The Faint – Danse Macabre (2001)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or just check them out regardless (yep).


Day Thirteen: Atmosphere – The Family Sign

Rhymesayers Entertainment ■ RSE0130-1

Released: April 12, 2011

Produced by Anthony “Ant” Davis

Side One: Side Two:
  1. My Key
  2. The Last to Say
  3. Became
  1. Just for Show
  2. She’s Enough
  3. Bad Bad Daddy
  4. Millennium Dodo
Side Three: Side Four:
  1. Who I’ll Never Be
  2. I Don’t Need Brighter Days
  3. Ain’t Nobody
  1. Your Name Here
  2. If You Can Save Me Now
  3. Something So
  4. My Notes

And now we hit on a genre that splits a lot of the people I know distinctly: rap/hip-hop. For the pedants–the genre is most accurately referred to as “rap music” or “hip-hop music”, as “hip-hop” technically refers to the entire subculture (identified by the four primary components: graffiti, rapping, DJing, and breaking). I don’t specify too much here, because there should be no confusion about the fact that I’m referring to music in the context of a blog about records that has “vinyl” in its title and pictures of records all over it. All that established, I know a fair number of people who carry the allergy that I usually see wandering the web in far more vitriolic forms. Admittedly, I cover most of the genres that you see appear under “I listen to all kinds of music, except…” with the possible exception of modern strains of popular country music. I come from the kind of background personally, musically, and so on that doesn’t as often place me in contact with other listeners of rap music. I’m by no means alone, I know at least a few people who listen as I do, but we all tend to shy more toward the “indie” side of hip-hop, of which Atmosphere may well be the godfathers to some extent.

While my youth included living in a culture where hip-hop was achieving cultural penetration and significance, the necessity of rebellion came out in confused fashion for me. I rebelled far more against the generalities of the culture I was in when I hit high school, occasionally using carefully selected definitions of “music” to exclude rap. This is and was not an unusual thing to do in those days, at least, not for those of us who were edging into the heavier side of things. Uncomfortably, this appears to be quite possibly racially motivated for many people (there’s, alas, no shortage of that attitude in the circles of aggressive, rock-based music), but was stacked with varying exceptions for me. Atmosphere, though, on recommendation, broke me out of this. Seven’s Travels, Atmosphere’s 2003 album, was the final breakdown of the aversion for me. It’s the first rap album I purchased on vinyl, and one of the albums I’ve purchased at something other than extreme discount on both CD and vinyl.

I’ve followed Atmosphere with varying intensities since then–the re-relase of the Headshots: Se7en mixtape, and the 2005 album You Can’t Imagine How Much Fun We’re Having, and even 2008’s When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold were all releases I grabbed as soon as I could. The four volumes of the Sad Clown, Bad Dub series of mixtapes the group released in that period were also semi-immediate purchases. By 2010, when To All My Friends, Blood Makes the Blade Holy: The Atmosphere EPs and, indeed, this very album, I was not paying close attention. Most of the blame for that falls on the second Atmosphere show I went to, around 2006. It’s not that Slug and Ant were off their game–no, it’s that the spotlight was stolen by their opener, P.O.S., who came from the same city (Minneapolis, MN) and started me on my most emphatic (and successful) musical evangelism.

I bought The Family Sign on CD in mid-2011, a few months after it was released. It’s strongly associated with a time frame that I don’t purse associations with, which has left it off to the side for much of the year and a half since then. When Fifth Element, the major indie music store in Minneapolis, offered half off all Rhymesayers Entertainment (RSE) releases this past Christmas, I snapped up the EPs I’d skipped (with one exception, due to a bug in the ordering system) and this album on vinyl. I’ve been sitting on it (and the other releases I grabbed at the time: Brother Ali’s Mourning in America and Dreaming in Color and P.O.S.’s We Don’t Even Live Here) until now–which made it convenient that it was voted for as the release for me to discuss here.

