tremble clef

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

The Rosebuds, "My Punishment For Fighting"/"Silja Line (On Settling For A Normal Life)" (2007)

In my musical world -- though, I would acknowledge, not in everyone's -- "epic" has a vexed, even paradoxical quality. If I had to be schematic, I would say that "epic dance/pop music" gives me thrills, but for "epic rock music" I have little to no use.

A lot of this bias has to do with my sense of how self-aware "epic music" is, and, specificially, how self-serving its aims are. When I think of instances of epic dance music -- the hi-NRG productions of the Pet Shop Boys, say, or Kylie's "Your Disco Needs You" -- they usually have their collective tongue, if not in, then not too far from, their cheek. That's probably not a good way to put it, because it slides too easier into the idea that epic dance-pop is "okay" because it is "ironic"; better to say that epic dance-pop lacks a kind of self-important earnestness that epic rock unfortunately possesses in spades. Indeed, epic dance-pop's aims usually have little to do with the artists themselves; it doesn't exist, for the most part, to demonstrate how magnificient its creators are. (Whereas much of epic rock...well, let's just mutter "U2" and not even mention all the other rock messiah wannabes.) If anything, creators of epic dance-pop seem to know that they risk coming off as silly, trivial, camp -- but if the track is glorious as a result and likely to be enjoyable for the listeners, they don't care. In this sense epic dance-pop doesn't have the self-serving nature that I find quite distasteful in epic rock. Because of this, I'm always wary of rock acts that -- usually around the second or third albums -- attempt to go "epic." It's usually a disaster...eh, Killers?

But then there is Night Of The Furies, the third album by The Rosebuds, the Raleigh band made up of Ivan Howard and Kelly Crisp. It is likely to be the one that critics hail, if they pay attention to it, as taking a disproportionate leap forwards, perhaps even towards "epicness." And it's true enough. Although the band's two previous albums were already quite excellent -- 2003's Make Out, and 2005's Birds Make Good Neighbors, which featured one of my favorite songs from that year, the achingly beautiful "Blue Bird" (never heard it?! Rectify that immediately, please) -- there is something about Night Of The Furies that seems more ambitious in scope, less interested in simply being a collection, as its predecessors were, of pretty, jangly guitar pop songs.

One reason why the album is likely to be seen as a conscious leap forward is the way The Rosebuds have -- let's use a critical cliché for a moment, heh -- "expanded their sonic palette." The sound of the group is still rooted in lovely guitar pop, but they themselves have acknowledged that a couple of the tracks are almost discotastic, in the way that The Killers' "Bones" tried to be: the first single, "Get Up Get Out" (try Hype Machine if you want to hear it), and "Hang On To This Coat." (Apparently remixes of album tracks are already being prepared, by Dean and Britta and Mark Saunders.) No doubt this helps the newly "epic" band avoid the pitfalls of coming across as self-important: Night Of The Furies is as much as epic pop record as it is a rock one.

But the bigger reason to deem the record "epic" is due to the mythical theme that runs through its nine songs; as the album title suggests, the idea of the Furies -- the Roman deities that descend on Earth to punish and avenge -- run throughout the record. "In the day and night, better hold on tight to your loved ones," the lyric of "Cemetary Lawns," which begins with an exhilarating burst of drums, goes. "The rumor is the truth, the Furies are here upon us." According to press materials, it looks like the band re-imagined the night of a tropical hurricane as such a visitation, and as a result the record is made up of songs connected in the sense that they speak recurrently of guilt, conscience, turmoil, sacrifice, retribution.

There is in fact something very Southern Gothic about the record: in its thematic concerns, yes, but additionally because Ivan sings about them with a dextrous voice that, in its lower register, has the same kind of rumbly weight as Scott Walker's or Nick Cave's, but often also kicks into a higher pitch that is floaty and ethereal. (When he does both within the same song, as happens in the opener, "My Punishment For Fighting," the effect is mesmerizing: after each verse sketches out his troubles, the chorus sees his voice lift and sing, with almost a kind of spooky disembodiment, "I could never be/All you need me to/My punishment is living without you." The line has haunted me all weekend.)

But The Rosebuds don't present Ivan's voice as some kind of pompous soothsayer's, instead surrounding it with others -- not necessarily other people's (Kelly takes the lead on "I Better Run," but nowhere else), but with backing vocals that simultaneously rachet up the drama and deflate it. They heighten by punctuating and emphasizing, as dramatic backing vocals always do (just think of gospel backup). But on Night Of The Furies, these backing vocals also puncture any kind of pomposity, because they are incredibly hooky, almost in a kind of cheesy Eurodisco way -- or, in keeping with my characterization of the album as "Southern Gothic," the way backing vocals on, say, a Sisters Of Mercy record might. (Or at least what I remember of the one or two Sisters Of Mercy tracks I've heard.) This is an album filled with woahs, woos, ahs, and oohs. (Highlights: the "ah ah ah ah"s that start "My Punishment For Fighting" and thus the whole album; the way Ivan sings "Woah oh...WOO!" at the end of the chorus on "Cemetary Lawns"; the "Woah, oh! Woah, oh! Woah, oh oh oh woah!" from "You Better Run"; the four introductory bars of "whoo, whoo, whooo" that glide gloriously up and down the scale at the start of "Silence By The Lakeside"; the "ah, ah-ah-ah-haaaa"s from "Hold On To This Coat"...)

