Old Shit

Underrated Gems: Bloc Party – A Weekend In The City

Bloc Party’s reputation was built on the strength of its masterful debut Silent Alarm, which remains one of the greatest albums of the indie rock mini-boom at the beginning of the century.  They channeled a ferocious energy through a combination of spiky, angular guitars and lyrics that zeroed in on battles both external and internal, creating a perfect mix of hard-edged rockers and introspective ballads.  Silent Alarm was both a critical and commercial success, and remains the most beloved album for many of its fans; any follow-up was bound to be met with some resistance, and indeed reception to A Weekend In The City was widely split.  There were many critics that saw Weekend as the beginning of the end of Bloc Party, but there was also a small passionate contingent that has for years fought against this perception, and who instead insist that it’s a classic that is in many ways equal (or even superior) to Silent Alarm.  Guess where Rust Is Just Right falls in this argument.

In many ways, A Weekend In The City was a huge gamble on the part of Bloc Party, and represented a bold change in musical direction.  The strengths of their debut lay in their innovative interpretation of early-80’s post-punk guitars from bands like Gang of Four as well as the brilliant and manic drumming of Matt Tong.  The guitar hooks of a single like “Helicopter” drew in the average listener, but it was the relentless attack of Tong’s drums in “Like Eating Glass” that mesmerized listeners and created fans.  The band chose to de-emphasize these aspects of their sound in Weekend, opting instead for more electronic instrumentation and building more songs around Kele Okereke’s delicate (but potentially divisive) vocals.  It’s understandable that many fans were turned off by this decision, but even if they were turned off by this general approach, the band’s harshest critics would have to agree that the moments when Bloc Party veered into its more “classic” sound are some of the band’s best work, like the furious opener “Song For Clay (Disappear Here)” and the buoyant  “Waiting For The 7:18”.

A chief complaint of many detractors of Weekend was the unconventional sequencing of the album’s tracks.  Silent Alarm had its fair share of slow songs and ballads, but their cumulative effect was muted because they were paired throughout with the more energetic tracks, allowing the album to avoid any lulls.  With Weekend, the band packs the rockers at the beginning, adding a few tracks that alternated moods before piling the introspective sad songs for the last third, which created the sense for many that the album peaked too early and dragged towards the end.  However, the critics of the track order fail to consider the thematic concept of the album as a whole, that in this case the title A Weekend In The City is more than a mere placeholder–it’s a declaration of narrative intent.  The album does an excellent job of mirroring the varying moods as one experiences the weekend: the initial thrills of getting off work on Friday and partying into the night, the attempts to keep the energy up with varying degrees of success on Saturday, and finally the letdown and regret of Sunday.  It’s a brilliant musical representation of a common shared experience, though must of us could only wish to feel an epiphany like the thrilling climax of “SRXT”.

By viewing the album as a running narrative of a weekend, the listener can dig out subtle nuances and derive interesting new meanings by placing songs in context, but each song is still able to stand on its own without losing any significance.  Throughout the running storyline of “the weekend”, Bloc Party interweaves separate statements about drugs and partying (“Song For Clay”, “The Prayer”), racism and terrorism (“Hunting For Witches”), as well as regret and depression (“Sunday”, “SRXT”).  Instead of invoking abstract expressions like in Silent Alarm, Kele splices in specific references in his lyrics this time around, giving a personal touch to each of these songs.  Some people may be taken out of the moment by hearing an odd mention, but others prefer having a specific grounding point; for instance, I’ll always remember the line “I’d pick and eat more wild blackberries” because it conveys a more personal memory and sentiment, even if it appears a bit goofy on its face.

A Weekend In The City works not only as a cohesive whole, but as an excellent collection of songs.  The moments when the band plays to its strengths are thrilling (like the end to “Waiting For The 7:18”), and when Bloc Party challenges itself to stretch beyond its comfort zone, it is able to rise to the challenge (“On”, “Sunday”).  Instead of viewing the album as the beginning of its decline, it should instead be seen as an example of a band maturing and growing musically.  Over the years, the reputation of Weekend hasn’t really improved, as the band has moved further in the direction of dance music and electronic influences, much to the dismay of many of its fans.  However, it’s an album that’s held up surprisingly well over the years and is well worth revisiting, if you need to revise your original opinion.

Essential Classics: The Walkmen – Bows + Arrows

The Walkmen were one of the greatest indie rock bands of the new century, and with excellent solo debuts this year from former members Hamilton Leithauser, Peter Matthew Bauer, and Walter Martin, now is as good a time as any to go back and revisit one of their classics, Bows + Arrows.

But it’s not only the year that is appropriate, but this particular season as well–though Bows + Arrows is not a concept album per se, it does seem to revolve around a period in late December.  Not only do many of the song titles reference different aspects of the holiday season, from “No Christmas While I’m Talking” to “The North Pole” to “New Year’s Eve”; Even seemingly innocuous titles like “138th Street” help conjure up images of winter, as that particular is on the northern part of Manhattan.  In addition one can find musical and lyrical markers as well that recall this particular time of year.  The band’s unique “vintage” sound evokes in the listener feelings of nostalgia (or perhaps memories of a past real or imagined); this is due mainly to their trademark trebly guitars dipped in heavy reverb, accented by their unique warm organ flourishes, and filled out with a dash of rickety but energetic percussion.  In an era when seemingly every new rock act met at the same art school and came out of the same dive from the Lower East Side, The Walkmen stood out from the pack with a style all their own.

Even in their early years, The Walkmen seemed to have an air of maturity to their sound, or at least gave off the sense of a lived-in weariness that only comes from years of experience.  This is evident from even just a quick listen to their breakthrough hit, The Rat”.  The song revolves around an old friend or lover returning, but without having made amends for the transgression which led to a break in their relationship (to tie it in to our thesis, this is the kind of scene that would play out as people return to their hometowns for the holidays).  The song is a furious rocker, but in the midst of the raucous pounding drums and insistent tremolo-strummed guitars, there is the hauntingly gorgeous bridge: “When I used to go out, I’d know everyone I saw; now I go out alone, if I go out at all.”  In those two lines, The Walkmen captured the feeling that comes at the moment one realizes the fun of youth has receded, and now with that chapter closed there is the question of what to do next.  “The Rat” was great on its own, but that bridge made it transcendent.

“The Rat” definitely deserves all the accolades it has received over the years, but have long felt that “Thinking of a Dream I Had” is equally deserving of admiration.  The song kicks off with a galloping tom pattern (colored with some sleigh bells), and is matched by a boisterous and bouncy guitar part, before it runs headlong into a slow, delicate organ figure.  The contrast between the two sounds provides an intriguing juxtaposition, especially in the way it is combined with the chorus: the initial figure is the accompaniment for “I’m waiting on a subway line, I’m waiting for a train to arrive; I’m thinking of a dream I had,” but switches gears as Hamilton sings, “Maybe you’re right.”  At that moment, it gives the impression to the listener that this is a moment of true contemplation and reflection (as the verses seem to confirm).  It’s absolutely gorgeous.

