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!

Eels – Shootenanny! (2003)

 SpinArt Records ■ spart 128

Released June 2, 2003

Produced by E
Reorded and Mixed by Greg Collins; A4, A6 by Ryan Boesch
Additional Engineering by Greg Burns, Alicia Guadagno
Mastered by Bernie Grundman; A6 by Dan Hersch

Side One: Side Two:
  1. All in a Day’s Work
  2. Saturday Morning
  3. Good Old Days
  4. Love of the Loveless
  5. Dirty Girl
  6. Agony
  1. Rock Hard Times
  2. Restraining Order Blues
  3. Lone Wolf
  4. Wrong About Bobby
  5. Numbered Days
  6. Fashion Award
  7. Somebody Loves You

The list of artists I’ve so far covered that I’ve listened to longer than Eels is relatively short and largely composed of the least surprising artists for me to have known for a long period of time.¹ I actually made my way into Eels fandom on the cusp of my freshman year of college, at the suggestion of my then-girlfriend, who owned Daisies of the Galaxy (in its infamously, hilariously self-censored version) and Beautiful Freak, both of which I owned before too terribly long after that, alongside their two closest temporal relatives: 1998’s Electro-Shock Blues and 2001’s Souljacker, which was still the most recent album at the time. A year later, this album was released, and you can bet, by then, I was picking it up right around the release date.

My Eels records are–somewhat shockingly–apparently the most valuable records I own. I don’t own a ton (the others are the 2×10″ Electro-Shock Blues and the last album, Wonderful, Glorious on the same format, but in a different colour, as well as End Times with its “A Line in the Dirt” 7″ companion), but people will apparently pay a lot for them. It’s less that it’s shocking for quality or popularity, and more for the fact that it has felt more like the Eels crowd is shrinking than growing, so why they would remain so expensive when the audience is (I think?) dwindling, I don’t know. Still, right now the only vinyl copy of this record listed at any sites I’d ever check to see if I want to pick up a record I can’t readily find² is at one of three sites, and they start from $125 US. Yowza! That’s almost ten times what I paid for it a decade ago!

I suppose it’s interesting I started listening to Eels in the fashion I did–for one thing, Chelsea isn’t and wasn’t A Music Person™, as she has since made a single music recommendation, and, within a year or two I knew more Eels music than she did by increasing orders of magnitude. I don’t think she’s ever caught up, but the whole not-A-Music-Person™ thing means that when we talk, it isn’t usually about music anyway. For another, Beautiful Freak is probably the most uncharacteristic of all of their albums, and Daisies is almost always talked of or thought of in the shadow of its predecessor (’98’s Electro-Shock Blues). The censored version of Daisies, alongside that, did make it possible to hear it in the art class we shared (sort of–only “It’s a Motherfucker” was censored, and incompletely, as it was all sarcastic anyway), but was, of course, not the original. I do sometimes think about finding a copy of that version, though.

But I was rather well-rounded on my Eels knowledge by the time Shootenanny! came out. I had all of their albums up to that point and tended to wear them out constantly, especially in those days where you could carry my CD collection in a box or two–and maybe even my records, for that matter (I couldn’t tell you how many it takes now, because I didn’t count all of them when I moved here 9 months ago). It became more and more interesting that I did like them, though–Chelsea’s parents did, too, and so did mine. My whole nuclear family went to see them live once, even, though I recall it being closer to the release of follow-up Blinking Lights and Other Revelations.

With “All in a Day’s Work”, the feel and tone of most of Shootenanny! is set into place: unsurprisingly for Mark Oliver Everett (aka “E”), it’s entirely in contrast to the image set-up by an exclamation mark on a word modified from a celebratory occasion. It’s largely plodding in pace, with a grungy filter over his voice that distorts it quite deliberately. There’s a nice set of instruments behind it, and he even works in an interesting vocal “duet” with the guitars, but it remains dirge-like despite this, particularly via Butch’s clear-cut and knowingly basic drumming. It’s always been a favourite track of mine anyway, though–the way the chorus cuts through that shuffling slump without actually lifting the tone (just the energy!) is pretty magnificent. That the whole thing is lyrically self-deprecating (ie, “everything is screwed up, which is all just a day’s work for me…”), but with the same shrugging disinterest and twist of wry awareness that permeate’s E’s songwriting, whether it’s truly poignant pains of the well-known variety (his family history is a gigantic pile of sadness and loss) or just this kind of self-ribbing.

