Last night both sides of my pillow were covered in sweat (I'd flipped it over). K. is gone to Alabama for the week, so I was alone, with no sheets, and a fan trained on me. I was still sweating.
I hate summer, for the most part. Or rather I hate the heat, which is one of summer's more salient features. I like some of the attendant benefits (swimming, fireworks, scantily clad girls), but the heat. Sweet baby Jesus, the heat.
So last night I ordered pizza, played the new Legend of Zelda game (which is metric tons of fun) and eventually watched the Animatrix with Erik. The movie was, honestly, pretty shitty, but some of the shorts were very good, 'Beyond' and 'Detective Story' in particular. Unfortunately, we started at 2:30, and ended at 4, and I was drinking coke to stay awake. Which then prevented me from falling asleep immediately, never a good thing.
What does this have to do with 'King's Lead Hat' (an anagram for 'Talking Heads', incidentally), one of the skewed pop tracks from Brian Eno's Before And After Science LP? Well, after waking up at 11, tired, dehydrated and kind of cranky, I was for some reason in a Brian Eno sort of mood. Before And After Science, with it's balance of quirky pop and quiet ambience, just seemed to fit.
It was constructed, I'm told, in a rather unusual fashion; Eno and compatriots, including everyone from Robert Fripp to Phil Collins, built up tracks and tracks and tracks from basic ideas and then (and this is the key) subtracted away until they came up with something interesting, which was often quite different from the original.
'King's Lead Hat' might be my favorite song there, even if (as with most of the songs) the lyrics don't make much sense; I invariably sing along to the chorus, although my rendition sounds like "King's lead hat/something something something something/It will come, it will come, it will surely come". But it's catchy.
To have Before And After Science enter my memory as a summer album would be a bit odd, I admit, but I like the way the album slowly lapses into quiesence. Kind of like me on a summer day.
And don't even get me started on the almost literal infernal heat of the plant these days. It makes me want to weep, but I can't spare the moisture. Yesterday they gave us two extra breaks and passed out Freezies, and it was still sweltering. I'm going to start going in a t-shirt and shorts rather than my overalls, which while stylish, are also fucking hot.
But all day you can be sure I'll be humming "King's lead hat/something something something something/It will come, it will come, it will surely come" in between drinks of water.
For now, off to Wok's Taste with Erik for food.
Why yes, I am a tad testy this morning; why do you ask?
My computer is, of course, still on the blink. I've been too busy to really take a look at it yet, so I don't know when it's going to get fixed. K. really hopes I look at it soon, as I'm using her laptop right now, but I don't know when things will return to the status quo. If I was home early enough these days to consult with Tony that would be one thing, but I'm not.
So this week I was trying to think of what to do for WES, and although I had a few good ideas (some of which were spawned listening to Six By Seven's superlative The Way I Feel Today, which somehow got onto K.'s computer), I've decided to do a bit of a review. It's about half of the way through the year, and for me at least, it's been a pretty big year for music. I'm not going to actually try to formulate my list for the year yet, of course, but there's already been more than enough albums that could wind up qualifying. They're in no particular order, as I haven't even begun to think about that sort of thing.
The Delgados - Hate
In some ways this is going to be the one to beat for me this year. This was the year that the Delgados became my favorite band, and released one of their best albums. But, to be honest, Hate alone wasn't what converted me. It's a great album, filled with great songs (especially the opener and closer, 'The Light Before We Land' and 'If This Is A Plan', possibly the most joyous song I have ever heard about fucking up), but it wasn't until I saw them live that I really fell in love. and although their music certainly has a fair bit to do with that, so do a lot fo other intangibles. So maybe I will decide that I love another album more this year, but I doubt I'll find another favorite band.
The Dears - No Cities Left
I'm not going to write too much about this album, as I already have; but right now it looks like the frontrunner to take Hate's position away from it. I may have overdosed on it a bit, but by the end of the year it could still be the most impressive album I've heard.
Radiohead - Hail To The Thief
This is their best album since The Bends. Yes, that means I think it's better than OK Computer. It flows better, it's more sonically adventurous while avoiding the air of aimless experimentation that occasionally blighted Kid A and Amnesiac (the only part of their career that is really subject to excerption), it rocks again, and sadly enough, in wake of world events Thom Yorke's writing finally makes proper sense. '2 + 2 = 5' is the most electrifying opener Radiohead have ever had (I love 'Planet Telex', 'Airbag', 'Everything In Its Right Place' and 'Packt Like Sardines In A Crushd Tin Box', but they're all slow burns of various descriptions), and 'The Gloaming' actually sounds otherworldly. Music to listen to on darkened public transport, surrounded by people you don't know.
