Thursday, 24 September 2015

The CARPENTERS: Only Yesterday: Richard & Karen Carpenter's Greatest Hits




(#406; 7 April 1990, 2 weeks; 28 April 1990, 5 weeks)

Track listing:  Yesterday Once More/Superstar/Rainy Days And Mondays/Top Of The World/Ticket To Ride/Goodbye To Love/This Masquerade/Hurting Each Other/Solitaire/We've Only Just Begun/Those Good Old Dreams/I Won't Last A Day Without You/Touch Me When We're Dancing/Jambalaya (On The Bayou)/For All We Know/All You Get From Love Is A Love Song/(They Long To Be) Close To You/Only Yesterday/Calling Occupants Of Interplanetary Craft (The Recognized Anthem Of World Contact Day)

As the new decade finds its feet,  no one seems to be sure what to think or where to go.  Popular music seems to be a pull between the old and the new, and as you can see, the old has been winning out lately.  There was nothing past 1984 on the previous album, and there is nothing past 1981 on this one.  It seems as if the 1980s themselves are slowly but surely being erased, that they are too terrible to contemplate, too close.  And so nostalgia beckons, and most of the spring - a time of hope and renewal - is marked here by music that is from the past.  Why is this?

It is easy enough to say that again - as with Karen Carpenter fan Gloria Estefan - it's the women who bought this en masse, or it was advertised on television, etc.  But for seven weeks?  That's amazing, but also kind of frightening, mainly for how The Carpenters stand for something that people can still get nostalgic for - a woman in a dress standing and singing a ballad.  But Richard and Karen, Yankees transplanted to Southern California at a young age, were not ever that simple.

For one thing, Karen plays the drums and sings;* I don't drum myself, but I can imagine that doing both is tough, but rewarding.  (I tend to think of drummers as the ones who really get lost in music, as the beat is so essential that they become the music while it's playing; and drummers are ones who make noise, who can be rebellious, who like a fight.)  Richard, on the other hand, is the studio whiz, the arranger, the one who wants to make everything perfect on all accounts, and that kind of Wilsonian mania is great for anecdotes, but not so much for living a normal life.  Richard wanted to be a musician when he was 12, and younger sister Karen wanted to drum, only coming to singing later on.  Late 60s Los Angeles was their context, a time of jazz/rock and Frank Zappa as much as the complex harmonies of The Association and The Turtles (with the British Invasion/Motown there as the music of their youth, as with all Baby Boomers).

I don't know how much of all this was part of the nostalgia for The Carpenters at this time - very little, I'd guess.  Because the painful memory of Karen Carpenter's death lingered on for years with women; the shock of it (though she had been underweight for some time) was intense, even if you didn't particularly care for The Carpenters' music per se.**  And so this album, buying it, is a long-delayed act of mourning.  32 is no age for death; anorexia nervosa is no way to go.  Maybe the women (and men - I don't want to generalize here too much!) remembered how lively and delicate/tough she was, singing and playing, using her whole body to make music.  (This, on the cusp of Riot Grrl, of the decade that saw the rise of so many girls and women making their own noise.)

This is what I would like to think; but of course it could just be  this was indeed a direct link to the past, right back (as with the previous album) to 1969, an anchor year for a whole generation.  Something ended there, something started there, and once again, the story unfolds...

And of course it begins with "Yesterday Once More" - a song about music from the past and being able to go back.  The music industry banks very hard on the public's too-easily-won tendency to, when nothing seems to be happening, go backwards.  Radio stations which dwell in the past will always be around, people will always sing along to them.  To fix time?  To erase the present?  To make something old new again?  The trick is to do the latter, but the line of least resistance brings the music back as sheer pleasure, almost a kind of drug.  Things, people can fade, but the music is still there. (This version, by the way, is the single edit, not the full version with the medley.)   

"Superstar" is also about listening to the radio and hearing a certain song, a certain guitar - and the joy here is mixed with pain (Karen's voice suggests both) - this is what happens when you really get involved in music, with a musician.  The music is live, the guitarist is real, there is an affair, and then distance.  How weak it seems, just hearing the song on the radio as opposed to in person, how tiny the guitarist is, how big the music is.  It is a song that goes beyond a crush, and when Karen sings "I really do" at the end, vowing her love to the guitarist, to music itself, it's almost too damn much to bear.  Having a song that you share with your Other is one thing, but what if your Other wrote the song?  It practically becomes part of your body, I imagine.  And it is always there, even if the Other plainly isn't.

