Number Nine: Toro y Moi – Anything in Return (2013, of course)

Carpark Records ■ CAK77

Released January 16, 2013
Produced by Chaz Bundick
Engineered by Patrick Brown, Second Engineer Jorge Hernandez
Mixed by Patrick Brown and Chaz Bundick
Mastered by Joe Lambert

Side One: Side Two:
  1. Harm in Change
  2. Say That
  3. So Many Details
  1. Rose Quartz
  2. Touch
  3. Cola
Side Three: Side Four:
  1. Studies
  2. High Living
  3. Grown Up Calls
  1. Cake
  2. Day One
  3. Never Matter
  4. How’s It Wrong

Toro y Moi came to me via the broadcast that is staff overhead selection at one of the music stores I frequent on longer trips–Lunchbox Records in Charlotte, NC. The album had been out for all of two months when I heard “Cake” playing there and decided to go with an instinct I’d previously experienced during my endless trips to CD Alley in Chapel Hill in years prior. I’d never heard of Toro y Moi, nothing new for me and my complete obliviousness to modern independent music, except as it filters in by chance or through the few friends who track it.

As it was the one I heard (a reasoning that also inspired the purchase of records like Tobacco’s Maniac Meat and Youth Lagoon’s The Year of Hibernation), it was the first one I purchased. Causers of This followed in April, and then it was the synchronicity of a work trip to Atlanta that led me to see Toro y Moi in concert in October last year. I picked up the rest of his albums, as well as a few odd singles and the 3×7″ box set of bedroom recordings that was released as well. Still, Anything in Return is the one I return to most often.
At that show, Chaz was the closest thing I’ve seen to a superstar. Classixx opened for him (new to me, and worth checking out, as their Hanging Gardens could easily slip into an expanded top list for last year), but when he came out, it was unlike anything I’m used to in small venues or even large ones. There’s a roar for bands, and everyone is often focused on vocalists, but the fact that Chaz does his albums “Prince-style” (in the impossible-to-read-in-the-LP notes, it mentions he performed the entire album alone) seemed to shift the tone, somehow. The crowd was larger, it was a different kind of music, a different kind of venue, but there was still something to it.
It’s a bit strange, to be honest–not undeserved, but almost out of keeping with his music. He was first identified with the aptly-named “chillwave”, one of those terms that seemed a flash-in-the-pan, but defiantly remains in use as many such things do, thanks to sheer bull-headedness. Unlike his earlier work, though, Anything is a lot more energetic. That said, the energy is of a subdued and extremely cool variety, in most slang senses of the world, and often even a bit of the metaphorical incarnation of the most “literal” use of the word.

“Harm in Change” starts things on a rattle of percussion that leaves the bass away from the record for a good bit, until the song completely splits open over Chaz’s increasingly passionate vocals, rising in pitch and tightening, as if drawing in the disparate parts of the backing track to break it all open, even if the bass is still minimal. The second single from the album (though it did not actually receive a 7″, it did get a video) pushes a fuzzy bass beat to the forefront, or it would, anyway, if not for the chopped vocal sample that swirls around Chaz’s laidback vocal. The video almost manages to encapsulate the curiosity of Toro y Moi as a musical project: Chaz dances randomly, awkwardly, but almost stationary, throughout a forest. It’s restrained for the most part, controlled, and all about an infectious beat that maybe you don’t quite want to openly show your appreciation of.

“So Many Details” is the one track that did get a 7″, introduced with a faltering beat, and a thumping bass versus hi-hat beat. It is like a wonderful collision of the marching band-bass boom of hip-hop beats, the cold, alien piercing sounds of a lot of electronic music, and little hints of the synthesizer-oriented niches that ride the wave of nostalgia to their appreciation. In that sense, it sets the stage most completely for the album as a whole:

“Rose Quartz” continues this feeling, with punctuated bass swinging its weight behind every other sound, feeling ridiculously sensual in its way. “Touch” is one of the interlude-like moments on the album, but developed enough (it’s a good 2:30) to still feel complete. It’s nearly instrumental, and sets the stage for the yet-more laidback “Cola”, which hangs itself on the hook of reverberated monotone synthesizer wobbles.

The end of side two ends up perfectly setting up the stronger, harder beat of “Studies”, which is softened just enough by the falsetto vocals that it turns what could be a dark rolling bassline into a dancey movement. Guitar noodling layers the whole thing over to slide it into an easy place like half-lidded eyes, though a pinched, nasal sort of string rears up in little snarls at the middle and end to keep those eyes from closing completely. “High Living”, on the other end, has a ridiculous langorous cruising sort of movement to it, and doesn’t feel any particular need to force you awake, as it is just musically carefree: it’s tight and bound to its beat, but the beat is so natural that that almost doesn’t matter. “Grown Up Calls” is something of an R&B interlude from the 90s, a scatter of sounds until shaker and bass glue it all together to turn it to a full-on groove.

I don’t think I can question the fact that “Cake” is my favourite track on the record: warm, sustained synth chords, a wiggling curlicue of a keyboard lick over them, and the kind of beat that pushes your head down and forward to follow it. Chaz’s verses are exceedingly great at seeming to define the beat rather than follow it. The ebb and flow of the backing track as it goes through the sparse verses and then the thrum of the chorus is just fantastic. I’ve been openly guilty of miserable physical expression of my appreciation of this one in a work environment, no less. It just hits all the right kind of notes–alas, not one of the times where I picked the single (and I had 3 chances to be right!), but that’s all right.

“Day One” shambles along like something off Tricky’s Maxinquaye, but with just a little bit less of the deliberate ramshackle-ness: it’s clear Chaz was aiming for something smooth. And so it smooths out, even around that clatter of percussion, bonding it with softer, smoother synthesized sounds and some of his more mid-range and comfortable vocals.

While “Cake” didn’t make it, “Never Matter” did–it got its own video of random people videotaped dancing to it on headphones, and you really can’t blame them. It’s a dance-y beat, sprays of synthesizer and the plain-old irresistible hook of “Push it along…” that carries with it a wilder key riff than most of the album. And when those slow, sustained chords ring out by themselves and climb up slowly after the back-and-forth juggle bridge only to fall back on that hook–yeeow! Good stuff. Makes you wanna dance even if you can’t (Hello! We have something in common!).

“How’s It Wrong” closes the album, and still gives me those amusing mental points of Donald Fagen soundscape. It’s not unreasonable–electronics-heavy, smooth, but the rhythms and Chaz’s vocal style shake away such cobwebs pretty quickly. The beat is too heavy for Fagen’s stuff, and the groove far too sensual and dance-y. The track itself doesn’t scream out “album-closer”, but the dissolution into warbling wateriness and distant bleepiness, cold but friendly, spins it all off into space quite nicely.

Oddly, 2013 made it harder for me to pick the higher end of the list, rather than the lower end. My top two were undeniable, but as it got up the list, it got harder to say–I finally settled on this record because it’s one thing to make an ass of myself home alone, and entirely another to do so (in this fashion, at least) in front of coworkers. That the show made me feel like I’d somehow managed to magically catch a rising star on the way up, too–get in now, while you still have a chance to figure his stuff out for yourself, before you’re inundated and can’t divorce it from endless appearances! Only a few of my friends recognize the name, but all nod approvingly when it happens–join them, and start here.

On a silly sidenote: the CD version (which I also own) has a version of the cover in black and white, which bears the wonderful invitation “Color me!”, but the vinyl sadly lacks this, despite containing the same version of the image. Indeed, it is the flip of the first inner sleeve, and was facing outward when I found the record (amusingly, in October, back at Lunchbox, a week from the show I’d go to, and completely oblivious to that fact at the time). Ah, well. Guess it’s better not to risk folks trying to colour with the LP still in the inner sleeve!

  • Up Next: Number Eight!

The Faint – Danse Macabre (2001)

Saddle Creek Records ■ LBJ 180
(Originally LBJ-37 on same label)
Released August 21, 2001
(This compilation released November 1, 2012)
Engineered and Produced by Mike Mogis and The Faint

Side One: Side Two:
  1. Agenda Suicide
  2. Glass Danse
  3. Total Job
  4. Let the Poison Spill from Your Throat
  5. Violent
  1. Your Retro Career Melted
  2. Posed to Death
  3. The Conductor
  4. Ballad of a Paralyzed Citizen

Though it ended up one of the most brief hiatuses I’ve taken, early June’s was instigated by a work-related trip to Council Bluffs, Iowa, which happens to be right next door to Omaha, Nebraska. I currently live in an area where there are barely handfuls of record stores for a good 60+ miles, so hitting a larger college town (like I myself used to live in) was a blessing and a curse: I flew back with a shoulder bag filled with vinyl, and a suitcase veritably lined with CDs. While there, I took occasion to visit the store that the Saddle Creek label operates there in their hometown, inspired more than anything by the associations it has with Cursive, a fellow fan of whom I discovered I was working with (who also shared a love for The Format and a handful of others–and ended up passing me a copy of Cursive’s The Ugly Organ on green vinyl!). While I was in there, I did walk out with a copy of Cursive’s I Am Gemini, having failed to pick it up already, and (rather amusingly) did finally get a copy of Whiskeytown’s Strangers Almanac, an album by a band from the area I last lived in, but thought I should really pick up a record the label itself put out (I Am Gemini being on CD). The Ugly Organ wasn’t there (and, as mentioned, I serendipitously acquired it later in the same trip anyway!), so I wandered about until I ran into this.

I remember around the time this album came out, the band was pretty darn hot around the internet, though I was still in my formative musical explorations. I did glance at them, but moved on before anything took hold, eventually picking a copy of the album up on CD many years later. When this edition was released, I first stumbled into the CD/DVD version last year, and suddenly realized I’d really missed something. That was what pushed me to add to it this vinyl version–it’s actually the “deluxe edition” which contains not only a second 12″ of bonus tracks (remixes and b-sides) but also that self-same 2xCD+DVD set I already have, albeit in far more inconvenient format for a portable medium.

When it originally came out, the record used a different cover, but the rights to use it were thoroughly rejected–even more than a decade later, which is why it continues to use the cover above. Though this new cover was used for the later pressings, for this deluxe reissue it was re-tinted in neon pink instead of its original blood red. It’s a weird colour, very eye-catching, and actually feels more appropriate in a strange sort of way–though the red, black, and white colour scheme of the original issue fit nicely with the cynical overtones of the record and its goth-y vibe, the pink hits on the fact that those are not the whole, and it’s a ridiculously danceable record (or so I would guess, being as I lack the skill at such activities, personally).

“Agenda Suicide” was the lead single, and in keeping with old habits (though maybe not The Faint’s or Saddle Creek’s), it leads the album. A low-end loop introduces the track with a kind of eye-wink darkness, rumbling along electronically through its set of notes, a palm-muted rattle of guitar from Dapose and then a pulsing four-on-the-floor drum machine beat are layered on top, finalized with actual drums, alternating snare and bass with regular hi-hat. Flavouring it all is a knowingly “off” set of notes from keys that seem to be poking at the outer edges of the sound, bouncing from one edge or corner to the next and then repeating. Todd Fink (née Baechle, though he was still Baechle at the time) pulls his voice out of the playbook from the goth-inflected post punk–think early Robert Smith, nervous, half-bored, very cynical–his verses are split by the sizzling keys that mark one of the track’s great hooks, leaning menacingly forward and more confidently spread across the track than the pulses and scatter of notes that precede them. The last time these chords strike down, the keys spiral downward to make room for the chorus: “Our work makes pretty little homes”, which is followed by the cold sound of drum machine thumping and even more mechanical guitar rattling. This leads to the full realization of those menacing chords, harmonized with a higher set of keys. The nihilistic, cynical, depressed description of modern societal monotony–“Agenda suicide, drones work hard before they die/And give up on pretty little homes”–is realized by the track, but it’s matched to an absurdly insistent, danceable beat that just makes you want to move and have fun, perhaps in spite of the repellent nature of the cubicle life described. The musical “interstitials” that split the chorus are later slowed down to a breakdown-like pounding that somehow turns the track into one that almost recommends headbanging, without ever losing that edge of life-sucking darkness it’s there to describe. Don’t mistake this of course–the track is descriptive and musically appropriate, but it’s finagled into the shape of a ridiculously enjoyable one, despite all of that.

In contrast to the building, hinting, and layering of “Agenda Suicide”, “Glass Danse” gives only a few beats warning before it launches full bore into its brash, loud dancey beat. It moves constantly and puts Todd’s voice behind an electronic device–something in the vein of a megaphone–that distances it from that straight up oomp-tss of the verse’s instruments. The lead-up to the chorus loses the filter between him and listener, doubles the beat’s speed, but closes camp around both, close to the ground and ready to spring, a launch that is fueled by the sputtering of metallic keys, which finally ignite and take off. Coming after “Agenda Suicide” it functions as a refusal to let the beat slow or drop in any way, while maintaining enough variety to keep things really very interesting.

“Total Job” takes that boiling heat and drags it down to a simmer, but a persistent one. The tempo is down, but the energy behind it is untouched. Todd and Jacob Thiele use the doubled tones of the metallic key sound to give the track the most clear and focal melody the album has in its first three tracks, while Joel Petersen’s bass makes itself more known than before. A chopped female vocal sample is sprinkled across the track, while Todd’s voice is given a vaguely demonic filter toward the end of the track–but only on a background double track of them. It functions mostly as connective tissue between the burst of “Glass Danse” and its nearby neighbor, “Let the Poison Spill from Your Throat”.

That follow up track is introduced with a frog-croak like keyboard hook and a clatter of drum machine that suggests a thin, demo-ish sound, except that it’s the lead in to live drumming from Todd’s brother Clark, and the croaking keys are now joined by a high-pitched whine of companion keys, which shift upward and tighten at their peak to drop the tempo back down. Stereo-pan right-left hopping drum machine and keys are the canvas across Clark’s frame of restrained drumming. Todd’s filtered, vaguely sarcastic voice drops to a whisper to lead in the chorus: “Just let the poison spill/Spurt from your throat/Hiss like steam–” and that anticipatory drop of everything gives the song back its initial roar of energy: “‘Cause the pressure’s unreal/I’m not saying that it’s not/You’re causing a scene/You’re wearing out that note/You scream until it’s gone, gone, gone…” It’s an apt lyric for the music–or apt music for the lyric. Like much darker electronic-focused music, it has tinges of the machine and the song is like a machine hissing out steam, until the pressure is released in the chorus. Fascinatingly, the song features a more raw bassline from Joel, and moments where Clark drums in isolation, while Todd’s voice is at its most distorted and altered. The downward strokes of that hook are, it seems, more unreal than the pressure to which the lyrics refer–yow, but they are catchy!

