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The Boston Phoenix Getting Real

Ivy's Apartment Life is no picnic.

By Charles Tyalor

MARCH 30, 1998:  In the CD booklet of Ivy's Apartment Life (Atlantic), the three band members are pictured in the kitchen and bathroom of a cramped city apartment. They're talking on the phone, brushing their teeth, just sitting there. The place has its make-do necessities (a battered saucepan), its quirky touches (a flea-market, turn-of-the-century portrait of a woman), new items chosen in a half-hearted attempt to decorate (a chrome-bordered wall clock). It's the essence of every too-small place you've ever moved a friend into, or moved into yourself, and hoped that your accumulated possessions would make it feel like yours.

The sound that Ivy -- singer Dominique Durand, Adam Schlesinger (also of Fountains of Wayne), and Andy Chase -- get on Apartment Life is lush and romantic. It calls up all the fantasies we had as kids or teenagers about what our lives would be like on our own, in the city, where all the lights are bright, waiting for us tonight. Which only goes to show how misleading the seductiveness of a CD can be, because the subject of Apartment Life is the compromises of life when romantic expectations fall short. The question that hovers over the album is what place the idealism of pop plays in that sort of life.

Ivy's songs are smooth enough to be shoehorned into Adult Contemporary Radio or relegated to background music in your apartment or car. The strings and muted Bacharach-style horns on "Baker," the shimmering textures of "Never Do That Again," and the way Durand's French-accented English blends right into the soothing music can lull you into not paying attention. It's an album of sophisticated textures, gently insistent riffs that the songs return to again and again. It's about as pleasant-sounding as a pop album can be. But when you focus in on the songs instead of letting them wash over you, what begins to reveal itself is a sort of stasis. The repeated lyrical and musical phrases offer no catharsis. And Durand's vocals begin to seem more and more enigmatic. It's open to question whether we're hearing a reaffirmed commitment to the romance of pop or a bitter denial.

"I've got a feeling all I need is a love that's true," Durand sings on "I've Got a Feeling," her sweetest vocal here. But she's not singing it as an expression of faith, a belief that true love is inevitable. She asks, "Baby, what can I do?" And as Chase's guitar makes tiny, unchanging circular patterns around her vocal, it becomes clear that the song is about romantic dreams as an unchanging routine: "I've been watching the world pass by all around you/I've been letting the days go by till I've found you." This is the sound of dreams become so mundane that they can't even be spoken of as a burden.

"I've Got a Feeling" and the rest of Apartment Life could spring from "Sick Day," a Fountains of Wayne tune that's probably as close as any songwriter has come in the last 30 years to "I Say a Little Prayer." "Sick Day" is a song about an office worker's unvarying life: the morning subway ride, each day's first cup of coffee, the redundant chores waiting at work, the unchanging co-workers who surround her. Each chorus ends with the line "She's taking a sick day soon," the last word sung in a high, vaporous voice, trailing off into nothing and telling us that even the temporary respite of a sick day has become more mirage than oasis.

That feeling is echoed in Apartment Life's "Get Out of the City," in which Durand dreams of a summer getaway from the urban heat, a song that tells you, in its hurry-up-and-wait rhythms, that she's not going anywhere. Every avenue of escape is sealed off, by duty or routine or inertia: "She's driving fast/She took the family car"; "So many years/Melting away"; "The cat's on the carpet/The phone doesn't work/I hate when it's quiet." "Quick, Painless and Easy" opens on one of those domestic arguments that have gone on so long each side can anticipate what the other will say: "Anyway/You will take what you need/Anyway/You will take it from me." By the time Durand sings, "It will be quick and painless and easy," she could be talking about an impending break-up or an impending death.

Durand's vocals are the key to Ivy's sound. She's cool in the tradition of European pop chanteuses, alluring and always at sufficient distance to remain a mystery. There's as much early Nico as Françoise Hardy in her delivery. The only certainty about her is the one that Twin Peaks' dancing midget offered about Laura Palmer in the series's famous dream sequence: "She's full of secrets."

But then, so is the whole album. In Ivy, Adam Schlesinger, who may be the most natural pop-song craftsman to appear since Marshall Crenshaw, isn't relying on the mini-narratives he's so adept at as much as on suggestive shards that the band then tease, stretch, lose themselves in. Their aim is both to testify to their love for sophisticated mid-'60s pop and to test the truth of what that music was telling them. There isn't a song here that doesn't feel like an open question, as if the band were wondering whether they've been rewarded or had.


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