April is the cruelest month.

I’ve always said a story can come from anywhere, that there are a million different ways to tell it. What started as a spontaneous afternoon jam session led to a brief discussion, and, eventually, my latest story—and probably the most unique way I’ve ever told one.

A Handful of Dust is an instrumental concept album. The basic idea was to try to tell a story using only music, with recurring themes, sounds, and titles representing various story elements.

It’s as open to interpretation as anything I do. Probably more so. But for those interested in my own thoughts, a series of poems and thought pieces will accompany each song on the album’s pages, and here on my site.

In all honesty, there are still some mistakes on here, a few takes I’m unhappy with, but I’m ready to move on. This was something I did for fun in the first place, and if it stopped being fun, I’d stop doing it. For that reason, I’m not charging anything for the album, it’ll be available to listen to for free. I might even go back and George Lucas some of the errors and inconsistencies out, but for the most part, right now I’m just wrapping up the major loose ends.

A Handful of Dust will be released this Friday, probably on Bandcamp and Soundcloud, and maybe this site. A few of the songs are available to listen to right now, and can be found at the links below. More will be added leading up to the full release on Friday.

Here’s the tracklisting:

1. Jump into the Sky
2. The Interloper
3. It Limps Through the Door with its Head on the Floor
4. World of Waste
5. You Will Walk
6. There is No One Else
7. A Glimpse of Kingdom Come
8. A Field of Broken Mirrors
9. Surrounded by Flies, She Carves Out Her Eyes
10. The 8th Day
11. I Can See Forever
12. In the Hollow of a Tree I Contemplate the Hollowness in Me
13. Run Down the Mountain
14. You Made Everything Better
15. Blinded by the Sun, He Loses Everyone
16. Hyacinths

Special thanks to my sister Tatyana for drawing up my band logo. You can find more of her work here: tythenaught.deviantart.com

nowListening: California by blink-182

All lyrics and music by blink-182, not me. Clearly.

Growing up, my mom was a big fan of heavy metal and grunge rock, while my dad mostly listened to country. I think there’s a degree to which we inherit tastes from our parents—like most things—so for a long time I listened to what they listened to. I didn’t strike out on my own into the musical world until I was 11 or 12. I could write countless pages about the countless hours I spent with a Walkman or a radio, mostly listening for something I recognized, until I started to recognize new songs, things I hadn’t inherited from anyone else. This was somewhere around 15 years ago now, but one thing I remember vividly is that my first actual favorite band ended up being blink-182.

I don’t remember the first time I heard them, or probably any of the earliest times. I know I heard of them long before I heard them; one day in 6th grade a lot of my classmates were giggling and making a general hullabaloo about the whole nudity thing. What ended up sticking with me was their music. I remember how catchy “What’s My Age Again?” was, and how I always listened to it on low volume or with headphones, because I knew my parents wouldn’t like the lyrics. I remember falling in love with their more serious-ish songs like “Dammit” and “Adam’s Song,” more catchy tunes with “The Rock Show” and “All the Small Things,” and mostly I remember how “Stay Together for the Kids” immediately became one of my favorite songs of all time.

Despite all this, I didn’t own any of their albums until I was in high school, when a friend burned me a copy of their untitled album. I knew “Feeling This” and “I Miss You” from the radio, and eventually I’d fall in love with the album as a whole. If I had to pick an album that was the most important to me in the formative years of my musical tastes, this would be it.

It didn’t take long before the infamous hiatus, and while I enjoyed both Angels & Airwaves and +44, none of their work meant as much to me as untitled did. Needless to say I was thrilled when the band reunited, and I love Neighborhoods for what it is. The second split didn’t hurt as badly, especially since it didn’t take long at all for the band to start playing shows with Matt Skiba in place of Tom DeLonge. I was never a huge fan of Alkaline Trio, though I did enjoy quite a few of their songs, but I’ve always loved Skiba’s voice, so this was exciting. It all paid off for me when the band released “Bored to Death.”

I pre-ordered California as soon as I was able to, and I’ve played little else since putting it on my iPod.

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“Cynical” works as a fun opener, with Mark Hoppus dropping the band’s classic angst-ridden lyrics before being interrupted by Travis Barker’s famous drumming; the man is easily one of the best drummers of all time. Following is about a minute of (literally) unapologetic pop-punk, as Matt Skiba furiously belts out “What’s the point of saying sorry now? Not sorry, not sorry, not sorry, I’m not sorry.”

“Bored to Death” was a fantastic way to introduce the band’s new sound, with Skiba and Hoppus trading off verses and choruses.

Save your breath, I’m nearly
Bored to death and fading fast.
Life is too short to last long.
Back on Earth, I’m broken
Lost and cold and fading fast.
Life is too short to last long.

—blink-182, “Bored to Death”

Hoppus takes over for a cleverly worded bridge, and then Travis Barker drives the song home. By now it’s clear that Matt Skiba is a good fit for the band. His voice doesn’t contrast with Hoppus’s as much as Tom DeLonge’s does, but his guitarwork is right at home for blink-182.

Track three, “She’s Out of Her Mind” is another piece of classic pop-punk, with a catchy pre-chorus declaring “She’s a-a-a-antisocial, a-a-a-she’s an angel.” In the second verse, Matt Skiba proves he can provide a more classic blink-sounding flat vocal style as well as his louder, more melodious singing. After this is “Los Angeles,” easily the darkest song on the album. Barker brings his hip-hop drum style while Mark Hoppus and Matt Skiba set each other up for vocals, tossing the song’s lines back and forth until Skiba takes over, leaving Hoppus to tunefully shout out some “ohs” that hit a spot most instruments wouldn’t do justice.

“Sober” provides an interesting contrast to “Los Angeles,” being far more light-hearted and playful. It’s catchy as hell, with a thick chorus of vocals shouting out some of the words to the pre-chorus sections. “I can do bad, and you can do better” is a good example of the kind of fun, simple, yet clever lines found throughout the record.

All 15 seconds of “Built This Pool” were released well before the album. It’s a joke song, and if I had to pick one track to cut, it would be this one. It’s cute and classic blink humor, but it’s the kind of thing that probably made a lot more sense in the studio than out, and for some reason just sticks out like a sore thumb. Maybe it’s that it’s the only track that doesn’t feature vocals from both singers, or just that the tone is off; it’s more of a joke than “Sober” and far too casual for the next track, “No Future.”

Speaking of: This one is fun. Barker’s drumming is on point, and while some of the lyrics are sort of mashed into their rhythm, this song has the perfect balance of playful and serious. The random bass note before the first chorus always catches my ear, and Skiba’s verse is insanely good; it’s not the best writing ever, but he pours his soul into singing these lines.

She said that it’s too late to try,
Someday I’ll smile and say goodbye.
Every night that you fight every demon in sight,
Sleeping on the floor.
Wide awake from the dream with a shake and a scream,
Hope for so much more.

—blink-182, “No Future”

The song leads well into California‘s major ballad, “Home is Such a Lonely Place.” I’m a sucker for ballads, and this is a good one. Its surprisingly simple lyrics get the job done without trying too hard, with lines like “I hold on tight, but not enough to hold you back” and “Wish I could slow down time, but not enough to slow you down” reflecting the desire to keep someone close forever, but realizing they need their own space to grow and move.

“Kings of the Weekend” is probably my least favorite song on the album. I just don’t care for the lyrics, though musically it’s solid, in particular the riffs following each chorus. “Teenage Satellites” is one of the bigger-sounding songs, with the now-classic blink space theme going on. Hoppus smoothly cruises through the first verse and provides sturdy backing vocals throughout, while Skiba dominates the choruses and owns the second verse. I absolutely adore his voice, especially when he’s crooning lines like “Then you kissed me like a storm at sea / Like I’m the only one you’ll ever need.”

After this is “Left Alone,” which starts with more spacey-sounding keys before being taken over by a flowing, melodic guitar section and Barker’s intense drumming. This quickly became one of my favorite songs in blink history, let alone on this record. Hoppus and Skiba split the song 50-50 vocally, trading off lines of each verse. The pre-chorus finds Mark Hoppus frantically asking “Can you remember the last time” followed by a hardly-there Matt Skiba contributing a memory, and the whole thing comes off as a bittersweet mixture of fondness and frustration, boiling down to a simple question: “Are we halfway gone, or halfway there?”

Then the chorus explodes, with Matt Skiba belting out some of the heaviest, loudest, most intense singing I’ve ever heard from him. It sounds like nothing the band has done, yet an entirely natural progression from their untitled and Neighborhoods eras. Lines like “Break me down, I’m not afraid of you” become album highlights.

