Lit and Crit:

MUSIC THAT MAKES ME CRY

BAND OF HORSES

 

A lyric in the Band of Horses' song "The Factory" sums up everything wrong in the universe to me:

 

"The elevator

in the hotel lobby

has a lazy door."

Band of Horses Make Me Cry

by Kevin Salveson

 

A lyric in the Band of Horses' song "The Factory" sums up everything wrong in the universe to me: "The elevator /in the hotel lobby/ has a lazy door."  Such a small detail, but emblematic.  You can just picture the two sheets of steel grating together like misaligned teeth grinding as they try to clatter closed over and over, the rubber bumper shuddering against the half-inch-off space between the floor and the chasm, each time rattling open again before making another go of it.

 

Some music you have to keep on the high shelf and only take down when your soul can bear it.  I tried to listen to Band of Horses the other day and had to get some toilet paper and stuff it in my nose to keep from gushing. (I even tried writing this to exorcise that feeling of emptiness and existential anxiety it gave me and had to set it aside for a few weeks until I felt settled down again).

 

Band of Horses give me the feeling of, well, I guess it's a little like what it might be to die after being sucked out of the airlock of a spaceship.  You wonder at the vast beauty of the universe, that cold airless frigid deathly beauty turning you to ice. (Or as Alexander Shulgin put it, after a drug trip to the same space, "A horrible ruthless love.")

 

I remember the first time I heard Band of Horses.  My buddy Jim had bought tickets to see them at The Wiltern.  I didn't know much about them, had missed the whole Twilight phenomenon.  (They broke out as a band commercially after the soundtrack was a hit, I think). Yet their slow burn and morning chirps set against dark skies, unique plaintive singing, sometimes forlorn (lorn, perhaps, before anything bad really had happened, but the storm was gathering), rattled my soul like a shuddering hotel elevator the first time I heard it sitting in the balcony of the Wiltern.

 

At the same time, while I attended the show, I knew that back home my father was dying.  He was already a ghost, living downstairs behind a golden black screen, but just as faulty as that elevator door.  Nature was cruel, the universe cared nothing of taking a life (as it spawned a million more motes of life in an instant).

 

Or, as Band of Horses put it:

 

 I used to see the night so anxious, but now I know

The only thing it ever taught me was a grand illusion

That comes and goes, the city blanketed of snow. 

 

What if we die, no end and no conclusion?

How could you smile, just walk away.

Well I don't know.

 

 

When I had quiet time I would lie down on my bed and put on their albums and hope for a moment of solace to make the illusion real by cutting to the heart of it.  Their songs carry a certain kind of lovely sadness and foreboding which I intuited. 

 

And take a little walk

when the worst is to come...

 

Yes, the worst was still coming.  It came like rain, it arrived everyday, until it was a flood, and there was more of it than the sewers could take.  Cancer, crime, competition, the constant struggle against the elements, a losing battle.

 

That dog he don't come around here anymore.

No, no-- the dog is gone, the dog is gone.

No, no-- the dog is gone, the dog is gone.

 

And yet it was a balm to find someone, some music, sympathetic to the pain you were enduring but which offered a little brotherhood and beauty to balance it.  They sang in an odd high pitch like a dog's whine, melodies that bubbled up odd bursts of emotion and then popped into air, minimal and understated but irridescent, hurt and harmonic.  Stately and elegiac, a little blues, a little folk, a little country mixed in with the alt-rock. 

 

Of course, county being the white version of the blues, these are sad folk songs almost fit for the church.  

 

WelI, I guess I just realized it.  These are religious songs. Not an organized religion, but offering the same comfort and dignity to a believer-- a congregation, a tragic worldview redeemed, some scriptures, noble sacrifices and finding peace amid the pain. Their guitars are churchbells; can't you hear them peal out their plaintive wail and confront the passion, the sad sad passion of all there is, and how it all goes away in the end, all on its way to breaking down and dying like the great lazy elevator door of the universe?  Every day, they're "ready for the funeral. " Listen to the organ murmur its condolences.  Entropy will claim us all, yet there is some hope of transcendence if you surrender to the deluge.

 

But looking back now, I think

it's finally time for me to laugh about it.

 

Notice that the narrator in that song still can't laugh, really. He just thinks that it may be time to try.

 

When Jim and Melissa took me to the show at the Wiltern I hadn't even heard a song by them.  I saw a lot of gothy teenaged girl types and realized, "Oh, this must be a pretty boy band of some sort" when Life on Earth started and got the most screams.  But as the show continued I saw the songs went rolling along like a river that had overflown its banks with emotion.

 

Mid-show, I got up and went looking for a place in the Wiltern to smoke my joint. Being in the balcony, I exited to a hallway that had some stairs leading up to perhaps their offices or cleaning closets.  I ducked down the hall and found a room with the door slightly ajar.  It was actually the projection room of the theater where they had several old reel to reel devices set up.  Looking out through the glass, I could see the band playing in a wash of violet.  The music sounded like a squall you might glimpse from a distance; I heard soaking wet notes pouring forth from the storm onstage and heard as it told of towns and people washed clean away from the badlands when the dam burst.  

 

Some get a wooden cross in the dirt to remember their grave on the floodplain, most don't even get that; many bodies are never found.

 

I try to remember that there are moments of optimism despite the gloom in these songs, and their harmonies and glassy production and diminuendo songwriting really do help me find that moment of horrible ruthless beauty when I can bear to put the music on the hifi.

 

(And they have a couple of great sing along upbeat songs and rockers too, but I mostly avoid listening to those. It's my own fault... I compounded the hurt by playlist, as you can hear for yourself below.)

 

Meanwhile, since then, the band has stumbled the slightest bit. It seemed like they have now played too many large venues and it's hard to be intimate and vulnerable in front of 20,000 people night after night.  Their solution was to try and ape the Eagles, which makes a kind of a sense; haromonic rock with country touches. It seems to me they wanted to capture the big stadium-sized songs market plus keep an 'Americana vibe' (they still dress like miners from 1849 San Francisco), but by doing so it washed away the melancholy and high harmonies and left behind Topanga pie; they started quoting America and lost a little of their forlorn tone.

 

Much like the Kubler-Ross stages of dealing with death, those first few albums were in the denial and bargaining stages.  It seems that now their resignation has finally moved on to the stage where anger, bitterness and sarcasm ("break out the booze!  We're living in a dumpster world") dominate and they elegies are not burned pure through suffering. That probably makes sense when you have to keep a festival crowd excited for your music, and who wants to live with ghosts in your home forever?

 

Still, at the time of the Infinite Arms tour they were still small enough to be vulnerable and intimate at a venue like the Wiltern.  I finished smoking my joint in my "private skybox" and looked at the band perform down on the stage, framed in the colored lights of a moment in time; one where the pain was eclipsed by the grandeur of a group of human hearts crying out from the void together.  

 

It was a nice moment, a type of peace, an agreement with the universe that energy is never lost or gained, just transformed.

If you're really an intrepid and hardy soul who can bear nearly slaying yourself with this music, click on the blue youtube playlist link above and listen to my "sadness only" Band of Horses mix. 

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