"Rainy Days And Mondays" is a lovely song about being in the dumps and not being able to do anything about it.  Notice how she's complaining, sure, but it's not like she's Morrissey and has the weight of the world on her shoulders.  Karen accepts her sadness (she inhabits her songs; she may not have written them but she makes them her own) and frowns and looks at the calendar - yep, it's to be expected.

"Top Of The World" is a weird song.  I mean, it's nice to hear Karen and Richard (he does come in on harmony vocals at times) all happy, but how can anyone actually look "down on Creation"? There's being exalted in love, and there's hovering over the surface of the Earth itself, like you're an astronaut.  How powerful a feeling is that?  How light, how buoyant, how unreal must the narrator be? The surprise in Karen's voice is real, but the easygoing country feel of the song makes it surreal, brings back the kind of dreamy mellow optimism of the US in the early 70s - all that weirdness is over, the music says.  (No wonder The Carpenters were asked to perform at the White House.)

"Ticket To Ride" is quite something - the song is slowed down, both of them sing, and the gorgeousness is almost - almost - decadent.  She has been abandoned, sure, but the feeling here is not one of agony, as Lennon wrote it and sang it.  That has been replaced by the complete elegance and beauty of the song itself - this is the literal act of hiding inside a song to shield yourself from the meaning of it.  It's not so much as a direct homage but an act of love.  And it was recorded just four years after the original version, showing what a huge leap there was between the mid and late 60s.

"Goodbye To Love" is a song that seems to come at the end of the universe.  Life is mysterious; love is even more mysterious; nothing can be done about either, hence the smile in Karen's hopelessness.  Maybe one day things will change?  Hm.  Maybe.  The rocking guitar solo shows her real agony, her real anger, that things have come to such an unpretty pass.  The aaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH wall of harmonies at the end does the same - this is the kind of song the generation to come, Generation X, will claim as their own - the complexity here is theirs, right down to the need to take control of love, as if that could be done.

"This Masquerade" is very jazzy, very cool (Karen's earliest influences as a singer were Ella Fitzgerald, Mary Ford and Dusty Springfield) and she sounds right at home here, even though the song is about deception.  Are they happy?  Not really, but like automatons (is it just me, or is there something kind of unreal about The Carpenters?) they just keep going, unable to find the words, maybe unable to speak altogether.  Together alone, lonely together, alienated as hell but unwilling to part.  Karen sings it as if it's sad and delicious and slightly sensuous...

"Hurting Each Other" is not a song I had heard before, and I was immediately reminded of Scott Walker (so much of the orchestration here is like his Stretch period, in a way), only to find The Walker Brothers had recorded this!  Well of course - it is big and dramatic and foursquare and responsible.  They are so good together, why are they suffering like this?  It is damn refreshing to hear Karen sing about wanting to stop being miserable, to stop this self-destructive behavior.  What with Karen's weight problems and Richard's insomnia and subsequent addictions, well, you know.  So many times musicians predict things in their songs, though whether these are self-fulfilling prophecies, I don't know.  Irony kind of breaks down with these two.    
"Solitaire" is a huge song, one of a man who has deliberately turned his back on everything, on all others, on love itself.  (Sigh, so many songs here about being alone, voluntarily mostly, or being in a state that is just as good as being alone, if not worse.)  But what's this?  He loses his love because he's...indifferent?  WHAT?? No wonder Karen sounds, quite frankly, a bit angry here.  This is a man who lost his love due to his silence, and she sees him and his little hopes and his bossy ways and how he pretends he'll never love again and scorns his suffering.  Oh, she seems to be saying, I feel compassion for you, but not forgiveness.  You could love again if you opened yourself up and really felt something, yes it hurts but without that actual grief, nothing is possible.

I mean, look at the couple in "We've Only Just Begun"!  They are happy, optimistic, content.  The world is theirs, and if there is fragility in the song - melodically, not just in Karen's voice - it's that this won't last.  The moments have to be seized, that place where there's room to grow isn't going to appear soon, but if they keep going, it will.  This is the smiley face button with a tear in its eye, naive but knowing, fresh and self-aware.

"Those Good Old Dreams" is about love, about fantasies that come true; once again in the beginning she is a child (as she is in "Yesterday Once More") and is a daydreamer.  Well, now she is grown up, singing a mild song - happy, but less perky than "Top Of The World."  From 1981, and sounds as if it could be 1975, really.  You'd never know Karen made a disco record hearing this (one that her label refused to release, and only saw the light of day in 1996).  Her voice sounds a bit rough here, deeper somehow....