“Rabbit Hole” was the second full song released, and is much faster  than “Bored to Death.” It’s a fun tune, with Skiba’s verse lyrically playing with Hoppus’s, a simple and catchy chorus of “I won’t fall down the fucking rabbit hole,” and a great vocal chorus for the outro.

“San Diego” tones things down, beginning slowly with Mark Hoppus reminiscing, clearly about the band’s past. Oddly enough, Matt Skiba sings a majority of the song, but his voice fits the tone perfectly, keeping the song from sounding bitter or too serious. The bridge is one of the best moments on the record, and I’d be interested to know who wrote it, as it’s one of two moments on the whole album that sound more at home with Alkaline Trio than blink-182 (and I don’t mean this in a bad way).

I never needed to hear
All of the pain and the fear
Your secrets filled up my ears like the ocean blue.
I never wanted to know
How deep these cuts on you go
And like a river they flow to the ocean blue.

—blink-182, “San Diego”

“The Only Thing That Matters” is one of the fastest songs on the album, and among the most playful. It’s classic blink through and through, except the second verse, which is the second moment that, to me, smacks of Alkaline Trio, but with the casualness of blink-182.

“California” closes the album as the last full song. Matt Skiba is mostly in the background for this one, which is a softer, ballad-y tune covering the ups and downs of modern day California. It’s one that hits close to home for me, because I was born there, lived there for years, and visited several times. Barker’s drumming is clever as ever, but quiet, along with Skiba’s guitars, letting Mark Hoppus’s vocals take control of the tune.

Two little kids out on the lawn,
Once we had love, now it’s gone
Good things haven’t happened yet
I’m empty as a movie set,
It’s what I’ve always wanted.

—blink-182, “California”

The song slowly escalates toward the final chorus, where the trio play and sing their hearts out, bringing the album to a fitting close, if you don’t count the next joke song, “Brohemian Rhapsody,” which would’ve been better off as a hidden track. After the first listen, there isn’t much worth going back for, except maybe Skiba’s epic lead guitarwork.

California is a good record for introducing the band’s new sound. It’s not going to oust the untitled album as my favorite, but there are some unforgettable tracks here. Good luck getting me to ever shut up about how much I love “Left Alone.” It’ll be interesting to see where the band goes from here—these three re-inventing themselves with a more serious sound à la the untitled record would be a welcome direction, and it might be fun to see the band move on as a four-piece with Tom DeLonge back in the mix, if even just for a song or two. Whatever the case, this band has a lot of history, for me and in general, and I’m excited to hear what happens next.

What’s in a Name?

Big changes incoming!

Perhaps you’ve noticed this very site (as well as Twitter) list me as “David J. Lovato” while the name on all my covers and storefronts simply reads “David Lovato”. That’s going to change.

Big changes this far along can get messy, and I spent the better part of two days updating all of my book covers and websites to add one little “J”, but the end result will be worth it. Why the change? Well, “davidlovato” wasn’t available for use as a WordPress site, so I added the J way back when, and it’s always good to keep things streamlined. Another reason is that I’m not the only David Lovato in town, and I think it’s best to keep any potential confusion to a minimum. So, starting in the coming weeks, you should see “David J. Lovato” on all of my books and store fronts. Also, it turns out I really like the way it looks. It’s like a little hook cementing my name in place. At the risk of sounding full of myself, I think I’ve realized you can tell a great font by its J.

Anyway, It’s a lengthy process to change all of my links and descriptions and profiles, but I’m almost done, and hopefully I did it without breaking anything too badly.

So, while I’m busy writing a post about my writing, I guess I should give a general update.

I’m way behind on Camp NaNoWriMo, thanks in part to burnout and in part to a household emergency. I may or may not get caught up, but I do plan to finish this project someday, and hopefully not too far away.

I have another project, a big one, that I’m hoping to release by Halloween. More details on that when it’s a little more ready for the spotlight.

I’m kicking around ideas for another poetry book. Possibly two of them. I enjoyed writing and publishing Permanent Ink on Temporary Pages, but for these two, I’m thinking bigger. Maybe louder.

I’m sitting on some novellas! One is finished and polished and I’m working to get it published traditionally. Another one is finished but not edited, and the last is unfinished, but I hope to put the final touches on those two this summer. Not sure whether I’ll self-publish or try the traditional route with them; that will depend on how I feel about the finished products. I also have an almost-finished short story collection that will most likely be self-published; the stories are all set in the same world and follow a specific theme.

And, as always, I have plenty of projects always moving, some slower than others, but they’ll be revealed when the time is right.

In short, I promise I’m working on things, and I’m pretty sure at least one of them will see a release this year.

Speaking of Halloween (I know that was a few paragraphs ago but it’s my blog and I’ll do what I want), last year I started a second RPG Maker project in the spirit of Halloween. With any luck I’ll finish it and release it before Halloween this year. It’s just a short little adventure where I challenged myself to see how odd I could make things go in that game engine, but I don’t see the harm in getting it out there, supposing I finish it. My main project is still Let the Moonlight Give You Wings, but that one is a lot larger and less predictable, so I can’t give an ETA on it. If I do pick up my Halloween-ish game again, expect to see some previews around these parts.

That about does it as far as talking about what I’m working on. One last thing though:

My favorite band is back! I can hardly express how excited I am to see Brand New recording and putting out new material. My history with this band is a long one. I’ll probably write a whole post on it pretty soon. But for now let’s just say they have a new song called “Mene” and you should buy it because it’s awesome.

And that’s it for now. Until next time!

nowListening: Strangers to Ourselves by Modest Mouse

All lyrics by and property of Modest Mouse.

Modest Mouse is another of those bands that I hated at first. I remember when “Float On” invaded the airwaves, and played approximately every five seconds on every single radio station, and it just plain grated on my nerves.

Then a DJ at my local alternative station decided to break the mold and play “Bukowski”, which I found interesting. After that, “Ocean Breathes Salty” and “Bury Me With It” replaced “Float On” and cemented Modest Mouse as one of my favorite bands. In time I would even come to like “Float On”.

I like bands that don’t sound the same with every album they put out. I like Good News for People Who Love Bad News, I like We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank, I like The Moon and Antarctica, and I like various other songs from their past discography that I’ve heard over the years. I love the ironic, clever lyrics and titles, the anger present in Isaac Brock’s voice even when the accompanying music ventures into zany, even goofy territory, and I love Jeremiah Greene’s complicated, addictive drum beats.

There has always been, however, a strange duality to Modest Mouse’s releases. I tend to absolutely love about half of each record and not really care for the rest. In an even weirder turn of events, I do like those songs I don’t care for—while I’m listening to them. It just usually takes some out-of-the-ordinary turn of events to get me listening to them.

Eight long years went by without a new release from Modest Mouse, so I hoped they were working on something special. Finally they announced Strangers to Ourselves, which I promptly pre-ordered; Modest Mouse is one of a very few bands whose music I can easily pre-order without hearing a note of, because I know I’m going to get something good out of it.

What I got was probably the first Modest Mouse album where I love almost every song.

Strangers to Ourselves

The album starts off slow, with “Strangers to Ourselves”. Honestly, it’s a little boring for an opener; I’d like it a lot more as a minute, minute-and-a-half tune, but it lingers for three and a half. It stands in stark contrast to other openers; “The World at Large” is a slow and lethargic song, but I love it for its clever lyrics and playful melodies strewn throughout the track. “March Into the Sea” is a fun opener for how loud and angry it is, and “3rd Planet” is the song that turned me on to the band’s earlier discography in the first place. “Strangers to Ourselves” just doesn’t pack the same punch as any of them.

The album takes a sharp turn for the better with “Lampshades on Fire”, a faster, upbeat tune that sets the environmentalist tone found through most of the album. It’s a good example of that irony I mentioned earlier; the song sounds happy and upbeat while Isaac Brock belts out frustrating, angry lyrics like “Pack up our things and head to the next place / Where we’ll make the same mistakes.” After this is “Shit in Your Cut”, an odd song that reminds me of something off of Brand New’s Daisy. It’s darker and slower but just as much fun.

If “Shit in Your Cut” is like a Brand New song, “Pistol (A. Cunanan, Miami, FL. 1996)” sounds like the band’s attempt at a Nine Inch Nails tribute. A quick Google of the title suggests this song is probably about the formative years of a certain serial killer. “Ansel” continues the theme of upbeat-sounding songs with dark, disturbing meanings, this one about how Brock never patched things up with his step brother before he died in an avalanche.

