Once upon a time there were two popular bands in Denmark, Swan Lee and Mew. They were both very respectable bands, even if Swan Lee was a little on the poppy side. Then something magical happened: Johan Wolhert, Mew’s bass-player and Pernille Rosendahl, Swan Lee’s glamorous lead singer, fell in love and had a baby, and thus, Swan Lee dissolved and Wolhert quit the band to spend more time with his new family.
After a while, Rosendahl and Wolhert decided that they wanted to make an entirely different kind of beautiful music together and, lo, The Storm was born. Fans were anxious. What would happen when beloved members of two beloved Danish bands put their heads, hearts, and basslines together in song?
Now, before we get into the monstrous birth that was The Storm’s first album Where the Storm Meets the Ground (think about that title for awhile), I want to talk about Mew. I love this band; they’re kooky, they’re arty, they seem relatively smart and self-aware — even if their sincerity and ambition sometimes makes them a little uncool with the hipster crowd. It doesn’t hurt that they’re good-looking, too. In their younger days, they were downright boy-band cute, complete with label-ready personalities: the shy one, the funny one, the sexy one, the boy next door, etc..
And speaking of boy-bands, I want to talk about one of Mew’s earliest singles, “Mica,” from their lost second album released in 2000, Half the World is Watching Me (only re-released last year after being out of print for awhile). File this song under What Were You Thinking? The sublime Europop ridiculousness of this song is only matched by the even more sublime ridiculousness of the video. Are they serious? Are they kidding? Who knows! You can never tell with Mew. No doubt the same man who could sing “But if there’s a glitch, you’re an ostrich,” with a straight face on “The Zookeeper’s Boy,” is also dead serious about killer androids and world peace.
The most endearing part of the video is lead singer Jonas Bjerre, who is notoriously skittish and withdrawn, because he clearly has no idea what to do with himself on camera. You can practically see the terror in his giant kewpie-doll eyes. Check out the amazing subtitles, too, a cult favorite among Mew fans.
I love watching this video even though no amount of hipster irony can make it okay. It makes me laugh, brightens my day, but there’s still a good deal of embarrassment in that laughter. It’s the kind of song/video that makes you question the band, whether or not every other good idea they’ve ever had was some kind of massive fluke. Is this the true face of Mew?
So while you’re all processing that, let’s get back to The Storm. When they debuted themselves, playing “Drops in the Ocean” live on a Danish TV show, I’d like to think that the world stood in shock (and awe) at the sheer awfulness. Wolhert’s personal style aside (I’ll deal with that later), the marching band drums, the Metallica-lite guitar riffs, and Rosendahl’s pop diva attitude combined into one melty, stringy, cheesy mess.
Naturally, I had to have this album.
Sometimes when I’m in the car by myself, like say, commuting to Tupelo, I put on Where the Storm Meets the Ground and belt out the lyrics to “Drops in the Ocean” (I’ve memorized every word), and then I bray along with “Lullaby,” “The Beauty of Small Things,” and “The Table’s Turning.” After a while, I even become convinced that it’s not so bad, that some of the songs, like “Lay Down Your Head,” are actually half decent. Whenever my mind starts down this train of thought, I have to stop and ask myself: “Would I listen to this music in front of people I know and admire?” I only reveal my affection for The Storm when I can’t help but geek out a little, and now I’m confessing it to all of you.
So what’s the connection I’m trying to make between The Storm and Mew’s silly misstep so many years ago? I’m pretty sure that an over-the-top pop song like “Mica” is the work of Bjerre, who, after all, is in touch with both his inner child and his inner cheeseball. During that phase in the band’s history, he frequently admitted to loving musicals (Annie? Seriously?) How else to explain that song, which is mostly an anomaly in the Mew catalogue, along with its sister songs “King Christian” and the piano-rock ditty (think Ben Folds on crack) “Saliva,” a song so saccharine that you’ll cringe yourself to death before the second chorus. But now that we’ve seen what The Storm can do and what Wolhert’s songwriting is like, it’s tempting to blame him instead. I do like Johan. Trashing his music feels bad because he seems like an affable and articulate guy — and hey! he even recorded once with Elliott Smith on a cover of “Hey Jude” that has yet to see the light of day — but ever since he started dressing like a death pirate from outer space, fans have started to wonder if he wasn’t the Ringo to Bjerre’s John and Madsen’s Paul (bad analogy, sorry). It will be interesting to see what happens on Mew’s upcoming album (out sometime in June) without Wolhert’s influence.
Above quote courtesy of Lou Barlow (continuing the tradition of “smooth” transitions from one entry to the next).