I'll be getting to their version of "Please Mr. Postman" on Music Sounds Better With Two, but once again here she is being patient, waiting and waiting....

"I Won't Last A Day Without You" is about being in love, but about disappointment too - the world is cold and mean, and her Other is the only thing that can make her smile.  It's "nice to know" the Other is there, but how huge is this dependence?  "Touch me and I end up singing" she says, as if the Other is actually Music itself.  "I can take all the madness the world has to give" she sings, and that is also huge.  How could anyone hear this as easy listening?

"Touch Me When We're Dancing" is yacht rock, all swishing strings and romance, stolen kisses and "you've got me up so high I could fly coast to coast."  Again, there is a breezy sense of joy here (and the obligatory 80s saxophone solo) and how weird is it to say you want to be "touched" when you are dancing?  Unless this is more suggestive than it first seems?  And how eerie is it to hear her sing in 1981 about feeling light?

"Jambalaya (On The Bayou)" has always seemed like an odd song for The Carpenters to cover, unless they really liked Hank Williams.  Too neat, too sweet (do I hear a flute solo?), it's just...nice.

"For All We Know" is from the movie Lovers And Other Strangers***.  It is joyful and sad and "love may grow...for all we know" is the killer lyric here.  The two are strangers "in many ways" - but as they get to know each other, they will become closer.  Or will they?  The music here is ambiguous, but hopeful.  (The Carpenters were told to see this movie by their manager while waiting around in Toronto to play as the opening act for Englebert Humperdinck, enjoyed it, and as soon as they got back home recorded the song; it's not in the movie as such.)

"All You Get From Love Is A Love Song" is such a meta title, and once again we are in yacht rock - "love was washed away" and it's a "dirty old shame" that her love is over.  "The future lies before me - I cannot see" is the abyss of the song.  This seems to be some kind of sequel to "Superstar" as she is the one who broken his heart, and he is going to write a love song about it, because "the best love songs" are written by someone who is broken hearted.  Well no wonder she sounds smug!  Oh poor songwriter, how do you like things now?  Sure, my future is over, she is crying and cannot appreciate the sunrise, but all you, musician, get is a song.  That's nothing to be too happy about, compared to being in a relationship is it?

Is it?

"Close To You" is one of those songs that suggests romantic adoration that is kind of crazy, but then lovers can be a bit crazy, and it's Bacharach and David, so it sounds magical, and Karen is soft and the whole thing is like being hugged the whole way through.  It's a song with real jazz changes (as easy-going as it sounds) and it was covered with tremendous verve by Errol Garner on his album The Magician in 1974; the pastel teddy bear waaaaaaaaaAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHhhh of The Carpenters is replaced by a full-on rainbow of joy.

"Only Yesterday" is about loneliness - "in my own time nobody knew the pain I was going through" stings here, for certain.  The morning light she can't see once she's dumped her musician comes back - "maybe things will be all right."  The same guitarist from "Goodbye To Love" is here, now that she is happy, at home in his arms..."the best is about to be."  And his love is making her feel "as free as a song, singing forever."  In all this narrative, has she now found happiness?  This song is too tentative for that conclusion, but it's a kind of girl group song, one where hope beats experience yet again, where long-term contentment may be possible, even... 

And then there's "Calling Occupants Of Interplanetary Craft" which is Canadian weirdness and a sure sign of something itching inside both Carpenters to go a bit south, if only their public would let them.  In the narrative here it's as if she's gone through all this romance only to look to the skies for a greater love, somehow.  At the time I didn't quite understand the whole Close Encounters/UFO mania of the late 70s, but here is the hapless LA radio jock and the alien, here is the magnificence of the whole universe, and Karen speaking for the Earth's citizens by saying "we are your friends."  (It also led to this weirdness, which I didn't watch but cannot help but imagine.)

And there we are, left looking into space with The Carpenters, who maybe really were the aliens who came down, did their business, and then disappeared, in Karen's case too painfully literally.  That the public wanted this more than anything as the new decade began shows how uneasy they were, how frightened - and, I would guess, how profoundly attached to their past (and therefore, youth) they were, as well.  Even if the past represents two people giving themselves to music so fully that it seems to have ruined them both for a while, that, that is what the public are happy to buy the most for weeks on end; ignoring their fates, ignoring the implications of the songs, lost in the melodies and the undeniable greatness of some of the songs and nearly all of the singing (Karen's voice does get a bit weaker by the end).  But the end result is a denial of the present, a preference for the past over the present, a paralysis that comes when the public cannot get a handle on what is happening; we are now fully in that period when everything is up in the air, and many will reach back for something, anything, rather than squarely deal with what is here, right in front of them....