“The Ground Walks, With Time in a Box” is another fun one. Lyrically, it reminds me of the “beauty in nature/science” themes found on The Moon and Antarctica, at least partially, as it seems a little bit more sinister toward the end. I love the lead guitar and the multiple male/female vocal chorus, something present in a few songs on the album. The addition of feminine vocals in general to Modest Mouse’s sound is a refreshing and welcome one, and it works well.

If I had written this post a week ago, I would probably mention how much I dislike “Coyotes” right about now, but it ended up growing on me. I’m not fond of the lyrics for the verses basically being the same thing but in reverse order, but I do love the brief bits of acoustic guitar that pop up before the chorus. “Pups to Dust” is my current favorite. The first time I heard the main vocals arguing with the backing vocals I laughed out loud and it has that flowing, airy lead guitar I’ve always loved in Modest Mouse. “Sugar Boats” is another favorite of mine; if steampunk has a sound to it, it’s this song. “Wicked Campaign” slows things down again, while “Br Brave” is one of the few songs I don’t particularly care for. It’s all right while I’m listening, but it’s not one I’ll go out of my way to listen to.

Well I’m not a doctor, but I’ll sell you an itch
I could apologize, but then a bit more nothing’d exist
So the world’s got plenty of good and bad liars,
But our lies should come with chariots and choirs!

—Modest Mouse, “Wicked Campaign”

“God is an Indian and You’re an Asshole” is a funny little interlude set before “The Tortoise and the Tourist” which is probably the most important song on the record. Every Modest Mouse record has at least one song I’d argue has an almost literary quality to it, and this is it on Strangers to Ourselves. It’s heavy and dark, very cynical, it’s a good thing it’s sandwiched between “God is an Indian and You’re an Asshole” and “The Best Room”.

There was this tortoise, its shell was covered with jewels
And had been since time began
It knew the world through all its histories
And the universe and its mysteries
One day it came across a man

The two were talking,
The tortoise offered to tell him about the future and how the universe ran
Oh, the man killed the tortoise, took its shell, and with a song on his lips, walked off again.

—Modest Mouse, “The Tortoise and the Tourist”

Speaking of, “The Best Room” is another fun one, a heavy criticism of western culture. The last minute or so escalates into a crazy, fast summary of the entire song preceding it, accompanied by a wild lead guitar part and a sudden dropoff ending the song.

“Of Course We Know” closes the album, and it’s another one I don’t really go out of my way to listen to. I love the theme of it, the lullaby-like tone accompanying a criticism of complacency, but the song is very long and repetitive. It’s one I have to be in a certain mood to listen to.

On the whole, Strangers to Ourselves is critical without being preachy, it’s dark but fun, it has a strong theme that it carries through to the end. It’s easily my favorite Modest Mouse album. It was worth the wait, but I still hope the next one doesn’t take quite so long to come around.

Go reckless, unharmed
The shut-ins they’re well-armed
Well we all led the charge,
‘Til we ran aground in our party barge
Every little gift was just one more part of their grift
Oh yeah, we know it.
The best news that we got
Was some dumb hokum we all bought
Let’s go reckless, feeling great
We’re the sexiest of all primates
Let’s let loose with our charms,
Shake our ass and wave our arms,
All going apeshit.

—Modest Mouse, “The Best Room”

nowListening: Hope by Manchester Orchestra

Hey guys! I haven’t posted here in a while; I’ve been pretty busy with my NaNoWriMo project. I’m almost finished with that, and you can follow my progress here: http://nanowrimo.org/participants/crackedthesky/novels/novel-704342/stats

In the meantime, here’s a nowListening post I’ve been meaning to get to.

In this world of streaming music, digital downloads, physical copies becoming collector’s items, and bands touring nearly nonstop to compensate, it often feels like surprises are hard to come by. Still, now and then an artist finds a new way to shake things up, if even for a moment.

One of my favorite bands, Manchester Orchestra, did just that in September, when they suddenly and immediately released a new album called Hope.

Hope is a re-imagining of their previous album, Cope. Most of the songs are now quiet, stripped-down and acoustic, but Hope still has some curveballs to throw. Lyrically, some songs are word-for-word the same, and others have kept hardly anything intact. Musically, the songs are re-arranged, sometimes transposed to other instruments, shaken up and moved around, sometimes all but unrecognizable.

Manchester Orchestra Hope

The cover art is a stark contrast to the simple black-and-white, text-only cover of Cope. At the time I criticized it, but in retrospect, it makes sense paired alongside Hope, and serves as an immediate admission that the two albums are going to be very different.

The songs appear in the same order with the same titles as on Cope, starting off with “Top Notch”. This was one of the heavier songs on Cope, but its Hope counterpart is an acoustic, palm-muted rendition of the song that sets the tone for the album to follow. The chorus, a once-shouted “All that I know, there’s no way to fix it” is instead melodically droned out, giving it a haunting, lingering vibe that carries the song to its close.

“Choose You” offers the first major lyrical diversion from Cope. In my post about that album, I mentioned this song had one of my favorite opening lines, and much to my surprise, the same rings true for Hope, even with the lyrics changed:

Cope version:

The invention of the ship was the invention of the shipwreck
I tried to find out who I was by jumping off the deck

Hope version:

The intention of your trip was to intentionally wreck
I tried to talk you off the ledge but pushed you off the deck

—Manchester Orchestra, “Choose You”

Following this is “Girl Harbor”. The Hope version is a slow, acoustic version of the song, and a bridge that was one of my favorite moments on all of Cope serves the same purpose on Hope, but with an entirely different sound. On Hope, Andy Hull reminds us that he can sing, with the accompanying music suddenly dropping to a single guitar while he belts out line after line, his voice confident and controlled as it wavers between notes.

“Girl Harbor” by Manchester Orchestra.

“The Mansion” calms things down, remaining the sort of trippy, spaced-out rock song it was on Cope. Afterward is “The Ocean” which is almost unrecognizable; the lyrics haven’t changed, but the main guitar riffs are instead rendered on a piano while Andy Hull softly sings lines that were loud and explosive on Cope.

“Every Stone” echoes “The Ocean” with a keyboard replacing the main guitar, and continues the quieter tone Hope has carried for several tracks in a row. “All That I Really Wanted” shifts the focus back to the acoustic guitar and sticks with it through much of the song, while more layers of more instruments are added as the tune carries on, making it reminiscent of something from Andy Hull’s side project, Right Away Great Captain!

“Trees” is a darker song on both albums. There’s something creepy about it, but the Hope version dials this up all the way, even in the lyrics:

Pick from the bloodline tree,
It’s green with envy.
It’s okay to lose a limb
When they get too heavy.

—Manchester Orchestra, “Trees”

Following this is “Indentions”. Probably the fastest-paced song on Hope, its main riff sounds like a palm-muted rendition of one that appears only briefly at the end of the Cope version. I always loved the riff on Cope, and I’m glad to see it come back so prominently on Hope.

“See It Again” diverges the most from its Cope counterpart. On Cope, the song is driven by heavy drum beats and palm-muted guitars during the verses while it explodes for each chorus, reflecting the frustration the narrator appears to be experiencing in the song’s lyrics. On Hope, there are no guitars or drums; there are no instruments at all. The song’s lyrics are almost entirely different, sung along to a vocal chorus, making the song into a shiver-inducing church hymn.

The album, like the one before it, closes with a song called “Cope”. This version is set to two clean electric guitars, reverberating each note and giving it a grungy, echo-y tone.

All in all, Hope is a beast of a different flavor. It’s experimental in its sound, delivery, and creation; Andy Hull said in an interview that the band had wanted to do an alternate recording of their previous album, Simple Math, but never found the time. I wouldn’t mind seeing them repeat the idea for future records, or even going back and doing the same for previous ones.

nowListening: Cope by Manchester Orchestra

My favorite band is Brand New. I have a list of reasons far too long for this blog post, but one of them is their tendency to introduce me to other great bands, through covers, tours, or the occasional “This song is called ‘Go See Explosions in the Sky.'”

One of Brand New’s most famous tours was a series of shows they played with Manchester Orchestra and Kevin Devine. You can find some high-quality videos from this tour on YouTube, and I recommend doing so. All three artists and their opening acts gave fantastic performances.

Kevin Devine and members of Brand New and Manchester Orchestra covering “Holland, 1945” by Neutral Milk Hotel, another of my favorite bands.

