Dancing in Tight Corners
Anyone who creates or consumes popular music is a willing prisoner of form. Without submitting to the highbrow-philistine view that pop tonality, beat, and song structure box in the few accidental breakaways and piddling innovations they permit, only the most pretentious rock and roller would deny getting off on the shock of the familiar. But as usual, there's more than one way to get off. Casual fans cruise the genres uncommitted, while many passionate listeners and musicians simply assume form, which becomes a basically arbitrary means to self-expression or -indulgence. Others are so in love with whatever--metal or blues or bluegrass, country or bebop or disco--that they're content to tread one stylistic path forever, dallying occasionally with related subgenres. And still others are only happy when limits get pushed a little. Sometimes this need surfaces as eclecticism, a rampaging '60s cliche that remains an essential base broadener and revitalization move. Alternatively, it demands mastery, also a decent way to lively up or cross over, and/or exploration, which because it demands more ideas than technique is easier to get away with and harder to get right.
The way I define it, loyal thrashers, bluesmen, etc. (and the audiences who'll follow them anywhere) are prisoners of genre rather than form, while those driven to mastery and/or exploration are formalists proper. Formalists arise in every genre, even broad ones like country or bebop or disco (or big fat CHR pop itself). But they do their sharpest work in tight quarters, and sometimes they almost seem prisoners of genre themselves. Think of Hound Dog Taylor in blues, or the Shoes in guitar-band pop. By investing every bottleneck boogie or three-minute love song with a new twist or hook or energy burst, both managed to satisfy a very particular hunger for a very particular patch of musical turf. Much of the pleasure of their music was like watching someone solve a puzzle or negotiate the balance beam. It left you awed, thrilled, or at least bemused by the intricacy of human inspiration and skill.
Of course, many would claim that primitivist Taylor wasn't virtuoso enough to qualify, or complain that the Shoes never proved their mastery in the sacred crucible of live performance. And many others have never heard of either--most listeners prefer their formalism more expansive and more expert. This is asking a lot in blues, a genre so narrow it's been considered played out for decades and so studded with geniuses that its standards of technical excellence swallow ordinary musicians whole, and not enough in guitar-band pop, a genre so elastic that its practitioners regularly mistake their own tails for gourmet delicacies and cold potatoes for hot shit. But reject blues and you're throwing your mama out in the cold. Reject guitar-band pop and you're cutting yourself off from an artistic generation--from an "alternative rock" subculture so big and entrenched that it stands a chance of producing its quota no matter how deluded it gets. Reject both and at the very least you miss Robert Cray and Martin Phillipps.
Cray is an African American Army brat who just turned 39, Phillipps a 28-year-old Anglo from a New Zealand college town. Cray's music is literal and specific, Phillipps's ethereal and evocative. Cray's career has been a model of professional progress, Phillipps's a muddle of bohemian cross-purposes. And needless to say, their approaches to form differ. While Cray's the one for generic outreach--accreting soul in what's now a universal fusion and exploiting arena-rock gestures rooted in the so-called "white blues" of Fillmore days--the intensity of his greatest music has deep implosive power. Although rarely explosive, Phillipps has been expansive ever since he added organ to the bare-bones concept of New Zealand's seminal guitar-pop trio the Clean in the early '80s; though he relates to punk-Velvets minimalism like most of the Clean's Flying Nun progeny, the three heroes he honors by name in the new "Song for Randy Newman Etc."--Syd Barrett, Scott Walker, and his beloved Brian Wilson--are all (unlike Newman himself) given to flights of romantic fancy and elaborate excess.
Yet Cray and Phillipps share a lot. Both regard rhythm, seat of so many deep innovations in rock and roll, as a means rather than an end. Both profess a dubious fealty to their groups--though all Cray's albums are credited to "The Robert Cray Band," not a single member has held on since his 1986 breakthrough, while Phillipps's Chills have gone through more incarnations than anyone north of the equator can count. Both are exacting about songs, a value unheard of in modern blues and neglected by doodle-daddling pomo janglers. Both invite puzzle-solving fans to contemplate the mechanisms underlying their soul and spirit, respectively. And both have constructed larger-than-life albums--great albums, if you will--from their carefully honed materials.
For Cray that would be the modern bluesman's guide to the perils of eros, 1986's Strong Persuader, a major-label debut that led him from the blues circuit to the big halls. For Phillipps it would be the depressed young white person's guide to the transcendance of death, 1990's Submarine Bells, a major-label debut that led him nowhere except every critics poll in the English-speaking world. Strong Persuader was Cray's fourth album; Submarine Bells was Phillipps's third, second, fourth, or first--his muddled discography includes a longish EP, a singles compilation, and an LP some indie nitpickers consider a demo. And wherever they started, neither artist was content to stop there. The Chills' new Soft Bomb was cut with yet another band, this one L.A.-based, and sounds at first like pure second-album syndrome--not great, and not for want of trying. It grows on you, though--pruned from 51 minutes down toward Submarine Bells's 36, it might even be mistaken for an improvement. Cray's I Was Warned sounds at first like a great album and remains a remarkable one, although you might be better off with the 1988's underrated Don't Be Afraid of the Dark, which recalls the power of Strong Persuader simply by following it up.
