18 March, 2014

Recent Love (Not What I Was Expecting Edition)

Battlerat, S/T
OK, so first question: Is this the fucking Doors?
Alright, I know that sounds harsh but as much as it sounds like a backhanded compliment, it’s a straight forward compliment. You see, my history with the Doors is a long and troubled o- Fuck it, short version: I hated the fucking Doors until about somewhere in the window of three to six years ago. Now, for some reason, I think they’re probably one of the weirdest rock bands to exist; they incorporated elements of jazz, blues, bossa nova, meringue, psychedelia, country, polka, and then their singer was an oversexed junkie who read too much goddamned French poetry. That should not have been a rock band. That was a terribly misguided “world music” band. (“World music” being a terrifically terrible misnomer for a collection of musics that basically is limited to Baliwood soundtracks, West-African high life, and anything vaguely gypsyish or flirting with Klezmer music. Believe me, if this were the appropriate venue, I would go on an extended digression wherein I would lay out my whole “thing” about “world music” but I think I’m supposed to be reviewing a record.
And I should also close the parentheses.)
In fact, I’m pretty sure that last part didn’t need to be parenthetical but fuck it, man, it’s too late now and I’m going to write this up with a couple tallboys of Hamm’s and no delete key. To quote Papa Bear O’Reilly, fuck it. We’ll do it live.
So I get this email in my inbox, and it’s from a band called Battlerat.
I don’t know about you but when I see the name Battlerat, I’m expecting some skuzzy garage-metal from a couple nineteen year old stoners who met in welding class at the community college, playing single pickup Epiphones through Boss DS-1s into Peavey combos with beer can sweat rings staining the top of the tolex. Oh, and the drums are supposed to sound like shit. You remember how it was back then. The drums always sounded like shit, man. That was part of the appeal.
ANYhoo, I open the email thinking, “Alright, this thing is called Battlerat, I’m down.”
And then I read the body of the email and I think, “Fuck.”
Because - honesty time - the Battlerat I had just loved for point zero four seconds had changed, the relationship was different. I felt my trust had been dashed. This was Battlerat!? “… Celeste Heule, a multi-instrumentalist who writes her songs on piano, accordion, and saw”? Where’s Kyle, the guitarist with the two-day growth beard on guitar? Where’s Mikey, the guitarist they made play bass? Where’s Ed, the guy who can’t play drums but is only forty percent of why the drums sound like shit?
Fuck, man. This sounded like it was going to be world music. Who would dare hurt me like I was their personal karma chameleon?
“Ian Stenlund played guitar on tracks 1 & 9.”
Ian Rhombus, that’s who.
OK, so I trust Ian’s judgment.
But still, I was looking forward to a cover of “Spiral Architect”.
Now that we’ve gotten that out of my system, I go ahead and listen to the record. And, yes, my first reaction is, “Is this the fucking Doors?”
Why? Because it’s not “world music” nor is it straight forward rock music. It’s in that weird limbo between the two, instantly full bodied and dark but with plenty of nuance that helps set it apart from being a Doors rip-off and enough subtle sexuality (not a The Office reference) to associate it with one of rock’s greatest acts. That and I don’t know anything about Celeste, but I’m going to go out on a limb and assume she’s not a junkie.
So the record starts with “Deep Sea”, which establishes itself as a very forward, heavy bit of music without ever relying on getting mean or nasty or doing anything else most other bands do to be heavy. If anything, “Deep Sea” plays with a sense of dread the way a little kid plays with a toy: It keeps a death grip on it. “Deep Sea” is a two minute, twenty five second study in dread and paranoia and suspicion. And, believe me, I’m doing everything I can to not make a True Detective reference right now. Short version, if “Deep Sea” were a country, suspicion would be its currency.
By contrast, “The Slowest Song” takes me a moment to find the appeal because I instantly want to be a shithead and ask, “Is this the fucking Dresden Dolls?” But, you know, I take that moment, I give it a few listens, and realize I’m being disgenerous in that statement, frankly because, I mean let’s just check the fucking scoreboard: 1) Ms. Heule can actually sing, 2) whatever she’s singing about does not sound like ninth grade notebook bullshit, and 3) the arrangement for “The Slowest Song” blows just about the entire Dresden Dolls catalog out of the water. I’d also be willing to bet that Ms. Heule doesn’t pay her musicians in hugs. Sane people don’t do shit like that. Still, this song takes me a moment to get into on first listen.
OK, “Test the Water”? I initially ask, “Is this fucking Hall & Oates?” And I’m not trying to make a running joke, I mean I really hear strains of Hall & Oates. And when I say I hear strains of Hall & Oates, I mean “Private Eyes” or whatever that song is called because that’s the only song I know by them and when I say “Private Eyes” I mean I vaguely recall there being a song that sounded like this and I think it was “Private Eyes”. I don’t know, man, you know I don’t listen to Hall & Oates.
But to get to the point, “Test the Water” belongs in a burlesque club, preferably in a southern state, you know, where it’s ninety degrees and ninety percent humidity in December and there’s nothing to do but sweat and swat mosquitoes. That’s what this song sounds like: Just total muggy heat where everybody is half naked for health reasons.
I am not going to make the “Is this fucking [blank]?” joke with “Try To Be Good”. First because I already made that joke three times and second because nothing comes to mind. But “Try To Be Good” is definitely the kind of song you want to hear when you’re hungover and you have to get your shit together before another night of revelry. And “But let’s remember the moon is watching…” is probably one of the prettiest lyrics I’ve heard three and a half months into this year. How come nobody writes lyrics like that anymore? How come Celeste Heule is the only one doing this? Christ, everybody listen to this record and take some goddamned notes. Really.
