Start Our Lives Here
435 · 29 May 03
Black Box Recorder: Passionoia
There is a thin line between carefully honed self-identity and lazily reiterated self-parody. At least, there is usually a line between these two. But it can be thin enough, at times, that identifying it is more a task of conjecture than of observation. A parody of Black Box Recorder, for example, would bang together a rickety platform of coy quasi-retro synth-pop, coax some woman with a seductively prim British accent up onto it, and tell her to take the first banal thing that came into her head and describe it as if she were doing so in front of a classroom full of fourteen-year-old religious-prep-school boys who are not supposed to realize that she knows they can see through her clothes.
The distinction between this and what Black Box Recorder actually do is abstract enough to qualify as theology. John Moore and Luke Haines have perfected their Pet Shop Boys b-side knock-off act to the point where, however much labor and precision it really entails, it appears to be so effortless that there's little obvious reason why any given three minutes of it would take more than an hour to plan and execute. Sarah Nixey, who appears on the album cover in a red bikini just to make sure there's no ambiguity about her role, talks her way crisply through anything she doesn't absolutely have to sing. The songs are cheerfully interchangeable, each one set up with about the same hopeful allotment of novelty-hit potential, presumably in the sage understanding that craftsmanship is no substitute for luck in this form of lottery. There are only ten, because who's going to buy the album for more than one or two songs, anyway? They deal with school, discipline, personal ads, suburban malaise, weather, success, fame, routines, betrayals, pop stars, vapid protests, petulance, bad parties and searing trauma. If Black Box Recorder did their ostensible job right, one or two of these songs will lodge in your head. And if they're lucky enough that you can't conveniently download just those songs, maybe you'll buy their whole record.
And if they're done their real job right, maybe you'll listen to it a few times, and eventually notice the levels behind the joke. Passionoia is self-parody, but it's far from its only target. "The School Song" is an inverted remake of BBR's own "The Facts of Life", but could also more or less serve as an exasperated teachers' answer-song to Pink Floyd's "Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2)". "GSOH Q.E.D." takes the galloping half-rap cant of the Pet Shop Boys' "West End Girls" and twists it into a bitter indictment of all the smugly over-complicated and usually hypocritical schemes that have been devised for no more noble ends than the same things the East End boys in dive bars were at least honest about wanting. The swooning "British Racing Green" is as disgusted with its own nation's bilious weaknesses as Billy Bragg or Paul Weller ever got. "Being Number One" and "The New Diana", a sardonic double-A-side smugly awaiting its chart shot, are paired gnashing deconstructions of aspirations for fame. "These Are the Things" sets a minute-by-minute diary of daily trivia to a sort of techno "Heart of Glass" flutter, but the flourishes don't quite disguise the fact that love is a sustaining power in this one. "Andrew Ridgley" starts off as an enthusiastically idiotic fan paean, complete with a doltish "This is Sarah Nixey talking, / MIDIed up and into the groove!" and an arguably even more doltish "I came alive to the smoldering fire in your eyes", but after the first two verses I find myself suspecting that the joke sentiments are partially in earnest, and when the third verse slips unexpectedly into a bit about Sarah's father's divorce and bankruptcy, I suddenly believe that the whole thing is entirely sincere, and Sarah is actually in love with Andrew Ridgley, which is dopey, but no dopier than anything else.
