Dear Lions – Dear Lions (2011)

Arctic Rodeo Recordings ■ ARR 033

Released May 25, 2011

Produced by Joe Philips, Adam Rubinstein & Dear Lions
Engineered by Mickey Alexander
Mixed by Daniel Mendez
Mastered by Ed Brooks / RFI

Side One: Side Two:
  1. Katherine
  2. Space Sister
  1. For the Kill
  2. Darling
  3. Gun

Not long after I picked up the Burning Airlines reissues of Identikit and Mission: Control!, I unsurprisingly found myself on the rather calmly scheduled electronic newsletter for the label responsible for those: Arctic Rodeo Recordings. Early this year, they sent those of us on it notice of a sale on some of the last remaining copies of some of their releases, in bundled and discounted form. I didn’t know most of the artists in question–maybe not any, actually. Still, the bundles were attractive, and I had been thoroughly impressed with how ARR did the two releases I owned, so it seemed worthwhile. Eventually, I was left with a massive order from Germany sitting in my arms, straight from my regular mail carrier. While it was largely composed of 12″s, it also contained a handful of 7″s, and one 10″: this record.

It was actually pressed in two different colours, mixed yellow and white and mixed blue and white. Each had a contrasting cover (yellow with blue or blue with yellow, as seen above), but I discovered on opening that the cover is actually similar to a number of 7″ packages: a single folded sheet with blue on one side and yellow on the other, held together by the clear sleeve it’s sitting in. It’s a clever idea, and appeals to my sensibility with the option to make it match if I want to (but I like colours, so I kept the contrast). But you can see the white and yellow mix makes for a rather lovely pastel yellow. But I know we’re not that interested in the colours (are we?).¹

I know and knew little about most of the bands I ordered records from, but had faith in what I’d seen so far, and rolled the dice. I did take a brief glimpse at the groups via a “sampler” I assembled from the tracks ARR includes on their website and was quite pleased with everything I hear. I’ve been cautious about doing much listening to the records, attempting to preserve the unique experience of listening to the records–I’ve relented a few times, but most of them are still going to be new to me as I listen to them. The closest Dear Lions could come to familiarity for me is the fact that their logo for the album was designed by Patrick Carrie, who was in the band Limbeck². Otherwise? Completely new to me.³

While that old adage about judging and covers is very true, we also all do it at least a bit–if nothing else, to decide whether it looks worth listening to or reading (or whatever it may be for a particular item). The graphic design is attractive, but it doesn’t tell you much–and it didn’t tell me much either. And, as a weird wrinkle, I semi-deliberately decided not to pay attention to which artist was responsible for the sampled tracks I listened to–just burnt them to CD and played them in the car. I couldn’t have told you which song it was on the record, let alone what it sounded like.

As it turns out, I really like Dear Lions–and by the time the song I’d sampled came in, I was met with a shimmer of recognition that flowered into a very warm and pleasant familiarity (and a sense of relief–while I’m known to be very open to sounds, that doesn’t mean I like all of them, and the desire to force myself to like things is unpleasant). 

The EP starts off very sparse, a single acoustic guitar, picked slowly and deliberately, arcing up and down somewhat somberly, Ricky Lewis singing in a comparable tone as “Katherine” establishes itself. It shifts to chords and adds keys nearly halfway through, but retains its pace until Lewis sings, somewhat unexpectedly, “So sentimental…/Oh no/Katherine, don’t come back,”–not because it doesn’t fit with the lyrics up to this point, but because a particular name in a song is not often met with something that is firmly negative without being flat out disparaging or angry. The sentiment is not unheard of, it’s just unusual in how it’s presented, the way that some people feel when Sam Beam swears in an Iron & Wine song–“Katherine” has a mournful edge to it, so you don’t really expect that. And when that line turns the song into a more upbeat stomp, adding bassist James Preston and drummer Charlie Walker, it seems even that much more peculiar, the part of your brain processing the lyrics alongside the sounds wondering what in the world is happening, while the side that just appreciates enjoyable sounds sees no reason to question or complain. The open, splayed, reverberating chords of desolate western cliché add yet another tinge to this sensibility, while Lewis’s voice takes on the timbre it rides for the rest of the EP–a cross between indie rock affectation and semi-camped croon, enunciated unusually clearly and extremely appealing. The hesitant, shimmering open end punctuates the established unusual sound, confirming any further expectations should not be held except in comparison to the entirety of the opening track.

