Day Forty-Five: Elvis Costello & the Attractions – Armed Forces

Columbia Records ■ JC 35709

Released January 5, 1979

Produced by Nick Lowe
Engineered by Roger Bechirian

Side One: Side Two:
  1. Accidents Will Happen
  2. Senior Service
  3. Oliver’s Army
  4. Big Boys
  5. Green Shirt
  6. Party Girl
  1. Goon Squad
  2. Busy Bodies
  3. Moods for Moderns
  4. Chemistry Class
  5. Two Little Hitlers
  6. (What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding

While I’ve managed to cover bands from ItalyCornwallSwedenIrelandAustralia, and, of course various other parts of the UK (“other parts” references back to Cornwall, not Australia), I’m most definitely a U.S. citizen. I have always lived here, and indeed have never left here. As a result, many of my used records reflect the peculiarities of the U.S. market, and the alterations¹ thereof. While Mondo Bongo managed to squeak into my Boomtown Rats poll without warning, I decided, in the future, to notate these issues as they arise, in case anyone is voting on standing preference or favourites. Armed Forces is more distinctly transformed from its original U.K. counterpart, going so far as to be effectively unrecognizable even on sight. The tracklist is altered only slightly, though: “Sunday’s Best” is dropped from the middle of the early half of side two in favour of the closing inclusion of “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding,” E.C.’s cover of Nick Lowe’s song, which was originally released as the B-side to Lowe’s “American Squirm”, and credited to “Nick Lowe and His Sound”, though the cover does manage to hint at the artist’s true identity if you look (just a bit) carefully.

As a further result of my age, Costello was introduced to me primarily through Spike, and from there largely because of his hit collaboration with Paul McCartney, “Veronica”. I began to gather his work simply because it was available briefly on eMusic when I was in high school and I quite liked what I’d heard (a brief predilection for recorded chunks of various sets of music television, not all of it MTV, that my dad had tucked away on VHS meant I’d also heard, for example, “Oliver’s Army”). Indicative of why I do this blog in the fashion that I do, downloading a complete discography–especially one with the loads of bonus material that comes from digital releases of these albums, or did at the time–was overwhelming and meant I barely gave any of it a listen over time. Because I often played an artist’s work in chronological order, it did mean that what I did hear was mostly his earlier material. My Aim Is True and This Year’s Model were early physical purchases (on CD, in 2-disc expanded form), and this was the first, and for a long time only, album of his I purchased on vinyl.
While I’ve come to love albums like Trust more (“Clubland” deserves a lot of credit for this, but by no means all of it), it being a very deliberate purchase on vinyl in relatively recent years, the earliest of his² albums remain the strongest in my mind, possibly because of the sensibilities and production of Nick Lowe that they are imbued with. An excess of plays for My Aim Is True and the sense that one is “supposed” to pick This Year’s Model to prove some kind of taste (the closest I come to responding to those positions), Armed Forces may be my favourite of that first trio, though it’s neither easy (nor especially useful) to do so. When my parents and I went to see him about a year ago, though, I took no issue with the career-wide selection of material he played (though I continue to regret that the wheel never fell on “Clubland”).
Costello opens the album with his distinctive voice, singing, “Oh I just don’t know where to begin…”, but softens the creaking, nasal tenor that defines it by lowering it for the verses of “Accidents Will Happen”, Steve Nieve’s keyboards, as is often the case with the Attractions, take the melodic lead, though Bruce Thomas’s bass has its run of the lower end, and doesn’t seem content with rhythmic accent. Elvis’s guitar is nowhere to be heard, Pete Thomas (no relation) accenting the off beat in a rather standard backbeat, but clears away its snares and Nieve takes the rhythm for the chorus, giving a kind of jarring clarity to Costello’s voice, which emphasizes the first syllable of the song’s title sharply before relaxing for the rest. The wall of keyboard sound and Costello’s subdued vocal gives the song the feeling of his own lyric: “Oh I don’t wanna hear it/Cause I know what I’ve done”. The song is edged with the feeling of “Yes, yes, I know already,” but as a speaker, not an impatient listener. The fading repetition and tilted piano riff carry off as echos of a conversation had endlessly.
A wonderfully rubbery bass from Bruce hits all four beats, Pete joining him with some great, solid snare hits on the last three acts as the perfect balance to the delightfully escalating keyboard melody from Nieve as “Senior Service” begins, the brevity and power of Pete’s hits giving the entire song a bit of a stop-start feeling. Pete moves to the off-beats again, and Costello starts the song with the chorus: “Senior service”, answering himself with the rising pitch of his own “backing” vocal: “Junior dissatisfaction”. A lowered voice as on the verses of “Accidents” continues, bobbing to the halting rhythm: “It’s a breath you took too late/It’s a death that’s worse than fate.” The verses come without vocal restraint, but it’s all about that chorus. Even the “oohs” and sustained keyboard chords of a brief reprieve are short-lived, working us back regularly to the constant motion of the song’s brilliant chorus. That the chorus manages to include that evocative pair of lines and that clever inversion only makes it that much more wonderful. All too soon, it ends, at only two minutes, eighteen seconds.
“Oliver’s Army” has been Elvis’s best selling single to this day, and is focused primarily on the piano of Steve Nieve, the initial melody of which is distinct and sudden in its place after “Senior Service”: it’s dramatic and “big”, but falls back to organ-esque keys which hop around behind Bruce’s restless and very mobile bassline,  Pete half-stuck to the hi-hat for the whole song. Elvis sings the verses over this, but are joined by Nieve’s piano flourishes for the chorus, his voice here seeming to be trying to get out all the words before he runs out of breath, but without the exertion that normally marks that sound. It’s a stupendously catchy chorus, especially matched with the piano as it is. The subject matter is (unsurprisingly for Mr. MacManus–Costello’s real name, I should probably clarify) cynical and dark despite the cheery sound of the song, inspired, he has said, by seeing the extremely young soldiers in fatigues and carrying automatic weapons in Belfast. 
Crouched low, a quiet hum keeps “Big Boys” low to the ground as Costello starts the song off, effectively a cappella. “Everything’s so provocative/Very very temporary”, he sings, but as he goes on to the next line, “I shall walk,” the Thomases drop in a cool steady beat, backing vocals that bear the signature sound of E.C. himself repeat his words, as he gains in energy, before he reaches the chorus, where the escalation is unwound with a single drawn out, downward-winding word–“so”: “You tried, so-oh-oh hard/To be like the big boys”. Keyboard textures flash around the sides of the verse, the Thomases pushing insistently at the song. As the verse continues, Pete’s beat stays rocksteady, Costello’s voice starts to speed up but remain regular and steady. He answers each of his own lines with a simple phrase–“She’ll be the one”–but comes back around to the descending emphasis of effort, each repetition raising the pitch of “So”‘s descent before he finally ends with that calm “to be like the big boys”. 
A brief faux-harpsichord starts the knowingly paranoid wonderings of “Green Shirt”, steady 4/4 bass kicks back a monotone repetition of muted guitar strings. Every 12 beats, Pete adds four snare hits to his regular kicks, Nieve’s keys slowly fading in with the telltale synthetic sustain of electronic keys, Costello singing in quiet confidence, a hand palm out in front of his mouth to whisper aside to the listener “discreetly”. “Buy you tease/And you flirt/And you shine all the buttons on your green shirt/You can please yourself but somebody’s gonna get it”, he sings at the chorus, still close to the vest. The next verse has more of his clever lyricism: “‘Cause somewhere in the “Quisling Clinic”/There’s a shorthand typist taking seconds over minutes/She’s listening in to the Venus line/She’s picking out names/I hope none of them are mine”. After the chorus comes back around, Pete’s snare becomes a steady fixture, growing with a burping of Nieve’s electric keys, though the song builds on Pete’s drums only to drop anticlimactically to nothing but Nieve’s synthesizer. The sound on a synth often used to represent horns (poorly!) rises over the fading measures of the song’s end, never really leaving the conspiratorial, private “conversation” it begins with.
The low, beleaguered swing of “Party Girl” is like a party wound down, in its death throes but not yet devoid of the humour and good mood that previously defined it–drunkenness is fading, hangovers are still a ways off, but everyone has calmed and quieted, though the signs of a party remain. Guitar plays a short, easy lead, but drops away as Costello launches into the vocal portion of the song, bass and a steady beat that somehow drags despite being tight and on-beat–as it should, in context–is all there is behind him. “I have seen the hungry look in their eyes/They’d settle for anything in disguise of love/Seen the party girls look me over/Seen ’em leavin’ when the party’s over”, he sings over a suddenly strengthened, intense, pounding piano line, but with the end of those lines it subsides. It’s sweet and romantic, but utterly jaded, bolstered most thoroughly by the melody and force of the music behind those lines which only makes one more appearance, but is a wonderful hook for the song, which gradually falls to wild strings of piano and the repeated pleas Costello fades out on.
The ominous chime of guitars and keys in “Goon Squad” calls to mind sounds of the late 60s in a way, though the rumbling burble of Bruce’s bass is more like that of the muscled basslines of 70s cop movies, even those scored by Goblin (yes, more obscure references, which neither prove my esoteric knowledge nor help anyone!), but the ride cymbal swing of Pete’s drumming seems to marry the two–perhaps it’s a 70s production of a 60s cop show? Costello’s voice cries out with a kind of desperation with guitars playing more blended chords, a push from the accelerated ride gives us a different voice, that of considered options, no longer desperate, but ended with an exit from thoughts of possible future to the inevitability of the present: “but I never thought they’d put me in the…Goon Squad!” A low, spoken version of the same last two words comes with the cry from Elvis’s voice as naturally led into by the preceding lines, and gives it a punch (apparently, this was at the suggestion of Mr. Lowe). Left to only the rhythm section, Costello spews out a confessional instead of a cry, the crispness of the drums and the roiling warmth of the bass accentuating the earlier sense of soundtracking. The way it floats off is the way it jumped in: seemingly part of a greater fabric, but displaced to some strange fit into this album.