An actual relatively famous single as Eels tracks go, “Saturday Morning” is a lot shinier and more upbeat than its predecessor. It’s oddly cleaner, even as the guitar lead is squawky like E likes it³. The vocals do go right into falsetto, which is not a new thing for Eels, but may make the most sense it ever has when it’s placed in a song sung from the point of view of a wired kid who has woken up alone and wants some company for the best day of the week a kid has.

Though I’m often left thinking of the Weird Al original song of the same title, “The Good Old Days” is one of E’s better shruggingly pessimistic ballads. It’s a world that’s not all that great, really, and neither is he, for the woman to whom he sings. But, who knows? Maybe this is as good as it gets–maybe the kids out there enjoying it like any other day, maybe the contrast with a bad dream–maybe the two of them just need to make these the good old days. It’s a quietly pretty song, with E’s voice at its surface-morose best, and a very fragile acoustic guitar track backed by a sad, sweet sliding one. It’s engaging in its simplicity–or maybe because of it, or maybe some combination of the two.

Building on a set of very “lo-fi” simple tracks, including a 1-2, 1-2 drum machine, E sings right up at the microphone, an approach he seems to use to imply a kind of immediacy, intimacy, and frankness. Warm keys and incredibly spare guitar join him for the chorus and bring a brightened edge to the song at an entirely appropriate moment, as he sings: “If there’s a God up there, something above/God shine your light down here/Shine on the love/Love of the loveless”, though it drops away again for the next verse. It rejoins moments earlier when the chorus returns this time, though. And this time he repeats the title a few more times, one of them emphatic and passionate. The bridge appears and has a moment of anticipatory tension, growing and growing and–dropped on its face, not violently, just with a matter-of-fact sort of tone, which is an E trademark at this point. But then the song holds its warm edge, and E starts to latch onto that passion he flashed earlier, the song managing a kind of strength that is not belied at all by a still slow pace and instrumentation that, while brightened, is still spare and overall light. It’s a clever and interesting trick, actually, and one of the other songs I’ve always liked on the record.

While I’ve always felt Beautiful Freak was an aberration in E’s discography, the phrase itself manages to encapsulate the overall sense of E’s approach to songwriting: pretty, but unusual, and juxtaposed oddly. “Dirty Girl” reminds me of this because it starts with a nice guitar line in isolation, but takes a sharp turn when Butch drops in for E’s first verse, which begins: “I like a girl with a dirty mouth…” The chorus is wonderful over its broken, half-dissonant but actually quite pretty chords. That same style is used for a solo section, and the style lets it really fill the track out, as if the chord is splintering so that it can fill any remaining cracks around it. It’s like the solo moment allows this trick to reveal itself, where it comes off as a clean, flat surface behind E’s voice in the chorus. It should be no shock at this point that, though Butch’s beat is very uptempo and cheery, the song itself is anything but–yet continues to avoid mopeyness.

The tiniest of intros precedes “Agony”–a call for a new take, and then a quick run up and down some keys cheerfully. It makes a funny kind of sense, as the song that follows is one of the most purely miserable songs E has done–it’s self-aware enough to avoid the sense of pure self-pity, but it has no real wry edge. It’s all keys and drum machine-style beat to start–and the keys have a reverb and electronic tone that lets their chords curl off like the unsettled floor of a body of water when something hits it–slow motion waves that are but the side effect of the real force at play. Strangled and heavily muted 4th beat guitar chords give way to heavily phased and distorted keys that seem to swallow the rest of the track, the low end swelling beneath them and creating a somewhat disorienting sense to the song.

“Rock Hard Times” has the kind of intro that says, “Hey, this is about to be a really catchy song, so we need to kind of prepare you for it”–at least, in the alt-rock kind of vernacular, it does, I think. A solid four-on-the-floor beat and a nicely back-and-forth bounce to the tune make it a catchy tune indeed, with a wonderful chorus–more misery, but with a kind of determined hope behind them. And after a nice, restrained solo section, the keys take over for an organ-style solo of their own. E’s voice and the very pointed notes of the actually near-monotonic guitar backing are the real stars, though, the former riding across the bed-of-nails of the latter like a steadily bumpy ride continuing readily forward.