“Space Sister” is the one track readily available for purchase from their bandcamp site (as opposed to the free EP) and it’s quite justified as a choice to ask for money for: Preston’s throbbing bassline and Walker’s precise drumming are the backing to the tightly clutched sound of muted and controlled guitar chords. A single verse and the second guitar turns to a distant, wobbling echo, Lewis’s voice fulfilling the promise of the tangle of croon we heard in “Katherine,” the vector of his voice holding that crooning sound but shedding the kind of campiness that comes from bands that oh-so-consiously mimic the sound, instead seeming like a natural expression of his voice. It’s an incredibly pleasant voice married to a jangling guitar free of restraint and a bassline that builds the song’s actual progressions into itself, subtle but apparent.

Preston is dominant at the open of “For the Kill”, but the bright and open chords that spread across the track from an electric seep into that dominance, the open and steady acoustic chugging along as skeleton in the background. Lewis’s voice is still in that Andrew Bird-esque range, but really shines on the chorus, the electric guitar (be it Lewis’s own or, more likely, that of Adam Rubenstein) curling in on itself from the previously open chords, but Lewis’s voice expansive, oddly screwing itself back down to drive home the song’s title at the end: “Coming through every night like a bat out of hell/Watching the city explode from the window sill/Swears like a sailor and drunk as she goes for the kill.” Indeed, this was the song that I’d heard first, though I only caught onto this at the chorus, which had always been extremely catchy, mostly thanks to Lewis’s voice.

There’s an unpretentious streak in the sound of “Darling” that swirls into Lewis’s singing style and renders it a peculiar amalgamation of classic or familiar and modern or unusual–or perhaps all of them. The pacing and tone are again strange for the most apparent of lines: “And I’m sorry that you’re so torn up/Can I say I’ve been having some fun?/You only love my depression/It’s a wonder how I found the sun/Don’t try to tell me that you want me back/I have finally surrendered/Singing blues while your heart turned black/Don’t tell me that you want me back.” There’s an audible snarl in many of the lines, even as the “escape” that inspires it is hardly a joyful occasion. There’s a country tinge hiding somewhere in hear–lyrically, perhaps, but also sonically. The song feels like a fresh-sounding version of an established one, interestingly, and it works quite well for that.

“Gun” takes the sounds of all the previous songs and blends them into a cautiously forward-leaning track, Walker’s drums restrained but working in the full range of that restraint–the other instruments shrugging and accepting their comparative bondage. Lewis’s voice is still open and clear, but less emphatic than on the previous tracks–it’s almost like a knowing closer, yet unsure if it is or could be that, not yet decided whether to build to climax or act as the much slower, lower waves washing back out. Electric guitars begin to strike out jagged chords in preparation for crescendo–and the song suddenly fades.

Each time I listen to this EP, I’m struck by how good it sounds. There’s no movement toward particularly exotic choices or ideas, yet everything still manages a newness and clarity that prevents the sense of ho-hum. The little quirks and individualistic elements of the group shine through but don’t overpower the songs, which are striking for both their comfortable impression and their single-eyebrow-raising lyrics–not quite gasps of “Wait, did he just sing–?” so much as “Hold on…” and momentary pondering upon what was just heard–no need to go back and confirm, just to re-evaluate what has been heard to this point in a slightly different light.

So far, then–Arctic Rodeo Recordings is not letting me down at all in what they’ve signed to release–small wonder, I suppose, for a small label to have a lot more control and overall unity to their taste.

  • Next Up: Deftones – Deftones (the self-titled “two-fer” is purely by chance!)

¹Apparently this came up when my father nudged some of his online compatriots out this way, but I’m actually aware of the sonic problems of lots of coloured and (especially) picture disc vinyl. However, as I’ve addressed elsewhere, vinyl is often plagued with issues anyway, and only has subjective superiority, not technical superiority. The appreciation (for me) stems from the “ritual”, from the appeal, the physicality–it’s not about the sound in the first place. Again, I’m not playing on a high end stereo or a high end turntable. The pretty vinyl just adds to all of this.

