AboutHere lies the unfortunate brain-drippings of CJ McDonald, age 28.
Reviewing friends’ friends’ bands is almost as dangerous as reviewing friends’ bands. So when my friend Al invited me to come see his friends Rooks yesterday evening, I was wary. Not that it was compulsive that I write a review, but there is always that slight “what if they’re really bad and I have to make nice afterwards?” fear attached to these situations.
Luckily for me, Rooks actually turned out to be pretty good. A three-piece dealing in a strain of buzzsaw punk rock that can often run into the brick wall of its own limitations, Rooks managed to keep things lively through some interesting arrangements and rhythmic changes. I can’t claim to be the world’s biggest fan of straight-up punk rock - too much reliance on powerchords, too many bands doing exactly the same thing - but I cannot deny that when done well live it makes for a powerful spectacle.
And Rooks are certainly a powerful and confident live act. And while not exactly the second coming of Nirvana, they’re definitely worth catching live - all the more so if you can find a crowd willing to move about a bit (the Green Door Store audience were clearly afflicted by quick-setting concrete last night).
Having been given all of an hour’s notice by Al before the gig’s start, I quickly attempted some research of all the band’s playing. The next band, Eager Teeth, seemed to be the sort of band I could enjoy - a punk band at the more post-hardcore end of the spectrum. Again, on listening to their songs online they didn’t appear to be pulling up any trees in terms of originality, but I was hoping for a good live show - their third ever, it would turn out.
What I got was… well… You know how Finch are a sanitised version of Glassjaw? Well Eager Teeth are like a sanitised Finch. I have spent years failing to fend off accusations that I only live in the late-90s to early-2000s (in truth, I don’t try to deny them because they’re accurate). But these guys are so 2001 as to be almost painful. I could probably handle listening to a band completely in thrall to Thursday, but Eager Teeth have hamstrung themselves by having a singer whose general onstage demeanour just screams… well…
Okay, I don’t want to be unnecessarily mean. It takes guts to get up onstage - I’ve done it, I know. But obvious self-love makes it hard to be fair and balanced. Plus, the singer isn’t a friend of Al’s as far as I’m aware, so I have extra licence to be scathing.
But in the spirit of balance and community, here’s a tip: if you tell the audience after your first song that it is your third ever gig, then it’s probably not necessary to tell them “this is a new song” before every consequent number. Also, I’m sorry I burst into laughter and had to leave the room when you guys got into that serious chuggy, wailing lead guitar breakdown on your fourth or fifth song.
The evening’s headliners were Calrisian (sic). I say (sic) because I’m assuming they’re named after famed Star Wars shitbag traitor, Lando Calrissian - only spelt wrong.
If Eager Teeth were 2001, then Calrisian are pretty 2006. Heavily tattooed metallic hardcore with nice hair and tight t-shirts. They are what Manchester folk would call “well Satan’s Hollow”. I bet at least one of them owns a pair of hair straighteners. Anyway, now I’ve got the snarky preamble out of the way (I have more, but instead will direct you to their MySpace - linked above), I can move onto talking about how much I loved their music (I didn’t really).
The problem with any band that wants to play metal-hardcore is thus: they’re not Botch. Never have been, never will be. Botch set the bar so high for this sort of music - by being far more creative than anyone else, by being off-the-chart rhythmically, by just being FUCKING BOTCH - that forming a metalcore band is pretty much a redundant activity now. Why do it? Why put yourselves through the humiliation of failing to be Botch?
I should probably try to be a bit fairer to Calrisian here. I’m not saying they’re Botch copyists - they’re nothing like them - but they’re drinking from an empty well in terms of genre. Over the past five or so years, there have been so many bands attempting this sort of thing, and some have been decent. But Calrisian aren’t one of them.
Yeah, it’s loud. Yeah, it’s heavy. Yeah, the singer gets in everyone’s face like a good hardcore vocalist should. But it’s all so completely devoid of anything approaching creativity or inspiration - just one turgid riff after another. Oh look, here comes the breakdown. Oh wait, I just left the room again.
The truth is, the most interesting sound I heard during their set was my friend Jess, observing the singer’s neck tattooes: “He’s never going to get a job looking like that.”
I’ll be the first to admit that I have an unhealthy relationship with music. Actually, scratch that. I have an unhealthy relationship with certain types of music, certain types of songs. Songs that are, well, a bit miserable.
That is not to suggest that I am a miserable person. I’m not, despite what some friends of mine would say to the contrary. I have been, absolutely - but I find that the older and closer to 30 I get (I turned 28 this Saturday gone) the more comfortable within my own skin I am.
Still, more often than not I fixate on songs that convey elements of sadness, loss and regret in ways that I’ve - luckily - never really had to face. Sure, everyone has a story to tell (and I won’t bore you with any of mine), but that bizarre attraction to the sadness of others is one I’ve never been able to quite put my finger on or justify.
I’m not proud of the fact that I have listened to the song Medicine Bottle by Red House Painters on repeat for literally hours at a time. For those unfamiliar with the song, it is a ten minute lament about a man’s fear, paranoia and medicated agoraphobia while living on a Japanese island, and how as he disappears within himself he pushes away the one person who is trying to help and care for him.
