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We Can Buy Back What We've Sold
Fleetwood Mac: Rumours
One of my fondest hopes for how my life as a music listener would be different after the Great CD Purge of 2003 was that I would have the time and emotional space to recommit to underappreciated music I kept. As with most fondest hopes, this turns out to be only sort of true.
The way it's least true, fairly unsurprisingly, is that my listening time is still dominated by new music. I'm buying orders of magnitude fewer new records, but before the Purge I was basically buying orders of magnitude too many records to properly process, and relying on the fact that I would expediently dislike a great many of them. In my new mode, buying and disliking those other records is now somebody else's job, which definitely saves me both money and time. But I still have very little trouble finding enough music I like that it takes most of my listening time to feel like I'm getting to know it. The iPod is a pretty good leveler of the recent past, prompting me to keep occasionally playing things from a month or a year ago, and also helps by caching whatever older stuff I ripped in the process of pondering whatever it was a month or a year ago. But my recent-acquisition shelf still has 37 CDs on it at the moment and usually, and in the course of a normal week that shelf will probably represent 80-90% of my self-directed listening.
The way the hope is most true, though, is very close. What the purge hasn't produced in album focus, it has enthusiastically fostered in artist focus. When I contemplate a new album I might buy, my question to myself is no longer "am I curious to hear this?", it's "is this artist so valuable to me that I'm willing to cut some other artist's share of my life to make room?" Now, admittedly the Great Purge was a bit Greater than was mathematically necessary, which gives me a little slack for a while. And the finite storage space is a physical constraint, not a logic puzzle, so I don't literally have to match each individual purchase with a corresponding sale in real-time. But it's a real issue, and it really helps. If I come home with a new album, now, I don't just demand excitement, I expect to have my whole underlying faith in the artist reaffirmed and refined.
One particularly tricky case, though, is remasterings of things I already have. Although it's simplest to think of my constraints as purely physical, and a new version of an album would simply take over the existing space, the replacement still requires money and time. The iPod is an ongoing reminder of the relative infrequency with which I seem to require individual old albums, as well as a daily testament to how lenient my sound-quality tolerances are.
Which is how I come to be standing in Newbury Comics holding three Fleetwood Mac reissues, basically recapitulating the entire evolution of my purchase-filtering system. In my old system, I'd have bought all three without a thought. I like Fleetwood Mac. The reissues are loaded with bonus tracks, and I like bonus tracks. I'm sure the new versions sound a lot better than the old versions.
Except, wait a second. I actually never bought Fleetwood Mac or Tusk, and never thought of that as a problem. If I didn't mind not listening to either of those albums at home at all, then I probably don't care whether their dynamic range has been expanded by 7%, and probably don't much need to hear a bunch of other songs and takes that weren't good enough to appear on the original album that I didn't mind not playing any of. Rumours, admittedly, is on my short list of rock Masterpieces, but a) that still doesn't mean I need to play it very often, and b) the CD I already have of it hasn't exactly been plaguing me with its faults, and c) it's hard to imagine that I'd really play the second disc of the reissue more than twice, and d) it's complete and obvious bullshit that the new Rumours is $20, even at sale prices, while the Echo and the Bunnymen reissues one letter away are stickered at $9 each. I love Rumours. But I have it, in an eminently satisfactory sense. I put it down with the others, and walk away.
And yet, although I know that was the right decision in my new system, it kind of haunts me. Some old channels in my brain keep insisting that by declining an opportunity to re-express my love for Rumours, I am loving it less. This gnawing sensation is manifestly irrational, but that means it can't be reasoned away. Irrational pain demands irrational healing. And my irrational healing, in Rumours' case, starts like this.
- Rumours is personally and socially ambient, and thus very much with me even when I'm not playing it. I can't actually stop thinking about tomorrow, anymore, even if I wanted to, because not much time goes by without the album replaying itself either inside or outside of my head on its own.
- Many, many people love Rumours. New Rumours fans don't have to be elaborately contrived, they are inexorably born. If you haven't heard it, you should, like you should see Annie Hall and read The Princess Bride and try sushi. If you don't love it, that's fine. Enough people love and will love Rumours that there's no conceivable reason any one person must, and no reason that anyone who does should have to express that love in purchase form more than once. And I've already done mine.
- Anyway, arguably I love it better by declaring that it was already a Masterpiece. Was anybody really saying "Well, I guess it's not bad, but if they want me to buy one, they better give those ride cymbals a little more clarity"? Or "I dunno, twelve bucks? For what? Eleven immortal and virtually flawless demonstrations of ensemble performance dynamics and why the Seventies weren't a total waste? If they really cared, they'd at least throw in some half-assed rehearsals or something."