²I know them from their tour with Reubens Accomplice, Piebald, Steel Train and The Format, all but one of which will appear here later, actually–all as a result of that show.

³Ed Brooks has mastered some great records, of course, but considering he is part of the Seattle-based RFI and acted as part of that studio, there’s less of an implied personal association. And the breadth of RFI’s mastering is absurd anyway–mentioning R.E.M.’s Automatic for the People and Botch’s We Are the Romans should make that clear. If it doesn’t, make sure to sample some tracks from each and you will see what I mean.


Day Eleven: At the Drive-In – Vaya

Fearless Records ■  F040-1

Released July 13, 1999

Recorded and mixed by Mike Major [1,5,7], Alex Newport [2,4], and Justin Leah & Bobby Torres [6]. Tracks 3,6 produced by Sean Cummings

Side One: Side Two:
  1. Rascuache
  2. Proxima Centauri
  3. Ursa Minor
  4. Heliotrope
  1. Metronome Arthritis
  2. 300 MHz
  3. 198d

I originally decided, because I was starting with an artist that had the same split of releases in my collection, that I would leave EPs by the wayside for artists for whom I owned a full length LP. I decided to skip that “rule” on this occasion simply because I know a number of people who are big fans of this band–other than me, I mean. It also tends to come with a love that drives adamant opinions, and occasionally divides. When At the Drive-In broke up in 2001, it was the only time I really noticed or felt the loss of a band–I’d never seen them live (to be honest, even when they reunited ten years later, I did not rush out for the very distant and often festival-based events, either). It also led to the rise of two groups–they’d just released their Nevermind in popularity terms, or maybe just the hint toward it, and that was that–Sparta and the Mars Volta. When I last wrote about them, I was disinclined to make my rather well-known, passionate opinion on that split known. I’m still disinclined: too many times, I’ve seen expressed opinions on this front devolve rapidly into swearing, shouting matches, and insults. It has left me with a bad taste in my mouth a lot of the time as regards all three bands, which does not make me very happy. As a result, I tend to avoid discussing that as much as I can, even if I still occasionally feel the desire to talk about it.

Anyway, let’s set all that aside and look at what, along with Selected Ambient Works 85-92, is one of my most-played records.

At the Drive-In were a band from El Paso, TX that shifted in shape and sound a lot over the years. They started off with a handful of EPs (more in the 7″, 3-5 song variety) like Hell Paso and ¡Alfaro Vive, Carajo!, but moved on to release the full length albums Acrobatic Tenement (plagued by recording as an unintended clean-guitar release, due to confusion about rehearsal sessions) and In/Casino/Out (the full length I actually own on vinyl). Vaya followed all of these, and was the last major release before their semi-major label debut, Relationship of Command in 2000.

The wiki article on the release mentions the sentiment that seems to follow the EP regularly: “The sound of the album bridges the musical gap between In/Casino/Out and their following album, Relationship of Command.” That’s actually a relatively inappropriate declaration for Wikipedia in light of its policies (from what I can see, most of their articles on Wikipedia are actually horribly written, policy-wise, in the same way), but remains rather accurate despite that. The band was thrown various labels, from emo to punk to post-hardcore, with emo (unsurprisingly) receiving the greatest degree of vitriol. Let’s not even get into the problems with attempting to label anything emo in this day and age, and stick with the rather reasonable post-hardcore attribution, which fits well enough not to chafe.