The entire album is filled with great songs, but for those who are more familiar with the more polished work of the latter years of The Walkmen, some may be put off by the more raggedy production.  On the other hand, for many that is precisely part of the charm of this particular record.  Hamilton is still feeling out the edges of his unique voice, and to some his bark may be grating, but make no mistake, the man hits every note he wants as intended.  At the very least, one should enjoy Bows + Arrows for the reason that it’s one of the few modern rock albums that expertly deploys an organ.

Second Look: …And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead – Worlds Apart

Due to our special theme week, we didn’t have the chance to mention another new release we were eager to hear that happened to come out the same day last week.  The latest album from …And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead, IX, came out here in the US last Monday, but considering it had been released in various forms weeks earlier, it was easy for it to get lost in the mix, even for people that listen to Trail of Dead as much as the Foo Fighters.  We’re still processing IX (in many ways the album it most resembles is Tao of the Dead, but we’re not ready to give a verdict beyond that initial comparison), but we decided to use this opportunity to defend their most unfairly-maligned album, Worlds Apart.

Like many fans, I first encountered …And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead during their Source Tags & Codes days, and to this day that album still stands out as one of the landmark indie rock records of the 2000’s.   I remember catching the premiere of “Another Morning Stoner” and being transfixed by their relentless yet melodic approach, with their catchy cyclical, arpeggiated guitar lines tied to an ever-rumbling drum pattern punctuated by insistent snare hits and rolls, as the emotional intensity of the vocals increased with every verse.  At a time when rock music had become stagnant from a creative perspective, it was a revelation to see a band with this much energy and ambition creating a complete “album”, with shifting moods and repeating motifs that added up to a brilliant whole.

I wasn’t the only one enraptured by Source Tags & Codes, as it ended up at the top of numerous best-of lists for 2002, and it set expectations sky-high for their follow-up.  Due to my living situation at the time (attending college in the middle of nowhere), I remember having to make arrangements for purchasing Worlds Apart as soon as possible, either borrowing a car or pre-ordering it online, although I think the preparations were probably rendered moot since we likely received advanced copies at the radio station.  No matter how it was procured, the important point is that as soon as I played the album, it instantly proved to be a worthy successor to Source Tags & Codes and became one of my favorites.  The ringing guitars and pounding drums of their earlier work were again both there in spades, but Worlds Apart was aided by crisper production and greater dynamic contrast; individual parts came in with greater clarity, and the band used its increased budget effectively with their expert layering of additional instruments (namely strings, piano, and extra percussion) to create added depth to their sound, as well as utilizing keener ear towards balancing the extremes in volume.  Aside from these technical advancements, there were still plenty of great hooks and memorable melodies throughout the record, from the explosive “Will You Smile Again” to the anthemic “The Rest Will Follow” to the strident “Caterwaul”.  I’ve found myself singing that one in particular for days on end.

Since I had established and reinforced my own opinion of the album through several repeated listens, I was surprised to learn that Worlds Apart received extremely mixed reviews.  There were some that agreed with my assessment, that the band’s output had matched its ambition and that the music supported such a grand artistic statement, but there were others that felt that despite the herculean effort the results fell short.  Then there was a third category that utterly trashed the album, though several of their reasons ultimately rang hollow–I can understand if you felt that the record was a little over-the-top or too bombastic, but to claim that it was a sell-out record when there were no obvious singles or that it was confused when everything flowed perfectly together seems more like anticipating the backlash than engaging the work on its own merits.  We all have different tastes, but these criticisms seemed out-of-place with what I was hearing.

Though to this day I continue to listen to Worlds Apart on a regular basis, the band appears to have distanced itself from the album, with only “Will You Smile Again” and “Caterwaul” making regular appearances on setlists (which is a much better fate than what befell So Divided, which the band has apparently deemed unworthy of performance).  And while Trail of Dead’s newer albums seem to focus on one aspect at a time (the overly-serious and histrionic The Century of Self, the energetic if shapeless Lost Songs, with Tao of the Dead a workable compromise between the two), it’s a shame that their work which best marries their epic tendencies with their raw emotions goes unrecognized at best or needlessly scorned at worst, as its fiercest critics are the loudest and insist on repeating its supposed failings years after the fact.

But I ask you to take a listen to Worlds Apart with fresh ears, because it has aged better than you might expect.  Let your stereo explode with those big guitar lines, pound your head along with the multiple drumsets driving the beat, and get wrapped up in even the interstitial music (“To Russia My Homeland”, the end of “A Classic Arts Showcase”) which both maintains a connection between the songs and helps delineate their existence as well.  Get lost in the grandiose “All White”/”The Best” one-two punch, sway with the ballad “The Summer of ’91”, or kick your heels to the biting and irreverent title track–the band’s got everything covered.  If that doesn’t satisfy you, I don’t know what will; but at least I’ll feel better knowing that you gave this album another shot.

Essential Classics: Foo Fighters – The Colour and the Shape

With the release of their eighth studio album Sonic Highways this week, Rust Is Just Right is celebrating with a week devoted to the Foo Fighters.  Today we take a close look at their most beloved album, The Colour and the Shape.

Last week, one of my friends suggested to me that despite its initial popularity, The Colour and the Shape is “criminally under-appreciated today.”  After spending some time contemplating the proposition, I wrote that I agreed with his assessment, while expanding on his point and making some minor modifications.  I think most people would agree that it’s a very good album, but I also believe that a majority of those fans wouldn’t even begin to consider TCATS a “classic” or one of the best albums of the 90’s.

I would contend that there are a few reasons that The Colour and the Shape is not held up in the same regard as other classic albums of the era.  First, the fact that the Foo Fighters are not only a still-functioning band, but have continued to be one of the most successful rock bands of the past two decades, works against them in this case.  This prevents an appropriate distance from the album from being formed, so that we as an audience can stand back and reflect on its merits.  The Foos have churned out a fairly consistent product over time, with good-to-very-good albums released every few years; there hasn’t been a need for fans to ask “hey, when are these guys going to get back to the formula of The Colour and the Shape” or for critics to say with each review “THIS is their best album since TCATS!” as they do with every Pearl Jam release since No Code.  Fans today aren’t rediscovering the bands early work that they missed the first time around like they would with Pavement or the Pixies, as they just get caught up in the normal album cycle; the anticipation that builds up when a band may potentially reunite doesn’t create the same fervor for their early work as a normal album progression does.

And with Dave Grohl’s status as the Unofficial Mascot of Rock, even when the band takes time between album releases, their frontman is never far from the public’s consciousness.  He’s the modern guy that musicians from all eras and genres call up, from living legends to standouts from the underground,* so we’re always hearing about him teaming up with this guy on this record or performing with those guys on that show.  And in an era where there are fewer and fewer rock stars, he’s a consistent source for quotes and interviews–if Gene Simmons says something stupid about the state of rock, you’re damn sure Grohl will have a rebuttal.