- The major labels are very slowly realizing that they're fucked. They've bailed out of the artist-development business because it feels too much like work instead of gambling, and the crap they're selling now is all preservatives and yet barely has a long enough shelf-life to still sound fresh when the tie-in movie hits DVD. The kids just download, record stores are all going under, and everybody in the music industry who doesn't wet themselves at the idea of having to try a new business model left to go work for software or juice companies years ago. This is the pathetic last-resort plea of the old-order Gollums, clinging Smeagly to the delusion that yesterday isn't entirely gone yet: maybe a few more lonely obsessives and forgetful convertible-polishers will shell out for Rumours and Dark Side of the Moon and Graceland just one more time.
- And yes, we have better mastering technology now than we did when Rumours was digitized last time, but we'll have even better mastering technology next year, and the year after, and eventually you're going to have to accept that this album was recorded in 1977, and if there's any album on the planet that is supposed to sound like it was made in the Seventies, Rumours is it. Remastering Rumours is like colorizing Metropolis. Not only do I recommend buying the old CD used rather than paying the stupid retail price for the reissue, but better yet, find somebody who's buying the reissue, get them to give their old CD to somebody who only had the LP, get them to give their LP to somebody who only had a cassette, and then walk down the street with the cassette in your hand until you find a stranger willing to stand there and hum you the whole album right on the sidewalk. That's the way to hear Rumours. If you've managed to miss it up until now, then what you need isn't to hear it like it was 1977 again, but to have somebody demonstrate to you what it's been like to be alive and alert all this time.
Mascott: Dreamer's Book
And if you haven't been, start now. People are still making records that twenty-seven years from now you'll wish you'd known since they were new, and my vote for the most likely candidate so far in 2004 is Dreamer's Book, an unexpectedly splendid reward for my not Purging Kendall Meade's band incarnation Mascott. My irrational Rumours healing accelerates when I realize not only that I'd rather listen to Dreamer's Book than Rumours this week, but that I can imagine in time thinking of them as peers. Rumours is not what I'll discard to make space for more Mascott CDs, but maybe not-buying the reissue is part of the process of giving new records the chance to reach me like old ones used to.
And although Dreamer's Book doesn't resemble Rumours in specific nature, to me the two records share tonal consistency and unhurried grace, and perhaps belong to different ends of the long story for which Soft Rock is actually an accurate name. Rumours is an ensemble drama and a studio-pop monolith, where Dreamer's Book is a solo-album-made-with-help and an indie lullaby, but if the links are obscure in direct juxtaposition, I think they're far clearer if Kendall is compared to her more obvious peers like Lisa Germano or Hannah Marcus or Mary Timony or Cat Power. I can easily imagine Kendall alternating Geek the Girl and Black Hole Heaven with Rumours and Joni Mitchell's Blue, wondering why so many people assume independence has to manifest itself in confrontation; or Sarah McLachlan and Edie Brickell, wondering why the difference between elegance and waifishness is shooting in soft focus; or to Jewel and the Magnetic Fields, thinking that there must be some third option not built on irony.
The familiarity of names in the credits suggests that Mascott, the Dambuilders, Helium and Sparklehorse may nearly be operating as collective at this point, but when Kendall is directing their efforts they're much less willful than in the other modes. "Bluebirds in Heaven", the glassy opener, weaves an atmosphere out of yarn from Stephin Merritt and Jane Siberry, but ends up earnest instead of sardonic, and breathy instead of ethereal. "L.O.V.E." is a Sixties space-out, like Sarah Harmer playing spangly dress-up. "Dreamer's Book" itself builds on 10,000 Maniacs jangle and Sundays restraint, but Dave Derby and Phoebe Summersquash add sunny harmonies and Dave weaves in filaments of vaguely countryish guitar twang. The shimmery "Time Waits" sounds like Jane Siberry taking all her wisdom and starting over. The plaintive "Turn Off / Turn On" is a glorious deconstructed pop hit, artfully reduced to ticking drums, keyboard sighs and the bare minimum of guitar chords, like an old Cardigans song without the cocktail smirk. "Kite" is what I thought Pal Shazar was going to sound like when all I knew about her what that she was dating Mike Scott. "The Write-Up", the second of the two unrepentant pop songs, could be the theme for a remake of The Sweet Hereafter that actually ends sweetly. The gentle "Off Blue", with Joan Wasser and Semay Wu on strings and Kendall and Dave on acoustic guitars, invokes Joni Mitchell in a lot more than just the color. "Worry On Smith" is a bleary squall, and the blaring "Martyr's Tune" edges toward murder-song, but "Song From a Dream" draws the threads most of the way together again, its grinding noise and echoey drums paced into stately dignity, and then the unlisted instrumental reprise turns it all into a slow fade-out.