...which is never a good idea, in the ocean of sound....              

Here in London, on Regent Street, not that far from Piccadilly Circus, is a literal ocean.  It is in the display window of a clothing store, a big chain, but the display isn't clothing.  It's a huge screen showing...the Pacific Ocean.  The live feed of shore at Huntington Beach, California.  It's a big screen, and it has a blue filter on it so it's all indigoes and shades of white and black, an idealized ocean.  It is by far the most beautiful advertising in London, as nothing can outdo nature, and if you're lucky you can see surfers paddling out over the waves and then surfing back, at one with the Pacific itself.

It is one thing to look at this as someone who has never actually seen the Pacific in person and regard it as nice or clever; it is something else altogether to look at it as someone who has seen the Pacific, in person, and remembers it very well.  It is like a tonic for me to see it; I claim it, without saying anything to anyone, as mine. It seems silly to claim something so huge, but that is how it feels.  Even some of the ocean, filtered and used for advertising, is enough to give me that vital connection, so truly profound that I cannot say anything when I see it, save to remark on it being there and joy at seeing someone there on the screen, paddling out, the memory of salty fresh air and the peace of such a place...

The ocean is the end of things, but the beginning as well; and the Pacific is so big that it extends right down to a place I didn't know much about in 1990 called New Zealand.   But once I heard Submarine Bells by The Chills, well....



 (Dig the drawing and autograph by Martin Phillips himself!)

It made all kinds of sense to eventually work out that their town, Dunedin, is on the Pacific - sure, it's thousands of miles away, but it's the same ocean, at least.  And the music was different from the Australian music I had already heard; I wasn't sure how, though living in a place so close to the Antarctic and so fundamentally away from everything else (Dunedin is on the southeast coast of New Zealand's South Island) I was amazed to eventually read about there being a whole scene down there.  I shouldn't have been, though; music often comes from places where there is nothing else to do, save for sport, and the small town (by American standards) of Dunedin fits this perfectly.  Martin Phillips started The Chills in 1980 as a teenager, spurred on by the DIY post-punk thing, and after lots of configurations and losses, singles and EPs and European tours...one version of The Chills came to the UK in 1987, toured around, and eventually recorded Submarine Bells.

And thank goodness they did....

Because even if this wasn't a huge album in the US or the UK, I did hear "Heavenly Pop Hit" on CFNY and it had (and has) the same effect on me as that Regent St. advertising.  The music is pure Pacific warmth and joy and welcome, that first blessed glimpse of water and sky beyond any buildings; when Phillips sings "OOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOHHHHHHHHHHHOOOOOOO-OOOOOOOOOOOOHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH" in the chorus, I know what he means.  The song is about the joy of music itself, but its bigness is due to nature, to the Otago Peninsula, to the freedom being away from it all.  Though this was recorded in the UK, Phillips' soul is in Dunedin, is there on that beach, and it is the best Beach Boys-influenced song I've ever heard.  Which is to say that though he seems to be from far away, the Pacific unites us; I felt an immediate kinship here that I can't feel with The Carpenters, who seem so closed off from the elements, so perfect; with this song I can too feel floating and happy and FREEEEEE, and after such years as '88-'89 ("we've passed through the dark and eluded the dangers") this was something I needed, and it was new....

....another thing about this song - and the album - was the open sincerity of it; it was not trying to be cool or hip.  Phillips is not assuming roles or characters in these songs; they are him, pure expressions of his heart, with no side....

...which is just as well, as the overwhelming feeling here is longing - longing for so many things, and fear as well.  This is not a good-time party album, as ecstatic as the first song is....

"Tied Up In Chain" is about neo-Nazis, about prejudice, but mostly about unthinking habit.  The "children of gloom" are ignorant and don't care, and "we feel we must be others and this is more than that/if egos are inflated they can crush a people flat"**** - I can well imagine how someone from a place so remote can feel crushed, and have sympathy for those who have been, as well.  But the roots of these chains go back through generations, so what seems simple at first to criticize widens and widens...All this over a melody that is nervous but confident, rolling and arching and then resting at the end...

