Reviews of Others

A funny thing happens when you listen to an album made by someone who is clearly more emotionally healthy than you.  The album plays and you sense the presence of a suggested emotion, only this emotion is strange and unfamiliar.  You just kinda stand there with a stupid look on your face like you’re in a Tokyo hotel room with an American hair dryer and god damn it, the thing just isn’t plugging in.

Such a state of affairs presents an odd sort of challenge to such an album, well-adjusted as it is.  Namely, is my cynical ass going to dismiss this as vacuous fluff, or recognize its inherit artistry despite my jealousy over the mental health from whence it came?

I am happy to say that Ghost of Electricity is neither fluffy nor vacuous.  I found myself enjoying it.  And it’s not because I sidestepped its emotional landscape by focusing on things like production, sound choice and arrangement, though Ghost of Electricity has created a very beautiful thing here just in terms of aesthetics.  No, I was able to let go of my dysfunctional resentments and listen to it not once, not twice, but thrice.

What makes me arch my eyebrow the highest (the right eyebrow, the approving eyebrow, not the condescending left eyebrow) is the extent to which Ghost of Electricity never shows its hand.  This album is undeniably electronic, but the electronics mostly lurk in the background.  The majority consists of acoustic instruments, and atmospheric backdrops of sound from places that occupy space and time.  Outside places.

And then we get to the songs themselves.  Sung skillfully and proudly, wearing big billowing reverb and nothing else, most of the album consists of songs that could readily work with traditional arrangements.  Indeed, a song such as ‘Fly’ is so good that one wonders whether Ghost of Electricity felt compelled to give it some crowd-pleasing guitars and drums, lay it out on a fancy plate and see what it could do in a typical pop context.  Instead he downplays its capacity as a pop song, and lets the listener figure it out for himself.  Several of the songs begin with canned applause, which I think I might find offensively cute in a lot of circumstances, and yet it’s actually charming as I think it’s meant to be.

Most importantly, even if I didn’t let this album seduce my whatever, even if I had rejected its emotional context entirely, I think I would still have liked it just for how well thought-out and complete it sounds.  Every element sounds deliberate, and yet it all effortlessly hangs together.  Synth bass and toy piano, hanging out like a dog and cat who met too young to realize that they might not have a lot in common.  It left me feeling like I’d just stuffed myself with candy of which I enjoyed every bite, and yet I don’t have the slightest concern about some dark and diabetic future.  And besides, it would have still been worth it anyway.

There’s something about a distorted guitar.  It’s The Best Part of Waking Up.  It’s the first ball game of summer.  It’s finding out school is cancelled, rolling over in your bed, and blissfully going back to sleep.  It might be music’s greatest cliche, and it’s still just fundamentally awesome.

Grant Valdes knows this to be true.  And this isn’t the only thing he knows about music, either.  He knows that ears get jaded.  He knows that when the mind hears solemn acoustic guitar arpeggios, it quickly begins to hierarchize.  So when ‘Lord, Don’t Take the Sun’ begins in this fashion, Grant Valdes knows what has to happen in order to combat such preconceptions.  Don’t be misled by the plaintive folky intro; you’re about to have your balls rocked off.

I’m not talking about Quiet-Loud-Quiet, either.  I know a thing or two about preconceptions myself; having read the preceding paragraph, a skeptic might be thinking, ‘Oh, okay.  Right.  It’s gonna get loud, isn’t it?  We’re talking about dynamics that were rote before we were born, and we’re pretending it’s something new, right?’  No, you snobby dick head, this song is far more nuanced.  Grant is no ham-fisted necrophile of grunge rock.  Loud guitars do come, but they wait until they’re welcome.  ‘Lord, Don’t Take the Sun’ goes from plaintive to arch-one-eyebrow groovy, and then steps back into plaintive just long enough to give the listener a grin and a wink; you’re in the hands of a master, and those hands are silky-smooth.