Like almost every guitarist-vocalist from T-Bone Walker and B.B. King to Buddy Guy and Son Seals, Cray plays better than he sings. But all I've named are more spectacularly fluent musicians and all save Walker boast bigger, richer voices. This isn't to deny Cray's physical gifts--not too many bluesmen get by on personality and guile. But the knowledge that he couldn't be a champ on chops alone was what forced him to explore form, which is why he ended up surpassing Seals and Guy (and--on record, at least--I'd say T-Bone too). The limits he pushes are thematic: Cray is obsessed with the myths of male power and vulnerability embedded in blues, and no other modern bluesman has interpreted lyrics with such care. Writing alone or, more often, with his demented producer Dennis Walker, he creates one pathetic and/or disgusting character after another--he peeps, he makes death threats, he finds safe haven in cheap motels, he breaks up happy homes because he enjoys the guilt. What's more, the choked guitar style millions love matches the neurotic constriction of his personas. There's a touch of middle-class outsider in these broodings and projections, and some blues boys will never forgive him for it. But since most of them are middle-class outsiders themselves, I blame wounded pride--here they are making like natural men and Cray comes along claiming their situation normal is all fucked up. He pushes limits.
On I Was Warned, though, Cray and Dennis Walker abandon their evil ways. Where the misguided soul strategy of 1990's Midnight Stroll emphasized undigested horn arrangements and vocals Cray couldn't quite handle, here they play up their AOR side on an album of guitar hooks--every solo stings, and with Walker up to eight writing credits after dipping to three, every song catches hold. But the biggest difference is that the part of the mean mistreater is invariably played by one of the women traditionally handed that role in blues culture. There's no point calling this a sellout when it makes sense developmentally--the pain and cruelty of Cray's and Walker's songs always made you fear for their personal lives, and I bet their lovers (and ex-lovers) think it's about time they dealt in straightforward bullshit like "I'm a Good Man." The mood is hardly guilt-free--this is a penitent's record, full of pleas for time to work things out and summed up by "A Whole Lotta Pride"'s "Do you have to leave me baby/Just to even up the score?"--and Walker's "The Price I Pay" and "Won the Battle" ("I yelled the loudest/Had the biggest gun") show off his Nashvillian expertise in tragic marriage. But connoisseurs will still prefer the perverse kick of "Our Last Time," written by synth-prone keyb player Jimmy Pugh and longhair show drummer Kevin Hayes, in which an impassively disconsolate Cray watches his latest conquest dress after "the sweat begins to dry," certain without a word from her that she'll never come back for seconds.
Soft Bomb will probably end up occupying the same place in the Chills' oeuvre, assuming Phillipps chooses to sustain one, as Midnight Stroll in Cray's: a detour into excess. Formalists need not be minimalists like the Clean or genre obsessives like the Shoes to figure out that they're better off sticking with what they know, and by playing to Phillipps's idiosyncrasies, Submarine Bells does just that and more. The Chills' sound begins with his strangely characterless voice, a murmuring essence of jejune concern that sounds like the doctor must have been tempted to add an overdub when he smacked Martin's bottom; even solo it implies the quiet choral backups that usually materialize, and Andrew Todd's organ redoubles the textured effect. Themes like dying, mourning, dreaming, flying, and waking up stick close to his metaphysical concerns; the love songs are about absence and memory, the political songs about the great chain of being. Young drummer James Stephenson does his damnedest to keep the tempos from ebbing back to the lyrical, structures and moods vary cunningly within the wash, and as on all great pop albums, the tunes are indelible. The forthrightly entitled "Heavenly Pop Hit" is the signature, but "Singing in My Sleep" sums up this bravely wistful album. It's about all the great songs--"a word from the wise for the mindless," "a stinging reproach against violence," etc.--Phillipps can't remember in the morning.
Submarine Bells is an uncommonly abstract and reflective record that strikes the ear as standard issue from the pop guild. As with so many formal coups, one of its pleasures is how incorrigibly it challenges unwritten rules (about brightness, concreteness, pretension, keyboards) while adhering to the ones you really can't break (about tunefulness, concision, smarts, guitars). Soft Bomb is just the opposite. With its good-time horn bit and Van Dyke Parks strings and transitional snatches and depressive codas, it's adventurous on the surface. But the underlying production values are old-line studio-band stuff; though most garage-pop improves when the beat gets solider, the hooks get clearer, the singer moves up in the mix, and Peter Holsapple adds a guitar, these devices are misconceived for the Chills. The errant ambitions of Phillipps's writing are embodied on the one hand by "Entertainer," a long dead metaphor for the shallowness of his craft that implicates a defenseless cab driver, and on the other by love songs given to wimpier versions of the same male-chauvinist culs-de-sac that Cray breaks down so mercilessly. But there's no gainsaying Phillipps's skills: even when they're all 20 seconds too long, the man's tunes stay with you. Reordered to close on "Song for Randy Newman Etc.," a living metaphor for the difficulty of his craft, and to surround the personal songs with the social context Phillipps captures so much more vividly than he thinks he does, it would be as worthy a follow-up as Don't Be Afraid of the Dark.
In a telling coincidence, the first cut on Soft Bomb is "Male Monster From the Id," a Greenpeace supporter's bleeding-heart analysis of the sexual power plays that fascinate Cray. Formalism is by no means a strictly male preserve. But because they're not supposed to be calling their own shots, well-schooled female guitar popsters L7, to choose a current instance, don't come off as problem-solvers. They're staking their claim to the world where Cray and Phillipps only want in on a way of making music. Even as they suburbanize the blues or insist on the tragic futility of what Phillipps is unashamed to call "the purity in rock and roll," formalists enjoy a personal security so deep they're barely aware of it. They're content to push limits instead of knocking down barriers because in the end they're not uncomfortable with those limits. But that's not what it feels like when they're straining against them. Only those who refuse to tolerate any limits, which is to say only the insane, have any right to condescend to their achievement.
Village Voice, Sept. 8, 1992