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.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Do You Remember What the Music Meant to You? To Me? -- Pretty Girls Make Graves

Only once in a great while do I get in on the ground floor of an act. It's rare, because I wander in too many directions at once to focus long enough to expand completely on any direction. A new band in a genre, or from a label is a rarity for me, because I'm too stuck on each band or artist I start myself on. The exceptions generally come from two places: opening acts at live shows (I can happily note that I knew OK Go before their famous treadmill dance video, before they were even signed, for that matter) or when a band breaks up and I catch wind of what this or that member happens to be doing. There was no moment better for this than the early 2000's as I was leaving high school. My two new favourite bands, At the Drive-In and The Murder City Devils both broke up, and I was too much a neophyte to music in general to yet be overwhelmed, so when I heard about side projects, it actually connected and stuck. While At the Drive-In turned into The Mars Volta and Sparta, The Murder City Devils seemed to generally dissipate quite completely. Briefly, vocalist Spencer Moody, drummer Coady Willis, and guitarist Nate Manny formed a band named Dead Low Tide, releasing an EP, seeming pretty quiet and then breaking up, only then putting out their self-titled full-length.

A little more on the side, MCD bassist Derek Fudesco had reunited with Andrea Zollo (who you may remember did backing vocals for the Devils once or twice) to form Pretty Girls Make Graves, named for the Smiths song (in turned name for a Kerouac quote). Like Dead Low Tide--and thus mirroring the At the Drive-In descendants movements, EPs first--Pretty Girls released a self-titled EP of four songs in 2001. Following shortly thereafter was the debut full-length, Good Health, on April 9th, 2002. Apparently major indie label Matador took over the album's distribution sometime (from original label Lookout! Records) and dropped the EP on it, which is news to me and means my failure to ever collect the original EP in physical form might be rectified more simply.

This is where I really come into the story, which is silly considering this is my story (in a sense), but nevermind that. Once again, eMusic played a big role in this--Lookout! was one of the labels working with eMusic at the time (at one point I suggested the place to label Kranky, but they told me, in some of the nicest e-mails I ever got, that it simply wasn't financially viable, which made me want to buy more of their releases) and so I downloaded my legal copy of Good Health with a shrug one day in college and listened to it. Then immediately listened to it again. I was kind of in awe: normally I'm not one for immediate impressions (indeed, anyone who reads many entries will know this, and my recall that at the time I made brief mention of this album). At the Gates' Slaughter of the Soul, though I came to it during what I'm told was a glut of Swedish-styled melodic death metal, was another that I listened to again immediately as its hooks went in without hesitation.

Good Health, though, has maintained its energy for me in all this time. It hasn't got the immediacy and surprise (naturally) it once did, but it still moves. There's something breathtaking about how perfectly paced it is, how exactly it is cut in time to a punk/hardcore album length of 27:37, the way my favourite song on the record bleeds out into an untitled outro track (a possible pattern for me--my favourite song of all time, "The Fastest Man Alive" does the same thing, though its outro track is titled: "It's Obvious What's Going On Here"), the way that it pushes and pushes, takes only the slightest of breaks, and even the songs have the exact right ebb and flow for my personal tastes. It holds up throughout to this day for me.

Nevermind my babbling for the moment, let me drop the first track on you, since PGMG did me the kindness of making a video for it:

"Speakers Push the Air" immediately sets the tone: melodic hooks, strong keyboards, slashing guitars, bouncing bass with an edge and Zollo's singing interspersed with some Bikini Kill-style anthemic, part monotone, part off-key shouts on her part, and the lower-mixed male members of the band (Fudesco, J. Clark and Nathan Thelen also on guitar, and Nick Dewitt also drumming) used as definitive backing vocals in a very clever way to emphasize Zollo's roll as lead singer.

"If You Hate Your Friends, You're Not Alone" immediately kicks things to even more anthemic heights, with climbing, spiraling, jagged guitars under angrier, sarcastic vocals from Zollo, only to fall back, to the opening of "Sad Girls Por Vida," where DeWitt stops the band on a dime to open, creating the perfect space for a breath before the still energetic but lowered tempo of the third song's full length.