Unlike the CD release, the vinyl (both the original and this deluxe edition) place “Violent” at the end of side one as track 5 instead of penultimate track 8. “Violent” is actually the longest song on the album, the only one clocking past five minutes. Instrumentally, it’s semi-unique–while Gretta Cohn’s cello appears on “Total Job”, too, it’s most apparent here when it is alone with Todd’s voice and a drum machine. More keys and electronic sounds–cracking rhythms, shuffling hiss and rattle–hide in the corners, but even when the song shifts gears and Todd’s voice goes “Transformer”, Dapose, Clark, and Joel remain rather silent–Dapose’s guitar does appear briefly as a short lead after this, but disappears after a few bars again. Clark’s hi-hat playing does come in a bit before the song attempts to tear itself apart, stuttering, starting, stopping and shuddering before returning as a skronking low-end key line. It’s joined by a fuzzy industrial metal beat and hi-hats that all skitter like a skipping CD until they become a single repeated beat. Then it all comes back together as a song centered around that grungy, bassy keyboard lick, with sustained horror-esque high-pitched keys carry a haunting melody in the background in keeping with the slow, low strains of cello. It only makes sense, I suppose, that the longest song be, in effect, a pair of songs smashed and converted into a single one.

Side Two opens with another scorcher, “Your Retro Career Melted”. An odd choice, in a way, for a band that is openly and obviously drawing from the past–but sung with enough venomous sarcasm that it manages itself quite well. The horror and sci-fi inflections continue with a squealing hook of keys around the pounding beat that blends so well into the primary keyboard melodies. The catchiest chorus and use of electronic voice filters by far, “Your retro career m-m-m-melted” is repeated over a tireless beat. Squealing and stabbing keyboards get to back Todd and Clark for a moment, just before the chorus returns for its last run, before stretching out over the last few minutes, ending with the electronic filtration of a bell-curved singing of “Melt-e-e-ed…” closes it all.

“Posed to Death” is rather strange, coming on like a vaguely tribalistic set of non-verbal vocalizations over a  2-and-4 beat, but Clark’s entrance turns the thumping keyboards Todd’s voice is mimicking into a back-and-fourth full four beats, until Todd steps back for Joel’s bassline. Now the beat is a body-moving of a 1-a2-a3-a4 swing. Distorted keys crunch away and leave a wash of disttortion in their wake, a wall of static behind the song’s hypnotic beat. It closes with Dapose harmonizing his guitar with the keyboards, a new sound for the record.

“The Conductor” has a fantastic intro: keyboards attuned to the slight fuzz of distortion on a sound somewhere between xylophone and piano, let ring just long enough to mimic an echo, hints of harpsichord-like twang making it almost like a moment of suspense in a mid-period horror flick, before a funereal beat backs an expansion of this marching melody, flattening with the weight of the louder, fuller chords of ominous, 80s-horror threat. Percussion backs this and turns it–without changing the melodic portions–into a dance movement. The song is haunting and dark in a new way, shadows and the kind of darkness that could be a room, a large room, or even open space. When Todd takes over the verse completely and his voice takes the fore–takes control, if you will (as he himself sings)–it becomes something closer to the merely dark-edged crunch of the Faint’s usual sound. It’s fuzzed by Joel’s bass, spiced by blistering Dapose leads, and propelled by keyboards–the chorus fades it away to keys, drum machine and Todd’s voice repeating “Control, control, control, control, control…” The bell-like xylopiano of the intro lingers over it all, keeping it haunting and mysterious, even more so as the beat drops out from under it to let it play alone and fade off.

Gretta Cohn’s cello opens “Ballad of a Paralyzed Citizen” almost alone, and where it’s flavoured by keys, it is only that–flavour on her strong draws of bow. Then the jittering of a pounding beet against a sheet of metallic noise carves out a mechanized chunk of the track, tailed by a wobbling fuzz of grungey keys. It’s the most downtempo and downbeat track on the record. The beat is the strongest, clearest part of the primary band’s sound (Cohn acting in a secondary role, after all), with Todd’s voice again hiding at a distance, and even the keys burbling around Clark’s drums. For all the interesting layers of sound, it’s a sparse-sounding track in contrast to the uncontrolled burst of movement that composes the rest of the record. Certainly, this makes it rather fitting as a final track, though instead of the misleading final fade of piano and cello, distorted keys take the final moments for their own.

Side Three: Side Four:
  1. Take Me to the Hospital
  2. Mote
  3. Dust (featuring Bright Eyes)
  4. Falling Out of Love at This Volume
  1. The Conductor [Thin White Duke Remix]
  2. Glass Danse [Out Hud Remix]

Sides 3 and 4 are a collection of tracks from various places (a Saddle Creek compilation, the Mote/Dust non-album single, the remix album, the German version of the “Agenda Suicide” single, and the original German limited edition 2CD release of the album). “Mote” is a Sonic Youth cover, while “Dust” features “Bright Eyes”–aka Conor Oberst, a former member of the Faint, and Mike Mogis, who co-produced Danse Macabre. “Falling Out of Love at This Volume” is indeed a Bright Eyes cover, and “Take Me to the Hospital” is the only “completely Faint” track (the other two obviously being remixes).

Sadly, “Take Me to the Hospital” is not a misnamed cover of the Replacements’ “Take Me Down to the Hospital” (which I’d still like to hear them cover, just for curiosity’s sake). It is actually an interesting, stuttery track, that doesn’t quite have the slick goth-inflections of Danse Macabre, but has a stammering dance of a chorus that spells out the final word of the title. It’s a bit more intimate as a track, and points a bit more toward the group’s other work.

“Mote” is fuzz-loaded, with squeaky-tape rewind noises and pounding beats, perhaps the closest relative of the album proper to appear amongst the bonus tracks, barring the remixes of tracks actually from the album, despite being a cover.

“Dust” is a little more akin to a Depeche Mode-style dance music, with the kind of chunky synths that are so recognizable, but built on live drums. There are Faint touches for sure, but it’s mostly more readily accessible and cleaner than Danse Macabre.

“Falling Out of Love at This Volume” is odd, as, despite his former membership in the band, Oberst’s music is not in keeping with the rest of the Faint’s sound, but the band predictably “remedies” this (as would be almost inevitable in a band that is more keyboards than guitars). Interestingly, the over-echoed, watery effect on Todd’s voice does bring it closer to the demo-style recording they’re covering.

Thin White Duke’s remix of “The Conductor” is a severely re-designed version of the track. It moves to a more standard dance beat, and Todd’s electronically manipulated recitation of “Control” forms the central hook of essentially the entire song, even being layered over itself in various iterations, almost to the exclusion of the rest of his words. It’s something like the expectations of remixes, but it’s very much well done, even with its humourously stereotypical inclusion of strings.

Out Hud’s remix of “Glass Danse”, in contrast, is only subtly different from the original track, functioning closer to a remix in the “remixed and remastered” sense than the “make it their own” one. Of course, I cannot help but mention that I know Out Hud primarily for the fact that they did an early split with !!!, a band that actually shared three members with Out Hud at the time. Heck, that split was released on Gold Standard Labs (GSL) who released not only !!!’s first album (the self-titled !!!), but also the Mote/Dust Faint single, and a few records that will appear later in my collection–as a label that was co-owned by Omar Rodriguez-Lopez. It’s still a solid remix and they do make it somewhat more their own as it progresses, and in doing so actually keep it more like a Faint song than Thin White Duke did with his remix.

I bought this album very deliberately–it’s insanely catchy, particularly in its first half, but spread (and paced) nicely across both sides, or its full (CD) length. Finding the right space to suggest this, as a goth-tinged, crunchy dance album–I don’t know. It was pretty big in its time if I’m not mistaken, but to whom I would recommend it unwaveringly, I’m not sure. I mean, I’d recommend anything I like to anyone, because it’s all good music, but the taste that would make me say, “Ah, listen to the Faint!”? I don’t know.

Perhaps you should go and check it out (you should), and maybe return data so that I can assemble knowledge of what that taste is.

Or just check them out regardless (yep).

Drive-By Truckers – Go-Go Boots (2011)

ATO Records ■ ATO 0093
Released February 15, 2011

Produced, Engineered, and Mixed by David Barbe
Mastered by Greg Calbi

Side One: Side Two:
  1. I Do Believe
  2. Go-Go Boots
  3. Dancin’ Ricky
  4. Cartoon Gold
  1. Ray’s Automatic Weapon
  2. Everybody Needs Love
  3. Assholes
  4. The Weakest Man
Side Three: Side Four:
  1. Used to Be a Cop
  2. I Hear You Hummin’
  3. The Fireplace Poker
  1. Where’s Eddie
  2. The Thanksgiving Filter
  3. Pulaski
  4. Mercy Buckets

I came in to the Drive-By Truckers at a curious time: I was still working at Borders, and participated in the (extremely limited–about five stores) testing for vinyl sales. It was around 2008-2009, and the selection was largely limited, leaving me unsure of what actually led to titles appearing there. Certainly, it was a store in the Southeast (although a unique town within the state and region), and the Truckers do not suffer the absence of a following there. It did lead to my very mild introduction to Ryan Adams, which has served me well, though I didn’t actually do anything with it for years. I saw our copy of DBT’s 2008 album Brighter Than Creation’s Dark. The art by Wes Freed was intriguing, and the title, too–I was reluctant, as I was still overcoming a lot of my resistance to “twang” in music, and the band’s name was a dead giveaway for containing just that. At some point, I gave in and did pick up a CD copy of that same album, and found myself falling for it rapidly.

It wasn’t long before I was going to see the band and buy all their albums–indeed, in 2010 I saw them play two shows on two concurrent nights, which was quite an experience. But the curious time is something that involves knowing about the band’s history–initially responsible for a pair of interesting but often thought to be somewhat “slight” early albums (Gangstabilly and Pizza Deliverance), they really broke through and into their own with 2001’s Southern Rock Opera, which addressed some of the issues that would in some way typify the band as both people and a musical entity–the “holy three” of frontman Patterson Hood’s childhood in Alabama: football, via Bear Bryant, race politics in George Wallace, and music in Lynyrd Skynyrd. Some overlap, some confusion, some mixed signals and messages, all adding up to “the duality of the Southern Thing” as Hood wrote on that album. After its release, Jason Isbell joined the band and they released their most acclaimed pair of albums: 2003’s Decoration Day and 2004’s The Dirty South. To this day, many clamour for Isbell (now solo and successful at it, as I will prove here later on) to rejoin, even if only in brief or for a tour, or what have you, but he left after A Blessing and a Curse in 2006–and that’s where 2008’s Brighter Than Creation’s Dark came in.
I joined the DBT bandwagon after their heyday, completely unbeknownst to me.

The odd thing about it, though, is that it has given me a differing perspective on their career. I appreciate the post-Isbell period because I didn’t know there was that component “missing”–I’ve gone back since then (with my now complete Isbell solo set, of course) and understand what people mean, but I have no issues at all with the Hood/Cooley/Tucker set-up, though one wonders what will come from the now sans-Tucker version.

So, for the purposes of this particular album, the band is composed of: Mike Cooley, Jay Gonzalez, Patterson Hood, Brad Morgan, John Neff (who once played for The Two Dollar Pistols), and Shonna Tucker. This is the same band that recorded 2010’s The Big To-Do, which should come as no surprise, considering the two were recorded simultaneously and separated into their respective albums as the first was developed. It comes off something like the Dave Gregory-exit-inducing last two albums from XTC–Apple Venus and Wasp Star–in that one album is composed of the rockers and one of the more relaxed songs, though they released theirs in the opposite order. Go-Go Boots is the lighter of the two albums, containing nothing along the lines of “This Fuckin’ Job” and its uneasy but intensely crunchy, rocking mixture of frustrated anger and despair or “Birthday Boy” and its fumble of shame and stripper’s attempts to comfort set to a solid roar of distortion, though the overall content does have some similarities.

It was only appropriate that I chose the time I did to revisit the record–the time of day, I mean, not the time of year, or time in my life. It’s an album that glows warmly (musically, anyway) like a setting sun. That could be my own preferences inserting themselves of course–though I also like a good rainy album, or a night-time one. Still, the acoustic orientations and the laidback tones and tempos lend themselves to an association with that time of day that many have made in the past on the same grounds, even if not necessarily with this very album.

I think it may be how the stage is set with “I Do Believe”, a song Patterson Hood wrote about his grandmother, starting the album with the a cappella refrain of the song’s title, “I do believe, I do believe, I saw you standing there, sunlight in your hair, reflecting in your eyes…” with only a few light hits at the hi-hat from Brad Morgan to hint at the coming sounds. A sweet roll of bass and friendly guitars follows in on Morgan’s expanded beat and a hint of shaker percussion. It should be out of place here–songs follow about murder, heartbreak, self-recrimination, finding the place to hide from family…but it isn’t. It’s an interesting choice, because often the ray of sunshine is dropped at the end of a dark album, so as to relieve whatever weight has been pressed down in the preceding moments. It works even better here, though, as it puts you in a happier place to hear what follows, to shine through the darkness that follows. The two-three..four beat from Brad and the low-jangle of guitars is ideal here, like a breezy trip with the top down (in a Mustang perhaps–just as Hood describes his grandmother, and Wes Freed illustrated her) into a sunset.

The tempo drops to a slow roast for the first of two versions of a real murder that occurred twenty years ago in Hood’s hometown–the title track. It’s a perfect example of one half of Hood’s specialties: the storyteller half. Guitar wails from Neff’s slide, as Shonna’s bass and Morgan’s drums lay down a hardened rhythm. Hood’s voice sways with the beat, and the whole song sounds like the forbidden excitement of the hidden affair that he portrays as partly prompting the sordid, ahem, affair. It’s sleazy and uncomfortable, even as you can hear the shaking head and sigh of Hood as he recounts the tale, not unlike one that made it onto the companion album (“The Wig He Made Her Wear” on The Big To Do, about a vaguely similar, also real murder). This song, though, is just that much more off in that direction, as the whole band is in that sleaze mode, where it was only Neff on the other track. His slide here is just…raunchy. The way the whole thing drips with the fascination/horror with the whole thing is simply perfect in execution.

Shonna was in the band for a few albums before she contributed a full song, her first appearances being “I’m Sorry Huston”, “Home Field Advantage”, and “The Purgatory Line” on Brighter Than Creation’s Dark. She threw a few on The Big To Do (namely “You Got Another” and “(It’s Gonna Be) I Told You So”), and “Dancin’ Ricky” is her first appearance on her last album with the band. It’s in keeping with the tracks she brought to the other chunks of the sessions that spawned them (the ones on The Big To Do, that is), being less interested in the verbosity that Patterson in particular tends toward, as well as the smirking wit of Cooley’s contributions. It’s a soul-leaning pop track–in a good sense, if that needs to be stated–and it acts as showcase for some really great organ work from Jay Gonzalez on a B3, some nice little fret slides, and even producer (producer of most of DBT’s output, actually) and ex-Mercyland member¹ David Barbe’s chance to throw bass on a track, what with Shonna covering piano and all.