Heavy on slide, the kind that makes people say a song is “country-tinged”, “Restraining Order Blues” is a song I might place in that pantheon of “stalker songs”, but most of those tend to be ones that don’t explicitly state it in both the title and lyrics that reference the judge who approved the order. It’s just another off-kilter source for E to write a knowingly melodramatic paean to an unattainable and unrequited love. One gets the impression that it does bear some more resemblance to a stalker song I’ve already covered, in that that song’s author described it more as infatuation or attraction that has been taken entirely too far–rather than the explicit (or even implied) threat of some of the others out there. Which is apparently enough in some cases to confuse people as to how acceptable it is, or whether, in this context, a restraining order would be overreaction (answer: most likely, it wouldn’t).

Probably my favourite song when the record came out, “Lone Wolf” has a chugging, punctuated forward momentum. It is interestingly a sort of distant, fuzzy analogue to future track “Hombre Lobo” (title track of the album that came out six years after this one). It’s a defiant and proud track, though not one swollen with hubris, really. It’s not that E is describing himself as amazingly independent–just a definitive introverted sort of person. Even in its slightly re-arranged version on Sixteen Tons (Ten Songs), composed of re-workings of Eels songs for Morning Becomes Eclectic, there’s a power to the song that the original version is concretely built from, even at its starting point of drum machine and heavily strummed acoustic.

The bass on “Wrong About Bobby” starts the song off on its own, and tells us we’re in for something more akin to the earlier chunk of Eels history. Unsurprisingly, then, “Wrong About Bobby” is the closest relative to “Saturday Morning” on the album, with the strongest solo, an upbeat tempo and more cheerful guitars than in most of the other tracks. Butch does his signature Eels beat, and E does his story-teller voice, the one that doesn’t tie the lyrics as directly to himself. It ends with a strangely produced, half-reversed outro that bridges it nicely into the next track.

“Numbered Days” is perhaps the saddest and prettiest track on the record–it’s not actually all that openly miserable in tone, but there’s this underlying feel to the chords, like they’re bright-faced and hopeful, but you can just see their approaching emotional doom the entire time. Maybe it’s the fact that it avoids snares and cymbals so completely for half the track–even the bass drum just following the bass guitar. When the snare and cymbal are finally allowed to enter, they bring with them the carefully meted out, extremely forceful single piano notes that don’t sour the sound, really, they just sort of take it back down to earth. The power in them is a kind of finality, a kind of, “No, things aren’t going to turn out quite so well as you might think.”

Always a confusing track to see the title of, “Fashion Awards” harkens back to the simple, child-like sounds of tracks like “Jeannie’s Diary” and “Daisies of the Galaxy” from three years prior. E’s voice is all falsetto, and the guitar he plays is delicate and fragile. Even though Koool G. Murder’s (really) bass is firm, the delicacy of the song overall is not lost. When keys begin to act as backing chorus to the guitar, when Butch’s drums enter–it still doesn’t change. The fragility is largely retained in the falsetto vocals, as well as the intense, fatalistic (and disturbingly uncaring) refrain of “…Nobody said that the world was fair/And if they did say so, well then…/…We’ll blow off our heads in despair.” It’s so absurd a reaction, so over-the-top, that it swings all the way out past seeming self-pitying or attention-seeking (or, thankfully, serious) without actually losing the feeling that leads toward that statement anyway.

Perhaps in keeping with everyone calling Electro-Shock Blues depressing and Daisies of the Galaxy cheerful despite E’s insistence that each is the opposite, I think “Somebody Loves You” marks the definitive moment in the record, and thus readily counters the insistence that it’s nothing but an exercise in misery, and, for some, a crossing of the line he so readily balanced before. The swing of the opening chords points toward rays of light in the distance, but strong ones. The chorus they are pointing to comes sooner than expected, though there’s a swing down to really kick it into the stratosphere right before it hits. And when it hits…boy, what a song to inspire in moments that one might feel the rest of the album fits for. It acknowledges current sadness, but gives inspiration for progressing past it: “Somebody loves you/And you’re gonna make it through…” I think for E–based, at least, on his comments on Daisies–knowingly and deliberately chose this as a final track, and as a moment that, then, defines the totality of the record, even in its contrast. There is passion, sincerity, earnestness, and even some kind of truth in the way he sings that chorus: it’s easy to believe it, even if you may think otherwise–at the least, that he sincerely means that it simply has to be true.

