Stereophonic, Beulah, and Wilco
8 March 1999
Performance & Cocktails
Following the passionate and invigorating pub-rock of Word Gets Around, Performance and Cocktails couldn’t help but sound jaded and disappointed in comparison. Though the Welsh band’s 1997 debut hardly viewed the vagaries of small-town life through rose-colored glasses, it presumed a deep deposit of proletarian sincerity beneath the stratum of alcoholism, sex, and social dysfunction. Performance and Cocktails, however, follows frontman/lyricist Kelly Jones as he tours the world and finds it wanting.
The album is a balanced, bewildered take on hypocrisy and inauthenticity, from the country-club culture evoked by the title on down to the glazed stare of the woman being kissed on the cover (the model later revealed that an absinthe-and-opium hangover contributed to her iconic mask of detachment). Jones’ blunt truisms may not have the sophistication of Thom Yorke’s alienated Orwellian enigmas, but they display a sturdy poetry all their own. He sniffs at plastic Californias, incredulous wireless radios, head-standing lotharios with bad tans, and those who “rely on a lie that’s true”. The album’s best moments claw fitfully at the deeper anxieties beneath the Formica patina of postmodern culture: capitalist wish-fulfillment (“Just Looking”), bureaucratic diffidence (“Hurry Up and Wait”), free-wheeling exploitation (“The Bartender and the Thief”), and, of course, aging and death (“She Takes Her Clothes Off”).
Jones saves his neatest trick for last, suggesting in the wily and smoky closer “I Stopped to Fill My Car Up” that storytelling is itself the greatest lie one can tell. The world-weary doubt that serves Stereophonics so well here would congeal into bored cynicism on their weaker later releases, but on Performance and Cocktails it remains a blunt instrument of considerable might. Ross Langager
9 March 1999
When Your Heartstrings Break
Has anyone in indie rock sported a bigger heart on his sleeve in the past ten years than Beulah frontman Miles Kurosky? The San Francisco-based pop collective called it a day back in ‘04, citing intraband strife and the dreaded growing up and growing older, but it’s small wonder that Kurosky didn’t die of a broken heart on 1999’s masterpiece, When Your Heartstrings Break—an album fixated on love and all its twists and turns, drenched in horns, strings and keyboards until it’s overflowing with (sigh) everything.
Don’t let the refrigerator magnet poetry song titles (“Emma Blowgun’s Last Stand”, “Comrade’s Twenty Sixth”) and full-to-bursting production fool you; with eleven songs in 34 minutes, opening with the joyous horns and “ahhhh"s of “Score from Augusta” and capped by the says-it-all closer “If We Can Land a Man on the Moon, Surely I Can Win Your Heart”, Heartstrings perfectly captures the pulse-quickening highs and head-in-hands lows that accompany being a 20-something in love.
Ten years out, though, what’s the lesson? First, to thine own self be true: Beulah felt in, if not necessarily of, the Elephant 6 collective, opting for cynical directness where their peers went obtuse. Second, growing up—and pinpointing that moment, uh, when your heartstrings break—can be a bitch, but your spirits can always be lifted by a trumpet section. Stephen Haag
9 March 1999
Even if I pretend to know nothing about the circumstances behind the recording of Wilco’s Summerteeth (because I think records should stand on their own), it still comes across as one of the loneliest and most despairing records of its time. And the fact that Summerteeth is an alt-country album rather than a raging slab of dysfunctional deathcore makes the despair that much more palpable.
Look at the band members, posing individually in desolate settings in the CD booklet: under unforgiving fluorescent lights in an institutional hallway; by a self-service gas pump late at night; in a bleak wood-paneled room furnished by two plain chairs and an unused megaphone. (The band member in the room with the megaphone, hands in his pockets and eyes focused on nothing, is the talented multi-instrumentalist Jay Bennett, who passed away on May 24 of this year.)
And consider the lyrics: “The shadow grows / His heart’s in a bowl behind the bank / And every evening when he gets home / To make his supper and eat it alone / His black shirt cries / While his shoes grow cold”.
Or “The ashtray says / You were up all night / When you went to bed / With your darkest mind / Your pillow wept / And covered your eyes / You finally slept / While the sun caught fire”.
Or, simply, in a Dylanesque song called “She’s a Jar”: “she begged me not to hit her”.
The pop side of Wilco prevents the loneliness from becoming lugubrious, and songs such as “Can’t Stand It” (a should-have-been-hit-single) and the moodily beautiful string arrangement in “She’s a Jar” speak to Wilco’s—and Jeff Tweedy’s—ability to get outside of their own heads and connect with discerning listeners. A relative disappointment in terms of sales, Summerteeth deserves another listen ten years down the road. Michael Antman
// Notes from the Road
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