England Made Me was a concept album about "an abused, psychologically damaged murderer."
Meat market?

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Monday Oct. 9, 2000

Black Box Recorder's 'Facts of Life'

Explorations of love, desire and the pop life from English trio and U. S. author.

By Michael Goldberg

Black Box Recorder are among the most overtly British "groups" to appear in the last few years. Their two albums offer droll songs with such titles as "England Made Me," "The Facts of Life," "Girl, Singing in the Wreckage" and "The English Motorway System."

A trio comprising former Auteurs leader Luke Haines, vocalist Sarah Nixey and guitarist John Moore, late of The Jesus and Mary Chain, Black Box Recorder are like many contemporary album-making teams these days — less a group than an ad-hoc collaboration of artists who make a recording instead of a painting or some other more traditional project.

Truly modern recording artists.

Last year Haines told my friend Gil Kaufman, SonicNet Director, Editorial Projects, that their first album, England Made Me, was a concept album about, as Kaufman wrote paraphrasing Haines, "an abused, psychologically damaged murderer" who survives a plane crash (which explains the name of the "group").

Ethereal mood music, at times slightly sinister, Black Box Recorder's sound is vaguely reminiscent of Portishead and Mono. Sometimes Nixey sings alone; sometimes she trades vocals with Haines in the same song. When I listen to Black Box Recorder, I see visions of London, Twiggy, the film "Scandal," and other things both pop and British.

Whether she's singing or simply talking, Nixey has one of those understated, seductive, very, very British voices that one can listen to for a long, long time. She speaks the verses and sings the chorus of "The Facts of Life," recounting the details of coming-of-age, Brit style. "Experimentation/ Familiarization/ It's all a nature walk" she says, before the chorus hits with, "It's just the facts of life/ There's no master plan / Walk me home from school/ I'll let you hold my hand..."

Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Meet the Escapist

Reading the lovely seduction scene in Michael Chabon's awesomely brilliant new novel, "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay," I could hear "The Facts of Life" playing as background (or maybe foreground) music. Chabon writes:

She took him into a small room in the middle of the house, which curved queerly where it backed up against the central tower. In addition to her tiny, girlish iron bed, a small dresser, and a nightstand, she had crowded in an easel, a photo enlarger, two bookcases, a drawing table, and a thousand and one other items piled atop one another, strewn about, and jammed together with remarkable industry and abandon.

"This is your studio?" Joe said.

A smaller blush this time, at the tips of her ears.

"Also my bedroom," she said. "But I wasn't going to ask you to come up to

The book is set mostly in the late '30s and early '40s. Its heroes, Joe Kavalier and his cousin Sam Clay, are the creators of a successful comic-book series, one of which is Radio Comics. Its star, The Escapist, is a masked and costumed superhero who "swears a sacred oath to devote himself to secretly fighting the evil forces of the Iron Chain, in Germany or wherever they raise their ugly heads, and to working for the liberation of all who toil in chains..."

I've always thought that comic books were the most rock 'n' roll of art forms — as long as they aren't actually about a rock band or artist. Comic-book heroes, like many rock stars, are outsiders with fucked-up childhoods, out to prove something.

Chabon has been compared to J. D. Salinger; he's obviously read Salinger's amazing short story "The Laughing Man," which also combined romance and a superhero. But Salinger, Orson Welles, and probably F. Scott Fitzgerald remain only influences — Chabon is really talented, and "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay" is an epic masterpiece. Kavalier and Clay, as well as their fictional creations, come to life. You enter their world, you see it. Chabon writes of the brainstorming session that produces "The Escapist":

They had been walking for hours, in and out of the streetlights, through intermittent rainfall, heedless, smoking and talking until their throats were sore. At last they seemed to run out of things to say and turned wordlessly for home, carrying the idea between them, walking along the trembling hem of reality that separated New York City from Empire City. It was late; they were hungry and tired and had smoked their last cigarette.

"What?" Sammy said. "What are you thinking?"

"I wish he was real," said Joe...

Not Released in the U.S., Naturally

I get the same feeling reading Chabon's prose as I get listening to, say, "Goodbye Kiss," which concludes The Facts of Life. Both take me into another world. In the case of Chabon, it's a version of New York, circa 1940; with Black Box Recorder, it's a version of England, circa 2000.

The first Black Box Recorder album, England Made Me, was released here in the U.S. The new one is available only as an import — I think it cost me $23 plus tax. Just locating a copy can be difficult, although you can order it from Amazon.com (I checked).

Presumably there's a connection between England Made Me's slow sales and Black Box Recorder's current lack of a U. S. record company. It never ceases to amaze me how much really good music is ignored here. Oh well.

In The Game

Green Day, Warning: (Reprise): A year ago, when I saw Green Day nearly steal the show at Neil Young's annual Bridge School benefit, in the process giving the first live performance of their new album's title track, I knew the album was gonna be good. I was right. Coming off the biggest hit of their career, "Good Riddance (Time Of Your Life)," Green Day have created a great punk-meets-rock album. It delivers the one-two punch you want from great Green Day tracks, but also finds the band continuing to grow up. "Warning" kicks even stronger a year later than it did the first time I heard it — "Sanitation, Expiration date, Question Everything?/ Or shut up and be the victim of authority." Amen.

Jess Klein, Draw Them Near (Ryko): Greil Marcus, my favorite critic, wrote in his Interview magazine column that Jess Klein's voice is "too thin, too reedy, too small." Still, Marcus finds himself pulled into Klein's music, particularly one song, "I Sure Would"; he can't seem to put his finger on what it is he likes about Klein's album, but he does like it. And so do I. A lot. I think Klein has a great voice for singing alterna-country kind of songs — vulnerable, sensitive, but sure of herself. She expresses feelings many of us have felt in songs that really stick. Pick one at random — "I Tried," "Little White Dove" or, say, "Cloud Song." You won't be disappointed.

Michael Goldberg is the Editor in Chief of ARTISTdirect.

(c) 2000 Michael Goldberg. All rights reserved.