory that they share distant ancestry with Thin Lizzy. Stewart takes breathy lead again on the jangly, unhurried "A New End", which accelerates from Blake Babies reticence to Rainer Maria howl.
"Last Song" is an unresolved finale, brittle and blasted in alternation, and although they make a show of settling on the loud side for a few bracing measures right at the end, I'm not sure if I think Desert Hearts have chosen (or made) a style for themselves as much as they've compiled a good short list of possibilities. I want to feel that they've culled the most incisive bits from scattered raw material more like Everything Picture, but I think I think they haven't been quite that self-aware. There is no real hit here, no center, or nothing that seems to me to believe that it could be a center, and while I'm a staunch supporter of an album's right to articulate an overall idiom that doesn't disassemble into independent components, I'm not convinced that's what this record is doing. I think it wants a hit. I think a few of these songs want to be the hit, but aren't. Arguably, of course, this isn't the record's problem, I just have a methodically-amassed collection of slots into which I'm trying to fit it. But yes, that's what I do, I try to match patterns. I think this album lacks something, and I don't know if they or I know what, but that sounds like I don't like this album, which isn't true at all. It's a first album, the band shouldn't have made all their decisions yet. Everything Picture tried to cram a career's worth of ideas into one massive swirl, and ended up being, in fact, a career's worth of ideas. Let's Get Worse sounds like the beginning of a story that will, like a story and not a koan, reward whatever patience it requests. It's not great albums by anachronistic British guitar bands I'm after, so much as it's beginnings of stories. I've got no shortage of bands I know I love. Desert Hearts give me a new one I can dream of loving.
Jetplane Landing: Zero for Conduct
Jetplane Landing are Irish, as well, although they've apparently relocated to London in fact, and to Illinois in principle. How they could intuit, from Cork, that Jimmy Eat World's pop conversion had left a gap in American emo just accessibility-ward of Braid's fury, where Jimmy Eat World would have been if they'd moved away in smaller steps, I don't know. If it were me, I'd have used the internet, but Ireland's an island, so obviously they didn't have that option. Maybe they read about it in magazines. Naming their self-run record-label Smalltown America is a fairly audacious touch for foreigners, but since it's not entirely clear that more than a couple dozen people here really share an understanding of what emo was yesterday, it would be rather petty to deny Jetpack Landing their chance to influence what it means tomorrow.
And they definitely have ideas. "Tiny Bombs" sounds like the Loud Family half lapsing into the John Spencer Blues Explosion. "This Is Not Revolution Rock" could be Life Without Buildings goaded into a frenzy by Trans Am. The elegant "Underground Queen", with the haunting implied "but" in the "I've done enough to make you stay" refrain, sounds like the Clientele starting to channel the Posies. "Summer Ends" slashes and keens like Wolfie thinking about growing up to be Fugazi. "End of the Night" is spectral and atmospheric, pieces of Pink Floyd and Bowie and Oasis, but "What the Argument Has Changed" is jagged and lurching, almost as close to Braid's urgent clang as Hey Mercedes or Thursday. "The Last Thing I Should Do", with its drum-machine markings and muted melody, reminds me of Luna and the quietest Sloan songs. "Interstate Five" is a delicate voice-and-acoustic-guitar solo that somehow manages to give me the impression that it used to be an XTC song, but "Atoms Dream in Technicolor" is emo distilled to its essence, barked vocals over choppy guitars and nervous, stabbing drums. "And I cannot bear to watch this monument crack under capital strain, / And I cannot believe that Pythagoras hid the truth and felt no shame." OK, so they're under the misapprehension that emo lyrics are supposed to mainly concerned themselves with redressing ancient ethical injustices, but I see no reason to tell them otherwise. "A Miracle of Science" misses a golden opportunity for a Bee Gees quote, and meanders off in no particular direction.
But if Jimmy Eat World proved one thing about emo, it's that manic catchiness is nothing to be afraid of. If Jetplane Landing are going to follow them into crossover rapture, they're going to need their answer to "The Middle", and the song to lead the way here is, at least in my opinion, "The Boy You Love to Hate". The drums and bass are solid and uncomplicated, and left to themselves for long stretches of the tension-building verses. There's one chirpy guitar line and one fuzzy one, and in the key stretches of the choruses they yip around Andrew Ferris' vocals like pleased corgis. I can imagine a whole society of earnest young men for whom the crinkly rhythm-guitar hook that opens this song takes the place of "More Than a Feeling" or "Stairway to Heaven" in grimy music stores. The melody brushes lightly against falsetto and spins through a couple tight Posies flourishes, Ferris rhymes "completely" with "discretely" and gets an "of which" clause grammatically correct, and somebody hoots disarmingly, in the background, every time the second guitarist leans into the fuzzy part. Maybe you think Jimmy Eat World betrayed their origins, or maybe you think they went just far enough. Hearing a step in between might inform either opinion.
Polara: Jetpack Blues
Meanwhile, back in America, I find heirs to Ultrasound's scattered ambition where I can. Ed Ackerson hasn't put out a Polara album since 1998's Formless/Functional, but he put three new MP3s on his rarely-updated website in early 2000, and they are almost certainly the songs I have listened to most that did not reach me on a CD. "Gemuesekeit 1" is a berserk instrumental that sounds like Ackerson's attempt to reconcile drum-and-bass with Music for Airports. "Jetpack Blues" is brittle and yearning, with glassy keyboards, Belew-esque guitar caterwauls and packed backing vocals behind an unusually heartfelt lead. And "Almost Transparent", the magnificent conclusion (in the order I habitually played them), is surging and expansive in much the same way as Mark Kozelek's "Byrd Joel" or the Red Telephone's "Teenage Mother Earth". I gave serious thought to putting "Almost Transparent" on my 2000 best-song list, but in the end decided that since it was explicitly presented as an advance track for an imminent album, it would be better to wait for the finished version.