I’ve spent much of my time since 2003 considering Shootenanny! the “plain Jane” of the Eels oeuvre. Maybe it’s the cover art, maybe it’s after the shifting styles of Electro-Shock Blues and Daisies of the Galaxy managed to finally explode into the strong but wildly erratic Souljacker two years before and so little could seem anything but musically banal in comparison. Maybe it is the most “plain” of their records. I’m not sure–it was Butch’s last full contribution, and it was the first album I heard new from the Eels, and a band I fall in love with then hear new material from is often in for a rocky moment or three. As I’ve listened to this record again, particularly having to pay attention (else this would be an exercise in linguistic masturbation at best: I’m writing for the music, not for the writing, and would not want it otherwise) I feel either time has been kind, or I was too harsh. It’s still hard to look at that plain cover and get an evocation of the feelings it instills, but maybe that was the point–even the interior is a scattered set of studio photographs, nothing really indicating anything about the songs.

I’m not sure at all, what it is, or was, though I think I was not alone in initial disappointment–but I rescind that pretty emphatically now. This is an extremely good record, which I’ve unfortunately missed for much of the last ten years. Shame on me, I guess!

¹AC/DC, Alice in ChainsAphex Twin, At the Drive-In, The Band, The Beatles, David Bowie, The Cars, Eric Clapton, The Clash, Elvis Costello, Deftones, Dire Straits, and a few I did, of course know of, but didn’t go out of my way to listen to, like the Beach Boys, who I followed John into in college. And, yes: the one who reviewed Album – Generic Flipper and My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. That will either make no sense to you or complete sense, I think.

²Not an extensive list. Just Amazon, eBay, and Discogs.

³I’ll never forget the interview I read over ten years ago, where he said that he liked noises that made people check their stereos because they were afraid they might be broken.

Dear Lions – Dear Lions (2011)

Arctic Rodeo Recordings ■ ARR 033

Released May 25, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Day Fifty-Three: Death Cab for Cutie – Narrow Stairs

Barsuk/Atlantic Records ■ BARK 75

Released May 12, 2008

Produced by Chris Walla
Recorded by Chris Walla and Will Markwell
Mixed by Chris Walla (“Long Division” by Alex Newport
Mastered by Roger Seibel

Side One: Side Two:
  1. Bixby Canyon Bridge
  2. I Will Possess Your Heart
  3. No Sunlight
  4. Cath…
  5. Talking Bird
  1. You Can Do Better Than Me
  2. Grapevine Fires
  3. Your New Twin Sized Bed
  4. Long Division
  5. Pity and Fear
  6. The Ice Is Getting Thinner

It has been a long time since I could just drop the titles of tracks in order like this, but that’s always an indicator of how much I like an album–that is, when I was typing up the above information, I only glanced at the inner sleeve to be sure of the actual phrasings (eg, the tense of “The Ice Is Getting Thinner”, which I thought was past tense, as it is at the end of the song), but otherwise just typed them out. Now, on occasion, this really just reflects a lack of memory as to where a side ends, and sometimes just means I can’t put them back in order in my head. But when I can, it means I’ve listened to an album straight through–a lot.

Death Cab for Cutie occupies an interesting spot in the musical world from my own perspective; I’ve seen people called hipsters for liking them, people rejected as hipsters for liking them, people who nudge me in the ribs expecting mutual loathing or eye-rolling, and people afraid to admit to me that they like them. I still can’t quite figure out what the place is, but I’m appreciative that it doesn’t seem to have much of an effect on Gibbard, Walla and crew. The name of the band and the “indie” association kept me away for some years less out of assumptions about what liking them would mean than about my impressions of what taste I had for things deemed “indie” (some years ago, I deliberately delved into some of the biggest bands–Guided by Voices, Pavement, etc–and found myself uninterested, and was not swayed by most examples brought to me personally, either, though my opinion has since changed, including on those specific bands). Still, Narrow Stairs showed up as a promotional copy at my then-employer (Borders again!) and I thought I’d give it a shot. If I recall correctly, someone had actually suggested the single “I Will Possess Your Heart” to me, without my knowing a thing about it, but someone whose recommendations I tend to take pretty seriously (as she is a longtime fan of At the Drive-In, amongst other things).

