The following is a record review in dialogue form conducted between this columnist and Michael Snediker (with whom I corresponded about Antony and the Johnsons a couple months back), the poet and literary critic. We were shooting for ten thousand words about the Size Queens, until Michael fell deeply in love and, simultaneously, started preparing for his fall classes back in Ontario. Apologies, therefore, for brevity. We each deal with a brace of songs from last year’s very effective and inspiring release from San Francisco’s own Size Queens, entitled Magic Dollar Shoppe, an album I urge you to seek out. More follows immediately.
“Magic Dollar Shoppe”
Michael, I’ve been up most of the night worrying about the baby, and her bad hips, and I am sort of at the end of my rope, which seems like a good time to start writing about the Size Queens. Per our agreement, I’m going to write about the above song, from the album of the same name, and then you can wade into whatever song from the album you want to tackle thereafter, and we’ll just go along like that until we feel like we have dealt with the record to the best of our ability. I guess the first thing to say is that Adam Klein, the singer and lyricist for the Size Queens is a good friend of Hannah Marcus’s, Hannah Marcus with whom I play music (in the Wingdale Community Singers), and as far as I can tell, they emerged from the same scene, which is to say the San Francisco “sadcore” scene, which also gave us, most notably, American Music Club, and Red House Painters. This music, if one were going to attempt a thumbnail sketch, is often ballad-oriented, often features slow tempos, often is noteworthy for great singing and dramatic lyric writing, and is, as you would suspect, well, sad. There’s a lot of overlap here, in that Tim Mooney, who used to drum in American Music Club, played in Hannah’s “band,” such as it was, on her albums Black Hole Heaven and Faith Burns, also produces the Size Queens. I assume he’s partly responsible for the incredible glittering surface of the Size Queens, just as he was partly responsible for the same on Hannah’s albums (she has since, without him, reverted to something more sloppy and menacing). I met Adam through Hannah, and I guess we had a fair amount in common, because he has published a novel also (which to my shame I haven’t read yet) and teaches writing (he’s about to begin a stint teaching in Beirut!). My capacity to misjudge was much in play initially. I thought of Adam sort of as a very astute fan of Hannah’s and a very well read person, with a lot of opinions on things of interest to me (Thomas Bernhard, Chris Kraus, etc.), but I didn’t take the music part of his output seriously. Hannah played me a few songs, and I sort of thought, well, this is a fine hobby.
And then someone sent me Magic Dollar Shoppe. I suppose Adam sent it to me, or Hannah gave it to me and said, “Adam wants you to hear this.” I put it on the stack of things that I’m supposed to listen to, and, in fact, months went by. Months. And then I started to feel guilty, and I took the disc along in the car. This was maybe three months ago. And with no expectations except that the result would have some great lyrics, I found myself just absolutely stunned by the album. Just stunned. It’s absolutely one of my favorite albums of the last year and that includes all the stuff by famous people that I have enjoyed recently, like Van Morrison’s live rendition of Astral Weeks that just came out. And the new live Leonard Cohen album. I don’t know. In a way, I like Magic Dollar Shoppe far better than these records! Because it’s so unsuspected. And has so many strengths.
But I’m supposed to talk about the first song, and so I shall. “I’ve been huffing nail polish/As I make my way down the aisle/I wear an unusual smile/Paint it up with lipstick/Any color is fine/They’re all ninety-nine cents/At the Magic Dollar Shoppe.” That’s the opening salvo on Magic Dollar Shoppe, the first verse of the song of the same name, but you sort of have to hear the presentation to get the severity of this gesture. The song starts with these ominous waves of analogue (I think) synthesizer, wafting across this piano part (played by Adam’s collaborator, the remarkably versatile and unshowoffy keyboardist Michael Mullen) which is half Kurt Weill and half Steve Nieve (the pianist in Elvis Costello and the Attractions), or maybe, half Abba. Maybe more than half Abba. The band, which is ridiculously good, specializes in little decorations like celeste and zylophone and harmonica, attentive twists in the arrangements that you couldn’t possibly predict. Adam’s voice, which used to sort of hover in a kind of fuzzy high tenor range, like some artier version of Neil Young has settled in somewhere in the neighborhood of John Lennon and James Osterberg as he goes on with the list of objects in the dollar store (“And in all these bins/are a millions sins/I can indulge in”), culminating in the tragicomic climax of the whole thing: “And there behind the frosted glass, you can even buy your mother’s ass, at the Magic Dollar Shoppe”).
I’m leaving out the verse about how most of the stuff in the dollar store is made by cheap labor from Asia, and that’s a woeful example of critical shorthand, because I think the album as a whole proceeds from the thematic material introduced here. Which is not to say that it’s a concept album, but it’s almost a concept album, in that it really is a tour through the degradations of contemporary capitalism, and yes I do like an album about how oppressive capitalism is, and you just don’t find this sort of thing anymore, and it would be almost quaint, this subject, because it’s been effaced by the poisonous bilge of American cultural rhetoric—Britney! Red Bull! The Biggest Loser—but anti-capitalism (at least as subliminal approach) isn’t quaint here, mainly because Adam is brutally funny. He’s funny in a way that is bittersweet and slow-acting. After all, the first line is “I’ve been huffing nail polish.” A funny line about dollar store wares, that is, as Iggy Pop once sad about rock and roll, “hell on the practitioners.” Adam, the narrator of these songs, is a willing consumer in the smorgasbord of goods and services, especially those items that are noteworthy for their ability to slay the narrator, to obliterate his subjectivity, “I can stay for days and days and find myself a thousand ways to be entertained.”
It’s a merciless kind of humor, one that has some Weimar Republic about it, but also a little bit of seventies rock, and it serves as a find menu of delights for what follows.
“Can a Woman ”
For starters, the song (like the album more generally) seems at play with and haunted by its own musical and cultural antecedents, for which you helpfully account in your earlier email. I admit that one of my first impulses, as I began listening to this music, was to do homework—familiarize myself with its archive, succinctly, whence these songs and why. It’s not often that I confess my wills toward mountebanking, but the confession feels safe if only because my second thought in relation to this music arose as an interest in what seemed immanent but (for me) in many ways unavailable. Playing with and being haunted by seem inseparable here, and kinky. The way a dust meniscus on dollar-shop objects seems kinky, alongside the implicitly pederast effluvium that I associate with certain species of dollar shops, or with what can’t be cleaned from dollar shop carpets. Something happened here, can’t you sense it? The kinkiness of nostalgia returns in “Can a Woman,” whose title suggests first-wave feminism (anything you can do I can do better), first-wave sexual politics (can a woman have an orgasm, can a woman masturbate), and the idea of canning a woman—another version of dollar shop objects. Women as spam, sardines, packed in the dusty oiliness of a song that is both homage and running joke. Canned laughter, the claustrophobic colliding of immanent and prior, a claustrophobia that extends, in the canning, to the song’s actual refrain, which isn’t “Can a Woman,” but “Can a Woman Have a Nervous Breakdown,” which, following several repetitions of itself settles into “Can a Woman Have a Nervous Breakdown…anymore.” Cue a nostalgia that is delightfully, unnervingly creepy, unwilling at least on the level of lyrics to concede what is ironic or non-ironic.