Towards the end the album loses me for a couple songs, as if trying to fill a US/UK communication-gap quota. I understand all the words of "When Britain Refused to Sing", about the country suddenly falling silent indefinitely, but have no idea what point it's making. "Girls Guide for the Modern Diva" acts like a sequel to "The Facts of Life" with dreams of being "Everybody's Free (To Wear Sunscreen)", but never quite gets around to much real advice, which leaves it more like a book jacket than a book. But then "I Ran All the Way Home", like a ground-control-to-Major-Tom for the grounded, ends with a creepy scene in which Nixey runs into a couple who claims she reminds them of their dead (missing?) child, and I feel myself fall back into the spell. The song brushes over the moment, and spins off into its finale as if unaffected, but I believe what the inclusion demonstrates more than what the downplaying claims. The arch tones support something. "I was brought up to the sound of the synthesizer", Sarah said earlier, which of course isn't quite right, but it may be wrong in a deeper way. These songs are parodies of synth-pop, or else they just are synth-pop. If this album has a secret (and it may not mean to), it has concealed it cleverly: Black Box Recorder's sly satires of school-kid fantasies, both within these songs and through them, work because they remember the childhoods to which such things would have to appeal. Haines is a little too smart, and a little too pleased with himself for being a little too smart, and as a result his self-parodies lack the venom of self-destructiveness. But this is a flaw only if you wish the self-destruction was more complete or more efficient, in which case more things to dislike can't make much difference. For me, the act is a plea, or maybe a confession. BBR dress like their great insight is that it's more dangerous to be decadent than sleazy. But they play and sing like they know both games are only diversions until we're old enough to spend our time more valuably, and at least this game will leave fewer scars.
Puressence: Planet Helpless
The same oft-invisible line that divides self-identity from self-parody also sometimes runs as faintly between consistency and repetition. While I wasn't paying attention, last year, Puressence snuck out a third album. It might have got by me even if I had been paying attention, though, as stylistic versatility is not exactly Puressence's primary virtue. They play dense, swirly, propulsive, atmospheric music, derived in parts from My Bloody Valentine, the Chameleons, Joy Division and New Order, shot through with sparks of neo-glam, old Manchester groove, Radiohead paranoia and Polara intricacy. James Mudriczki sings in a buffeted quiver, guitars and drums and keyboards swelling and crashing around him. Most Puressence songs stick to mid-range tempos, or slow down just a few beats and work a few vaguely folkish shards into the surface, as if maybe the Hothouse Flowers' dory was recently smashed on nearby rocks.
When these songs don't accomplish anything more, they are still background-as-universe mood music I can contentedly be swallowed by. The pounding, sinuous "Prodigal Son" sounds a bit like Kent after a lot of coffee. The anxious waltz "How Does It Feel?" weaves between brass stabs and accordion wheezes, as if dodging pieces of a French Riviera boardwalk uprooted by an inexplicable tornado. "Analgesic Love Song" pushes the Radiohead resemblances back towards The Bends. "Planet Helpless" musters a sickly sort of sunlight, like the nearest forest is being blacktopped. "Ironstone Izadora" clatters and buzzes menacingly. "Comfort When You Smile" meanders distractedly, "Strangers" ricochets through echoey chicanes. "Heart of Gold" sighs, "Throw Me a Line" curtsies.
But when Puressence finds the time, or the inclination, to apply these energies to real rock songs, suddenly the background is among us. The clipped "Walking Dead", with twitchy drums and rumbling bass under keening synth hooks and clashing guitars, could be the Happy Mondays reformed as Angry, or Placebo with a purpose. The airy "She's Gotten Over You", with ringing piano and springy bass hooks, sounds to me like a composite of Joy Division's "Love Will Tear Us Apart", the Psychedelic Furs' "Heaven" and the Jesus and Mary Chain's "April Skies". The rousing "Make Time" slides elephantine howls across groaning bass rifts held together with drum spikes. "You Move Me" slows down and opens up, soaring into magnificent choruses on the order of Radiohead's "Fake Plastic Trees" or the Wonder Stuff's "Caught in My Shadow".
And after spending a while learning the contours of the easiest songs, I can start picking out subtler details of similar types from the other ones, too. Gradually the background in which I wrapped myself inverts into foreground, and I'm outside again, charged by storms. If Puressence, the debut, was the glow around one bright light, and Only Forever, the second album, strung out the little lights and saved most of its luminous blur for the finale, then Planet Helpless begins to look like an actual lighting plan, with sources and surfaces arranged to balance and complement each other. A fourth album will have to finally take on some new challenge, and I have no idea whether Puressence are up to that. But if their limitations eventually kill them, remember that their focus got them through a syllogism, which is two albums, if not three, more than most bands ever string together into a single coherent thought.