John Neff whips out the dobro while Morgan mans a bass and snare rim sort of barebones drumbeat for the wiggled eyebrow of Mike Cooley’s first lead vocal, “Cartoon Gold”. He pulls out the banjo Patterson has said he plays in a very specific way, as well as Hood’s favourite line on the album–something he says Cooley is often responsible for, a statement much of their fanbase would agree to. He has a knack for a distinctly different approach that covers ground Hood doesn’t; his play on words is at least worthy of a smile (or, more likely, smirk), if not a chuckle or laugh, but he generally sings it totally straight and shoots a line of emotional truth straight through the whole thing anyway to justify that. “I’m not good with numbers/I just count on knowing when I’m high enough…” he starts, and already the man’s way with words is just fantastic. The sense of humour about less-than-positive emotions is like he describes himself at the song’s end: “Sitting in a bar in LA after dark with my sunglasses on”–a drinker slumped not out of inebriation, nor absolute despondent sorrow, but a mood best described as “Well, shit.” I think that kind of sums up the tone of the song, if not its content, in fact–it’s ponderings about the past that don’t seem to add up to much of value for the one pondering, but with a bit of advice for listeners hiding in it anyway–be it good or bad advice.

Side One ends with the heavy piano and sharpened points of guitar of “Ray’s Automatic Weapon”, the story of a man who was passed a heavy automatic rifle a friend (Ray, of course) had made him wary of. He finds himself bored and shooting it, only to one day realize he’s testing how close he can shoot at real people in the distance. It’s a funny story because it goes no further–though there’s all kinds of darkness hiding behind it–the friend is a veteran, who was worried about Ray for the very reasons he himself is now finding himself doing almost-horrific things. The song is slow and plunks itself down with Gonzalez’s deep, low hammering at the keys, Neff’s lap steel squealing out a texture of distant loss of control. Hood’s voice is confessional, but not secretive–quiet but not at all whispered. It’s dashed with both self-recognition of horrific echoes and nonchalance at serious things–which carries its own sense of horror.

The Truckers don’t often include covers on their albums–indeed, excluding a compilation of rarities, they hadn’t done it until this album was released², with this next track being the first: Eddie Hinton’s “Everybody Needs Love”. It was actually initially released on a 7″ (Dangerous Highway – A Tribute To The Songs Of Eddie Hinton Vol. 2–which I, myself, own) with their other cover of one of his songs, “Where’s Eddie?” which appears later on this album. They apparently did so thanks to their pride in the work on both, and that pride is justifiable. Neff is back at the dobro, and there’s a kind of extra-clear recording and production (a hint of echo, and the lightest crackle of perhaps homage-induced anachronistic high-end thinness) on Patterson’s voice. The song slumps a bit, bright with its overall message, but aching with the knowledge of absence–“I used to go around saying I didn’t need nobody/To be happy and belong/Then one sad day I found myself in trouble/Way down, without a friend/Along came the love of a real good woman/Said she’d love me ’til the end…” It’s like a shot of hope, tinged with melancholic doubt, cracking across the surface of it. Truly a great recording, this one.

While Patterson has said they “shouldn’t talk about” “Assholes”, it’s not much to guess who and what it’s directed at–the band switched labels for this pair of records, and the last two for their prior label are a live album and a compilation, usually a dead giveaway for contract fulfillment. It’s driven home more clearly by lines like “And you sicked your lawyers on me/Told them to go for the throat/And you just sat back and watched them/Have a go/And you say that we’re the assholes/’Cause we bitched about the hassles/While you’re sleeping in your castles/And we’re still riding down the road…” Of course, it could be management, or any variety of people–but the context leans one way to my ears. Cooley mans the banjo again, and gives a sort of pokey feeling to the song, which is amusing considering the title, the profane choice of label both appropriate in visceral reaction and funny for its intensity in the music’s context. It’s a shrugging anger, though–whatever rage Hood may have felt (or may still feel) is either filtered or tempered, and it makes for an unusual song about the topic, as compared to some that have come out (like, say, Trent Reznor’s run at TVT with Broken…)

There are clear threads back to older country in the basically simple set-up of “The Weakest Man”, Cooley’s second shot at the record, which maintains the attitude that runs through a lot of his songs, that sense of wry amusement at the world, as a means of dealing with the worst parts of it. The chorus is a one-two punch–the first at the woman he’s leaving, the second at himself: “Leaving you won’t be any harder/Than walkin’ out the door and leavin’ town/But I’ll be leavin’ knowing surving you don’t make me stronger/Than the weakest man who’s ever turned you down…”  It’s also a good showcase for The Bottom Feeders, the backup vocalists who work with the group on the record. Well, they are the group, but it’s a good name for a made-up backing group all the same, and they fit in perfectly on the track.

The absolute winner of the album–sorry to call it so early!–is doubtless “Used to Be a Cop”. I first heard the song at that pair of shows I mentioned–I’d only just picked up their earlier records, so I immediately scoured them for this brilliant track, only to discover it was actually from an upcoming album instead. The studio recording was no kind of disappointment. Where “Go-Go Boots” was a slow burn of sleaze and murder, “Used to Be a Cop” rides Shonna Tucker’s sliding thump of a bassline and the ringing guitars that announce the chorus (of a kind) through a simmering shudder of discomforting stalker-y sociopathy. Another in the great tradition of stalker songs, I suppose! It’s a hefty track, which has a lovely bridge that shines with the past glories of our fired, divorced, short-fused protagonist, until returning to the twitching hypnosis of the bassline and slightly dissonant clang of guitars that represents the present instead.

A track available only on the vinyl version, “I Hear You Hummin'” is a veritable jam session between Neff, Gonzalez, Morgan and author and vocalist Shonna Tucker, recorded, apparently, with a single microphone and live. It’s raw and wobbly, but endearing rather than overly troubled for that fact. 

Our contract killer-hiring preacher from “Go-Go Boots” returns in “The Fireplace Poker”, and it’s now enough of a different take to seem as though it’s just a shamefully similar true story of woe instead of the same one. It’s Hood in a rocking chair at a fireplace telling the story with that same shaking head and sigh of bewildered amazement–and quietly morbid fascination. Gonzalez drops a rather simple but poignant set of piano keys on the latter half of the track, delightful in their contrast and simplicity around the thumping constancy of Brad Morgan’s drumming.

“Where’s Eddie?” is the Eddie Hinton/Donnie Fritz song the band released with “Everybody Needs Love” as a b-side before the album came out, and it’s sung–as intended, gender-wise–by Shonna Tucker, who pours the full extent of her voice into it, stretching it much further than she usually aims to with her own songs–it’s a country-tinged soul track, melodramatic in its questioning sorrow, but in the best and most appropriate ways–though this partly reflects its age rather clearly, as it was first released as a single by Scottish singer Lulu in 1970.

The band’s single for the album (backed with “Used to Be a Cop”) is a forward-leaning one, on edge and relaxed simultaneously as Patterson describes with both weariness and tension the scene of his family at Thanksgiving–conflicting politics, strange habits and personalities, age differences and everything else that comes with most large gatherings of people. He describes a family member’s project (“Poppa” could be his own father, Muscle Shoals bassist David Hood, or it could be his grandfather–familial usage of that title tends to vary) that “will never be finished” but Hood guesses “that’s the point” because it “Gives him a filter and psychological ointment”. Patterson has said that the filter, for him, is actually songwriting–a method of hiding in plain sight from family, as means of dealing with it. It’s a more sane middle step between the saccharine imaginings of large family gatherings, and the hysterically exaggerated negatives of stand up comedy and movie scenes about them. It does have a great kicker of a final verse line, too–“You wonder why I drink and curse the holidays/Blessed be my family 300 miles away…”

Cooley admitted frankly that “Pulaski” was named simply because he’d been through the town (once) and its syllables, particularly in unison with its containing state, Tennessee, fit perfectly with the song (unlike his own hometown or homestate). It shuffles along on another easy, brushy beat from Brad, and is smaller and more intimate–as is often the case in this contrast–than Hood’s prior one. It has the love for “not even ‘Southern’–American small towns” Cooley occasionally shows–a sense of pride in those small ones and their atmospheres. Of course, it’s not so silly as to pretend the protagonist’s move to California proves the complete inferiority of anywhere else, so much as pointing out that people are often neither better nor worse in that shift, and fantastic representations–as those on T.V.–are just that.

“Mercy Buckets” is, naturally, a play on “merci beaucoup”, the French for “thank you very much”. It’s about as wild as the album gets, Cooley and Neff trading leads, and doubtless a few from Hood in there, too. It’s the final show-stopper, sad, dragging in tempo, but big, expansive, dramatic, and generally huge–cinematic, as the band likes to think of themselves. Each syllable of Hood’s chorus is emphasize: “I will bring you buckets of mercy”, and there’s no question that the scorching peals of guitar are the right way to end the album. Not with some kind of inappropriate huge block of rocking bang, but with the rather slow-moving force of fireworks exploding in a night sky, shooting up on those streaks of lead guitar, but slowing at their explosion and slowly flittering back downward. It’s a release of energy matching what came before instead of entirely defying it.

I was perusing record stores in another state recently on a business trip, and had occasion to speak to the proprietor of one of those stores. We talked a bit about music, particularly the new Jason Isbell which had just been released, and conversation naturally wandered to the Truckers. We agreed there was a bit of searching for either after their split (though I think he meant Creation’s Dark where I meant A Blessing and a Curse, on which Jason did, in fact, play, but released some of his lesser songs with the band), but that both had clearly found their stride by now–indeed, this pair of albums is extraordinarily successful at clarifying what this band is after their rise carrying Isbell and now as the band that they are, the one more exclusively defined by Cooley and Hood, who’ve been together more than two and a half decades now.

I can understand the trepidation some no doubt feel with a band with this name, or an album or cover art like this–I still get those feelings sometimes, much though I now try to subdue them. I can only suggest what I try myself–sample it out. There are some great performances from the band floating around the net, plenty even official. And if you’re really adventurous, Cooley is touring solo, and the band will probably be back on the road together before too long. Give them a shot if you haven’t, though. They may be unabashed in their northern Alabama roots, but that tells you less about them than you might think.

¹I actually just picked up the random compilation of their work, but that’s a pretty meaningless reference except to Athens, GA locals, so far as I know. Still, it was a cool band from what I’ve now heard.

²That said, they covered one of my favourite Warren Zevon tracks (“Play It All Night Long”), though I honestly thought they didn’t quite manage it properly. They did, however, blow the Tom Petty song “Rebels” out of the water on that record (The Fine Print), and contribute one of the better “Like a Rolling Stone” covers out there, and Tom T. Hall’s “Mama Bake a Pie (Daddy Kill a Chicken)”, which I’ve never heard the original track to. Hood did cover yet another semi-obscure favourite of mine, Todd Rundgren’s “Range War” on his second solo album–which makes sense. It was on Todd’s second album, too. I mean, if you count Runt as a solo record, which plenty of people (justifiably) do. Including me.

Doomtree – No Kings (2011)

Doomtree Records ■ DTR033

Released November 22, 2011
Produced by Cecil Otter, Dessa, Lazerbeak, Mike Mictlan, P.O.S., Paper Tiger, Sims
Engineered by Joe Mabbott
Mastered by Bruce Templeton
Beats by Cecil Otter (A1-B1, B3, C1, D1-D3), Lazerbeak (A1-A3, B2, C2
-D3), P.O.S. (A1, A2, D1, D3), Paper Tiger (D3)

Side One: Side Two:
  1. No Way
    Sims, Cecil Otter, Mike Mictlan, P.O.S.
  2. Bolt Cutter
    P.O.S., Sims, Dessa, Mike Mictlan
  3. Bangarang
    P.O.S., Cecil Otter, Mike Mictlan, Sims
  1. Beacon
    Dessa, P.O.S., Cecil Otter, Sims
  2. Punch-Out
    Mike Mictlan, Sims
  3. Little Mercy
    Cecil Otter, Dessa
Side Three: Side Four:
  1. The Grand Experiment
    Dessa, Sims, P.O.S., Cecil Otter, Mike Mictlan
  2. String Theory
    Dessa, Sims, Cecil Otter
  3. Team the Best Team
    P.O.S., Sims, Cecil Otter, Dessa, Mike Mictlan
  1. Gimme the Go
    Cecil Otter, Sims
  2. Own Yours
    P.O.S., Sims, Mike Mictlan, Cecil Otter
  3. Fresh New Trash
    Sims, Cecil Otter, P.O.S., Dessa, Mike Mictlan

Maybe it’s just the Dessa show I was at two weeks ago, but I feel like I’ve relayed the story of how I found Doomtree enough times already–I was asked at that show by just about everyone, including associates and one of the opening acts. There’s no stranger experience for me than going to those shows. I don’t know why it is, exactly, but I end up with people asking me how long I’ve known them, or when I left Minneapolis, or how on earth, if neither of those is true (there’s nothing true in either–I’ve never even been to Minnesota in general, and the friends I have there have only lived there since I discovered Doomtree, basically). I’d chalk it all up to the general positivity they all exude in person, the down-to-earth appreciation and gratitude they express openly and consistently to seemingly everyone, but then you would think everyone would get asked those questions, or no one would ask them at all.

I don’t really know what it is. I’ve got “hooks” if you will–I mention one in the blog entry I linked to above, regarding the pre-order of Dessa’s book, Spiral Bound. My experience with getting everything I had at the time (…almost…) signed, too, helped to cement my visibility with them–though, still, out of all the possible people, some guy a thousand miles away in a town that has no visible importance? I have no idea. It tends to reflect back and instill me with a sense of awe–how on earth do they find a fan so important? Indeed, I have done nothing terribly important, so this must not be a unique experience–how do they find that kind of energy and compassion for so many strangers? To say nothing of the kind of experience I had talking to Dessa specifically both at the crew show two years ago, and at the show two weeks ago. At the first, she took the time to do a favour for a fan who couldn’t make it through me, and at the second, the story I told her about that fan left her hugging me like a friend–after recognizing me before I said a word after the show.

Of course, it would be something purely indicative of her character were it not for the kinds of interactions I’ve had with others–Sims practically encouraging me to monopolize his time at that crew show, Stef “milking” my elbow out of nowhere, Cecil telling me about the symbol you can hopefully see on the front of that record sleeve, Mike’s quiet and humble (!–if you’ve heard him rap, or seen him perform, this might sound odd) appreciation of my fandom, Beak’s appreciation of my rather heavy ordering tendencies, Paper Tiger’s shock at my possession of his False Hopes EP…and, most recently, Doomtree associate Ander Other talking to me passionately about his good friend Mike (see above) and how real his devotion to rapping is–something I found myself nodding over, as that is unquestionably clear in how he does things.

