(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #59 – released October 6, 1997)
Track listing: The Best Thing / I’ve Got a Feeling / This is the Day / Never Do That Again / I Get the Message / Baker / You Don’t Know Anything / Ba Ba Ba / Get Out of The City / These Are the Things About You / Quick Painless & Easy / Back In Our Town
Chronologically, this project has reached the point when I moved from Milwaukee to Boston; however, in order to write about Apartment Life, I must flash forward four years to the moment I first heard it. At that time, my favorite place to buy music was Record Hog, a corner storefront a few blocks away from Porter Square in Cambridge. I could effortlessly spend an hour (or two) browsing through the long, rectangular table covered from end to end with used CDs (and often a black-and-white cat sprawled across some of them). Until it closed in early 2003, I made a pilgrimage there at least every other week, finding such gems as Bellvista Terrace: The Best of The Go-Betweens (my introduction to them) and Our Own Little Corner of the World: Music From Gilmore Girls.
One Friday after work, I spotted a copy of Apartment Life. I recalled reading positive reviews of it when it came out and I knew one of its members, Adam Schlesinger, was also in Fountains of Wayne, a band I liked. I had a vague notion of it being lounge-y indie pop, but I hadn’t knowingly heard anything on it. Regardless, I purchased it, picked up some Chinese food, went home and put it on my stereo as I dribbled soy sauce over my Sweet and Sour Chicken. The album’s first sounds were a briskly strummed acoustic guitar, an equally lithe rhythm section and a keyboard playing triplet notes. Then, French-born vocalist Dominique Durand appeared, stretching out each syllable in an accent nearly as thick as that of German chanteuse/Velvet Underground cohort Nico. “She’s driving fast / she took the family car / she’s getting high / she’s never slipped so far,” Durand sang until the chorus exploded in an endorphin rush of fuzz-tone guitars accompanying the lyric, “It’s the best thing she’s ever had,” over and over. Looking back, I’d like to think my jaw dropped to the floor (probably along with bits of my takeout) when I first heard “The Best Thing”, an unexpected, revved-up, dream-pop wonder ten times as fabulous as even anything by The Darling Buds. That’s all it took for me to fall for Apartment Life, although to my good fortune, the rest of the album was nearly as exciting to me on this first listen.
It also happened to be my first record store purchase after 9/11, which was not insignificant. Although more than two weeks had passed since then, I still felt… not normal, some shellshock, perhaps. Whenever I think back to that time, I remember feelings of uncertainty and alarm casting a pall over everything. For me, a natural impulse to deal with it all was to seek solace in art. That afternoon of the attacks, I sat cocooned in my living room, aurally encased in Bjork’s recent release, the softer, inward, delicate Vespertine. Just as I remember the first film I saw in a theater post 9/11 (Under The Sand, its focus on loss and grieving more relevant than ever), I recall the unique impact Apartment Life had coming into my life at that exact moment. It felt like an oasis from a world gone mad and shelter from sudden, snowballing visibility of terror and impending threat of war.
Before delving deeper into this album, first, a little background on Ivy. They are a trio consisting of Durand and multi-instrumentalists Schlesinger and Andy Chase. Their first album, Realistic (1995) was full of somewhat gauzy, guitar-based indie pop along the likes of Luna, only defined by Durand’s distinct vocal. I picked it up a year after discovering Apartment Life. Although it grew on me considerably over time, very little of it or Lately (1994) the EP that preceded it, anticipated the second album’s dexterity or overall confidence. From “The Best Thing” onward, you sense Ivy shooting for the fences and achieving whatever goals they set out for with little sign of exertion. It’s a front-to-back exhilarating pop album, as immediate and instantly retainable as If You’re Feeling Sinister with a warm, full-bodied production that manages to fall on the exact right side of slick (a slippery slope they couldn’t avoid on future albums, although In The Clear (2005) is pretty great).
So many of the album’s songs could have been singles. “I’ve Got a Feeling” (not a Beatles cover) is perfectly concise, no part of it extraneous or wasted, its chiming guitars mirroring the sensation of waking up on a sunny morning with limitless possibilities. “This is the Day” (which, along with “I’ve Got a Feeling” later appeared in There’s Something About Mary) swings and sighs with the assistance of a groovy horn section, ‘60s harmonies and that lovely moment when Durand playfully sings in the bridge to the chorus, “She’s never com-ing back.” “I Get the Message” glistens with hooks galore, like a more organic Stereolab gone pop (with English vocals) while Durand’s ever-so-slightly off-kilter croon prevents it all from sounding too sterile. “Get Out of the City” blissfully opens with a throng of Smiths-like guitar jangle and never slackens its promise and yearning of liberation and escape, with Durand at one point gleefully, irresistibly noting, “Everything is melting in the sun / nothing’s getting done.”
