Friday, March 13, 2009

It's Hard to Find a Band That Never Quits

As previously mentioned, I have under taken the nearly impossible task of debating Chris Heiniger as to which independent singer/songwriter is better: Colin Meloy of the Decemberists or David Bazan, who is most famous for his work in Pedro The Lion. In his post, Chris proves that his love for Meloy's music is equaled only by his (and Meloy's) knowledge of classical literature. An apt apologetic to be sure.

Due to a self imposed handicap of selecting a song at random, Chris wrote his post on a particular Decemberists song that is 12 minutes long and, in true Decemberists fashion, has three distinct movements, which essentially function as individual songs (though granted, chapters in a larger narrative). For this reason I doubt Chris will mind if I choose to expand my interaction beyond a single Pedro the Lion song.

I will certainly make no attempt to diminish any music by the Decemberist. They are a top notch band in my book. In many ways, this whole debate feels a bit like choosing a favorite child, only in this situation I do have a favorite child and feel strongly enough to share my sentiments.

The first Pedro the Lion song I selected is "Secret of the Easy Yoke" from It's Hard to Find a Friend. As characteristic of Bazan's early material, this song explores frustration with the church while holding on to a remnant faith:

"I could hear the church bells ringing
they pealed aloud your praise
the member's faces were smiling
with their hands outstretched to shake
it's true they did not move me
my heart was hard and tired
their perfect fire annoyed me
I could not find you anywhere

could someone please tell me the story
of sinners ransomed from the fall
I still have never seen you, and some days
I don't love you at all

the devoted were wearing bracelets
to remind them why they came
some concrete motivation
when the abstract could not do the same
but if all that's left is duty, I'm falling on my sword
at least then, I would not serve an unseen distant lord

could someone please tell me the story
of sinners ransomed from the fall
I still have never seen you, and some days
I don't love you at all
if this only a test
I hope that I'm passing, cause I'm losing steam
but I still want to trust you

peace be still (x3)"

Here Bazan examines the divine as only the back-slidden can. He is forced to decide if the hypocrisy of the church can somehow be separated from authentic spiritual experience. Notice that Bazan doesn't play favorites- both he and the church-goers around him are indicted for their lack of faith. Bazan recognizes that if religion is merely about morality, than all hope is lost. Instead, he seeks the hope that is only found by those who embrace their incapability.

Bazan's later work is certainly more cynical. Bazan's religious musings gave way to a couple concept albums where each song was a chapter of a larger story. His best attempt at this is certainly Control, which, like any good story, features lies, murder, marital infidelity, and the corruption of corporate America. Shockingly explicit lyrics and biblical imagery abound. Due to thecollective nature of this project, examining a single song apart from its context would not do it justice. However, I appeal to this project to demonstrate Bazan's versatility as a song writer.

In true post modern fashion, Bazan's attempts at meta-narrative have been replaced by several albums that are essentially collections of short stories. Achilles' Heel and his analog synth driven side project Headphones are indicative of this shift. While Bazan remains just as lyrically candid, almost all traces of optimism have been erased. Bazan is clearly indebted to Flannery O'Conner, borrowing her Gothic sensibility and satarical tone. (One Headphones song is named "Wiseblood.")

"Hello Operator" is an exceptional example:

"Hello Operator
I would like to place a call
To the pale gray telephone
That is hanging on the wall.

I know this sounds crazy, but...
Could you patch me through?
So she does not hear me ringing,
I will wait. I've got nothing else to do.

So when she finally picks me up
Checking for a dial-tone,
To finger in the number of
Her new lover's telephone.

I will be resting on the earlobe that I used to hunt and peck
I will slowly wrap myself around her pretty little neck
I'll begin the explanation as to why she cannot breathe.
You should not have been unfaithful
You should not have ever f*cked with me."

Like much of his other material, this song demonstrates Bazan's ability as a songwriter more so than lyricist. Read aloud, "Hello Operator" seems morbidly trite; but Bazan's calm, collected delivery sells this otherwise absurd story. In true Bazan fashion, the plot and instrumentation synergistically build into an bitterly ironic climax. For the singer, the pain of betrayal and the lust for revenge transcend reality.

In terms of lyrical grandeur, Meloy is clearly the superior. But with Bazan's simple, minimalist approach, less is more.

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