I did spend, as I said, a period of time paying a great deal of attention to Atmosphere. As a result, it was with awareness of the significant changes that I listened to The Family Sign both the first time and today. While When Life Gives You Lemons paved the way for significant changes (inspired in part by some touring choices they began to make), The Family Sign is the absolute culmination of them. When I first saw Atmosphere, Sean “Slug” Daley was rapping with Ant for the first time (who previously did not tour with Slug) and now an entire band playing their tracks live. This was odd, as all albums to that point were recorded as is the most common practice with rap: sampled or otherwise electronically created beats–even the live instrument playing was usually just something previously recorded for an existing song, chopped or restructured (unless the artist in question was lazy, and there’s a glaring example of that one, but it isn’t here). It made for an interesting stage show, too, as it allowed them to shift between full band performance and more standard DJ+emcee (rapper, if you are unfamiliar) performance. Lemons introduced moments of guitar  (and synthesizer) playing from Nate Collis, who was the touring guitarist I’d seen them with, as well as various others. Live instrumentation isn’t foreign to rap, but it was foreign to Atmosphere.

The Family Sign, however, moves the band almost entirely into a new realm: the album now references Nate Collis and touring keyboard player Erick Anderson as members of the band, listing their “shout outs”/thanks in the same place as Slug and Ant, with both of them listed before Slug, and Nate listed even before Ant. It changes the musical dynamic of the group entirely. They have had other members in the past–Derek “Spawn/Rek the Heavyweight” Turner was originally a second emcee–but this was a game changer in sound terms. When the record starts with “My Key”, it would be easy to think that what Erick is playing is instead a sample, but when the piano shifts naturally to a different melody and Slug begins quietly sing-songing in, it becomes clear that’s not the case. By the time Nate’s guitar comes strumming in, and his backing vocals (which also began to appear on Lemons, and were used in concert to take the place of vocal samples) follow, you could be forgiven for not recognizing the album as rap at all. Of course, Ant, who publishes under “Ant Turn That Snare Down” with ASCAP, has put together the beat and it carries the dry, solid sound that is his signature (and partly the inspiration for that publishing title).

“The Last to Say” remains the song that sticks with me on the album, both from a year ago and from today, despite the fact that it is only the second track on the album. Lonely howls and oscillating pitches over a solid beat add a downbeat keyboard tune as Slug begins to tell the story of a man raised in an abusive home, which makes a turn suddenly to address the person to whom the song is being sung: the woman who lives with this man, who Slug cannot understand, as she keeps returning to this same man. This is delicate subject matter, especially to speak of with regard to addressing someone trapped in it. But Slug does not fall into the usual trap: he openly questions what motivates these decisions–is she replaying her homelife, too? Is she excusing him as a damaged person not entirely responsible for his actions? Instead he asks her to remember when she left before, states the facts of the abusive behaviour, but captures the entire attitude in the lines that lead to the chorus for the second time: “Please put your shoes and step into that warm weather/Go get yourself a more better forever/Gotta put it down, you gotta leave it/And don’t ever come back again, you’ve gotta mean it/Just tear it all apart and build new/’Cause if you don’t kill him, he’s gonna kill you/You can’t hold hands when they make fists/And I ain’t the first to say this…/But let me be the last to say/Please don’t stay/Let me be the last to say/You won’t be okay”. There’s no condescension, even as there’s incredulity.

The liner notes for the album are scant in general, but Slug does write that “Became” was actually inspired by a poem and a story that inspired that poem. It tells a story that feels interesting from the outset, and only becomes moreso. It does have a few of the awkward verbal constructions Slug can be guilty of on occasion though. It does edge us out of the dark territory of “The Last to Say” and makes room for one of the few musically upbeat numbers on the album, “Just for Show”. The sing-song chorus and the cynical, dismissive tone are some of the last carryovers from Slug’s established approach to writing. The chorus stays clever though, as it repeats at just the right moment to convey the exact sentiment of the entire song: “You don’t really want/You don’t really want me/You don’t really want/You don’t really want me/To go/No you don’t that’s just for show”. For a moment, you think he’s telling the listener they don’t want him as they are claiming, but then it turns at the last moment and confirms the false foundations of that claim. It’s the beginnings of the personal relationship attitudes changing in Slug that becomes apparent as the album progresses.

“She’s Enough” continues the upbeat nature of the prior song, but this time it’s in the lyrics, too. Much like Sims’ “LMG” (we’ll see that in a few months, I guess!), Slug decides to write a song about a woman that isn’t “such a depressing mess”. It’s not an uncommon idea in the rap I do listen to, to be fair, but it’s new for Slug, who has spent years writing about his struggles with his relationship with women in general and in specific. A little more distortion and crunch makes for an exception to the very clean beats and instrumentation on the rest of the album, setting this track apart from a lot of the rest.