This leads into a secondary issue that leads to people underrating The Colour and the Shape, and that it is a mainstream rock record.  It’s not an underground classic waiting to be discovered (most everyone has heard the Big Singles from this album; at the very least “Everlong” was definitely featured at every single one of your middle school dances), so it doesn’t evoke a need in its fans to proclaim its greatness.  Nor is it an album that will blow your mind with its experimental take on different genres or change your attitude as to what actually constitutes “music”, so there is no need to argue with detractors that “They just don’t get it, man.”  I highly doubt that musicians would point to it as a highly influential record, beyond stating that they may have been really big fans; if there’s one takeaway to be had from TCATS, it would probably be that you can have songs with big hooks without being dumb, so maybe it was an inspiration for some in that regard.  But there’s nothing exciting in being a person that cites The Colour and the Shape as a classic, especially as mainstream rock is caught between two competing trends in critical thought–that there is merit to pop music, as long as it isn’t rock, and that the best rock music is the stuff isn’t popular.**  By sticking up for TCATS, you’re begging people to say, “Congratulations, you’re praising a record that went double-platinum and enjoy hearing when it comes on the radio.  Have a cookie.”

Fine, I’ll take that cookie.

The Colour and the Shape is a brilliant guitar album, first and foremost: it’s packed with memorable riffs and great hooks, and guitars dominate the songs from beginning to end, whether they are electric or acoustic.  Fans immediately remember that huge descending riff from “Monkey Wrench”, the delicate strums of “Everlong”, and that killer melody from “My Hero” when reminiscing about the album.  Even the deeper cuts are defined by their guitars, from the arena-rock-ready lines “Hey, Johnny Park!” to the sugary-sweet melody of “Up In Arms”.  But while these parts are so catchy that they sound easy, there’s a greater layer of complexity to these guitar parts than your standard garage-rock/bar-band fare.  The Foos often use unique chords or uncommon voicings, altering your expectations just enough that you can’t predict a progression the first time you hear it but done in a manner that’s not so jarring that it affects your attention.

There is another area which shows the technical expertise of the record when you dig in a little deeper.  The Colour and the Shape is a Drop-D album that doesn’t succumb to the laziness that is often inherent in the technique.  Usually, down-tuning the bottom string invites guitarists to simply crank out a riff and then let the tuning give it a superficial depth, since they can easily turn a single-line melody into a chord by simply pressing one finger over multiple strings (though guitarists deserve credit if they use this convenience to write more intricate riffs than they would otherwise–then Drop-D is used appropriately).  Instead, the band uses that tuning to create bigger-sounding chords, using the entire width of the neck and allowing for more individual voices to be heard and more complex melodic lines within a chord progression, and also to create unique chords in and of themselves, as in “Everlong”.  The progression itself is not particularly complex, but by using the Drop-D it creates a more unusual and novel chord for each step of the phrase.  That means when your roommate picks it out on his acoustic that it is not nearly as impressive as Grohl writing the progression in the first place, but good on roomie for trying to impress the audience with a great song.

The album is known to the masses for its big singles, and rightfully so.  “Monkey Wrench” was a furious introduction as the lead single, and you can instantly connect with the anger and passion of the band’s performance, especially that all-shouted third verse.  “My Hero” with its thunderous and epic intro was the perfect soundtrack to movie climaxes and sporting events, and its simple message of praising the ordinary heroes among us is one we can all recognize.  And of course, there’s the monumental “Everlong”, which remains one of the totemic songs of the past twenty years.  Even stripped down to its barest elements, just a hushed voice and a delicate guitar, one can feel the power of all the emotions associated that come with the experiences of first love, from the anticipation to the anxiety and everything in between (if the acoustic version has one flaw, is that it cuts out the fantastic bridge from the original electric version, but it’s a forgivable omission).  I’m sure someone in the past decade has paired it with My Morning Jacket’s “Touch Me I’m Going To Scream Pt. 2” on a mixtape, and if they haven’t, I want to alert you that you’re missing a golden opportunity.

(I would also like to take a moment to praise the Michel Gondry-directed video, which in addition to being excellent and unforgettable, also is one of the few music videos that extends the song instead of cutting it short, making one wish that the band actually add an extra chorus to the end.)

But the true strength of the album is in its deeper cuts, the songs between the tentpoles that defined the album.  As mentioned above, there’s “Hey, Johnny Park!” with its huge riffs and its gleeful willingness to toss in all sorts of goofy rock tricks, like slides up and down the neck and amusing manipulations (the effect used for the bridge being the most easily identifiable example), and “Up In Arms” with its catchy melody and the way that it inverts the seriousness of its intro by cranking up the volume and repeating everything in double-time.  Then there are other fun tracks throughout that stay fresh after all these years, like the pounding “Wind Up” and “Enough Space” or the gentle bounce of “See You” or the delicate ballad “Walking After You”.  But the true standout that all fans of the album would point to is “February Stars”, a song that should immediately rectify any prior misgivings that one may have had about the term “power ballad”.  It earns its huge final chorus, and the band makes sure not to waste any of it by piling on layers and layers of guitars playing big, thick chords.

It’s not perfect, and I have a few minor quibbles–I’d end “Doll” on the sustained chord instead of resolving it, so as to build tension and use it as a true intro to “Monkey Wrench”, and I’d slide “February Stars” behind “Walking After You”, to provide a more natural trilogy with “Everlong”, creating a better flow between each of the songs as well.  But these trivial issues aside, it’s an otherwise unimpeachable record.  It’s at its base a simple rock record, just a few guys on guitars, bass, drums, and vocals, but it never feels limited by those potential constraints.  And while it may be known for many of its quiet and sweet moments, there is still an edge to the album, and the Foos are never afraid to let loose and crank the distortion up.  In that context, The Colour and the Shape shouldn’t be dismissed as a mere mainstream rock record, but should be praised as a quintessential example of the form.  It’s not merely a good record, but an all-time great album.

*Just consider that Dave Grohl performed in a band with John Paul Jones (Them Crooked Vultures) AND with Paul McCartney, as well as .  He’s the musical equivalent of Kevin Bacon–you’ll connect him with anyone from the past fifty years in less than six steps.

**That’s not to say that we here don’t tend to prefer less-mainstream fare, but instead that just because it’s obscure it doesn’t mean it’s good, and just because it’s popular, it doesn’t mean it’s bad.

Essential Classics: Television – Marquee Moon

It is October, so that means it is time to analyze and celebrate one of the great Halloween albums of all-time: Television’s Marquee Moon.  Many of you are probably confused by that particular claim, but don’t worry, we’ll get back to it and explain ourselves in a bit.  There is no argument however that Marquee Moon is one of the greatest guitar-rock albums of all-time, but in addition to that distinction, it can also be argued that the album is capable of bending the rules of time and space itself.  How else could a band that was on the vanguard of the Punk movement have created the seminal Post-Punk masterpiece with their debut album?  It is a conundrum that should puzzle both music historians and physicists alike.