Around the third minute of that single, I found myself quite in love, and it only grew as the album went on, eventually dominating a lot of my listening for the rest of the year it was released, and even sometime thereafter. When The Open Door, its companion EP, was released, it only got worse–until, eventually, I found my collection (nearly) complete (at time of writing, I effectively lack the Codes and Keys remix album, and not much more, having finally acquired both the The John Byrd EP and The Stability EP). I did eventually discover that “I Will Possess Your Heart” was not that uncharacteristically long for the band as a whole, but still an odd choice as a single in light of that fact about it, as the only two other normal studio tracks in that kind of clearly-beyond-most-singles length are the title track from Transatlanticism and the last also-title track from the aforementioned (and, as a modern EP, often ignored) The Stability EP (for curiosity’s sake, it actually follows a cover of Björk’s “All Is Full of Love”, emphasizing the “We will do what we want” attitude EPs and B-sides often carry).

I was out perusing a used CD store when I decided to check their vinyl out on a whim (used vinyl can be exhausting–which can make it more rewarding, but it’s a bigger dice roll with the sheer volume of re-sold random stuff that is hard to gauge, or is from the glut of popular albums now abandoned simply for format reasons. I saw Narrow Stairs and, while it was a bit higher than I would normally go for a used record, the fact that it was an album I like this much made me snap it up anyway (after a bit of quick phone-based confirmation that I wasn’t just going to be getting ripped off–which I apparently wasn’t).

While the knowledge is not necessary (I started without it!), “Bixby Canyon Bridge” is, perhaps obviously to fans, actually about Ben Gibbard’s attempts to connect with the spirit of Jack Kerouac, for whom he would later collaboratively work out an album’s worth of songs with Jay Farrar (of Uncle Tupelo/Son Volt) titled One Fast Move or I’m Gone, which is based on Big Sur. It’s a good choice for an introduction, as it seemingly wavers into existence, Gibbard’s voice clear as he describes his experience of traveling to the actual Big Sur, referring to it as “the place where your soul had died”, in reference to Kerouac himself. When he finds that nothing is happening, he sings “I curse myself for being surprised/That this didn’t play like it did in my mind”. Throbbing bass, firm, insistent drums, and crunchy monotone guitars announce the shift in topic to Gibbard’s own life: “And I want to know my fate/If I keep up this way”. The song builds to a cluttered drone, vocals blurring into guitars until where one ends and the next begins is unclear. It climbs and clusters into a dissipating wash, and Gibbard’s voice returns: “And then it started getting dark/I trudged back to where the car was parked/No closer to any kind of truth/As I must assume was the case with you.”

I don’t know that there’s any sense in which a single could be “surprising” these days without simply being a refusal to submit to anything, at which point the question arises as to whether the only real goal was to be, well, surprising. Despite that, “I Will Possess Your Heart” still manages a significant degree of surprise. While it was edited down to a much briefer four minutes for radio play, its album version is over eight minutes long, and at first appears to be a very clear instrumental. Nick Harmer keeps a slinky bassline in line over an easy beat from Jason McGerr that increases in confidence ever so subtly as the song continues. Gibbard intermittently drops a somewhat discomforting descending piano line, and Chris Walla’s guitars waft across the track largely on waves of sustained sound, with intermittent new chords. It’s a great groove, but there’s something a little uneasy in it, something a bit off–and it becomes clear when Gibbard’s lyrics come in. Some have tried to argue (rather inexplicably) that a song with words like “There are times when outside your window/I see my reflection as I slowly pass/How I long for this mirrored perspective/When we’ll be lovers, lovers at least”, and “You reject my advances/And desperate pleas/I won’t let you/Let me down/So easily” and somehow believe it could be about anything but unhealthy obsession and selfish desire for another. Of course–we’ve seen it established that songs about uncomfortably attached persons can be quite good (cf. “Every Breath You Take”), so long as they accurately marry that sensibility to a more cheerful and appealing melody. “I Will Posses Your Heart” may be the perfection of this, as it actually manages to sneak in the disturbing elements, mostly through Gibbard’s keys, while not losing the catchy and appealing nature of the whole song.