When the distorted guitar arrives, I swear to God it might be the loudest thing I’ve ever heard.  It’s so loud it makes you blink your eyes.  And then it’s gone, and you’re only one song into the album, with absolutely no idea what comes next.

The second song on an album bears a heavy burden.  The first song is over, the listener liked it enough not to turn it off, and now the listener is about to decide whether or not they’re listening to an Album, or One Good Song and another ten tracks of packing peanut filler.  The Second Song is the make-or-break song.  As a music fan, I often wonder at how many good songs have escaped my attention as a result of burial beneath one or more shitty songs.

I am happy to say that Coward’s Blues does not suck.  It’s up-tempo, with the kind of vocal melody you can fall in love with.  Coward’s Blues primarily consists of vocals, acoustic guitar and drums;  these three elements do not typically equal angst, but if one has to pick an emotion to describe this song, angst is a fairly good one.  Coward’s Blues is a song written in negative space.  Its instrumentation is pastoral, and yet this is a deeply nasty song.  The drums are up front and center and busy; the drunkest, snottiest punk alive couldn’t bash a snare more effectively.  The cymbals blur together to form a kind of white noise subtext to everything.  Is this the origin of its nastiness?  No; it merely contributes.

This is the kind of song that intimidates songwriters.  If you write any kind of music that can broadly be described as ‘pop’, you’re weaned on the typical verse-chorus-verse structure.  Tension rises, tension explodes, rises, explodes, and eventually stops.  Coward’s Blues is highly melodic, but it doesn’t have a chorus.  Despite this fact, it isn’t repetitive in the slightest.  You might not even notice it doesn’t have a chorus until you’ve heard it a few times.  Coward’s Blues is the kind of song that gives other songwriters asthma attacks.

Scarcity has a harmonica.  I have to profess that I mostly detest the harmonica.  I think it’s about as musical as a dentist’s drill, and yet it tries to hang out with other palatable instruments as if it belongs.  Harmonica?  Harmony-ca?  Shrillica, even screechica, but no, not harmony-ca.

Despite my strong feelings in regards to this instrument, Grant employs the harmonica rather like a melodica.  It’s in the distance, it ducks in and out, it’s actually understated.  Usually harmonica is the obnoxious drunk guy at the party with his shirt off and a drunk tank in his near future…I could go on.

Scarcity has a lot going on.  Two vocals, bass, drums, banjo, acoustic guitar, harmonica, and even handclaps all make an appearance, and there still manages to be a lot of room in this song.  Really, this is the kind of thing Sinatra could have sunk his teeth into.  There’s a self-assured understated pseudo-swagger to the song; it knows you’re going to love it before the singer’s even opened his mouth.  Despite its orchestration, this song could be song a cappella and be no worse for the wear.  And when the hand claps come in, you’re gonna want to be fucking something ASAP.  You’ll see what I mean.

‘Mutiny’ is a very apt song title: it tells the tale of a singer driven to frustration and fury by a low salary and a deplorable working environment.  If ‘Scarcity’ is an anthem, ‘Mutiny’ is a musical number, the kind of thing Mack the Knife might have sang in prison if he had gone postal instead of homicidal.  And then Grant Valdes screams like a metal singer.  But with one big difference: he doesn’t sound like an asshole when he does it.  That, and he only screams for a few seconds.  Rather than, you know, the entire album.

You just don’t hear this kind of album when you listen to music created by your peers.  It’s well beyond their abilities, I must say.  This isn’t a slight, either; some of those peers have something going on that’s worthy of a few ears.  Brownout honestly eclipses all of that.   Brian Wilson wrote music like this for a little while, and then gained two hundred pounds, built a sandbox around his piano and drove his car around a cul-de-sac for thirty years.

Towards this end, Streetcorner Waltz is the kind of song few attempt.  And if they do, it’s a pastiche, a kind of diversion intended to stick out as a kind of intermission or interlude, something not meant to be considered as anything more.

