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Children of the Corn

Rhino Compiles 53 Hymns To the Great Pumpkin On New Box Set

Alex Fine

By Jess Harvell | Posted 10/25/2006

"A true test of musical maturity might be the ability to essay a convincingly joyous song," Ian Penman wrote in The Wire magazine way back in 2001. He was talking about Radiohead, a band as known for its sunny disposition as its toothsome band members. And you do have to wonder why even aging music fans still hug sadness like a bunch of potential 15-year-old wrist slitters.

As a former raver-PLUR, and all that-part of me finds this privileging of the dark side bullshit, but I do understand. Twisting Mr. Penman's sentiment a bit, pure, unbridled happiness is incredibly hard to sing about without coming off trite or sentimental unless you're a Staple Singer or pubescent Michael Jackson. And on the flip, depression, sadness, ennui, anger, and nihilism can produce great musical art, like Sly Stone's There's a Riot Goin' On or the collected works of Anal Cunt. Maybe it doesn't say good things about this modern world that so many of us spend our leisure time wallowing, but sometimes it's the only sane option, especially if you're in on the joke.

So there's no way you should make a claim for Clan of Xymox or Xmal Deutschland or any number of the bands on A Life Less Lived: The Gothic Box as great musical art, but hey, they beat suicide. A good deal of the music on this new Rhino set is pompous, deeply goofy, and a helluva lotta fun. As a genre, goth doesn't get much respect, maybe for good reason-when goth became an industry, it generally stopped giving up the musical goods that attract people not already initiated in the cult. Unless you once invested serious dough in Manic Panic, chances are you'll listen to some of the goth-qua-goth collected here with that head-cocked-to-the-side thing dogs get.

But, you know, goth doesn't want your respect. (It hasn't become media shorthand for disaffected teenage loners for nothing, after all.) Which, despite being one of the most frequently compiled genres around-hold your head, Cleopatra Records-makes the idea of an officially sanctioned Rhino goth box set even more perversely enjoyable. (It shoulda been called Have a Crappy Decade.) And though it's sometimes dour to the point of unintentional comedy, never let it be said the genre doesn't have its own sense of humor. A Life Less Lived comes laced up in a black corset, with shiny black vinyl designed to glint seductively under the halogens of your local Best Buy. As an object, it's the kind of thing that grown folks should be slightly embarrassed to bring to the counter. But it perfectly captures the thin line between laughing at yourself and taking yourself way too seriously, that goth has ridden since before it was even called goth.

Opening with Joy Division's most gothic moment and closing with Samhain-cum-Staind-cum-emo band AFI's cover of the Cure's "The Hanging Garden," A Life Less Lived is as, uh, catholic a selection for a goth box set as one could ask. Some quarters are already grousing that it's too inclusive-which means someone, somewhere, is griping about what's missing, too. Even the forward-thinking fan might spend quite a while trying to figure out what made the Jesus and Mary Chain "goth" other than the name, the black shades, and the Robert Smith mops both the Reid brothers used to sport. And Throbbing Gristle's "Hamburger Lady," the tale of a burn-ward victim that is certainly the grossest and most disturbing thing here, is just exploitation industrial muzak without the wink, thrust, heft, speed, or dance beats that make the great stuff here actually great.

Great like the Birthday Party's "Mutiny in Heaven," back when Nick Cave still stalked the stage like a human stick pin that had a dead fern growing out of its head rather than perched at a piano like the world's most patrician movie minister-though we get a bit of that, too, on Cave's "The Weeping Song." Great like "Halloween" by the Misfits, who always knew that '77 punk could be improved by maxing out the credit card at the magic shop. Great like all the synthpop and disco-with-extra-kohl that still packs out goth nights in clubs done up in black crepe around the country, a reminder of a time when guys in dark John Lennon glasses still bothered the "modern rock" chart-though the lack of any Depeche Mode, the genre's other stadium-filler after the Cure, is puzzling. Few goth dance acts got the ladies moving as-well, you probably wouldn't call it vigorously.

So sure, maybe grouches on either side might argue that Einstürzende Neubauten or the Cocteau Twins aren't "goth." But at least one lesson to be learned from A Life Less Lived is that goth is actually better when it clamps its fangs onto other music. From My Chemical Romance's pop-punk black arias to Gravity Records' skeleton-dance hardcore to the Wu-Tang Clan and Gravediggaz, it's hard to find a pop genre in the last 20 years that hasn't been infected by goth's virus. (If anything, Rhino's compilers should have gone batshit insane with the breadth thing. Linkin Park? Portishead? Aphex Twin?) Anyone born in the last 35 years is, at least a teensy bit, a child of goth-Hot Topic, if nothing else, has conspired to make every day Halloween, should you want it. For those of us who think the holiday season should actually be bumped up a few months to Oct. 31, A Life Less Lived is as good a corny hymnal as currently exists. And as far as rules for living go, "goth girls are always hot" never stops being true.

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