Blur - Think Tank
Now this was unexpected; I bought Think Tank half expecting a disaster, instead getting Blur's best album of their career. Now, as with Radiohead, you can argue the merits of individual songs, but as much as I loved The Great Escape, it sounds more like a collection of songs than an album. Here Albarn finally sounds happy and healthy and the whole thing practically glows with relaxed vitality. Still a bit patchy in spots compared to the above, but a major pleasant surprise.
Idlewild - The Remote Part
You know those albums that you can't remember how much you like? When you're listening to them, they're great, but a few days later you're not sure whether they're better than the band's other work? For me, The Remote Part is a textbook example of the phenonemon. 'A Modern Way Of Letting Go' is astounding, as is at least half of the album, but I vacillate wildly about the other half. I'm tempted to say that it's just not as good as 100 Broken Windows, but (a) I'm always leery of criticizing a band for not rehashing past work and (b) an Idlewild album I feel ambiguous about is still better than at least 95% of the stuff out there.
Massive Attack - 100th Window
Just think of it as a 3D solo album and it makes much more sense. Trust me. But it's a beautiful one, albeit not terribly close to what we tend to think of as Massive Attack, and certainly not trip hop. The vocal pieces, for Horace Andy and Sinead O'Connor (doing some of the best work of her career) are great, but it's where Del Naja goes it alone ('Butterfly Caught', 'Small Time Shot Away') that it gets interesting. The Church Of Me has somewhere in its archives an exhaustive appraisal of the album, and he's pretty much on target.
The Libertines - Up The Bracket
Easily tied with the first half of Gemma Hayes album for most exciting debut of the year, albeit for entirely different reasons. The whole 'garage' thing has gotten pretty tiresome, although it has given us some great music (Strokes, Hives) and tangentially pointed at some even greater stuff (Interpol). The Libertines are far from more of the same, with the "Clash/Kinks" comparison actually making a small amount of sense. That point in 'I Get Along' where either Carl or Pete (I don't know which is which) says "some people try to tell me I'm wrong" and the music stops and he spits out "fuck 'em" is possibly the most fun moment in music this year, and definitely one of the most rock and roll, in the classic sense. Suprisingly solid as well, for such a shambolic band (I'm pretty sure 'Horrorshow' is what Steely Dan hear in their nightmares).
Wire - Send
A toughie. A great album, to be sure, but also mostly released on EPs I already owned. It's great to see Wire back and in fighting form, at least as good as they were in the 70's, but I couldn't honestly believe they released an album with just 4 new tracks. All 11 tracks are great, mind you, but I can't really judge the album on its merits alone.
Manitoba - Up In Flames
I want to say I don't get what all the fuss about Up In Flames is about, but I guess I do. Sure, 'Everytime She Turns Round It's Her Birthday' is Mercury Rev (I don't mean it sounds like Mercury Rev - I mean Dan Snaith found a time machine and rescued some lost tapes from Yerself Is Steam), and sure there are influences smeared all over the psychedelic candy coating of the record, but it is a pretty good one. I don't buy the whole 'record of the year' hype, though, as parts of it just leave me cold. The good bits are almost terrifying in their potential.
Calla - Televise
I like this record. All of it. Sure, some tracks might be charitably described as 'becalmed', but there's a sleepy late-summer-night feel to the proceedings, along with an undisputible air of menace to keep things interesting. But I probably wouldn't be mentioning it here if not for 'Strangler', the lead off track and probably the best thing Calla has ever done. It's a bit louder than the rest, but no faster, and when Aurelio Valle croaks out We can get the same effect/If you strangle me, it's one of the creepiest and most bitter (also best) moments of music I've heard this year. The rest, although fine, pales in comparison.
Fischerspooner - #1
Ah, Fischerspooner. How easy it would have been for you just to be a gimmick, with no actual value. Then all the critics could have had a field day! But no, in addition to proven (and justly so) smash 'Emerge' and the best cover of Wire's 'The 15th' ever, you had to pull out everything from the chaos of 'Sweetness' to the poignacy of 'Tone Poem' to the outright hilarity of 'Megacolon'. Accomplishes the difficult goal of creating (a) perhaps the greatest, bitchiest 'electroclash' record (Ladytron are too diverse to be pigeonholed like that) and (b) an excuse to like Fischerspooner.