"The Oncoming Day" hurls itself, rocks along, and Phillips rides it like a rollercoaster; he just about keeps up, too.  He sings to her, to the glade where they once made love, to the past; he is trying to write a song to say that he still loves and remembers her, but comes up with "nothing worth anything - nothing worth nothing - nothing left in this lump of grey" - how rare this is - "that even vaguely says I love you in a way that pleases me so I'll let the oncoming day say it for me" - this isn't so much New Pop as something else, and we are right there with the day here and the sun rising, and that is enough for him to say, to insist "no one can take your memory away from me!"  Nature itself, powerful and cyclical, is the best, the only thing big enough to represent his love, and he cannot be afraid of it, because in a way he is it.  The song finishes, but the main question of "Is sustaining past illusion just insanity?" is there.  There are fine lines between that and hanging on to the past reality, the pain of it there in the music and words...

"Part Past Part Fiction" is Phillips there in London, feeling alone, "so far from home here" - and now his wordless sounds are of sorrow, loneliness.  He hasn't meant to go away for so long, but here he is, knowing things are wrong but unable to do anything about it.  (Sigh, the guitar solo.  I mean, SIGH and AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHH.)  "Where could we dwell in a past alive and well?" he sings, and then the line, the LINE: "You cannot drive and steer rear view."  That it takes an expatriate living in London to express such a fundamental truth about life - you can look backwards, but "to hide in fiction and nostalgia can be eerie" is something maybe only us expatriates can really understand.  If I feel far away from Toronto here, I can only imagine how lonely Phillips was; at least the Australian contingent of musicians could hang out together, but I sense The Chills were very much on their own....

...and in a 1990 sense, I knew mom and I were going to leave Oakville, we could not stay in a house that contained so many memories, so many things...

"Singing in My Sleep" is a drone that muses on how terrible the world is, and how his singing and music are a protest, a bulwark, against those who hate, those who are blind leading the blind, against "the pressures of musical life."  The songs fade when he wakes, but even when he is asleep he is creating music, "songs of such beauty and sadness."  These songs are of the Earth itself; once again, there is little division between him and nature...

"I Soar" is a view from high up above Dunedin (I think?  it is a steep place) that fills him with great emotion, but he is alone and has no way of expressing himself, outside of describing what he can see, flying with the wind, soaring and seeing that his family have flown away, away from the crumbling homes.  The past is gone, his "emotions are imploding" but there's "nothing to say."  (So much of Submarine Bells is about communication, about trying and trying to find a way to express things.)

"Dead Web" is superficially jaunty, but is about those who contain their emotions, bury them, pretend they don't exist; they are in a dead web, a world of the past, mourning that that world is gone; Phillips understands this, to a point, but shakes it off, and the song ends sharply, the past best left to those who want to focus on it; he's got enough problems as it is...

"Familiarity Breeds Contempt" is as tough as The Chills get, rocking as Phillips snarls about the perils of coming from a scene so small that backbiting and meanness are everywhere, even within himself; that contempt is as withering and damaging as obsessing over the past, and the song rages against cynicism and hard people, ugly assumptions and "when the past is thought irrelevant our destiny is black" - you cannot go forwards without knowing and appreciating where you've come from, but how stinging was it for Phillips to bear the burden of essentially being The Chills, now a band a decade along with not much success outside of New Zealand?  It must have been damn hard to be the band that had to do well in order for the label Flying Nun to do well....and so this is a song that comes out of this constant pressure, as angry as you like....

...and there is the private sorrow of having to be away from the Other, too.  It is, to use a word overused these days, devastating.  "Don't Be Memory" is a song that flows and halts, falters, and then picks up again, grasping on to something, wanting so much more. "I would tell you love's eternal, but eternity is such a long time" - and the clock is ticking, "we've this greenhouse on"***** - and he wants to forget her, get away from this pain, but he knows he can't.  The memories flood back:  "Cozy in the north wing, taking turns at Swamp Thing, listening to The Byrds on the tape recorder..." In order to keep his love, he must get back to her, but then OH - "sensing your essence so reminiscent - a forgotten flavour..." and once again I am wordless.  He doesn't want her to be just a memory, to feel unrepresented, lonely, because she is there all the time, unbidden, unexpected.  And this overtakes his song, that she is there; they will be together soon ("if nothing goes wrong" he worries time and again) but in a way she is there already.  "The uncaring power of memory/So crippling in its clarity"  - and damn it, there's the whole problem right there, and the only solution, too.  The clarity of something means you can see it and understand it, if you have the strength to do so; to get over the "spiteful spikes" of the feelings, to find a place of peace....