While In/Casino/Out did see the band beginning to play more openly with possibilities beyond the basic rock band instrumentation of their prior recordings, Vaya saw a more emphatic electronic bend added to the works. This is obvious from the beginning of the album–where In/Casino/Out began with “Alpha Centauri”‘s  aggressive guitar riffs, Vaya begins with “Rascuache”, where the guitars act as echoing background flavouring and brief, intermittent strums. The focus is on a thumping electronic beat–not like a dance song, but like a pulsing set of Morse code. Tony Hajjar’s appearance is with tight, light toms, almost as if on bongos, before a quick set of taps on the rim built to by that pulsing beat increasing in speed brings us clean but more persistent guitar from Omar Rodriguez (now known as Omar Rodríguez-López), before a break in Cedric Bixler’s (now known as Cedric Bixler-Zavala) singing that lets Jim Ward¹ come in with a distorted incarnation of that same clean riff. The song eventually falls to an instrumental passage, with Rodriguez noodling about as Ward takes on a simple keyboard riff for texture, with Hajjar and bassist Pall (actually Paul, but credited “Pall” on most of their releases) Hinojos. The song ends with a veritable scream from Bixler as he sings the chorus for the final time, holding the last word until the song stops absolutely short–not cut off, but stopped–“Pacemaker pace yourself/You were slowly clawing your way out”.

“Proxima Centauri” carries things forward with drummer Tony Hajjar’s inexplicably propulsive beat, which seems to trip all over itself yet seem perfectly logical at the same time. Cedric begins to repeat the phrase, “T-Minus, 10 seconds and counting,” as Hinojos rumbles underneath him, until the guitars slide, bend and squeal in and the song builds, exploding with energy when the chorus begins, Cedric moving to his emphatic yell. The song brings back a clean, circling guitar riff reminiscent of the sound they (accidentally) carried on Acrobatic Tenement.

When “Ursa Minor” comes in, the pace is slowed, but the energy does not seem lost. It’s still a burn, but seemingly a more slow one, with partly call and response verses that move toward a tilt-a-whirl bridge that bounces low to high on the guitar, with Omar and Jim singing with Cedric at the beginning of each line until it all breaks after “They will come and get you tonight”, for Jim to whisper, “So I guess this is goodnight”, at which point the chorus itself breaks in and the riffs come along furiously and thickly, with more unified voices. There’s a momentary break, as with many songs on Vaya, that allows for distant, electronically modified voice, similar to the megaphone approach bands occasionally take but resembling more a distant, poor radio signal. The indecisive and constant movement of Omar’s approach to guitar lead into a series of drum rolls under the escalating cries of “Inertia kisses those around me” that drops back into the bridge.

Side One closes with the most frenetic track on the album, “Heliotrope”, which blasts out of the gate, not letting up for a moment, Cedric’s voice seeming to race to keep up, the monstrous riffs backing away in part to let Omar again jump from fret to fret. The bottom falls out as Paul and Tony relax, Omar lazily bending, and light chords ringing clean. A single held note and muted single string picking, rim-and-cymbal-only percussion, and a bass line that is no more than half its prior pace allows Cedric to calmly state, “It’s as if someone raised the price of dying to maximum vend again”, all instrumentation dropping out halfway through the line. It’s a signal, though, and every instrument kicks in again at full speed as soon as he finishes, his line turned to expand: “Turn slowly for maximum vend”.

Side two has some of the longer and more unusual songs on the album, opening with the ominous, lurching rhythm that defines “Metronome Arthritis” (the only song, prior to Relationship of Command, to receive a promotional music video). There’s something sinister about it, though it seems to float off with the hushed instrumentation that backs Cedric’s initial lines: “Strike this match and let loose the oven’s breath/Up the volume that floats with the UHF”. The pounding rhythm and the phasing hiss that opened the song return as Cedric’s volume returns, but it all leave on a suspenseful note, only Paul and Omar noodling and dancing around the chorus: “Quick to the throat in this ink cartridge funeral/Marble caps lock zip code affiliate/You’ve got a run on your pharmaceuticals/You better change it ‘fore the night grows old”. The feeling of criminal activity, paranoia and threat is confirmed and articulated after an isolated series of muted, clean chords brings a cymbal-heavy, staccato section behind Cedric’s full-throated yell: “What if forensics finds the answers/What if they stole my fingerprints/Where did I leave my book of matches/We’ll find you”. It’s the only song on the EP with a fadeout.