But the soul of my reaction to this album isn't a product of sequencing or arcs, it's a reverence for breaths. It is very difficult to sound like you are singing at rest amidst slow-moving music, and if you get it wrong, you risk dragging the whole enterprise to an excruciating crawl. Jane Siberry pulls it off by transcending her music, Sarah Nixey by barely deigning to notice it, Sarah McLachlan by carefully matching her music's speed so it never becomes an issue. But these are all ways of obviating the tension, and Kendall Meade does a much harder thing by embracing it as a choreography challenge. Dreamer's Book is a meditation ballet, and an exercise in arriving at each necessary point less by movement than by simply inhabiting its inevitability.
Mary Lou Lord: Baby Blue
In a sense, though, "Masterpiece" is a death wish. I don't wish Rumours' fate on Dreamer's Book, in any sense, most vehemently not the one that ends with me basically resenting being reminded of the thing at all. Inherent in my personal listening bias, probably, is a kind of indelible prejudice for transience. I adore fragility and misjudgments and heresies, songs that feel irresistibly compelled to waive their chances at immortality in order to make some haplessly incomprehensible point of their own. Part of the appeal of Dreamer's Book, for me, is that its achievements are just classical enough for me to imagine them deserving a small degree of universality, but sufficiently oblique that they're unlikely to ever actually be considered on that scale. The problem with Rumours is that it's too easy. It might be the most likable album ever made, and what lasting good does it do to learn to love something nobody can resist?
If Dreamer's Book seems a little too easy to you, too, it might help to alternate it with my second-favorite album of the moment, Mary Lou Lord's Baby Blue. Lord can barely sing in the best of times, and made this album while suffering from vocal problems that even by her own standards nearly muted her. She has moments of presence, but inspiringly few of them, and she wisps through most of this record on sheer and inexplicable persistence. Her uneven career aches for a defiant breakthrough, a Jagged Little Pill or an 0304 or something, and Baby Blue is so vividly not it that I can barely believe Nick Salomon didn't just put a hand on her forehead and then send her back to bed. She's given up any substantial pretense of writing her own material (nine of these fourteen songs are Saloman's, two more he co-wrote, "Fearless" is a Pink Floyd cover and "Baby Blue" is the Badfinger song this time, leaving exactly one song credited to Mary Lou by herself), and it's tempting to wonder, in no way rhetorically, why she bothers.
At least, I'm tempted to wonder why she bothers until I start listening, and then I remember why I don't care. She's a hapless singer, and Salomon is a perilously defocusable writer, but when their limitations line up they can amplify and cancel each other as well as any two people's flaws ever mesh. Their grand prize this time, the ringingly simple folk-rock anthem "The Wind Blew All Around Me", reconciles the Byrds, Dan Bern, Bob Mould, the Alarm and the Thompsons, and seems destined to be cherished and butchered by the next two or three generations of subway buskers. As seems to be Salomon and Lord's pattern, it's the first song on the record and probably everything else drags down the average, but while that may be a serious structural flaw in the download era, the album isn't in iTMS yet, so maybe the rest of it will get a chance. The "Leaves That Are Green"-ish "43" is nearly Stina Nordenstam hushed. "Baby Blue" is a particularly dubious title-track pick, since a much better-known weak-voiced Boston singer already did it, but for me Saloman's snarly guitar and Jules Fenton's clattery drums justify another pass. "Cold Kilburn Rain" is somewhere between Darden Smith and Game Theory. "Farming It Out" is a 1:25 folk gem good enough to nominate Mary Lou for Christine Lavin's old slot in Four Bitchin' Babes, and "The Inhibition Twist" is a jubilant 1:54 punk strut worthy of an old Blake Babies record. "Because He's Leaving" is a patient lullaby, "Someone Always Talks" a snapping protest warning, "Stars Burn Out" a sprawling Neil Young yowl, "Ron" a wheezy Dylan nod. The Pink Floyd cover perplexes me, but "Old Tin Tray" returns to Richard Thompson's Celtic-folk vein, and reminds me happily of the Waterboys in one of their leprechaun phases.
So I think Salomon did the right thing. "You're sure you want to sing?" She nodded, he shrugged, and they made another record. This one isn't going to get grandly reissued twenty-seven years from now, and might be lucky to pay for Mary Lou's plane fare to England to record it. I don't know why she thinks she bothers, and none of the easy answers make much sense now that she seems to have excused herself from any scene in which it would help to antagonize Courtney Love or sound like Juliana Hatfield's consumptive sister. These songs will more likely gather singer/songwriter company, and really Mary Lou is neither. She's an interpreter, and we kind of don't have those any more. But we could, and maybe we should. Interpretation is an art of listening, and Mary Lou Lord listens excellently. I am trying and hoping to listen better. And Rumours is on the shelf and in my heart, and Dreamer's Book is in my dreams, and "The Wind Blew All Around Me" is starting in my headphones again, and maybe I'm doing fine.
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