Sunday, August 19, 2012


I'm really looking forward to seeing the results of Pitchfork's "The People's List" when they start appearing on Wednesday. It'll be interesting to see what the balance is between "we know these are the important albums/great albums" (not the same thing, obviously, though often grouped together and even more often used as the guiding criteria for these kinds of lists) and genuine surprises, revelations, re-evaluations, etc. There's been a certain canon of indie that's crept up around Pitchfork over the fifteen years it's been around, and though that canon and the breadth of genres that contribute to it have expanded (in both good and bad ways), this seems like a moment of confirmation for that canon. In one sense, this list might actually rekindle a certain sense of "importance" that people feel is a diminishing aspect of music criticism and music writing. 

I won't start guessing at trends or trying to figure what those important albums might be, but one pleasant sign I've noticed from the lists I've seen so far is widespread love for the Dismemberment Plan's Emergency & I and one surprise has been the love for Sonic Nurse and Rather Ripped as the albums representative of Sonic Youth's second wind in the '00s. I went back and forth on whether to go with Sonic Nurse or Murray Street on my list, but "Karen Revisited/Karenology" carried the day. I was definitely not expecting to see Rather Ripped on as many lists as I have, nor was I expecting the total absence of The Eternal. One Sonic Youth related turn of events that I'd half-hoped would come to pass because of its potential for humour was a massive show of support for NYC Ghosts & Flowers that would see the recipient of one of the more damning reviews in Pitchfork's history suddenly held up as one of its readers' favourites. A missed opportunity, universe, but oh well (that was probably a little too far-fetched to hope for on my end, because aside from "Free City Rhymes" and the title track, nothing on that album is particularly great).

One album that compiling my list has made me go back and revisit--and which I'd been meaning to re-listen to anyway because bits of it have kept popping into my head recently--is the For Carnation's self-titled album from 2000. A pretty underrated and underacknowledged bit of American post-rock, it really is a gem, working the ground between folk, jazz, and rock largely by playing on the ideas about space and silence found in each genre. The songs often swing (not surprising given the help from Tortoise alumni), but gently, and for an album that relies as heavily on repetition as it does, it leans on the nagging rather than insistent side. It's also seriously quiet, to the point of almost non-existence at times--this is an album of dramatic pauses and calm-before-the-storm hushes that end up revealing themselves to be the storm. Most reviews talk quite rightly about the strong sense of dread and air of tension that permeates the release--and given the connections to Slint, that makes sense--but there's much more in common here with "For Dinner. . ." than "Good Morning, Captain." The album's not gothic in the way that Spiderland is, though it's very much a nighttime album--that the closer is called "Moonbeams" makes perfect sense, as do the intimate vocals. Most of this different sense of tension and dread comes from that focus on space and silence; where Spiderland is full of guitars, the For Carnation relies on the drums to carry the lead (quite literally on "Being Held") and various electronics to provide what colour there is. 

"Being Held"

For all that the album follows its own path, it's remarkably listenable: never slow despite the patience involved in the construction of the songs, and quite easy to fall under the spell of--there's mystery and suspense, which makes the whole thing seductive. In many ways, it's like Bark Psychosis' Hex in that you never really notice how strange or experimental the album as a whole might be because entering into its logic is so natural. On its own, "Being Held" is bizarre: a weird bell/siren, some dissonant keyboard washes, and a drum solo; taken in the context of the album, though, it feels every bit as natural and as songlike as "A Tribute To" and "Snoother," though both are more obviously "songs" in the traditional (which in this case, I guess, is taken to mean rockist) view. Indeed, "Snoother" is one of the highlights of the album, at once the most overtly jazzy and poppy song, a delicate waltz with some fantastic backing vocals by Rachel Haden shadowing Brian McMahon; when the pair sing "We are no less removed / than for that which she is known," my heart melts. The emptiness of its verses coupled with the sparseness of its instrumental section makes for one of the few moments during which the tension relaxes over the course of the album, but the droning organ (?) in the background throughout carries the dreaminess of the song into appropriately haunting and haunted territory.


"Snoother" is followed by "Tales (Live From the Crypt)," the album's other highlight. Where "Snoother" was sparse, "Tales" is full, the busiest mix on the album, a weird amalgam of a pounding, almost post-punk intensity with science fiction synths (at times sounding right out of the Dr. Who theme) and a vocal performance that manages in its deadpan manner to go beyond Spiderland's darkest moments. Kim Deal's ghostly introduction to the song is a nice scene setter, especially with the way that the bassline seems to launch the song into the abyss after her final word. Everything that was bubbling under the surface of the album's first half comes to light here, though the dynamics feel very different from the standard rock explosion of tension. After this, "Moonbeams" is an aftermath, a ruin, and though the music threatens to become redemptive at times, the album trails off into sullen silence, anxiety looming large over everything.

"Tales (Live From the Crypt)"

I'm not expecting the For Carnation to place highly on "The People's List." I would actually be surprised if it placed at all, though I hope it does. I found out about Slint when I was starting high school, and, for whatever reason, the first thing I checked out after Spiderland and Tweez was the then newly released self-titled album by the For Carnation. Where my passion for Spiderland has faded a little over time (and my Spiderland t-shirt was stolen by an ex-girlfriend), I've remained consistently enchanted by the For Carnation. I doubt I could make a case for its importance or greatness if measured by influence--I've never heard anything else that sounds like it, nor have I heard or seen a band mention the For Carnation in an interview. What I can say is that the album means a great deal to me and that certain parts--the harmonies in "Snoother," the strings in "Emp. Man's Blues," the opening of "Tales (Live From the Crypt)"--are burned into my brain, coming forth from time to time to serenade me. If nothing else, it remains an intriguing, quiet road that few bands seem interested in traveling down. I'm waiting, but I doubt that anything will ever top it at what it does.

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