May I walk with you?

Considering that I’ve been downloading music and burning it to CDs on a steady basis for nearly five years now, it should come as no surprise that I have tons and tons of burned CDs stored in every nook and cranny of my house. Some have become so well-loved that they were eventually made obsolete by the purchase of an actual copy of the album they contain, and a good many more have been listened to once, or not even at all. And then there are the vast majority, which I’ve played a bunch of times, liked or even loved, but eventually tired of, after which they’ve ended up stored without rhyme or reason on one of the many CD spindles that I’ve accumulated, each of which once held 50 blank CD-Rs, and now holds some number between 10 and 50 burned CD-Rs. At last count, I had 28 of these spindles, all of them full or close to it, none of them in any sort of order.

This is no big deal most of the time, but every once in a while I decide that I simply must hear some album or another that I downloaded months or years ago, burned to a CD, and which has now become part of this endless morass. This means that I have to then go through all of the spindles, one by one, reading the album titles that are written in marker on each CD-R, until I find the one I’m looking for. I did this only a few days ago while searching for my burned copy of the first two albums by 60s garage rockers The Seeds (which fit on a single disc, even though “Up In Her Room” is 16 minutes long). It was a particularly frustrating search. Usually the album shows up after looking through two or three spindles, 8 at most. The Seeds album was one of the last 5 CD-Rs in the last of my CD spindles to get looked through. By the time I found it, I had convinced myself that I’d missed it and was going to have to start the entire search over, the thought of which was rather appalling. But what was I going to do, give up? Not finish a task I had started? I’m way too OCD to do that, especially when the task involves finding something. More importantly, I can’t stand not to be able to hear a record that I want to hear. Nothing frustrates me more than when I go looking for a particular record and discover that I’ve sold it at some point in the past. That’s a worse feeling than the worst case of blueballs ever.
Anyway, whenever I have to go on a serious expedition into my record collection, I inevitably locate dozens of other records that I want to listen to. Maybe they seem like something that will fit with the record I’m actually looking for, or maybe I’ve thought about them in the recent past, but just wasn’t fired up enough by that thought at the time I had it to go looking for them, or maybe I haven’t even thought about them in who knows how long, but the sight of them is enough to make me think, “Oh yeah, this record! I should listen to it again,” and set them aside. “Any Other City”, the only album by Scottish band Life Without Buildings, fell into the final category during this recent trawl of the spindle stacks, and now that it’s been a few days and I’ve gotten tired of all the garage rock albums I dug out, I find myself listening to it constantly. I’ve liked this band ever since I first heard of them, when an Australian girl on a message board responded to my request for downloading suggestions with their name. This was several years ago, before Soulseek and its full-albums-in-separate-folders standard had taken over, and it took me days of accumulating random tracks and repeatedly checking their allmusic.com page before I’d located the entire album. Once I found it, I played it constantly for weeks, maybe even months. In fact, it’s one of the burned CDs that would eventually have been replaced by an actual copy of the album, if I’d ever seen one for sale. I can assure you that if I ever do, I will buy it if I have to beg for spare change on the street to do so.

Life Without Buildings write simple-sounding (actually deceptively complicated) pop-rock songs, similar in sound to a lot of guitar-based British bands from the 80s and 90s–The Chameleons come to mind at times, The Sundays at others. The songs are mostly midtempo, though they occasionally slow down to ballad speed. The guitars mostly stick to cleanly strummed, melodic chords, the basslines sometimes provide single-note countermelodies but are more embedded in the rhythms of the songs than the guitars, and the drums keep a rock-solid backbeat, while throwing in a fair amount of subtly impressive fills that you won’t catch unless you pay really close attention. There is a fair amount of experimentation with time signatures going on as well, but again, it’s done so subtly that you won’t notice unless you’re really paying attention. This is all fine, though, because the real star of the show here is Sue Tompkins’s vocals. Most of the time, I must confess, I have no idea what she’s singing about; her thick accent doesn’t help matters, but it’s mostly because of the way the lyrics are structured.