From here, things break to a single, staccato, repeated guitar lick which is suddenly joined by the rest of the band, including a sliding guitar line underneath for the pseudo-balladry of my favourite track on the album: "The Get Away." The song is of a young couple breaking away from family and home to escape everything, with an endearingly naïve or desperate view of things, feeling they will be okay, "just as long as it's us." It eventually bleeds away into a burbling, muted version of the spiky guitar lick that opens and closes the song, as the untitled outro track begins, eventually backed with a much warmer dynamic to the melody, eventually a pleasantly bumpy bongo-style drum machine beat wanders in underneath it until the whole thing melts away.

It's true, none of the rest of it lives up to this, but it couldn't. And, for once, this isn't to say, "Wow, a blistering open and then it peters out." No, it keeps going as strong, but there's just no way to match that progression of songs. There's not a thing wrong with what follows.

Pretty Girls Make Graves continued past this album, releasing the more mature and fully-realized The New Romance in September the following year, losing only the energy and ridiculous freshness of their debut (which everyone from Christgau to Pitchfork rated stupendously high, I'm shocked, in my cynicism, to find--though their grades for this follow up reflect a similar stance to my own). Keyboards have less a role and add a little less flavour to the whole as well, but for some reason I constantly think I gave in and bought this album on vinyl (I didn't, but I always check, thinking I did. Actually, I'm thinking I did right now, and going to go check. It's very silly. Nope--straight from Portishead to Mirror Moves). It spawned two singles:

 "All Medicated Geniuses"

"This Is Our Emergency"

April 11, 2006 (earlier for both Australia and the UK, interestingly, for an American band) saw the release of their last album, Élan Vital, which I really liked the colour scheme for:

By now, however, Thelen had left the band and been replaced by Leona Marrs, though she did not play guitar, she took on keys-related roles (keyboards, piano, accordion, melodica) and more backing vocals. It's immediately audible through a much free-er sound that the reduced guitar section has an effect on their sound, spacing things a bit more in general, and following The New Romance into similarly slowed energy. Two contrasting and occasionally competing guitars often formed an interestingly controlled mess to their music before, but now things were cleaned and sharpened. I remember my first impressions of the album came primarily from the feeling of two songs:

"Parade" has a startlingly overt political implication, unusual for this band, whose first album seemed like a look at adolescent (in a non-condescending way from me or them) concerns. Sure, it's two albums on, but calling out "Strike!" in the midst of a song is unusually blatant. The first time through I only heard bits and pieces of the words and thought it was a rejection of female gender roles, but it became much clearer later (though, certainly, I think it can work in that direction as well, but with a focus on things like fair pay, perhaps).

"The Nocturnal House" starts with that echo-y, single, repeated whistle blow. That made for one of the times a first album listen--as the song opens the album--made me turn to my stereo and look at it slightly confused, but generally with a sort of smiling bemusement. THIS was Pretty Girls Make Graves? Both it and "Parade," though, exemplify the more spacious and open arrangements of this album, which always give me the feeling of being performed in a comfortable and lived-in but empty and austere brick-walled room. I don't often get impressions of recording venues (naturally, 99% of these impressions are, I realize, utterly insane, because even most independent stuff that reaches wide distribution is, barring live material, recorded in at least a jerry-rigged studio), but this is one of them. It's a slight variant on my impression of Rilo Kiley's Under the Blacklight from a few years later.

Two years after the release of Élan Vital, Nick DeWitt, their drummer, left the band and it fell back to pieces. I don't know a thing about most of the groups they split into, other than J. ("Jason" by the way) Clar, who joined with Johnny Whitney and Cody Votolato of The Blood Brothers to form Jaguar Love, though after one self-titled EP and an album (Take Me to the Sea, August 19, 2008), Clark left the band and they toured as vocals, drum machine and guitarist from then on (for those horrified by Johnny's vocals, I can only note my own personal pleasure at three bands fronted by that falsetto screeching, the third being Neon Blonde, that I own releases by).

It was a much quieter passing for me, perhaps because it was a band I took interest in for their connection to another, or perhaps because I'd already worn out my passion for the ever-unstable nature of most bands.

Still, Good Health is always worth a listen, and I strongly recommend picking it up.

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