The marvellous track, "Silja Line (On Settling For A Normal Life)" -- whose nautical lyric The Decemberists would be envious of -- provides an especially good example of how these supporting voices do both: for most of the song, the backup vocals take the form of ghostly "ah, wooooooooo"s that rise up in between the verses. But later in the song, though, all ghosts are dispelled by the heartiness of the way Ivan is suddenly joined by what sounds like an entire male choir, going, "Oh oh oh! Let's all toast to the ones we love!" It would be a eyerollingly self-important moment, if not for the way the rest of song frames it as as much a guiltily poptastic moment as a "meaningful" one.

It's only the beginning of March, but there have been a ton of good -- or at least hotly anticipated (by me) -- albums leaked released so far: Tracey Thorn! Patrick Wolf! Jay-Jay Johanson! Pleasure! Weeping Willows! Mika! The Go Find! Feist! Fountains Of Wayne! (And in the wings: Lucky Soul! Sophie Ellis-Bextor!) It's too early to tell which of those, let alone which future release, will end up among my true favorites of the year. But at this point, I can say that Night Of The Furies has been one of two albums that has brought out the most obsessive behavior in me -- such as, playing it four times in a row without a break when I first got it. (Wanna guess which is the other, which is included in the list at the start of this paragraph?)

8 Comments:

  • Ooh! Ooh! Is it Tracey Thorn?

    By Anonymous esque, at 12:51 AM  

  • No! Close, though -- the Tracey album I probably played twice in a row, and is probably my third fave of the year thus far...

    By Blogger Brittle, at 1:00 AM  

  • would it be feist?
    And i will really have to understand Patrick Wolf. What i've heard so far is so unimpressive.
    Not only unimpressive, but i did not find it pop at all... Air (and i have read your comments) sounds so much better and is still very pop to me...
    I booked my ticket to the Phoenix and Air double bill extravaganza in CHATEAU DE VERSAILLES... how marie-antoinette of me!

    By Blogger Arnault, at 1:51 AM  

  • No! Not Feist! The prize is still up for grabs!

    I would have thought that some of Wolf's tracks would strike you as beautiful, Arnault. Try "The Bluebell/Bluebells/Magpie" sequence from the new album?

    In my Stylus blurb about Air, I was taking my cue from the band itself, who seems to be more and more uninterested in pop. I think "Once Upon A Time" and tracks like "Mer Du Japon" still, despite their best efforts, have a bit of a pop sensibility, but perhaps that's the problem -- the undertaking is a bit half-assed. The result is that the songs have a kind of repetitiveness that I imagine Air thinks is "avant garde" (they want to be Philip Glass! Because what the world needs is a second Glass!), but they still put out singles that are, consequently, a bit boring. I mean, the album is fine in the background, but I don't think its tracks work as pop singles, sorry.

    By Blogger Brittle, at 2:54 PM  

  • maybe you're right.
    And it seems that i respond better to riffs and patterns rather than melodies after all.
    After reading this, i remember of one of my favourite albums ever - the Mishima OST by Philip Glass... I have to listen to that again.
    i guess what you find half-assed is what i really enjoy - something neither pop nor avant garde, lost somewhere in the middle...

    I will find the patrick Wolf album again. I think i was turned off by the first single as it sounded very big-band to me (i kinda hate big band)

    By Blogger Arnault, at 4:40 PM  

  • I am so happy you are pro Lucky Soul. I like The Rosebuds a lot!

    By Blogger xolondon, at 8:44 AM  

  • Of course I like Lucky Soul! They wrote a song about my heart! (I had them on a year end ballot too!)

    Arnault, the Stylus review of the full Air album is quite interesting. Knowing how you spend your days, I'm also curious to see if you agree with this review, which makes the beginnings of an interesting case about how music-at-work has altered the way we listen to music. One thing the review doesn't quite recognize is the way, not just Norah Jones, but certain kinds of dance music likewise lends itself to office culture. I know I would put on Air in my office, or something like Booka Shade.

    By Blogger Brittle, at 9:46 AM  

  • Rosebuds sound like New Order minus the computers. Love this!

    By Blogger xolondon, at 6:59 PM  

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