It’s hard for me to talk about almost any music, because I know I tend to ramble on, which can counteract my intended goal of drawing in new listeners, even for the most famous of artists. It’s harder still with a group of artists who’ve shaped a lot of my listening for the last seven years, a group that isn’t struggling in the sense that many others are, but that is afloat on the waters of their fans and nothing else. It’s a solid fanbase, but they aren’t Macklemore or anything, as indie rappers go (you’ll find P.O.S.’s records at major retailers because they are co-released by the much larger Rhymesayers label). They work hard, they tour hard, and yet, they seem to still burble just under the surface, frustratingly. I know a lot of people don’t like rap, or think they don’t like rap (as I say every time I write about the stuff), or what have you, but this is a group of people whose passion (forgive me, I don’t think I’ll be able to avoid riding that word pretty hard here) is unmistakable and naked, and whose music is interesting, literate, thoughtful, and polished to show both a shine and the jagged bits in equal and appropriate measures. Unquestionably, they are the first rappers I’ll suggest to anyone upon finding they “don’t like rap”. I may tentatively push other names first that might have some more immediate recognition, but they are the main thrust, bar none.

Prior to this album’s release in 2011, there were 2 “crew albums” that appeared–one, the 12th False Hope record, a sort of “demonstration” recording prior to a full-fledged one, had tracks I felt the need to mention the last time I wrote about them. The other was the self-titled release in 2008, a record that they’ve since noted was more about trying to balance everyone’s appearances and assembling separate tracks, where this one they deliberately set out to write a true crew record, from scratch, to display the group’s talents as a group. It feels to me–however right or wrong–like the penultimate track on Sims’ Lights Out Paris, “No Homeowners” was the first real display on record of their sound as a whole. Indeed, it appears in an alternate form on the aforementioned 12th False Hopes, subtitled “Renter’s Rebate” and includes a verse from each of them, as well as marking the first song-length “devotional” to the group.

“No Way” kicks the album off with a chugging muted guitar chord (doubtless the “additional guitar” contributed by Dave Brockschmidt), that acts as predictive prelude to something more meaty, but full enough in itself to give weight to even the introductory moments and their wandering shadows of words. The drums of the beat kick in and thump and thud to a greater expanse as Cecil’s hook begins to fade in: “We got cracks in our armor/Got cracks in the ceiling/and this axe that we’re weilding will react when we’re feeling that/Crack/Attack/Attack and we’re on you like a Mack truck Your Honor/We are that fucking filthy.” Sims launches straight from that into his verse, which is in keeping with his solo subject matter and style, with hints of dissatisfaction with the way society works now, a nod to a famed song twisted and lightly tinged with a mix of flippant honesty and sarcasm (“You’re so vain/You probably think it’s about you/Well it is and it ain’t/And it ain’t, but it is…”), as well as a nudge to his recent album, which centers on the same topics. Mictlan follows with the tongue-twisting tattered thoughts that have become his preference, alliterating and rhyming incessantly in a stream-of-consciousness-like flow that touch on ideas that crop up in DTR records intermittently (“Light the rag on your cocktail”–how on earth he and Stef manage to find clever ways to reference Molotov cocktails so often is beyond me), as well as the growing theme of the group’s prowess at their collective chosen profession. Stef (P.O.S.) follows with hints of the solo album he’d follow this one with, We Don’t Even Live Here, which circles his mentally defined in-place anarchism¹ and further establishes that Doomtree rises on their skill and talent, not posturing or contrivance.

The energetic drumming introduction to “Bolt Cutter” leaves no hint as to the sudden drop to the slow, ponderous bassline that Stef’s hook brings with it (“My girl gave me a bolt cutter/We love to break in/And claim all the spaces they forgot they had taken/And all this is ours it’s gonna be what we make it/If only the stars were close enough we would paint them…”). It’s a deep groove that is set aside for a moment when Sims starts his verse, defined in tone by the first lines: “They said couldn’t have that/Square in the eye right back and said yeah, yeah/We gonna take it anyway, that’s that”), which brings a stretched squiggle of the bassline that acts as a tremendous underscore to his words. A light keyboard-type interview intercedes and eases the whole track, before Dessa’s ever-melodic voice floats her words in over it, “You know, I’ve seen a little glory/And your trinket isn’t it/Save your voice I know the story/Man abandons sinking ship/I heard you did your dissertation on the rise and fall of man/Said the golden era’s over, but we’ll rise and fall again,” picking up Sims’ lines and then smashing the delicacy of her part of the beat with the final angry, despairing lines: “This ain’t Kansas, show of hands/If you said your prayers/now put em down if you got answers/This place it takes the faith of a mantis.” And it’s the perfect introduction for the hardened edges of the beat that Mictlan brings with him: “The strongest links in a chain are the first to get cut/Together til weall fade/Keep the blade in the gut/They kept us in a cage too long/To fake they care about us.” Stef carries the song off with more indicators that this subject was on his mind and fighting to come out on his own next album, “We play like birds prey/Anyplace warm stay/Love it/We own our space/Roam home/Any place aimed go.”

It’s strange to think a word most of us know best as originating in the movie Hook somehow inspired two nearly contemporaneous songs, but “Bangarang” proves that it happened². It’s a nice encapsulation of some of the Doomtree attitude to find the empowering call from that movie turned into a call to arms (so to speak) for Doomtree themselves (overpowering, then, the call that was “Doomtree/Time to let it be known/From the bottom of the bottle to the top of the throne” in “No Homeowners”). Mike’s hook is not just a hook for the song, but for the group–“Doomtree Bangarang/All these rappers sound the same/Beats?/Sound the same/Raps?/Sound the same/Wings/Fan the flames/Teeth/With the fangs/Ten years in our lane/Doomtree Bangarang”. Tying in to their logo–a set of teeth that indeed has wings, previously immortalized in “Traveling Dunk Tank” on that 12th False Hopes–there it is again!–with the lines “I’m tying to free up them wings/Trying to bear some teeth”, which was, of course, the title of my last writing on the group. Stef leads the charge, as he, Cecil, and Sims draw out the source of the album in the group’s core and need to express and unify, dabbled with their historical familial sensibilities, hard work and competition. Sims makes this explicit: “Buy I got ya’ll when I see y’all/And I keep ya’ll when the beat stops/I built more than a rap career/I got my family here.” And then he makes a simultaneously-fulfilled prophecy: “But some folks wanna jump up/With a sharp tongue and their fronts up/Like we got here by dumb luck/But they just wanna become us/That’s up when you come up/I move like a dump truck/Too long on the road and I earn what I hold/If you want it let me know I can burn your flow like–whew.” (If you did not know by the end of that line that he could burn your flow, you weren’t listening).

One of the other tracks to receive the video treatment (yeah go check those links above–all of them can be found on the DVD about the making of the album and surrounding tour, as well as the group as a whole, Team the Best Team. They show a bit of a show I was at, actually), “Beacon” is flush with the sound of a Cecil beat (indeed, it is one), a fuzzed out and light melody flattens until a rushing snare-heavy beat slides in below it all and Dessa launches into the first verse, the beat shifting when Stef enters with his own, the song pushing forward incessantly, bouncing on the beat and given its sway by the words of each emcee, an up and down patter from Dessa, and a swing from Stef, and then Cecil’s hook calms it all–“I know, I know/I know wake up, wake up/But I don’t go there, go there/She knows the way home”. He follows it with a verse, though, which is perhaps the most distilled appearance he makes on the album, so purely Cecil as he takes the hook and drags it with him–“You know your way home? You gonna be all right?”–and then drops the song’s title into place, though the running thought is of antagonistic relationship, brought home with the appropriate re-focus on self that Sims closes it out with.

The burst and fade of an explosion brings us “Punch Out”, lulling us momentarily into a false sense of security, the haunting loop of “Beacon”‘s closing return to its opening, distress signal-like beat still echoing around. But then the drums roll in–and roll, and roll, then thunder down with the blinding mass of sounds that mark Mike Mictlan’s mastery of sound, a track that swaggers with the same feel that Mictlan and then Sims bring to it. Mictlan calls it all out without any need to lower his voice or release his emphasis, but Sims turns it around to something more laid back, yet completely in keeping with what Mike established. It’s just under two minutes and by far the shortest track on the album, and seems just right for that–they can punch you out in no time flat when it comes to rapping, and the two of them do it alone.

“Little Mercy” gives us one of the best emcee pairings the group can offer when they are reduced to any two: Cecil and Dessa. Guest vocalist Channy Casselle brings the sound of a loop extracted from something riding the line of gospel and soul at its most bittersweet, though it’s not a found recording, of course. Cecil’s hook is lengthy but brilliant: “Now the candle’s in the window and it’s open/We watch the flames duke it out with every gust/No, it must just burn to the bottom of the wick/It’s the bottom of the fifth and that shit is still burning”. It’s another of his solo beats, and you can tell, that high-end heavy approach to drums in the beat, and the semi-scarred, sinewy melodic approach over it. Dessa’s on her more snarling and aggressive side, giving a kick to the more subdued vocalization Cecil favours, which seems to inspire his ending verse, which she joins him for in a unified run through of those last lines. Except for the last few, where her voice drops away, highlighting the tone of his words (“We’re so thirsty…”) and making them that much more desperate.

The intro to “The Grand Experiment” (one of the tracks heavily previewed before the album’s release, if memory serves) sounding for all the world like a triumphant moment in a Tron-era game (in the best sense possible) before the chattering beat and similarly analogue-like synthetic melodies tell us Cecil’s hiding in the background again. Dessa casts off her verse like it’s nothing (when it is the opposite), while Stef’s hook is one of the moments his experiences in music outside rap shine through, with sung lines that don’t sound like you might expect a sung rap hook to sound. Sims keeps that head-bobbing rhythm to his verse that is like an engine chugging at full power, while Cecil drops his acidic salesman’s pitch–a snake oil salesman, that is (“But wait it comes with a warranty for a week and that’s respectable/It’s cheap and it’s ethical…well, it’s ethical…well, it’s magical really.”) Mictlan carries the track’s thoughts of the underhanded and endemic problems of modern man that everyone has rapped about to their conclusion, the contradictory strains of desire to change and recognizing seemingly inevitable collapse unconcerned with their conflict.

“String Theory” is built on a Lazerbeak beat in the old style–the kind we’d hear on Hand Over Fist, or the solo works of P.O.S. and Sims. Sims and Dessa (another great pairing, it must be said, as “The Wren” is immaculate) lay out a more cerebral explanation for the kind of self-confidence and raised Doomtree fists the album throws up regularly, and moves at an easier pace for it. Hearing them trade lines at the last verse is worth it alone.

The horns Lazerbeak builds the beat to “Team the Best Team” on sound as if we’ve reached the final, triumphant track of the album–but we aren’t there yet. There’s a flutter to the horns that hides behind the more audible portion, occasionally receiving its own spotlight, and tied together with a rolling bass line. Sims, Stef, Cecil, Dessa and Mike rap like they are a Rocky at the top of the steps–not putting their confidence in the face of detractors, or raising fists and voices in victory, just assessing achievements in retrospect–hands on hips and nodding with the slightest of smiles, knowing where they are and how they got there, and where that is to them, whatever it is or isn’t to anyone else.

The light pummel of the beat in “Gimme the Go” may or may not be Stef’s responsibility, but it at least echoes the kind of beats that would appear in his solo work, be they his, Beak’s or Cecil’s (the other two being those who share responsibility with him for this beat). Cecil and Sims are like gunfighters as they spit here, confident killers, at ease and utterly in control, yet chomping at the bit to prove their skill. The beat is big, but stutters, sputters and rattles as if cowed by the words on top of it.

There’s a vocal sample in “Own Yours” that has a light touch to it, and it’s allowed to exist almost in isolation for the introduction. A few light snare rolls announce the onset of Stef’s words and the clap and clatter of the beat’s hardest points. His verse as well as Sims’, Cecil’s and Mike’s all hold to the thought of struggles not yet over, be they related to their career choice, life, society or anything else–the specifics aren’t important, only the willingness to trudge on through it. Beak’s hook (reminiscent of his solo foray, Legend Recognize Legend) lays this out clearly: “And the roof caved in and the porch lights froze/And the woods lay thin and the torch light grows/You may find yourself in a corpse-like pose as you go/And the tombs spread out and the birch still grows/And the fumes head south and the earth will slow/You may find yourself on a search for gold as you go”–it may have been horrific, and it will be again, but there’s something to see, and things continue to go on. The beat doubles its tempo under Mike’s flurry of words, and then seems to fade, but returns at a slow warp to carry Cecil through to its end: “But the long and short is…/We got no shortage/We got our pain on payroll/Paint on the canvas with the face of an angel”. These struggles are fuel.

After “No Homeowners” it comes as no surprise that the group can pull out a monster closer. Everyone who makes beats contributes to this last one, “Fresh New Trash”, but it’s not a mess of those varied styles, it’s cohesive and brilliant: horns and bass with hints of drum announce it with the feeling of momentary finality tinged with a subtext of relaxation. Sims takes the first verse, and with it comes a stutter of drums, and the loss of the horns, for a suddenly empty space that his voice fills, that half-sung little hook he sticks in brilliant and perfect for the subdued tone of his words (“Hey, all right, okay…”). There’s even a little organ for him, but the horns come in with dropped low end to bring in Cecil, whose last words over the re-introduced horns and stuttering drums are the perfect lead into Stef’s hook: “Let it go/Let it roll on past/Don’t hold back/Understand it’s over before you know…” the beat changes entirely when Stef’s verse starts, all descending bass and a punkier tone. Horns come back for Dessa’s proud words (“I’ve been boom/I’ve been bust/I rep Doom/Til I’m dust”), but it’s Mictlan’s verse that brings the whole thing home, buys it a nice dinner, tucks it in and takes care of it for the rest of its life. You can hear the absolute passion and reality when Mike says: “This isn’t indie rap/This is 10 years/stress and tears/sweat and fears/Acceptance from our friends and peers/And everythign that’s brought us here/It’s written on my face/You can see it when I close my eyes/and sing a Dessa Darling line/the realest thing I never wrote/Quote me anytime/”It’s win, lose or tie”/Still Doomtree til I die/even after death and dirt/let em know who said it first/and put it on your favourite shirt:/Rap Won’t Save You/Sell ’em absolution with a verse.” We hear that hook again and the album fades, but that brilliant track keeps echoing. There’s no question the sincerity here, nor is their any reason to question closing with those lines.

There’s a reason the inner sleeve of my copy of this record is signed like mad.

There’s something amazing about tracks like “Fresh New Trash” and “Prizefight” (from the Beak/Mictlan Hand Over Fist project) and “No Homeowners” and “Crew” (from Dessa’s Badly Broken Code) that is not easy to express. There’s something absolute and real, something that doesn’t fade when you actually interact with any of them as people, or see them perform, there’s something real and serious here, unpretentious and uninterested in fame, per se, yet thoroughly interested in gaining ground and territory. They remain their own label, with family and friends operating the logistics they don’t operate themselves–and they fund their new records with the proceeds from the previous ones.