It is, lyrically, frankly bloody horrible. Musically, it’s slow and pensive - Mark Kozelek’s plaintive vocals hovering over chorused guitars, with harsh feedback buried in the mix to unsettling effect. Imagine The Cure’s Disintegration, but really, really miserable. Exactly.
Have I lived on a Japanese island? No. Have I ever been medicated for depression? No. Have I ever been paranoid that I will be woken up by a lover plunging a knife into my torso? Not recently.
So why then? The answer is: I don’t know.
This brings me to a song that I could describe as one of my all-time favourites and actually mean it (I’m notoriously bad for descending - ascending? - into hyperbole when describing songs and bands): The Trapeze Swinger by Iron & Wine.
Iron & Wine is essentially one man - Sam Beam, a phenomenally bearded man-mountain whose hushed, soft vocals are belied by his leonine appearance. Generally Beam specialises in songs that capture rural Americana, with an unusual proportion of songs about dogs and farms. But despite resembling the Lion from The Wizard of Oz, he is capable of writing songs of remarkable sensuality.
The Trapeze Swinger is another of those songs that I have at times listened to on repeat for hours, often day after day. It is yet another melancholic ten minute tale of loss. But whereas Medicine Bottle deals solely in a very adult kind of grief, The Trapeze Swinger documents the lives of childhood friends, who became lovers as teenagers, only to become estranged as adults. The only major similarity to Medicine Bottle is the allusion that it was the protagonist’s intensity that drove the wedge between himself and his lover (“my misery, and how it lost me all I wanted”).
Now, I often have a tendancy to dig around and try to uncover some kind of perspective on what a song is actually about. Sometimes I find myself on a website where people offer their own song meanings, even if the result is invariably my shouting “WRONG, IDIOT” at the screen when somebody arrives at a particularly hackneyed conclusion in their analysis.
But I will admit to being particularly fascinated by this song. There is a lot of imagery at play here - with Beam there frequently is. There are childhood memories, there is circus imagery, there is Christian iconography. The song hinges around a repeated mantra of “please remember me”, and the song itself - like most Iron & Wine songs - has no real chorus to speak of.
What we get instead is verse after verse continuing to add layers, both musically and lyrically. Each verse is like a little vignette of its own, telling a story, offering a memory. Every one adds new brushstrokes to the picture, without ever being truly explicit in its meaning. It’s compelling, but quite opaque and open to interpretation.
And interpret I do. For me, the song is written as a letter from the deathbed of the young man to his estranged best friend and lost love after she has moved away to the city. He is recounting memories of their time together, from the very earliest childhood memories to their schism and separation. He talks of how he “heard from someone you’re still pretty” and offers her to “remember me mistakenly, in the window of the tallest tower”.
The images and little stories that are written into the song’s eight verses - the circus memories (“the trapeze act was wonderful but never meant to last”), the childhood memories (“as in the dream we had as rug-burned babies”), and the religious iconography (“the pearly gates had some eloquent graffiti, like ‘we’ll meet again’, and ‘fuck the man’, and ‘tell my mother not to worry’”) - are all tied together at the song’s end:
“So please, remember me finally
And all my uphill clawing
My dear, but if I make the pearly gates
I’ll do my best to make a drawing
Of God and Lucifer, a boy and girl,
An angel kissing on a sinner.
A monkey and a man, a marching band,
All around a frightened trapeze swinger”
In the context of the whole song it’s a beautiful conclusion - no anger or bitterness, just a promise to recount everything that shaped their lives together.
Whether this interpretation is an accurate depiction of the story Beam was trying to write is moot to me. For all I know, he might just like circuses as much as he likes dogs (they get mentioned in there a few times also). But by reading the words in that way, the song becomes all the more beautiful.
Is it because I relate to the subject matter? Not really. It’s all far too abstract and American in its imagery, and as far as I’m aware I won’t be dying any time soon. But it does beg the question: did I choose to read it in the saddest way possible just to feed an odd need to indulge in human suffering? Perhaps.
This is not to suggest that I only enjoy what Barry in High Fidelity would refer to as “sad bastard music”. Lord knows I’ve spent enough time in life throwing myself around to daft pop-punk songs. But it is always this sort of song that encourages repeat listening for me.
This isn’t a new phenomenon either. At about 10 or 11-years-old I bought the Black Album on tape and Metallica promptly became my favourite band in the world. My favourite song on that record, the one I would constantly rewind the tape in order to listen to repeatedly? Enter Sandman? Sad But True? No, Unforgiven - a song about an old man looking back upon an unfilling life of regret. Now I’m pretty certain that I definitely had no cause to relate to the subject matter there - I wasn’t even a teenager by then.
So what’s the answer to the mystery here? I still don’t know. Perhaps I might find it on a Japanese island or an American farm.
NOTE: Worth watching is this live television performance of the song, though I’d also recommend the recorded version (linked above) because it’s quite different thanks to the extra instrumentation used.