That’s how Manchester Orchestra appeared on my radar. Eventually I would hear their song “Wolves at Night” on the radio. I thought it was okay, but my second radio experience with Manchester Orchestra fared much better: It was the song “Shake it Out”, and from then I was hooked. Fast-paced guitars and explosive vocals culminate in a noisy but still melodic refrain, before the song suddenly drops into a quasi-acoustic, quiet interlude:

I felt the Lord begin
To peel off all my skin.
And I felt the weight within,
Reveal the bigger mess
That you can’t fix.

—Manchester Orchestra, “Shake it Out”

The loud-quiet-loud structure of the song reminded me of something off of Brand New’s The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me, and not long after, the band released the title track of their then-upcoming album Simple Math for free. It was another quiet-loud-quiet introspective song, so I picked up a copy of Simple Math (and went back and bought Mean Everything to Nothing and I’m Like a Virgin Losing a Child as well).

The three albums (four if you count the unreleased Nobody Sings Anymore, which I do, since “Slow to Learn” and “Girl With Broken Wings” are some of my favorite songs) were enough to cement Manchester Orchestra as one of my favorite bands. Between Andy Hull’s angelic voice (and legendary beard; you have to mention the beard), drums that aren’t afraid to leave the hi-hat and snare, bass you can actually hear, guitars that get noisy but never reduce themselves to noise, and Chris Freeman playing like a dozen instruments at the same time, the band has everything I love about music.

The wait for new material after Simple Math was a long one. Now and then a new song came up during a live performance, and the band released a handful of singles, but after two years, Manchester Orchestra played a set featuring several new songs. For a few months nothing else happened release-wise, and during a show Andy Hull even joked that their new album was “apparently never coming out.”

Thankfully, their new album did eventually come out, incidentally enough, on April 1st.

cope

The first thing I noticed about the album was that I wasn’t fond of its artwork. While I’ve since come to accept it, at first it struck me as bland, almost lazy. That’s a superficial part of what makes an album, though, and didn’t deter me from pre-ordering the album, much less listening to it as soon as it arrived.

I was already familiar with the opening track, “Top Notch”, as the band released it on the internet months before the album’s release. The song sets the tone for the album to follow: Loud and angry. Where Simple Math gave way to orchestral instruments like strings and horns, “Top Notch”, like many of the songs on Cope, instead offers flavoring with sporadic guitar shreds. Lyrically, the song is classic Manchester Orchestra, blending storytelling and metaphor into a message that is cryptic but oddly relatable.

So the first kid says in his temporal tone,
“I don’t think there’s a way to resolve it.
We should wrap up these towels around our blistering palms,
And wait it out in the closet.”
His brother looks him up and down and prophesies how all of it should end,
He says, “We’re buried underneath the yard, and no one ever listens.
Or visits.”

—Manchester Orchestra, “Top Notch”

Before “Top Notch” has a chance to exit the stage, “Choose You” comes in with feedback leading to a fast-paced chorus of guitars, eventually giving way to one of my favorite opening lines on the record: “The invention of the ship was the invention of the shipwreck. I tried to find out who I was by jumping off the deck.” This song is more upbeat than “Top Notch”, but just as loud and angry, and many of the songs on Cope will follow its example.

The third track, “Girl Harbor”, quickly became one of my favorite Manchester Orchestra songs. One of the band’s signatures is their ability to be loud without sacrificing melody. I’ve touched on this already, but “Girl Harbor” is one of the best examples of this talent. Andy Hull’s brutal but somehow not unkind honesty shines in the song’s lyrics.

You always talk so loud,
And you never notice.
I don’t mind the sound, but you
Have re-arranged the pieces of your life
So many times, you’ve burned out the parts.

I don’t want to believe, but I want to believe you.
I don’t mean what I say, but I say what I mean to.

—Manchester Orchestra, “Girl Harbor”

Following this is “The Mansion”. One of Manchester Orchestra’s greatest influences is Built to Spill, and this song makes it easy to tell. I’m a sucker for songs with palm-muted verses that explode when they get to the chorus, and the trippy lead guitar and catchy chorus made this the first song from the album to get stuck in my head.

“The Ocean” is another great example of the angry-but-upbeat tone embedded in Cope, and the following track, “Every Stone”, is almost like the other side of the same coin. I don’t know what it is, but the two songs strike me as being related to each other. Where “The Ocean” is more flat and angry, “Every Stone” is calmer and more melodic, and both songs touch on the subject of letting things go.

That boat will not float,
It’s the last in its class, I’m the first one to know.
That bed is never made,
I’m the last of my kind, fucking tricked by my training.
I, I’ll give it to the ocean.

—Manchester Orchestra, “The Ocean”

 

You might just miss the mark
If you’re keeping everyone away
You didn’t mean to, you didn’t want to.
Well it might just leave a mark
If you don’t give anyone a say
You never want to, you never mean to.
Every stone I’ve thrown has gone away, it’s gone away,
It’s gone away.

—Manchester Orchestra, “Every Stone”

“All That I Really Wanted” is another showcase of that brutal honesty I mentioned before, while “Trees” almost feels like an epilogue to it. “Trees” has some cool moments, but I don’t love either song. I feel bad writing that, because Manchester Orchestra’s songs have a habit of creeping up on me and becoming favorites out of nowhere, so I can’t exactly set an opinion in stone, but for now I find the two underwhelming.

“Indentions” offers a welcome change of pace. It’s another fast favorite of mine. The bass and keyboards stand out on this one, the second verse has a really cool pre-echo effect on the vocals, and the last chorus is followed by a brief but very cool electric guitar riff. The chorus is simple but powerful: “I won’t leave indentions of me. I won’t leave intentionally.”

“See it Again” is probably the most unique track on the album. It starts off dark, with a faint vocal chorus to accompany heavy drums and a palm-muted guitar track, and the lyrics offer another storytelling session. This one isn’t so cryptic; the song deals with the narrator losing someone he cares about. The verses take us from the narrator’s front door before his loss, to uncertainty in a hospital waiting room, to deciding what does and doesn’t matter in life once he gets to the morgue.

Every Manchester Orchestra record contains at least one song that conjures a vivid depiction of some stage of death and grief. “See it Again” takes on this task for Cope, and it does a fantastic job.

The album closes with the title track, “Cope”. It’s another of those loud-quiet-loud songs I like. “Cope” is one of Manchester Orchestra’s shortest closers (“Colly Strings” and “The River” clock in at almost 6 minutes each, and “Leaky Breaks” ends up over 7) but it’s one of their strongest, in my opinion.

If I do echo, I hope you never see
There is no one there who’s waiting after me.
And I hope if there is one thing I let go,
It is the way that we cope.

—Manchester Orchestra, “Cope”

All of Manchester Orchestra’s albums have a unique sound, but Cope exists on an entirely separate plane. Sometimes, the album reminds me of the cover: Plain in black and white. There isn’t a lot of color here, but somehow, the band made it work, and with a few exceptions, each song becomes its own entity and stands out. Cope isn’t the album I asked for and it certainly isn’t the album I expected, but it’s one I welcome gladly.

All lyrics and the album artwork belong to Manchester Orchestra, not me.

nowListening: Rooms of the House by La Dispute

All songs and lyrics belong to La Dispute, not me. I’m just here to share my own interpretation of and experience with them.

This isn’t meant to be a review per se, it’s meant to be an analysis. It gets personal at the end. I’m not trying to bum anyone out or make anyone worry about me; I’m generally a happy person. My intention is to share why this album is so close to me, especially in those moments when I’m not.

The more avid readers of my blog will recall I recently wrote a post about La Dispute’s 2011 album Wildlife. At the end of that post, I linked to the band’s YouTube, where they had posted the first single from their newest album. I had listened to it once or twice, but only casually. I prefer to take my La Dispute albums in their entirety.

Rooms of the House by La Dispute

Rooms of the House hasn’t been out long, but I’ve given it enough thorough listens to write my thoughts on it. Sometimes these came in the middle of sleepless nights, sitting awake and listening to the album. Sometimes it was on the band’s YouTube page, where they’ve provided every song, complete with lyrics, in a seamless playlist. Once, I lay on my back during a panic attack and listened as I felt my heart rate increase and my breaths fall short for no readily apparent reason. And, of course, I gave it several listens while walking, either on the treadmill or around town.

The first thing I noticed about the album is that it’s shorter than their previous releases. Somewhere at the Bottom of the River Between Vega and Altair consists of 13 tracks totaling 52 minutes. Wildlife upped the number of tracks to 14 and clocks in at 58 minutes. Rooms of the House, on the other hand, contains only 11 tracks, and rests at 42 minutes.

