Tuesday, June 3, 2008

All Hail Me: Veruca Salt (Popmatters.com blog)

Pop Past

30 May 2008

All Hail Me: The Golden Goddesses, Exhibit A

Not sure if any band quite captures the waiting-to-exhale extended moment of semi-innocence that was the mid-90s (you know, the post-grunge, post-Reagan/Bush, pre-9/11, pre Bush/Cheney era when casual Fridays were infiltrating offices everywhere and music—as always, for better or worse—reflected the times in a sort of holding pattern that mixed ennui with an always unfashionable optimism) than Veruca Salt.
To recap: what was the appeal of this band? Irresistible melodies? Check. Smoking hot, sexy singers (who also played better than passable guitar)? Check. Utterly ingenious band name? Check. Glorious debut album title? Big check. Most folks recall “Seether”, as well they should; it was their big hit and a truly infectious piece of pop perfection. But as anyone who did—and still does—worship at the altar of American Thighs, it needn’t be belabored that Veruca Salt was most assuredly not a one-hit wonder. Among the better moments, “Forsythia”, “Number One Blind” and especially the almost-too-good-to-be-true “All Hail Me” (how about another shout out to the days when music videos were actually capable of being almost as great as the songs that inspired them?). All in all, pretty ideal fodder for a one-and-done minor masterpiece.

But the dream was not dead, yet. A tide-us-over EP, Blow It out Your Ass It’s Veruca Salt, featuring the delectable “Shimmer Like a Girl”, found Veruca Salt poised for real superstardom—for whatever that’s worth. Their shot at glory came in ’97 with the (once again, brilliantly titled) Eight Arms To Hold You (incidentally, the working title of the Beatles’ album Help!), which had the addictive single “Volcano Girls”. The rest of the album wasn’t terribly shabby, either, but, it seemed (unfairly? impossibly?) their moment had already passed. And so, while the album didn’t do badly, it didn’t quite put them over.

What happened next is truly difficult to believe, particularly if you saw the doe-eyed adoration Louise Post and Nina Gordon obviously had for one another—as late as ’97 during interviews (check out youtube): a combination of bad blood, ambition, stolen boyfriends and terrible timing resulted in best friends on the wrong side of that thin line between love and hate, not to mention rock and roll cliché. Gordon set off on her own and in the summer of 2000 released Tonight and the Rest of My Life, while Post pulled a David Gilmour and retained the brand name. Almost simultaneously, the “new” Veruca Salt put out Resolver (another Beatles reference and another incredibly inspired album title, particularly considering the content within).

The results, predictably, separated fans into two camps: those who thought Tonight and the Rest of My Life successfully proved that Nina Gordon was the true talent in Veruca Salt, and those who felt that she sold out. Conversely, there were fans who insisted that the new albums made it clear that Post was the soul of the band and the one who rocked. Even in 2000, it was immediately obvious to me which album was superior (Resolver, by far)—Post picked up the banner and crawled with it. Time has been less kind to Gordon’s overly polished, ultimately safe and brazenly ambitious (not in the good sense of the word) project, while despite—or because of—the considerable warts and rough edges of Resolver, it retains an immediacy, daring, and furious venom that eight years has scarcely cooled off.

Incidentally, and understandably, Resolver remains one of the angriest albums ever. After all, losing a boyfriend and best friend (and, almost, a band?) is enough to piss anyone off. Fortunately, for the fans, it also inspired some raw and ragged art: the ex-boyfriend (a pretty famous drummer from a pretty famous band whose pretty famous singer infamously killed himself) gets the scorched-earth venom of “Officially Dead” and her former band mate and soul mate get the kiss-off (actually, the fuck off) treatment in “Used to Know Her”. While there are many worthwhile moments on Resolver, these two tracks are the bookends of bitterness that give the album it’s M.O.: Post is pissed, Post is alive; the old Veruca Salt is (officially) dead, Long live the new Veruca Salt; the Seether seethes, et cetera.

So: should the fans who lamented Salt’s split—and how personal strife prevented more magic—be perversely grateful for Post’s grief, since it directly inspired—if not demanded—her subsequent, pulverizing statement of purpose? No reasonable person should take joy from another’s pain, but there is probably not a better, or at least simpler definition of a certain type of art—this type of art. What ultimately separates a song like “Officially Dead” (where the word dead is repeated over a dozen times) from the clichéd cri de coeur of the depressed and sensitive artiste is that catharsis through art can (should?) be both a survival tactic and call to arms. When Post sings/screams “I still have a heart”, it is a defiant shout that she is, indeed, still alive, and a declaration that her relationship (with that dude, with that chick) is finito. Resolver is difficult yet delightful, painful yet pleasing: it is ugly beauty.

And today? It seems clear that Veruca Salt is alive and pretty well, while Gordon has fallen and can’t get up. Actually, to be fair, the latest Gordon effort, Bleeding Heart Graffiti and Veruca Salt’s IV (did Post finally run out of brilliant album titles or is she, once again, giving props to past pop—this time Black Sabbath?) are a bit of a wash. The efforts are not as divisive as before, mostly because the stakes aren’t the same, and the results aren’t especially memorable (although a case could be made that “Sick As Your Secrets” is as good as we could reasonably hope or expect from Post, twelve years after American Thighs). Fans can’t be faulted for nostalgia, and who wouldn’t be hungry for more of what we used to have? It begs the unanswerable question: if the gory backstage drama had not pushed them apart, would (could?) they have continued to make it work? The silver-lined other side of this same coin is that it took the dissolution to make Resolver happen, and those bruised memories will invariably propel whatever they each have left in the tank.

In hindsight, it seems increasingly obvious that Nina Gordon was Veruca Salt’s McCartney and Louise Post its Lennon: Gordon’s work is more catchy, poppy and effortless; Post’s work is often more raw, honest and, at times, indelible (overly simplistic? Sure, but then, so is the whole sweet and sour McCartney/Lennon dynamic in the first place). Cases in point, perhaps: Gordon wrote “Seether” and “Volcano Girls”; Post wrote “All Hail Me” (and, of course, “Officially Dead” and “Used to Know Her”). The edge could go to Gordon since she wrote “Forsythia”, but then Post wrote “Spiderman ‘79” and “Victrola”. Bottom line: “All Hail Me” would be unimaginable without Gordon’s background wailing, and their collective harmonizing—no matter who wrote what song—was what made that addictive engine run. Kind of like McCartney and Lennon, it is indisputable that they needed each other, and like many great collaborators before them, they have not come close, on their own, ever since. And finally: even if they found a way to reunite, what are the odds that they could approximate the angry candy they created in the mid-‘90s? In the final analysis, it’s probably best that we never find out.

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