Wednesday, February 11th, 2009
“Split Lips, Winning Hips, A Shiner” took a long time to stick. A couple years ago, I was sent this record, listened to it obsessively for a few weeks and then decided to try and write about it. Only recently did I find this rough draft of a review way in the back of my gmail drafts box. I had abandoned the little essay early on — I was trying to write about something I didn’t understand:
Let me see if I can explain this album. It sounds something like a documentary in which a group of wild gypsy teens discover their voices, their bodies and the power and terror of being alive. In the landscape there are mountains of doubt, guilt, anger and skies of glowing rumination and these frantic humans flaying this landscape with an unabashed lust for movement. It’s tiring and tough and painfully personal; it’s like standing in the stream of a powerful water canon and bearing the pain of it long enough that the sensation burns to a soothe; it’s something like watching a house full of 5-year-olds tear about at their most reckless. There are moments you can smell the Juicy Juice and Oreos on Caila’s breath. It’s a force: It’s Punk, I guess. Well, it’s punk without the posture.
It’s all hand-to-hand – rarely grand without first being awkward, rarely pretentious without first eying the listener with suspicion: children groping for a railing, flinging their bodies up the stairs, calling ahead of them as they go. There’s a dense series of cellular happenings – the drama is miniaturized over and over, often leaving the listener’s capacity to rewind and fast-forward the key to smoothing out the story-telling. The vocals are simultaneously richly self-aware and childishly guttural – Caila ‘caw-caws’ her anthemic vulnerability with such attack as you’d hear on the play ground. The balance isn’t solely in the vocals, this is the pull of the instrumentation, the arrangements – this is punk in all it’s restlessness and pomp. “The Long Indifference” and “The Taste in My Mouth” maintain a refreshingly heavy aesthetic amid the airy play.
There are very few moments when it seems that Caila is singing to you – the album is dominated by half-revealed conversation, we see the band moving from the side, almost never head-on, almost never from behind. Even on the last track, seconds after a dramatic clarinet (I guess it’s a clarinet?) line, spoken over the cluck and clamor of percussion and strings someone says “never stopping” — there’s an unresolved argument over how private to treat the music: grand sentiment about planets and “tearing matter” gets sabotaged by apology: the aesthetic is something like converging planes of dirty Plexiglas scribbled and painted on and dangled in front of grand self portraits and journal pages. We’re at once intruding and being invited. And maybe this is the most startling aspect of this album: these pieces feel formally scripted one moment and entirely improvisational at others. Improvisational in that they play in severe subtlety. Formal in that there are moments when the whole current at once lifts and heaves in another direction — collective conscience. Both sides are wonderfully effective. The improv erases the memory of the formality, and the formal erases the idea that there’s been a moment unplanned. It’s beautiful. I come away from the album each time with gaps in my experience in which it seems like my imagination has taken over. Maybe this is the best music can attempt — to foster some new music in the mind of the listener.
I discovered a lot of my favorite music in the basement of the library when I was working on my undergrad degree. It was a place I went at night when I needed a break from things. There was a music room crammed with cds arranged in some super complicated numbering system — sometimes by composer, sometimes by performer, or by city, or by symphony number, or some other desultory system. Scrawled on the walls around the listening stations were notes about great moments of music on the cds — this was a system that tried to make sense of the cataloging behemoth. I heard the rumbling timpani of Berlioz’s requiem because the numbers told me it was a transcendent moment. I heard the moan of a pianist stuttering through Satie’s Gymnopedies and fell in love with Janet Baker’s interpretation of the final song in Mahler’s art song cycle. The particle board study carol in the library basement was my Rosetta Stone. So much of the music from the last 500 years was unlocked for me by these music miners.
“Split Lips, Winning Hips, A Shiner” required the sort of excavation that I imagine these library listening room decoders were involved in. I see Caila and the boys running to each other up out of a dark basement with their heads full of these brilliant little gestures, these little patterns and rhythms. The album revolves around miniature expressions but these moments of release are hard to recognize at first listen. It has taken me a while (2 years?!) to finish grappling with this record. There is a frenetic and palpable straightforwardness to the process: four performers making noise into microphones, distilling their muscles into a series of rehearsed phrases. In all of its fourteen tracks, this is an album as mysterious as the body, emblazoned by experience and hope, and playing with raw youthfulness — mud in the sink and a fire in the basement.