Last week I started thinking about Elliott Smith for the first time in awhile, due mostly to a recent AV Club feature, “Music we can’t listen to anymore,”in which Josh Modell admitted that since Smith’s death in 2003, the music just doesn’t hold the same appeal. Although I don’t want to believe that my love for any musician is conditional, and would rather see music as a form independent of its maker, regardless of who the maker is or whether or not he happens to be vapid, or evil, a total fuck-up or exhibiting other grave character flaws. Elliott Smith wasn’t any of those things, but unfortunately, I’m there with Modell in discovering that his death has cast a grim light on the songs that once enchanted me.
But my problem with the music now isn’t that listening to it depresses me, it’s that I feel absolutely nothing when I listen to the albums that used to move and fascinate me. I don’t want to listen to Either/Or and feel nothing.
To the casual fan, Smith’s death was hardly a surprise. They’re the ones who enjoy citing song titles like “Miss Misery,” and his alleged heroin addiction during the Self Titled era (when actually, the heroin “act” was, at that point, part of a persona) as proof that it was only a matter of time until he committed suicide. The casual fans were bemused when the hardcore fans spent the day of his death crying, and they asked us how we could have missed all of the obvious signs.
We hate the casual fans.
Because for those of us who really loved him, we felt contentment in knowing that, despite everything — the alcoholism, the whispered rumors of childhood abuse, the drug addictions and other self-destructive behaviors — he was surviving. The fact that the songs even existed seemed like his way of reporting back to earth after a long excursion to the underworld. His albums were documents, proving that something fragile and beautiful could be woven out of pain; we heard hope where others, who didn’t take the time to understand him or his music, heard only “that depressing shit.”
When he did commit suicide at his LA home in October of 2003, many of us actually felt betrayed. We had rooted for him. We had heard reports that everything was getting better — he was clean, healthy, considering taking up exercise, working on an ambitious double-album at his own personal studio. The essence of survival had been so crucial to the music’s magic; now that he’s dead, the music feels dead, too.
I saw Elliott Smith play “Miss Misery” at the Academy Awards, which is how a lot of fans discovered him. I didn’t actually become a fan that night — instead, I promptly forgot about him for the next two years, but for some reason, the memory of his Oscar performance has stayed with me. I lived in the dorms of the fine arts high school I attended, and all of us boarders gathered around the girl’s lounge TV to watch the awards show. None of us knew who Smith was, or where he had come from, but the moment he entered the stage, the broadcast took a surreal turn. He clearly didn’t belong, his unassuming manner at odds with the Hollywood pomp. We all held our collective breath as he softly strummed through a truncated version of “Miss Misery,” (nominated from the soundtrack to Gus Van Sant’s Good Will Hunting), and sat back on our heels when he disappeared again.
“Wow,” someone said. “That guy should win.”
That guy lost out to Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On,” and probably a good thing for him, too. He seemed baffled enough by his already moderate success; he didn’t need to add Oscar-winner to his name.
I graduated from high school in 1999. I was burned out. The creative writing program had chewed me up and spit me back out again. Although I’ve never regretted my art school experiences for a single millisecond, devoting your life to poetry at the age of 15 isn’t for everyone. Not being able to say (or write) precisely what I meant without worrying how a roomful of people might respond (too prosey! flat! trite! not at all poetic!) made me exhausted. I hated having to couch every observation, every sentiment, in what seemed to be flowery, unnecessary language for the sake of the “literary arts.”
When I listened to Either/Or for the first time, it changed everything I thought I knew about writing. I might even blame that album for the four-year dry spell I experienced, in which I wrote a grand total of two decent poems, and only because I majored in Creative Writing. Elliott Smith is the only singer-songwriter whose lyrics I’ve paid any attention to — they’re wry, unpretentious, and raw. I had felt a lot of anger towards poetry, and, especially, toward a certain mentality (probably in my own mind) that said I couldn’t say exactly what I meant in a straightforward manner. Listening to Smith’s lyrics, I knew it could be done, and I didn’t want to write again until I figured out how.
Some favorite lines from “2:45 am:”
“I’m looking for the man that attacked me
while everybody was laughing at me.
He beat it in me, that part of you,
and I’m gonna split us back in two.”
I picked up the album on a whim from a record store in Bowling Green, KY, on the way home from a family vacation to Nova Scotia. Still knee-deep in my obsession with Lou Barlow, I had heard of connections between Barlow and Smith: the slacker image, the lo-fi sensibility, and acoustic navel-gazing.