This record is like a clarion call, or at least it should be–perhaps it isn’t and couldn’t be for them, but it is that to me. It’s cause to bring others to this music, which is brilliant and real and wonderful and has something for most everyone–even if you don’t like rap, a goodly chunk of Dessa’s material can edge more into other realms. Of course, that’s a frustration–I sometimes find folks insistent on pretending there is some wheat to separate from chaff in the group. Those songs make clear, even if not in the performances (which, honestly, should seal the deal) in their emotion that no such thing exists.

There are clever touches and callbacks and moments where their interplay in a song or an album is clear, when Sims and Dessa both casually reference ‘the golden era’ in the same sense, but in different ways, in “Bolt Cutter”–or the way that Stef would follow up on that idea in We Don’t Even Live Here with “Fire in the Hole/Arrow to the Action” and the line “Bolt cutter in the trunk/Bolt Thrower in the tape deck”. It’s a direct reference to the British death metal/grindcore band for sure, but it’s probably not so much a reference to the track he was just involved in–just a continuation of those ideas, and you can see the way they all came together from their past solo works and unified for this album, then spread back out away from it for more solo work, building on what they did together.

If you simply cannot stand rap, check out the lyrics on their bandcamp. Just read them, instead. You won’t get the full effect (at least, I certainly can’t ever read things like lyrics–or poetry–and get the full effect), but you might at least appreciate the way they all have with words, and the distinct styles that manage to come together so cleanly here.

In any case, I recommend this record about as strongly as I can, and there’s not much more I know how to say than that.

¹It goes like this: “This world’s gotta whole lotta locked doors/We decided not to live here anymore”–in other words, running into the socially-defined limitations on people, Stef decided to not live in that “world” anymore, and instead run on his own rules, within and beside society such as it is. Basically. That’s a starting point, anyway.

²The other was Skrillex’s, of course. More people know that one because he’s more famous. There was a stupid argument on YouTube (is there any other kind?) regarding it being “stolen” which I stupidly participated in, until we’d both dipped back so far that it really proved that it was ludicrous to think they were related. Which was what I thought anyway–not that the claim of theft from Skrillex was actually an inverted truth. Weird coincidence, but coincidence.

Day Fifty-Two: Dead Man’s Bones – Dead Man’s Bones

ANTI-/Werewolf Heart Records ■ ANTI 87047-1

Released October 6, 2009

Produced by Tim Anderson¹

Side One: Side Two:
  1. Intro
  2. Dead Hearts
  3. In the Room Where You Sleep
  1. Buried in Water
  2. My Body’s a Zombie for You
  3. Pa Pa Power
Side Three: Side Four:
  1. Young & Tragic
  2. Paper Ships
  3. Lose Your Soul
  1. Werewolf Heart
  2. Dead Man’s Bones
  3. Flowers Grow Out of My Grave
It’s always a puzzle, how to present this band.

It’s difficult to throw out a description of the band itself and get people to stop long enough to listen–two amateur non-musicians write strange, semi-macabre songs that they sing and play with a children’s choir. A novelty, maybe, or a curiosity–but more likely, it sounds like something you wouldn’t want to listen to.

And there’s that other thing.

It’s kind of like trying to present Brother Ali and skip over the fact that he’s a white albino Muslim rapper. It’s a lame pigeonhole, but it gets people’s attention, and his skills generally hold him up past those facts. That’s the sort of thing that should happen here, as well, but because we aren’t talking about simple, concrete facts that we may even deal with ourselves, it becomes different. But, of course, I can’t properly discuss an album the way I do and constantly write [redacted] for one of the two “founding” members.
So let’s just get this out of the way: the gentleman on the top far right of the cover in the waistcoast is Ryan Gosling. Yes, that Ryan Gosling. Now, we know that actors in bands usually lead to things like hilarious 80s references (I’m looking at you, Willis and Murphy), or embarrassing attempts to use star power to boost a mediocre band (it would be difficult to name all of those), or hobbies and passions unintentionally elevated simply because of that star power–in any case, it tends not to go well. That isn’t the case here, and Ryan generally disappears into the music, utterly separated from his sex symbol actor-y-ness (though you wouldn’t guess it from comments on Dead Man’s Bones videos on YouTube).²

I’m sure it was my long-lived love of Gosling’s acting (a chance happening upon 2001’s The Believer planted his name in my head long before The Notebook really, really broke him) that did direct me toward the group, but I can’t actually be sure. I believe it was in the days I was still wobbling between Facebook and MySpace as means of connecting with people and–especially–bands. I know the first thing I ever saw was a live recording of Ryan and partner-in-crime Zach Shields performing their song “In the Room Where You Sleep” on piano and simple drum set up, backed by their regular co-conspirators, the youthful Silverlake Conservatory of Music Children’s Choir (all dressed for Halloween, though I’m not sure it was even recorded in October). It was a surprise–it didn’t make any (ahem) bones about Gosling’s semi-nascent star power, indeed his face is scarcely visible, though not deliberately hidden either.

This album actually came out on a heavy new release day for me, back in the Borders days. I remember the day quite well, as I was also out shopping for a gift for an important birthday, and listening to the album as I made that trip–though I also had a new Mission of Burma, a new Mountain goats and a new Powerman 5000 album with me as well. (Curiously, this previously-reviewd album and a few others I’ve purchased in the interceding years were also released that day–quite a day, so far as I can tell) I remember being quite pleased with it, though a bit disappointed in the differing sound of the track I knew alone, and quite focused on it and my new favourite track from the album.

It actually starts with a simple intro, the crack of thunder and howl of wind in the distance, a woman’s voice reciting a poem about leaving a dead love, the mention of the afterlife accompanied by those environmental sounds to really establish the tone of the album.

“Dead Hearts” has a mild heartbeat in it, but is shaped largely from haunting “Oooh”s, gently strumming acoustic guitars, and the airy vocals of Zach and Ryan. The heartbeat begins to pound faster and faster, timpanis pounding loudly but intermittently, and establish the one more completely for the album by weaving it into the music. When a glass shatters, and then more follow it, vague screams and distant choral voices that all lead us back to the subdued and insubstantial vocals we started with, I’m left with remembrance of Bob Drake (don’t worry, I think that’s a meaningless association for almost everyone else in the world). The song breaks down and dissipates almost completely, becoming little more than haunted house-like sound effects–it’s a ghoulish, but cheerfully so, kind of sound, and the one that actually defines the album and the group as a whole: it’s not grand guignol-type horror, it’s not quite Universal horror, it’s not even Hammer horror. It’s something like a tongue-in-cheek, knowing-but-sincere version of the German Expressionist horror most exemplified in Murnau’s Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens or Wiene’s Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari. It embraces the ghoulish aspects, and perhaps even the “scary bits”, without the 1970s (and later) infusion of gore.³

Modified from its first public incarnation in video form, “In the Room Where You Sleep” is now marked by a move from piano to organ (or at least keyboard mimicking one) for the keys, giving a bit more sting to the chords it is built on. It sounds something akin to the theme from The Munsters–not in terms of its actual melody, but in the campy horror sense. Shields’ drums are simple in both play style and recording (very “live”), though they are quite deliberately “enhanced for stereo”, engaging in a bit of panning left and right. The handclaps further engage the sensibilities of the song, keeping it in the sort of “campfire ghost story” range of horror. Ryan’s vocals are an appropriately campy croon, the kind that you might have expected in previous decades to result in a ridiculous video of him dressed in horror host style with heavy vampire makeup. It’s a simple song, but it charges along courageously, despite the limitations of our two primary bandmates. It has a moody outro of reverberating keys that lay the groundwork for the following track.

“Buried in Water” is all piano at open, ominous and dramatic in that Phantom of the Opera sense (not necessarily Webber’s, mind you, just that same kind of not-focused-on-scary approach), but it eventually becomes just solid chords, still heavily sustained, joined by the voices of the Children’s Choir, singing “Like a lamb to the slaughter/Buried in water”. It feels like the kind of practiced-but-not-a-distinguished-professional playing of a choir director, as ever confident behind the willful but uneven singing of young voices not groomed for professional vocal work. It would not be out of place in a school musical production–which is interesting, as this is actually the feel Ryan and Zach said they were going for in the entire project. When Ryan’s voice enters, it’s that of someone who knows of the town that is “buried in water”–he may be the ghost of a resident, or the one responsible, or just the guide informing us of it, though there’s the strong sense that he has a supernatural and not-entirely-cheerful aspect about him that implies that, if he is the guide, he is the guide responsible, or the undead guide from that town. The kids’ voices are used in a more expansive, normal (unquieted) fashion that lets them function more like a chorus in the background to our solo guide. The most unsure, young, and unsteady voices end the song, as if they are the final voices to be heard from that town.

The title implies it already, but “My Body’s a Zombie for You” is one of the more peculiar songs on the album (which is peculiar enough as an album–let’s be honest here). It lurches like the undead, but it’s tambourine, handclaps, bass, stomps and the semi-novelty inflected vocalizations of “Dum da-dump, ba bum bum bum bum…” And the kids answer with a similarly appropriate “Woah woah-oh…” that tells us this one is going to be a throwback to doo wop, if anything, and so it is. When the piano enters, it’s that steady, high-end hammering that marks midtempo tracks from that time frame and genre, but the voice Ryan uses straddles that and the subject matter at hand, the voice you might expect from a crooning zombie in the 50s–if somehow that seemed like something that might have happened then. Like the humourous tone of that film rendition of “My Boyfriend’s Back” (wherein he was back from the dead) but stuck into the frame and more serious performance of the original song, though a lot more downtempo. The kids just yell their line, which is exactly the title, and no more (or less). It’s all ended with a hand-clapping, foot-stomping, spelling-based chorus (“I’m a Z-O-M, B-I-E–Zombie!”) from the kids–reminiscent of schoolyard chants.

There’s no question or argument: “Pa Pa Power” is my favourite track on this album. It rides a groove the rest of the album isn’t even interested in laying down, and let’s Zach’s voice take the lead. He plays a simple drum beat that comes somewhere near sounding like the album’s fetish for handclaps, but isn’t. A synth and key hook runs throughout the song, primarily an insistent, low-end one but occasionally enhanced by the plinking fall of high-end notes that are light on their feet. The kids are used quite purely as backing vocals, but the song is dominated by the keys more than anything else, though Zach’s vocals have their place, with the rather obscure lyrics: “Burn the streets, burn the cars/Pa pa power. pa pa power…” As in many other instances: if your intention is to ignore the album, make an exception for this track, at least. It’s excellent.

There’s only one track the kids get to sing “solo”: “Young and Tragic”, the track that opens the third side of the record. It sounds like it could be something from one of the 1970s electronic artists at first, all synths oscillating and tonally blended keyboard playing, but there are lupine howls to betray its place on this album. Galloping drums take us into the song proper, but it suddenly drops when we get there, droning, funereal, somewhat bombastic. “I wish that we were magic/So we wouldn’t be so young and tragic”, the kids sing, and it’s like the sun rising warmth of a downer musical ending on a note of hope–acoustic guitars and drums, but returning us to the synthesizers. It slowly fades off, peeling off instruments and softening in general to gentle steel drums.

Returning us to the long abandoned art of the doo wop nonsense syllable, “Paper Ships” has no shame in starting with “Da dooby dum dum, dooby doo wa”, a backing melody of “Oooh” and gentle near-ukulele-pitched guitar.  Zach sings of being a ghost ship, of his love’s graveyard–the only hints as to the subject at hand, otherwise completely lost musically. The song shifts into an upbeat acoustic guitar for the chorus, which is sung by the kids with a full-fledged “Fa la la la la, fa la la la la–a ghost ship on the blue”. Ryan joins him following this, in a return to the shuffling pseudo-uke melodicism of the opening verses and their nonsense. Quavering, camp-horror keys wander around, as does a rather somber and serious cello, both of which are cast off for the outro chorus.

A good solid clippedy-clapping sound defines “Lose Your Soul”, with a rather hand-drum like feel to the rest of the percussion–dry, thin, nearly overpowered by the low-end poundings of piano keys that fill in the gaps to increase the pace without actually changing the tempo. Howling winds and expanding drums, synthesized accordion–it makes room for Ryan’s voice to begin an exceptionally low croon, uninterested in anything but the fact of his claim: “Oh, you’re gonna lose your soul–tonight”, with a lovely upswing on the final syllable. His voice is that of a ghost shrugging–it wobbles and wavers like a ghost’s is thought to, despite the lower-than-expected-for-a-ghost pitch of it. The heavy rhythm of the clapping keeps the song moving, and gives out a floor for the kids to turn in their best chorus, which rumbles along more like kids singing together than directed–feels a bit more natural to them as kids. There’s also a fantastic set of synth keys that are somewhere between clear electronics and woodwinds, used almost purely for texture. The whole thing suddenly turns shambling as it shudders to a stop.

“Werewolf Heart” sounds the most modern at first–pinging piano keys and acoustic guitar, even the addition of bass and drums doesn’t feel like it’s covering any peculiar territory. Apparently the basswork is producer Tim Anderson’s, and it’s the most obvious on the album, with a good deal of swing and professionalism. But when the voices enter? Ah, the first line is: “You’d look nice, in a grave”, and it gives a sort of gothic, macabre feel, despite the complete nonchalance, and the somewhat insubstantial approach to it. A female voice¹ does appear–the same one as in the intro to the album–and recites a few dark lines, and then begins to trade off verses with the two men who originated the project. She ends her appearance with one line: “Cause if the full moon comes/Our love is done/So forever/Towards dawn/We ride”, which signals the song to shift gears entirely: castanets and insistent acoustic chords (the kind often married to castanets) are met with the howls of wolves, screams, creaks, a growing background synthesized moan–both the hunter and the prey rising in the background–clattering, pounding, roaring, swirling–and the song ends.

I’ve always had a semi-silly affection for the semi-silliness of a self-titled song on a self-titled album (see also: Bad Company, et al.), and “Dead Man’s Bones” continues that. “Dig a hoooooole”, Ryan sings, thin, dry drums and muted guitar crunches that are expanded by a climbing bass. “Oh dead man’s bones!” sings the group of men, like a bunch of drunkards in a bar telling the newcomers of a local threat (if you’re thinking An American Werewolf in London, so am I–though this is far more cheerful as a warning, less, “Get out!” more “Oh, let me tell you a story, boys…”). Their voices lose any sense, need of, or desire for tunefulness, becoming very like speaking voices. The song rambles along, with the weird quirk of something like mid-to-latter Tom Waits or extra peculiar Nick Cave arrangements (almost more Birthday Party, perhaps). A woman crying, a sort of wail, delicate piano–and an undersung rumble of thunder bridge the gap between their verses. The lead vocals take on a very Cave-like delivery, before finishing on a mono-syllabic run of increasingly frothing words: “Six. Feet. Deep. Bones bones bones bones!”