My first experience with the band Television was back in high school, during my initial forays into exploring the origins of punk rock.  I read several articles and books that discussed Television’s history and their influence on the New York punk scene as one of the original CBGB’s bands, and I quickly set out to track down copies of their first two records.  (Let us all take some time to acknowledge the fact that I approached punk rock in the nerdiest manner possible: research.)  There was one specific aspect of Television’s music which each piece emphasized that captured my attention, and that was the band’s masterful guitar-playing.  Being a budding guitarist myself, it was clear that it was vitally important for me to listen to these albums to help develop my own skills.  As a child of the 90’s though, I was completely unprepared to process Television’s approach to the guitar: a heavy emphasis on the treble strings (and no power chords), intricate but decidedly unflashy solos, and little-to-no distortion (at least of the kind with which I was familiar).  It all seemed so alien to me, and considering the portrait of the band that made up Marquee Moon‘s cover art, this may not have been a bad guess.

Most puzzling of all to my adolescent mind was how this pleasant if slightly bizarre album could be considered “punk” (it was a hopeless endeavor at that time to begin to comprehend what the hell “post-punk” could be, beyond the most literal definition, so that was not a pressing concern at the time).  But after several repeated listens and a gradual appreciation of the context in which the band flourished, I came to understand that even if there seemed to be little connection to The Ramones on the surface, they were both made up from the same basic DNA and were a reaction to the same movements in music.  The musical parts of “Friction” may have been much more complex than “Blitzkrieg Bop”, but one could easily see that both songs were stripped down to the barest elements in contrast to the bloat of prog or disco.

Television proved that “punk” didn’t have to mean “easy,” as each member of the group was an expert on his instrument.  The twin-guitar attack of Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd has been universally lauded, and rightly so, but their other two bandmates should be given their proper due as well.  Fred Smith crafted some amazingly beautiful bass lines, shifting between providing an impeccable rhythmic foundation and creating innovative counter-melodies, and Billy Ficca was a genius behind the kit, anchoring the songs with intricate rhythms and delicate textures, effortlessly shifting between different patterns and providing the perfect accents to each musical phrase.  As for Verlaine and Lloyd, it should be apparent how they inspired generations of guitar players, from the early post-punk of bands like Wire to contemporary indie rock bands like The Strokes.  They were a perfect tandem that fed off each other beautifully, alternating between unique chord choices and lyrical solos, interspersed with bits of brilliant one-off figures and licks.

The centerpiece of the album is the title track, an epic monster clocking in at over 10 minutes (Fun Fact: on the original vinyl edition, the song faded out before it hit ten minutes, but the CD version keeps the original recording intact and includes the full version, while still listing the vinyl running time of 9:58).  Its intro of dueling guitar riffs (Lloyd providing the double-stop alarm-type bit, Verlaine the countering quick swirl) is instantly memorable, but also merely a hint of what is in store.  The verses give way to an instrumental pre-chorus that shifts the song into something much more rhapsodic and cinematic with its winding guitar lines, followed by a chorus that gradually increases the tension with its ever-escalating chord changes.  Lloyd’s guitar solo after the second chorus is a master class in terms of both beauty and efficiency, with its mirroring of the melodic structure of the chorus accompanied by some gorgeous personal flourishes.  But it is the second, much longer solo by Verlaine and its accompanying full-band instrumental section that is the real show-stopper–the solo provides a brilliant example of how an improvised, meandering take can help ratchet up the tension, and the constantly-ascending full-band breakdown pushes the song to its limits.  Lloyd eventually joins in, and the two guitars overlap into similar winding lines, until the whole band suddenly becomes a single cohesive unit as they dramatically repeat in unison a series of sixteen eighth notes.  As the band makes its way up the scale, cracks begin to form in the union, as the drums begin to approach a frenzy and the bass peels off with some additional flourishes, gliding up and down the neck.  But together the band pushes the melody to the very top, culminating in a gorgeous explosion as the summit is reached, with little guitar twinkles helping add to the effect.

Even to the untrained ear, it is clear that from the music alone “Marquee Moon” is a special song, but now consider the instrumentals in conjunction with the intriguing and mysterious lyrics.  “I remember how the darkness doubled; I recall, lightning struck itself.  I was listening to the rain; I was hearing something else.”  The imagery of those first two lines captures a wonderful sense of dread, first with the description of an ever-enveloping darkness, followed by the contrast of the light cutting across the dark.  The lines also baffle the listener as well, as he/she contemplates the physical possibilities of how lightning can strike itself.  The next two lines help set up the listener for an uneasy scene, as things may not be what they seem: amid the rainstorm lurks an unknown…something.   It’s the perfect opening for a horror story!  The other verses support this interpretation, first with the meeting with the strange man down at the tracks, whose seemingly perceptive advice of don’t succumb to either the highs or lows of life taking on a darker edge when placed in context with the rest of the song, followed by the scene in the third verse of the Cadillac pulling from out of the graveyard, grabbing the narrator, driving back in, and throwing the narrator into the graveyard.  Spooky stuff.  After this scene is the long instrumental section, which can be interpreted as the narrator’s journey through the graveyard, with the culminating unison riff being the aural equivalent of the Big Reveal in a horror movie of the Monster or the Terror.  The song ends with a repeat of the first verse, which could indicate either that time has looped back on itself (much like how a “post-punk” classic can also be created at the beginning of the punk movement), or that underneath what seems like a restoration of what’s normal lurks a dark undercurrent.

Long story short, I am ready to declare that the narrator has become a zombie.

It is clear then that “Marquee Moon” is a perfect Halloween song, but what about the rest of the album?  The song is not only the centerpiece of the album in terms of track placement, but it also serves as a showcase to a lot of the musical ideas that are the connective tissue of the record.  The double-stop guitar figure is given a slight variation in the very next song, “Elevation”, for example, and “See No Evil” is the title of the opener, which makes the horror themes even more apparent!  It is also simply difficult to disconnect the song from the rest of the album, as each song flows beautifully into the next.  Television also provides wonderful bits of dark humor throughout Marquee Moon, perhaps best exemplified by the song “Venus”.  I was hoping that because of the lines “Then Richie, Richie said: ‘Hey man, let’s dress up like cops.  Think of what we could do!” the song would find a place somewhere in a movie that came out this summer, but that didn’t turn out to be the case.  Instead we will have to strike out on our own to consider the subtle beauty of the explanation that “I fell right into the arms of Venus de Milo” (a line that took far too many listens for me to realize the irony inherent in the claim), instead of having it soundtrack a scene of crazy hijinks.

Marquee Moon is simply an exquisite and dazzling album through and through, with each of its eight songs a classic in its own right.  Perhaps the greatest example of the beauty of the record is the underrated closer, “Torn Curtain”.  The ballad is filled lyrically with melodrama and over-the-top emotion, but is balanced by a delicate and nuanced restrained musical accompaniment, before the two components become intertwined with a triumphant final guitar solo that provides the perfect conclusion to the album.