Almost a sort of ballad at first, “Busy Bodies” goes slightly herky-jerky, Nieve tapping out a neat little organ lick that responds to each of Costello’s lines. Interestingly, this flows nicely into a return to the balladesque format of the song proper, though the automatic drive riff that follows the bridge’s repetition of the word “Nowhere” again pulls the song away from that vibe. That organ lick, though, is a fantastic hook, though Bruce’s slowly descending bassline that follows it is almost like a rudimentary form of the one that flows through “Clubland”, for which I can only cheer.

There’s a certain subset of E.C./Attractions material that has the most nervy, wiry “new wave” feelings–at least in my endlessly pattern-seeking mind–and “Moods for Moderns” is a prime example. While Pete is laying down a nice but simple feel at an even 4/4, Bruce is muscling into a melody, but Nieve is playing organ-y keyboards with the feel of a guitar played only with upstrokes, giving me the desire to move upward with each note, in a sort of light “pogoing” sense. This dance-y feeling is made worse (actually, better) by the repetition of the title in a “backing vocal” style, all four syllables crammed into about two beats. Elvis’s “sensual” voice marks the actual verses, an escalating bassline subtly raising the tension, but it’s responded to with the quirky pop of a questioning keyboard bit from Nieve. As if the song weren’t loaded with enough hook-y moments, the sudden downard slope of Costello’s rapid vocals–“Soon you’ll belong to someone else/And I will be your stranger just pretending”–knocks this one out of the park. This and “Senior Service” often vie for the throne of this album, I feel.

Maybe it’s following “Moods for Moderns” that does it, but “Chemistry Class” has often felt like, not so much a disappointment, but just a “standard” song for Costello–which is still an extreme positive, but not one on par with the rest. Still, that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to note, as the lines “They chopped you up in butcher’s school/Threw you out of the academy of garbage/You’ll be a joker all your life/A student at the comedy college/People pleasing people pleasing people like you,” and the strange choice to take the word “accidents” in the lines “Ready to experiment, you’re ready to be burned/If it wasn’t for some accidents then some would never ever learn” and repeat it as if edited in is fascinating, as are the hovering e-bow-y vibrations the song exits on.

I’m left to wonder how on earth Nick Lowe could release “Little Hitler” only to have compatriot Costello release “Two Little Hitlers” the following year (indeed, not even a whole year later!) and even produce the record! I won’t complain though–the jerky, pseudo-reggae stylings of the Costello song are enjoyable enough, with the fun of a rather quick bassline from Bruce and a bit of “upstroke” organ from Nieve gets us to the aesthetically appealing collection of phonemes that precedes the chorus: “Two little Hitlers will fight it out until/One little Hitler does the other one’s will,” he sings, the cruel descriptions of a two-tyrant relationship dripping with cynicism, but sung with a certain amusement. But the semi-disco drumbeat and bass that follow it are the perfect counterpoint to mild vocal acrobatics to expand simple words: “I will return/I will not burn”, a vocal hook that redeems the track from, “Hey, not bad” to “Yesss!” in one fell swoop.

While “Two Little Hitlers” is a great closer, in the U.S. they simply could not resist the possible sales uptick and dropped “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding” there. The song has often struck me as similar to “Accidents Will Happen” with respect to Costello’s recording of it, being one of the bigger songs (“Oliver’s Army” is the third) on the album, not so much in the single sales sense as the sound of large flourishes and drama. It doesn’t dissuade me from the notion to hear the furious snare introduction from Pete,   cavernous piano riffs pounded out from Nieve, and the ringing guitars that blend with those keys to create great sheafs of sound. While the original Brinsley Schwarz version (which Nick performed on and sang) does have the same chord structure, the looming riffs are guitar rather than keys, and Nick’s vocal choices are more subdued, somewhat sad (apparently his intention). With Costello freed to add a minor underscore to the song’s melody and force on guitar, the song is actually amplified even further, and his vocal reading is rhetorical, cynical and has no interest in answers to its questions–doesn’t believe there are any to be had, really. It’s amusing to know that most of us had no idea there was a certain sincerity to the original version, if nothing else, in the mind of the character Nick was singing as. Of course, with Nick, that adds a wry and very subtle element of humour, knowing his own tendency toward dark humour and certain humanistic cynicism. That the song fades out on the same parts still crashing is perfect; this isn’t a resolved matter, even if Costello sees no forthcoming or useful answers–just a possible reality to “this wicked world” and “all hope lost”.

I was thinking, and, in truth, my real introduction to Elvis Costello was this image, looming and large on a wall in a room in the house I grew up in. He looks somber, intense, and vaguely like a person unaware of how his leaning and staring comes off as far, far too interested in the person on the other side. Innocently curious, but intrusively acting upon it. It coloured a perception that might have been better served by images like the awkward, self-aware and droll cover of My Aim Is True, which seems to be almost ironic in its callback to old record covers. The intense expression and sharp, long cheekbones of that first image lacked the humourt most images on album covers carried, and gave him an alien appearance of a kind, rather than the semi-nerdy, gap-toothed, punk-inflected sneer that marked many of his late 70s appearances.

I’m not sure what it made me think, really. But it gave me an entirely different impression of what he was, or what he would sound like–maybe someone so far gone into a persona (or a real personality so pronounced it seems like a persona), a Klaus Nomi or a Thin White Duke, some kind of eccentric, unusual and clearly defined aesthetic. I suppose this is interesting in light of the fact that Costello has mentioned that this album actually bears a few influences from the Berlin-era of Bowie, which immediately followed his Duke persona. Maybe more interesting is that Costello said the band had a short list of commonly agreed upon music, and it involved two Beatles albums alongside other artists (like Bowie via the aforementioned Berlin trilogy)–Abbey Road and the soundtrack to Yellow Submarine, particularly, he has noted, “It’s All Too Much”, which happens to be my absolute favourite Beatles track of all. Curious, indeed.

While the sounds of My Aim Is True, This Year’s Model, and Armed Forces are distinct, they feel of a kind, which one might be inclined to lay at the feet of a producer–but one would be mistaken, as Lowe stuck with Mr. MacManus for another two albums. While the R&B influences are the automatic point of reference for Get Happy!!, even Trust feels stylistically different, and the two remain separate in feeling from their predecessors. Perhaps Armed Forces is the apex of that initial slew of albums, being more refined than Aim and less (a bit) snarky than This Year’s Model–a tiny bit more personal maybe.

I can’t leave this without mentioning the track that was omitted: “Sunday’s Best”. It’s a shame–this is a great song, with a carnival atmosphere and a great vocal from Costello, particularly on the title, but also on the circus swing of his verses. Considering “(What’s So Funny)” was actually intentionally left off the album, relegating “Sunday’s Best” to the compilation Taking Liberties seems unfair. Oh well–it was not abandoned as a practice by this time, and certainly wasn’t abandoned for some time after (and may only now approach actual abandonment), so I suppose that is just life.

  • Next Up: Cream – Wheels of Fire

¹While some of these alterations may occur for other reasons, even some of the U.S. bands (such as Codeine) with that tag were altered for their U.S. release. It’s a bit mind-boggling, really.
²I should say “their” as I am loathe to avoid recognition of the work of any musicians involved in a work, but, like Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention or Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, I’m inclined to be lax in specificity because they all drew vague lines (if any at all) between solo credits, “actual” solo albums, and “actual” band albums, often overlapping significantly between them.

