I Have Been to Heaven and Back: Hen’s Teeth and Other Lost Fragments of Unpopular Culture Vol. 1
By Josh Goldfein
The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.
In his 1953 essay “The Hedgehog and the Fox,” liberal humanist Isaiah Berlin described two kinds of thinkers: hedgehogs, who relate everything to a single, consistent vision, and foxes, who try many different and even contradictory approaches to make sense of the world. Berlin made a parlor game of this taxonomy: Shakespeare and Joyce were foxes; Dante and Proust were hedgehogs; Tolstoy was a fox who wished he were a hedgehog. You can play with pop geniuses, too. David Bowie: fox. George Clinton: hedgehog.
This has already been a great year for guitar thinkers–Sleater-Kinney’s The Hot Rock, the Latin Playboys’ Dose, and Built to Spill’s Keep It Like a Secret all mix smarts and riffs in revolutionary ways. Sleater-Kinney are hedgehogs: they’ve got a story (girl can’t stop the noise in her head, girl meets guitar, girl rocks) and they’re sticking to it. The Playboys are a foxy side project in which two members of Los Lobos and two record producers work out their coolest ideas. Doug Martsch of Built to Spill used to be a fox, changing lineups and styles with every record, but now he’s found a band he can hole up with. And more recently Pavement and the Mekons–two of the brainiest guitar bands around–have released new albums that reveal more clearly than ever what kind of animals they are.
The Pavement boys have been dubbed foxes for their preppy good looks, but Steve Malkmus, the band’s principal songwriter and vocalist, is an unmitigated hedgehog–and on the new Terror Twilight, for the first time he’s the band’s only singer and songwriter. His MO looks foxy on paper because it freely appropriates from many others: punk’s rhyming guitars, classic rock’s crunchy melodies and theatrical tempo changes, country’s twang and swing, singer-songwriter pacing. He’s a hedgehog, though, because he combines these elements in such a distinctive way. Plus, his words are instantly recognizable; no other rock singer is so literary, so funny, so inscrutable. A single tune from Terror Twilight, “Platform Blues,” for example, includes sports metaphors (“Follow through to the end / And we’ll rip the heart out from the defense”), absurd slogans (“Mandrake versus the snake / I got it on the camera for posterity”), and a quick musical quote from the Velvets’ “The Murder Mystery.”
Pavement’s early singles and EPs were models of punk economy, ideas rattling off with each crack of the snare, ingenious and willfully obscure in Pynchon-esque proportions. Working in the home studio of their first drummer, Gary Young, Malkmus and co-snark Scott “Spiral Stairs” Kannberg pieced together songs from shards of guitar so incisive they made Nirvana sound like bloated geezers. Malkmus used his words like another guitar, slashing and shrieking in jagged, otherworldly bursts. Pavement’s first LP, Slanted and Enchanted (1992), was the insider’s Nevermind, reviewed in Spin as a cassette months before Matador properly released it. “I’ve got style / Miles and miles / So much style that it’s wasted,” Malkmus sang in a rare moment of self-reflection on Watery, Domestic, a follow-up EP.
But as Pavement’s rhythm section evolved, its style quickly coalesced. On 1994’s Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain the band hit its stride, playing more recognizable rock music, adding confidence and warmth to the noise and nonsense that had previously defined it. Maybe the bloated geezers were on to something. “Stone Temple Pilots / They’re elegant bachelors / They’re foxy to me / Are they foxy to you?” Malkmus warbled on the southern-rock lullaby “Range Life.”
Soon enough the Pavement sound was entertainingly easy to pin down, if not to rip off–not long after Crooked Rain was released, Joe Levy was joking in the Village Voice that if Guided by Voices were the real Pavement, then Strapping Fieldhands were the real Guided by Voices. Over its next two LPs, Wowee Zowee in 1995 and Brighten the Corners in 1997, Pavement pretty much stayed in the same shaggy groove, managing to sound natural and experimental, sweet and arch, and original even as it plundered the past, with songs as catchy as they were abrasive. For Terror Twilight, producer Nigel Godrich (who also did Radiohead’s OK Computer) and Malkmus have softened the edges: it’s the most accessible and least exciting Pavement record so far.
There’s nothing as infectious as “Stereo” or “Cut Your Hair” or “Box Elder” here. The first single, “Spit on a Stranger,” nicely captures the stuttering meter and bonhomie of Jerry Jeff Walker’s “Mr. Bojangles,” but it won’t cling to the inside of your scalp the way “In the Mouth a Desert” does. The twinkly “Major Leagues” gently reprises “Range Life,” and “You Are a Light” recalls the variations of Brighten’s “Shady Lane.” Malkmus lets his vocals carry lovely nonsongs like “Ann Don’t Cry” and “Billie,” and only “Speak, See, Remember” has enough energy to get up off the couch, effortlessly building from a mumble to a sweeping climax. The absence of Kannberg’s publishing doesn’t help. Spiral’s chirpy new-wave ditties on Brighten the Corners provided sweet relief from Malkmus’s winsome pomposity, recalling the energy of the band’s first singles. But the raw energy of the band’s earlier days has no place in Malkmus’s vision now.
On the other end of the fox-hedgehog continuum are the Mekons, who also have a new album out, or rather a new collection of not exactly new songs that aren’t on other albums. In fact, the record–which bears the jauntily academic title I Have Been to Heaven and Back: Hen’s Teeth and Other Lost Fragments of Unpopular Culture Vol. 1–makes a good argument for the Mekons as the foxiest band ever. Over 22 years and almost as many lineup changes, they have moved through incompetent DIY punk, choogly electronics, roadhouse country, “alternative rock,” and, most recently, naughty dance music. They generally stick to one style at a time in the studio, but their live shows sample their whole messy oeuvre. I Have Been to Heaven and Back comes closer to that experience than their “real” records.
Like the members of Pavement, the Mekons are scattered across several cities (on two continents) but still work together. They began in Leeds, England; their first single, in 1978, was an answer to the Clash called “Never Been in a Riot,” and since then they’ve made records with reading lists, collaborated with authors and visual artists, written their own novel, and stomped the common ground between such hedgehogs as Hank Williams, Jim Thompson, Gertrude Stein, and Emma Goldman. On top of it all, they’ve matured into a dynamic and raucous rock band with a deep reservoir of lively tunes, without which all of the above would be irrelevant.
Because of their infamous bad luck with record labels, a Mekons’ greatest-hits survey is probably a legal impossibility. I Have Been to Heaven and Back can only be described with the regrettable phrase “secret history,” collecting tracks from compilations and EPs, outtakes, and live material–pleasures for acolytes and neophytes alike. “Betrayal,” from a 1988 Italian 12-inch, is the pick of the litter, marrying a tempered mbaqanga to a Jon Langford elegy. Next to Malkmus’s gibberish, front man Langford’s lyrics are prosaic: “Calumnies, mistresses & wives / He was a monumental drinker / Though he nearly drank himself to death / He never betrayed himself.” There’s a new version of “Orpheus,” a rollicking mainstay of the band’s live set from the CD packaged with their 1996 book, Mekons United. Fans of singer Sally Timms will treasure the 1987 bio-ditty “The Ballad of Sally,” along with a version of the more substantive picaresque “Now We Have the Bomb” recorded at Northwestern’s WNUR in 1997.
The Mekons walk a fine line: too much talk can make their efforts sound like “a simulation of a song,” as Langford sang ad infinitum in a piece they did with conceptual artist Vito Acconci in 1995. Timms’s “Born to Choose,” from the 1993 Rykodisc pro-choice compilation of the same name, overcomes a preachy lyric (“Mr. Pro-Life beat up your wife / Support for the war / Death to the poor”) with a bracing guitar riff. In the long version of “This Funeral Is for the Wrong Corpse,” from the Curse of the Mekons LP (still unreleased in the U.S.), Langford awkwardly argues that socialism can’t “really be dead when it hasn’t even happened.” Awkwardly, that is, until the last line, when he scrambles the words and succinctly states that “this funeral is wrong for the corpse.”
If Langford and Timms are the Mekons’ body, the band’s soul is the skeletal Tom Greenhalgh, who founded the group with Langford in art school. I’ve Been to Heaven and Back belongs to him from the first and title cut, a new version of a great song that was (say the liner notes) “pointlessly excluded” from the U.S. release of The Mekons Rock ‘n’ Roll (1989). Singing his guts out, Greenhalgh tells the defiant tale of the last survivor of a pogrom. A few tracks later, he claims Rod Stewart’s chestnut “You Wear It Well,” which suddenly seems obvious–what other lonely lover would recall his inamorata’s “homesick blues and…radical views”? “Roger Troutman” is not a eulogy for Zapp but a bleepy-bloopy page from the chaotic The Mekons Story, a 1982 collection that looked back on what was already a catholic career; it contrasts nicely with the 1991 disco soccer anthem “Circle City (Mekons vs. Peace Love Hooligans).” “Cowboy Boots” is an exemplary moment from the band’s beloved Sin Records period of the 1980s; Greenhalgh plays the weary drifter, watching his reflection in the shiny tops of rain-soaked shoes. And in “Axcerpt,” from the 1996 Lounge Ax benefit CD, he sums up the Mekons’ philosophy while describing a drunken evening: “He was thinking all different things / Pain & pleasure, good and evil…All sorts of things can happen here / Possibilities exploding, you can change things / You can do what you want.”
Isaiah Berlin found that Tolstoy, try as he might, could never manage to be a hedgehog; although he wanted to believe in something that could explain his world, wherever he looked he “found war and disorder, which no attempt to cheat, however heavily disguised, could even begin to hide.” Tolstoy was destroyed by this struggle, but the Mekons’ survival strategy is much more satisfying. To outfox the devil, they’ll try anything once.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Marcus Roth.