July 1999
s m u g
ear candy
by Ben Auburn

Wait till I get my Haines on you . . .

The awesome power Smug wields can surprise even us. Just seven short months after raising a public outcry (in our 1999 wish list) Black Box Recorder will make its US debut with England Made Me, a record our "friends" across the Atlantic have had their hands on since last Fall. Why the fuss, you ask, over some British band no one's ever heard of? Simple: Luke Haines.

Haines is one of rock's undiscovered treasures, a real master of leering wit and casual horror. Best known as the leader of the Auteurs, Haines has gone off on a couple tangents over the last several years, Black Box Recorder being the latest.

Sadly, England Made Me isn't quite the thrilling debut I'd hoped it would be. It's strangely terse and sounds a bit like a Nigel Godrich production with all the midrange sucked out -- kind of warmly hollow. Despite what sounds like strong material, the band's somnambulant approach, combined with Sara Nixley's disconnected vocals -- like she's having an out of body experience, but it's not her spirit that's doing the singing -- makes the record a little less than satisfying.

It's got echoes of Haines' two nearly perfect records, though, and as such is a reminder of past triumphs.

So let's talk about those. . . .

After Murder Park, the last album the Auteurs released, was produced by Steve Albini and found the band leaning a little heavier on their guitars than on previous efforts. Albini, who if nothing else is a master at getting a band to sound exactly like themselves, committed to tape twelve nearly perfect rock songs -- they're real beauts, packing a sour-sweet crunch like Saturday morning cereal in spoiled milk.

Some critics had already tried to sell the band to their readers without success and just gave up. Too bad, too. Not that the Auteurs could ever have reached Nirvana-like commercial success, but now that guitar rock is officially off the public's radar for another popcycle, it was probably the band's last chance. At least they went at it with style. Opener "Light Aircraft on Fire" kicks the album straight into high gear with Haines' strained vocals atop a feverish guitar line and -- as a weird kind of rhythmic background -- a two-note cello refrain. The cello's brilliant -- it underpins the whole song, supporting the off-center guitar chords and filling a space that most bands don't even know is there, all while never calling attention to itself as an exotic addition. [Recall the same instrument on Bob Mould's first solo record, practically jumping out of the speakers to impress you with its sophistication -- "Bet you didn't know I could write a counter-melody", it seemed to say.]

There are eleven more, from hopped up sea shanties to fucked-up lullabies to twisted up folk tales, After Murder Park is a record PJ Harvey would have killed to make -- it's got the mad power of Rid of Me plus the uberblues of To Bring You My Love, all twisted up until you can't tell them apart.

Naturally it came as a surprise when Haines' next project turned out to be a funk record about terrorists. Baader-Meinhof was, he claimed, the soundtrack to a movie musical about the 1970s German terrorist group that will never be made. It's no Grease, if that's what you're wondering.

Dominated by tablas, clavinet, and string quartet, Baader-Meinhof is, to say the least, really odd . . . and totally captivating. It's not hyperbole to suggest that you've probably never heard anything like it, since it really is from left field. Going off on tangents from seventies funk -- think early Funkadelic -- Haines strings a vague narrative around weirdly memorable tunes. You'll actually be humming songs about burning warehouses and rendezvouing at the airport. He gets a lot of mileage out of the record's 31 minutes -- you're aware that the album's short, but you feel like you've spent a long time with it. Baader-Meinhoff is, I think, one of those great, buried records, one that probably wasn't even heard enough to have a future as an Official Lost Classic, but will more likely be the kind of record that inspires the odd barely articulate, impassioned, slightly geeky screed. Like this one.

Given that England Made Me is released in teeny indie Jetset, home of Mogwai, among others -- Virgin/Hut had released the Auteurs records along with Baader-Meinhof -- Black Box Recorder will probably not have the opportunity to prick up many ears. It's not likely to be the kind of record that drives back-catalog sales, either, leaving After Murder Park and Baader-Meinhof to their eventual death-by-cutout-bin and possible contribution to some archival 1990s version of Nuggets.

And it's also possible, after all, that my Haines fixation is based on something random, the same sort of thing that breeds rabid Wilco fans or people who can recite Four Weddings and a Funeral shot-by-shot -- maybe these records aren't really lost gems, just lost. I'd like to think not, but then again, my judgment is clouded -- which is something that can happen in the presence of really fucking good rock and roll.

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