Full disclosure: It is possible for me to be objective in this review, because Brent Miller knows that my dude-love for him transcends what I might have to say about his band, Trashed On Fiction. So, clear your mind of the fact that, through musical and academic endeavors, Brent Miller and I have shared beds across this great nation. In our underwear. And my piss smelled like shrimp. Don’t ask.
I can say, with all integrity intact, that I like Simple Sun. Some of the tunes sound a bit incomplete, and maybe the songs are too few and too different to make a totally cohesive album, but the better songs on the album are truly pleasing. “The Fifteen” adds some good ol’ fashioned squonk to an alt-rock tune. “By The Buried”, a country tune with an occasional chord flourish, is my other favorite. Those songs match the timbre and the temperament of the “Alt-Country” catalog of my collection, so my ears were pretty much prepared for this ep.
Read that last sentence again, because here comes the bad news.
Trashed On Fiction, on their website, breaks a rule that I’ll call the Tim Thompson Corrolary: As a musician you can only say it with the music. Once you start yapping about what the music is supposed to be saying, you’ve thwarted the music’s attempt to communicate. Guess who was an expert at that?
From the Trashed On Fiction website:
Influenced by the roots-rock of Creedence Clearwater Revival, Neil Young, and The Band, the early country rock of Gram Parsons and their latter-day disciples Wilco, as well as the Midwest alt-rock of the Replacements, Trashed On Fiction synthesizes these bands into classic, but hardly derivative songs.
Wether you are or aren’t derivative is more up to the audience than the band. Saying you’re not just makes the audience think you’re self-conscious about it. Suddenly the lack of harmony vocals in key places seems like fear of being “too like” another band. Same with the lack of piano, steel guitar, or violin added to the regular quartet instrumentation. It may be easy to see these as omissions in hindsight, but fans of bands like Wilco or The Band should have picked up on it.
Still good tunes, but the seed of self-consciousness has been planted.
I want to like The Dead Weather more than I do, but Jack White kind of ruins the party for me.
If you did word association with people who like music and said, “questionable sincerity. . . “, the answer you would get back would be a 70/30 mix between Beck Hansen and Jack White. Beck usually gets nailed with the insincere tag because he is, stylistically, all over the board like Muhammad Ali’s Quiji question. Beck has answered the question of why the styles of his music are so varied pretty simply; there were lots of types of music around in L.A., and he liked it all. His relatives include an Andy Warhol girl and a Fluxus artist, so he has the pedigree to offer up some art-y excuse, but Beck, to my knowledge, doesn’t try to defend his approach. The music, which is awesome, speaks for itself.
The flip side of the coin has Jack White’s pale face on it, and it’s constantly blabbing on about “everyone’s in costume, not just me” and “everyone stole blues riffs from everyone”. Every new White Stripes album comes with a press junket about Jack and Meg’s relationship, a relationship that became unnecessary mythology to accompany the music.
If White wants it to be grand theater, that’s his right, but his defending of his style is constant; I now associate his music with his whining.
Too bad, really, because I do like The Dead Weather’s music. Every song is jangly, syncopated, and funky, with effects that, although almost cloying if you listen to the whole album, paint the songs in a sonic palette that you would expect to find in a steampunk submarine. I think I like Sea Of Cowards better than Horehound, but seriously, hearing Jack White singing instead of Alison Mosshart on the first track made me cringe. Can’t help it.
This is the part where Michael Gira destroys Matt Berninger. Or so I thought.
The first time I heard a song from The National was when a version of “Afraid Of Everyone” was leaked from French radio, an act that seems so singularly pretentious that I am surprised that I didn’t have to pull my car over and burn into a fiery, French-murdering phoenix. My next thought? “Swans Lite”. This was an opinion made entirely from the fabrics of baritone voices and depressing lyrics, stitched with the golden thread of my hipster backlash (people ranking about a 7 on the hipster scale were creaming over this song).
An unfair analysis. Sort of. The National does have a baritoned singer that adds a lost-in-the-bass-and-toms mystery to the character singing the maudlin lyrics. What made my first impression so weak was, mainly, how different that leaked version was to the album version. The album version is heavily orchestrated and more climactic, with more instruments to balance out the deep voice of the singer.
The whole album, High Violet, is prettily orchestrated, etherial and broad, with swift motors of drumming and strumming adding the more aggressive mood. The songs typically build and climax through its entire length, with lyrics like “I thought I would eat your brains, because I’m evil.” Sounds like a Swans album, right? The songs are too short to take full advantage of the technique; some of the added orchestrations only appear in the last minutes, and adding something in the last fifth of a song is more effective if the song is nine minutes long compared to four.
The lyrics are more “weighty and aching” than the “HEAVY EVIL EVIL” you get with the Swans. There is also a real rock-song sensibility to The National, compared to the art-y endeavors of the Swans. Listening backwards through the catalog of The National you can tell they came to this sound organically, but High Violet is certainly the most Swans-sounding of them all.
I like The National. I very much love Swans. No doubt who would win if I was to just rank them against each other. In the context of self-awareness, though, The National gets the advantage. For two reasons:
Michael Gira went waaaaaaay out of his way to talk about the recent reforming of Swans not being “a dumbass reunion” or bit of nostalgia, even going so far as to say that fans of the old sound will be disappointed. If Tim Thompson and Billy Corgan had a baby, these would be his first words.
Also, I think The National might be in on the joke; in High Violet, two different songs have “swans” in the lyrics. That can’t be coincidence. If they knew the Swans comparisons would come and put those lyrics in on purpose? Balls. I salute them.