But the album is more than just brilliant guitar compositions; as I mentioned before, there are plenty of fantastic bass lines and stunning drum parts throughout the entirety of Marquee Moon.  So listen to the album a few times to get a feel for the beauty and majesty of the guitar, spin it a few more times to pick up on the intricacies of the rhythm section, and then repeat it again a few more hundred times–because even though the album is nearly forty years old, it will never get old.

Essential Classics: Interpol – Turn on the Bright Lights

With the release of Interpol’s fifth album El Pintor yesterday, now is a great time to take a look back and examine the career of the band.  Today we’ll analyze their brilliant debut, Turn on the Bright Lights, and tomorrow we’ll see how Interpol’s career developed in the wake of the success of that album.

Few albums have personally affected me as much as Interpol’s debut.  When I first listened to the record back in high school, it helped introduce me to whole new worlds of music, providing the gateway to both modern indie bands and to classic post-punk bands from the past (though it would be many years before I truly comprehended what the term “post-punk” meant).  It became one of those albums I would spin over and over again, be it as a disc pumping through my car stereo, an iTunes playlist played through dorm room speakers, or an iPod selection performed through my headphones.  Over the years, there was one particular situation that would always inspire me to listen to Turn on the Bright Lights, and that was in my frequent airplane trips from coast-to-coast as I shuttled between college/law school and back home.  It didn’t matter which was the destination; either way, the album allowed me to both confront and relax away the mixture of emotions that were a result of the trip.

So you should consider my claim that Turn on the Bright Lights is the greatest album released since the turn of the new century with this personal backstory in mind.  Simply put, I believe that this album is an example of each individual member playing his part and fulfilling his role perfectly.  Daniel Kessler’s beautiful and unique guitar style is the first thing that you notice; his use of single-note melody runs as well as a dynamic array of unusual two and three-note chords (as well as his crystalline tone) helped set Kessler’s guitarwork apart from his contemporaries, and showed how an alternative approach to the instrument can work (inspiring critics to deem his guitar lines as “angular”, a nonsensical description if-you-think-about-it that has nevertheless prevailed over the past decade in comparing guitarists influenced by Kessler, much like how “jangly” became ubiquitous with the rise of R.E.M.).  The guitar doesn’t have to be omnipresent for it to still have an impact, and it can still have a massive effect even when it’s used to deploy bits of color to a song.  Kessler is helped as well by Paul Banks’s wonderful work on second guitar, which doesn’t rely on playing mere stock chords or basic rhythms but instead provides a melodic counterpoint in weaving melodies around Kessler’s runs (often creating intriguing, rarely-heard chords) or complex rhythmic interplay that help propel the songs in new directions.  Of course, you can’t talk about the genius of early Interpol without discussing Carlos D’s mesmerizing bass, which often provided key melodies to the songs and gave musicians everywhere a lesson in how to provide rhythmic support without relying on basic and repetitive patterns.  But the real hero may be Sam Fogarino’s drums, and it may take several listens to realize the subtle tricky patterns that he employs without coming off like a showoff that are nevertheless integral to keeping the songs fresh, as well as his ability to provide just the right accents to punctuate all the key moments of the album.

In addition to their fantastic individual musicianship, there are two things that the band does very well that are revealed after multiple listens.  The first is that Interpol does a brilliant job of subtly tweaking repeated phrases, both musical and lyrical, a technique that often provides the effect of casting both in a new light.  It helps keep the listener on his or her toes by challenging expectations, and also provides an incentive to engage in repeated listens, so as to uncover new musical  “tricks”.  Interpol are also compositional experts, rarely relying on a basic verse-chorus-bridge formula; not only do they employ the tweaks mentioned before, but they often create dynamic bridges that lead to amazing outros, taking the song in unexpected and rewarding directions.

Before going any further, let’s just address the Joy Division comparisons for a second.  The comparison between the two bands is valid, but to argue that Interpol is merely aping or ripping off Joy Division can only be the result of a superficial listening of the two.  There are similarities, namely the prominence of the bass and the way that it often provides melodies (especially in the upper-register), the way that the guitar is often used to provide color and as a support instead of the point of emphasis, and the disaffected baritone vocals shared by Ian Curtis and Paul Banks.  However, saying that the two are the same fails to take into account that Joy Division’s rhythmic approach was more straight-ahead and based on motorik styles (with Peter Hook’s bass in “Dead Souls” being a notable exception), while Interpol used “funkier” rhythms and switched styles more easily.  As for the vocal comparisons, this fails to take into account how Paul would often explore the outer limits of his range, or attempt to convey various emotions more often than the flat, affectless style that was the trademark of Ian Curtis.  The two bands are also unfairly tagged as “depressing” music, though this is due to some extent to the way that they present themselves.  I think it’s fairer to say that both are serious about their craft, which comes out in their songs, and deliberate in their intentions; even if the themes may edge into darker territory, that is not the same thing as saying they’re both depressing.  Interpol can often tread in the realm of the melancholic and gloomy, but after a few listens it’s easier to see both the hope and the humor in their lyrics and music.  It’s not “mope-rock” to say the least.  However, if you’re a reviewer still stuck on comparing the two bands, John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats once provided a helpful list of other things to which you can compare Interpol.

With these general points in mind, I’d like to provide some personal insights on a track-by-track basis.  Hopefully they help inspire you to listen to the album and discover insights of your own.

The album begins with the delicate ballad “Untitled”, starting with a gorgeous, gauzy guitar playing a delicately descending figure.  After repeating this pattern four times with a gradual crescendo, the drums kick in with a memorable cymbal pickup, followed by Carlos D’s powerful bass.  This actually provides the dominant melody of the song, giving a prelude to Paul Banks’s vocal line.  While the song essentially amounts to one line, with each repetition Banks adds a couple of words to the phrase that subtly changes the tenor of the lines, it never feels incomplete (as the title may suggest).  After a gorgeous buildup featuring some guitar flourishes, the song ends with each instrument gradually dropping out.  But the part that I always captivates me is the bass, which switches from the ambling, rolling figure to a deliberate and decisive conclusion.  The effect of the quarter note bum-bum-buuuuuuum line is both ominous and chilling, especially as the third note lingers and you can hear the overtones rattling around your speakers.

“Obstacle 1” is the song that first made me fall in love with TOTBL, and it was unlike anything else I had heard before.  Once again, the bass takes center stage in this song, as Carlos plays one of the most innovative bass parts ever recorded.  He switches between delicate figures played on the upper register to switching between alternate rhythmic figures in the verse, to adding certain flourishes with his glissandos that slide up the neck before stopping without warning.  Kessler’s guitar sounds like a distant alarm, echoing Television’s “Marquee Moon”, before interacting in a subtle interplay with Banks’s rhythm guitar.  And then everything slides into place for that driving chorus, featuring the memorable line “as you go stabbing yourself in the neck.”  The violence of the line is never really explain, but it somehow still makes sense.  It should be noted that Paul makes a subtle switch between the two choruses, singing “It’s different now that I’m poor and aging, I’ll never see this face again” the first time, and replacing “face” with “place” the second time.  In the context of the song, which is seemingly about the dissolution of a relationship, this switch shifts the context from the personal interaction between the partners to the setting.

