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You know, growing up listening to the music of one specific artist, as I have been doing for nearly two decades now with the musical musings of John Pierson of Even in Blackouts, is a funny thing. You have so many memories soundtracked by the artist, so many emotions locked into their work, that it’s deeply disappointing when they bring out a record that you don’t like.
Which was, initially, the case with this album for me. ‘Fall of The House of Even’ (nod to Edgar Allan Poe for the title) was part-financed by fans of the band (a practice which I had never heard of before musically but which is apparently quite common in the theatrical world, of which Pierson is also part) and I think knowing this made me look at it somewhat askance at first, thinking well, if they can’t afford to record, why record? When I bought the CD I didn’t like the artwork, finding the words incredibly difficult to read (written as they are in a practically illegible font and in spidery handwriting) and with a few misspellings (I’m just pedantic about these things, I suppose) and a somewhat ugly cover (an illustration of a skeleton which I still don’t really like), done by Pierson himself. This initially made me listen to the album briefly and then put it aside dismissing it, reckoning it was a record that probably should not have been recorded.
But then…something happened. One of Pierson’s oblique, occasionally impenetrable lyrics would stick in my head during the day, not necessarily in any logical context, or the music from one of the songs would drift through my brain, and I went back to the album and listened to it anew, giving in to the sheer strangeness it proudly exhibits upon occasion. The fact that some of the album is quite country-oriented, which is not a musical genre I listen to at all, hadn’t helped initially, but as I listened more to the ‘Fall’ as a whole I began to accept it more as the musical experiment that it clearly is, mixing musical genres (pop-punk, country, straight pop, blues, a wee touch of ska) into an interesting melting pot to come up with an artwork which, while not perfect (what artwork ever is, though?), is certainly a damn fine piece of work and well worth a listen.
‘Fall’ is a concept album. Each song on it represents a different room in a house, with each room named after a person who donated money to the recording. Each room is a wreck, so I would assume that this is the ‘House of Even (in Blackouts)’ that has fallen. Which is somewhat odd, because it would seem to suggest the end of the band, but I may have grasped the concept all wrong, I dunno. One thing that I have found is that Pierson, whilst liking making albums with unifying threads and concepts (like their last release, 2004’s ‘zeitgeist’s echo’), he sometimes does not make these concepts clear or focused enough, and his sometimes difficult-to-decipher wordwork (especially if you can’t read the lyrics on the insert!) hardly helps upon occasion.
What is certain about this album is, that like ‘echo,’ this it is a somewhat morbid, haunted album full of songs about ghosts, people scared to love because of the pain of feeling, runaway youths, damaged individuals unable to escape their darkest dazed days, and fall-down drunks; a grim monochrome-with-occasional-rainbow-flashes sonic panoply of schizoid fears and emotional tears. Nowhere is this approach more exemplified by ‘Skeleton Dance (Philanges De La Muerte)’ (don’t ask me why it has an Italian subtitle except for the fact Pierson has Italian friends!), whose odd, phantasm-vaporous, spooky start recalls ‘Danse Macabre’ by French composer Camille Saint-Saens to me, calcium mined for bonebeat rhythm, with singer Lizzy Eldredge wailing like a young muscular banshee at the funeral of a friend of death. And this is only one of a number of truly excellent songs on this album, endlessly listenable in ever-more-(in)comprehensible sonic loops, a bittersweet sardonic grin spreading like butter over the skin over the skull of a gratefully decaying corpse.
As has long been noted, Eldredge is an excellent, accomplished singer, voice a work of pop art, choir-trained and vocal birdswoop and soar and smile, and it can, upon occasion, make me nearly cry; there is a version of the old song ‘I Can See Clearly Now’ where she hits a note that makes my hackles rise. She has never sounded better or stronger than on this album, and ‘Fall’ would have been worth producing if only as a vibrant vocals vehicle. But it’s far more than that, and all the musicianship is tight on this recording, with cameos from a banjo and a piano and an organ putting in soundwavewash cameos to complement the usual Blackouts soundscape. Bice in particular is an excellent drumroll skinspounder and a great find indeed.