At first I was worried that I might not be in for the same kind of intense roller coaster ride of a narrative the band usually puts out, but I pushed these thoughts aside. It’s not the length of a work that matters, but the impact it has on you. I wanted to be free of any preconceived notions when I listened to the album as a whole.

It’s immediately clear why this record is shorter than their past LPs. From the first second of the opening track, “HUDSONVILLE, MI 1956”, you can tell the band is much more focused, almost more frantic, like they’re dying to get their sound out and do it now.

“HUDSONVILLE, MI 1956”, the opening track of La Dispute’s Rooms of the House.

The opening track tells the story of a couple who are temporarily split up. A woman takes her son to her parents’ house in Terre Haute, Indiana, while her husband stays in Hudsonville, Michigan, until his week-long shift at the furniture mill ends and he can join them. Instead, a storm rocks both cities, knocking out the phone lines and leaving both parties unable to contact each other.

The song intensifies as its thematic storm does, sounding more frantic and chaotic as the narrative progresses. One of my favorite moments on the whole album comes when the storm has passed and the couple finally get into contact with each other, yet the song doesn’t calm down, instead escalating to new heights, and we catch a glimpse of a much more dangerous, internal storm our characters are weathering:

I remember those nights I couldn’t get through to you when
Quiet storms came, rattled the window panes
I couldn’t keep a thing the same way
When the storm blew in, and the furniture rearranged
I could see lightning there,
And a funnel cloud.
And your mother said,
“I swear I saw lightning in your eyes
When that call got through to the other side.”

—La Dispute, “HUDSONVILLE, MI 1956”

After this, we reach the calm after the storm. The song drops in volume and tempo, slowing to a crawl while vocalist Jordan Dreyer reads off the lyrics more like a list than a song, reflecting tattered thoughts, both profound and inconsequential things that cross one’s mind after an internal conflict, like leaves and branches scattered after a heavy storm: “Wires snap. Metal gets twisted. There’s the rattle of the window glass bending in. Take the kids down. Terre Haute. Coffee. Thanksgiving. Stay calm. Keep down…” While the music and the vocals drift apart and settle into discordant remnants of the song, we’re given the final line: “There are moments of collapse.”

These moments of collapse, that internal storm and separation itself serve as repeating themes on the record. I’m not sure if Rooms of the House is meant to be a concept album in the strictest sense, but there is a heavy theme: These songs all serve as rooms of a house, they all serve as pieces of a whole that can be something or nothing, depending on how they’re filled.

The next track is called “First Reactions After Falling Through the Ice” and tells the story of two people who go for a walk on a frozen lake. Our narrator is distracted by his everyday problems (“Had I cut my hair short? Had I grown my beard out long? … There’s a leak in the basement, stupid permanent estrangement, casement windows need glazing, hinges and arms need to be replaced.”). These problems disappear for a moment when the ice collapses below him, resulting in a brush with death.

“Don’t panic” I could hear you
Saying as I fell through
Blackness complete down,
Waiting until my feet touched ground.
At the bottom, they finally did
First reaction was “This is it.”
Next thought was “Just stay calm,
Kick up and save your phone.”

—La Dispute, “First Reactions After Falling Through the Ice”

Despite being one of the band’s shortest songs, “First Reactions” is one of their more vivid pieces. Imagery doesn’t always work in songs, but here it becomes personal; we hear first-hand the narrator’s plight, the everyday things still eating at him even at the bottom of a lake, the panic and the bargaining that accompany a moment of fright.

After this comes a change in pace. “Woman (in mirror)” is a quiet, slow tune, and one of the support beams that holds this metaphoric house together. The narrator begins by explaining the house: “Where a bookshelf goes, or a throw rug, how you shape any common space, and the language you make out of looks and names, all the motions of ordinary love.” The bookshelf mentioned here is a prominent symbol on the record. It’s as the first track says: “There is history in the rooms of the house.” Objects like this make up part of the history currently being laid out by our main characters.

In this song, our narrator watches his wife get dressed for a dinner party. It seems like a simple action, but the band expands it into an entire song, and not without reason. There are hints of trouble for the characters involved, but on the whole the song represents one moment.

And I watch you, your reversal
It’s an honest thing when there’s no one there.
Some days, they feel like dress rehearsals,
Some days I watch, and you don’t care.
There’s a dinner, Thanksgiving
Dress up nice, make a dish to bring
There are moments here, only yours and mine,
Tiny dots on an endless timeline.

—La Dispute, “Woman (in mirror)”

One of the song’s final lines is perhaps the most important to its narrative: “The smallest sounds leave the clearest echoes.” The song fades away soon after this, but later on in Rooms of the House, we’ll find out what it means.

“SCENES FROM HIGHWAYS 1981-2009” is a song about people driving away from their problems. This isn’t a new topic in the world of music (this song even mentions a few classics like “Born to Run” and “Running on Empty”). La Dispute takes the song down a different path than some of their predecessors; what we’re given is the story of people trying to drive away, but always returning home in the end.

“For Mayor in Splitsville” follows this by setting up jokes about how much of a pain marriage can be. Our narrator is reflecting on this while he considers his own marriage. He and his wife have just returned from their road trip, unable to drive away from their problems and ending up back home. They make promises to change their lives and their living space, but this does little to help: “But I guess in the end, we just moved furniture around.”

After this is the song “35”. Our narrator is sitting up late one night when the news comes on the television. A bridge has collapsed, cars have fallen into the river, and a rescue is underway. Our narrator enters a dreamlike state; he feels sorrow for the people involved in the accident, and by the next morning, he feels like his life is a bridge that collapsed under him, and wonders if he can still kick out the window and swim to safety.

This is followed by “Stay Happy There”. Here our narrator imagines parallel universes in which he ended up happy. He sees images of a world in which the bridge in “35” didn’t collapse, visions of him and his wife talking through their problems, living on a coast instead of the Midwest. He also imagines other, less hopeful ones: “Somewhere I’m up past dawn, until / Somewhere you live here still / Somewhere you’re already gone.” Meanwhile, all the things he and his wife have filled their house with, all of the things that carry history weigh heavily on him: “Doesn’t it seem a bit wasteful to you, to throw away all of the time we spent perfecting our love in close quarters and confines?”

Following this is another of these objects that carry history. “THE CHILD WE LOST 1963” begins and ends with a lamp, and the story in between is one of a group of young girls who come home from school one day to find their parents sitting at a table, with a shoebox full of things that would have belonged to their youngest sister, had she survived her birth. The girls are perhaps too young to understand exactly what happened, but they understand very well the weight and sadness their parents are experiencing, so heavy that both parents refuse to ever say the child’s name.

You watched while Father held her,
Said, “Some things come, but can’t stay here.”
You saw a brightness,
Like a light through your eyes closed tight,
Then she tumbled away.
From here, someplace
To remain in the nighttime shadows she made
To be an absence in Mom, a sadness hanging over her
Like some Pentecostal flame
Drifting on and off.
She was “sister,”
Only whispered.
Sometimes “her”
Or “the child we lost.”

—La Dispute, “THE CHILD WE LOST 1963”

Next is “Woman (reading)”. The title hearkens back to “Woman (in mirror)”, and this is no coincidence. In the latter, our narrator was watching his wife put makeup on in her mirror. “Woman (reading)” is set later, when the end of their marriage is all but imminent, and our narrator sits in his office struggling to write, instead watching his wife reading in the other room.


“Woman (reading)” by La Dispute.

I could probably write a blog post the entire length of this one just about this song. From the first listen, it became one of my favorite songs. I’ll only go into detail on a few of the reasons.

There’s a clear contrast between both “Woman” songs. In “(in mirror)” the titular woman is putting makeup on. She’s getting dressed up to leave. She and her husband are going to a dinner party. They appear content, but it’s only an appearance. The cracks are present, but the characters have put makeup over it. In “(reading)”, there’s no more illusion. Things didn’t work. But we’re given another tiny dot on this endless timeline, and our narrator gets a final look at his wife, not dressing up or putting makeup on, but sitting and reading. This is who she really is, and he’s trying to figure her out, knowing it’s too late. She’s aware he’s watching, and that’s where our moment ends. Everything is out in the open: No makeup, just a woman reading, and a man unable to read her.

From here the song proceeds into the future, after they part ways.

And I pause where I am for a second when I hear your name
Sometimes I think I see your face in improbable places
Do those moments replay for you?
When I’m suddenly there, and then won’t go away
When you’re sitting in your living room
Reading for the afternoon
Do you put your book down, look and try to find me there?