Chris Whitley - Hotel Vast Horizon
Just about the polar opposite of #1, Hotel Vast Horizon features Whitley and a pair of German musicians holed up last December creating beautifully minimalist music. What type of music? I don't know. Not rock, not folk, not country, not 'roots', but partaking of them all, this is a small, perfectly formed gem. Hopefully its virtues will not be forgotten months down the road.
My computer, apparantly, has a bad hard drive. I forgot that as I wrote this entry. As is my usual habit, I wrote it in the diary-x page for updating. It crashed. Normally you can still select the text and copy and paste it away before letting it crash, but not here. No.
I feel rage. Too much of it. I'm already running late, I might not get the dishes done, and I don't want to go to work (no reason in particular, just the regular not wanting to work). I am so glad I chose this song.
'Days Of Being Wild' slams out of the gate, the band howling about being alive in jail/Alive and well, and does not let up for a minute and a half. As with much of And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead's wondrous Source Tags & Codes album, it is rage in sonic form. The original review I had written noted that And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead (who, unfortunately, resist acronyms, ellipses and excerptions) were not punk, a fact I was compelled to point out because of the surface similarity between a song like 'Days Of Being Wild' and punk. But where punk is ultimately about rebellion, rock is about agression*. And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead have a better handle on this than most modern rock bands, even to the extent of knowing that unrelenting agression is less effective than varying your attack.
So a minute and a half into 'Days Of Being Wild' the drums cease their martial stomp, the guitars start glinding rather than crashing, and there is a short, quiet, bridge. There are whispered vocals. And then everything powers back up again for
Down to find some peace
Driven to shambles on a tip
I never said that I would quit
And the next song takes over
It doesn't sound like much on the page,but anyone who has heard the song nows why it is powerful. The whole thing is repeated again and again, I never said that I would quit especially reverberating like a curse or a promise, as one of the other members of the band begins a spoken word dialogue. There's no transcription in the booklet, and he's not quite decipherable, but he sound contemptuous.
What 'Days Of Being Wild' is about is, to me, a mystery; I know I catch the words 'amphetamines', 'jail', the phrase around my throat you came so close to stopping me. But it sounds exactly the way I feel when I'm pissed off. As I am now.
*I may be stealing this distinction from Glenn McDonald; who makes a similar series of distinctions somewhere.
Procedural Note: This column marks two firsts. Of these, the more minor is that for once I'm writing it ahead of time, although technically it's early Wednesday rather than late Tuesday. That doesn't really make a difference, I'm including it for interest's sake more than anything else. This also marks the first WES that is about an album rather than a song.
The original idea for WES was to do a song a week at least until I had enough for a good mix CD, and then just do whatever from there. This has, I confess, added a slight element of planning into each week's selection, not that I mind. I still plan to do this, and announce it once the first volume of the WES archive album is complete; not that I'd ever send someone a copy if they asked me to or anything, because that would be wrong (the RIAA tells me so!), but, you know, just so you know.
The Dears' No Cities Left is an album that I have been listening to, enjoying, and thinking about enough to have me disrupt my plans slightly. Normally WES will continue to focus on single songs (albeit not necessarily singles), but every so often I'm sure I'll get distracted. In any case, enjoy.
No Cities Left has been occupying an awful lot of my attention recently, and admittedly it has a pretty powerful concept: The end of the world as the end of a relationship, and the end of a relationship as the end of the world. Bandleader Murray Lightburn has said in interviews that he has loosely conceived as their first three albums as a trilogy, although in a more thematic and less literal sense than, say, The Lord of the Rings. No Cities Left is the second album, and thus our Empire Strikes Back.
Things begin pretty direly for the world and the relationship with 'We Can Have It', although already there are hints of optimism showing through. Things build to the crescendo of Lightburn singing You're not alone repeatedly, only to sing And you never said I'd see you again/You never said I will. Lightburn's tone throughout the album is worthy of discussion in and of itself; here he sounds wounded and accusatory. But the song is not a rejoinder to a lost love; it's about people searching for something, and during 'We Can Have It''s long slump of an ending, Lightburn says that even someone who's 'got it all' isn't what they want. There is some sort of transcendence being sought here.*
Next we have perhaps the oddest song here, entitled 'Who Are You, Defenders Of The Universe?' I think that might be political commentary, although the song is sung by Lightburn in an official monotone about people who refuse to admit to loving their families. Ultimately it comes down to the dilemma 'Cos I can't help you/And you can't help me/I can help you /And you can help me. Eventually Lightburn comes down on the latter side of the equation, but even then there's doubt we can do this. This is the end of the first, lightest part of the album, however.