Because of this, Streetcorner Waltz in the hands of another musician would not make it past their DAW; it  needs some strings?  Google “realistic strings”, download the first viable link, and that’s the story and fate of a song like Streetcorner Waltz.  Hell, Billy Corgan did a song like this on Melancholy and the Infinite Sadness, and even he made sure to have the song lead off the album.  It was explicitly “intro” in nature, a self-conscious aberration.  When I first listened to Streetcorner Waltz, I had to stop it and start it over again because I wasn’t sure what the hell was actually happening.  Did Grant Valdes stick an instrumental with live instrumentation (consisting in part of violins, no less) in the middle of his rock album?  What the fuck?

Yes he did, and it completely works.  I have visions of some classically-trained virtuoso snob some day trying to talk shit to Grant Valdes’ face, and I see Grant shoving Streetcorner Waltz into his ears and eyes and mouth and throat.  I must point out that Streetcorner Waltz is not a violent song, despite this violent imagery.  That one’s on me.

Really, Streetcorner Waltz reminds me of when I was a little kid first getting into music.  I had zero frame of reference, I knew not of genres or theory or time signatures or whathaveyou.  I found a piece of music that resonated with me, and I listened to it on repeat for days.  It was beautiful, and that’s all it needed to be.  I didn’t need to question it; I never even thought to do so.  This is the kind of song that cannot exist in a form in which it doesn’t work.  You could whistle it.  You could do some kind of Johnny Winters guitar-gasm solo with it.  You could plink it out note-by-note on a piano in a dark room at 3 a.m.  You could play it on a synthesizer, add a deep kick and get people to take ecstasy to it.  It’s One Hell of a Melody.  If you gave your young child a toy casio and he played Streetcorner Waltz’s melodic line on it, you’d have that kid in Vienna before he was old enough to ride a bike.  Look-when the violins fall and rise at 1:36 to 1:37, you are hearing music that very few people can make.  And yet it’s oh so effortless.  I’d be jealous if it wasn’t so damn beautiful.

Elegy gets short shrift to some extent because it falls between Streetcorner Waltz and the walk-off grand slam of Permanent Blackout.  Grant seems to know this, and Elegy functions as a kind of soporific.  Or perhaps it’s a moment to catch one’s breath.  It reminds me of a song by Low; very austere, male and female vocals, and slow-paced.  Sad, I guess, but in equal measures stoic.

This is also the kind of review I would write for a song I didn’t like if I felt overly concerned about hurting its’ writer’s feelings.  But this is not the case.  There is something inscrutable about this song; it has a kind of haze about it.  The vocals are little more than a whisper.  It reminds me of a hangover.  Towards the end of the song, the drums get rather busy and the whisper becomes grim.  The tension builds, but Valdez pulls back from a big huge chorus; the drums end not long before the song ends too.  The waters are murky, and you just kind of see the slick humped back of some kind of horrid mythical creature, but it’s gone before you can trust what your eyes are seeing.  And then you stop caring one way or the other, because Permanent Blackout is on.

The first time I listened to Brownout, Permanent Blackout was the first song that really hit me.  I wasn’t sitting down and focusing on listening to the album; I was doing something else, and had just thrown it on to get a feel for it.  I was casting in the lure and seeing if it caught.  This song was where it caught.  Again there’s a harmonica, but once again it isn’t at all obnoxious.  I’ve listened to this song probably twenty times, and the harmonica still hasn’t given me a migraine.

In order to best convey my feelings about Permanent Blackout, I have to relate a story.  Once upon a time, I lived in LA for about three months.  I went on one date while I lived there; she was an animator I met at a shitty bar, and on our date she took me to a trendy bar in one of the many trendy parts of LA for an open mic night.  Except it wasn’t an open mic night; four or five musicians had become entrenched at this particular bar and perverted what was once an open mic night into basically a variety show.  I kept checking for TV cameras, and I’m pretty sure they kept checking for them, too.  These five kids were perma-smiling, the men were tastefully unshaven with one or two tasteful tattoos and tastefully shabby caps, and the lone female wore leggings under a skirt.  This is the kind of shit I’m talking about.