Hundred Reasons: Ideas Above Our Station
But does anybody read trilogies any more, let alone recognize them in music without title numbering to spell out the premise? Perhaps not, but even if they do, Hundred Reasons' debut album, also from last year, almost certainly has a better chance to reach more people than any three of Puressence's records. Singer Colin Doran can do Mudriczki's waver as just one of his styles, and Hundred Reasons convert impatience into at least superficially higher energy levels dimmed by less intermediating atmosphere. I came across Hundred Reasons because they opened some shows for Idlewild, but they probably got a lot more exposure from shows with Papa Roach and Incubus. I've kept listening to them alongside Puressence for geographic and textural reasons, but their commercial potential, if I'm right about it, is a function of fitting into an intriguing genre-crossover niche that crowds will come looking for any week now. Hundred Reasons are a hard-rock emo band, and could thus be the rock bridge into emo to match Jimmy Eat World's pop bridge. (Except Jimmy Eat World don't seem to have become stars yet, either, which kind of reduces the persuasiveness of analogical reasoning based on their music.)
But as long as you aren't involved with the band in some sponsorship capacity, their commercial opportunities need not be relevant. They are a loud vocal-guitar-guitar-bass-drums five-piece. Neither guitarist seems inclined to solo or hold still much, with the result that most of their songs end up jammed with rhythm-guitar parts, giving them densities reminiscent at times of early Smashing Pumpkins roar, at others of speed-metal bludgeon. Their drumming is physical and insistent, the bass chained between the kick drums and the bottoms of the guitar chords. Any idea the band had of denying their emo involvement is rendered pointless by Doran's tendency to howl choruses in obvious Braid/Cursive/Fugazi fashion, but he eases up a little in the verses, and scattered and artlessly simple harmonies from the two guitarists help push the center of gravity a little way out of hardcore purity towards the rock mainstream.
Of course, that description covers at least a dozen bands I like, and probably five times as many that I don't. I like Hundred Reasons not because they fit into a mold, but because nearly every song on this, their first and so far only album, has some detail I find myself humming hours after hearing it. Early in "I'll Find You" the guitars saw their way up an ascending riff while the bass rumbles in a straight line, and later all three link up for blasting single-note riffs under Doran's vocal. "Answers" has chirpy verses straight out of Jimmy Eat World's style-guide, but then explodes into shouty choruses driven by metal-grade concussive double-bass rumble. In a couple places in "Dissolve" the bass drops out and Doran coasts into free-fall over pealing guitar hooks and spare drumming. "What Thought Did" bounces grinding lock-step riffs and trebly half-lead squeals back and forth across the stereo field. "If I Could" slows up but bears down, the verses almost wistful but the choruses surging as double-speed guitar lines criss-cross over the slower drumbeat. Harmonies shape the sparer, almost-elegant "Falter", which seems to me like Hundred Reasons' closest Idlewild approach. "Shine" is a full-speed minute-and-a-half thrash. "Drowning" goes for catharsis, and hits it somewhere near where old Meat Puppets and Bonaduces territories overlap. "Gone Too Far" puts on a full Slayer suit for a couple sections, but "Avalanche", the pleasantly subdued closing, is just muted guitar and chastened voices.
And will Hundred Reasons have another album in them? If I were impatient, I bet there are already fifty other bands who have records essentially like this. I'm not making a very concerted effort to find them. If I knew fifty-one bands like this, I wouldn't listen to any of them. Jimmy Eat World's great insight, maybe, was to realize that shouting, however central to emo, tends to obscure individual personality, which sucks not just for sales but for identity and longevity. I think it will soon dawn on Hundred Reasons that the harder you play your instruments, the more you become anonymous instrumentally, as well. Sometimes, of course, anonymity is your best option. Do Hundred Reasons have the talent to sustain a real identity? Maybe. I can't tell from these songs. But I couldn't tell from Jimmy Eat World's first songs or Idlewild's or Puressence's, either. So I'm not obsessively searching out fifty other bands that sound like this, but I'm keeping the ones I happen to find. This, too, is a childhood we will outgrow, and then wish we could remember better.