What puzzled me the most was the disparity between the album cover and the music behind it. Not yet thirty at the time the cover photo was taken, Smith already looks grizzled and weary: he’s pictured in a graffitied backstage dressing room, styrofoam cup in one hand, cigarette smoked down to the filter in the other, wearing a faded Hank Williams Jr. t-shirt and a trucker’s hat, an inscrutable look in his dark eyes. He’s scarred, tattooed, and too old for his years, the guy you don’t want to meet in a dark alley.
And even though the opening chords of “Speed Trials” come on dark and ominous, the voice that breaks through is gentle, alone in a room, trying not to wake the neighbors. The tough exterior melted away to reveal something delicate and hushed, like a wisp of smoke that lingers after a candle has been extinguished. But despite the ethereal quality of his voice and the gossamer threads of his guitar playing, the songs never appeared weak because they were anchored by an insistent tone of defiance threaded throughout. His fragile whisper held more intensity and shock value than the loudest punk rock caterwauling. By the time I heard “Between the Bars” for the very first time, I found myself in that dim room with him.
He was part of the world, yet separate from it — an observer. He very rarely wrote from a first person point of view, instead choosing to weave his narratives about distant “hes” and “shes,” or even more often, addressing the stories to an unnamed “you.” (Nobody broke your heart./ You broke your own ’cause you can’t / finish what you start”) After awhile, I came to believe he was talking to himself, with a mixture of light scorn, affection, and regret.
I wish I could experience that first listen of Either/Or again. Not the anonymous hotel room with my parents, or the thousand petty annoyances of high school (that seemed epic at the time) I was trying to put behind me, or the uncertainty of the future — but that pure feeling of surprise, the thrill of expectations defied. On the other hand, would I have reacted to the music the same way if it hadn’t been for those circumstances?
Some records come to us at the right time, at the right place. Sadly, it doesn’t seem to be the right time anymore.
“I could make you satisfied in everything you do
all your secret wishes could right now be coming true
and be forever with my poison arms around you.”
Maybe one day I’ll find my way back to the poison arms, and when I get there, it won’t sound so much like defeat.
Recently on Facebook, there has been a rash of users posting applications like “Albums that have shaped me,” or “Albums that have changed my life.” Now, I’ll start off by saying that lists and rankings such as the classic “Top Five Desert Island Albums” have always presented something of a challenge for me. Current top five? Can’t do it. My music-listening habits of the last four years have been so incredibly fractured that I’d be hard-pressed to make a cohesive list that reflects my current aesthetic. There’s one or two records I’ve listened to consistently (Frengers and And the Glass-Handed Kites, both by Danish band Mew), and a handful of records that I like in the most casual of ways (In Ear Park by Department of Eagles, TV on the Radio’s Dear Science, even a would-be fascination with Pinback’s Rob Crow and his various projects). But five solid choices? And what about top five of all time? Can’t do that either. There was a time in my life, say about six or seven years ago, when I was dead certain that there were four or six(never five!) perfect records (with staying power, no less) I could name on demand.
Because of the aforementioned difficulties, I actually find the “Albums that have shaped my life” to be a more comforting format for sharing my “top” records. It’s easier to talk about, to quantify. The albums either had a profound effect on me, or they didn’t — and that’s something that will never change. I will impose no limits on number. There will probably be more than five but less than ten. Who knows?
Criteria include 1) an album I can listen to in full, without skipping a track (or at least no more than two tracks), 2) an album that remained a favorite for a significant period of time, and 3) one that possibly changed the way I thought about music altogether.
So without further ado, and in no particular order (the numbers are a formality):
1. Either/Or by Elliott Smith
2. Under the Pink, Tori Amos
3. Post, Bjork
4. To Bring You My Love, PJ Harvey
5. One Part Lullaby, The Folk Implosion
6. III, Sebadoh
7. If You’re Feeling Sinister, Belle & Sebastian
This list is not at all surprising if you consider that they reflect my adolescent period, the time when we are all a little more sensitive to pop culture and absorbed the trends of the time, possibly internalizing them for life. I discovered all of these albums when I was between the ages of 13 and 19, years 1994-2000.
These choices don’t necessarily reflect current tastes; I almost never listen to Tori Amos anymore (unless I need something I can sing along with on a long drive), and although I still enjoy Bjork’s earlier albums, most of her work after Vespertine doesn’t interest me much. On the other hand, I am Lou Barlow’s girl always and forever. True, he has a 75-25% “unlistenable crap” to “brilliance” ratio, but I will always wade through the 75% of crap to get to the gems. Belle & Sebastian will always be welcome in my stereo and my iPod (although not in my car — more on that later!).
In the next few posts, I’ll explore a handful of these essential albums/artists and the subsequent obsessions they spawned in a more thorough fashion. Until then, toodles.