So much for my good intentions. The album took two more years to complete, and "Almost Transparent" isn't even on it. "Gemuesekeit 1" isn't, either. "Jetpack Blues" is, but in the process of finishing it Ackerson seems to have pounded most of the charm and quite a bit of the life out of it. In offering a more recent MP3, "Is This It?", Ed noted that "last minute" remixing had resulted in the album version becoming quite different, and comparing those two I begin to really suspect that the point of diminishing returns for this whole project was in early 2001, and if somebody had been around to pry it out of Ed's hands at that point, we might have a really fabulous pop album on which the uncluttered, propulsive arrangements augment the clear, polished songwriting. As it is, this album is very nearly the definition of "cluttered". There are songs at the bottoms of these tracks, but there are a lot more layers between us and them than there ever needed to be. To be fair, the additional stuff outlines the contours of the underlying songs as often as it obscures them, but as a few minutes of playing with the edge-tracing filters in Photoshop will remind you, this is not necessarily an improvement, and I can't shake the conviction that if Ed had quit a year ago and gone on to the next record, both of them would have been better than this. This is the dark side of home-recording and self-sufficiency, unfortunately; the path of least resistance is often indefinite fiddling. Arrangement density was always Polara's trademark, of course, and the main thing that distinguished them from Ed's previous band, 27 Various. If you know and like Polara, it's more likely because of Ackerson's production rather than despite it. That's what I would probably have said, myself, before this random opportunity to A/B early and late versions of the same songs. Now I'm not so sure.
The saving grace for this album, though, is that this is the only way I've ever heard the other nine songs, and although I can make myself imagine them scaled back and cleaned up, it's far easier to just listen. "Can't Get Over You" seethes and blurs, but the choruses are artfully pale sighs against the textural backdrop, and a processed harmonica is a hybrid of simplicity and contrivance. The "finishing" process didn't damage "Is This It?" as much as "Jetpack Blues", and there's still a winning Ackerson/Jurgens duet at the heart of it. "Sweep Me Away" has some of the novelty-song crunch of "Standing Outside a Broken Phone Booth With Money in My Hand" or "Lullaby". "Wig On" is striped with what sounds like the buzzing noise from the skate-punks in Dogma, and Ed's singing is mashed, but Jennifer's airy second vocal holds the song up until the little acoustic gospel-call bits arrive. "Obsolete" bounces between electrified folk-pop jangle, rumbling dub bass and cartoonish hard-rock soloing. "Hold Onto the Thread" is exaggerated rock churn that wouldn't be entirely out of place on a Nanase Aikawa album. "Overboard" is nearly effusive enough to pass for Jellyfish, splashing bongo drums and sinuous guitar supplying psychedelic overtones. "Other" swoops and soars, and maybe being caught in a tornado could feel like flying. "The Story So Far"'s complications are performance affectations (weepy pedal-steel, twangy Rickenbacker, Ackerson hinting at Dylan) not extra noise layers, but instead of laughing at the irony, I'm left wondering whether Ed could do Dan Bern. "Eight by Twelve" is a bit of spare background texture in case some has worn off the other songs on your copy.
But here's my dilemma. I'm usually of the opinion that the more like itself an artwork can be, the better. Varietal Aesthetics, we called it in college, the underlying value-logic being that entropy should be resisted, and entropy is homogenous, ergo (sic) virtue lies in maximizing the differences between the components of a system. Uniqueness is good, compromise and regression to the mean are evil. And yet, clearly, with people I think it's not that simple. If we wanted to maximize our personal individuality, we'd be hermits and solipsists. Attempting to communicate with each other is inherently an effort to shed pieces of what keeps us separate. Art too, then, if we don't just make it in private, must be a way to take ourselves apart and give some of the pieces away. We do it so guardedly, much of the time, but everything you display is a potential receptor for another person's touch. We usually talk about art as expression, like that's an attack form, but half the time, if not more, it might be more accurate to think of it as a roundabout way of describing what you hope are your vulnerabilities. And if that's true, then the identities we create are not ends, they're means, brittle shells extruded for the express purpose of making the loudest possible noise when they crack. We try to become people so that it can mean something when a person like that does this. And then I come back to the title of this album, and it dawns on me that maybe Ed Ackerson was ahead of me all along. "It's the sound that could break your heart," he says, in "Jetpack Blues". This album is a tragedy. We were both right, somebody should have interrupted Ed a year ago, but that wouldn't have made this a better album, it would have made it an album that told a different story. That would have been a love story, and for all we know a mundane one. This is a poignant portrait of the uninterrupted, of what too much time alone inside your own head will do to you, or will let you do to yourself. That's why I can either absorb these noises or bristle at them: they're all too familiar. This is exactly what I'd do, too, if Thursday mornings weren't incessantly demanding I hand them something. It's a lesson I've learned so many times in design, and in photography, and in my shadowy semblance of songwriting: stop. If you've fixed enough mistakes that you can spot the remaining ones, you're probably done. There's a way to apply this to life and to romance, there must be, and I bet I haven't been doing it. It's not compromise and regression to the mean, those are biased and misleading terms. It's something else. It's less rehearsal and more practice, or less assessment and more failure. It's why Ultrasound were right to leave Everything Picture such a mess, and yet Desert Hearts were right to try to salvage it, and Jetplane Landing are right to ignore them both and pretend to be from Urbana. It's why it's right to talk back to these records, and to love them especially when I think I know what's wrong with them. It's why, if we care, we try to interfere with each other's plans and pains. Left alone, we will be our own selfish undoing; thrown together, maybe we will have the courage to share the responsibility.