Modern Life Is Rubbish

A choice poisoned-fortune-cookie aphorism from the Black Box Recorder album: "Life is unfair/Kill yourself or get over it." A wiseass rejoinder, from, of all places, the penultimate song on the new Quasi record: "Who said life was fair?/But smile— it's not so bad." The collected works of Luke Haines, dour Britpop anarchist, and Sam Coomes, depressed West Coast socialist, catalogue the psychic hazards of modern life— its unfairness, inauthenticity, impossibility. Both thirtyish survivors, Haines and Coomes have been plugging away for a decade or so in various guises (Haines with the Auteurs and terrorist fetishizers Baader Meinhof, Coomes with the S.F.-based Donner Party and Heatmiser, best known as Elliott Smith's old band), both, in their own way, figuring out if erudite cynicism is a sustainable mode for pop expression.

Haines's latest side project is called Black Box Recorder, continuing a preoccupation with aviation disasters that began with the 1996 Auteurs single "Light Aircraft on Fire." England Made Me exacts revenge on the way of life— the suburban tedium, fakery, and complacency— that made Haines the embittered nutjob he wants us to think he is. While the Auteurs at their best flaunted a kind of shopworn glamour, BBR's middle-English gothic horror is rendered in bold pointillist touches: the music is pared down and allowed breathing room, which the words invariably fill with the stench of dry rot.

Thanks to Sarah Nixey's anesthetized monotone— slightly wistful, slightly vampiric— each indictment against the motherland arrives with ice forming on its breath. On the title track, she recounts how she once "trapped a spider underneath a glass" and basically stared it to death. Haines, who shares writing credit with the band's third member, John Moore, employs a similar strategy— he identifies festering social wounds and embalms them, inviting you to gawk. The big joke is that the title explains it all: "England made me," Nixey sighs, imbuing the admission with equal parts resignation and resentment. Their country's near-mythic drabness and the odd mix of shame and shamelessness that shapes the national character are what give this record its color— or, at any rate, its many vivid shades of gray.

Black Box Recorder: many vivid shades of gray
photo courtesy of Jetset
Black Box Recorder: many vivid shades of gray

The inherent absurdity of the project doesn't diminish its impact. Haines has enough of a sense of humor to extend his exaggerated morbidity to other people's songs, with striking results: the old Jacques Brel/Terry Jacks weepie "Seasons in the Sun" is reconfigured as the sinister death knell it should've been all along; an eerie reinterpretation of Althea & Donna's '70s dancehall hit, "Uptown Top Ranking," achieves Tricky-worthy disorientation.

If Haines uses dark humor as a defense mechanism, Sam Coomes— more articulate and self-aware than most sensitive young men who write songs— makes the most of a defenseless pose. He can anatomize his own failure without slipping into self-pity, and rail against the failings of the world— the "system," the Man, the market economy— without relying on contemptuous posturing. Voyeuristic curiosity was perhaps the obvious way into Quasi's last two albums: songs about falling out of love by a real-life ex-couple! Presumably about each other! Sure, the relationship songs were wise and morbidly funny— breakup music with bruises to show. But rubberneckers might have missed the sneaky shifts of perspective, and besides, to take Coomes's stinging barbs at face value is to ignore the sly complicity of Janet Weiss's tenacious backbeat.

On Field Studies, romantic pessimism is part of a more general disillusionment. More consistently despairing than Featuring "Birds," the new album obsesses over bigger-picture existential dilemmas. It opens with the pronouncement, "I'm not going to give it up for free anymore/& I don't really care if you label me a whore." On one track, Coomes sells his soul "below the market rate," only for Satan to drive up in a Land Rover and tell him, "That's not yours to sell. I'll see your ass in hell." No indie-rocker writes rhyming verse this dead-on, let alone iambic pentameters— but musically, Field Studies lacks the sheer vigor and propulsion of the previous album. The addition of theremin and strings are all-too-decorous touches— could be that a year spent touring as Elliott Smith's backing band has rubbed off.

Still, the new material was given a good roughing up last Thursday at a CMJ Brownies show. Live, Weiss's contributions are amplified, her mic turned up, her drum kit upfront; Coomes gets very personal with his electric harpsichord; and the interplay between the two is complex and compelling (the show was nothing compared to last summer's Brownies set, though, which culminated with Coomes attempting a headstand on his keyboard and crashing onto Weiss's drum kit). Black Box Recorder made their Stateside debut two nights earlier at the same venue in a tentative performance, a little too bloodless for either humor or menace. Haines, it should be noted, has moved on to a new act of terrorism— this time, against the musical past. The latest Auteurs album, How I Learned To Love the Bootboys (Hut import, just out in Britain), is glammish retro rock that looks back in anger— a critique of how pop eats itself that plays like a jukebox wired to explode.

 
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