Tuesday, October 21, 2008

All You'd Ever Need to Know

Isolation is a tricky feeling to capture with a pop song perhaps because by the act of making a pop song you are willfully inviting other people into a certain aspect of your personal space. You may be writing about a song to say that surely no one, nowhere, has ever felt any more alone than you. Yet from the moment that that song was distributed, you have made a conscious decision to make a slight connection to another person. Even if the listener is experiencing the song in an empty room, and thinking that no one, nowhere has ever felt more alone than them.

Up All Night
, the new album from Toronto based band The Airfields captures a very subtle sense of isolation that comes from a feeling of not really being isolated at all. Very few of these songs are about feeling like the loneliest person in the world, but rather the near misses that far to often occur when you reach outside of your safety zone to make a connection with another person. The song opens with the cleverly fatalistic, "Prisoners of Our Love." "Oh, fly away," the narrator sings, "You'll be back, we'll remain, prisoners of... prisoners of... prisoners of our love." These oddly reassuring words are sung over an easy, resolved jangle that is promptly obliterated by the next track, "Never See You Smile."

In a way, you could almost compare the way this album unfolds to the way that a first conversation might unfold, the opener is friendly, relaxed, and clever. However, once you realize that the respective guard of each party may have been let down too much too early on, you present something a bit noisier to help recreate a bit of the distance that has been lost. Unexpected outros are included throughout the album to the fascinating effect of keeping the listener wholly engaged without allowing them to be absorbed by it. Kind of like the inevitable awkward pauses of a first conversation.

"Icing, sugar," may be the best example of this, as isolating either the intro (though the song does reveal itself to be built around this very intricate intro,) or the outro could never prepare someone for the song that they encase. "I wait for you, I always do..." begins the lyric. I can't quite determine whether the song is about a failed relationship, or a relationship that was never able to get off of the ground. I suppose that you could consider the two things different versions of the same feeling. The longing for what could have been vs. the reality of what was lost. "Your headphones and songs how they push you along your lonely life, how I hope they give all you'd ever need to know," is the final message that the narrator chooses to send to the one he loves, or perhaps it's directed at himself, or both of them. Of course a pop song could never give you all you'd ever need to know, not even close. The narrator of the song is surely aware of this fact, but he also must be aware that for some people it's the only thing that they have the ability to know.

The recording quality throughout the entire album helps to add to this sense of distance, and subtle isolation with it's extended dreamy echo. And, ultimately, isn't that the best way to establish yourself in any kind of conversation?" Leaving most everyone that you meet wishing that they could know so much more.

You can pick up a copy of Up All Night by the Airfields through Humblebee Recordings, here, or you can download it from itunes.

Friday, October 17, 2008

But No Matter How Fast We Go...

On a Monday night not too long ago, I found myself in the company of a few like minded (i.e. indiepop obsessed) friends chatting about records. When talk turned to YAY! Records, as these conversations so often do, it took virtually no time for all of us to begin marveling over just how good the most recent Catwalk single is. "It gives you something new with every listen," remarked one friend, "That last song especially..."

Oddly enough, I had been meaning to go back and listen to that single again. It received many spins on my turntable when I acquired it earlier this summer. Several times I sat down to write something about back then, but I could just never quite get my head around any way to write about this single that would do it proper justice. After the conversation that I took part in on Monday, I realized that I really wanted to try again.

I think this recent interview with Catwalk mastermind Nick Hessler helped to crystallize for me why it is that Catwalk produce such good singles that are so difficult for me to get my head around. Hessler doesn't consider Catwalk to be an "indiepop" band. They are, rather, just a band who happen to use a pop template to create their songs, and they happen to have so far only released records for an indiepop label. Therefore if they happen to produce songs that bear any resemblance to bands that came before them, it's simply because they are using the same recording processes as those bands, and probably share some of those bands' ideas about what constitutes a good pop song.