This all sets up the brilliant bridge, featuring some of Sam’s most furious drumming as he shuffles around the entirety of his drumkit, providing the perfect foundation as Banks struggles with the reasons that the relationship has ended.  Many critics like to make fun of the line “her stories are boring and stuff”, but this is merely an example how in many songs the narrator in many Interpol songs are either unreliable are unsympathetic; this line is an example of the narrator grasping at straws to end things, which is made clear with the very next line that “she’s always calling my bluff.”  The mood then immediately shifts to one of mourning, as he laments the “weights” that she put in his heart, which is contradicted by the consistently ascending guitar part.

“NYC” is a devastatingly gorgeous ballad filled with memorable imagery; the line “the subway is a porno, the pavements they are a mess” is one of the most memorable of the decade, and really captures the grime in the city in more ways than one (it even takes on a whole new meaning when you think of the implication of the idea that the second phrase is a direct result of the first).  For me, though, the opening lines are what stick with me: “I had seven faces, thought I knew which one to wear; I’m sick of spending these lonely nights training myself not to care.”  It is the single most accurate depiction of depression I’ve ever heard, right down to the selection of “seven faces”, since each day of the week means a different role to play according to social norms.

But it’s not all doom-and-gloom, echoing a mistake that many detractors make when describing the band.  Because the band takes that pain and decides to use that to propel themselves–first encouraged by the backing vocals “gotta be some more change in my life”, this builds into a personal call for action as Paul sings “it’s up to me now, turn on the bright lights” as Dan’s guitar elevates to the heavens with a majestic termolo-picked solo guitar line.  But perhaps the song’s highest moment is when Sam’s drums emphasizes each quarter note before the last chorus of “New York cares”, as if you can reach through and feel the band sense each of those words.

The track “PDA” is how many people first heard the band, and in many ways this makes it easy to understand why all the music critics insisted on comparing the band to Joy Division in every single review.  It’s one of the most straight-forward songs on the album, with a momentum built on its forward-leaning eighth-note drive, and is marked by Paul’s nearly affect-less singing, which makes those connections that critics drew to Ian Curtis pretty clear.  One thing I enjoy hearing is Sam switching drum patterns from the hi-hat to the ride cymbal during each line in the verse, giving some lines extra clarity while others get a bit of cloudiness added to the mix.  This song has some of Interpol’s most oblique lyrics (I never figured out what “sleep tight, grim ride, we have two hundred couches where you can sleep tonight” meant), though I do enjoy the lines “You’re so cute when you’re frustrated/you’re so cute when you’re sedated”, which can double as both sweet and alarming, depending on the context or your perspective.  But it’s the breakdown into the outro which shows the band’s true musical genius, as one single guitar figure is countered with an alternate guitar figure, before the bass adds a third melodic line to an already complex mix.  It’s absolutely sublime, and it’s a crime that the music video omitted this section.

When people want to mock Interpol and say that they’re a bunch of sad bastards, I like to point them to the song “Say Hello to the Angels” which has some lines with real, actual humor.  Just think for a second what Paul is referring to when he says “I can’t control the part of me that swells up when you move into my airspace” (the line “1-2-3, do me” is a little less subtle).  If you think that’s an inappropriate metaphor for a serious musician to use, then you clearly have never noticed the erection joke in Bob Dylan’s “I Shall Be Free”.  Musically, I love the alternating moods of the song, from the frantic, driving beat that shifts into a bouncy shuffle, to the deliberate, almost-metal stomp at the end that’s augmented by those palm-muted, percussive guitar strokes.

“Hands Away” is in many ways similar to the opener “Untitled”, and is one of the clearer instances that helps support my theory that the second half acts as a mirror to the first half, with tracks 6-10 partnering up with 1-5.  It’s not a perfect theory, but it’s worth thinking about once you’re listening to this half of the album.  The song is practically a music theory exercise, with each section seemingly getting faster merely by adding a note to the rhythmic figure (going from quarter to eighth to triplets, etc.).  The high point of the song is the gorgeous use of string synths at the climax, as it becomes too difficult to keep adding to the rhythmic figure as laid out before.  It’s also worth noting how the vocals switch styles from the first half of the song to the second, from a delicate approach to a more distant and evocative wail at the end.

In my first listens of TOTBL, I had felt that “Obstacle 2” didn’t measure up to “Obstacle 1”, making the comparison in my head even though I had read that the band claimed that the two are unconnected despite the similar names.  But over time I have come to love this song even more than its counterpart, even though I recognize the unique creative brilliance of the first one.  “Obstacle 2” provides the perfect case to examine how Interpol uses those “subtle tweaks” with its various repetitions to subtly change both tone and meaning.  In the pre-chorus, Paul sings “If you can fix me up, girl, we’ll go a long way” twice, but uses a different rhythm each time; the first has a bit of a bounce, reminiscent of someone skipping down the sidewalk, while the second one is deliberately straightforward and on the beat, as if to emphasize the importance of this declaration.  This pre-chorus is also repeated twice, with Sam using a different drum fill each time; the first is simpler and emphasizing the downbeat, while the second stutters and staggers a bit.  In a song filled with various references to drinking, both direct and indirect (“I stand by all this drinking if it helps me through these days”; “friends don’t waste wine when there’s words to sell”; “toast the snow that fell”), this helps indicate that perhaps the narrator is stumbling a bit as the alcohol begins to take hold.  It also puts the final lines of “It took time, then I found you” in a whole new light, depending on how much you read into that interpretation–is it a declaration, or is it a lament?

“Stella was a diver and she was always down” almost works as a reverse of “NYC”–instead of building up, the song is slowly torn down, as seen by its extensive breakdown that concludes the song (forgive me, I’m trying all that I can to make my theory proposed in the write-up of “Hands Away” work).  This song features my least-favorite Interpol lyric, but one I rarely see mentioned in those “bad lyric” roundups that critics love to employ when they bring up Interpol; I don’t care for the repetition in the line “the building fronts are just fronts”, especially since this pattern isn’t used elsewhere in the song, and it’s not even used to fit into a rhyme.  I feel that “the building fronts are just that” would capture the same idea in a more poetic manner, as the listener could pause to realize the implication of the use of the word “front”.  Speaking of lyrics, I’m pretty sure this song is referring to a woman engaging in the art of oral sex, giving a whole new meaning to the title and what specifically is the goal of the diving.

“Roland” is where you can really see where the “punk” in post-punk comes from, and the driving rocker is a great change of pace once “Stella” slowly disintegrated into the bottom of the sea.  I love the riffs, especially the riffs reminiscent of spy movies, which I believe helps shed light on the otherwise cryptic lyrics.  With this in mind, I believe that the song can be interpreted as a friend being interviewed about the unexpected violent crimes of an acquaintance, with the non sequiturs of the snow and the beard indicative of the narrator’s delicate mental state as he/she confronts the ugly reality of the person they thought they had known.