There are a handful of songs on the album that feel…not quite right to me, despite my love of the whole. “No Sunlight” is the first of these. It feels perhaps too bright–musically, not lyrically–after the darkened corners of “I Will Possess Your Heart”, but it’s actually a furthering of that mistaken, mismatched emotional theme of the album’s entirety. Harmer’s bass is warm and round, McGerr’s drums are steady–upbeat, even, and Walla’s sliding (not slide) guitar lines are catchy and give a nice flavour that always lets me happily hear the song anyway. It’s not a bad song, not even an entirely inappropriate one, it just feels less interconnected as compared to the rest of the album. Gibbard describes a sunny youth that turns to something else: “With every year that came to pass/More clouds appeared/Till the sky went black/And there was no sunlight, no sunlight/And there was no sunlight, no sunlight…anymore” and clarifies the seeming literal nature of the lyrics to this point in the chorus, which is deceptively energetic: “It disappeared at the same speed/The idealistic things I believed/And the optimist died inside of me”. The way he and backing vocals from Harmer and Walla cheerfully sing “No sunlight” is one of those great examples of dark lyrics and catchy music juxtaposed, which basically completes my forgiveness for the song, even if I look far more forward to the track that follows.

I’m not going to pretend I got the literary reference of “Cath…” anymore than I got the Kerouac meaning that lay under “Bixby Canyon Bridge”, but it does help to illuminate Gibbard’s lyrics all the same. “Cath…” could easily be finished out as “…erine Earnshaw”, as in Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, though the object of the song seems more to place a segment of that story into the context of reality, and Ben’s reaction to a real-life “Cath” going through a vaguely similar situation. It has one of the best almost-cold opens of the album: a few muted strums set the stage for a dramatic and big, lonely but warm, arcing guitar from Walla which is joined by another guitar (Gibbard) to sort of mumble back to itself afterward, but then freeze at a certain volume and rattle off a few notes. McGerr’s drums really build the song up, determined and firm beats that shift focus readily to maintain the peaks and valleys of the melody, which moves like a speedboat bobbing over its own wake. Ben’s voice is short, sharp–describing “Cath…” in position: “Cath…/She stands/With a well-intentioned man/But she can’t relax/With his hand on the small of her back/As the flash bulbs burst/She holds a smile/Like someone would hold/A crying child”. Already it’s clear what he thinks of Cath: there’s sympathy in his description, even as it is largely just that–a description. In the chorus he references the voices of gossip that will follow this hasty and un-felt marriage, and answers for her with continued sympathy though a continued detachment of omniscent description. The song eases for the moments in which he speaks of the definitive point of her choice–that of marriage vows–Walla’s guitar dainty and delicate as it lifts itself behind Gibbard’s voice. And then he takes the gossips to task, drawing a parallel to his own expressed cause for Cath’s actions: “But if their hearts were dying that fast/They’d’ve done the same as you”, and then he admits his reasons for sympathy, and explains why he cannot criticize or gossip himself: “And I’d’ve done the same as you”.

“Talking Bird” is one of three songs (the others are “The Ice Is Getting Thinner” and “No Sunlight”) released as demos in various places surrounding the album–the other two were on a bonus 7″ with some pressings of the 12″ (not mine, alas), while the demo for this song was actually the last track on the Open Door EP, played by Gibbard alone with a ukulele (!), but appears here in its more complete form. It’s still a very knowingly slight song. A patiently thrumming bassline from Harmer goes on at a pace that somehow avoids to push the song as fast as itself, while McGerr’s heavily spaced drumbeats confirm the pacing. Walla’s guitars pick and strum rather intermittently. Even at their most expansive, occupying largely the bottom end and staying slow. It may be the most fragile song, coaxing a bird (in the literal sense, but referring to a love, of course) to choose a path of its own, admitting “the windows were open the whole time”, but continuing that “it’s all there for you, as long as you choose to stay”.

