Musings on music, old, new, popular and obscure. Post punk, metal, hip-hop, funk, and rock in general. A music fan with a desire to lose boundaries on what should and should not be listened to writes about experience in music from a listener's perspective, hopefully unhindered by prior expectation.

Monday, March 5, 2012

We Are the Followers, We Are the Trusted Fuel, They Are Unstable and the Exception to the Rule

In naming this blog, I thought I ought to find a phrase that was not too long or complicated somewhere in music, quite probably something I could tweak in the usual fashion to make it fit and hold some kind of reference for people to chuckle at, or perhaps just nod knowingly. In the end, I know one person who knew immediately where I derived it from, and probably only the one. Two possible exceptions, but generally I picked something obscure--not my first thought, but it seemed most appropriate all the same. My object in music is to dig out the gold, the bright spots and the curiosities and interesting things, rather than to spend my time shaking my head at the volumes of dirt and sneering at how much it's alike or how dry and easily crumbled it is, or, well, anything so negative. Finding it and finding it interesting was and is my primary goal when it comes to music.

The title of this blog is a reference to the "single" (such as it is) from a small Brooklyn, NY band's third album: "The Gold We're Digging" from Parts & Labor's Mapmaker. Sadly, just a few days ago, they broke up on their tenth anniversary. It was an interesting run--to say the least--but not an unexpectedly shortened one. It's not the sort of music that happily jumps up along next to many others, and a few changes in approach and line-up didn't serve to help this along. That album, though, is one I'd sincerely have to call a "desert island disc," and I hate those lists. I consistently referred to it, without hesitation, as the best album in the year of its release (2007).

Parts & Labor were dropped in my lap by someone whose name is likely to meander in and out of this blog, my former manager during my stint at a Borders, Gerald. He handed me a nicely replicated burnt copy of the album, saying only, "Here, music to melt your brain," with a lopsided smile and, in retrospect, some measure of mischievousness, I think.

Melt my brain? What could that mean? Well...take a look. Here's the video for the very song that this blog is titled after:

Parts & Labor were effectively a three-piece for most of their career, with occasional live secondary members  (like Sarah Lipstate and Tom Martin on guitar), but basically centered around the two primary songwriters: BJ Warshaw and Dan Friel. They began their recorded career with the ultra independent Groundswell in 2003 and drummer Jim Sykes, moved on to Joel Saladino and a split long-player¹ (with Tyondai Braxton of Battles) called Rise Rise Rise the same year. I'll be honest and say I missed both of these albums and haven't heard a bit of them, though that will undoubtedly change when I can manage to do so.

In 2006, P&L redesigned themselves with the addition of drummer Christopher Weingarten, a music writer for Rolling Stone and The Village Voice. Vocals were not, I understand, a heavy interest on their first releases--indeed, the first album is entirely instrumental. Stay Afraid changes this, as it becomes something more like a noisy pop band than a noise-rock band.

Mapmaker, though, is the apex. Perfectly produced for their style, Weingarten's drums are far more in-your-face and manage to somehow sound like the power of John Bonham set to extreme metal drumming. Rapid, powerful and strong, shifting and unique, at least in this context, the effect is simultaneously a draw and a curiosity. It manages to catch your attention without distracting so much that the rest of the music is lost. If forced to pick favourite tracks, I inevitably find myself lost--it's too difficult to narrow it. The album is blisteringly brilliant from start to finish, rolling through music that sounds nothing like anything else I've ever heard. I can't recommend it highly enough, even knowing it will confuse and repulse many listeners. One of the handful of albums I've deliberately bought on both vinyl and CD, because I just love it that much. The lyrics are intelligent and interesting, not just a random backdrop for their music.

P&L released two more albums after Mapmaker, but Weingarten left and was replaced by Joe Wong, a very efficient and strong drummer, but one more willing to deal with nuance of volume.² I feel very bad about it, but something was lost with Weingarten--but, then, he drummed on Stay Afraid, and that album is nothing to Mapmaker either. In fact, I'd easily suggest Receivers (2008) and Constant Futures (2011) over it, given the chance.

Receivers actually has one of my favourite P&L songs on it, "Wedding in a Wasteland," but that doesn't change much, to be honest. Constant Futures also has some great tracks, and both albums prove that, Friel's squawks and skronks fit perfectly with cleaner production, as do cleaner vocals from both of them.

It seemed, though, mostly like the the earlier album was a confusion of two songwriters coming together, muddied by production choices, and the later ones had a tendency to delineate too clearly which writer and vocalist was behind a given song. Perhaps it's because Dan Friel followed his earlier solo EP (Sunburn) with an album (Ghost Town) while BJ Warshaw released one as Shooting Spires (self-titled) after Mapmaker came out. Maybe it was the shift in producers. I can't be sure. And I hate to be negative in any way: none of their albums--of those I've heard, though I doubt the other two are any different--are bad. It's not my way to say, "Oh, this band lost their way and needs to re-record that old album," nor to immediately feel that anything and everything a band does is automatically good because I like the band and have to be "loyal."

So, I guess--maybe they told us that they were the followers and some nebulous "they" were the unstable and exceptional ones, but I think it was actually Parts & Labor themselves to fit this description.

To commemorate the band and give you more resources, I'm going to give us a nice, good-old fashioned link-dump to follow this all:

Parts & Labor 2002-2012.
Requiescat in Pace.

¹For the less familiar with independent music and its approach, splits were a common 1980s, 1990s and 2000s approach to releases where two bands would each release a few songs, typically on either side of a vinyl record. Some of my favourite bands have done this, like At the Drive-In, The Murder City Devils, and, most delightfully, Jawbox and Jawbreaker. Nothing like worrying someone is going to think you're an idiot while working to separate out two similar band names, only to find they released a split 7" together. Heck, they actually both did tracks on the same R.E.M. tribute album, too.

²Apparently, Weingarten's personal need to play loudly influenced his departure, as P&L rarely played any very large venues, and the oppressive volume of their shows at the time would drive people off.

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