There are just crickets and a faint acoustic guitar behind Ryan’s voice–speaking, telling a story of death and undeath (of course!), booming drums, a tambourine, and a sort of low singing-saw enter, with “Oh, oh, oh, woah-woah,” from female voices, establishing this as another doo wop fusion, replete with the short monotone repetition of keys that climbs only after numerous repetitions. “When I think about you oh-oh-oh-oh”, the kids sing almost Buddy Holly-style, and the drums and acoustic fill the song out, ending with the title: “…Flowers Grow Out of My Grave”, which seems to end it but for the sound of a probable studio error of dropped items, laughter and clapping. They fade in a repetition of the kids’ line, but seem to abandon it in favour of sustained synthesizer chords, overwhelming and reverberating which stop abruptly.

As frustrating as it is to try and explain the point of the band to someone while not latching on to the Gosling element, it’s almost more difficult to realize what a lost cause this is–as I’ve mentioned, if you go anywhere it’s almost a given that the focus is going to be on Ryan’s role in the project, and how amazing he is and so on and so forth. All of this may be true, but you never get the impression from interviews that this was his brainchild or anything, moreso that this was a truly collaborative effort between at least the two of them if not everyone that ended up working on the album.

It doesn’t help anything that it occupies a strange and unique place in general, being most closely related in my mind to The Skull Mailbox and Other Horrors that my dad passed me over my affection for the horrific things in fictional media (I guess?), which is one of the many truly random items that floats around my collection of music (and my movies are not too different for similar reasons). It’s quirky, campy, macabre, fun, ghoulish, strange–but really, there’s one word (and it’s one I often cast in a very positive light) that really shapes the joy of the album: sincerity.

Read any interview with the two of them, or any article about the album, and inevitably it comes up that they set out rules to restrict the production, performance, tweaking and other “niceties” of modern recording when they put this together. They are not professional musicians, limited their number of takes, and performed most instrumentation themselves (most places say “all”, but I’m inclined to agree with the listing below that gives roles to the people thanked in the liner notes). It shows, but not in an awful way–it makes things very real, live, and organic, and gives the whole thing an appropriate charm for what it is. And I suppose that’s what it all hinges on: whether you can appreciate the intent behind it, the sense of discovery, experimentation and clear-headed desire that drives a peculiar project right out of the park–but it’s the park they chose, and it’s a bit out of the way, and it’s a little weird, and not many people go there, and isn’t it haunted?

Yes, I think it is.

¹As is often the case for me, I find myself fumbling around for details on a release and getting distracted. Someone, somewhere, put together complete credits for an album that otherwise, honestly, doesn’t mention them. The interior of the gatefold (whether it’s CD or DVD) shows the choir, Zach, and Ryan, with first names only for each. Tim appears (as with the others, labeled only “Tim”), but some of the other people mentioned are thanked in the notes that run around the edge. Others have no record (ahem) of their appearance whatsoever, either in fuzzy profile photo, by name, or any other means. However, the matching of those names, the awareness that Ryan and Zach are both male and the choir is composed of children means I do know some female voice(s) appear in the album, and that they are, thus, otherwise unidentified. I’m not even going to try too hard to sort this out.

²There’s one other actor-infused group that hits on a sort of similar note–not as stylistically out there, but similarly averse to star-attachment, and built on a duo that seems like an honest pairing, rather than a forced grouping, and that would be Ringside. Otherwise, so far as I can recall, “actor turned musician” tends not to turn out as well as “musician turned actor”. Though I do listen to 30 Seconds to Mars as well, and what I’ve seen of Leto suggests he very successfully made the transition to charismatic frontman, rather than heart-throb actor. Maybe it’s indicative of that burbling level of fame he and Gosling both inhabit, or maybe I’m just trying to find patterns where there are none. Again.

³I’m not trying to build a case for some kind of overarching, pretentious cerebral aspect of this (nor encourage the notion that I am delving into some deeply intellectual secret myself), this is just how I actually hear the music. I am a movie fan, as I’ve mentioned in passing, and I am rather big on horror, but should not be mistaken for an expert, much as I shouldn’t in music.

Day Forty-Six: Cream – Wheels of Fire

RSO Records ■ RS-2-3802

Released August, 1968
Produced by Felix Pappalardi

In the Studio
Engineered by Tom Dowd and Adrian Barber

Side One: Side Two:
  1. White Room
  2. Sitting on Top of the World
  3. Passing Time
  4. As You Said
  1. Pressed Rat and Warthog
  2. Politician
  3. Those Were the Days
  4. Born Under a Bad Sign
  5. Deserted Cities of the Heart

I’ve traded records only a few times, and on occasion had some passed along from friends for similar reasons to trades, but without the actual “trading” portion of it. My good friend Kyle–with whom I once lived, alongside my friend John–dropped a few records (and some CDs) on me when he was in the midst of moving some time ago, as well as a few when I moved out of the apartment the three of us shared. As he doesn’t have the more technical expertise John has poured into equipment (as the one of us who has owned a turntable longest), he has had a turntable with a useless belt, pre-amp issues and various other things that precluded actual vinyl listening for some time. Between that, the move, and the fact that he planned to sell most of them, he gave me dibs on those records as a consequence of our friendship. Most of them reflected the variance in our tastes–John edged toward the truly weird and the normal-but-less-popular-classics as far as vinyl, Kyle edged toward progressive and improvisational classic rock, and I edged toward a weird mix of pop and post rock when we all lived together–and so I didn’t know the albums as well as I might have (and, to some minds of course, “should” have).

Most of the records I gathered from him over the years have sprawl as a hefty component–a natural side effect of the kinds of bands involved, I suppose. Of all the Cream albums to have, it almost makes sense that it was Wheels of Fire, but it could be coincidental, considering it’s also one that contains some solid tracks to the less interested in musicianship, too. I never got as far into Cream as he did, or really as much as any of my friends did. As I’ve mentioned before, my introduction to Clapton was through his solo material, and mostly the recordings that came much, much later. I did eventually pick up Fresh Cream and Disraeli Gears on CD for myself, though I’ve given them cursory listens at best–enough to get a feel for their sound, but not to really burn any of their work into my brain’s repertoire.

To be totally honest, when he asked me if I wanted Wheels of Fire (going through the titles he was planning to sell one by one, asking about each), I thought, “Sure, I’ve always liked Cream songs, and I should listen to them–plus I know that one has at least a single or two that I know,” and had no earthly idea this was a formatting relative of Pink Floyd’s Ummagumma, the Allman Brothers Band’s Eat a Peach and a handful of others: a studio LP paired with a live one. Knowing this wouldn’t have dissuaded me, but it likely would have had some effect on my nonchalance or mild enthusiasm. If there’s a Pink Floyd album I can’t sit through, it’s that one, whatever that may or may not say about me.

The collective inference you may or may not have made but I will now spell out is this: I’m not a musician, have never really aspired to be, and generally appreciate rather than enjoy extended improvisational music. I’m not a jam band person, either, largely–it’s possible for extended live workouts to appeal to me, even strongly, but largely they fall on at least semi-deaf ears with me. I’m not, as a result, going to get too far into the live portion, and it may leave this with the most negative comments I may ever write in this blog about the music to which I’m listening–which doesn’t necessarily make them negative, as I’m quite positive in general, just significantly less positive in this case.

If there’s a song I identify first with Cream, or at least the one I did most when the name was just a band name to attach to songs (as opposed to even the other simplistic assignments–“early power trio”, “supergroup”, “a band Eric Clapton was in”, et al.), it was “White Room”, without a doubt. “Sunshine of Your Love” may (quite reasonably) come first for many people, but “White Room” is it for me. The dramatic fall of the introduction–which I long thought was a vocal recording of multiple “Ooh-ooh, ahh-ahh”s (apparently live, it sometimes was) over Ginger Baker’s timpani, but is actually a strange recording of Clapton’s guitar, one string bent as far as he could (the others apparently removed to allow for this), and then overdubbed in a few different recordings–lends a good bit of drama to it as both a single and an album opener, though the framework of the song’s primary portion is, in a general sense, a recognizable “rock song”. Jack Bruce’s voice has just the right tenor–the kind he used for “Tales of Brave Ulysses” (which more musically inclined folks say is also musically similar), the kind that tells a story, but in this case given just a bit more melodiousness and “oomph”. Ginger’s drums are given their full space with their stretch between the left and right channels, sharp, clear and powerful from the playing alone, not just the recording and production. Clapton, of course, works in some wonderfully vocal and responsive wah-wah leads, which rarely occupy the same rhythms or melodies. The song was also one of my first introductions to the idea that a song could be named for words in the song that aren’t the chorus–an early lesson, of course, but a peculiar one. Speaking of the chorus, though, the way Bruce takes the power out of his voice and goes to such a gentle falsetto is brilliant for the strange, somewhat esoteric lyrics and the dramatic, psychedelic tone of the song itself.

While Baker and Bruce each co-wrote a chunk of the album’s studio songs (a roughly equivalent number), Clapton’s contribution was the selection of two songs to cover, both unsurprisingly coming from the blues. The first, “Sitting on Top of the World”, eases pretty slowly into being, but comes to life when Eric works in his first lead, fuzzy and felt, a little pause in the middle giving it the snap of its own flavour. Bruce and Baker really step back to let Eric (and his multiple overdubbed selves) shine on the instrumental portions of the track. Jack’s vocals are some of his most actually bluesy, which is not a style he often goes for, being more completely invested in performance (betraying, I suppose, his jazz background) than feeling. His bass is more able to insinuate itself into the feel, though, even as it is clearly relegated to supportive role by even the rhythm portions of Eric’s playing, though those function only to fill out the song itself. His leads drive it, with no question, and somehow manage, despite their intensity and regularity, to work as a part of it, rather than a display of prowess. Baker does have a wonderful faltering beat toward the end of the song that melds right into the stop-start nature of the main rhythm riff. This is, of course, Howlin’ Wolf’s arrangement of the song, though it was written and first recorded by the Mississippi Sheiks’ Walter Vinson and Lonnie Chatman.

Leaving Eric’s love of the blues behind, “Passing the Time” is one of the most acutely psychedelic tracks on the album, in the sense of bizarre, spacey instrumentation (Bruce mans a calliope, producer Pappalardi takes on organ pedals, and probably viola, though no one is credited for strings on the track, and co-writer Baker plays glockenspiel) and a sound that seems most appropriate for a serene introduction to a cultish animated movie. There’s an introduction that implies something else, haunting vocals over pounding drums from Baker–but they cross-fade into this strange fluffy but sort of quietly odd song. “Passing the time/Passing the time/Everything fine” the song suddenly pumps itself upward to guitar driven, rapidly-moving and harder material, Jack and Ginger seeming to compete for speed and control of the song, until they cross-fade again into the calliope and glockenspiel oddity of the song’s earlier portion. It’s strange, but actually kind of appealing.

Credited in all parts (except “high hat”, which goes to Ginger Baker of course) to Jack Bruce, “As You Said” is a rather pretty track, a mix of acoustic guitar and cello, alongside Bruce’s voice. It continues a bit of the psychedelic vein of “Passing the Time”, but reflects more on the artists that would record such music in acoustic and simple fashions, the odd studio trick the only concession to true weirdness (his vocals are occasionally modulated). The big downward slope of the cello is affectingly beautiful, though the whole song slides along without its clear rhythm: the hi-hat blends into the acoustic guitar’s strums nicely, giving the song its actual rhythm and a bit of extra sound without making itself explicit. It reminds me a bit of the way psychedelia could manifest itself with the Beatles–unable to escape the hooks and the prettiness, despite the unusual musical choices.

You would think “Pressed Rat and Warthog” would at least be an extremely strange song–and it is, but not as strange as the title might suggest. I thought perhaps an instrumental of a kind (there are a large number of those with very weird titles, because instrumental sounds could mean various things to various people, of course!). Instead, though, it’s Ginger Baker telling a story–to be fair, a weird one that fits the title (which names the two main characters, in fact), and is obscure enough to warrant that weird title, and its place on an album with such a psychedelic cover. Pappalardi actually controls a lot of the actual music’s sound, contributing trumpet that sounds like a respectful tribute to our “heroes”, with the backing for Baker’s actual recitation being backed by his own complicated drumming, very deliberate guitar chords and largely to-the-point basswork from Bruce. Out of nowhere at the end, just after Pappalardi’s last blow of the trumpet, Baker begins to work the drums into a frenzy and a wild and intense guitar solo comes flying out of Clapton, as if phased in from another recording, only to be faded out with the rest.

“Politician” is built on a slow, burning groove of a riff from Clapton, which almost steals the low-end away from Jack as he sings lyrics that merge a sleazy come-on line with the sleaziness of politics. The shmoozing attempts to court voters or women, showing no real allegiance to either, and even claiming one lean in place of another–the song is filthy on multiple levels, including that guitar riff in particular. Clapton does lay some leads over it, but they are icing and decoration (the appreciable and tasty kinds) over the steady, deliberate beat and the ride Baker nails it all down with. Jack works just the right kind of tone into his calls of “Hey, baby, get into my big black car…” to match the very sense of the lyrics and their unpleasantness.

With vocals that seem to be dragged around by the song rather than worked to accompany it, “Those Were the Days” brings to mind “Tales of Brave Ulyesses” in a slightly different way from “White Room”, as it matches more closely the style Bruce sang that previous track in. Musically, the song is interesting because it goes from a nicely complicated, signature Baker beat and a reasonably heavy guitar riff to the peculiar introduction of marimba and particularly tubular bells from Baker and Swiss hand bells from Pappalardi. While Bruce and Eric sing the chorus together, Baker begins to take the opportunity to work out, and leads the way for a scorching solo from Clapton that fades away with Baker’s relent to the regular beat (though it is not, in general, a completely “regular beat”) and the familiar verse and chorus melodies.

Clapton’s taste returns with “Born Under a Bad Sign”, the Booker T. Jones/William Bell song made famous by Albert King via Stax (remember how I said John’s taste ran to the less-popular-but-classic? That album was one of the reissues I remember him picking up–one of his first blues records). Unfortunately, this time it shows a bit that this is Clapton’s choice–Baker’s drums are good, they are well-played, as is Bruce’s bass, and his vocals are good too, but they don’t have the fire of the blues. Clapton recorded it later as a solo artist, and he got the kind of feel that blues vocals are based on: deep downs dredged up and forced out, while Bruce feels more like his focus is on the singing than the feeling. Clapton is alone in really feeling out the groove of the song, even if it is Baker laying down the beat to establish it. It’s not a bad performance–far from it, these are all expert musicians, but Baker and Bruce have technical skill attempting to mesh with pure feeling, and it just doesn’t quite gel as well as it should. Were it not a cover of such a classic, or even instrumental–it’s largely Bruce’s voice that feels wildly out of place–I could have no complaints.