“Bad Bad Daddy” is peculiar in general. Slug’s vocals are slightly distant and distorted, echoing back at themselves. It’s reminiscent, in ways, of the Ford One and Ford Two EPs they released many years ago, but it’s backed by textures from Erick and a rather dirty guitar lick from Nate that all stands to back lyrics about a father beyond irresponsible, described by himself in simultaneously jaw-droppingly awful terms and self-justification.

Side Three opens with an odd song for the group, “Who I’ll Never Be”, a beat that sounds as if it’s being played back for microphones to record for the record, and a clean, intricate and acoustic set of guitar playing from Nate that backs a song about a neighboring, quiet, sad songwriter that Slug wants to reach out to, but knows he can’t because it wouldn’t do what he might hope, so he just revels in the sounds he hears through walls he suspects she doesn’t know are so thin.

Side Three stays in the darker groove that defines most of the album, with synthesized keyboards reminiscent of atmospheric 80s synthetic scores and one of the bluesier riffs Nate pulls out, with a more dominant beat than much of the album. “Ain’t Nobody” has a cheerful sound that I believe is a melodica, and one of the catchier choruses (like “The Last to Say” and “Just for Show”, embossed in silver foil on one of the optional sets of cover art–more on that later). The lyrics are much like those of “Millennium Dodo”, in their audible sigh of resigned annoynace, which is continued in the following track, “Your Name Here”, which sounds like it is being written as a sad song of loss, but suddenly begins to sound insincere until it becomes clear that it is exactly that, and more, until it becomes sincere in an entirely different way.

Side Four is possibly the best entire side of the record, opening with the clever and engaging “If You Can Save Me Now, which first sounds like a semi-awkward (Slug is not a singer) ballad, but turns to an Ant beat with Erick and Nate acting more in the semi-sample roles to give it melody. As the song progresses, you find that the kind of saving being sought is not quite what you think–and it turns into something else, and something unexpected. “Something So” and “My Notes” are absolutely beautiful, and “Something So” knows it. “Something So” is dominated by Collis, with Slug’s voice bowing to its sound at the beginning, with Erick’s keys only intermittently appearing, warbling like a theremin as a nice accent to the cool but hopeful guitar lines. Ant’s beat is more reminiscent of a rock band’s, with less intense bass beats and a greater emphasis on light cymbal and woodblock usage. And when you realize what the song is about, what “Something so beautiful” is, it all makes sense that the song would be so special.

“My Notes” ends the album with the last of the embossed lines present. It starts off sounding like an early 70s Tom Waits track, meaning Erick is the one dominating, with a breezy, slow, but warm keyboard line. In the spirit of many of Slug’s closing lyrics, vocals and Atmosphere tracks, his voice seems to gather energy and volume as it goes, half-angry at what is a positive message in a way that seems to almost say, “Look, dummy, I’m telling you something good.” One of the most effective sing-song lines from Slug defines the track, as it is only used to open lines: “As long as I can hit my notes…”

When the album ended, I realized I’d definitely missed something here. The album did not get stunning reviews when it came out–not terrible, but generally middling. I’m not necesarily left with the impression that that is unfair, but certainly that some of these tracks deserve far more attention than the whole album might indicate. Highlights like those last three, or “Who I’ll Never Be” and “The Last to Say”, or “Became” despite its flaws, shouldn’t be left to moulder.

They did record a video for “The Last to Say”, which I’ll include here because it fits a great song well:

Slug’s place in the video makes it clear that something has changed in Atmosphere: while Lemons brought us a Slug that tells the stories of others instead of himself, The Family Sign is like the full realization of that hint. Personal stories or viewpoints are not abandoned (“She’s Enough”, “Your Name Here”), and instead show the same kind of resigned, mature reactions. While always self-deprecating in the past, here it is not something Slug just puts out on show, as if he has assimilated that knowledge into a more complete sense of self than previously. He sounds settled into his relationship, his wife, his children, and as if rap is now not a need to prove himself, but a job and a method of communication: an art, not a proving ground.
The actual release is on clear vinyl, and comes in a gatefold package with 4 panels (each two-sided) that have either the album and artist name or a line from one of the songs embossed in fancy cursive writing over various images. The one image of the band is surprising, with Erick, Nate, and Ant readily apparent, but Slug in the background covering his face–where his previous cover appearances (notably, God Loves Ugly) being him alone. Those panels, though, can be interchanged in the album art, which functions like a picture frame. It even has a fold out stand in the back cover that will stand the album up, vinyl and all.
Next Up: Autechre – Gantz_Graf