"Effluoresce And Deliquesce" is about a couple fighting; but with such poetical words (like the title) that beauty of the song (and it is elegant) can mask the pain, the conflict, but make them like dance, a back-and-forth (the song pauses regularly, as if we are watching the argument like a dance of sorts) that rises to admit the "anger flows like fire" but on such a watery album, it goes, extinguished, and in an hour "they burst into flower."  They are slow to ice over, quick to turn into a supernova, but the happy end is always there, and they reach it and the song ends, neatly.

"Sweet Times" is a holler and a strum about how the world, no matter how useless things may seem, still hasn't ended....a holler that times are sweet....

And then comes "Submarine Bells."  And suddenly we are in the Pacific again, deep inside the inner ocean******, with a lullaby so beautiful that like the first song it reminds me of the live feed from Huntington Beach, the soothing waves, the ease, the gentleness...the slowness of the song like a descent into the water itself..."I slice the surface here beside you/lungs filled liquid yell I love you/sound moves further underwater..."

I wish I could remember how it was when I first heard this, but the fact that I listened to it more than any other album in 1990 should tell you enough.  It was my solace; it was and is one of my favorite albums of all time....

"Deep and dark my submarine bells groan in greens and grey/mine would chime a thousand times to make you feel okay..."

This, this is just one example of what was actually happening in 1990, but was ignored in favor of the past.  It is wise, tender, aware, current.  It deals with that tug of the past, of sentiment, and ends with something deep and profound and great.  Is Dunedin fundamentally so far away?  I didn't feel it was in a way, which ended up with my buying a guide book to New Zealand and reading and rereading an article about The Chills and willing myself into that experience, especially once my mom and I did move to Toronto that summer.

There was, of course, another album of this time that counselled against nostalgia, and it couldn't have been more different:

 



Oh yes.

Flood (that watery theme again!) is so good, it's ridiculous, and the UK public eagerly took to it, because of the hit single, "Birdhouse In Your Soul."  If the sheer gorgeousness of Submarine Bells hides the tough messages it has (and in part it does) then Flood's great humor can mask its equally tough messages.  "Why is the world in love again?  Why are we marching hand in hand?  Why are the ocean levels rising up?" ask TMBG in the first song, and the only answer is that "It's a brand new record album for 1990."  New decade, y'all, and it's not small in any way...

"Birdhouse In Your Soul" is pure dorky happiness, beeping and trundling along, happy, going forward.  Is is a parody of R.E.M.?  I don't know, but the "bluebird of friendliness, like guardian angels it's always near"  - and it's a tough little bird, this blue canary.  Is it a love song?  Is it the future singing to us in the present?  The word makes it spiritual too, eternal even....

"Lucky Ball & Chain" and "Twisting" are both songs about a woman who has left her guy; the guy is baffled, sad, the woman is free, and the man is left to his own railroad apartment, her old copies of Young Fresh Fellows and db's records back....

The first argument against fixating on the past - it's too late, it's gone! - is their cover of "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)" - "if you have a date she'll be waiting in Instanbul."  Why the change?  "People just liked it better that way...."  The world changes, and you have to change with it...

There are two...well, I hesitate to use the word "perfect" here, but let's just say really really awesome songs and leave it at that, on Flood. "Dead" is the first one, a simple song with a piano, the two Johns and a lament that "I returned a bag of groceries accidentally taken off the shelf before the expiration date" and then "I came back as a bag of groceries accidentally taken off the shelf before the date stamped on myself."  It took me a while to figure this out, but "I will never say the word procrastinate again/I'll never see myself in the mirror with my eyes closed" is was straight enough for me at the time.  There is no time to waste, to give up before your time is over.  Otherwise you may as well be dead.  "Was everybody dancing on the casket?"  "Now it's over I'm dead and I haven't done anything that I want/Or I'm still alive and there's nothing I want to do...."  If Martin Phillips wasn't as drastic as this, this is still his point - that getting caught in a dead web is something to be avoided, at all costs...

"Racist Friend" is about racism, but also about a party, about drinking, about conformity and feeling like a hypocrite "bobbing and pretending" that what is happening is happening.  It is about as hard-rockin' as TMBG ever get, with a Latin trumpet solo in the middle perhaps nodding towards the racist's prejudices...."can't shake the Devil's hand and say you're only kidding."  The party is over, 80s hypocrites!