Sue’s vocals come spilling out in a rapid, effervescent babble, regardless of the speed of the song. The words to each song are structured around several key phrases, and these are the phrases that get repeated the most during each song, but there are plenty of other words and phrases scattered around these main ones, and they get repeated a lot too. They mutate as they’re repeated, too–a phrase may integrate itself into another, which will give rise to an entirely new phrase that will also be repeated several times. Then her focus will narrow, to a word inside that phrase or even a sound within that word, and that word or sound will be repeated several times on its own, before moving on through the phrase and eventually to another one. Sometimes the combination of several repeated phrases seems like it might add up to a coherent sentence, and sometimes several repeated phrases will all be complete sentences, and will combine together to form coherent paragraphs. But it’s never all that certain what exactly she might be talking about. It’d be interesting to see each song’s lyrics written down with all of the repetition removed, so that you could follow the flow of thoughts and piece all of the phrases together into some sort of coherent whole. Of course, it still might not make all that much sense, I really have no idea. As it is, there is so much rapidly-paced repetition that there’s no way to make sense of it all in your mind. It seems more like play than narration to Sue, as if she has the lyrics written down in a paragraph in front of her but can’t get more than three or four words into them without feeling compelled to play with those words, repeating and manipulating them until all possibilities have been exhausted before finally moving on to the next phrase. A great example of this is the beginning of “The Leanover”, which starts a capella, Sue running her words together: “If I lose you if I lose you if I lose you if I lose you uh huh uh huh uh huh mmmm. If I if I if I if I if I b-b-baby baby gee-g-gee so gee-g-gee you-you. If I lose you if I lose you uh huh uh huh. If I lose you in the street if I lose you in the street if I lose you in the street now, if I lose you in the street if I lose don’t be sad. If I lose you in the street if I lose you in the street hey, if I lose you in the street gee-gee come-ere come-ere come-ere...” This is maybe the first 20 seconds of the song. The bass and guitar come in where she says “mmmm”, and the drums join in after two bass repetitions of the main melody, after the second “uh huh uh huh” section. From all evidence, the first line here is “If I lose you in the street, don’t be sad,” but it takes 30 seconds and a whole lot of repetition to figure that out. Not that I’m complaining.

However, this is a divisive, polarizing technique, which I learned soon after discovering Life Without Buildings for the first time. Over half the time, when I brought them up to people who’d heard them, they had negative reactions, and they were almost always based on the vocals. “Oh, God,” they’d say, “I can’t stand the way that girl sings.” It might have been the repetition, or her high, cheeky voice (more about that in a minute)–in fact, generally it was both. And I guess I’m not all that surprised at that reaction, though it is disappointing, indicating as it does a lack of interest in experimentation and uniqueness. But that’s most people, I suppose; they’d rather stick to the things they know and are comfortable with than reach out for something new and risk falling on their face. It reminds me of elementary school, in a way. There was always that one kid that nobody liked, and nobody even really knew why. It was just accepted that this person was to be shunned, avoided. And then a new kid would move into the district, and get alienated at first because no one knew him, and maybe that kid that no one liked would try to make friends with him, since he didn’t know to shun him or her yet. On “Any Other City”, Sue Tompkins is the shunned kid, coming up to you, the new listener, and trying to win you over before the other kids get to you and convince you to hate her. She fits the part perfectly, with her high-pitched singing voice sounding like nothing so much as the energetic running commentary of a wide-eyed eight year old girl. Despite being shunned by her entire peer group for a significant portion of her short life, her spirit isn’t yet broken. So she comes to you with her hyperkinetic babble, looking to finally make a friend. It’s obvious almost immediately why it is that the other kids won’t play with her–she’s an odd duck. But does it matter enough for you to shun her too? This album takes place in the moments when that question is still hanging in the air.

I’m not going to try and say that I was perfect where these sorts of interactions were concerned–as a kid, though it shames me to remember now, I definitely went along with the shunning on a passive level at least some of the time. I couldn’t put any heart into it, though; too much of my life, I was the shunned kid, and I knew too much about what it was like to be able to be unresponsive or mean when the other shunned kids tried to be friendly with me. I just didn’t see the point. As I got older, I found myself accumulating more and more friends with strange, even annoying habits and mannerisms that drove most kids away. It never seemed like all that much to put up with, though, and a lot of those kids had interesting and good sides to them that other people were missing out on by not getting to know them.

So yeah, my heart instinctively goes out to Sue and Life Without Buildings as a whole, because of the strange, uncomfortable memories they awaken in me. But there’s more to it than that, an emotional connection to this album that’s completely divorced from the context of the human drama inherent in the interaction of elementary school kids on a playground. These songs are probably not written about 8 year olds, after all. But really, where human interaction’s concerned, what’s changed since we were kids? We may be better about cloaking our vicious tendencies in the veil of civility, but it’s a thin veil, and even if we can’t see through it, we know what’s under there. People are social animals, and crave connections with other people, which means other people can hurt them. And no one can hurt you more than someone you really like, or that you at least think you might. These songs are not too clear in their narratives, but almost all of them seem to share the theme of relationships that have the potential to hurt the person in them. The real question that hangs in the air throughout this album is much simpler than I described above. The real question is: do you like me? Sue may get off on a lot of other tangents, and may come across on the surface like a flighty, wide-eyed ingenue, but underneath that surface impression, it also sounds a lot like nervousness.

