You’re a Woman I’m a Machine

Death From Above 1979, Live at the Crystal Ballroom

For a couple of hours last night, I felt both 14 and 40 simultaneously.  It’s the kind of feeling you can only get when you’re watching a favorite band from your younger and more vulnerable years thrash away at an otherwise-unbearable volume.  Sure, the body can take the abuse of the unruly masses for only a couple of songs these days, but it doesn’t compare to the euphoria of a fucking great performance.

Easily the high point of that lineup

Easily the high point of that lineup

I had been waiting ten years for this show, and I was not going to be content observing the proceedings from a safe spot in the middle of the crowd.  I was one of the few people to give these guys radio play back when You’re A Woman, I’m A Machine first came out, and since then I had desperately wanted to see DFA1979’s furious intensity translated into a live setting.  Instead, due to mostly just bad luck, I had to be content during that long wait to merely play their album hundreds of times or attempting to track down whatever live footage I could find (like their brilliant performance on Conan).  A couple of years later, Sebastien and Jesse broke up, and it seemed like any chance to see the duo live was lost to history.  Of course, we all know now that the band reunited a few years ago, but still I wasn’t any closer to seeing these guys.  There was the initial insistence on playing far-flung festivals that I had no intention of attending, but even when circumstances conspired to put us in the same city at the same time, it wasn’t enough–I was there the year that they surprised SXSW with their reunification, but due to my outdated phone I heard the confirmation hours after their tiny venue had already overfilled well past capacity, and had to be content to learn the details secondhand the next day.  So yeah, I was going to through caution and good sense out the window and get as close as possible, the terrors of the pit be damned.

As soon as the opening piano chords of “Turn It Out” were triggered, the crowd began to lose its (collective) mind as their anticipation reached a fever pitch.  When the drums and bass finally kicked in, all hell broke loose and any chance that I had of being in control of my own movements went out the window, at least for the rest of the song; I found myself tossed from the far left of the stage all the way to the central barrier dividing All-Ages from Boozers with no idea how I got there, though I was jumping up and down to the beat the whole time.  “Right On, Frankenstein” brought a similar pattern of events, but when a shoelace came undone, I decided that it was best to make a break off to the side and fix the issue for safety’s sake.  And as a result of the wisdom that can only come with age, I took the opportunity to camp out at the side for the rest of the show, getting all the benefit of being close to the stage with much less wear and tear on the body.

It was all kind of a blur at the beginning

It was all kind of a blur at the beginning

With the physical terror no longer a concern, I was able to focus more clearly on the music.  The band placed an emphasis on the new material, playing all or nearly-all of The Physical World, and the crowd displayed a remarkable amount of enthusiasm considering the album was only released two months ago.  Sebastien and Jesse played their parts brilliantly, as they were effortlessly able to recreate the sounds of the album, and showing that the years of touring experience have served them well.  When the band dipped into their early songs, the audience found an extra gear and responded in an even more frenzied manner–during the climax of “Little Girl” one fan was able to launch himself completely above the crowd, as if shot from a cannon, to the delight/terror of those around him.  It was also fun to see the duo take the opportunity to stretch certain sections out and play around with the structure of the old songs, breathing new life into decade-old material.

A safer angle

A safer angle

The Crystal Ballroom can be a fickle place to play for a lot of bands, with its wonky acoustics and expansive layout, but Death From Above 1979 was able to keep the feel of a punk club; all elements (bass, keyboards, drums, and vocals) came through with great clarity, and the band tried to keep all sections of the audience involved.  Sebastien was surprised to see a balcony way in the back, opining that those people decided to sit so far back “just to get a look down the shirts of the audience below”; he also expressed bemusement at the strict separation as required by the OLCC, a sentiment with which we share.  The stage show was modest, with their trademark logo being the sole decoration and a line of white strobe lights being the main effect, but this minimalism served them well when they expertly deployed a sudden shift to red lights during the chorus of “White Is Red.”  But the coolest effect was probably the cheapest one possible–during the final song of the encore, Sebastien emptied a bottle of water onto his drumset before launching into the coda of “The Physical World”, and the effect of seeing the water splash high into the air during that brilliant finale was mesmerizing.  Hundreds of cameraphones went up to capture that moment, but it felt better just to experience the moment on its own.  So, sorry I have no actual footage of this–you’ll just have to see it for yourself when Death From Above stops by your town.

