Howe Gelb’s Alien Nation
Country music’s great narrative trope is “I left my dear old home on the farm for the big bad city, and the women, drinking and drugs have brought me heartache.” Rock’s version is “I left my dysfunctional home in the suburbs for the big bad city, and the women, drinking and drugs … rock .”
A man called Howe Gelb-a singer, songwriter, and fair hand on guitar and piano-left big bad Los Angeles to move out to the desert. First in the Mojave, then in Tucson, it fell to him to invent a trope for this New Age exurbanism. Confluence , just released on the blue-chip Thrill Jockey label, is the latest stage in his project of building a soundscape in which alienation is natural part of the terrain, and thus sublime.
Plenty of people have retreated to the high country in shell shock. In Don DeLillo’s Underworld , Nick leaves a murder scene in the Bronx for corporate Phoenix; Harry Dean Stanton’s mute Travis wanders, sun-dazed, into Paris, Texas ; and Julianne Moore’s hyperallergic housewife hides in the sand in Safe . Best we can tell, as Mr. Gelb sings on “Available Space,” he burned out on the sheer shallowness of modern life: “Somewhere there is a hype we want to believe in / but its failure to convince has got us a-leaving.”
Out there in the high desert, Mr. Gelb and his accomplices have tumbled out maybe three dozen records, including numerous ones as Giant Sand, Howe solos (listed under H) like Hisser and Confluence , and side projects such as Calexico, the popular Western-schmaltz combo. Between 1993 and 1995, they released six records. Mr. Gelb is almost as talented as he is prolific.
Those talents are diverse, which makes it hard to get the gist of Mr. Gelb. In surrealist lyricism (“The clouds turned into spiny chestnut shells / and when they’d rain down my skin would swell”), he’s heir to Bob Dylan; on piano, he decorates like Billy Joel. He can play a nice twangy acoustic guitar à la Johnny Cash and a nice crunchy electric à la Neil Young. His phrasing has a deliberate artistry more common to the old crooners, Frank and Dino. And does he ever rhyme-so wittily that many lines are jokes about rhyming: “She went from a small town looker,” he sings of one unfortunate on “Saint Conformity,” “to dressing like a myopic optimistic hooker.”
He’s a pretty clever home producer, too. Confluence introduces a new angle, thrift-store keyboards evoking the eerie modulations that have signified close encounters to generations of TV insomniacs. Would it be the desert without U.F.O.’s? There are dark forces at work, Mr. Gelb hints, his baritone growl straining for the high notes on “3 Sisters” and “Hatch.” The trick here is to unite the obvious: aliens, alienation.
It would have been hard-I’m willing to go with impossible-to top last year’s Chore of Enchantment . Dedicated to a deceased friend, the pedal-steel player Rainer Ptacek, Chore was described as a record about grief, but your shrink would note expressions of despair, guilt, shame, impotence, suicidal ideation and a feeling described as “raw” and assign it a D.S.M.-IV code for major depression. “What are you going to say,” Mr. Gelb wondered on that album, when your own kid “asks the question of the day, ‘are you okay?'”
Maybe fans of Mr. Gelb have a certain morbid streak, but Chore isn’t a downer; it’s transcendent. His most introspective songwriting happened to coincide with his biggest recording budget, from the Virgin imprint V2. (V2 eventually backed out, and Thrill Jockey scored a masterpiece.) Real studio time with some savvy producers turned Mr. Gelb’s rough cuts into polished works of Nashville balladry, Memphis R&B and Leonard Cohen–style pop-folk. It’s heresy in the indie-rock community to say, but though money can’t make bad songs good, it can make really good songs great.
So it’s disconcerting, after Chore , to see Mr. Gelb falling back on the “lo-fi” fallacy-that spontaneity is the cardinal virtue. Instead of Giant Sand, Confluence was recorded with various friends passing through town. A cover of “Can’t Help Falling in Love” has him singing in the bathroom (for the echo) and visitors strumming in the living room, the liner notes explain. This is more interesting to him than to us; passing for intimacy, it’s really a form of reticence. This listener, at least, is more apt to share in the desire, vexation or suicide of a big, generous pop number. That’s what they’re made for, as Howe well knows.
Let me not digress, though, into psychobabble about anyone’s ambivalence toward success; there’s better analysis written into the lyrics. Confluence finds Mr. Gelb still fighting the Hamlet thing (“You know how hard it is just to be”), but mostly, as in a textbook, he’s moved on, tentatively, to try out the possibility of solace: “Survival means you’re doing fine,” he offers brightly. “Pedal Steel and She’ll” spotlights the two no-fail heartache-soothers of every country tunesmith, though Mr. Gelb impishly substitutes, for the pedal steel’s shimmer, the fart of the Farfisa. The lovelorn protagonist of Chore ‘s “Shiver,” who’s “unable to deliver / unable to understand,” finally makes use of what he’s got (in “Vex”): “It may be enough / but it’s never a lot.”
And finally the solace of the desert itself comes through for Mr. Gelb. He may be disillusioned, but he’s still willing to believe, in his anthem “Available Space,” that “there’s space for you available here.” Sounds like he’s cut a square of sod from Bruce Springsteen’s dusty Nebraska , a record indebted to Woody Guthrie and Johnny Cash. Then a high, resonant warble emerges from the Casio. Make that Johnny Cash abducted by aliens. Odd thing is, that keyboard sounds more antiquated than the humble acoustic-guitar licks that adorn this album. Mr. Gelb has reconciled the hard-luck, hard-living America of Messrs. Cash and Guthrie with the
dial-up age. Maybe he can go home again? Modest though it may be, Confluence adds to the promise of Chore : Alienated, oversensitive and hip as hell, Howe Gelb is the premier feeler of our postmodern pain.
