By Michael Atkinson
By Luke Winkie
By Steve Weinstein
By Brian McManus
By Brian McManus
By Dan McQuade
By Dan McQuade
By Brian McManus
Sarah Nixey is known to have performed mime as a drama student. The three most treasured albums in her collection are Lou Reed's Berlin, Nico's The Marble Index, and Madonna's Like a Virgin. The one no one else has is Vintage Children's Nursery Rhymes. Her right eye features prominently in the logo of another of bandmate John Moore's business ventures, which involves marketing high-end absinthe in Britannia. She played Glastonbury in a tight white plastic or latex jumpsuit that crossed love doll with crash test dummy. Where bandmate Luke Haines's voice, such as it is, apes the alienated lower-class artiness of Laurence Harvey and David Bowie, Nixey sings properly and prettily, not quite posh but not merely genteel either. Often she just recites in her precise accent or carries her tunes in a whispered singsong à la Claudine Longet or maybe Olivia Newton-John. But unlike Haines, she projects a musicality that's theoretically pop-friendly. Hence, the title track from Black Box Recorder's The Facts of Lifewent top 20 in the U.K., where pop has long conformed to theories that don't compute on this side of the divide.
Black Box Recorder is one of a long line of U.K. bands in which an attractive woman sings up front and a male musical mastermind or two plays behind: Think Yaz, Eurythmics, Everything but the Girl, Saint Etienne, M People, Portishead, Morcheeba. But rarely has the woman contributed as little apparent content as Nixey. Alison Moyet and Tracey Thorn were always active songwriters; Annie Lennox was always a 50-50 collaborator; Beth Gibbons always provided the lyrics; Skye Edwards always composed as an equal partner. Saint Etienne's Sarah Cracknellwhose affect is closest to Nixey's, although deployed less self-consciouslywas contributing crucial songs by album two. Only M People's Heather Small seems stuck in the traditional mouthpiece role, ventriloquizing male notions of female identity. Nowadays educated girls like Nixey rarely keep their own counsel forever. But this is such a perverse little projectsmall talk as the plane crashes, the name saysthat I wouldn't put it past her to defy good feminist expectations. She was a mime, after all. And she is the making of the band regardless.
Nobody discusses Black Box Recorder without bringing in the Auteurs, and I wouldn't think of it. But after weeks of pondering why I'd A-listed New Wave, reassessing the follow-up I once liked less, suffering through the bad Steve Albini product I'd missed, and getting to know the Haines-coproduced album that never came out here, I feel obliged to emphasize that (a) Black Box Recorder is not an Auteurs "side project" like 1997's Baader Meinhofand (b) co-Auteurs James Banbury, Alice Readmon, and Barney C. Rockford should attend to their career opportunities. Not that there aren't brainy songs attached to hummable tunes on these alt-guitar records; not, indeed, that an egotist like Haines can be expected to close the group down. But the contrast is stark. Haines is at best an undeveloped singer; his closest model, Richard Butler of the Psychedelic Furs, regularly revved his world-weary drawl into power effects the younger naysayer wouldn't dare in the privacy of his own shower. And though each Auteurs album is produced differently, the drone of the auteur's voice and guitar always predominatesnothing in the band's sound or beat will ever pull punters in off the street. Musical avenues of identification closed, the Auteurs' cult, which at its mid-'90s peak numbered 20,000 apiece in the U.S., U.K., and EU, is limited to active admirers of his literary output.
Up against blowhards like Primal Scream and Happy Mondays, the knowing disaffection of Haines's fictions earned him some instant respect. So did his propensity for human-scale songsalthough he tackled the geopolitical in the acridly noncommittal Baader Meinhof cycle and regularly indulges an annoying murder tic, he avoided the myth-mongering grandiosity that has long endeared Nick Cave to many pretentious assholes and a few pretentious geniuses. But in the end he's not enough of a writer to keep even logocentric next-big-thingers interested on words alonehe doesn't command the language, the eye, the insight, or the social analysis. As if to mark the end of this particular tether, the Auteurs' 1999 album, How I Learned to Love the Bootboys, ventures into the diaristic, as in this telling quatrain: "This kid comes up to me/Says 'You've got to raise your game'/The kid is half my age/'Pleased to meet you Mr. Haines.' "
By then Haines knew what was up. Released in 1998, Black Box Recorder's England Made Mebarely acknowledged the boho losers, lovers on autodestruct, and random small-timers who populated the Auteurs' oeuvre. Exploiting Nixey's gender and BBC English, not to mention the detached sexual allure some were sure to read into the combo as here configured, Haines wrote a group of songs about upper-middle-class dislocation, mostly from a female point of view: several runaways, a slumming joyrider, an unfit unwed mother, the Patty Hearst kidnapping, many lives of quiet desperation, and the blank complacency of "Ideal Home" followed immediately by the chilly tale of a privileged girl who'd rather be put away than endure what she considers her parents' "deceit." Revealing the ugly truths beneath smooth surfaces is a banal project, but because the unflappable vocals are the musical equivalent of the surfaces under scrutiny, the songs are troubling, amusing, fascinating, deeply odd. And because Nixey's tone never gives the game away, she leaves open the perverse possibility that the music is truth and the words ugly lies.