The brave, cheerful organ and martial drumming that starts “You Can Do Better Than Me” sounds nothing like the title, nor its own subject matter. The keys throughout give it the feeling of a kind of march, though a summer-y one. Gibbard slips in some real lyrical corkers: “I’ve been slipping through the years/And my old clothes don’t fit like/They once did/So they hang like ghosts/Of the people I’ve been.” His voice slides up into falsetto with a kind of nervy energy falsetto often bestows–as if the raw reality of the feelings he’s expressing are hitting home as he finishes thoughts, and sometimes just as if it’s the best way to hold the notes. But the song is raw, and it makes that clear from the opening line: “I’m starting to feel/We stay together out of fear/Of dying alone”. There’s a balance, a mutual “fault” or failure at play, but then he sings that he has “to face the truth/That no one could ever look at me/Like you do/Like I’m something worth/Holding onto”, continuing his confidence and equal ground as he sings, “There’s times I think of leaving/But it’s something I’ll never do”, and the confident march of the song is left with the sustained organ chord that matched his last word, and only a piano follows him through the last lines, vulnerable, sincere, and yet flat with expression of perceived fact: “‘Cause you can do better than me/But I can’t do better than you.”

“Grapevine Fires” is perhaps the first song to describe a standing relationship instead of a desired one, an ending one, or a broken one, though it turns its darkened focus instead to the fires that actually burnt a chunk of California down in 2007. McGerr’s spiky-but-relaxed drum beat fades the song into place, where Ben’s voice and electronic keys keep it cool and sad. Walla and Harmer lay in beautiful, smooth backing vocals to Ben’s distinct voice, with now intermittent guitar but primarily a second set of keys laying out the backing for a song that matches the seemingly eased relationship with a mother of one against the background of both the fires, and the “cemetery on a hill” that they choose to observe the fires from–her daughter “laugh[s] and dance[s] in the field of graves”, and is crystallized as he finally adds: “But I couldn’t think/Of anywhere I would’ve rather been/To watch it all burn away/Burn away”. It may be, tonally, one of the saddest songs on the album, a sort of downbeat, downcast feeling to the guitar and keys themselves, the latter of which is somewhat uncertain in its emphasis.

Probably my favourite track on the album for its sliding guitar hook and its rim-based drumming style, we are now at “Your New Twin Sized Bed”. It’s catchy as all get-out (inexplicably, never a single!) and easy-going, the depressing subject matter perched precariously on a downbeat tune with a certain hopeful element in it, as well as a comfortable feeling to the music itself. As Ben has said, though, it’s a song about “throwing in the towel”, and continues to address the album’s ideas of dissolution and disillusionment in a method that is almost metaphorical, but, in the end, isn’t necessarily: “You look so defeated/Lying there in your new twin sized bed/With a single pillow/Underneath your single head/I guess you decided/That that old queen was more space than you would need/Now it’s the alley behind your apartment with a sign that says ‘free’/And that I hope you have more luck with it than me”. It’s a defeated song, both lyrically and musically, but it is still alive all the same, in both cases, but especially musically–it’s self-rationalization (“But what’s the point of holding on to what never gets used?/Other than a sick desire for self abuse”), but it doesn’t keep the actions from seeming worrisome to an observer. Walla rescues this with his guitar’s hook, which Harmer perfectly counters with a bassline that echoes and rearranges the same feel.

If the album has a climax, it’s definitely “Long Division”. The thumping bassline that rises up alongside a similarly uptempo drumbeat is cut short in its energy by the more relaxed and clear cut notes from Walla’s guitar, Gibbard’s voice similarly at ease, though they all suddenly rush along in a preview of the chorus: “Oh-ho-ho/Once it would start it was harder to tell them apart/Oh-ho-ho”. Gibbard describes first the man in the relationship, ending with a chorus that describes the man’s goal: “Cause he had sworn/Not to be what he’d been before/to be a remain- remain- remain- remainder”. And then he describes the viewpoint of the woman in the same relationship, unaware of his personal oath, and instead hurt as “She said she’d never envisioned/Him the type of person/Capable of such deceit”. And so we shift to a less internal solution: “And they carried on like/Long division/As it was clear with every page/Oh, that they were/Further away/From a solution that would play/Without a remain- remain- remain- remainder…” The sudden bursts of energy in the chorus are infectious and engaging, with the last instance unable to be slowed in its thundering burst through the song, which is channeled into rapid strums of the guitar that run closer and closer together, riding higher and higher up the neck. It charges onward and ever-forward, finally resting on the half-repetitions of the title song’s object before holding and casually clearing out the last of the album’s upbeat energy.