Single 'Lost In The Plot' follows, with a bang: And I promise not to cry any more. The music is swelling and sweeping and very, very compelling, but Lightburn is demurely breaking down in the center. There is an ironic middle eight where the lines Our love, don't mess with our love/Our love is so much stronger are repeated, and perhaps one of the more overt uses on the album of Natalia Yanchak's occasional keyboard technique of having a single high, wavering tone sustained. By the end of the song, Lightburn's promise not to cry is beginning to sound like resolve, not defeat, but this is quickly disposed of.
'The Second Part' is where the despair that has been lingering around the songs finally grabs hold of the proceedings. It should be pointed out that No Cities Left is not a depressing album, although it may well be a depressed one. But it is showing the breaking down of something, so it has to go into some very dark places. Although Lightburn starts out with I left house/It was just to see you/For an hour over a light, acoustic strum complete with hazzy horn figure, he is escorted past the doorman for a second time, and then the music builts to a climx, and then
All of the time/I thought I was crazy because you told me so
The line, and Lightburn's delivery of it, speaks volumes about the cruelty of the past relationship (again, with a person or the world is left open). But still, everything Lightburn wants is gone for good this time, and he knows it.
To seque into the least reassuring song ever given the name 'Don't Lose The Faith' from here is natural, and while the verses speak of shut-ins who only think they have no friends, it's telling that in the chorus Lightburn sings most of it in his normal voice but the title phrase is intoned in the style of a backing vocal, an interior voice trying to shore up the narrator. But it's still a holding pattern, the music breezy pop again, almost AOR. But there's still one song left on Side A, as the album divides itself on the back.
'Expect The Worst/'Cos She's A Tourist' starts out a with brief, tense, repetitive string figure that reminds me of the Kronos Quartet's work on the Requiem For A Dream soundtrack, and as Lightburn begins to tell the tale of wastrel who hasn't been sleeping well/I've been a loner (going back to 'Don't Lose The Faith') the drums pound. The synth choir takes over as he sings My heart is aching/My back is breaking/It's me/It's you/It's me/It's you despairingly, and the strings and drums start to gallop, rearing to a new height
And it stops. Dead. A minute and a half into what was going to be a very good song and now it's a completely different sort of very good song, and will stick with this one for the next six-odd minutes. There's a becalmed synth wash and a three-note electric guitar pattern, and he sighs out So you'd decided on an art school/And it wasn't that you wanted to be cruel, too tired for resentment, too tired for life.
I'm not being melodramatic; Lightburn says The ocean is long and deep, but I'm gonna try/Maybe I'll die. He repeats the last line a few times, each time in a falsetto pitched between suicide and petulance, and Yanchak each times echoes on backing vocals Don't hold me back, don't hold me back, don't hold me back, don't hold me back. Is she talking to Lightburn? Is she supposed to be Lightburn? If so, is he saying don't interfere, or let me go, finally? Eventually they both fade, and some saxes come in, still over the same three notes. They vamp over the oceanic synth for a while, and then everything fades but those three notes. And they keep going by themself for twenty seconds. Alone, they sound more and more menacing.
Side B opens with 'Pinned Together, Falling Apart', apparantly a live favorite at much longer than the six minutes here. It opens with cacophony and resolves into what appears at first to be devotion; I/Have been terrified/By the thought of losing you. But two things interfere; we know he has lost her already, and his reponse is Stop telling me/I don't want to know/Stop telling me because I just won't ever want to know. It builds into an organ-fuelled blowout, Lightburn just repeating No, no, no over and over again, loss crystalized into pathology. Again the fake choirs take up the counterpoint. They're mostly just Yanchak, I'd imagine (and a whole essay could be written about her role in the album, but not by me), as the guitar burns and Lightburn howls.
'Never Destroy Us' could have been uplifting, in different circumstances. But here the assertion And I know we can last/If we could forget about the past sounds more sad than anything else. The horns are back for another light song, Yanchak harmonizing until the closing refrain of Never destroy us, which is presented in the lyrics as "Never/(destroy us)", which puts a different spin on things. It repeats in a dual monotone, sonding more and more like blind assertion than true belief.