"Particle Man" is a song so simple and easy you can close your eyes and see the animated short in your head (as my father would have, had he lived to hear this song).  Particle man is Generation X, Universe man is MASSIVE, Person man is hopeless - "who came up with Person man?" - and then there's Triangle man, surely one of the greatest fictional villains, who fights and always wins, who hates for no reason....

And now the other great song - "We Want A Rock."  I don't think there is a thing wrong with it; and it is all so casual!  "Where was I, I forgot the point that I was making....I said if I was smart that I would save up for a rock to wind a piece of string around."  (Is it just me, or does this sound like a Walkman?  An iPod?)  In short, "throw the crib door wide"....by the time this completely hummable earworm of a song gets to "Everybody wants to wear a prosthetic forehead on their real head" then the complete madness of conformity and doing something just because everyone else is doing it (the two Johns' singing here is utterly straight and with no side, as if this behavior was just as normal as any) could not be more clear.  (The prosthetic forehead costs seven dollars, by the way; a rock to wind a string around must cost a lot more...)  Accordion!  Fiddling!  As usual, TMBG makes outsiders, those who don't fit in, feel a bit better about themselves....

"Someone Keeps Moving My Chair" is of course about Mr. Horrible, the ugliness men, the many things they do which annoy him, but he's so so horrible none of these things bother him so much as he can never find his chair.  One of the many songs They Might Be Giants have about work...which leads straight into "Hearing Aid" and the about-to-burst anger ("don't say the electric chair's not good enough for a king-lazy-bones like myself") with Arto Lindsay himself on the guitar, scraping and giving the song - otherwise weirdly reggae like - the paranoid messed upness it represents.  Is there a reason for this employee to be so angry with "Frosty the supervisor"?   No, it's "BECAUSE....BECAUSE!!!!!!"......

...."MINIMUM WAAAAAAAAAAAGE!! HEEEEEEEEEEAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHH!"

(whipcrack) (60s tv theme about the poorly paid)

And now, for a moment, back to love...

"Letterbox" is a crowded song - speeds by with the speed of a sparrow - "and I never know what I never know what you are what you are, oh...."

"Whistling In The Dark" is about the haplessness of being yourself in a world that so often tells you to be yourself, but is that enough?  The narrator is "having a wonderful time" (even though he's in jail - due to being himself?) but would rather be whistling in the dark - and the song thumps along like a marching band going down a cul-de-sac, turning and then turning again, finally figuring out there's only one way out....

"Hot Cha" is about missing someone who never really acts normally - maybe he acts like himself?  And the details are glorious - "left the bathtub running, stereo on and cooking bacon, never came back to tell us why." A jazz song about someone who just leaves, comes back, leaves again....

"Women And Men" is about nothing more than the ocean of sound as it's reflected in the many people of the world (echoing the beginning of "Heavenly Pop Hit" and the many millions mentioned there).  "Three by three as well as four by four" the population on the land grows, and the river of people eventually becomes an ocean with ships bringing more women and men....

"Sapphire Bullets Of Pure Love" is one of those haiku type TMBG songs that are lovely and sweet but I am never sure what they are "about"; it just is, and I will leave you with the mystery....

"They Might Be Giants" is just awesome, though, as a theme song.  "Hang on, hang on tight" says the narrator (I don't know who it is) who elaborates later: "so everyone has to hang on tight just to keep from being thrown to the wolves."  Who are they?  Well, they might be anything, small, big, who knows, but what to do besides hang on tight?  "They might be big big fake fake lies - tabloid footprints in your hair."  But can we be silent, Generation X?  No!  Because they might be giants....

The album ends with the sobering "Road Movie To Berlin" - "Can't drive out the way we drove in..."  Much later in the 90s I remember listening to Flood on a trip back to Oakville; visiting the graveyard, the old record store, and agreeing with the driver that being "the nicest of the damned" was about all Generation X - or our little social circle - could hope for.  "Time won't find the lost" the song says, as if to say, yet again in a different way, that now is now and the past is the past.  Berlin isn't what it used to be; the old road back home is the old road, and there is only the past to find there....

Though this was an actual hit album in the UK, I don't know if anyone who bought Flood also bought The Carpenters; I doubt it.  As friendly as it starts, it leaves on a note of cinematic doubt and worry; the bluebird of friendliness seems a long way away.  But it is a fiercely realistic album, the sort children would understand much faster than adults, all over the place musically but hanging together with great humor, wit, intelligence and fun.