It took me years before I warmed up to “The New”, but now I believe that it is perhaps the best song on the entire album.  It’s a multi-part epic that doesn’t feel burdened by those expectations; the six minutes fly by and though the fragile first half and the sinister second half differ greatly, one can find the connective tissue between the two parts.  The song is an excellent showcase for all the talents of Carlos, beginning with his upper-octave melody that begins the song to his restrained support in the first bridge to his stuttering and funky maneuvers that help raise the anxiety of the listener during the song’s climax.  It also includes yet another example of the “subtle tweak”, this time with the insertion of a single word that may or may not change the meaning of a line (depending on how you interpret double-negatives in music).  First, Paul sings “I can’t pretend, I need to defend some part of me from you”, but on the next time through, he says “I can’t pretend I don’t need to defend some part of me from you”; once you realize that “don’t” can alter what Paul is trying to say, you then go back and realize that depending on the punctuation and emphasis, you can change the meaning of both lines once again.  It’s a puzzle that potentially always remains unsolved.

I want to make a special note of the climax of “The New”, which shows once again highlights the strength of each member as musicians.  I mentioned Carlos and his bass earlier, who makes excellent use of both the high and low end of his instrument (the latter of which whose sudden entrance near the end of the song helps give a foreboding warning), but I should also point out that the interplay between the two guitars is also mesmerizing.  For the guitar solo, Daniel repeats a single note multiple times, creating a tension in the listener’s mind because he/she cannot predict what will happen next; Kessler then responds by actually detuning the string, relieving the tension by physically releasing tension in the string.  Somehow the unconventional maneuver of detuning a guitar mid-song sounds more comforting to the ear, if only for a moment, than playing a normal note.  After this section, Daniel and Paul play competing lines that both dance around the tonal center, spawning a different kind of tension by devising these unconventional two-note chords.  This effort is all underscored by Sam’s efficient drumming, which both effortlessly shuffles between different patterns and provides excellent fills, most notably the big snare-roll fill for the final climax and the subtle crescendo emphasized hits that end the song.

The album concludes with the sublime “Leif Erikson”, an elegant midtempo number that carefully outlines the delicate relationship between opposing partners and worldviews.  The guitar chords are often unconventional, using slight deviations from normal patterns to create feelings of unease, but the band carefully resolves the progression each time they’re played.  The bridge features perhaps my favorite lyric of the album, which eloquently describes how clumsy the initial communications of love can be: “it’s like learning a new language…helps me catch up on my mime” is an excellent simile, evoking the memory in many people the difficulties of expressing one’s self in a foreign language and the various work-arounds we attempt in order to carry across our message.  Once again, synths help provide some nice color, and in combination with the final little guitar solo helps the song end on a hopeful note.

That may have seen like a rather intensive analysis of the album, but it’s only a fraction of the total number of ideas that Turn on the Bright Lights has spurred in me.  It’s that amazing of an album, and it’s the reason why I will forever be a fan of Interpol.

Death From Above 1979: The Punks Throw A Dance Party

We here at Rust Is Just Right are plenty excited for the return of Death From Above 1979, so much so that the anticipation of their upcoming new album and ensuing tour has obviated our need for Caffeine Shots of Dubious Safety, as our energy needs are now fulfilled by the pure excitement of this news.  A couple of weeks ago we linked to the clip where BBC DJ Zane Lowe introduced the new single “Trainwreck 1979” for the first time, and noted how he did a great job of articulating the particular joy that this long-awaited return created for a specific segment of the music-loving population.  Then Zane did exactly what every other DFA1979 fan would do after playing the song–he hit the repeat button and played it again.

Death From Above 1979 never reached a broad audience when they first hit the scene a decade ago, and due to the specific nature of their sound, this is understandable.  But for those us that decided to give them a chance, the intervening years since their debut You’re a Woman, I’m a Machine the fanbase has only increased our rabid love for the band.  Somehow, the ultra-simple combination of bass, drums, and vocals were all we needed (okay sure, there was the occasional synth/keyboard, but this setup constitutes 95% of the album); the stripped-down, bare-bones approach was apparently all that was necessary to write songs that still held up ten years later.  To this day, You’re a Woman is in my regular rotation and serves as the perfect soundtrack to a workout or a road trip.

First, let’s give some credit to the guys (Jesse F. Keeler on bass and synth, Sebastien Granger on drums and vocals) for the name of the band and their debut album–both are immediate attention-grabbers that leave the listener intrigued as to what the music could possibly contain.  The phrase “Death From Above 1979” is partially the result of an early cease-and-desist from the DFA record label for infringement, but the tacked-on year ended up providing a compelling juxtaposition.  The addition of “1979” as almost a non sequitur helps to reassess the original phrase, which otherwise could seem kind of empty; it also in a way gives an indication of the music, signalling that the band is going back near the roots of punk and dance music.  The phrase You’re a Woman, I’m a Machine also helps clearly set the agenda of the band, providing a clear dichotomy both between Man and Woman and Human and Machine.  The album focuses a lot on relationships, set to music that is both rhythmic and emotional.  It’s a perfect description of the music.

The key to the band’s success is what at first glance may seem like a liability: their limited sonic palate.  While there have been some successful rock duos over the years (with many of them benefiting from DFA1979’s initial breakthrough, to be fair), the majority of them have opted for a guitar over a bass.  It’s a choice that makes sense, since a guitar gives a musician many more melodic options, and can even double as a bass on occasion (see Local H; “Seven Nation Army”).  The reverse is not the case–while the bass on You’re a Woman uses plenty of distortion, it can rarely be mistaken for a guitar.  It does however give DFA1979 a distinctive trademark sound, making their songs immediately identifiable.

DFA1979 doesn’t just get by on a signature sound, though; there is a purpose behind their reliance on bass and drums.  By focusing on those two instruments, it strips a song down to its barest elements, down to the closest we can get to the basic fundamentals of melody and rhythm.  By placing this restriction on their songwriting, it actually opens up the creative possibilities because it allows the group to specifically channel their ideas.  The duo is then able to focus on writing catchy riffs and propulsive beats, going beyond the simple verse-chrous-verse formula, without worrying about any other sonic details.   It’s what helps give the individual songs such a long shelf-life–you never get bored listening to a song, because each song moves quickly from one riff to the next without ever losing steam.

The approach also helped the band seamlessly blend the raw intensity of punk with the fun of dance music, even better than some of their more-celebrated counterparts in the early 00’s dance-punk movement.  While other bands like LCD Soundsystem, !!!, and The Rapture brought punk elements to a traditional rock/dance sound, Death From Above 1979 seemed to work from the other end of the spectrum, pushing punk towards dance music.  It made for a fantastic live show–even if the mix was muddy or they didn’t nail every note, their energy is infectious.  Just check out their legendary performance of “Romantic Rights” on Late Night with Conan O’Brien, with a memorable guest popping up midway through the song.  DFA1979 were never missing an edge, with their extremely-distorted bass and their lightning-quick tempos, but their songs also never lacked a danceable beat.  You could hear the elements of dance throughout their work, none more explicitly on the fantastic album-closer “Sexy Results”.

