In My Room
Fort Lake, Mich., was the site of a Civil War battlement that proved itself of little use to the Union during the conflict and of even less use afterward. By the end of the 19th century, the land the fort stood on had become a sinkhole and the fort fell into the lake, where it has lain in submarine disrepair ever since. Lately it's been the subject of some controversy in the surrounding communities, with one historical society hoping to relocate the exhumed ruins to Detroit and another insisting that the fort remain at rest in its watery grave.
Ft. Lake (4AD) is the latest offering from Michigan pop collective His Name Is Alive, and reclusive HNIA ringleader Warren Defever has considered opinions about the fate of his album and of the legendary fort itself. "I don't think the Fort Lake debate is going to be settled until we do some sort of benefit concert," Defever says. "I think it's gotta stay at the bottom. You've got to respect it for what it is. Like our album." And how is that, Warren? "Doomed from the beginning," he jokes, before striking more directly at the metaphorical heart of his aesthetic. "You've got to go find it and visit it there. Nobody's bringing it to you."
That insular creative process caused some difficulty when the band sought to hire a "real" producer for its fifth record. Defever's insistence on recording in the Livonia, Mich., home he grew up in (which he recently bought from his parents), forced him to strike from his wish list many of the professionals with whom he was negotiating, including Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. Defever eventually enlisted onetime Funkadelic and Aretha Franklin producer and Livonia homeboy Steve King, whose appeal increased when he accepted HNIA's collaborative standards. But if a pro like Defever found those standards peculiar, they certainly aren't unique. Once, the garages of this great nation were crammed with teenagers riffing ineptly on cut-rate guitars and dreaming of stardom. Now, those garages are basement studios, full of slightly older children recording with 4-tracks dreaming of...well, of recording with 24-tracks in more expensive basements.
It's as distinctly American a phenomenon as suburban sprawl--absorb the media bombardment that is your birthright, smudge its components with your fingerprints, and circulate the results among friends or, as post-punk updates have dictated, via a small record label. As beatifically democratic as this all sounds, it often makes for some rather underdeveloped (read: lousy) ninth-tier rock 'n' roll. But just when you want to yell at these brats to pull themselves off their thrift-store couches and go play outside, a band like His Name Is Alive surfaces to simultaneously typify, justify, and transcend the limitations of this subpop ethos.
Bookended by three variations on Woody Guthrie's "I Ain't Got No Home in this World," HNIA's fourth release, 1996's Stars On E.S.P., set indelible melodies to a shifting backdrop of Spectorian grandeur, surf guitar, and dub, while Karin Oliver's murmured vocals floated beneath the surface. With eclecticism all the rage, any huckster with a crate of scratchy vinyl can pass an artily jumbled sonic bricolage off as a means to liberation. But Stars on E.S.P. is more reminiscent of a project I imagined when I was 8, of loading my parents' old Super 8 camera and re-filming Star Wars using my action figures. By highlighting such strokes as a definitive Beach Boys rip (that should have rendered the High Llamas' career obsolete before it began), Stars celebrates the joys of switching off the radio, rewriting the songs you love, and creating your own imaginary free-format oldies station. If mainstream commercialism can habitually co-opt underground innovation, why not shoplift pop commodities to tuck away for your own private domestic use?
Ft. Lake doesn't so much expand the sound of HNIA as suck a wider range of influences into its vortex, imagining the expanse of the Big City from the seclusion of suburbia. That city is Detroit, and Defever sifts through Derrick May's techno, the sloppy proto-punk of the Stooges and MC5, Funkadelia, Motown, and, for that matter, early Madonna electropop. Not that Ft. Lake sounds remotely similar to any item in that catalog; it sounds like a His Name Is Alive disc with an occasional funk-four bottom and a new R&B-styled vocalist named Lovetta Pippin. Though not quite as undeniably wide-eyed as the last outing, the album's charming sense of outreach is both gawky and assured. When Defever's curlicue guitar straightens into a raucous, accomplished wank on "Wish I Had a Wishing Ring," he approximates the way "Kick Out the Jams" must have signified to an isolated suburban kid who thought "Cat Scratch Fever" was about taking your kitty to the vet.
Yet, for all its sonic ambition, the epitome of Defever's pop illusion is the simple story of Pippin's induction into HNIA's secret society. She and Defever met while HNIA was working (at his home, natch) with the all-female Detroit gospel choir in which Pippin sang. "The male choir director had instructed me not to communicate with any of the women, that if we had any opinions or comments, to give them to him, and he would basically translate," Defever recalls. "Finally, one of the women took me aside and said, 'Do you believe in UFOs?' This is the first communication I had with any of these women...and I thought it was perfect." And therein lies the core HNIA fantasy: Posit your private world as the center of the universe and everything you'll ever need will eventually lock into orbit around you.
His Name Is Alive plays November 4 at First Avenue; 338-8388.
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