Wednesday, July 11, 2007
Back when I was in high school, and my rubric for musical criticism was "loud, fast, louder, faster, EVERYBODY GET IN THE MOSH PIT," I got a compilation with a song on it called "Somebody's Gonna Get Their Head Kicked In Tonight" by The Rezillos. It fit all of my criteria: it was rowdy, boisterous, loud, and encouraged an evening of violence and mayhem. Occasionally, while listening to it alone, I would pump my fist in the air and say the word "oi" a lot. Aren't teenagers silly?
Later on, I picked up the full album and upon discovering that the entire album was not in fact filled with head-kicking excitement, let it languish in my CD rack until I became old enough to appreciate it for what it is: one of the greatest party records I have ever heard in my life.
Can't Stand the Rezillos is a punk record, no doubt. But I was in that phase where everything had to sound like the Misfits, and The Rezillos came out of that era where the terms "punk" and "new wave" were fairly interchangeable: a few short years later, the Exploited would be the former and the Thompson Twins the latter, and everything just got awkward. But in 1978, when the Buzzcocks and the Ramones were riding high in the saddle, it was okay to write bouncy, insidiously catchy, devilishly fun pop songs and just play them really fast. Not hardcore fast, just fast. There are no down-tempo ballads, no pretensions of high art: this album starts in a good mood, stays that way, and finishes in an even better mood. There's one cover on the original LP, and if you get the CD version, it comes with a bunch of live tracks, which feature a bunch more covers. In order to give you an idea of what this band is trying to accomplish, take a look at the songs they're copping from other bands:
"Glad All Over"
"Land of 1,000 Dances"
"I Need You" (Kinks)
See? No messing around. Just fun! You like fun, right? So why aren't you listening to the Rezillos already?
I first heard about Book of Knots earlier this year, when Pitchfork announced that Tom Waits would be doing a guest spot on a forthcoming album called Traineater, an album devoted to the decline of the American Rust Belt. I got real excited. I read on, and discovered that a couple of the guys from Pere Ubu, I got real excited. Then I found out that Carla Bozulich, most recently responsible for last year's bone-chilling Evangelista LP would be on board, and I audibly said, "okay, people stop sneaking into my brain and stealing the list of all the people I want to get together on one album." Jon Langford and Mike Watt are on it too, but of all the albums released in the last five years, I can count the ones Jon Langford and/or Mike Watt haven't been on with the fingers on one hand.
What gets passed over a lot because the names aren't as high-profile, but is far more important, is the presence of members of Skeleton Key and Sleepytime Gorilla Museum. Tom Waits gets his moment to shine, of course, on "Pray." David Thomas' appearance on "Red Apple Boy" sounds exactly like classic Pere Ubu, and Carla Bozulich will never be anyone but the astounding Carla Bozulich. However, those styles all get rolled up and assimilated into a frighteningly dark, post-industrial cacophony that overshadows all of the individual contributions. Skeleton Key comes clanging through with the junkyard percussion: they're talking about American industrial decline, and there's plenty on this album to bring to mind images of rusted through, decaying, arcane, and barely functioning machinery. If you can imagine what would happen if Terry Gilliam designed machines to make music, they could easily be on this album. Furthermore, when I picked this up for the first time, I was not expecting the skull-crushing blasts of METAL guitars. They're not everywhere, but as I said, these are the guys from Sleepytime Gorilla Museum: they're not always playing at full-throttle (in fact, they can tread as light as anyone else out there) but they've always got a layer of menace in there to keep you off-balance and uncomfortable, and then they come tearing in like a rabid grizzly bear whenever your guard is down.
This is not an album just to get because Tom Waits is on it. If you're just expecting something sort of like Mule Variations, you're going to be disappointed and probably a little bit scared. This is a musical world akin to something from the movie Brazil (without the whimsy), or the final scenes of Touch of Evil: giant decrepit machinery coming to life to terrorize you before it gives out and is forgotten entirely.
Tuesday, July 10, 2007
Not too long ago, a friend of mine offered me a ticket to come with her to see The Veils in concert. She'd played one of their songs for me, but as soon as she put it on, we promptly began talking over it, so I hadn't really paid too much attention. So when I got to the Empty Bottle, I was pretty much oblivious to what I was about to hear. Finn Andrews and his crew took to the stage like lightning: as soon as he picked up his guitar, he got this look on his face like he had very much just had his heart broken and was not going to be able to hold back the emotion. They dug into the set hard: they got through maybe a verse or two of solid songwriting before he couldn't hold it back anymore, and started shrieking like a wildcat. The whole evening, I'm not sure I ever saw him play the guitar, but whenever he liberated himself from the song structure and launched into one of his freak-outs, he strangled and mangled that thing for it was all it was worth. In short, there is not enough Prozac in the world to save this guy from himself. After that first song was over, I asked if perhaps we should leave, because I wasn't sure he could top what I'd just seen.
Since the show, I've been trying to limit myself to one spin through the album daily, if not less. It's gotten under my skin so completely that I can't stand not listening to it, but I'm terrified I'm going to play it out. The sound is a bit more nuanced than what I described for their live performance: the anguished roars are still present and still potent, but they're spaced out by excellent, well-crafted pop. The best analogy here is Nick Cave circa The Lyre of Orpheus, with digressions into Nick Cave circa From Her to Eternity. Finn Andrews doesn't have Cave's guttural baritone: he gets frequent and accurate comparisons to Jeff Buckley, minus the unpleasant moody 90's rock associations. Veils songs are generally moody, to be sure, but "Jesus for the Jugular" and "Pan" sound like someone trying to exorcise his own demons and wracking himself with all the Linda Blair symptoms, rather than passively wallowing in them.
The first part of what makes this album so impressive is that while it feels at times like the songs are spiraling out of control, it still functions within its own rules. The title track is a long, slow burn driven by a steady drum beat and a rolling bass line, punctuated here and there with some bursts from the guitar. Andrews sings his verses like he's preaching the apocalypse, and the band waits politely in the wings, waiting for him to finish so they can actually unleash that apocalypse.
However, the second half of the charm here lies in skipping the roar altogether. The prancing, slightly melancholy pop (the chorus ends, "what's there left to believe in?") of the second track, "Calliope," leads very nicely into "Advice for Young Mothers to Be," which is best described as a disco track with a ska beat. I know, it sounds perverse, but it works. Without the lush production, "A Birthday Present" could almost be an old Irish folk tune, and "One Night on Earth" could alternately be entitled "The Song Interpol Almost Wrote, But The Veils Got There First." The album closes with one of those tracks with a mood (if not style) like Tom Waits' "Old Shoes & Picture Postcards" or Brian Eno's "Some of Them Are Old:" it's the perfect coda, that acknowledges that what has come before has taken you through the emotional ringer, and yeah, the wreckage is still there, but there's still hope on the horizon.