PERMANENT RECORDS: GIVE ME A STORY & GIVE ME A BED
Permanent Records is a year-long project. Each Friday (or thereabouts), I will post a new entry about one specific album, chosen due to its significance to myself as a fan. Though the list is numbered, a particular record's placement should not be considered a ranking. There will be 52 albums in all.
17. THE SUNDAYS - READING, WRITING AND ARITHMETIC (1989)
Personnel: Harriet Wheeler, vocals; David Gavurin, guitar; Paul Brindley, bass; Patrick Hannan, drums
Producers: The Sundays & Ray Shulman / Label: DGC/Rough Trade
Have you ever had this happen to you? A new band comes out, and everyone says they sound like another band you really love, and when you get the album in question, you just can't hear it. Like how several years ago there were two or three "new Radioheads" every month, and none of them really sounded like Radiohead, they just had guys with soft voices that could go very high who were likely just aping either Tim and/or Jeff Buckley as much as Thom Yorke was?
So it was for the Sundays, who in 1989 were being billed as the new Smiths. It probably didn't help that they had signed to Rough Trade in the UK, the old indie label of Morrissey and Marr, but outside that and both bands being British, I didn't really see the connection.
Rumors actually went around that David Gavurin was really Johnny Marr. His guitar playing style was apparently the lead factor in the comparisons. Sure, they share an occasional strum or a chiming sound, but that probably only means they have the same kinds of guitars in their collections. Marr was always a pop beast, like a live-action precursor to sampling. He went through rock history and picked out riffs he liked, a chameleon who could change his melodic colors from song to song, and in his way actually making it a lot harder to pin down a quintessential Smiths sound. Gavurin wasn't quite so history-based. Take "Hideous Towns." There are times when the noodling sounds like he's tuned his axe based on Elvis' session man from "His Latest Flame," something Marr also did for "Rusholme Ruffians" back in the day; the difference is Gavurin follows it up with a frenzied banging before dropping out for a few bars and plucking out only a base rhythm. Marr is much more structured than Gavurin; he picks a path and he stays there. The Sundays guitarist, on the other hand, feels a little more open to improvisation.
Which doesn't mean he can't concoct a killer three-minute melody. "I Kicked a Boy" is one of my all-time favorite songs (and it's only two minutes, sixteen seconds), and Gavurin kicks through with multiple riffs, a deep and almost country sounding line on his electric guitar, and a steady diet of acoustic fiber making sure all the notes scoot through. Then, of course, there's also the famous single, "Here's Where the Story Ends," which rivals the top hits of the Smiths for durability. There's almost a rapturous call to it, like Gavurin is rousing us out of bed to take us to heaven.
I think that's it, really. Gavurin is heavenly while Johnny Marr is earthly. Think of the big washes on "My Finest Hour," how they hang and swirl and sound like they're from someplace nowhere near where we're standing.
David Gavurin has to go up high because it's where Harriet Wheeler is waiting. Her voice is as big as all the Sundays--and I mean the actual days--of recorded time laced together, and everything she sings doesn't necessarily sound like a hymn, but the way her chords vibrate, like whiskey with a candied brim (reference the growl on "Skin & Bones"), it is like she is calling out to some higher power. She couldn't have been a new Morrissey, because Morrissey is too self-contained. Much in the same way his writing partner armored himself in classic pop structures, Morrissey sang from within the confines of his own personal experience, about a space that only extended a few feet in any direction from his body.
Which isn't to say Harriet Wheeler's lyrics weren't personal. I can hear the lines "if I could have anything in the world for free, I wouldn't share it with anyone else but me" in Moz's cracked falsetto, circa Album #1. "Here's Where the Story Ends" references books being read and standing outside the teeming masses, while "Hideous Towns" has several Morrissey-like sentiments. And let's not forget "England my country the home of the free, such miserable weather."
And yet, Wheeler never seems as bogged down by it as Morrissey. While listening to the Smiths can be a liberating experience, causing one to feel like they are breaking the tethers of modern life, one never gets the sense that the Sundays have ever been caught, that the rope has ever been wrapped around their ankle. Only those who are truly free can decry desire as "a terrible thing" ("Can't Be Sure") or write a song as cynical as "Joy" and still call it "Joy."
The ironic thing is this freedom that sounds like a product of divinity is really about the devil and his details. If you don't stop and really listen, it's all angelic soaring on Reading, Writing and Arithmetic, but when you pick at the parts, there's so much more. The almost Buddhist renunciation of material things on "Can't Be Sure" may sound like nirvana, but the truth is that it's those things that are important to an every-day reality. Nowhere is this more evident than in "My Finest Hour," where the instance being singled out is merely the time Harriet Wheeler found a dollar bill on the subway. True love is sharing a cup of tea, it's not throwing your skinny body down on the rocks below. While Morrissey chuckles about "writing frightening verse to a bucktoothed girl in Luxembourg," Wheeler is writing real letters and finding a transcendence by just being human. That's that paradox that makes her stories sound so open: if these foolish desires aren't all that important, then they are everything, and we can find some kind of comfort in it. Rather than let it bind us, let go and just be with it.
So, for all the easy comparisons between the Sundays and the Smiths, it seems the more they are the same, they more they are different. It's why comparisons are usually so lame. It's a lazy route to description. I don't have to come up with new ways to say what it's like if I can just point you at what you already know. Which is stupid when it comes to something so far out on its own as Reading, Writing and Arithmetic has remained for the last seventeen years.
NOTABLE B-SIDE: "Don't Tell Your Mother" appeared on the flip of "Can't Be Sure," and itt stands apart from a lot of the album tracks because of a faster tempo and a heavier reliance on drums. Patrick Hannan is at the head of the song, keeping a steady tap, while David Gavurin pulls and tugs at a near-skiffle sounding melody. All in all, it's a much more raucous party, with even Harriet Wheeler cutting loose like it's the weekend and she's had enough of being arch and pretty. Fun stuff.
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Current Soundtrack: Jim Noir, Tower of Love
Current Mood: worried
[to leave comments, click on the time-stamp below, then scroll down on the new page] – All text (c) 2006 Jamie S. Rich