—La Dispute, “Woman (reading)”

Our narrator reflects on how, together, they turned the house into a home. He goes over local landmarks, like a wine stain on the couch and scratches in the floor, sometimes not remembering whether he and his wife created them, or they were already there, and seeing history in them regardless.

Earlier we were presented with the line “The smallest sounds leave the clearest echoes.” It’s possible to see “Woman (in mirror)” as the smallest sound, and “Woman (reading)” as the echo it leaves.

“Extraordinary Dinner Party” moves forward in time. It’s the morning after a snowstorm, and our narrator digs his car out of the snow and goes to work. Throughout the day he sees images of all the stories told so far, reminders of the dinner party, the bookshelf, a man driving away from his problems. History has repeated itself, and our narrator has done nothing to stop it, as he says: “Because I was afraid to change. But that’s not an excuse to stay.”

The last few seconds of the track break the fourth wall. You can hear the band begin to practice the next track, mess up, and laugh it off before starting again. It provides a small bit of respite from the otherwise heavy record, a break from the weight of the previous songs, and the next one.

“Objects in Space” closes the album. Music accompanies a spoken-word poem; there’s no singing here, only speaking. Somewhere, at some time, our narrator gathers all of these things from around his house. He spends hours looking them over, thinking of their stories, and then trying to find something to do with them, somewhere to put them. Melancholy guitars guide us through the track, providing a chord progression to serve as the chorus, while the bass and the drums keep the song nailed down, serving as a structure for the narrator to weave through. This is one of the saddest songs I’ve ever heard. Defeat is audible in Jordan Dreyer’s voice, the guitars drip with resignation.

Somewhere at the Bottom of the River Between Vega and Altair begins with silence, an amp being turned on, and then a slow guitar progression. It ends with a similar song fading away. Wildlife begins with a distant, twangy guitar playing a tune for a while until the rest of the instruments come in, and ends with vocals fading away while the guitar drones on a few more times.

In contrast, Rooms of the House began with guitars and vocals in the first second of the record. I mentioned before that it’s shorter and more focused, and “Objects in Space” is no exception. We’re given our story, and then the record ends as promptly as it began. In terms of sound, there’s no lingering, no echo; just a tiny dot on an endless timeline.

My head is another story. The music bounces back and forth across my mind, the lyrics echo in the everyday things I see that remind me of my own tiny dots: My guitar on the wall, still missing its A string. The hat I made and never leave home without. Tickets to a concert I never went to. A letter someone wrote me (and I never wrote back). Figurines line every shelf of my desk, some of them found, some bought, some given as gifts, some I don’t like looking at. I have shelves full of books I’ve read, and boxes full of books I’ve written.

I’ve never lost someone to a stillbirth or a bridge collapse. I’ve never sat and watched a woman I love put makeup on, or sit and read. I’ve never driven down the highway to forget my problems, only to find them waiting on the porch when I get back. These are things I’ve experienced only vicariously through Rooms of the House, but there’s something cathartic about that. I wouldn’t know for sure, but maybe the guys in La Dispute have never walked home at four in the morning with a panic attack after telling someone you don’t love them. Maybe they’ve never stayed in a hotel after losing a house, then heard someone die in the next room over. Maybe they’ve never had nerve damage that calls into question whether they’ll ever write another word, let alone a song or a story or a book. I haven’t experienced what they have, and maybe they haven’t experienced what I have, but we all have our echoes to live with, and sometimes it’s nice to share them, to create a mutual understanding with another person. Sometimes it’s nice to listen to someone else’s echoes, and let them drown out your own for a while.

nowListening: No Matter How Narrow by The Republic of Wolves

All lyrics and songs belong to The Republic of Wolves, not me.

When I first heard The Republic of Wolves, I hated them.

To be clear, I didn’t have anything against their sound. I guess a slice of history is in order: The Republic of Wolves made the scene when several of their demos appeared on YouTube disguised as Brand New demos. Brand New is my favorite band, and when I found out it wasn’t them, I was disappointed in how shady the whole thing was. When the band came out and claimed the demos, they said it was a friend of theirs who posted them, without the band’s knowledge. That didn’t alleviate my disappointment.

I think deep down I was mostly upset that I wasn’t hearing new music by my favorite band. (I probably knew this anyway; the demos sounded very similar to Brand New, but “similar” is as close as it got.)

Despite my mostly forced aversion to the band, every now and then, echoes of the song “Cardinals” played in my head: “I think I found a better way to live, and I think I found a better way to die.” The lyrics were so simple, but said so much. I found myself returning to the song to see what else it had to offer. I found more to like: “I’ve been fitting myself into that small space, that you set out for the screaming of the wind, ’cause that is all I’ve ever been.”

“Cardinals”, by The Republic of Wolves, uploaded to YouTube by a fan.

The immature compulsion I felt to avoid the band eventually broke down, and one day, I used the last of an iTunes gift card to buy the band’s EP His Old Branches. I would come to love the songs “Cardinals”, “For His Old Branches”, and “The Clouds”, and eventually I picked up the rest of the band’s releases.

The band’s first full-length album, Varuna, solidified them as one of my favorite bands. From the haunting, selling-your-soul-themed “Sea Smoke” to the energetic “Oarsman”, the seven-minute-long epic “Monologues” to the lethargic, melody-driven “Pitch and Resin” and “Grounded, I Am Traveling Light”, some of my favorite songs come from this album. I hadn’t felt particularly moved by music in a long time, and Varuna helped change that. It’s impact on me is probably clear; in my novel In the Lone and Level Sands, two characters meet up in the middle of the zombie apocalypse and travel across the country listening to music, and “Pitch and Resin” becomes their anthem. (I didn’t reprint any lyrics as that would infringe upon copyright, but it was and still is my hope that mentioning the song will inspire people to find it.)

The Republic of Wolves next released an EP called The Cartogropher, full of oceanic songs primarily sung by the band’s backing vocalist, which provided a fresh and interesting perspective on their music. Next came their second full-length, No Matter How Narrow, in which the band nails down a very new, more unique sound.

No Matter How Narrow by The Republic of Wolves

From the opening track “Frozen Feet”, it’s clear that No Matter How Narrow sounds radically different from the band’s previous material. The introspective, cleverly crafted lyrics remain, but the vocal melodies and the music that accompanies them are much brighter and lighthearted compared to the often dark, serious tones carried in the band’s past work.

There’s a cold that I must catch,
Living well in all that I’ve said
And I feel it coming on,
Unless it’s all in my head.

But you were up at two A.M.
Figuring out what it meant:
That all those sins were really sicknesses,
And nobody’s to blame.

—The Republic of Wolves, “Frozen Feet”

“Stray(s)” comes in quieter and darker, with verses reminiscent of Coldplay. The chorus is much louder and led by backing vocalist Gregg Andrew Dellarocca (something I wish happened more often on the album; in past releases, he handled lead vocals on at least one song, but not this time around). After this is “Spare Key”, a more upbeat song with lyrics hearkening back to “Cardinals”.

The official video for “Spare Key”, from the band’s YouTube channel.

“Greenville, MO” is perhaps the most akin to the band’s former sound, with distant guitars accompanying a prominent bass and slow, droning vocals. This isn’t to say this song would belong on one of the band’s other works; two bridges heartily shouted by vocalist Mason Maggio sound like nothing the band has produced before.

“Pioneers” introduces itself with a loud, catchy chorus, then calms down long enough to deliver the precisely placed, cleverly woven lyrics I first fell in love with this band for.

Enough with the coronations,
There’s no one left who isn’t king of something arbitrary
That’s why I’m looking for a crown to pick apart,
We’re just collecting flies in jars, a reconquista in our yard
A war I never had to start.

—The Republic of Wolves, “Pioneers”

After this is one of my favorite songs on the album and from this band, “Keep Clean”. The song contains the energy and enthusiasm of past tunes like “Oarsman” and “The Dead Men Stood Together”, but is possibly the most upbeat track they’ve ever recorded. The talented Will Noon of Straylight Run and fun. fills in on drums for this song.

So we’re all ordaining ministers
Because we can’t keep, no we can’t keep clean.
We’ve been deferring to a hypocrite,
With a kind voice and a loud idea
He divided up the races with a pencil and the Book of Genesis
And sorted us into companies and colonies all pitted up against each other
No matter how, no matter how common is our cause.