The moodier, darker stuff on Apartment Life is even better, occasionally juxtaposing sounds and textures almost as strikingly as Saint Etienne’s first three albums did. For instance, take the two songs smack dab in the album’s middle. “Baker” emits a sense of place unlike the songs preceding it: airy and open with cinematic strings, Durand conjures up the ennui of Francoise Hardy or Jane Birkin (there’s also a wordless chorus punctuated by a Burt Bacharach-flavored solo from jazz trumpeter Chris Botti). Such serenity and gentle melancholy sits in stark contrast to the following song, “You Don’t Know Anything”: the fuzzed-up guitars from “The Best Thing” return with a vengeance as they relay a monster riff over a four-chord progression. The treated, distorted vocals gives the whole thing a slight psychedelic feel—it’s alt-rock tinged with a little Brit-pop, with Durand turning beguilingly wicked as she sings, “I know you’re only human but / I expect something better.”
“Ba Ba Ba” manages to sound both full of melancholy and insouciantly damning. Durand’s narrator admits a preference for the nonsense lyrics of the title to her partner’s actual words (“You can talk all night / why not let it die?”) but later reflects, “You say you are there and I just smile / I just sit in silence – let you wonder for a while.” Meanwhile, the song’s interlocking hooks repeat at a crisp, steady pace until everything (not least the “Ba, ba, ba-ba’s) becomes drenched in VU-like feedback near the end. “Never Do That Again” is similarly two things at once, the lovely acoustic strum, electric guitar solo (from no less than Luna’s Dean Wareham) and Durand’s wistful, lamenting tone (“The cat’s on the carpet / the phone doesn’t work / I hate when it’s quiet / it means that you’re hurt”) all casually at odds with the dit-dit-dit-dit-dit electronic rhythm track underneath.
I still connect with Apartment Life so completely because to me, it often resembles the soundtrack for an imaginary film. Think back to the scenario laid out in “The Best Thing” of a girl breaking away and coming of age. The propulsive music is ideal for an opening credits reel; from there, subsequent songs feel just as evocative of falling in love (“I’ve Got a Feeling”), facing an epiphany or moment of clarity (“This is the Day”), feeling dismay (“I Get the Message”), despair (“I Get the Message”) or disgust (“You Don’t Know Anything”), and longing for escape, once again (“Get Out of the City”).
Following the winsome, meditative “These Are The Things About You” (which more closely resembles Realistic’s nonchalance), the album winds down with two songs suggesting that escape is usually temporary. “Quick Painless & Easy” depicts an untenable situation heading towards collapse: “Straight, straight, straight to the ledge,” Durand tells her intended, before noting in the chorus, “It will be quick and painless and easy / I don’t want you to leave me / but you’ll go anyway,” that last word just hanging there until the song resumes its ominous but catchy descending chord sequence.
It sets the tone for the album’s final track, “Back In Our Town”. After a tentative start where the band seems to be warming up, the song proper finally kicks in with its indelible, repeated four-note hook. Coming full circle from “The Best Thing”, it’s about resolve and returning, acceptance and wisdom gleaned from experience (or perhaps, an adventure). “You were the one who really knew me,” Durand sings early on; later, she explains, “You were the one / the only one I would let near me.” As the song continues, the repeated lyric, “Everything is all right,” becomes sort of a mantra. In the back half, James Iha (of Smashing Pumpkins) appears, singing a countermelody (“And here I go / nobody knows”) and everything slowly fades out with all these layers beautifully melding together. It’s not a stretch to say this would be ideal to play over a film’s final scene into its closing credits—something I often imagine when listening to it.
Apartment Life had a substantial presence in my life for some time directly after I discovered it. I remember listening to it everywhere, from evening walks through my then-neighborhood to an afternoon exploring San Diego’s sunset cliffs. I even wrote a thousand-word essay on it for a now-defunct music website I regularly contributed to. It’s an album I irrevocably associate with a specific time, like Blue or Bloodletting or Dilate; however, it also remains a disc I’d bring with me to a desert island if I could only take a handful, and an album I love nearly as much as Abbey Road or Automatic For the People. The means through which I discovered it also serves as a reminder that there are still so many records out there unknown to me that could very well be some of my favorites. It’s what sustains my desire to seek out new or unfamiliar sounds at record shops, libraries, the internet, etc. I would welcome nothing less than to find another record or two being worthy of this project before I eventually finish it.
Next: This album’s British equivalent.
“The Best Thing”:
“Back In Our Town”: