The Charm of the Highway Strip
Red House Painters
Rock ‘n’ roll’s raucous bellow is louder than ever. In the few years since Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” became a nationwide hit, aggressive guitar rock has become stupendously popular. Less talented but equally noisy bands like Green Day and the Offspring are selling records by the millions. Media giants have set up radio formats across the country just to blare the latest bombast by Bush or the next nugatory nugget by Stone Temple Pilots.
But rock ‘n’ roll has many manifestations, and one of them is anything but riotous. It’s a manifestation that rock purists ignore because acknowledging that it has anything to do with rock is simply too embarrassing. It’s a manifestation that I call wimp rock.
Wimp rock–which focuses on muted melody, uses minimal electric guitar, and has sad, introspective lyrics–avoids being labeled country or folk by using more idiosyncratic, less convention-bound song forms. Wimp rockers have been known to make subdued experiments with feedback and instrumentals that run the gamut from classical complexity to minimalist drones.
For every strutting, histrionic guitar hero there’s always been a whey-faced, poetry-loving dweeb who decides that he or she too can “rock.” In the mid-60s while the Kinks, Stones, and Who were bashing out deafening paeans to rebelliousness, the Zombies were penning ornate, wistful minor-key tunes about heartache. In an even greater affront to rock convention the band made keyboards the focal point of their sound. Groups like the Moody Blues continued the wimp-rock lineage through the 70s.
In the 80s the Smiths were the apotheosis of wimp rock. Morrissey wallowed in disconsolate introspection while Johnny Marr stunned listeners not with high-decibel guitar pyrotechnics but with an unmatched use of supporting lines that perfectly underscored his songs’ melodies. Adored by neurasthenic misfits and loathed by purists, the Smiths were to wimp rock what Bach was to baroque music.
In spite of, or perhaps because of, the current deluge of strident, raw-throated guitar bands, wimp rock is experiencing a renaissance. Labels that are normally bastions of feral guitar music, like Touch & Go and Merge, have recently released records by unabashedly quiet bands.
The Magnetic Fields is Stephin Merritt, a one-man electric keyboard-and-percussion band. Merritt’s records are quiet, melodic, and melancholy. Sometimes they’re compared with the work of Brian Eno, but next to Merritt’s demure outings Eno’s coy, mid-70s pop records sound like Kiss.
The songs on The Charm of the Highway Strip evoke the wistful solitude of cross-country drives. Merritt deftly mingles country-and-western inflections among his own elaborate and attractive melodies to give his “just passin’ through” tales a rootsy feel.
The lyrics are often ruminative and sad, yet stoicism keeps them from being maudlin, as in the following lines from “When the Open Road Is Closing In”: “Time–measured in dotted yellow lines has passed you by / And I never said an honest thing to you in all my life / Hard times go slowly and the good times never come / The world is a motor inn in an Iowa highway slum.”
The Charm of the Highway Strip is a record of striking melodies with a wide range of instrumental color, yet almost all sounds are derived from electronic keyboards; even some of the lead and rhythm guitar parts emanate from synthesizers. Still, taken on its own terms the album is a thoughtful and well-crafted cycle of songs.
The wimp-rock mantle fits most snugly around the drooping shoulders of the Red House Painters, a group led by eternally forlorn singer-songwriter Mark Kozelek. Like the American Music Club and Idaho, the Red House Painters wear their Prozac on their sleeves and generally use slow, slower, and fossilized tempos.
On previous records Kozelek has displayed a Simon & Garfunkular knack for creating memorably bittersweet melodies. Though the group uses a standard bass-drums-guitar lineup and occasionally employs shards of feedback for ambience, the records are suffused with a hushed lachrymose elegance.
Unfortunately Kozelek’s lyrics often torpedo otherwise pleasant songs. Whether dabbling in mawkish self-pity (“There’s my favorite rollercoaster / Next to the blue water / The one only sissies ride”) or Hallmark schmaltz (“Summer dress separates you from the rest / …Wonders if she is loved or she is missed / Says a prayer as she’s kissed by ocean mist”), Kozelek leaves no stomach unturned in his search for the truly awful stanza. The perennial prom favorite “Color My World” sounds like a series of Nietzschean aphorisms compared with Kozelek’s worst moments.
Ocean Beach, however, shows some improvement. It’s the Red House Painters’ most consistent record. Kozelek still wraps his verbiage in a fuzzy quilt of sentimentality, but there are fewer lapses into egregious bathos. And, finally, there are several nicely crafted mid-tempo numbers. The airy “San Geronimo” provides a long overdue blend of infectious melody and palatable poesy. There are still some clunkers though: “Shadows” sounds like uninspired Jackson Browne. But overall Ocean Beach suggests that Kozelek may be beginning to offer more than indulgent juvenilia.
Ivy are the heir to the Smiths’ wimp-rock throne. An international trio fronted by Dominique Durand, Ivy lack the Smiths’ worst tendencies (Morrissey) while retaining that band’s first-rate tunesmithery.
Ivy’s debut LP, Realistic, is a striking setting of twelve light pop gems. While there’s nothing ground breaking about the songwriting, the record overflows with the kind of gently poignant melodies that have distinguished the best wimp-rock bands from the Zombies on. The languid “Everyday” is a particularly memorable bit of low-key pop genius.
Although Ivy are a guitar band, their axes ring rather than roar on Realistic. Guitars provide melodic counterpoint and create atmosphere rather than hammer home riffs. And the band’s spare but inspired arrangements give each of their fairly simple tunes a unique sound.
Lyrically, Ivy mines melancholy. But while Durand sings plenty of songs about loneliness and sorrow, her lyrics lack the cloying self-absorption of many of her wimp-rock peers.
Ivy may be pale, sad, and soft, but that’s exactly what it takes to rule the wimp-rock roost.