It’s cold, hovering electronics, and light hand-drumming behind sharpened, squared off guitar licks in “Pity and Fear”. Gibbard expresses envy of “the stranger lying next to [him]/Who awakes in the night/And slips out into the predawn light/No words, clean escape/No promises or messes made/And chalks it all up/To mistake, mistake, mistake”. It does shift into an uptempo beat, but with the continued sense of vast distance and coldness, the gaping distance between two people drawn so entirely apart. It builds to a stronger sound as Walla’s guitar takes on distorted chords and McGerr’s drums push harder (these drums played with sticks), until the song builds up to reverberating manipulations of distortion and then–an abrupt end, as the tape, apparently ran out and they appreciated the sound enough to leave it.

“The Ice Is Getting Thinner” takes that cold spaciousness and exaggerates it to the extreme: just enough echo on Ben’s voice to imply a cavernous solitude, and guitars that are, at their loudest, casual, slow, and low-slung, patient and sad. There is a repeating lick of brighter notes faint in the background, but it is lost to steady organ-style keys. Walla’s solo is affected in a fashion similar to Gibbard’s voice, distant, isolated and mournful, strangely flat and off to a side. It all rests on a single note that holds and fades to nothing.

Ben Gibbard has apparently stated that he never wants to go any lower (as in darker) than this album, and it’s not difficult to see why he might draw the line here–this is not a cheerful album. It’s a bit of a shift away from its predecessor (Plans, two years earlier) in its reluctance to stick to a single style or sound, as well as its relentlessly downbeat subject matter: effectively every song is about mismatched emotional “frequencies” and falling out of sync, whether it’s with a lover or the world as a whole, as it is in “Grapevine Fires” or “Bixby Canyon Bridge”. “Your New Twin Sized Bed” may be definitively about “throwing in the towel”, but a lot of the album is about that in other ways as well.

Despite all that, it’s stupendously catchy and just damned good.

I once had someone wander into Borders when I was working and tell me they hadn’t listened to any new music in decades, that they liked the biggies from way back when–the Beatles, the Stones, etc–and they wanted a recommendation. I happened to be in the middle of my love for this album and suggested it–I admit, sometimes I throw things out not being entirely sure how they will come off, as most people have more selective ranges of sound that they appreciate. But this person came back and told me they loved this album. A few other customers gave their approval when I’d throw it on our overhead stereo system when I was spending the night closing–an action quietly justified by the fact that we did continue to carry it for sale, even as I played it an awful lot.

As much as I may like an awful lot of music, I don’t always get anything quite so “stuck” as this, making it a perfect indicator of what it means when I very consciously choose to pick an album up on vinyl or CD following an existing purchase of the other format. That applies to a good sized portion of the non-super-cheap-used vinyl I own, of course, especially those titles which are not “classics”. Once in a while, the idea (or coloured vinyl, or circumstances) will push other titles in without as much force, but this was one that needed no trickery to leap into my hands and onto my shelf. It does actually have a die-cut sleeve (that is, there are windows cut into the outer sleeve, through which the inner sleeve shows–though it’s not a Physical Graffiti effect, or anything), but I didn’t realized that until I opened it and had already decided on acquiring it.

I already noted that their reputation can make this a very hedged bet sort of situation–perhaps my taste drops in your estimation on reading this, perhaps you reconsider a band you previously avoided (as I did). Or, perhaps you nod sagely and wonder what took me so long. Or maybe none of these. Still, I strongly encourage the reluctant to give this album in particular a chance, even if none of their others.

  • Next Up: Decapitated – Winds of Creation