Day Forty-One: Codeine – Frigid Stars LP

Numero Group ■ 201.1
(Originally released on Sub Pop)
Released August, 1990
This compilation released June 19, 2012
Produced by Mike McMackin and Codeine

Side One: Side Two:
  1. D
  2. Gravel Bed
  3. Pickup Song
  4. 3 Angels
  5. New Year’s
  1. Second Chance
  2. Cave-In
  3. Cigarette Machine
  4. Old Things
  5. Pea

Around the time I moved out of my last home, I realized that I was moving somewhere that record stores were not going to be anything like convenient (and so they aren’t–it’s at least an hour’s drive to find new records). So, with a measure of money in hand (that which I thought I could spare), I decided to “clean house” on my desired purchases at the then-local stores. While I was, in majority, picking up CDs I’d been eyeing for sometime, I also decided that the temptation of the Codeine reissues was just too great. I asked the owner of CD Alley in Chapel Hill (whose band may show up here later, if I continue intermittent reviews of 7″s) if he had a stance, and he said unfortunately he had not personally gone in the direction of Codeine, and had never heard one singled out. I’ve worked enough retail that, considering they were five or ten minutes from closing, I decided to just grit my teeth and grab one. Frigid Stars LP was the first album, so it seemed like a logical starting point for me as well.

If you pick any of these Codeine reissues up, in the literal sense, you immediately notice how thick they are: about that of a triple LP of decent weight vinyl. You can actually see the vertical fold on the front cover where it opens, rather than simply folding directly at the spine. Alongside that, an expanded CD is included with them that assembles demos and assorted other tracks not originally included. Add in the fact that it’s also an expanded LP (with a whole second platter that is composed of the bonus material on the CD), and it’s just too darn tempting. Inside you even find full, 12×12″ stapled booklets of liner notes: history, essays, recording and personnel notes–all the stuff I’d want, or close enough to it. I have a longtime policy of thinking there must be something to an album that receives treatment like this but doesn’t have the kind of visibility that tells you that maybe it’s just something they think a whole ton of people will re-buy because a whole ton cubed bought it in the first place. So far, this has been an extremely successful approach to take. 

I’m not sure what told me to check out Codeine, though. Maybe there was a comment about how good they were in something I read, or maybe their name came up in connection with Galaxie 500, who I was rather into the last year or so. Maybe it was my intrigued object-lust for the records when I saw how they were put together (I’m not above being suckered in by a well-made record package or sleeve art or the like). Whatever it was, I knew nothing of them at all, other than genre designations that had only vague meaning at most, which was in no way a method of understanding what they were or sounded like.

I do have to add that I find it frustrating when bands name albums things like Frigid Stars LP. Is that a designator, because this is an LP? Is it part of the actual title? If it is, is there some particular need for it to be? I’ve settled on the same thing as everyone else, I guess: the art says “LP” at the end, so we treat it as part of the title. 

“D” starts the album and is kind of jarring in its way: one big beat allowed to hang around followed by a slowly single-picked guitar, repeated, then lethargic movement forward into Stephen Immerwahr’s rather somber and morose vocals, listing what “D” is for–“‘D’ for effort/’D’ for intent/’D’ because you pay the rent…” The pacing is incredibly deliberate, but for his voice, you might think this was intended to be played at 45rpm, though none of the instruments have the stretched distortion of a recording played back too slowly. The guitars in particular–as well as a splash cymbal that is allowed an unusually rapid beat for the rest of the song–begin to accelerate, their sound no longer spaced out, adding up to a wave of noise as Immerwahr sings the chorus with more need. But when we come back to the verse (“‘D’ for dishes/’F’ for floors/Can’t make the grade anymore”), it is still that palpably slowed sound, which allegedly left drummer Orestes Dellatore of Bitch Magnet (with whom they recorded their first version of “Pea”) swinging at cymbals without hitting them a few times for each hit before actually reaching them, just to keep himself from speeding up.

“Gravel Bed” does not pick up the pace, but it does shift the feel of it: at its onset, distorted guitar chords attempting to push at the boundaries of the song’s speed are sewn into place with a thumping bass’s insistent authority, those loud, separated and severely spaced drums no longer a stitch themselves, just a beacon every seven beats (!) to keep things from floating off too far. Where “D” was like a severely slowed curiosity, “Gravel Bed” acts more as a hanging weight, or a weary but determined trudge onward under such a weight. It crescendos in a fashion not unlike “D”, but it actually continues to build upward, and when it clarifies out to the verse’s sound again, it’s less like the aftermath of a crashed down wave whose power dissipates into a more tranquil sensibility, and more like the destructive aftermath of one, shifting the focus from the fact that it is gone to the fact that it indeed was there in the first place and left a skeleton of whatever stood beneath it. 

The beginning of “Pickup Song” is a rapid (for this album, at least) descending set of notes that ends on a high note, turned to clean and minor but chorded guitar. “Don’t remember/Your kiss/Can’t remember/What I miss” is all Immerwahr gets out before a sliding, monolithic bassline from Immerwahr himself carries in the full band and a huge mountain of sound. Now drowned in reverberating bass, constantly splashing cymbal, and a louder, more constant sort of variation on the initial chords, he manages to sing only “Thought you were blind I held your hand/Guess I still don’t understand”, before he lets the bass do the talking for him, playing what amounts to the lead on it. “Wish I’d never seen your face” he sings, and a soured, downward sliding note drops it all off to a final chord. The way that last line comes in isolation, the way the note sours after it, and the final chord–one of the best song endings I can think of.

Originally a B-Side to “Pickup Song”, but included in the U.S. issues of the album,¹ “3 Angels” is a percussive extension of the sound they established on the previous sides: without being so distinct a force, the bass is present but more monotone and rhythmic, the enormous, cold and spacious snare hits are more constant, and even the intro is composed of drums pulling the sound into place. Ever-droning vocally, Immerwahr momentarily escapes that, with a chorus that is knowingly melodic, and somewhat strangely emphasized: “Take a wa-alk…” he sings a good bit higher than normal, but “’round the block” starts at an off-beta, as if the absent “a” from “around” was, itself, an omitted vocal beat, giving a peculiar shape to the whole thing, like two different tunes Frankensteined together. It’s an appealing effect, though it may not sound like it, as it fits brilliantly with the sensibilities of the music Codeine assembled.

“New Year’s” is the written work of Sooyoung Park and Lexi Mitchell of Codeine associates and contemporaries Seam, and, while they work it into their style–particularly pace, of course–it is clearly the work of different writers. Clean guitar and bass with a sort of meager line of hope are accented by all-tom drumming on the verse, light ride-to-splash cymbal on the chorus’s more pop-developed bassline. The thump of the drums returns with the verse, the guitars almost fragile, fragments of the song that the bass, drums and Stephen’s voice all have a complete grasp on. It’s certainly one of the cheerier songs on the album–in tone, at least, as the lyrics are not overly cheerful, certainly not much more than most of the album. It’s particularly worth hearing Stephen’s lead on the bass after the second chorus, working with the guitars to sound like the culmination of an extended song’s emotional journey, despite the 3:34 runtime.

Oceanic rumblings and squalls of distortion mark the opening of Side Two and “Second Chance”: “I miss your smile/It’s been a while” Stephen begins to repeat, as the distortion creeps around the edges of everything, Immerwahr adds a pounding low-end piano note to the end of his vocal lines that often matches his bass, until he begins to repeat “It’s been a while” in isolation, which he follows with a pleasingly piano melody that is still low, but higher than previous notes. The way the distortion–likely the work of Chris Brokaw’s overdubbed second guitar, as opposed to Jeremy Engle’s initial one–floats around everything without ever fading is like a suspension that Immerwahr’s parts sit in, which are only expanded by the return to the initial two lines, repeated again together three times and then just the latter through to the end, as his bass gets a chance to slide momentarily again.

Inspiring the name of hardcore-turned-space-rock-turned-back-into-hardcore band of the same name, “Cave-In” is probably the most “pop” song Codeine turns in for the album from their own pens. Sounds that would later feel completely appropriate in the guitar-laden sounds of Cerberus Shoal-style post rock bands² a couple of years later. Completely in contrast to this, Immerwahr sings quietly: “Last night I dreamt your face/The skin was falling off/The flesh was turning grey…” And then a wall of guitar, bass and drums crashes down thunderously, but now Immerwahr’s voice now turns high and melodic: “This is a cave-in/I said I’d stay/Cave-in…/Said I’d stay”. The loud-quiet-loud approach is also not foreign to the advent of post rock in the latter half of the same decade (though of course Slint had their own hand in that); the verses return to the hushed, isolated guitar and voice sound, while the chorus continues its dramatic and loud sound–a perfectly little squeak coming at its second occurrence, just a little peep of feedback after Stephen sings “This is a cave-in” again. It’s fascinating how the verses are instrumentally most pretty and light despite his voice, while his voice hits the same ground over the crushing fall of the chorus’s instrumental power.