The studio album closes with “Desert Cities of the Heart”, which pounds forth from wildly strummed acoustics (courtesy of Bruce, who again appears as vocalist), a mostly frenetic drum beat from Baker that is punctuated quite emphatically with four very concrete beats. The sudden introduction of strings (primarily Pappalardi’s viola, though Bruce also contributes cello again) slows the song for a moment, Bruce dropping his energetic bass to a steady monotone, and Baker keeping his drums back to allow the strings their space. Clapton’s solo is of a different stripe than his prior ones, actually seeming to sound more like a ribbon of sound than the squealing high tones of his bluesiest work, quavering just slightly. It’s a no-questions-asked winner for the album, and this may also be Baker’s best studio drum work on here, ending with the crash of all instruments in unified style, but with a scattered end of toms that puts the proper grace note on the studio work.

Live at the Fillmore¹
Engineered by Bill Halverson
Mixed by Adrian Barber
Side Three: Side Four:
  1. Crossroads
  2. Spoonful
  1. Traintime
  2. Toad

In general, I tend to be inclined toward the views of many who can pass on live albums. It varies from group to group of course, and is often at least partly dependent on the material, performances, venues, time frame and numerous other factors in determining whether the recording interests me personally–while I’d like to be able to treat the entirety of my writing here as a means of evangelism and advocacy, I am like anyone else and do not like everything I hear. That Cream had not previously recorded a studio version of Clapton’s arrangement of Robert Johnson’s “Crossroads” makes it a worthwhile inclusion for certain, as it is one of the most wonderful and blistering excursions into classic blues the group ever put together. It’s followed, though, by the extremely extended recording of “Spoonful”, another blues classic they recorded, but this one previously appearing in studio form on Fresh Cream (in the U.K., at least–yep, one of those again!). The live album is primarily intended as a showcase for the musicianship of the group’s members, with Side Three devoted to a focus on Clapton’s guitarwork, but the sixteen minutes and forty-three seconds of it is a bit much. “Traintime” is to show off Bruce’s harmonica work, and does the job, but also begins to falter on the “enjoyment vs. appreciation” test, which redlines on “Toad”, a showing for Ginger Baker’s drumming.

I like Baker’s drumming–a lot. I like a lot of drummers–I often surprise myself here with how often it’s the drumming that stands out to me. But drum solos are something I think tends toward the interest of drummers and drummers almost to the exclusion of everyone else, in terms of enjoyment. Appreciation can transform into enjoyment when you appreciate what’s occurring and the skill involved more directly, but that enjoyment can falter without that kind of appreciation. “Toad” I even found myself cursing when I thought it had returned back to the melody it carried in its original incarnation (also on Fresh Cream), only to be subverted again by more of Baker in isolation. The group improvises well on both of these extended tracks (though there’s a bit of a disconnect toward the latter half of “Spoonful” that grates a bit, where a few directions were attempted at once, but quickly reassembled), but it’s just exhausting. Perhaps another mood might change my stance, but this has often been my reaction to extremely extended versions of previously lengthy-but-reasonable (6:30 and 5:11 respectively) tracks.

■ ■ ■ 

The studio album surprised me a bit in its psychedelic excursions–not because it had them, but because they were so willfully experimental. The notion of Cream as a power trio, as a hard rock originator, as a tight and steady band influenced heavily by the introduction of the blues–this kind of coloured my perception of what to expect from even psychedelic portions–thinking more in the veins of “White Room” than anything else, while the peculiarities of “Passing the Time” and “Pressed Rat and Warthog” were something else entirely. Perhaps that’s an indication of Baker’s aesthetic, but Bruce did contribute “As You Said”, which was unusually acoustic in instrumentation.

After listening, I think I appreciate the record more in general, but remain more pleased to have it as an extra branch of my collection–one I am glad to have, but not overtly passionate about–more than as a personal pleasure. These things do, however, often age well, and it may be that pulling it out at a later date will cause me to reconsider–maybe even the live album.

But I rather doubt that one.

  • Next Up: Marshall Crenshaw – Marshall Crenshaw

¹3/4 of these tracks were actually recorded at the Winterland Ballroom, not the Fillmore. It’s just the title given for those two sides. The Winterland was owned by the same promoter (Bill Graham) and did eventually become the locations of both The Band‘s Last Waltz and the Sex Pistols’ final concert.

Day Forty-Two: Coheed and Cambria – Year of the Black Rainbow

Columbia Records ■ 88697 52995 1

Released April 13, 2010

Produced by Atticus Ross and Joe Barresi
Recorded and Mixed by Joe Barresi and Atticus Ross
“Here We Are Juggernaut” Mixed by Alan Moulder

“If Man should decide to dabble in my affairs, then guardians must intervene. But, should I come forth to change the face of Man with you there to challenge me, then I shall return with the stars to destroy all I have made. Whether Man or I present that danger will not be told in the coming.”

Side One: Side Two:
  1. One
  2. The Broken
  3. Guns of Summer
  4. Here We Are Juggernaut
  1. Far
  2. This Shattered Symphony
  3. World of Lines
Side Three: Side Four:
  1. Made Out of Nothing (All That I Am)
  2. Pearl of the Stars
  1. In the Flame of Error
  2. When Skeletons Live
  3. The Black Rainbow

