WOWEE ZOWEE (23)
June 6, 2018
One in a series of enthusiastic posts, contributed by HILOBROW friends and regulars, on the subject of our favorite albums of the Nineties (1994–2003). A new installment in this series will appear each Wednesday during 2018.
ENGLAND MADE ME | BLACK BOX RECORDER | 1998
What draws me to art about how much the English hate their lives? Joseph Losey and Harold Pinter’s The Servant, Martin Amis through London Fields, The Smiths in what we prefer to imagine were Morrissey’s pre-reactionary years — and Black Box Recorder. When their debut showed up on import in Hollywood’s unsustainably grand Virgin Megastore, I was already a fan of Luke Haines’ main band the Auteurs, whose three mid-’90s albums belong near Pulp’s on the non-laddish end of the Britpop spectrum. They were followed in 1996 by Baader-Meinhof, a concept album about the 1970s West German domestic terror group of the same name, who trained as guerrillas alongside Palestinian rebels, firebombed department stores, assassinated several government functionaries, and looked cooler than the Velvets in news photos. (You may know them as the subjects of Gerhard Richter’s suite of paintings October 18, 1977.) Haines’ take has something in common with “Tania,” Camper Van Beethoven’s paean to Patty Hearst’s SLA-era alter ego: they’re criminals, but also political/romantic outlaw icons for the youth who followed their televised exploits.
Baader-Meinhof was officially a solo project, but other Auteurs were along for the ride; on England Made Me, “Kidnapping an Heiress” bears the stamp of Haines’ obsessions, and his go-to chord progressions are evident as well. But BBR is a distinct band, with Haines joined by multi-instrumentalist/co-writer John Moore, previously a late-period drummer for the Jesus and Mary Chain, and their animating discovery, vocalist Sarah Nixey. The album’s sound is subdued, portentous, and transparent to the point of thinness, with Nixey front and center from the first line of “Girl Singing in the Wreckage”: “My 18th year, I’ll die of boredom.” I’m no Henry Higgins when it comes to placing UK accents, but Nixey’s is either posh or pretending to be, and she delivers everything with a calm disdain that conveys underlying trauma as clearly as a riot grrrl’s scream: Blunted Affect Spice. On the mostly-spoken case study “Child Psychology,” she coolly recounts episodes of childhood mutism, school expulsion, and being “at each other’s throats” at a family Christmas, each followed by the (barely) sung chorus “Life is unfair, kill yourself or get over it.”
There are other highlights, if that’s the word. In the tradition of the Flying Lizards’ “Money” and “Summertime Blues,” a cover of Althea and Donna’s 1977 reggae hit “Uptown Town Ranking” turns the joyous patois of the original (“No pop no style, I strictly roots”) into a numb recitation over a dirty, unidentifiable trip-hop sample. The title track, named for a Graham Greene novel, drives home the futility of escaping country, class, and culture: “I traveled all my life/But never got away/From the killing job/And the garden shed:/England made me.” But the sharpest crystallization of the BBR worldview may be the b-side “Brutality”: “Whatever happened to the social season? And doing the decent thing? Whatever happened to brutality?” Maybe those questions answer mine: Listening to Haines and Moore interrogate, and Nixey personify, the pure products of their desiccated Empire is easier than asking what America made me.
WOWEE ZOWEE: Stephanie Burt on UNISEX | Anindita Basu Sempere on UNDER THE PINK | Mark Kingwell on DUMMY | Bill Nericcio on AMOR PROHIBIDO | Sherri Wasserman on HIPS AND MAKERS | Mimi Lipson on THANK YOU | John Overholt on BEN FOLDS FIVE | Jordan Ellenberg on GET LOST | Chelsey Johnson on PERSONAL BEST | Marilyn Snell on MAXINQUAYE | Dan Fox on DIFFERENT CLASS | Devin McKinney on IF YOU’RE FEELING SINISTER | Alice Boone on MTV UNPLUGGED (ALICE IN CHAINS) | Rob Wringham on SPICE | Joe Alterio on BEATS, RHYMES AND LIFE | Jason Loeffler on SECOND TOUGHEST IN THE INFANTS | Rick Pinchera on EITHER/OR | Josh Glenn on THE LONESOME CROWDED WEST | Jennifer Krasinski on SUPA DUPA FLY | Sara Ryan on DIG ME OUT | Luc Sante on MEZZANINE | Molly Wright Steenson on I CAN HEAR THE HEART BEATING AS ONE | Franklin Bruno on ENGLAND MADE ME | Michael Campochiaro on IS THIS DESIRE? | Adrienne Crew on CALIFORNICATION | Drew Daniel on I SEE A DARKNESS | Veda Hille on THE SOFT BULLETIN | Vanessa Berry on TEENAGE SNUFF FILM | Tom Kipp on GET SKINTIGHT | David Hirmes on DOPETHRONE | John Hilgart on YORK BLVD. | Deborah Wassertzug on JOURNEY TO THE END OF THE NIGHT | Adam McGovern on INVINCIBLE SUMMER | Brian Berger on TIRED SOUNDS OF… | Michael Grasso on MUSIC HAS THE RIGHT TO CHILDREN | Jen Collins on HURRAH | Flourish Klink on THE TEACHES OF PEACHES | Judith Zissman on TALLAHASSEE | Lauren Oliver on SOUND-DUST | Jason Cohen on IS THIS IT | Matthew De Abaitua on THE RAINBOW CHILDREN | Jenny Davidson on TIME (THE REVELATOR) | Crystal Durant on LIVE THROUGH THIS | Gordon Dahlquist on GARBAGE | Erin M. Routson on WASHING MACHINE | Carl Wilson on TEMPTING | Jessamyn West on ALL HAIL WEST TEXAS | Kaleb Horton on STREETCORE | Tom Nealon on BAZOOKA TOOTH | Erik Davis on DOPESMOKER | David Levine on FEVER TO TELL | Deb Chachra on MASS ROMANTIC.
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