There’s a certain guitar sound that works best when played with the hesitant slowing of single notes picked at a gradually decreasing speed, that, in my mind, always implies a sort of warning of what is to come, and it opens “Cigarette Machine”, bass notes ringing from each first beat, hinting and hinting that an explosion or a fire will follow, there’s a pause as  they ring–and then the guitars are hushed and clean, hi-hat-based beat and spoken words from Immerwahr. It’s a fantastic anticlimax that is both surprising and completely appropriate. There’s a moment of confusion that quickly becomes, “Ah, of course.” When the pounding bass, drums, and distorted guitar burst out of it, filled with the weight of tension built then held, it’s entirely appropriate for it to peter out with the tension of that opening–which again leads instead to quiet and pleasant sounds.

“Old Things” sounds almost like exactly that; the guitars fade in on a wave of feedback, but have the slightest twinge of twang, a patina that ages the sound before it is even heard. There is the echo of the past in them–not some distinct period of rock history, though it’s certainly a musical echo–the sound of a sound bottled and corked and released at the right time. “Walk, just walk away”, Immerwahr sings melodiously, but with lazed acceptance, and his rumbling distorted bass follows, not suddenly infusing the song with aggression, but furthering the feel of the song’s tone in the low end it has previously neglected. It dissolves into splinters of feedback and distortion, one guitar–Engle’s–questioningly pokes in, tired, drifting, deliberate but wispy, and lays the ground out for the song to pick itself back up, as if it fell and only mechanically needed to rise: not shamed, not hurt, just shrugging and walking forward.

With the multitude of recordings of “Pea” that wandered around–Sooyoung Park’s first band, Bitch Magnet, who played a part in getting Codeine signed, actually recorded one of the first commercially released versions with Immerwahr and Engle singing and playing on it, leading to the aforementioned image of Orestes Dellatore’s feinting hits–the version that appears here is the one that was tacked onto the end of the U.S. CD release of Frigid Stars LP. At first glance, it sounds as though it is the acoustic version that appeared on the European CD: Immerwahr sings to his own guitar, of people as peas, small, hard, and mean, in that Princess and the Pea sense of discomfort. There’s a long, pregnant pause after he sings “Just to get you back” for the last time, and then he returns to the opening line: “When I see the sun”, and now Brokaw and Engle weigh in with distorted guitars. Oddly, they don’t change the song’s tone; in one sense, they bring power to Immerwahr’s internal sentiment, and in another they actually manage to surround and almost drown it out, emphasizing the isolated, failing hope that his defiant attempts to make a tiny difference imply.

This release actually contains, as I mentioned, a second LP of “bonus material”, largely composed of demos recorded to encourage signing, some of the demos Immerwahr recorded alone while living with Engle, before they’d actually congealed into a band. It also contains the acoustic recording of “Pea” that graced the European CD, and even their Neil Young-inflected (?!) track “Corner Store”. Because this is bonus material, I am going to give a tracklist and only a general sense of it with highlights, as anything more would be silly and excessive.

Side Three: Side Four:
  1. Castle [Demo]
  2. Skeletons [Demo]
  3. 3 Angels [Demo]
  4. Corner Store [Demo]
  5. Summer Dresses
  1. Pea [Acoustic]
  2. Second Chance [Demo]
  3. Pickup Song [Demo]
  4. Cave-In [Demo]
  5. Kitchen

“Castle” and “Skeletons”, recorded as part of the sessions that contained most of these tracks (all of Side Three, and the last track of Side Four) are a bit out of character: the first riff of “Castle” and the entire pace of “Skeletons” belie the hardcore musical relatives of the band (Brokaw was in a hardcore band called Pay the Man prior to Codeine, played for G.G. Allin [!], Bitch Magnet were more distinctly post-hardcore and on the hardcore end of that genre, etc). Heck, “Skeletons” would not sound too out of place in the early alternative rock descendants of hardcore like Hüsker Dü. The demos of songs later included on Frigid Stars LP are interesting primarily for those who are enamoured of the album itself, and, in this context, don’t encourage much further comment. As with most demos, they are rougher, less clear, and vary slightly as alternate recordings are wont to do. “Corner Store” is an interesting marriage of Immerwahr’s Neil Young vocal impression and the languorous segment of his output as filtered through the sensibilities of Codeine, or, due to pace, maybe a band more like Galaxie 500 (whose sound it is just a tad closer to, vocals notwithstanding). Many of these were actually released under various other names as a tiny home-dubbed cassette (of which there is no internet record at all, shockingly). “Summer Dresses” allows Sooyoung Park to actually make a “visible” appearance, with a beautifully smooth bassline and dreamy vocals from Immerwahr. The guitars (provided by Immerwahr) are clean, simple, but bright and summery, with all the nostalgic yearnings of Galaxie 500. “Kitchen” is an all guitar/voice track, simple track that is the complicated fluff of a clever songwriter fiddling around with ideas and working them out by recording–the lyrics are all descriptions of the immediate: his current activities, the boredom, the state of his life in general.

I don’t mean to ride too heavily on Galaxie, as the comparisons are largely not apt or appropriate (except “Summer Dresses”, which, beyond Park’s bass style, could be mistaken by an incautious ear quite easily). Codeine are more associated with starting the “genre” of slowcore, which inevitably annoys almost every band allegedly responsible for “starting” subgenres that end in “core”, with the possible exception of “hardcore”. No one wants credit for emo, even when it wasn’t just a derogatory term, no one wants to be called “nu metal”, and no one wants to be called “slowcore”, because the names are good for what spawned them–an attempt to condense the sound to a tiny description–but not as a term for an entire “wave” of anything. Other than bands that would deliberately follow the sound and fail to break any new ground, it’s not easy to so cleanly encompass a group of artists.

But the odd thing is, “slowcore” is ridiculously apt for Codeine. It codifies the two most exemplary elements of their music: the deliberate pacing, and the resultant force of that pace, as implied by the hardcore-derived suffix. Whether it’s the “right” term is another issue, but as a functional shorthand for this album (and quite probably their other output), it works–an adjective, rather than a trademarked line drawn around them and other groups, a box to definitively toss them in.

And there is an immense power to what they play: the decisive, measured approach necessary to playing like this is apparent at every moment. Almost every band has a bad habit (or good, depending on your point of view–but usually it’s described as unintentional, even if appreciated) of speeding songs up when played live, but live footage of Codeine proves that, because the pace is so incredibly deliberate, it’s part of the performed version as well. When there’s so much space around the sounds, it lends unbelievable weight to every beat, every note, every chord, every word.

They sound as if they are playing in an empty concert hall–not because they have no one attending, not as some indication of solipsistic isolation or moody claims to isolation, but because it sounds alone. The albums are described as relentlessly depressing by many, but I didn’t necessarily get that impression, even as the lyrics do emphasize it. There’s a closeness, a natural element to the playing that isn’t something just anyone could do, and proves that “Well they play slowly” isn’t enough to describe it. These aren’t “normal” songs slowed to a crawl, they are songs constructed explicitly for this speed. Immerwahr described his inspiration for the idea of a band paced this way as hearing speed metal on the radio and finding it impossible to believe as human in origin. Strangely, that, too, is incredibly relevant: the weight behind Codeine is the purity of humanity, the feeling of being all-too-human, even in the dead moments of boredom and inactivity, of lethargy and drug-induced haze. In the way that fiction inevitably (with exceptions, such as Jarmusch’s occasionally–but, I think, deliberately–painful Stranger Than Paradise) chops time up and feeds back only the important bits, the pace of Codeine is emblematic of the pace of actual life. Not necessarily some deliberate “metaphor”, so much as just the abstracted, objective, observational fact of it. Even when we say time is crawling, it’s rare to feel each and every moment–instead, one looks up and sees less time has past than previously expected. Even when the chords or drum hits are played in sonic isolation, huge gaping chasms left between them, they feel connected enough that it is like that same slowness.

This was a really cool record to pull out of nowhere: I’d even listened to Low (discovered by Galaxie 500 producer Kramer) who also play at a deliberate pace, but nothing really prepared me for the way Codeine so professionally maintains themselves as both huge in sound and calm and deliberate. I suppose, being as the album is over twenty years old, that you might have heard some derivative (or a relative like Low), but none I’ve heard have quite this mastery of pace, where you feel the slowness and hear it, but never feel like it should be any faster, either, other than the fact that it’s so unusual for it not to be.