Review: Death From Above 1979 – The Physical World

If we are to take Death From Above 1979’s claims at face value and believe that they are indeed machines, then fans should be glad to hear that they are at least constructed from materials incapable of rust.  You would be hard-pressed to believe that it’s been a decade since You’re a Woman, I’m a Machine, because DFA1979’s long-awaited follow-up doesn’t miss a beat.  The Physical World does everything you would ask following a landmark debut–it maintains the spirit and essence of what made the original so brilliant (perhaps with an edge or two smoothed over), while at the same time attempting new tricks that keep the new music sounding like a mere rehash of previous ideas.  In other words, all previous devotees should be fully satisfied, and perhaps the band will pick up some new fans as well.

Death From Above 1979 proves that their formula of stripped-down rock reliant on bass and drums (but not drum and bass) still works, filling the album with plenty of riffs that are both fast and furious.  “Right On, Frankenstein!” and “Gemini” would fit right in with some of the more blistering tracks from their debut, like “Little Girl” or “Romantic Rights”.  “Gemini” has several catchy parts that will certainly stick in the minds of the listener (the pre-chorus of “she cries on her birthday” and the chorus of “24/7–still believes in heaven” will definitely be parts that the audience will be shouting along with at their concerts) and “Right On, Frankenstein!”  features a terrific outro, with the band stopping on a dime before slipping into a furiously-picked rapid-fire 32nd-note bass riff that ends with a bang.

The band also stretches out a bit with great success, dipping into sludge-rock territory with the “Virgins” and getting damn near close to writing a ballad with “White Is Red”.  The latter features an inventive bass part that utilizes a gorgeous unique tone that shows that simply because the band uses a limited set of instruments, it doesn’t mean that their sonic palette is in any way constricted.  The lyrics are also some of their best work to date; DFA1979 always were able to come up with an incisive line or individual memorable lyrics, but the heartbreaking story of a spurned lover and an unplanned teenage pregnancy in “White Is Red” shows that the duo can craft a complete song and are capable of invoking previously unknown subtle emotions in the listener.  It also ends up being the perfect setup to the lead single “Trainwreck 1979”, which sounds as terrific and energetic on the album as it does when it’s livening up rock radio’s otherwise generally moribund playlist.  (It also may bear an interesting connection to the previous track, as the track begins with the details of the protagonist’s birth.)

The album ends with the epic title track, a song that shifts from a goofy 8-bit melody into a frenetic punk rocker before ending on a throwback 80’s metal coda, which fades seamlessly into a classical piano outro that mirrors the previous melody, processed through a filter that evokes the soundtrack of a classic horror film from the Silent Era.  With the coda, Jesse Keeler comes as close to a bass “solo” as you’re likely to hear from the duo, and Sebastien Grainger shows off some of the drum tricks he’s picked up in the decade since their debut.  Once you hear that, you gain a new appreciation for Grainger’s rhythmic support throughout the album, noticing how he’s not only driving the beat but also engaging intriguing melodic support as well by effortlessly shifting styles and patterns.  But most importantly, the radical shift at the end shows fans that the band is capable of exploring even more styles, and that the band won’t be running out of ideas anytime soon.

You’re a Woman, I’m a Machine still is in my regular rotation ten years later, and at this point I’m willing to predict that The Physical World will follow the same path as well.  It’s already been stuck in my car’s stereo for the past week, and the good news is that I’m not even beginning to get tired of the album.  In other words, it’ll be definitely making an appearance on our Best Of list for 2014.

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.