“Eggshell” starts and I’m all, “Is this fucking Nine Inch Nails?” and that’s before the electronic noises come in. It’s also the first song on the record, to my ears, to feature the bowed saw more prominently.
“A Hold”? Fuck you with “A Hold”. Jesus wept, she made drone / doom metal with accordion. Holy fuck, I’m going to hammer-murder somebody to this. This, this song. Fuck you. Fuck you, man, fuck you. Your band is not as good as this one song. I’m serious, I’m going to hammer-murder somebody because I finally found the soundtrack to that. I mean, we all knew that I was just waiting for the hammer-murder soundtrack before I hammer-murdered somebody. And then I’m going to make a body suit out of their goddamned skin, that’s what “A Hold” is.
This song, I want this song to be, I don’t know, at least ninety minutes longer. Just to outdo “Dopesmoker”.
Oh, shit! You know who would get their rocks off to this? Mikey from Pink City. Mike, you reading this? You need to hear this song.
(Having said that, I gush about mclusky and Mike’s all “meh” about them so I don’t know about his tastes.) (Actually, I do know about his tastes. Motherfucker isn’t into Pyromania, which means he’s pretty much wrong about everything.)
ANYhoo, I would like to officially request that Battlerat open and close their show at the 331 on 19 April with “A Hold”. Yes, I’m requesting in a public forum that a band play the same song twice. I promise to leave my hammers (yes, I own multiple hammers) at home.
I do not, however, promise to not throw the fucking horns.
This song is the best thing to happen to my life since Liz Lemon froyo.
Fuck all y’all. I need to hear this song a few more times, then we’ll get back to biscuits.
OK, next song…
“Sandfeathers”? Do I have to do the joke again? Because I really don’t want to. It’s good. I mean, it’s not “A Hold” good but, I mean, I rreeaallllyy like that song. Like I need a breather. And “Sandfeathers” is kind of that breather, I guess. I like the fuzz bass. Not a lot of people do the fuzz bass anymore. And you know, you could be the kind of dick that says some minimally educated bullshit about Ben Folds Five when you hear this drums / piano / fuzz bass arrangement and you’d be, admittedly, partly right but, arrangement wise, “Sandfeathers” is closer to Radiohead than Ben Folds Five, and even then, only close. The vocal arrangement owes more to old school Motown and Phil Spector records than anything English.
“I Did Not Wake Up” is probably the closest thing to contemporary indie rock a la the Current that this record approaches. It’s sparse and uptempo in all of the best British ways. Enough so that I want to draw comparisons to Gang of Four, my beloved Gang of Four, but honesty brings me back to the first (read: good) Franz Ferdinand record. Still, this song is enough to convince me that Ms. Heule has studied her English post-punk (and I have a diatribe on the word “post-punk” too but now is not the time or place). And, let’s just point out the elephant in the room: The snare roll at the end? That is so “Magnificent Seven” by the Clash.
For those of you keeping score at home: We’ve got a woman who makes some creepy ass doom metal on accordion and clearly listens to English punk in my presence. That means that I have to mind my goddamned manners.
I should probably stop cussing, too, but fuck it.
“Chalklines” is, uh… Is “jaunty” the word I’m looking for? I think I want to say “jaunty”. I’m kind of stuck with what I think of “Chalklines”. I like it, I just find myself unable to articulate what it is that I like about it. And, really, it’s not the go-to song on this record but it’s also not a throw-away. It’s like “Lounge Act” in that it’ll probably be the one song that nobody but the hardcore fans will talk about in ten years. It’s compositionally solid, it’s compelling, intriguing, even. But it’s one of those songs that’s just kind of, “What?”
“Dumb & Lonely” closes the record on a somber, almost-Queen note and solidifies Ms. Heule’s exhibition of talent on the record. She plays piano better than you, writes better songs than you, and sings better than you. “Dumb & Lonely”, if played in an arena, is the one where people are breaking out the lighters. It’s really kind of up there with Harvey Milk’s “The Anvil Will Fall”, I think, as that’s the only time I ever broke out my lighter at a rock concert.
So, overall? No. No, I would not check out this record unless somebody told me to. “So, wait, it’s piano, accordion, and musical saw? Nah, man. I aint trying to hear that.” Well, maybe that’s going a bit far. I mean, I like to think my tastes are varied, I’d like to think that I’d give this record a chance. But it’s like this - and please don’t think this aside has anything to do with Battlerat: I once heard this song on the radio and I, having never heard Bruno Mars and sure that I never wanted to, asked my friend, “Is this fucking Bruno Mars?” and she said it wasn’t and asked me if I wanted to hear some Bruno Mars. I caved into my prejudice and said that I was fine with never hearing Bruno Mars. Now, that she tortured me for the next six or seven seconds with Bruno Mars is not important, aside from the emotional trauma, the important part is that I’m a prejudiced person who gets a brief description of something and immediately decides that he doesn’t need it as a frame of reference.
So I read that Battlerat is going to be some piano / accordion bullshit and I figured that I’m going to suffer through this review. In all honesty, I’ve not found one thing on this record that I haven’t liked. There are things that I’ve had to work myself into, sure, and those things coexist with some “holy shit” moments. But the listening has been an exercise in me getting the fuck over myself and opening my mind a little more. And now here’s another record that I like and that I think you should like too.
Anyway, I know I’m requesting 19 April off from work.
And I’m leaving my hammers at home.

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