Pierson’s guitar (he plays other instruments too on this release, including a xylophone, seemingly finding it easy to adapt to playing other instruments) on ‘Fall’ is, as usual, great. I have always found his best guitar work has a laughing untamable freedom on it reminiscent of long carefree childhood days, and he has a recurring riff or two that sound like a child thumbing their nose and going ‘nyah nyah nyah, can’t catch me’ (I know I’m not explaining it too well, but it’s just something I have noticed) and running off trailing long hair and happiness in the breeze in their horizon-bound wake. And thus it’s paradoxical that he and the band should produce such haunted, melancholic, pained music and lyrics, which often speak of fear of abandonment and the pain of emotional interplay, juxtaposed against images of solipsistic childhood innocence.
I think some of the reason for this is the fact that Pierson tragically lost his father when he was young (briefly alluded to in his novel ‘Weasels In A Box’), and has spent decades of his life, in part, alchemy-transmuting the dead lead weight of his pain and confusion into the beautiful homespun gold of written and acted and musical art. And I only mention this poignant fact because the second superb song on the album (my endlessly-listened-to inspirational favourite), ‘Darkest Days,’ (which sounds like it is, to me, about the mental imbalance of a sibling of Pierson’s) addresses this sad loss directly: “Darker days/Dad’s gone away/our Darker Days/Dad’s gone away.” Odd how many guys there are in the punk scene with weak or missing or meathead or emotionally unavailable fathers, and lack of clear fatherly guidance obviously accounts for a sizable chunk of that musical subgenre’s angst and anger and anarchy.
But depression and melancholy are by no means the only emotional notes struck on this album, as I said already, and the tone is lightened considerably by humorous cameo appearances of three children doing spoken word bits, as well as providing bloopers for the songs at the end of the album. The back cover says that ‘This CD is brought to you by the word ‘gone’ and the color ‘gray,’’ a reference to the end of ‘Sesame Street’ which would say things like ‘This show was brought to you by the letter ‘S’ and the number ‘9’. This (once again childhood) reference is actually somewhat atypical of Pierson’s attempts to explore how the humorous and the horrible can occur simultaneously, a laugh born of and borne by a scream, and simultaneity is an oft-explored artistic obsession of his. Laugh even as you cry, not either/or, because it’s possible to do both at the same time, believe it or not. This making-humor-from-pain vibe goes a long way to alleviating the existential pain of the album, that’s for sure.
The song ‘Do Re My Life Away’ is a hilarious recounting of Eldredge counting the musical scales, and her saying ‘La…oh la de fucking da!” is at once funny and slightly shocking because hearing her swear on the EIB releases is like hearing a nun fart. Eldredge’s vocal interpretations of Pierson’s idiosyncratic musical visions and lyrics are informed by the fact that she knows what is going on in Pierson’s life, has undergone something parallel, or has the song generally explained to her if need be. Which is something, I have to say, that I don’t think would have helped with the eponymous track on this album, whose surreal, nonsensical lyrics I do not like. Oh well, you can’t win them all.
Even in Blackouts, ultimately, are a frustrating band, it has to be said. Frustrating, that is, in that they are putting out stuff as good – if not better – than anybody on the musical market with releases like this, yet it’s the homogenized pop-punk prettyboy band bland corporate brand crap that gets all the wide-release-and-airplay attention. EIB have shifted record label a couple of times and sometimes seem as if they are recording from the edge of sonic oblivion, ready to dissolve right in front of your eyes and ears. This gives them an edge, I suppose, but it would be nice if they finally got the recognition they deserve with songs this great. You have to applaud them for their refusal to compromise and produce a piece of pandering crap with 10 singalongasoundalike songs to sell to All American Rejects-liking brainwashed teenyboppers; judging by some of the tunes in their catalogue, they’d certainly be capable of this. But hell, maybe they should do a few pop songs to get a wider audience. Who can tell.
Bottom line: I personally hope the house of Even in Blackouts will not fall after coming so far musically and strengthening and widening their eclectic sound from acoustic to electric and back again. Until then though, as Pierson recently put it on their Myspace page, the future of the band is undecided…as always.
Watch this space.
Reproduced with permission
Graham Rae is a Scottish scribbler from the cheery charming picture-postcard-perfect post-industrial up-and-coming internationally renowned tourist destination of Falkirk, now resident in the US. He has been writing for as long as he can remember (started at any early age, carving graffiti into womb walls) and am halfway through my first novel (well, third, but the other mishmash misfires don’t count),’ Weekend Warriors.’ He has been writing about film for various electronic and print publications for 18 years now, and you can see a sporadically entertaining eclectic selection of his ramble/rantings at www.filmthreat.com
|FALL OF THE HOUSE OF EVEN
by Even in Blackouts
(FDO Recordings 2006)
Reviewed by Graham Rae
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