“300 Mhz”, like its followup, moves from juxtaposed words, star names and other seemingly impenetrable words to a pair of tracks that looks like alphanumeric soup at first, though it’s not difficult to un-cross one’s eyes and see they obviously aren’t random at all. It’s an odd song in many respects: the semi-megaphone vocals return instead as the focus, but are matched with a low-end heavy song where, like many At the Drive-In tracks, it feels as if the guitar is more a flavouring or accent than defining melodic aspect. A dub-like echo is added to some of Tony’s drumming for only brief moments, furthering the peculiar production choices for the song. The riff the song opens with is like a jagged strike from bottom to top, repeated a few times before that low-end feel to the song asserts its dominance, but it returns to back Jim Ward yelling “Malfunction!” in his strained vocal–there’s no other word, you can hear the effort when Jim does this, and you can see it if you see him perform–that does not last long, but when the song comes back around to it a second time, it does not return to the simmering beat, it turns, instead, to the title, as the jabbing guitars turn to a repeated roar, Cedric semi-ironically screaming out, “Whispered in the ear, three hundred megaherz,” making the pairing of volume and words all the more contradictory as the seemingly whispered phrase receives the greatest emphasis and volume of all. The song eventually falls to guitars let ring, slowing until it finally stops, as do most of the songs, on a dime.

“198d” is one of the handful of “ballad-esque” songs in the At the Drive-In catalogue, built around the insistent, muted keyboard loop from Jim that opens it. It sounds less like the keyboard it is than a distress call floating through space from a non-functional vessel, with a scattered ringing of guitar playing seeming to emphasize an image in this respect. “This is forgiven if the uniform fits/Postponed, at the first showing/This is the tension mold/Of frozen icicles, and it feels like it’s snowing” Cedric sings quietly, before a rising guitar riff brings us to Jim’s cry of “Walk away,” that is answered with Cedric’s plaintive, “Born in hearts, etched in cold.” Cedric whispers over the quietest moment on the record: an even lighter keyboard riff, lightly played guitar notes, all of it bringing us back around to the final words: “Tremors that hold us”, answered with “Nothing bleeds like”, before it circles back to the chorus, fading away with “Born in hearts”, and the instruments’ sounds for once allowed to just ring and fade naturally, away from the pattern of the rest of the album.

I was struck with a peculiar notion, on this, my billionth listen to this record: it’s silly and strange, but at moments it feels almost as if there’s a thematic, near-concept to the record. I don’t mean a strict story, per se, though I could almost hear one in it. Perhaps it was the influence of songs titled after stars and constellations, countdowns, and words like “malfunction”, and phrases like “spacesuit togas” and “Saturn’s rings”–perhaps I’m just ridiculous. It was as if it was about an attempt to colonize by space torn apart by human failings. I’m not one inclined to make any attempt at analyses like this, but the more I listened, the more I was struck by how consistent it seemed to remain. Of course, I’m inclined to think this is purely my justified perception, rather than the intention of the rather stream-of-consciousness lyrics involved. But the echoes of classical culture (“Proxima Centauri” references Caligula, the phrase “E Tu Brute”, togas, “Roman fracture”) that seem to imply a familiar (“space time cliché”) and inevitable betrayal and wresting of leadership, decadence and internal failure. “Ursa Minor” references “sleep apparatus” and new settlements, “permssion to land/all systems go…”–I don’t know, maybe it’s just an attempt to puzzle together things that I’m not able to puzzle together, or maybe it just reflects the kind of words that occur to Cedric. Still, there’s a sense of a mission launched, of infighting and betrayal and paranoia defining an attempt to reach out.

This kind of politics and cynicism isn’t outside the more openly declared lyrical content of At the Drive-In, but it could all be my imagination anyway.

While I have a soft spot for In/Casino/Out, I included a poll to determine the At the Drive-In release specifically because I suspected Vaya would be chosen. In/Casino/Out has varied reasons for my muddled preferences, most of them sentimental or reactionary, instead of respectful and “objective”. But that is often the classification of favourites, isn’t it? How boring would it be for all of us to always like the most well-recorded, well-played, “accurate”, successfully experimental records? Of course, for me: those are the aspects that define Vaya, which is why my opinion remains so muddled. I’ll take either over Relationship of Command, but I only find myself caught between the “best” and my “favourite” records when it comes to these two.

¹I admit to guessing, but from live video of the way they play and familiarity with the way each of them play, I’m making my best guess.

Next Up: At the Gates – Slaughter of the Soul