  • Next Up: Coheed and Cambria – ?

¹The album was first released in Germany, to the confusion of many. Sub Pop’s signing of the band let to its release here, which changed the tracklist somewhat in hopes of encouraging domestic purchase. “Pickup Song”‘s B-Side was included, and a new version of the song “Pea” was attached to the end–which also meant removing the German bonus track: an acoustic version of “Pea”. Confusing enough, but “Pea” was also recorded another time, but before either of those, where it acted as B-Side to the “D” single.

²While I can’t easily reference a popular post rock band (unless you know the genre, your best chance to have heard it outside friends who like it is the soundtrack to 28 Days Later, which contains a track by Godspeed You Black Emperor! at the famous opening moments of an abandoned London)

Day Thirty-Eight: The Church – Untitled #23

Unorthodox/Second Motion Records ■ LP-SMR-012

Released March 6, 2009
Recorded by Jorden Brebach, timEbandit Powles, David Trump, and David Skeet
Mixed by David Trump with timEbandit Powles(S1-1,2,3; S2-4), Jorden Brebach (S1-4; S2-1,2,3; S3-1,2,3,4), timEbandit Powles (S4), and Marty Willson-Piper (S3-3)

Side One: Side Two:
  1. Cobalt Blue
  2. Deadman’s Hand
  3. Pangaea
  4. Anchorage
  1. Happenstance
  2. Sunken Sun
  3. LLC*
  4. Operetta
Side Three: Side Four:
  1. On Angel St
  2. Lunar
  3. Insanity*
  4. Space Saviour
  1. So Love May Find Us*
Back when I wrote about Burning Airlines’ Identikit, I decided to be a smartypants and ask J. Robbins and Peter Moffett for opinions on where to go with that entry, and got different responses from each. It did, however, help to decide which release to go with that time. When I started planning ahead for my next polls (after the onslaught around artists starting with “B”) I saw that I had the Church in the running. I actually typed up that poll (Untitled #23 vs. Starfish) and then decided that, since he had actually passed along my previous writing about the Church (now and forever the most popular post on that blog, as a result!), I would ask Steve Kilbey for input here. After doing so, I started pondering asking Marty Willson-Piper, and maybe even Peter Koppes, just to get a well-rounded set of responses, if I could, but I was surprised to get a response from Mr. Kilbey almost immediately. Without any demands, he simply told me he’d prefer I write about Untitled #23, without question (as I had asked specifically if he had a preference). When that response came in, I thought about it. I realized that, most likely, he said this because, well, if there’s a Church album people know about–it’s Starfish. It seemed, then, like it would be the right thing in all senses to follow his wishes. I took down the poll (few if any even saw it), and marked Untitled #23 for writing today.
I’ve already written about how I stumbled into the Church (the link above will take you there, if you are curious), so I’ll go ahead and leave it at the most barebones note possible. The portion of it which relates to this very entry is as follows: while I knew their biggest single, I stumbled into some of their most recent work a decade ago by chance, and this was my most expansive introduction, and informed my understanding of how the band sounds almost more emphatically than even the song that was thoroughly ingrained in my head. It was a sound appropriate for my musical tastes at the time–I was deeply into post rock, and the sounds that lay within albums like After Everything Now This were not far off from that same sensibility.
Untitled #23, as a record, is a major variation on the album as it was released on CD. The three tracks I marked with an asterisk (*) above are not present on the CD version, and were released as the B-sides on the Pangaea EP. The order is also quite significantly shifted, with former closer “Operetta” moved to the end of Side Two, and “Space Saviour” shifted forward a full seven tracks–amongst other things. This does make for a bit of a change of pace, but the tracklisting’s overall changes, compared to just dropping the extra tracks at the end, work where they lay (or lie, I’m not too sure).
Steady, clear, patient drumming begins the album in “Cobalt Blue”, a gentle electronic noise fading in, before Steve Kilbey’s voice enters, guitars¹ shortly following and chord-based, one moving higher but holding with the other. “To go and mingle in my mind”, Kilbey sings, and his voice echoes and drifts upward, pulled back down as the bass enters. Acting as counter to the guitars and giving them a brighter feel, the bass expands the range of the song itself, filling out the lower end where it had been left clear for the opening. Each time Kilbey’s voice floats off into scattering reflections, there’s a sense of a soft light spreading across the track, though after one occurrence about halfway through it takes the guitars with it, and leaves a woodwind sound that is just a bit darker, shadows falling where we just saw light. A mumble of distant voices rises up under this as a solo manifests slowly; it’s not the kind that defies the work around it, or elevates its tone or feeling to another one, it expands on the existing mood, a mix of light and softened darkness. The drums walks the track out with four easy snare hits, two pauses, and four more. Despite the snare emphasis, it’s not a march, though, it’s a normal step, one that walks us gently into “Deadman’s Hand”.
Far more uptempo, but in no way suddenly upbeat, “Deadman’s Hand” is relentlessly catchy. The riff it comes in on is distorted, but the kind that eats at the edges of the sound, rather than explicitly defining it. It’s a dark, lower-pitched kind of riff, though it doesn’t have a downward motion to it: it’s more like the kind of sound that might once have stuck the band with the label “gothic” (which has happened), but is more, perhaps, Gothic, than it is “gothic rock”–the sense of wizened or aged darkness, rather than a simple implication of deliberately depressing material. Frank Kearns adds a 12-string ring over the top of this, one that adds to this sense, despite the tendency for 12-strings to often cheer things up. When Kilbey begins singing, it’s with his normal voice, but tempered with a clever production move that changes it in spite of itself: he’s singing gently, but with the lightest “echo” that gives it an extremely ethereal quality. That “echo” is other voices here, of course, doubtless those of Marty or Peter (or both), but so subdued as to sound like shadows of Kilbey’s own. It’s a weird feeling: the drumming is uptempo, but the overall sound manages to catch itself at either end, turning it into some kind of catchy pop/rock song filtered through a drain on the most energetic elements.
The last track in its original placement, “Pangaea” begins to introduce us to the sounds that permeate the rest of the album: the first moments are a blend of mixed sounds, including touches of harp from Patti Hood and scattered notes from multiple guitars. A 12-string and bass gently bring everything together as a light cymbal wash marks the actual change. Gently strumming 12-string, thumping bassline–the song is a wash of sound, accented by backing vocals that “Oooh” gently and prettily behind Steve’s voice, which has regained its usual edge: a certain sharpness to the baritone that is incredibly distinct, that enunciates clearly, yet with a sort of catch to this that is unbelievably appropriate for their music. It all feels like a spread of sound, warm and soft, with Kilbey’s sharpened voice cutting at it, as he sings, “You’ve got your hands/’Round my throat/You’ve got your voice/In my head”, a haunting response from the others adds, “No matter what”, his threats suddenly softened by the chorus: “Pangaea…” the edge dropped and the last syllable turned to a pretty little wave. The 12-string suddenly takes over, sliding expertly through a solo that runs counter to the staid cello of Sophie Glasson.
Moved from near the end of the album, “Anchorage” is langorous compared to the preceding tracks, but the wandering, subdued keys seem to pull it upward somewhat, small points of light dotting the sliding drums, the downed guitars that blend perfectly with the keys, the lower end balanced between the mournful draw of Glasson’s cello and the almost upbeat bassline. “Just the way the dead have felt/Nothing like the way my name is spelt/But I belt it out anyway” Steve sings, the serrations emphasized, defiant, as roaring distorted electrics build the track over huge drums and splash, the wave only a small one. Scattered electronic noises are left in its wake, as the track goes on, a guitar taking off on its own to make its point, not taking it past an extended lead. The lyrics are constructed as defiant and pained, but are mostly delivered in defiance, expressing the pain with more aggression than hurt. Harmonized briefly, it’s like others carrying Steve’s defiance up when it might falter. Alongside them, a blazing guitar and then another wave, this one much larger–but it backs away, too, and this time leaves a quite chorale, the sliding tick of hi-hat emphasized drumming and a hummingbird-heart bassline. If it weren’t so eloquently sung and performed, it would be like a monologue to the absent, spoken with the openness and pride of a drunk, but the awareness, the consistency make it, instead, heartfelt admission and confession.
“Happenstance” makes for a rather curious song: at first that clean and clear biting winter wind of Kilbey’s voice and steadily strummed 12-string, tom-heavy drums and sliding bass–but then the upward curve of a higher tone turns it to something almost sunny, as Kilbey intones “Happenstance…” with just a touch of variation in each channel to give a fuller dimension to the sound. Near a whisper, Willson-Piper breathily adds a voice almost like a memory to this interruption, before that shine of lazy sun fans across it again. The trading voices of Steve and Marty, and the shining final peak of sound gives the song a feeling of relaxation almost narrated by both the present and the past.
Clanging bells and a soft buzz call “Sunken Sun” into place, though the song itself is an expansion of the sound of “Happenstance”, warm and easy resignation created with a guitar that climbs up, curious, to land on a ringing chord that is warm but expansive. As a line ends and a drum beat sounds, an operatic keyboard voice holds over empty space, ringing, echoing guitar that strikes with a sustained bass note falls across it, until it all hushes and returns to the calmness of the opening. One of the most striking solos on the album meanders in near the end of the track, never showing off at all, just growing naturally from the space it is left, often holding notes for extended periods, rather than cramming as many in as possible. It’s a beautifully organic extension of the song’s tone. The song fades off with those echoing guitar chords, clear and bright, but balanced by their companion chord into a sort of pained recollection of happy memory.
