Thursday, April 14, 2022

One door. Two songs.

Melbourne, Australia's Romero and Kansas City, Missouri's Whiffs write tuneful, amped-up, riff-driven songs, Romero's noise sweetened by lead singer Alana Oliver, the Whiffs' by AM radio hooks. Both bands prove that guitar-driven rock and roll is in good hands, its future bright (and loud!). Oliver's voice is huge and rangy; she'd likely have the judges of a music competition reality show eating out of her hand, but she'd cut those hands when necessary. To my ears she sounds a bit like Lydia Loveless, minus the twang, and, recorded well by producer Andrew Hehir, her suppleness is never smothered by her band's considerable fire power (brothers Adam and Dave Johnstone on guitar and drums, respectively, Fergus Sinclair on guitar, and Justin Tawil on bass). The Whiffs' muscular sound (Zach Campbell on bass and vocals, Rory Cameron on guitar and vocals, Nic Allred on guitar and vocals, and Jack Cardwell on drums) thickens their songs but the tunefulness remains vivid, and the record's so lovingly recorded by Joey Rubbish—his record collection is practically visible as you listen—that its late-70s analog vibe never sounds contrived or retro. (Ignore the requisite and limiting "power pop" label that critics feel compelled to tag the band with.) These groups' good songs are so good they transcend their influences.

Romero's debut "Turn It On!" just came out; the Whiffs' Another Whiff, their second, came out in 2019. I'm in love with a bunch of tracks on these albums right now, especially these two for the stories that they both tell and hint at. "My Vision Of Love" begins with a nod to Hoodoo Gurus' "Bittersweet," but the singer's so hoarsely charged that within a few bars it's the Whiffs' song only. It's an old story, but so desperately winged that the singer's hungers feel brand new: he's got no money (he "spent it last week"; a great detail, versus the more clichéd "last night"). He can't win and yet can't stop himself from ringing her doorbell, his vision of love the only thing that night that's keeping him right. He could use a lucky break or three, and if she'd let him inside then everything might feel not only possible, but likely. The guitar solo, as in the best rock and roll, declaims everything that he can't, threatening to derail things until that passionate chorus returns.
The Whiffs
Great, sexy stuff, yet Romero's "Halfway Out The Door" offers another the other perspective. The POV switched to The Vision herself, who's opened the door for this panting guy many times, but lately to diminishing returns. The song opens with a three chord sequence that mirrors "My Vision Of Love" but raises a skeptical eyebrow. In the Whiffs tune the singer's desperate to see her face; in Romero's tune we're seeing the back of his head. This is her turn, and her complaints are as old as his pleas: I’d tell you how I loved you / But you’re always halfway out the door / We aren’t like what we were before. In the powerful and affecting chorus, guitars ringing, echoing the singer's resolve, she makes things clear:
If this isn’t what you want, baby
Don’t come knocking, knocking, knocking, knocking
If you’re halfway out the door
Oh no, I won’t be calling no more
He always "howling in the street"—I mean, the Whiffs' singer practically admits it—and she's pissed and sad about it all. "How did we ever end up this way?" she wonders, "the first to call each other insane." The song's pace is measured, and I think that that's key: if the band had worked their way through these complications at a breakneck pace, careening around the corners, the couple would just as likely keep moving toward each other, burning each other out, unable to turn away from the heat and lust. But I'm pretty sure that she's figured out her next move; though she's in conflict—she loves him and fucks him, though he's too often halfway out that door—her song's slowed to the point of a reckoning, a deeper breath. She's considered things. His time's running out.


Two continents, two bands, two songs, a bunch of the same chords. One man, one woman, three stories. 

Maybe I'm a pessimist, imagining the Whiffs' singer's desperation to score with his vision—or just to see her in an open door—burning out in ambivalence, the age-old tale of the man who can't stick the landing, who's gotta move on, restless. I love that songs collide in the air above my head, the reverberations telling a new story. (Both bands write about ambivalence and contradictions really well: check the mixed-up man and the "undone" woman in "On The Boulevard" and "Petals," respectively.) Some days I listen to "My Vision Of Love" and the two end up in bed; sometimes I listen to "Halfway Out The Door" and the two end up in bed, but the satisfaction's waning, because both of their looks are directed at that front door she opened to him last night. For him it'll open again. For her it may close for the last time. 

Sunday, April 10, 2022

All you need is Modernism

Rereading Paul Williams last night and was reminded of this item in the "What Went On" column in the August '67 Crawdaddy. File under, What Might've Been.