I intended, in my previous blog, to cover a lot of things over the course of time. It was ambitious in one sense, and completely directionless in another; I had a slew of ideas, a mess of bands, albums, genres, and thoughts to address, and no order to them, no way to encourage readership as I hoped. I suppose anyone writing publicly in this fashion wants someone to read it, but the idea for me was to try and convey and express the passion I feel for music as a listener first, and my writing was only the means to that end. A large part of the inspiration for that drive is the fact that it’s difficult for me to quickly or easily express anything so broad as my taste in music, and because there are so many factors that affect the process of evangelizing almost anything–particularly the preconceptions of intended audiences. I’ve always made an attempt–however rough, however futilely–to frame my own notions under the overarching guidelines of acclimation to the tastes, thoughts and feelings of others. But that requires both a willing ear and a sense of trust, and it’s difficult for the less devoted to concern themselves with a willing ear for something like this, and easy to lose a sense of trust with those who share any musical devotion.
In this respect, Coheed and Cambria are a great difficulty for me. I intended to write about them on that blog at some point because, quite simply, they are my favourite band. And that’s a loaded statement to make in a variety of ways, first and most obvious, because it defines a boundary of a kind: it says “I don’t like any other group more than this”. That’s actually a limited way of describing my feelings, as it’s really more indicative of a spike in a continuum, rather than a distinct slope or curved defined by points along their path. In some contexts, Coheed are not the appropriate choice, even for me. Certainly, they cover enough territory–moments of aggression, sadness, hope, so on–that they can fit most situations, but any sound cannot eclipse the spectrum it doesn’t include, and no one includes the entire spectrum of sound.
Secondly, and, in some ways most importantly, the reaction to the statement “Coheed and Cambria are my favourite band” tends to be immediate and visceral. Despite the size of their fanbase (somewhere, it seems, in the middle overall, or perhaps upper middle, maybe adjusted for age of the band–relatively large, in any case), they tend to remain somewhat cult-ish. This album and the one and a half (one was licensed and re-released) preceding it are on a very major label, and they’ve received radio airplay, won an MTV contest of popularity (there’s something to be said for the effort and will behind the fanbase on that one–it was an online poll many of us somewhat tirelessly assaulted with votes, and yes: “us”), so on and so forth. But they manage to occupy a territory that keeps some from paying attention and others from sticking around, as they manage to straddle progressive rock and the more “simple” and catchy elements of pop, dashed with a huge splash of geekery, and elder associations with “emo” in the most derisive of senses (though largely nonsensical ones).
When I make that statement, I can often see a light go out in eyes, as people struggle to not lose respect for my taste in music–hell, one of my (numerous) Coheed and Cambria shirts was the only one that ever inspired a total and complete stranger to yell out that the band “sucks” as they passed me. Other people feel they have an idea of my taste, see it as respectable for this reason or that (appreciation of the classics, varied taste in genres, appreciation of pet favourites, or semi-sung/unsung artists–whatever), or see me as knowledegable musically (my friend John said my previous blog was enjoyable to him, but did tend to require “a priori musical knowledge, and a lot of people told me it was overwhelming and difficult to follow without that kind of knowledge). But when I say “Coheed and Cambria”, there’s this sudden sense that it doesn’t jive; the choice is too obvious, or too popular, or too strongly associated with perceived commercial contrivance, or too “immature”, or not “metal” enough (obviously that’s a selective issue), or anything else. Indeed, those who have a very solid foundation for their opinion on my taste in music seem less taken aback and more lost in the need to find a way to politely decline to agree.
The object here, then, is to make some attempt–no promises at success–in explaining why someone who likes the kind of music I do, many things that would earn nods of approval from musical elitists of a variety of stripes would place this band first in his collection, to earn the band a sense of respect, even if not appreciation: to explain why this isn’t as incongruous as it seems, why that kind of snap judgment isn’t useful in the first place, and to throw the weight of the things I do appreciate in behind a band that’s stuck with a reputation (in some circles) of being purely the taste of those who have “terrible taste”. I understand the feeling, as anyone who converses with anyone else about music will almost inevitably be struck both by the feeling that someone else has judged their intelligence and full range of taste by something they like (or fail to like), as well as the instinctive desire to do the same in return (or even first). I simply want to try and at least stand them on their own two (eight; about twelve if we count past and current members) feet and purge the questioning of taste from someone who mentions them in a positive light.
While my introduction here is already rambling on a bit, a little background on the band as well as my experience of them feels entirely appropriate with regard to the object of this blog as is in crystalline focus with this particular entry. I was first introduced to them around the end of high school and the beginning of college, Second Stage Turbine Blade and In Keeping Secrets of Silent Earth: 3 having both been relatively recently released at the time. The truth of it is, they fell into the crowd of bands I couldn’t tolerate at the time–Claudio Sanchez’s notoriously high voice grated on me, as it does many (which apparently he himself knows, as he mentioned this being a barrier for some people in a recent interview), and it came from a community that edged on elitism, riding the crest of an underground current that sometimes seemed partly aimed to define quality via those particular factors. I semi-graciously declined my interest, and relegated them to the place I kept Thursday and Atreyu–possibly interesting musically, difficult to accept vocally.¹
It was six years before they really crossed paths with me again. I’d been working at Borders for some time, and had begun to experiment musically with things I’d resisted. I’d started hanging out with the person who became my best friend after work, who was not a huge music person, but was an enormous Coheed and Cambria fan. She insisted I should try them anyway, nudging the comic books (we’ll get to that) at me, telling me I should at least read those. I relented, to some extent, because it was an alternate media that drew me in–bizarrely–to Harry Potter as well, which I’d initially also discarded as “boring” from the context in which it was initially presented to me. I enjoyed the story well enough, but still could not deal with them musically. However, being in the state of willingness I was in, I took it upon myself to keep an eye out as I began to peruse the now-closing-forever Circuit Citys. At the local one, I found a copy of Good Apollo, I’m Burning Star IV, Volume 2: No World For Tomorrow–externally labeled as just No World for Tomorrow–and by the fourth track–“Feathers”–I found myself catching on. By the end of the first playthrough, it was done. Within a month, I had all four then-released albums. I pre-ordered the then-upcoming limited live boxset. I bought the album released by Claudio’s side-project, The Prize Fighter Inferno,  My Brother’s Blood Machine. I saw them live once, twice, three times, four times–number five is in a few weeks.
For some, “The Concept” (as it’s most commonly known, though often also “The Story”) is what drives interest in the band. This isn’t a necessity by any means–I had no clue what was “going on” when I first listened to No World for Tomorrow. To this day, it’s not as if the albums are internally chronological, even as they are placed in order as whole works. The way Claudio writes the lyrics, too, does not always make it apparent who or what is being addressed–there’s a feeling and a tone, the real-life events that inspired the parts of the story usually being conveyed directly, as are the emotions. It’s more like a sort of emotionally-inflected slice of the story, a feeling for what its mood is at that point, for what the characters are thinking or feeling at that time, even if you don’t always know what that time actually is.
The world of Coheed and Cambria is one that takes some explaining, but centers primarily on Heaven’s Fence, a set of 78 planets arranged into a triangle, held there by the Keywork, a visible energy that binds and holds them in place, originating on the Stars of Sirius, 9 heavenly bodies that manifest, process, and push out the energy of the Keywork. It’s a world that has three tiers of entities: the humans we all know, love, and happen to be; the Prise, a sapphire-skinned race of blonde angelic entities, believed to be tasked with upholding the divine order of things; and the Mages, 12 powerful beings who each rule one of the 12 sectors of Heaven’s Fence. The universe’s holy book, the Ghansgraad, sets forth the prophetic orders I quoted at the beginning of this entry, above the tracklist. It was the Prise tasked with understanding this statement, and of acting at the right moment to prevent unintended challenges to God, whose hand was attributed to the pen that set it down.
The details are all set out in The Amory Wars, the comic book Claudio wrote (and later co-wrote with comic book great Peter David) to tell the story of their debut album, The Second Stage Turbine Blade, and recently In Keeping Secrets of Silent Earth: 3 (as well as a planned-to-be-replaced version of Good Apollo, Vol. 1: From Fear through the Eyes of Madness). The story of this album, though, is set before those, which end completely with No World for Tomorrow, an as-yet unclarified story that ends everything (in what is generally accepted to be all senses). It is told not in comic book form, but in a novel Sanchez co-wrote again with David, and which was included in the limited deluxe edition of the album in CD form (which I have signed by both of them and the rest of the band as it existed at the time).
This is the story of how Coheed and Cambria–they are a pair, a man and a woman, of a sort–came to be, and of how Wilhelm Ryan, who became the Supreme Tri-Mage and malevolent antagonist of the story, rose to the power he used to deliberately challenge God in His seeming absence, of the way these two stories are interwoven, of the fallout from them, and of how we found ourselves where we did in The Second Stage Turbine Blade. Many of the simplistic facts about this story were already known: obviously, Ryan had done away with the other Mages, and we knew that Leonard Hohenberger was responsible for KBI–Knowledge, Beast, Inferno–the IRObots also known as Cambria, Coheed, and Jesse Kilgannon respectively. How he created them, why (beyond “to stop Ryan”), and who he was were a mystery, as was the way in which Ryan consolidated the immense power and totalitarian rule he enacted.
Without further ado, then, I present: Year of the Black Rainbow.
As with their previous albums, Coheed opens with a brief instrumental introduction, though a more nebulous one than the others, in “One”: howling winds, creaking strings, haunting piano, thunderous rumbles, electronic reverberations and a sense of desolation, the extended and darkened calm after a storm, or perhaps hinting at its advent.
“The Broken” was the first track they released before the album, and it builds directly from “One”, a sort of whine turning to heavy riffs, ones that spiral off into leads from the second guitar–neither is distinctly lead, as both have thorough chops–of Travis Stever, the momentary venting of an inexorable tide of crushing destruction manifested in the riffs that precede them. Rising tremolo announces and backs the chorus’s rise: “The world looks better when you’re falling/Grace to comfort enough to crawling/Divided we must/Pray for the broken no one can fix us/We are, we’ll always be, the wronged”. The coiled tension of the lead that snakes through the entire song burning away into a clever, furious, high solo after the second chorus, turning to a bridge that features Chris Pennie’s drumming, which had not yet been heard in the studio with the band–a style more technical than original drummer Josh Eppard’s primal feel. “We are, we are…” Claudio sings as the song builds into a repeatedly collapsing version of the initial riff that finally falls flat to a small squeal of distortion.
When I first saw the band play “Guns of Summer” live, I had confirmed for myself something that apparently the people next to me had also noticed: this riff is ridiculous. Claudio’s fingers do not sit still for a moment as a nimble patter of a riff that looks and sounds like someone flexing each of their fingers rapidly and independently. The song is very dense as a result, a sound something like bubbling liquid and rapid machinery–to think, and indeed know, that he sings over this is absurd. Pennie’s drums set this pace, restless but consistent, and heavily syncopated. When the chorus hits and their guitars turn from what you could be forgiven for thinking is a sound produced by the album’s keyboards, it’s not for the force of aggression, but the clear movement and power of them–drama, not anger. At an aural “distance”, the verses are not easily recognizable as normal instruments, but the chorus makes clear the drums, bass, and guitars present, not simplifying to overly basic beat or chunky riffs, but separating enough that the beat has distinct emphasis. It’s an unusual sound–at first more impressive than anything else, as the strange pace and sound doesn’t feel at all like the kind of riff you’d build from as a primary one, but eventually works itself into a kind of sense, emphasized by the chorus’s clarity. Let me just reaffirm, though: Pennie’s performance and part is beastly, and the solos Travis and Claudio squeal, squawk and torture out of their guitars are interesting for their modification into fittingly inhuman sounds. Perhaps oddly, this is the song of the loss that inspires everything that was to come in the story.
The first major single from the album so far as the rest of the world was concerned (ie, not those of us paying extremely close attention), “Here We Are Juggernaut” rumbles in on electronic bleeps and a distant windy buzz. Almost unnoticeable, Travis actually plays through a talkbox for creative and interesting sounds through the verses, a catchy riff that splashes down with his talkboxed yowl and a slide up the strings. Claudio sings the verse close and low, but the lead to the chorus brings in his voice as it is best known: “Bodies breaking/Drive me crazy/This is not your place/No this is not your playground/It’s my heart”, and on the last word his voice soars, as does the rest of the song, entering the chorus, maintaining the energy and passion pushed in already: “We were stupid/We got caught/But nothing matters anymore/So what/Here we are, juggernaut”, the guitars digging in their hooks with a more upbeat, higher-pitched variation on their original riff, dancing all around it and keeping the energy up at its peak. A pause follows the chorus’s second repetition, guitars slowed and methodical, Claudio’s voice calming its power and turning to the kind of peculiar emphases he often employs, morphing many vowel sounds into unexpected shapes. He drops even this, though, and sings as an aside, before they blast off again into the heights of the chorus, the final words repeated, the song held at its greatest height all the way to the end, with a last not left to ring out and fade of its own accord.
Often looked at strangely by fans–either as a peculiar love, or a failed experiment–“Far” is quite unusual: it’s a rhythmic, pounding track with a scatter of atmospheric, vaguely fuzzed distorted guitar. The beat is more complicated than a heartbeat yet still resembles one in the way it seems to pump larger then smaller valves. Stever and Sanchez just dance across the top, guitar-wise, even at the chorus: “Please/This is what I can give/What else do you need from me?/I might be sick, broken, torn to pieces so/Whatever this is, this thing that now I’ve become/You hate it so much/You keep on running from it/No matter the distance/Oh/No matter how far”. Here we get to hear one of the things that turned me from loathing to love when it comes to Claudio’s voice: when he sings “it”, he employs not only his unusual vowel sounds to make the word fit musically (as opposed to doing it to force a rhyme, for instance), he also makes it almost undulate, a touch that tells you he’s thinking about what he’s doing with his voice beyond how to sing the words as they are. And the effect is almost always (probably always, but just in case) not just interesting but appealing and catchy. The bridge for the song is odd, as it is saw-like in sound, lower than all the other guitars in the song, less about spikes and peaks or burst of emotion than an appropriately rhythmic emphasis that matches the song. The solo that follows it is sheets, sprays of sound, sparking lines instead of the flickering points that normally mark the idea of sparking. 
Seemingly played from a good distance away, the beginning of “This Shattered Symphony” is a single guitar riffing furiously along to one of the more simply played drum beats, but a wailing second guitar slowly turns the volume up, until the instruments are quite suddenly right in their expected aural place. This time Travis and Claudio are playing tonally contradictory parts to a single mood’s effect: at the high end, one hits chords in mostly monotonic repetition, the other plays a smoothed out, slightly calmed form of the riff that started things: despite this, there’s the feeling of forward movement of events outpacing the ability to think and act, or keeping them at the bleeding edge–events beyond control. When Claudio starts singing, though, it’s with dark acceptance–“Oh, I’m giving up the one I love/I’ll conduct the great disaster”, his riff relentlessly forward moving, but Travis’ higher part now slowed and tinged with the resignation of Leonard Hohenberger’s relenting. They come together as guitars to build to the chorus: “Go on and give me the gun/Nevermind what I’ve done/They left me no choice/Oh, they left me no choice”. The call to “go on and give me the gun” noticeably distressed–no doubt reflecting the moment that Leonard’s wife Pearl has leveled one at him, indeed over what he has allegedly done. The song ends with backing calls to “Give me the gun”, accelerating toward a break in the tension that ends with electronic noise.
“World of Lines” was a later single, matched to footage from Metropolis in video form, Pennie’s drums the closest they ever sound to Josh Eppard’s, a thumping response to the upward slopes of the frenetic riffing, the only sound that continues below as Claudio’s voice enters. Despite the steady beat, the song seems to speed, then gain power as he works into the clashing sounds that mark the chorus’s entry, which expands with a more repetitious riff, elaborated on with a second guitar’s melodic touches, but is stretched by the held notes of Claudio’s voice: “Just leave us alone/If it’s not worth the letting go/It’s trouble/Woah, woah”, a complete shift following this, the tempo changing entirely, the rhythm hitting a completely different emphasis. In many ways, the most “normal” song present here.
Normally chugging riffs imply a certain genre of music, or at least a sound that resembles it, but here the word is appropriate more because it’s like the steady chugging of a machine, an engine of some kind that is driving “Made Out of Nothing (All That I Am)”, the riff cycling around steadily, even the higher lead from Travis like another part of the machinery that simply runs less constantly. The chorus turns into a lengthy, high hallway though, each syllable stretched away from the previous and into the next: “Someone please come shelter me from”, the stretch lost and the vocal pacing more than doubled for the catchy end: “All that I am/Never again will I believe/Same old story”. It’s a solidly forward-moving song that ends with a reverberation that braces us for the quiet track to follow.
The only song title to explicitly reference a character on the album, “Pearl of the Stars” is Leonard’s paean to his grieving wife, a declaration of love and empathy, devotion and attempts to understand. Clean and gentle guitars let Claudio enter with his voice quieted and unusually low until Pennie’s light and simple drum pattern and Mic Todd’s thumping bassline puts his voice in another pitch, moving from describing his sympathetic pain at his wife’s current emotions, to the much warmer description of how he feels about her in general. When the chorus spreads the song out, a toy piano, sustained bass from Todd, and viola from guest Brian Dembow underwrites the sincerity of it all. The chorus shifts again, from singing about Pearl to singing to her: “When you go, I will know/Follow you to the stars/And when the world burns apart/There’ll be a place for your car/I’d give you everything, if only I’d’ve known you’d take it/But you don’t/Cause you’re you/That’s why I’ll always love you/My Pearl of the stars”…impassioned, pleading for anything he can do to relieve her grief. Perhaps the most normal of solos follows the chorus, the tone similar to that of Jerry Cantrell, the sounds extended and firey, resembling more the chorus’s emotions than any others. After it, he sings the chorus quietly, in the voice the song opened with, as if telling himself instead of her, but reconsiders, and repeats it again at full volume, Pennie’s drums now more constant, all pounding toms and drama.
While I always imagine I don’t like the last half of the album as much, “In the Flame of Error” is always the song that reminds me my memory when it comes to those things is terrible. It comes in as descending, tension-filled introduction, the curling, densely constructed riff and drums all bound into a knot of sound under Claudio’s voice. But it’s the chorus–oh this chorus: “I’ll be no good this time defines/I’ll put my touch around the grip of this knife/These dirty hands just won’t come clean/I’m a murderer/The worst these worlds will see”. His voice seems to stick to one note at first, but the rhythm chokes up when “good” comes after “no” a moment faster than you would expect, then “time” leaps upward, and “defines” steps back to zero and then slings itself just slightly upward from there. Like a zig-zagging line, he works the lines into rigid shapes that are extremely appealing and strangely rhythmic despite working outside the lines of the basic beat. When he says “I’m a murderer”, it’s spat out rapidly, crammed in where it won’t fit, but with enough space after it to know this was a deliberate choice: Hohenberger is aware of hist mistakes and the inability to change them, but has no sense of forgiveness for himself–hardly a surprise, considering his crime–only self-loathing and anger. When it comes around the second time, a second line extends the chorus: “Oh save me from defeat again/This is war”–mimicking but modifying the sound of the original chorus’s lines, then ending with a slow vibrato on the last word. Stabbing guitars  push at a bridge that works on pummeling drums, the title of the song appearing, each word punctuated by rapid bass kicks. Breaking for pained howls from a guitar, the song launches back into the chorus two final times and then burns out on feedback,
The sound of “When Skeletons Live” is the guitar sound that is most identifiably “Coheed and Cambria”: a sort of crazy-eyed mid-range, slanted guitar riff. There’s an unusual slowing worked in as the song turns to chugging (this time in the more popular sense) guitars, Claudio’s vocals following them after a few beats in an unexpected way, a sort of delayed punch, before the steady beat and riffs of the chorus, which let’s his vocal choices really come out: “When skeletons live inside your closets, thick and thin/You’ll fear that no one will hear us sing our songs/The truth is relevant but not for long/’Cause love is our downfall”, particularly in the wild scaling of “fear”, which hits at least five different notes and makes for an excellent little hook. Muscular guitar follows this, a whispered backing vocal that hides underneath the layer of instruments from his normal singing voice.
Year of the Black Rainbow is the fifth Coheed and Cambria album, but the Roman Numeral “I” is displayed upon it, as it functions as the prequel to all preceding albums. It makes “The Black Rainbow” rather strange and appropriate for what it is to the album and to the story. A strip of sky stripped of all atmospheric interference to leave a gaping “wound” in the heavens about the residents of Heaven’s Fence, it is unclear to everyone what this means–many take it as a sign from God, Ryan taking it as a failed challenge to the power he is grabbing, Ambellina of the Prise taking it as a sign that they are to act against Ryan, despite the doubts of the rest of the Prise. Claudio breathily sings the opening verse over lightly churning synthetic percussion and quiet guitar, Pennie joining with the boom of large toms and gentle splash cymbals, turning to a steadily advancing snare beat. A roar of guitar predicts the monolithic, mournful but piercing and powerful lick that jabs it’s slightly wobbly way through the song, “It’s over, it’s over/It’s all coming apart” Claudio sings, the song building not in a distinct verse-chorus sense, but just arcing upward continuously, turning chaotic with electronic distortions, warping and washing sou–and then it stops. Dead. The churning of machinery from “One” returns, ominous murmurings and ponderous, horn-like melodies hidden and brief, leaving it all with a sense of fallen structures and failure, a distant laugh that would be best guessed as that of Ryan.
■ ■ ■ 
I’m not even going to get into the story of how this album was chosen, but I will say that it surprises me, as it was finally chosen by fellow fans. Admittedly, the two favourites (In Keeping Secrets and Good Apollo Vol. 1) are out of print/absurdly expensive and never-on-vinyl respectively, but the changes that occurred with this album put off a lot of people. No World for Tomorrow had drum parts assembled by Chris Pennie, but contractual obligations prevented him from appearing on the recording, and Foo Fighters’ Taylor Hawkins played in his place. Whether it was that fact, the change in producers (Michael Birnbaum and Chris Bittner produced all three of their first albums), the wandering tensions of a band dropping and gaining members back and forth over the course of time since their third album, the internal suspicions that they might break up–any number of factors, these two are the most maligned albums, by far.
Year of the Black Rainbow, despite this, could well be the most accessible album they’ve produced, with a possible exception for one of the two halves of The Afterman that have been released in the last few months (one only a week ago). It has always struck me that the shift in drummers and producers (I should also mention Year changed producers from NWFT as well, it being produced by Rick Rubin and Nick Raskulinecz) was also accompanied by a shift in sound. Not sound in the sense of how the three standing members played, but in the sense of an overall feeling. Year is a comparatively cold album, “One” and the end of “The Black Rainbow” really emphasizing this, the sounds resembling nothing so much as slow-moving behemoths, large, ponderous–and also somewhat threatening, drifting through an empty, shattered place (perhaps it’s The Howling Earth–the place where Coheed and Cambria stumble into an operation of Wilhelm Ryan’s and are faced with something surprising about the Keywork’s energy). I’m inclined to think the more technical drumming of Pennie emphasizes that shift distinctly, but that might not be fair.
For all that it does sound different, it is, in many ways, appropriately different: this is the fresh, clean, sharp, polished beginning, before Wilhelm Ryan asserts control, before Coheed and Cambria are created by the catalyst that starts to tear Heaven’s Fence to pieces–and eventually completes this as well. It’s more heavily electronic, more straight lines and sharp corners, up to and including the actual cover art, which is geometric and colourful, in contrast to the darkened and minimal palettes of previous albums. Maybe, indeed, the sense of slow-moving threat is that of darkening clouds gathering and drifting over Heaven’s Fence, there to sit and stay over the lives of everyone in them as the story progresses through the next (previously released) events.
I should also mention, for those who think of it: there’s a partial chronology to the album’s structure, story-wise, but largely it is muddled, and the way Claudio has written whole stories and the snippets that appear in the art for The Afterman implies that they function very much like I feel they do: impressions of events, the story molded to them, and them molded to the story, and some overlap inevitably left in the process, in service, generally, of the music, as the rest of the band is involved in that writing process.
In any case, the album gets a bad rap. I’m more prone to being disappointed with the first new album after I get into a band, and I was not with this one. I admit, there is some personal attachment to “Pearl of the Stars” that I felt, especially around the time it was newly released and for sometime thereafter, but it was largely the other songs that kept the album close to my listening in the year that followed its release.
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¹For a laugh, the first thing I have myself recorded saying about them is telling someone who now politely tells me they don’t do anything for him, “they suck, period”. In context, it might have been about another band (one I was extremely vehement about at the time), but I believe it was them. The next comment was “I despise their vocalist’s voice” to someone else, so, still.