The first track to appear on the vinyl and not on the CD, “LLC” was given lyrics (and vocals) by Peter Koppes (as opposed to the usual Kilbey). A fantastic oscillating 12-string melody is the anchor of the song as a whole, and runs through all but . Much cheerier than anything previous (allegedly the cause for keeping the track off the album originally), it shifts into a predictive bridge and then a more steady chorus, before returning to that delightful 12-string run. A subtle lead holds and blends behind it, only taking real control at the very end with a rapid, twisting outro.
Originally the album’s closer, “Operetta” oddly fits in the same way as closer for Side Two and thus half the album. Strong keys and gently waving guitar eases the song into place, a seemingly endless sustain and echo on the spaced guitar chords emphasize the feeling of ends, of the music filtering out into the expanses. Overlapped, harmonized vocals and deep, low keys mark the chorus, like all preceding sounds and voices coming together by design to tie things together. This is how the song ends, too, slowly losing each layer until it is left as just a bending bass and drums, fading to nothing.
“On Angel Street” manages the neat trick of continuing without a lost beat from a track that could have ended the album. A long-held bass note accentuates a series of repeated keyboard notes and a wandering guitar. When Steve’s voice is added to this, it’s the sound of a singer alone, the keys keeping a full musicality in place, but making apparent the ambient nature of the song. The sounds are almost like blinking lights or quiet warning sirens, a backing to the voice that doesn’t imply furthered sentience or emotional presence, even as their slow shift between notes creates the emotional sense of the song. Wavering and wailing guitar leads come and enter like ghosts–beautiful but transient. That this does not end up coming off like a novelty, or an interlude, or some other kind of “fluff” is some kind of amazing.
Previously the penultimate track, “Lunar” has shifted backward only slightly (unless one counts running time). A lone woodwind starts the track as vaguely pastoral, a huge wash of ringing cymbal and the slow, resonating guitar chords setting up the slightly backed-up voice of Steve, thumping drums hinting at what is to come when a bassline filled with energy and activity absent from the other instruments comes in, churning the low end and attempting to push life into the adjacent instruments in their slowed tempos. It’s ineffective and everything falls away to a an echo-laden voice from Steve, on beat instruments, and then it seems to gain life, only to leave nothing but the woodwinds alone in its wake again.
“Insanity” is the other track that let’s Kilbey’s voice rest, as Marty Willson-Piper takes over, confident guitars stepping in ahead of the rest of the band, though when he begins singing–“It’s just insanity,” the operative word is “just”: it has a shrug to it, as if to suggest that there’s nothing to be concerned about. It works upward with each line, releasing at the end of them. It’s cheerier, even as it does not move any more rapidly. This isn’t to say it’s actually cheerful, it’s just not as…Romantic (that capital “R” is intentional). Marty’s voice goes vaguely Dylan-like, as he suggests the possibility that maybe it doesn’t make sense to ascribe the ways of the world to a divine plan, that it’s easier to see it as all random, and anything else might be, well…²
Oh, the guitar that opens “Space Saviour”; it carries just the right tone and effects, the slight watered sound and firm pull of the strings making it viscerally appealing without requiring or exhibiting the kind of feeling that a blues-inflected kind might. The steady on-beat guitar chords form a simple backing as Steve sings with the kind of voice that feels like he’s pushing it with as much power as he can–not volume, mind you, just force. The thumping four beats on drum matched with gradually opening splash are the perfect crescendo of repetition for the repeated needs of Kilbey’s words: “And I’ve gotta get up/And I’ve gotta get on/And I’ve gotta get off/And I’ve gotta get out…” When they fall away, the opening riff returns, and the drums turn to the thump and hi-hat of anticipatory restraint, as Kilbey intones calmly, gradually building back to that huge and determined parallel repetition. The song finally splinters and spreads, before leaving itself, to a watery, circling guitar that plays alone for just a moment before being left to hang.
When I noted that “Lunar” was only briefly re-arranged but with a qualifier, “So Love May Find Us” was, in essence, the entirey of that qualification. “So Love May Find Us” has a 17:48 runtime, and…I’m not sure I could, in good faith, attempt to walk anyone through it. This is not the kind of lengthy track that’s arranged around droning repetition for atmosphere, nor constant builds toward huge moments (like “Atom Heart Mother” does), nor cobbled together songs. It’s too well designed to feel like a completely improvised jam, especially with those tasty guitars in the first few minutes, shot out only every few moments, strong and clear, and hinting at a future threat. The drumming is controlled and low at the start, jazzy and interesting, burning quietly with the promise of future expanse. Eventually it begins to rumble, a solo of immense and unusual nature placing itself like a flag at the first third, marking the moment at which Glasson’s cello and Michael Bridge’s violin take precedent. For a short time, the song is more ambient than anything else, the bass drawing Steve’s voice back in with keys, before the drums finally fulfill the promise laid out earlier–not huge and aggressive, just free-wheeling and free-ranging, hi-hat traded for ride, fills and rolls eventually morphing into the standing beat. The song seems to end, hovering on ride, slowing keys, choral backing–but the bass draws it back in, the ride increasing in power, but easing off as the song shifts into a continued downtempo phrasing, ending with an excellent drum pass and a final wavering, splintering fade off.
The Church are often plagued by that comment: “Wait, the one from the 80s?” and there’s really no quality justification for it. They’ve released music with some regularity since that time, even as they’ve wobbled around the centrepoints that are Marty and Steve, Koppes taking a brief hiatus in the 90s. Their work has been generally well-regarded in all this time, even outside the fanbase. Untitled #23 was hailed as a supreme work, and justifiably so. This album is stunningly beautiful. It carries sounds you could ascribe to sources like post rock, yet when you try to pin them down, you realize it’s only a faint reminder. Neither treading their own water, nor anyone else’s, they’ve evolved steadily over the years within the very wide boundaries of their own sound. Bands with long histories often suffer obnoxious repetition of commentary–I’ve seen members of Pere Ubu incensed that their new album is not so much reviewed badly, as reviewed poorly, always referencing thirty year old albums as if that’s the only touchstone for a professional review, despite consistent releases all the way through now. They complained, too, of “Wow, they can still rock…” comments, which are similarly useless.
I suppose I could estimate how old the members of the Church were in 2009, but it doesn’t really matter. It isn’t impressive that anyone can still play at any age, nor that they can play well. It isn’t impressive that a band just isn’t releasing dreck after nearly thirty years either. What is impressive is the strength of identity in an album released almost 29 years after their first single. There’s no sense of struggling to maintain an established sound, or of flailing wildly for an entirely new one. No sense of tired, uncomfortable, should-have-retired-but-just-won’t recycling or cashing in. If a new band had released this work out of nowhere, it would be stunning. If any other long established band had released this work after a long hiatus, or even after working steadily, it would be stunning. And so this is: it’s not the sound of finally realized maturity, or of experimentation finally succeeding at re-lighting torches, it’s the sound of honed quality.
There’s no easy word for the tone that pervades this album, even with the addition of Peter and Marty’s “happier” songs (“Insanity” and “LLC”), which actually fit quite well within the whole, perhaps because of the tempering of “So Love May Find Us”. It’s the sound of the Church: not “goth”, but wise, lean, artful, and clear, with enough darkness that a casual look might relegate them (again) to goth. The album art–Marty’s photos, and the design of his significant other, Tiare Helberg and Guppy Art’s Rachel Gutek–is brilliantly perfect. It’s the kind of design and image that you can get lost in alongside the music. It’s simple and clean, all deep rust and cross-hatched off-white, but a close looks shows you thick, peeling paint and cracked walls. The interior is more of the same: the way the off white left side jumps out from the dark red of the exterior, the way the thick, peeling pale red of the right moves against it–it’s nothing at all and everything at once, whatever you want, need, or feel it to be, because it doesn’t openly declare anything about the music contained. The nonchalant font, the ambiguous (or plain) title, the lack of uppercase on the exterior, it’s brilliant for preventing preconceived notions.
This isn’t an album to have a big happy dance party to, no. And, while you could take it as a possibly uneasy lullaby, it has so much energy despite the slower tempos that it remains engaging, and perhaps more engaging than much of music is. I found myself completely aware but closing my eyes throughout listening, a feeling almost like waking during a solo in “So Love May Find Us”, yet bewildered as I could recall everything I had heard up to that point in the piece, as if it has nearly hypnotized me. It’s too at ease with itself to feel overly contrived, yet too tight to feel lazy and random.
I could question the fact that this album has not made “the rounds” of the music community, but nothing is so simple as quality imbuing a work with legs. And that’s a truly unfortunate truth.
¹I am normally inclined to ascribe names to instruments, but they traded up enough on this album that I’m simply not going to bother, except where guests appear (who are specifically credit to instruments on tracks!)
²As I’m sometimes wary of misheard words, I decided to peruse lyrical transcriptions of “Insanity” and found someone who managed to completely ignore the clear moments that define these aspects: “And it’s full of holes, this Holy Bible” became “And it’s full of holes is your only rival”, and “unless it’s just a myth and” to “and let’s just admit that”. It almost looks like censoring, or willful refusal. For a moment, I thought I’d imagined things, but, no, that’s definitely what he’s singing. And, strangely–these are the only transcriptions I can find. I do sometimes wonder about people…
  • Next Up: Eric Clapton – Slowhand