My friend was absolutely right, of course, the highlight here is the last song of the b side, "I Can't Believe." Yet, it's the a side, "Past Afar," that is really getting under my skin today. Perhaps it's the fact that I spent so much time with the b side this summer that the a side feels like a bit of an unearthed treasure? Perhaps it is the fact that it's one of those songs whose intro, and through line makes you feel like you should be driving while listening to it? Perhaps it's the fact that song is actually about driving fast to escape something vague? Perhaps it's the fact that listening to the song makes the listener feel like they escape the mundaneness of their own life? Perhaps it's the fact that this particular listener has also been repeating the Honeybunch song "Walking Into Walls," quite a bit lately - whose lyrics describe exactly how she feels about everything at the moment, but offer nothing in the way of escape, just reassurance that she is not alone in feeling that way? Perhaps it is all of these things for me, but really it has everything to do with the fact that all three songs on this 7" are just great songs. They need not be analyzed, and/or compared with other songs. They simply need to be enjoyed.

You can still pick up a copy of Catwalk's "Past Afar" 7" directly from the YAY! records shop.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Disappointment's Noble When it's Someone Else's Life

Very few words send up as many warning flares for me as the ones "eight-piece," and "orchestral." That's not to say that I will outrightly dismiss any band with a large number of members who employ strings (other than guitars,) horns, and woodwind instruments in their songs. It's quite the opposite actually. When those elements are employed properly they have the potential to create absolutely stunning music. I just feel that they are far too often abused, taken too far, and the result is often emotionally manipulative.

Glasgow's Butcher Boy, just saw their album Profit in Your Poetry have a domestic release this past Tuesday, October 7th. This record manages to walk the entire length of a tightrope between over the top orchestration, and genuinely effective beauty with out so much as dipping one toe over to the dangerous side. Not being a musician myself I am baffled by people that are able to achieve this balance so well. If I had to guess I would say that every note of instrumentation seems to be in place to serve the song that is at hand. No one is showing off. It also helps that the lyrics are razor sharp (and yes quite poetic) observations, and they are delivered in a tossed aside manner by front man John Blain Hunt. Since the lyrics are so sharp they need no vocal embellishment, and it's a brilliant contrast to the often borderline epic-ness of the music.

The record opens with the careful build of strings and drums into the line "I'm screaming in my sleep, I'm tired of the cool content of irony..." It's not delivered as a call to action, instead he voices his annoyance with the fact that this is disturbing his dreams. Later in the song he asserts, "I don't want any trouble, I just want to find a way home." I've considered the theme of escape in pop songs to be an important one lately. I think that it is safe to say that at some point in all of our lives it's likely that we've wanted to escape from or to something. The ability to convey this feeling in a thoughtful manner is a skill that far too few song writers possess.

I would consider title track to be the album's highlight. The intro vaguely recalls a darker version of American surf rock, not distorted, just dark. Lines such as "Your eyes reflect in my eyes," greatly benefit from the aforementioned tossed aside delivery. The song itself is likely about some facet of interpersonal relationships that I will never understand, but it moves with a well constructed sense of urgency that alerts the listener to the fact that something important is happening within the context of the song. It's also fortunate enough to know that it doesn't have to beat you over the head with what exactly is happening, and what you as the listener are supposed to feel.

Another note-worthy element of this album is the cleverness of the song placement. The most radio friendly track, "I Know Who You Could Be" is proceeded by the record's most dance-able number, "Girls Make Me Sick," and followed by the bleak resignation of "Fun." In the former the narrator details a lonely afternoon of sketching, and how that afternoon turns to evening color by color. The following morning when his lover shows up, he thinks about "How I look through bluer eyes than mine." Then on "Fun" he notes that the person in bed next to him, "Smells like places I've not been, but that's o.k. I wouldn't want it any other way." He also talks of being "Blinded by the times when we were fun." Perhaps this is in reference to the same person from earlier songs? Who knows? Well, surely the author knows, but he is kind enough to let the listener use their imagination.

Perhaps the most impressive thing about this record over all is it's ability to explore these largely familiar themes, highlight them with familiar elements of orchestration, and come across as being just as necessary as any other band or record that it might recall. I'm not quite sure how this is achieved so successfully, but I'll chose not to question that. Poetry that is as good as this is better left a mystery.

Available through the How Does it Feel to be Loved? label, and (hopefully) any good independent record store.