Thursday, April 7, 2022

My twenties; or, minor regrets

I'm teaching a class in Writing Arts Criticism this semester, and for one essay the students wrote about music—any artist, album, song, video, anything that turned them on and that they wanted to know more about, get inside of. (Among our texts was Carl Wilson's Let's Talk About Love, which a third of the students dug, a third rolled their collective eye at, and a third despised, which felt about right.) It's been a pleasure not only to read their work but to be exposed to a handful of artists with whom I was wholly unfamiliar, or knew only by reputation or, worse, held narrow biases against. In the best classes I'm learning, too.  

One lesson has been an unhappy reminder of my blinkered musical tastes when I was in college. My students have remarked that in the age of streaming, they're exposed to so much, encouraging the cultivating of a wide-ranging taste, yet the vast music collection to which we all have access now has only encouraged genre-biases and territory-staking; it seems that the number of echo chambers are virtually uncountable. Nearly forty years later, I can palpably feel the the thrill of sampling the new LPs and 45s that arrived weekly at the tiny offices of WMUC, the radio station at the University of Maryland where for three years in the mid-80s I had a show, enduring various time slots. I also recall the stiff resistance I put up to certain bands and songs that weren't in my wheelhouse, which then, as now, was planted firmly in 1960's and '70s guitar-based rock and roll, garage rock, R&B, and punk. 

I had a standing joke in the 80s, unfunny to most, that the only bands that could drive me out of a bar were the Cure and the Smiths, two groups I couldn't stand and yet whose rabid fans—among them some of my best friends—I'd eye enviously as they lost themselves on the dance floor. Less smug and narrow-minded now than I was at twenty-one, twenty-two, I have clearer purchase on what I was instinctively rebelling against then. It wasn't that I couldn't relate to what I heard as the moodiness, affected doom, and sighing melancholy in these and other like bands; the problem was that I related too much. I had the voices of Robert Smith and Morrissey running in my head all day long; the words weren't theirs, but the edgy, disconsolate tone was theirs, a tormenting, claustrophobic ennui that I fought against in my worst moments. I didn't want to hear that on the dance floor, have my inner thoughts amplified; I wanted to get away from that, leave my head and body, exchange my depressiveness, self-doubt, and hyper self-consciousness for the grins and good times of rock and roll. Beers and barre chords! Riffs and hooks! (I ended up writing a 420-page book about one of those bands I loved.) Echo and the Bunnymen's "Bring on the Dancing Horses" might've sounded great at Cagney's or Back Alley Cafe, but it was the Godfathers who raised the roof for me, and in whom I found an urgent sense of purpose. There was a reason why I was teased at 'MUC as the guy who played The Knack (including tracks off of their third album) and The Slickee Boys more often than say, Siouxsie and the Banshees or New Order. Even when I did spin songs that soundtracked my inner dejection, they were usually sung by R.E.M. Rain Parade, or Pop Art—never too far from jangle.

I sought out manifestations of my complicated moods instead in books and art, Joyce and Eliot and Franz Kline and Joan Mitchell, and on long walks in the then-decrepit Old Downtown in Washington, D.C.. My morose reflection was cast back at me most graphically in my art history, literature, and philosophy courses, where in the quiet of reading, or in the endless stacks at the campus library, I could stoke my melancholy and self-pity across the centuries. Though I've never warmed to the metronomic "Blue Monday," my distaste for the song in my twenties blocked a rightful appreciation I ought to have felt then for Joy Division, another band who I resisted at the threshold, fearful of how swiftly they might invade. Of course, back then I hadn't really listened to the Cure or the Smiths, to Bauhaus or Coctueau Twins or for matter much of what I'd overheard or read was Gothic—childishly, I wouldn't let myself. We forgive a lot for youth and yet it turns out, of course, that the Smiths were a great guitar band all along! Johnny Marr's trippy vibe in support of Morrissey's emotionally nakedness was sadly beyond my ken when I was twenty, putting me at odds not only with my friends but with pop culture, and history. If I'd only looked through my beers more closely at the dance floor I'd have seen guys and girls rejoicing and identifying, in their authentic way—in a foreign language, sure, one I was too petulant or cowardly to try and learn. But the release on their sweaty faces and in the limbs transcended language, as great music does. These regrets are minor relative to others that haunt me from those years, yet I wished I'd opened up some neural pathways earlier than I did. I'm catching up. 

File all of this under A Pity I Didn't See It At The Time, a bulging, still-growing folder.

Top: Three Studies for Portrait of George Dyer (on Light Ground), Francis Bacon, 1969. (2014 Estate of Francis Bacon/Artists Rights Society [ARS], New York/DACS, London)