Day Twenty-Six: The Boomtown Rats – Mondo Bongo

Columbia Records ■ PC 37062

Released January 24, 1981¹
Produced by Tony Visconti and the Boomtown Rats
Engineered by Chris Porter and Tom Winter
¹Original tracklisting; UK release

Side One: Side Two:
  1. Mood Mambo
  2. Straight Up
  3. This Is My Room
  4. Another Piece of Red
  5. Go Man Go
  6. Under Their Thumb…Is Under My Thumb
  1. Please Don’t Go
  2. The Elephant’s Graveyard
  3. Banana Republic
  4. Don’t Talk to Me
  5. Hurt Hurts
  6. Up All Night

Anyone who knows this album (and let’s be honest, that’s probably zero people I know, and thus zero people reading this) might see something a bit peculiar above. And there is something peculiar. Anyone who has done much research into British music in the 1960s–and it doesn’t take much–will start to see a large volume peculiarities. There was no Yesterday and Today, no Beatles VI, no Who album titled Happy Jack–and the list goes on, and on, and on, and on. Even AC/DC (who were only British by birth, and even then only 3/5 of them) suffered this with the weird melding of the albums T.N.T. and High Voltage, with some tracks from these scattered around, and others lost until the release of the ’74 Jailbreak EP in 1984, four years after the death of Bon Scott in 1980–to say nothing of the more minor fiddlings with the other albums cannibalized to encompass that release. Bewildering re-arrangements and tossed-in-a-blender releases are a hallmark of U.S. releases of artists from other countries, and often done in fashions more like High Voltage, where the title stays the same and nothing else does–the tracklisting, the cover art, even the placement in the chronology of release. This is actually another tiny part of my frustration with blogs setting out to cover 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die: if you are unaware, you may not actually be listening to the recordings you are being directed toward. If you are told to listen to Raw Power in the modern age, chances are you aren’t going to hear David Bowie’s mix, unless you know to seek it out. If you are told to listen to a number of Frank Zappa’s albums with the Mothers of Invention, censoring, strange mixes and other alterations will occur (though you can be forgiven, in that case, for thinking perhaps they are intended in some cases).

The original UK release of Mondo Bongo had a matching first side, but the second varied significantly, as “Don’t Talk to Me” was instead later released as the B-side to “Never in a Million Years” (a single from follow-up album V Deep), “Up All Night” was from V Deep and released as a single, and both “Fall Down” and “Whitehall 1212” appeared on the album instead. In the US, these tracks were released on V Deep (“Whitehall 1212”), and, well, not at all (“Fall Down”). I was aware of these changes by the time I picked this up, but I didn’t really expect to run into the original UK tracklisting at any point. Bob Geldof (writer/vocalist) and Pete Briquette (bassist and occasional co-writer) rearranged the tracks again for the 2005 remaster series, wherein everything went absolutely bonkers, “Straight Up” opening the album and being followed by “The Elephant’s Graveyard”–and more shuffling all the way through². If I didn’t give you any of that background and you decided to listen to this record, you’d have a good chance of finding yourself mightily confused–especially if you were to download or purchase it on CD. If you find something interesting here, keep all that in mind: this listing isn’t hanging around except on used vinyl!

“Mood Mambo” is a peculiar choice for an opener: jittery bongos, a thumping bass kick, and Geldof in his story-telling mode, the beat rapid enough that you aren’t going to mistake that arrangement for a beat poetry session. “I’m in the mood to–” he says, and the band comes in with just backing vocals, singing “Crazy bongo!” as Pete Briquette’s bass enters, with a line that seems vaguely detached from the frenetic bongo playing. The band’s backing vocals continue, as does Geldof telling his story. Short blurts of electronic noise (likely at the hands of the band’s keyboardist, Johnny Fingers) and an echo on Geldof’s lines on occasion keep us floating entirely outside the punk/new wave sound the Rats originated in, or even the less punk realms they’d begun exploring most thoroughly on The Fine Art of Surfacing the year prior. Eventually everything hushes and Geldof whispers, too, but as he says, “You see, they’re in the mood to…” his voice returns to its normal volume, as does the rest of the band. Repetition of the backing lines with Geldof improvising elaborations and nothing but bongos behind them fades the song out.

Actually a clever choice for an opener on the remastered CD, “Straight Up” starts with yo-yoing drums from Simon Crowe and riffs from Gerry Cott and Garry Roberts. Fingers enters in the background on an organ, but after the initial sting of those riffs, the bassline tries to drag the song through a descending spiral, eventually succeeding and taking over the song with a propulsive line that acts as a more distinct backing for Geldof’s vocal. Fingers moves to piano and adds only intermittent force to the rhythm, catching more of the melody as they run into the chorus, where the organ holds and wails, but turns back to a piano that now follows the speeding bassline of Briquette to enforce its rhythm. Synth-inflected keys and varied drum fills mark a brief interlude, before the original bright, strong riff comes back. After the final verse, the song fades on the sounds of the interlude, which runs over Pete’s downward spiraling bass.

Almost absent of any lyrics at all, barring the title, “This Is My Room” is practically an instrumental song. A slow, bell-jingling introduction gives way to a harp-like cascade of electric keys from Fingers that slowly shuffles, gathering its force into a steady beat moved more by bass than melody. On piano again, Fingers drops the odd fluttering melodic line, the song running through a rise a few times with non-verbal vocals from Bob and the rest joining it. A solid chord from the piano is answered by thunder and the song changes, allowing a synthetic line to define it. “This is my room/Oh yeah/This is my room”, Bob sings, over dramatic rolls and rhythmic strumming of guitar. “I can sleep alone/I know how/I stay here on my own/And now/I wake from sleep with little rest/It’s 10 by 9 and in a mess/A window shut but facing west/A worn out rug, an old address/And…/This is my room”. Rolling timpani and emphatic guitar riffs give a huge weight to a simple, descriptive song.

Though I’ve seen it maligned on occasion, I’ve always liked “Another Piece of Red”. Fingers uses a pretty piano intro that morphs briefly into a musical quote that I couldn’t name if I tried (and I tried) but that is often used to “announce” a scene is set in Britain. I’d be quite grateful if anyone can in fact give me a title! [Update: It’s “Rule Britannia”, which I was convinced was the piece in question, but was deflected from when I heard how it starts. Probably should have listened to more of it! Thanks to Liam for this clarification] Anyway: Geldof begins singing about watching Zimbabwe fall from British control in the 1980 elections there that removed Ian Smith. Over nothing but Johnny’s piano, Geldof sings of the slow descent of British imperialism, pausing before the chorus for a rising drum roll from Crowe, and the addition of Briquette on bass for the following verses that list the countries falling away from the British Empire, Crowe contributing a light rhythm.  At the next chorus, the song is returned to just Geldof and Fingers, with the briefest addition of whistling and martial drumming, ending the song with a drum roll crescendo.