Both The Chills and They Might Be Giants act as a counter to the seemingly endless nostalgia represented by The Carpenters, and I would like to think they were at least heard and understood by some people, but again I also sense a generation gap here, between those who are looking back and those who find it eerie, creepy to look back too much, lest they get stuck there.  Those who are wary are in the minority for now, but soon enough will begin themselves to have hit albums, and wrestle with the past in their own way....

...but for now, rest in peace, Karen Carpenter - this is the last time The Carpenters grace Then Play Long, and for better or for worse, we must move forwards....     

Next up:  more nostalgia?

* A rarity even now, and something to admire her for, really.  

**I grew up hearing them in places like the dentist's, the doctor's, friend's houses, and then on my own radio, once I had one.  I had no ideas about them, really, besides that she could really sing.  I can't get nostalgic about them as I don't associate them with the 70s in any big way.  But I know so many female singers who did listen - Jann Arden, the aforementioned Estefan, Chrissie Hynde, Kim Gordon...who wrote an open letter to Karen once that ended, "Did you ever go running along the sand, feeling the ocean rush up between yr legs?  Who is Karen Carpenter, really, besides the sad girl with the extraordinarily beautiful, soulful voice?" (Girl In A Band, pg. 173)

***In one of those odd coincidences, there was (and still may be) a nighttime radio show in Toronto called "Lovers And Other Strangers" which plays soppy songs and has the broadcaster telling poignant stories about love.  Is Don Jackson still there on CHFI, soothing the romantic pains of the masses?

****The way Phillips pronounces "flat" is very New Zealand, and being an American susceptible to foreign accents, I liked it right away.

***** This is the first time the greenhouse gas problem is mentioned on Then Play Long, and there's lots of info in the album's booklet about this, nuclear bomb testing and other problems of then and now....

******This is no more the "real" ocean than the "Wide Open Road" of The Triffids was an actual road. 

3 comments:

MikeMCSG said...

Lena , I think it was the recent broadcast on ITV of the TV movie "The Karen Carpenter Story" starring Cynthia Gibb that propelled this to the top.

Nick said...

Did NOT expect this to go into a dissection of the magnificent Flood. I had this CD as a teenager and it was the ONLY thing I listened to in the car for nearly two months. What a burst of nostalgia it is today. Cool thing is that TMBG are still going strong after all these years, I even love their newest stuff...but Flood is always gonna be special

dave28 said...

Hi Lena and Marcello

I'm a late-comer to TPL, having accidentally landed on it a few weeks ago. I dipped my toe in by randomly selecting albums I know so well I don't have to try to recall details - hence my only previous comment, on Money for Nothing, where I begged to differ - but then went back to the start and have been chronologically reading your posts from years ago.

I've just alighted on Arrival, over 3 years in your past, and would now very much like to communicate. I'm probably about 8 years older than Marcello, and have been consumed by music since at least the age of 5, in 1963, when a pair of teenage sisters played me "She Loves You". I happen to think that music - all music - reveals something of its writers, performers and other creators whether that's their intention or not. For me it's like breathing, it's that essential to me.

I was jolted by your insightful commentary throughout your blog on Ian McDonald. I devoured Revolution in the Head when it was published, likewise his follow up pieces in Mojo when the Anthologies were released. I also read The People's Music, and I found his work stimulating, provocative and insightful. I also disagreed with nearly all of it. His suicide saddened and disturbed me; it profoundly changed my relationship to his writing, to the extent that I now think his relationships with his subjects were damaged by his own awful situation. Being no stranger to the cliched black dog myself, I know well how untrustworthy your analytical processes can be when you are unwell. So I was fascinated to read your comments on him.

You made me laugh with your couple of comments (so far) on Led Zeppelin's deliberate construction of wickedly difficult riffs, as if designed to flummox every hopeless bar band trying to replicate them in a pub on a Friday night. I play in just such a bar band myself. I get a great deal of joy out of playing live and helping people find their own joy in hearing, dancing to, and singing along with music which helps them balance out their tough weeks. And you're absolutely right. Led Zep, in quite a few of their songs, are a lightning-fast riff too far.

I love Abba. I can find good in all music which doesn't intend malevolent consequences (their really are very few great songs written by right-wing nut-jobs) but I've always thought Abba's music has an emotional depth, as well as musical brilliance, too often missed completely even by other musicians. They too, can be tricky territory for semi-pro Australian pub rockers to play with nonchalant aplomb.

Best wishes. I'm really looking forward to catching up, then reading your weekly insights in real time. I'm not sure what has happened that you blog has stopped at Septembef 2015. No doubt I'll find out on my journey there.

Cheers, Dave