That’s why the band’s return is such an event, and how a generation of fans that were unable to see the band perform live the first time around (and didn’t feel like hitting the festival circuit in the last two years) are so excited.  And “Trainwreck 1979” is a fantastic appetizer for what is hopefully to come with The Physical World; if there was any justice in the music world, it would be universally deemed the mythical “song of the summer”.  We will be glad we can take DFA1979 off the “one-album wonder” list, and no longer have to wonder if the band could possibly follow up You’re a Woman, I’m a Machine.

Essential Classics: Eels – Electro-Shock Blues

With the release last week of The Cautionary Tales of Mark Oliver Everett, the eleventh album from Eels, now is the perfect time to take a closer look and examine their greatest work, Electro-Shock Blues.

Electro-Shock Blues was the follow-up to Eels’ debut album, Beautiful Freak, which is known mainly for the smash hit single “Novocaine for the Soul”.  That song would be both a blessing and a curse for the band, as it helped them break through to a wider audience (E had previously released two solo albums before adopting the “Eels” moniker, and while both records are good, they never received much commercial success), and was an effective calling card for the band’s style.  From E’s distinctive voice, to their often bitterly sarcastic take on life (the lyric “Jesus and his lawyer are coming back” is a great example of capturing that typical mid-90’s cynical detachment), to their focus on how to treat emotional pain (summed up perfectly in the title), “Novocaine” was in many ways representative of their style.  On the other hand, that meant a lifetime of dealing with expectations of playing the song every night on tour.  E’s approach of completely altering the style of the song each tour has been an effective remedy, varying between such drastic differences as the surf-rock version of the Electro-Shock tour or the withdrawn, restrained version of the With Strings tour, turning a rote performance into a surprising highlight each night.

All of this is to provide the background that Eels should have been in position to enjoy their new-found success.  Unfortunately, real life intervened as E was confronted with the deaths of his sister (suicide) and mother (lung cancer), among others, after the release of Beautiful Freak.  E worked through the feelings of being the last living member of his immediate family and channeled his grief into the production of Electro-Shock Blues, making it more than the stereotypical “difficult second album”.  The intentions are clear from the outset, with “Elizabeth on the Bathroom Floor”.  E uses his sister’s diary to give a harrowing look at her anguish as she struggled with mental illness (summed up with the concluding lines “My name is Elizabeth; my life is shit and piss.”), and backs the lyrics with a delicate, spare guitar and a ghostly backing choir.  The subject matter remains grim for the next few tracks, with “Going To Your Funeral Part I”, “Cancer for the Cure”, and “My Descent Into Madness”, but the tone of the music shifts to provide an effective counterpoint and cut against the seriousness of the topic.  “Funeral” has a slightly sinister ambiance, but is driven by a slow, grooving bass line; “Cancer for the Cure” is a goofy rave-up, complete with cheesy organ accents (a similar approach is taken with the jazzy “Hospital Food”); and “My Descent Into Madness” has an optimistic tone with fancy classical string flourishes and warm keyboards, which provide a sharp comment on the lyrics covering medically-induced happiness courtesy of institutionalization (“Come visit me at eight o’clock, and then you’ll see how I’m not the crazy one”).

The album reaches a turning point with the song “Last Stop: This Town”, as E copes with his loss by imagining flying above the city with his deceased sister.  He begins by showing her the world that she has left behind, and then the distortion kicks in with some turntable scratches, as they travel together on an emotional journey (a physical manifestation of the inner turmoil–“taking a spin through the neighborhood, the neighbors scream, ‘What are you talking about?,’ cause they don’t know how to let you in, and I can’t let you out”).  There is a moment of regret, when E asks, “Can you take me where you’re going if you’re never coming back?”  However, by the end of the song he’s content to let her go, as indicated by the brighter tone of his vocals in the last chorus.

The other peak on the album is the tender “Climbing to the Moon”, as E recounts a visit with his sister while she was institutionalized.  The lyrics by themselves are heart-breaking, but the music often underscores key emotional components that only add to their emotional impact.  Subtle touches like airy synths after “Got a sky that looks like heaven” and a country-tinged, lower-register guitar figure after “Got an earth that looks like shit” help accentuate the metaphors.  Sometimes these details work in the opposite way, providing an ironic element; as E sings about climbing to the moon, the chords gradually descend with the lyrics “Got my foot on the ladder”.  The entire chord progression in the chorus is naturally circular and begs repetition, emphasizing the futility of the task of literally climbing to the moon.  Yet the hopeful tone and lyrics show that it’s not worth it to be bogged down in the hopelessness of the situation, but to continually press ahead.

Eels closes the album with songs that show E contemplating how to move ahead.  “The Medication is Wearing Off” sees E facing the death of his mother with the knowledge that even though she’s gone, life still moves forward, as evidenced by the metaphor of his mother’s watch that keeps ticking.  That doesn’t mean that he is finished grieving–“The medication’s wearing off–gonna hurt a little, not a lot” and “Sunrise on the corner of Sunset and Alvarado, I think ‘What the hell do I do now–watch the day disintegrate, so I can stay up late and wait?'” indicate otherwise.  But he knows he has to continue, and the slight repeating guitar lick is a gentle reminder.  E adds an upbeat postscript (literally) with “P.S., You Work My World”, as he realizes that even if the outside world is falling apart and he has no idea what he should do, that “maybe it’s time to live.”

As a whole, the album is a perfect encapsulation of all the various emotions that come with the grieving process, all backed by delicate instrumentation that never overwhelms the listener, and balanced with key moments of levity.  It’s powerful without ever being overbearing, and catchy while still inviting closer scrutiny.  It may not have had the cultural impact that other records covering the same territory did, but I’d argue that it did so in a far more effective manner.  With Electro-Shock Blues, Eels proved that not only were they not a one-hit wonder, but that they were great artists worth following, even as their career would go on for decades.

How To Spend The Weekend When Snowed In

We usually don’t get much snow in the Pacific Northwest, and as a result we’re generally unprepared to deal with such unpleasantness.  This means outside of a couple of hours of shoveling the driveway and taking a quick trip to the grocery store (and then getting the car stuck in the snow before making it up the last hill to my house), it’s been a stay-indoors-the-whole-weekend kind of time here.

Someone didn't pay the fee to the Snow Miser

This will not get plowed for days.

At least I’m taking advantage of the opportunity to watch one of my many music DVDs, and what better time to watch the documentary of Sigur Rós’s tour of their homeland of Iceland.  The visuals of their countryside are stunning, and as one would expect with the majestic music of the band, so are the songs.  The band comes up with many novel arrangements of their songs, ranging from their stunning light shows in Reykjavik to acoustic performances in the middle of nowhere.  In addition, I also love seeing just how some of the most unreal sounds that the band makes on record are reproduced live.

 

I highly recommend buying it, but here’s at least the first disc.