Just Like Driving Backwards
I wore this disc out in a shameless way because it hit that weird, cool and idiosyncratic chord that pet records do. Los Angelino, Dave Steinhart has really created a magnificent gem here...and Smart Brown Handbag deserve credit for creating a nearly perfect sleeper album. -Pat Pierson, Yeah Yeah Yeah Terrific, sunny yet snidey pop, Cynics will leap out of their skins. Unfashionable but in a fine sheen! -Melody Maker Guitarist/vocalist David Steinhart is a true romantic. Anyone who can pen lyrics about living and loving in L.A. with such precocious passion and self-assured sincerity is certainly onto something. But the lyrical romanticism is only poart of the allure of this latest release from L.A.'s Smart Brown Handbag, their sixth full-length album since forming in 1993. Steinhart's plaintive dramatic vocals are wrapped delicately around a clean pop package that musically lands somewhere between pure orchesral overindulgence and crafty, structured pop genius. -Jeff Sheldon, Amplifier Starlet are still discovering these things. David Steinhart learned them all by heart a long time ago. Just Like Driving Backwards is the sixth Smart Brown Handbag album, and David's thirteenth in various guises. He hasn't said it's his last, and Stonegarden, which has taken on a few other bands, seems as anchored as it ever has, but labels and bands this small lead precarious lives, and I'm careful not to take a new SBH record for granted. Tomorrow someone might offer David a job at an Internet startup, and that will be the end. I listen to every new album, then, in part as if it were to be the last. Or I try to, anyway. None of the others, though, were the finale I think David has earned. A career this long, carried on so often in thankless obscurity, deserves to have it's aesthetic encapsulated. It deserves one record on which the themes the other ones explored are both set down definitively, and debunked, one that only a decade and a half of experience and perspective allows, one that nobody else could have made. Little Things Are Everything was splendid and moving, but it wasn't an end. SBH's Silverlake and Pop Art's Snap Crackle Pop Art, until now my favorites, are exquisite records but inadequate summaries. Just Like Driving Backwards, however, at least tonight, sounds like the one the others led to. Other SBH records have experimented with more noise, or less, or varying amounts of bitterness or empathy, and I guess this one has it's twists as well, particularly some elegant strings and a lusher overall production by drummer John Glogovac, but for once the new elements seem to me like they must have been missing all along. I used to think Pop Art's sketchiness and the artless, vibrato-less guitar solos were an integral part of their appeal, now I see that that was only half-right. Those records wouldn't have been the same, otherwise, but maturity and craftsmanship weren't inimical. Those records witnessed David learning, and watching somebody learn is awesome, but it's easy to see process and miss progress. Evidently eloquent melancholy can be mastered, according to my personal parameters, because here the mastery is. The rasp of bar chords slipping up and down the guitar neck, on 'Where to From Here?', defies me to lose yourself in the seductively angelic backing vocals and sparkling mandolin too deeply, but I'm helplessly enfolded nonetheless. Glogovac's glockenspiel and Tim Alexander's orchestration buoy 'The Day Before' into sweeping soundtrack expansiveness, but Cindy Albon's steady bass anchors it, and the tension between David's uneasy voice and the simmering violins on the chorus is a succinct demonstration of what I mean by anthemic grandeur rendered in human scale. 'Greetings' may be my favorite strangely-specific memoir since Pop Art's 'Half Days', this one a biting shopping-mall farewell to Steinhart's family after a Christmas reunion he refers to as 'the longest weekend'. 'Medicate to Stabilize' is ostensibly an ode to anti-depressants, but the soaring falsetto chorus, over churning percussion, is as unapologetic a pop reverie as David has ever written, and whether he meant it this way or not, I can effortlessly adjust the song in my mind to mean that the songs are the pills, and/or the reason no pills are necessary, and 'I'm ready to have a great time' is at once sincere and sarcastic, like great times are both simple and unnecessary. 'Her Side of the World' starts with a wistful 'I know that it's sunrise / On her side of the world', another 'Ana Ng' salute, only to descend into a harrowing 'She up and left the car / On the 405. / I found her wandering / Around the mall', and an eddy of self-pity, but from somewhere finds the courage to begin again, and ends back on the same sunrise, and maybe this day will be different. The pivot point of the album, for me, and the one song that recalls the squalling distortion of Lullabies for Infidels with the least self-consciousness, is the grinding title track. Guitars swirl impatiently through the verses, and gasp with audible relief when they're finally set loose on the roaring choruses, Albon's bass pounding like a heart the size of the harvest moon, David borne along with gracious aplomb. 'Trying to tell the future', he explains, 'Is just like driving backwards', and with this thesis, the rest of the album proceeds to unravel his canon, explicating and obviating the future in tandem, like we finally pestered the Norns one time too many, and they decided that the only way to convince us that they were never more than gothic stenographers was to take apart the tapestry, and the loom, marry retired minor-league baseball players and try to forget about the rest of us. Bells chime through 'As Close as We Get', a measured lullaby to lovers who never meet, but when I go back and read the lyrics more closely I find a loophole. 'Come and meet me / Some summer's night', the woman prays, and the man sits in a bar dreaming of moving but not, but she packs her bags and boards a plane, and although the song doesn't say where she's going, and 'This is as close as we get, / This is the summer of her life', at the end, could easily mean him in the bar and her on the plane, their affinity his motionlessness and her equally ineffective flight, I prefer to believe that it's a few hours later and she's found him, that in a way they've both taken responsibility for their futures, dreaming each other into existence. 'Penalized' shimmers and wriggles, and 'Done in / By whispering', the plaintive refrain, is nearly the title of the new Trembling Blue Stars record. 'I will scratch my head / Forevermore, / Or until you tell me why / In every photograph / In the drawer / It looks to me / That you were / Just about to cry.' At least he still wants an answer. 'I Love Everyone' plays buzzing synthesizers against clanking drum-machines, as if David finally figured out that the quasi-industrial urges in the untitled bonus track on Little Things Are Everything were a long-standing urge to write one Richard Butler song before he was done. And although 'Plastic Babies', the final track, starts off with glistening vibraphones and a para-samba rhythm, by the chorus it erupts into decisive guitar catharsis as straightforward as all David's open-hearted rock hooks put together, and although the refrain returns to a couple driving in a car, one of our era's defining romantic image (and if you say the automobile age has given way to the internet age, you have to explain why the net has yet to supply a replacement), this time he let's the story be 'You Can Sleep While I Drive' instead of 'Driving With the Brakes On'. 'You stroke my head / And I'll watch for trucks'. In a way, that's all we're ever asking for. We invent intricate contexts, to keep ourselves busy, labyrinthine driving examinations that assume the passenger has to navigate, but the most encouraging truth is that confidence and tenderness may be nearly enough. Navigation might be superfluous, after all. If we pity the fish for the walls of their tank or the dinosaurs for their fates, or think we like them as anything but allegory, our mistake is supposing that our own tanks are any larger, or our own magniloquent plans any less thoroughly doomed. A part of me refuses to accept that, of course, but even that reticence could be part of the solution. 'Most days are good days / For getting over the thing / I won't get over', David admits in 'Where to From Here?' But it's not a break-up song, and whether this is his last album or not, whether you even agree that it could be or not, it is in no way a surrender, and I embrace it, not as a goodbye, but as the profoundly uplifting idea that one of the best ways to keep a life going is to always know that there's one perfect thing left to do tomorrow.- Glenn McDonald,The War Against Silence.