—The Republic of Wolves, “Keep Clean”

Following this is “Arithmetic on the Frontier”, an experimental track with a lot of effects, which sounds like something that could easily go wrong, but is perfectly executed. At just over two minutes long, the tune doesn’t wear out its welcome, and culminates in one of my favorite moments on the album, a loud, multi-layered chorus that reminds me of some of my favorite songs from The Cartographer. This leads into “Turning Lane”, another fast-paced track that contains some of my favorite lead guitar work on the album.

Next is the moody, quasi-acoustic “Vinedresser”. This is another of my favorites, with lyrics drenched in metaphor, stopping only once to deliver a moment of clear, undisguised sincerity:

But I was a victim like you,
My shoplifted grace in hand.
How could you know me so well,
When I couldn’t know myself?

—The Republic of Wolves, “Vinedresser”

“Orange Empire” is probably the heaviest song on the album. With lyrics like “Now I’m barely blood and flesh, just an anatomic sketch, coming to find this may be as solid as we get”, the song is contemplative, if not angry, which makes for a very solid penultimate track.

The album closes with “Through Empty Vessels”, a melodic and honest reflection on two people who have had a falling out. This one hits close to home for me; the subject isn’t new to the world of music, but the stance it takes is a little more original. When two people fight, it’s almost never one person’s fault. Sometimes things just don’t work. I’ve tried to capture this in song before, but I don’t think I’ll ever do as good a job as this song does.

And I was intertwined, for the first time, with my own lies
As we both crossed a devastating line
In the flood tide, it never mattered why
When we chose sides, we were both right.

—The Republic of Wolves, “Through Empty Vessels”

The title is possibly a reference to the band’s first EP, whose last song was called “Through Windows”. It wouldn’t be the only reference on No Matter How Narrow to the band’s previous work, and it’s obvious that The Republic of Wolves have come a long way in their musical journey. I can’t wait to see where they go next.

nowListening: Wildlife by La Dispute

Recently I re-visited one of my favorite albums, Wildlife by La Dispute. Normally I walk on the treadmill for 20-30 minutes a day, but Wildlife clocks in at almost an hour. I had planned to stop at my normal time, but couldn’t bring myself to do it, and went the whole hour. This isn’t one you listen to just part of, it’s an album you commit to.

All lyrics and songs by La Dispute, not me. Obviously.

The interpretation of these songs as presented in this post, however, is mine. At no point should you feel like it’s the correct or only one; that’s the beauty of music.

I first heard of La Dispute in the summer of 2011, when the band released their entire discography for free on the internet. I happened to be browsing a post over at AbsolutePunk, and one of my friends on that site couldn’t recommend the band enough.

I downloaded their discography and gave a few of the releases (one LP and about seven EPs ranging from two to eight tracks) a try. I was at first put off by the vocals; at first listen, Jordan Dreyer’s voice can be intimidating, if not raw.

Even then, there were a few songs I could really get into. I think “The Surgeon and the Scientist” was first among them. One day, with my iPod on shuffle, a little tune called “Such Small Hands” came up. The first thing to catch my hear was the haunting, disembodied guitar intro. Then the vocals come in, and what hooked me were the lyrics.

I thought I heard the door open, oh
No, thought I heard the door open but I only heard it close
I thought I heard a plane crashing
Now I think it was your passion snapping

La Dispute, “Such Small Hands”

As it turns out, “Such Small Hands” is the first track on their first album, exhaustively titled Somewhere at the Bottom of the River Between Vega and Altair. That provided the foot in the door for the rest of the record. One listen to the following track, “Said the King to the River”, and I was sold on La Dispute.

La Dispute is a writer’s band. Vocalist Jordan Dreyer had reportedly never participated in music before being asked to join; he wrote short stories and poems instead. Literature is prominent in all of the band’s music. Two of their EPs (Hear, Hear. and Hear, Hear II) consist entirely of the band playing along to Dreyer reading, singing, and screaming famous poems, such as Poe’s “Annabel Lee”.

A fan-made lyric video for the song “Andria”, showcasing a few of the band’s common styles: A blend of spoken-word poetry and fast-paced punk vocals, Jordan Dreyer’s raw, honest-to-God voice and absolute control over his range, the bass coming in to foreshadow the intensity the song is about to escalate to, the lead guitar part forming a sort of “dueling guitars” melody to compliment the lead vocals. While it appears on their first release, this song is referenced many times on the album Wildlife.

For a lot of bands, you can hear the bands that influenced them in their music. With La Dispute, the keen listener will hear all of the writers that influenced the band instead.

It didn’t take long for La Dispute to cement themselves as one of my favorite bands. In October of 2011, they released a new album called Wildlife. I bought it immediately, and took my iPod out to the back deck to listen to it on the porch swing. It seemed fitting: That’s where I go to read books, and Wildlife is audible literature.

Still, I wasn’t prepared for what I was about to hear.

Wildlife by La Dispute

Wildlife is a concept album. Each song has a clear and complete narrative, but also fits into a larger one (think chapters in a book). The album opens with one of four letters the narrator is writing. The song is called “a Departure” and sets the stage for the story about to unfold.

Night fell on me writing this, and I ran out of paper
So I crossed the name out at the top of the page
Not sure why I’m even writing this, but I guess it feels right,
It sort of feels like I have to, like an exorcism.

I guess that makes me sound crazy, but that’s all right.
Lately I feel like I might be, not that I’ve heard any voices or anything
Just like that everyday kind, where you forget things you shouldn’t,
And you think too much about death.

La Dispute, “a Departure”

The album can be broken down into parts: A letter, three songs, the next letter, three songs, etc. Following “a Departure” is the fast-paced “Harder Harmonies”, which tells the story of an extraordinary piano player whose music is overtaken by the tones of the nearby city.

In all of the songs, it’s difficult to tell how much is literal vs. metaphorical, and how many of the stories are true. I’ve heard that most of them are things experienced by the band members or people they know. Part of me wants to never find out; not knowing contributes to the magnitude Wildlife carries. I can only hope these things didn’t all happen to the same person, but in terms of the story, I’ll say they do.

“Harder Harmonies” escalates into a sense of frustration conveyed not just by the lyrics, but by the music. The song ends on a message anybody could sympathize with: “There’s a melody in everything, I’m trying to find a harmony, but nothing seems to work, nothing seems to fit.” This is a recurring theme: Nothing seems to fit, and I think that’s where the story really picks up.

“St. Paul Missionary Baptist Church Blues” comes next. It tells the story of a church our narrator passes by every day, the once-beloved church now abandoned and falling apart, and the narrator thinks the same thing of some kind of relationship in his life, possibly the loss of his own faith.

Ten years now standing vacant
Ten years on empty, maybe more.
Once held the faith of hundreds,
Soon one more cell phone store.
For years they gathered here
Inside the building, sound and true
To sing their praises to a God that gave them hope
To carry on, to carry through.

La Dispute, “St. Paul Missionary Baptist Church Blues”

After this comes “Edit Your Hometown”, which sounds like a link you’d click on facebook, and that’s probably the point. The song tells the story of a young man who claimed his city with his friends, spending nights together and having fun, but as the years went on, his friends all moved away and carried on with their lives, leaving the narrator feeling alone with an empty city.

After this is our next letter, this one titled “a Letter”. The narrator looks at all of his anger and frustration and begins to wonder if it comes from within, and that maybe things aren’t working because he isn’t really trying to make them work.

Next up is a song in two parts: “Safer in the Forest/Love Song for Poor Michigan”. Both songs occupy the same track and are loosely related, but you can tell where one ends and one begins. “Safer in the Forest” is a relatively quiet, droning tune carried by guitars that never stop but don’t quite repeat themselves, moving up and down in tune with the vocals, until the song explodes into “Love Song for Poor Michigan”, a song about how a bad economy can break people down. In these you can hear references to previous songs; “Safer in the Forest” mentions the city’s song first suggested in “Harder Harmonies” as well as the desire to leave found in “Edit Your Hometown”, while “Love Song for Poor Michigan” hearkens all the way back to the song “Andria” off the band’s previous album, with the line “I will hold these old streets safely in my head, like her”. If you choose to interpret it as such, Wildlife can be seen as a sort of sequel concept to Somewhere at the Bottom… as this isn’t the only reference you’ll find to the band’s previous work.

“The Most Beautiful Bitter Fruit” carries tones of trying to forget pain through things like drugs and sex, but reflecting on how these releases are only temporary.