– David Krasnow
Nineteen sixty-eight was a great year to be 11 years old. You were too young to be drafted; your dad was probably too old. And if you listened to Top 40 radio, the frothy confections of the 1910 Fruitgum Company, the Ohio Express and the Lemon Pipers, which are once again available on three “Best Of” compilations from Buddha Records, were unavoidable.
Of course, this toothsome triumvirate weren’t bands in the conventional sense of the word. Each group started out as allegedly young, allegedly competent garage rockers but eventually became the pliant Trilbys of the Super K production team of Jerry Kasenetz and Jeff Katz, as well as songwriting Wunderkind Joey Levine. For those unfamiliar with Mr. Levine’s name, he went on to be the greatest jingle writer in commercial history. A pop Michelangelo for the latter half of the 20th century, Mr. Levine composed the “Just for the Taste of It” ditty for Diet Coke and the “Sometimes You Feel Like a Nut … ” song for Mounds and Almond Joy candy bars.
The Super K bands were groups for whom the Monkees were the Beatles; little more than the shells through which Messrs. Kasenetz, Katz and Levine fed the world their hits, many of which were extremely catchy, sub-Zappa candy metaphors for sexual activity. The Ohio Express’ “Yummy Yummy Yummy” is essentially a musical double entendre about the consumption of a certain protein-rich bodily fluid, and though the 1910 Fruitgum Company’s “1,2,3 Red Light” bears the name of a popular child’s game, it’s really about a guy trying to psyche his girlfriend into going all the way.
In most cases, the “artists” involved here didn’t do diddly beyond hit their marks in the studio. The success of these three groups was all about the producers, marketers and businessmen. Often two or three versions of each band would exist, simultaneously recording and touring with whomever was around.
Not surprisingly, this often ate at the souls of the original bands’ members, but one listen to any of the “real band” tracks that Super K allowed in order to fill up an LP and placate the groups suggests that the producers’ micromanaging was a wise choice, not just commercially but artistically as well.
And it’s a form of control that continues to exist today. Thirty-five years after the reign of Super K, most commercially successful “artists” have less to do with the music that bears their name than they might acknowledge. This is where I’m supposed to bring in Britney Spears, but we’re really talking about two different stages in the evolution of bubblegum music.
The more recent capitalism of Ms. Spears, the Backstreet Boys and the whole Max Martin squad is airtight and more than a little frightening. The labels have perfected the process of isolating an area to exploit, and then expanding and repeating it until millions salivate on cue at the sight of a jewel-encrusted belly button.
The earlier capitalism of bubblegum-when the salesmen first realized that they could get the suckers to line up for lollipops-sure seemed like a lot more fun, and why not? The market was like a fresh cube of Bubble Yum: fat and full of addictive sugar. Many of the great records on major labels are the result of money men attempting to predict the Next Big Thing and failing gloriously. The progenitors of bubblegum understood that, when in doubt, they should throw their money at the children. To paraphrase George Harrison, rock ‘n’ roll was not unlike the Catholic Church: get them at 5 and you’ve got them for life.
Bubblegum’s first wave generated as much art as cash, but it just wouldn’t be honest to recommend any of these discs in and of themselves, despite the fact that they could reduce a leather-jacketed Ramone-haired 60’s nostalgia freak to the fetal position. The truly monumental music on the three discs combined adds up to about a 10-minute rush, and there is little in the way of hidden treasures here. If you need one (and if you do, you might also need a life), go for the Ohio Express CD, which features Mr. Levine’s direct involvement and, often, his classical, nasal vocals.”
That’s not to say that the desperate search for filler can’t lead to some interesting choices. I own a late-period Archies LP filled with Vietnam protest songs, but how many sub-par variations of “Chewy, Chewy”-itself inferior to “Yummy Yummy Yummy” and “Jelly Jungle (of Orange Marmalade)”-and Ohio Express covers of 1910 Fruitgum Company songs do you need?
All the repetition begins to resemble a Philip Glass symphony, although I would put “Green Tambourine” up against Einstein on the Beach any day. The biggest chart hit on these discs, “Green Tambourine” is a perfect pop song that means absolutely nothing but what it describes, as if it were a novel by Alain Robbe-Grillet.
Because their songs’ actual creators remained behind the scenes, and because they were rather up-front about their desire to hit by any means necessary, the mandarins of music culture tended to look down on such groups and tunes as the 1910 Fruit Gum Company’s “Simon Says” and to elevate the more “serious” and heavier turn-of-the-decade acts such as Elton John and Led Zeppelin. But many of Robert Plant’s lyrics were as smirky as Mr. Levine’s, and in a less subversive manner. Meanwhile, Mr. John forsook his sensitive-troubadour stance for mid-70’s glam, scoring his biggest hits with some of the most overblown bubblegum of all, including “Bennie and the Jets” and “Crocodile Rock.” Both artists would later be accused of pretension, just as bubblegum was attacked for its emptiness. You can’t win for losing.
By the early 70’s, the Nuggets revisionists had fully embraced the bubblegum sound. The punk rock of the Ramones, the Buzzcocks and the Sex Pistols ensured its legitimacy; more importantly, so had Madison Avenue. While the sincere sounds of such folkies as Peter, Paul and Mary-dope fiend Puff the Magic Dragon be damned-have not aged well in these ironic times, “Chewy Chewy” was recently used to sell candy bars. Today we have idiotic films such as Almost Famous to explain to us that the pop music of the time was about the ego battles of passionate band members conscripted into fighting to create the Greatest Works Imaginable during the Greatest Times Imaginable.” Don’t you believe it: This image is as much a product as the Archies were. It was about a bunch of merry pranksters getting pre-teens to sing about remarkably prurient subjects right under their parents’ noses. Some things never change.