Days Between Stations: Pop When It’s Perfect (09/99)

To me a perfect record is a record you can play all day. If you get in the car you want to hear it on the radio more than you want to get where you’re going; if you get there without having heard it you haven’t really arrived.

As with any addictive substance, you want the rush you got when the song first hit you. The first time you miss that rush—you were thinking about something else, you were interrupted, the light changed—you worry you’ll never find it again, but with a perfect record you always will. More than that: These songs open up. The impossibly delicate shift you’re waiting for may disappear in the face of a voice or an instrument reaching in from the side of the music, and now that moment will take over the music. If before you heard an explosion of serendipity—no one could actually plan effects like that, I mean, effects on you or me, could they?—now you hear a mad scientist, putting every piece together like a kid piling Legos up to the ceiling

Perfect records stand up. When they first came on the radio the Police’s “Every Breath You Take” and Madonna’s “Live to Tell” had the sheen of perfection; it didn’t take more than a month or so to realize what you were hearing was the sheen of their production. These records were perfectly made, but they were hollow inside. Between the lines, nothing was happening. The fade was inexorahle because you heard the whole of the music straightaway. You used it up.

It’s been more than a month for both the Hissyfits’ “Something Wrong” and Bush’s “acoustic” version of “Come Down,” and both recordings are still growing.

Bush are one of those bands critics cannot acknowledge, and not just because singer Gavin Rosedale is too good-looking. British critics hate Bush because the band refused to play by British rules, which require that a group like Oasis or Manic Street Preachers make it at home before putting up zeroes in the U.S.; instead, Bush scored here right out of the box, first with the hysterical “Everything Zen,” then with the more measured “Machinehead” and the lovely “Glycerine.” American critics hate Bush precisely because they had hits; hits that supposedly sounded like Nirvana hits, and which arrived with suspicious timing, just after Kurt Cobain’s suicide. Never mind that Rossdale’s self-absorption is as close to hairstyling—is as pop—as Cobain’s was melodramatic, or that Bush sound more like Nine Inch Nails.

“Come Down” got lost on Sixteen Stone, Bush’s first album; by comparison to the version on No Boundaries (the same Kosovar refugees benefit CD that spawned the year’s least likely hit single, Pearl Jam’s stolid cover of Frank Wilson’s 1961 teen weeper “Last Kiss”) it was rushed, almost filler. But if you discover the song now, that’s because it sounds as if the band has discovered it. The performance is not acoustic; they left off the drums, but the guitars and bass are electric, and the cello that sweeps up the sound must have an electric pickup. As if it matters. What does matter is that Bush have found a way to let this song breathe, to stretch its melody so that a line of feedback cutting into a smoothly curling word communicates like a memory of last night’s nightmare in the middle of a sunny day, so that the bass note that rolls over as the first verse ends puts a shudder into the music that never seems to go away. If at the start the performance catches you up with a promise that it will deliver the same thrill again and again, it holds you with the whisper that you’ve only just begun to hear what the glamour of the sound conceals.

I heard the Hissyfits’ “Something Wrong,” from a pink or red vinyl seven-inch single on Mutant Pop with the overall title “All Dolled Up,” when a DJ at Radio K in Minneapolis picked it out of a bin because she liked the sleeve: three women dressed in party slips, one wearing leopard-skin, another a tiara, the third a dog collar. They’re a New York City combo with an EP due soon on the German label Sounds of Subterrania; their promo stickers show little girls screaming and pounding the floor. If they start with the Shangri-Las they turn a corner with the Who and before you know it you haven’t heard them before. Guitarist Princess, bassist Sun Blade, and drummer P-Girl—all sing—come on like a complaint in the middle of a storm. You can’t believe that the complaint is coming through the heavy weather all around it, but soon it feels as if the storm is just there to carry the complaint. It’s feedback in the orchestration, setting up completely unpredictable shifts in tempo and rhythm, that lets the voices come across so strongly-that, and a pop sense of melody as an end in itself, as a kind of smile inside the worry of the songs.

“Something Wrong”—which is in the film Survivors—has the nervous momentum of Sarah Jessica Parker’s character on Sex and the City at her most discombobulated. It starts fast and picks up speed, the kind of speed you only want more of. Maybe they could go even faster? They can: once the band has the woman in the song emotionally undressed, frantic at herself looking in the mirror and only “There must be something wrong with me there must be something wrong with me” coming out of her mouth, they cut in another, staticky voice The woman is criticizing herself; now there’s this other person, who sounds like she’s coming out of the radio, giving her an even harder time. Maybe it’s the voice of her superego; maybe it’s you, the listener. Whatever it is it’s creepy. Then it makes the record. Until you hear it differently,

Both Bush’s revision of “Come Down” and the Hissyfits’ “Something Wrong” sound incomplete: oddly open to the sense that there is no last word. Maybe that’s what keeps the recordings alive day after day, through hundreds of plays, but that’s not what makes them perfect. What that is, I have no idea.

Interview, September 1999

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