After this we get our third letter, titled “a Poem”. The narrator reflects on how the writing isn’t helping: “I had a reason for the writing, but trying to exorcise my demons didn’t work.” The narrator instead writes a poem to summarize his feelings and actions. This is reflected in the song as it slows to a crawl and transitions into a spoken-word poem.

The worry, the wonder, the shortness of days
The replacement for purpose
The things swept away
By the worry, the wonder, my slightness of frame
The replacements for feeling,
The casual lay.
And the worst of the wildlife wears clothes and can pray
And they worry and wonder for three meals a day.
Only death unimpeded, not slowing its pace
Brings that petty old worry and wonder away.

La Dispute, “a Poem”

After this comes a suite of three songs that I find hard to listen to, but I mean that in the best possible way. The next three songs are, without contest, the most emotionally exhausting suite of music I can think of. By the time I was through the first of them, “King Park”, I had stopped swinging on my porch swing, my shaking hands were pressed against my mouth. If you can think of a movie that brought you to the edge of your seat in anticipation, not in the exaggerated, metaphorical sense, but one of those moments that actually made you drop everything and just sit down and pay attention, this song is the audible equivalent of that. If you listen to nothing else from this record, listen to these three songs, in order, please. Something like this doesn’t come along often in any medium.

I don’t want to spoil the effect for you, so I’ll try not to go into too much detail about these three. Just grab a pair of headphones, sit down in a dark room, and listen. You might want to bring a box of tissues and find some ear bleach for when it’s over. These aren’t songs you just listen to; you’re probably going to want something to help you calm down afterward. I guess this all comes off as pretentious or exaggerated, but that’s not my intention. I’m serious, things are going to get intense.

“King Park” opens with a shooting: “Another shooting on the southeast side, this a drive-by, mid-day…Not far from the park, about a block from where the other shooting was last month. Or was it last week?”

The first two stanzas of the song are told in an omniscient, procedural tone, just the basic facts. There’s been a shooting, not far from where another one was recently. At the end of the second stanza, we hit the human element: “The target: a rival, but they didn’t hit the target this time. They hit a kid we think had nothing to do with it.”

From there, our narrator becomes a spectre, a spirit transcending time and space in an attempt to find a reason for the violence. His journey takes him “High and high up over King Park”, back through time, where he can visit the victims before they died, just “playing games and doing homework”, and visit their families, see their lives.

I want to write it all down, so I can always remember
If you could see it up close, how could you ever forget?
How senseless death, how precious life,
I want to be there when the bullet hit.

La Dispute, “King Park”

After this, our narrator moves forward in time to find the shooter, and from there an already dark and heavy song becomes almost too much to bear. I won’t even say anything about it. Just go listen for yourself.

After this is a song called “Edward Benz, 27 Times”. This one starts off on a much lighter tone than where “King Park” ends, and for that I’m grateful. We open with an old man, the titular Edward Benz, entering the narrator’s store and asking him to repair a window on a door.

Things take a drastic tone throughout the song as Ed tells our narrator his story. The song bounces back and forth between the narrator in the past, standing on Ed’s porch and listening to his story, and our narrator as he is currently, feeling alone and desperate and in pain. Slowly, our narrator realizes he’s writing a parallel to Ed’s story, so he revisits it in his head for comparison.

The underlying tone seems to be that the narrator finds the two situations incomparable: What the narrator is going through (suggested to be a breakup) is shallow compared to what Ed experienced, but that fact brings our narrator no solace; his pain is still pain.

And I sit in my apartment,
I’m getting no answers.
I’m finding no peace, no release from the anger.
I’ll leave it at arms length,
I’m keeping my distance
From hotels and Jesus and blood on the carpet.
I’m stomaching nothing,
I’m reaching for no one,
I’m leaving this city and I’m headed out to nowhere.

La Dispute, “Edward Benz, 27 Times”

Our trio rounds out with the song “I See Everything”. In this one, our narrator recalls a day in his junior year of high school, when he walks into the classroom a little late and finds a heavy atmosphere in the room. He takes his seat and finds his teacher handing out photocopies of a journal she kept in the 80’s, shortly after her seven-year-old son was diagnosed with cancer. Following the introduction, the middle of the song is presented directly as these journal entries, and the end finds our narrator alone many years later, reflecting on the teacher and her son, as well as his own life.

July 9
There’s a suffering when I look in his eyes
He’s been through so much.
We’ve all been through so much, but
What incredible resolve our little boy shows
Only seven, standing face-to-face with death
He said it’s easy to find people who have suffered worse than him
“Like Jesus suffered worse than anyone,”
He told me last night, when God abandoned him.

La Dispute, “I See Everything”

Once this suite ends, we’re given our last letter, “a Broken Jar”.  Our narrator has grown tired of writing down these stories in attempt to cope, they aren’t helping. In his frustration he turns over a table and a breaks a jar, which he then attempts to repair, but reflects that no matter what he does, the cracks will still be visible, and some things can’t be fully repaired.

After this letter, we’re presented with two songs to serve as falling action. The first is “all our bruised bodies and the whole heart shrinks”. Maybe I look too much into it, but I think the fact that the title is improperly formatted (using all lowercase letters) is a reflection of how the writer has become tired and apathetic, but he hasn’t given up, hence the title being so long.

In this song, our writer comes to a realization. He’s been writing down the suffering of other people to cope with his own, and rather than comparing them, he begins to collect them, to realize that other people have made it through their pain, so it’s possible that he will, too.

Tell me what your worst fears are
I bet they look a lot like mine
Tell me what you think about when you can’t fall asleep at night.
Tell me that you’re struggling, tell me that you’re scared
No, tell me that you’re terrified of life
Tell me that it’s difficult to not think of death sometimes.
Tell me how you lost, tell me how he left, tell me how she left
Tell me how you lost everything that you had,
Tell me it ain’t ever coming back.
Tell me about God, tell me about love,
Tell me that it’s all of the above.
Say you think of everything in fear,
I bet you’re not the only one who does.

La Dispute, “all our bruised bodies and the whole heart shrinks”

The album’s final track is “You and I in Unison”. In this song, the writer finally tells his own story, adding his own pain to the pages he’s been writing, and leaves them with the feeling that even if we suffer, we all suffer together. Our narrator isn’t alone and never has beenhe has a stack of pages that prove it.

There’s a certain feeling you get when you finish reading a good book, and Wildlife is probably the only album that’s ever given me that feeling. It’s painful but hopeful, it’s heavy but beautiful.

La Dispute is releasing their third album in March 2014, called Rooms of the House. I’m looking forward to it, and I hope I love it half as much as I love Wildlife.

La Dispute provides nearly all of their music for listening on their website here: http://www.ladisputemusic.com/music/

If you enjoy the music, please consider supporting the band. Pre-orders of their upcoming album Rooms of the House support various charities. More information can be found on the album’s pre-order pages here: http://hellomerch.com/collections/la-dispute

Music While You Write

I often listen to music while I write. Usually I’ll make a playlist of songs that fit the mood I’m going for in my writing (and I’ve considered posting these playlists before, what do you think?). Over time I’ve moved away from my usual listening while writing, and I definitely don’t recommend listening while editing, or at least listen to something with no words. The reason for both is that if I’m tempted to sing along, that requires my brain to write one thing and speak another, and the two can get confused. It doesn’t happen often but is just not worth the risk. When it comes to editing, I tend to prefer silence. I often edit aloud (and you should too, sometimes you’ll catch things you didn’t catch just reading). But when it comes to writing, music can be very inspiring.

At the moment I’m working on a fantasy story. My music of choice right now is Joe Hisaishi’s incredible soundtracks to the Studio Ghibli movies (Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away etc.). Another fantasy favorite of mine is Yuki Kajiura, specifically her soundtracks for .hack//SIGN and Tsubasa Chronicle. While writing horror I might stick more to Akira Yamaoka’s Silent Hill soundtracks. I haven’t written hard science fiction in a while, but Yuki Kajiura’s music would fit sci-fi just as well as it fits fantasy.

A common thread you’ll probably notice is that a lot of these are soundtracks. They’re music made to be in the background, to enhance something else going on. This works very well for writing.

I love Rage Against the Machine as much as the next guy, but Zack de la Rocha screaming “Fuck you I won’t do what you tell me!” doesn’t make me feel like writing about dragons. It might, however, keep me in the right mood to write a frantic zombie shootout scene. It’s all about the mood you’re going for, and if you get it wrong, music might just be more of a distraction than inspiration.

These are of course my own musings, and what works for me may not work for you (but if you think it might, go ahead and try it). So what about you? What do you listen to while you write? I’d love to hear about it.