And then the music pauses and when it starts us again it's the loudest it has been yet on the album, and Lightburn is absolutely screaming againstartagainstartagainstartagainstartagain (that's the way it's printed), in a rage for destruction, clearcutting what he's been through to start some new growth.
'Warm And Sunny Days' is no new growth. It's a plea, one last time as it turns out, for the other's return. There is a melodic purity in the way Lightburn sings Stay in the chorus, but as that sound dopplers out you can hear another Lightburn, in the back, distorted, adding that There's nowhere left to run. He can't even think of a reason for the other to stay, aside from a lack of options. The second verse presents what Lightburn's narrator has come to:
My arms are flailing
Am I a failure?
My god the pressure's on
And I still don't have a son
My body's sore from sleeping on the couch because you're gone
These feelings that I have tonight
Waiting for the phone to rung
My stomach hurts it's tearing us apart
But Lightburn reassures himself that he's got to think of warm and sunny days. The song drifts out in a haze of irresolution.
'22: The Death Of All The Romance' opens, not with Lightburn, but with Yanchak. The song itself is a surprise, seemingly pessimistic, but actually the beginning of the final, postive act of No Cities Left. Yanchak sings I have never cried/In anybody's arms/The way that I have always cried in yours, but this is only negative if you assume the crying, instead of the fact that she can't cry around others, is the problem. Since the chorus consists of Yanchak and Lightburn duetting on the lines I can't believe the things you say/Tell me, tell me, tell me the lies, to me the song resolves in a love song between two people who can't connect with anyone except each other, although they may be liars, cads, or worse. But Lightburn swears I/Shall avenge/The death of all the romance/Until I'm gone. It's a fucked up relationship, but it seems to be working, and even if they lies being told include the fact that this may be Lightburn's narrator's memory or fantasy, things are looking up.
That the next song is called 'Postcard From Purgatory' indicates that all is not sweetness and light, however. The song is mostly an instrumental, sounding initially like Pulp circa This Is Hardcore (which isn't a terrible comparison at least in spirit for the album as a whole). Lightburn and co. intone, as from a distance, the lines We have not wasted/Wasted all/All of our lives/Empty heads/Empty mouths/Empty hearts/Empty souls The music boils away and starts again with more distortion, and finally some of the Godspeed comparisons make a slight bit of sense. It stretches out to the horizon, and then coils back again, the organ hum persisting as it all shuts down. The snare ticks. The bass starts going. The guitar grinds in.
And then that flute. It repeats a simple little figure, almost cheery sounding. The music builds behind it, and builds and builds and builds, and almost thrashes, and that silly little flute part (officially my favorite rock use of the instrument ever, even though my girlfriend is a big Jethro Tull fan) just keeps going and going. The whole thing finally roars to a halt just shy of eight minutes.
One song left, the title track. We've had heartbreak, and apocalypse (especially if you consider that at almost no point did Lightburn have to be singing about a person), and despair, and at least some hope of rebirth; how will they end it?
Let's just keep fighting the end/We're holding hands/We're making plans/For life. It sounds like end-credit music. It's not as cheery as you might think; 'the end' is acknowledged as inescapable and inevitable, but there has been the choice made to fight against it nonetheless. At the end of the song Lightburn acknowledges that 'the end' is that of the world, but claims that We will hold hands/We will make plans/for life. Then the band gears up one last time, and as they fade out the choir comes in again. Transcendance of some sort has been reached, perhaps in fighting for life (the world? the other? love?) in the face of insurmountable odds.
Writing about this album so extensively hasn't really helped me articulate the way it makes me feel (not that I expected it to), nor am I sure that it makes much sense to those of you who haven't heard it yet (probably all of you). But now I finally have closure with the damn thing, this album so full of bombast and piety, love and hate, arrogance and despair. In their next album the Dears have basically set themselves the challenge of either saving the world or destroying it, but I think they might be up to the challenge.
*I could make a better case for this, and probably many more point to come, if I quoted more lyrics at you. I don't see that as being particularly productive, however. I suggest you buy the album, which comes with lyrics, or perhaps they're now up at The Dears' site.
|Your Ultimate Purity Score Is...|
When I think about you - or anyone - I touch myself
It takes a couple of drinks
A fool for love, but not always
Knows the other body type like a map
Repressed, are we?
|Fucking Sick||94.7% |
|You are 62.66% pure|
Average Score: 71.5%
Ian Mathers is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Stylus, the Village Voice, Resident Advisor, PopMatters, and elsewhere. He does stuff and it magically appears here.
imathers at gmail dot com