Huge drums–timpani in part–and Pete’s bass open “Go Man Go!” with a steady pace, but a very big sound. Fingers adds synthetic keys in a more bright melody that gradually pulls Crowe into a more rock-ish drumbeat. A very up-front-mixed vocal from Geldof (who answers himself in backing vocals) runs the vocals over a rhythm section almost alone, though a whirling organ line from Fingers brings the song to its chorus, which is primarily call-and-answer where the answer is always the title of the song, punctuated by the rhythm section. Synthesizer lines and Geldof’s back-and-forth with himself are expanded a bit in the following verse, later leading to a repetition of the chorus briefly delayed by a saxophone solo from Dr. David Machale (later immortalized in “Dave” on In the Long Grass, though the song was changed to “Rain” in the US, allegedly because some radio executives were concerned a man singing to another might be a bit “too gay”–always good to know the reasons behind those decisions are not irrational so much as stupid). The song ends with a long outro, then a squawk from Machale that Geldof responds to by saying “One more time”, but he earns instead a synthetic sting from Fingers.

Geldof re-arranges and re-works the Stones’ “Under My Thumb” into “Under Their Thumb…Is Under My Thumb”, a thumping beat and a reggae rhythm matched to a great beat from Crowe. An echo on intermittent drum hits and Geldof’s own voice echoes (ahem) the production techniques of the greats of dub. The pace and the peculiar key solo from Fingers keep the song firmly grounded in the Rats’ musical aesthetic though.

A peculiar percussive solo opens “Please Don’t Go” before turning into a more frantic and clear but difficult to separate rhythm motion added to by upward slides from Briquette, though the song breaks into more comfortable territory when Machale’s sax joins and Geldof begins telling another story, backing himself with the title of the song for a second time. While his story-telling is casual, and even his more distinctly sung backing, as well as Machale’s sax are relatively easygoing, Crowe and Briquette thunder onward underneath him, though Crowe’s drumming remains wild and varied, too, further emphasizing its difference from the rest of the song. There’s a momentary relent that allows Briquette to take control, giving Bob the opportunity to sing scat (!) for a few measures. An overlay of electronic keys from Johnny is allowed to shine over it all for just a moment, but the drums regain control, eventually crossfaded into another mechanical and rhythmic sound, which is eventually left in isolation: the tapping of a typewriter.

The biggest single from the album in the U.S. (I believe, at least–this band is not loaded with information around the net, and what’s there is often conflicting, at least in part, and they were never near as big in the U.S. as anywhere else) is “The Elephant’s Graveyard”, which is perhaps the most normally Rats song, with hints of Steve Nieve-y-circa-This Year’s Model³ organ from Fingers, which is followed by a more grand line on piano for a moment. Ever energetic Pete and Simon keep the song moving through either as Geldof sings about Miami, Florida, and Florida’s nature as “retirement state”, balanced against the riots that were incited by the death of Arthur McDuffie there. “Guilty, ’til proven guilty/Isn’t that the law?/Guilty, ’til proven guilty/That’s what we all saw”, goes the chorus–seemingly speaking for the jury that acquitted the accused police officers, but ending by turning it on them for a moment, exiting on calls of “Shame, shame, shame-y shame”.

On the other hand, the more definitive biggest single in the U.K. was “Banana Republic”, Geldof’s acerbic and acidic, but relatively casual description of Ireland, the band’s home country, from which they were banned from performing. A reggae-style bassline, the scratching, palm-muted guitar and the basic drumbeat adding up to the same give the song a rather odd opening, a drum roll seeming to announce the song proper, but instead leading to a repetition, over which Fingers vamps in a more organ-like keyboard line. When the song does begin, it speeds its pace and shifts entirely, to a  more full sound, with even faux accordion moments. The burbling, bubbling Briquette’s bass keeps the sound of the introduction, though, and the near-falsetto backing of the chorus and Bob’s own subdued reading of it–especially contrasted with his emphatic though seemingly jaded and unemotional (in tone, though not word) delivery of the verses. Partway through, Bob’s voice repeats the description of who he thinks controls it all–“The black and blue uniforms/Police and priests” and then echoes into the distance. We come back to the introductory reggae style, which continues of a lengthy outro, slowly breaking down until Briquette is left repeating his part alone at the end.

A very rough guitar and Geldof give a completely different impression of “Hurt Hurts” than the song itself bears out. Crowe’s huge drum sound announce the song’s title with handclaps and more volume and emphasis than the opening of the song. The movement in the pseudo-chorus is full and rhythmic, with an unusually low piano riff defining much of it. The crash and thump of Crowe’s drums, though, is the signature of the song, pounding out under the lightly echoed calls of “Hurt hurts” from Geldof, interestingly outshining the chorus proper as a hook.

Inserted from a b-side for the U.S. release, “Don’t Talk to Me” is perhaps the most “normal” song on the entire album, with Bob doing his best Buddy Holly impersonation (think “oh-ho-ho”), with a nicely backed chorus performed by him with the rest of the band, a load of handclaps and a bit of semi-standard guitar. There’s even a hint of some 60s (surfish) guitar sound, and an actual guitar solo.

“Up All Night” is on loan from another album entirely, though thankfully at least one produced by the same people. It’s also not too far off in sound from the rest of Mondo Bongo, so its appearance isn’t entirely unwelcome. Bass-dominated, the song is almost nothing else, though bongo-based percussion is also present. Guitars are all texture and often not present. Johnny’s fingers are also intermittent at best. The echo on Bob’s answering lines in the chorus are also reminiscent of the peculiar production choices on Mondo Bongo that set it so distinctly apart from its predecessor, The Fine Art of Surfacing. Fingers does get a solo, and the “Say it ain’t so, Joe/Say it ain’t so, Joe-woah-woah-woah/Oh-woah-woah-woah” bridge actually make for a solid ending to the album, even if the changes inherently raise my hackles.

Of course, hiding after this is the “hidden track” “Cheerio”: a very rough, live acoustic guitar backs Geldof through a very short song. “You’d better hurry up and say something/Or else I’m gonna go”, he sings, and the album ends. Ah, wait, no: “Okay./That’s fine by me./Cheerio!” Geldof sings with an angelic chorus of the rest of the band behind him, repeating it to the end of the album.

The Rats are one of my favourite bands. To many, that goes without saying. It shouldn’t be too much a surprise–even in the future, looking at past polls you can see what a volume of their stuff I have as compared to effectively any other artist (and it doesn’t include my double 7″ for “Charmed Lives”, either). I own all six albums on vinyl and CD, and scattered bits and pieces outside of that. They hit my sweet spot, really: a professional, unusual, but pop-oriented band. There’s a sensibility to Geldof’s songwriting that is easily seen in the choice to label a Rats-plus-Geldof-solo compilation Loudmouth, and in songs like his “Great Song of Indifference”, a live take of a first world occupant talking about their callous disinterest in suffering around the world. As with many things Geldof sings and does, there’s no sense that he’s preaching with a fuzzy head or cynicism about the cause: he never pulls punches (though he occasionally plays politics) about what he thinks is important–when he wrote a song about the man who took his wife away from him and later killed himself, it’s neither devoid of sympathy nor maudlin: “What the fuck’s goin’ on inside your head?” Frustrated, angry, but not dismissive, it’s the nature of Bob’s approach to things. He’s jaded and arrogant, but not without awareness of the fact that he’s limited. Matched to his musical sensibilities (steeped in punk, but later let dry out in other genres, most clearly starting with this album), it’s a great mix.

I’ve always thought of Mondo Bongo as “the experimental album”, with their self-titled debut being the most “punk”, A Tonic for the Troops building that sound into their own–often the moment I like most in bands–and The Fine Art of Surfacing putting a finish on it. I’m not left with that opinion changed, but as with every time I listen to one of the last three Rats albums, I’m reminded that I often sell them short. I’d still recommend a few of the others (Tonic, Fine Art) first, but this isn’t the failure some make it out to be.

²If you want specifics:

  1. “Straight Up” – 3:15
  2. “The Elephants Graveyard” – 3:43
  3. “This Is My Room” – 3:35
  4. “Another Piece of Red” – 2:35
  5. “Hurt Hurts” – 3:05
  6. “Please Don’t Go” – 3:34
  7. “Fall Down” – 2:26
  8. “Go Man Go!” – 3:52
  9. “Under Their Thumb” – 2:41
  10. “Banana Republic” – 4:55
  11. “Whitehall 1212” – 3:43
  12. “Mood Mambo” – 4:06
  13. “Cheerio”

³Steve Nieve is and was the keyboardist for Elvis Costello, first with the Attractions and now with whatever the heck he’s calling his band.