Sometime in the late 90s, a friend of my girlfriend’s made her a mix CD with the Auteurs’ “After Murder Park” on it. I don’t think it made much impression at the time; it was pleasant enough, apart from the whole being about the Moors Murders thing, but I didn’t rush out and buy any Auteurs albums. I think it was on a visit to L.A. when I came across a used copy of Now I’m a Cowboy in a record store and picked it up, having remembered the band name, probably thinking my girlfriend might want it. She wasn’t that into it, as I recall, but it turned out I loved it.
There’s a sinister vibe to pretty much everything Luke Haines does. It’s probably partly his raspy and sardonic voice, but it’s also the subject matter. On the Auteurs records it’s usually crime, class war, and disaster. Even on How I Learned to Love the Bootboys, which is apparently at least in part about his life in relation to his favorite music (and thus is actually an almost perfect analogue to this project, except that he did his at age 32), he manages to make a chorus like “sugar baby love” sound menacing as well as ecstatic. He’s also got a penchant for what we’ll judiciously call violent revolutionaries, best illustrated by Baader Meinhof his side project about what Wikipedia calls a “West German far-left militant group.” His solo material, or more precisely the albums he’s released as “Luke Haines,” has so far included a call for a “general pop strike” on a Situationist concept album called The Oliver Twist Manifesto and a soundtrack to a film (Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry) based on a novel about an accountant who decides that every “debit” the world takes from his dignity and material well-being deserves a corresponding “credit” to his books, usually incurred by inflicting harm to other people, property, or both. And then of course there’s whatever Off My Rocker at the Art School Bop is about.
Don’t get me wrong, I love all that stuff; even when I don’t agree with (or even completely understand) his politics, I love his music. And I love his attitude — his venom, his intelligence, his willingness to sink his teeth in. A lot of acts either have something to say or write songs you’d actually enjoy hearing; Haines is one of few who does both, consistently and at the same level of accomplishment.
But unless I had you at “Situationist” and you’re furious I didn’t tell you sooner about a record that namechecks Guy DeBord and St. Germain (not the liqueur) and features a song about an alternate history where Valerie Solanas marries a man and has children, odds are the Haines project you’d enjoy most is Black Box Recorder.
The most obvious difference between Black Box Recorder and the rest of Luke Haines’s output is that someone else is singing. Though occasionally breathy, Sarah Nixey’s vocals are strikingly crisp, with a posh English accent that could cut diamonds. Where Haines growls, she pronounces, enunciating each word, tipping from patronizing to disdainful, from predatory to mournful in the space of a syllable. For all his archness, Haines can’t help but sound sincere most of the time; with Nixey, he has the possibility of real irony, but she’s so deadpan you can never be sure. On their first album together, England Made Me, a trancelike spoken monologue from a troubled but cruel young girl culminates in the punchline “Life is unfair / Kill yourself or get over it.” A million ways to take it, and Nixey’s voice somehow contains them all. On their second album, The Facts of Life, she gets to add, of all things, “sympathetic sex ed teacher” to the repertoire.
It’s the third album, Passionoia, that I enjoy the most these days. The title track of The Facts of Life having been something of a radio hit in the UK, Black Box Recorder decided that the theme of their third record (one and two having been, roughly and respectively, suburban maladjustment and sexual frustration) would be celebrity and — some might say “finally!” — self-parody.
Thus we start with “The School Song,” poking fun at their hit single about inexperienced kids trying to hook up without getting their feelings hurt, and “GSOH QED,” a collection of personal ad clichés running through all the sexual frustration of the previous album in less than four minutes. Song four is the centerpiece: “Being Number One” is all about how the hit single changed their lives overnight (“A triumphant return to the home town
/ Treated with love and respect / A special school assembly / Before they would have broken my neck”), a joke which starts with the fact that “The Facts of Life” actually only made it to number 20 on the charts. “The New Diana” has Nixey cold-bloodedly aspiring to the former princess’s supposedly idle lifestyle, while “Girl’s Guide for the Modern Diva” is a how-to on getting there (“Our Father, who art in heaven / Don’t take the credit – I’m my own creation / My jealous God here’s some advice for you / You’re not on the list? Get to the back of the queue”).
Perhaps the most interesting song about celebrity on the album is “Andrew Ridgeley,” and if you don’t know that he was the guy in Wham! who wasn’t George Michael, you now get the joke. She actually says “This is Sarah Nixey talking,” so I’m willing to believe the song, about how Ridgeley was her favorite half of Wham! as a girl and how he made her fall in love with music even as her rich father’s fortunes were falling, is at least partially a true story. Punchline: “Then years later on Kensington High Street / I saw you drive a white convertible Golf GTI / Carefully edging out into the traffic / Just like a real live human being.”
Like all of Haines’s work, it’s best suited for natural cynics with a sense of humor. If you’re the sort of person who thinks irony is the opposite of sincerity, you may find the lyrics unbearable. But the music, especially on Passionoia, is so sweet, such glittering pop, that even then you might find it irresistible. I certainly do.
Metric, Old World Underground, Where Are You Now?
As a chapter closed in 2003 for Luke Haines, one began for Emily Haines, lead singer of Metric. This album starts with a shot out of the gate and never lets up, political without being didactic, personal without being maudlin, every note sounding both inevitable and fresh. My girlfriend and I fell in love with this album immediately and have been falling in love with Metric albums ever since. My favorite track is probably “Hustle Rose”; it’s a sad story, but the music repeats exactly the parts you want to hear, over and over again, until the pleasure is all but unbearable.
The second Stars album is less experimental than the first, and certainly more sentimental (the title doesn’t lie), but I have no complaints. “Elevator Love Letter,” “Romantic Comedy,” “Look Up,” and “Life Effect” light up our road trips every time. I’ll never understand why their awkward third album was the big hit and not this one; I guess people preferred clumsy, embarrassing songs about George Bush over the finely crafted love songs on this album. Incidentally, Stars used to be a very difficult band to Google.
The Dandy Warhols, Welcome to the Monkey House
My favorite Dandys album these days. Produced by Nick Rhodes from Duran Duran, it supposedly Nairs off a lot of what make the Dandys themselves, but frankly I’ve heard the pre-Rhodes mix and all we lost was a lot of ashy pot fumes and staring into space. It doesn’t kill them to have one tight space-age 80s glampop record, and with songs as good (and hilarious) as “We Used to Be Friends,” “Scientist,” “I Am Over It,” “You Were the Last High,” and the gorgeous “I Am Sound,” really nothing can bury them. My favorite joke is the spoken bit right before “I Am Over It”: “Let’s see if we can do this in one toke. …take!”
- Massive Attack, 100th Window
- Placebo, Sleeping with Ghosts
- Goldfrapp, Black Cherry
- The New Pornographers, Electric Version
- Ween, Quebec
- The Bangles, Doll Revolution
- Rufus Wainwright, Want One
- Amy Winehouse, Frank