They played these songs that were very painfully song-y.  I could read their thoughts: “God, please let there be an A&R guy in attendance.  God, I can’t pretend I’m happy much longer.  God, the sound of acoustic guitars and rhodes pianos is beginning to give me panic attacks”.  They were songs, I guess, but irreversibly mummified.  They all pined for someone or other, they were all Wistful with a capital ‘W’, and I can’t remember how a single one of them went.

Permanent Blackout is the song those five musicians had wished they’d written.  This song inhabits familiar territory; it yearns.  “Life sucks except for Girl, and Girl please stay”.  Unlike 99% of the songs like this, however, Permanent Blackout is fantastic.  One listen and you’ll be thinking of fall leaves and cold hands and your heart will get a stomach ache.  If anyone writes a song like this, they’re obligated to go out and play it at an open mic night.  It’s perfect for that kind of situation, albeit a little unfair.  Like an MLB player showing up to a little league game.

Frontyard Starlight sounds like the Magnetic Fields song that has been missing off of Stephin Merritt’s last five albums.  The vocal is very low; so low, in fact, that Valdes stops singing and just whispers a few low notes that are just too low.  It’s a neat little thing to do; he could have raised the song a step, but the song wanted to be in the key it’s in, and when Grant Valdes writes a song, the song has a mind and a voice.

Frontyard Starlight also features an accordion instead of a harmonica.  I think accordion sounds better than harmonica all the time every time, and it sounds fantastic here as it sketches a little melody that ascends in a peculiar sort of way.  It then ducks out of sight to let the bongos and guitars do their thing, only shuffling back in from stage right on a few occasions to add quiet emphasis.

The song starts off Magnetic Fields, but ends in a different place.  Stephin Merritt doesn’t sing about the kind of power Grant Valdes is referring to here.  For Merritt, power is a kind of love; here, Grant sings a refrain of ‘Powerdown, Powerdown, Powerdown’, a phrase commonly heard (though I dare you to describe one time where you can remember specifically hearing it), and usually it’s an inconvenience.  Here, however, it’s a wish.  Grant sings about a man who has gleefully disconnected from modern life; he celebrates with a Hunter S Thompson-sized quantity of mind altering substances.  And it’s a little spooky.  Something is ending; it could be the physical life of the singer, the metaphorical life of the singer, the world in which he lives, or any combination of the three.  One thing is certain, however-whatever’s ending, he’s cool with it.

Carpet of Streamers starts with a quiet croon, doubling the finger-picked acoustic guitar line.  And do I hear sleigh bells?  I think I hear sleigh bells.  Everything is far away and gradually gets closer; the bass, the female backing vocals, and the melody as it begins its upward descent.

Accordion and drums begin to play, but this is not the jump off; suddenly, a trombone appears, louder than anything else and panned to the right.  Quickly an electric guitar catches up with it; both instruments play a line, and then the vocals begin again.  They are more energetic now, and yet no closer; they are partially obscured by the dynamic shift, and the listener no doubt waits for them to establish themselves.  But they don’t.  The song ends.

 “they drag me off screaming through history, the present ain’t what it used to be.”

The album ends, and I am left wondering what I just listened to.  These songs could have been delivered with far more vitriol; however, their songwriter knows this is unnecessary.  There’s a lot to be said for reading the lyrics of a song that isn’t out of sight of a lullaby, only to read words like “they drag me off screaming”.  It’s a contrast, and it resists the semi-cop out of having the musical style mirror the lyrical content.  Only a good song can even begin to attempt doing this kind of thing, and here Grant Valdes has written nine songs that all do exactly that.

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