I haven’t mentioned the music very much yet. As I said above, most of it is very subtle, fading into the background and letting the vocals take center stage. But just because it’s subtle doesn’t mean that it isn’t secretly doing a lot of the work where the effect this album creates is concerned. The dynamics in the structuring of the song are easy to miss, but they’re there. At times it might feel like the music just does one unchanging thing throughout, but in actuality, the songs have verses and choruses, and they get louder and quieter as they go. The shifts in volume and chord progression tend to be slight, but its precisely the lulling nature of a lot of the main riffs in the songs that allows these small changes to have a profound effect, when they occur. Despite, the rambling, free-flowing qualities of the vocals, they’re always linked closely to the changes in the music, and Sue will often emerge from some logorrheic rant into a more defined, less cluttered vocal pattern when the chorus comes around. Her vocals also tend to get louder and more plaintive as the songs progress, and the music often reflects this, building tension through slow increases in volume and slight changes in rhythm. This can change the emotional tenor of a song, taking it from a bouncy, happy mood to something altogether more dramatic. In “Let's Get Out", this shift is brought on by the drums dropping out of the song after the second chorus. “Did I say too-too-too much to you?” Sue is asking throughout that chorus, playfully. But when the drums drop out, her voice changes. “Look back and say that I didn’t!” she demands, sounding more upset with each repetition, as drummer Will Bradley pounds his toms quietly at first, then more and more urgently, building the song to an explosion that never quite occurs. Instead, after a pause, it drops back into the original verse.

The one real explosion that occurs in a Life Without Buildings song actually comes in their post-LP single “Love Trinity”, which is of course tacked onto the end of my burned copy (along with non-LP B-side “Is Is and the IRS”). The dramatic ending may have indicated a coming shift in direction for their songwriting style, but we’ll never know, as this was the last song they ever released. It’s unfortunate, too, because it’s probably their best one. On this song, there isn’t the usual shift between verse and chorus that marked the songs on “Any Other City”. Instead, the band plays the same ethereal, note-based riff over and over for the first two and a half minutes of the song, slowly growing louder and louder as Sue focuses on a smaller than normal batch of phrases, “roam unless it’s got that thing” being the main one. Eventually, she’s worked her way around to “are the numbers in love, it’s a love trinity”, which is what she’s repeating as the band changes at the 2:30 mark to a more tense version of the song’s main riff, which builds up for 20 or so seconds, then explodes into a wordless climax when guitarist Robert Johnston kicks on distortion that he doesn’t appear to have had when recording the album. Or maybe he had it and just didn’t use it, but this is definitely the only place in the entire oeuvre of Life Without Buildings where distortion appears. It’s not that heavy, either, but context is everything where creating dramatic moments in music is concerned, and at the moment that it finally kicks in, after an entire CD without it, it feels like the heaviest thing I’ve ever heard. It’s quite moving, too, regardless of the fact that I don’t know what Sue is talking about on this song any more than I knew anywhere else on the album. What’s important is the feeling that’s being put across. The instant when the distortion kicks in at the end of “Love Trinity” feels like the moment of truth in all of those interactions where you’re opening yourself up to be hurt by another person, the moment when you find out whether they’re going to hurt you or not. I’ve been there before, and in my experience, the news is almost always bad. Life Without Buildings seem to know where I’m coming from on that score, which is probably why I’ve spent the last couple of days listening to them alone in my room. Maybe this isn’t something that everyone or even most people can get into, but for me right now it feels brilliant.

Some people have asked me to start adding MP3s to my blog entries, and while I don't want anyone to start thinking of this as an "MP3 blog" or anything (the point is to evangelize at length, not just say "here's a song I like, listen to it"), I've decided to start providing MP3s at the end of my blog entries. They will be from yousendit.com, though, and therefore will only last a week (or 100 downloads, which I don't expect to get). So, if you're seeing this entry after Sept. 11, 2006, these links should be dead.

Life Without Buildings - The Leanover

Life Without Buildings - Love Trinity

If you missed these, though, Life Without Buildings' website is still up even though they broke up years ago, and they have a couple of live MP3s and RealAudio samples of songs from their records. Check that out at www.lifewithoutbuildings.com.