Let us consider the dangers of front-loading your album: on the one hand, you might argue that putting your best stuff up front will lure the listener in seductively and sustain them through the more difficult (read: “boring” – and I know you think your favorite band has no bad songs and therefore can’t possibly front-load or pad out their albums in any way, but unless your favorite band is — no, you know what? I don’t even have to say it, do I? If you’ve read more than one Bollocks! article, I want you to go back to the comma preceding “but unless” and prepare yourself to, by the time you reach the MLA-defying double-dashes, shout the name of my favorite band as loud as you can. Thanks) tracks. I think MGMT tried that on Oracular Spectacular, but “Time to Pretend” didn’t get me more than five tracks in before I got bored. So you could, then, make the argument that you want to put one pretty exciting tune toward the beginning and maybe end on a really strong note (no artist I can think of concludes an album like Tom Waits. He has it down to a science, and if you would utter the slightest skepticism toward this remark, listen to the last tracks of Rain Dogs, Frank’s Wild Years, and Mule Variations and then sit down to a steaming plate of your words.). But then you risk boring people up front (please note: Tom Waits doesn’t disappoint up front either; he opens albums with awesome songs like “Big in Japan” and “Tom Traubert’s Blues.”) I would argue that you wanna grab people up front, but if you have only one song that’s really distinctive compared to the rest of your album, maybe you’re fucked either way. Let’s call it The Semisonic “Closing Time” Theory (the album, for those of you who think I don’t remember, is called Feeling Strangely Fine and it blows, even with – perhaps especially because of? – “Completely Pleased” and its explicit references to inducing orgasms. How can you write a song about wanting to make your lover come and make it so goddamn boring?). Or maybe we can call it The Veils “Sit Down by the Fire” Theory.
“Sit Down by the Fire” opens Sun Gangs, the new album from Finn Andrews and company, and it is a lovely, acoustic guitar-driven tune about not getting what you want. I’m totally down with that. What I’m not totally down with is every single song that follows, especially the 8 minute histrionic fit that is “Larkspur”. Remember the first time you heard Muse and you thought they sounded like Radiohead but not as good? Well, Finn Andrews doesn’t. “Larkspur” wants to be “Paranoid Android” and ends up being more like that Muse song that sounds like it was dropped from Queen’s Flash Gordon soundtrack. You know the one I’m talking about. It’s got the video with the lasers and bullshit. And the rest of Sun Gangs sounds like a Poor Man’s version of, in no particular order: Frank Black, The White Stripes, and early U2. Like really early. Before they were good. (In case you’re wondering: no, they’re not good now. They pretty much quit that after Achtung Baby and everyone but Bono knows it).
I know what you’re gonna say: “Matt,” you’re gonna say, “all music is borrowed and recycled and yada yada yada. What matters is how each artist interprets the music they’re stealing.”
Go ahead. Say it.
Your point would be well taken if we were talking about how Elmore James claimed to have written “I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom” when we know Robert Johnson did (or mostly did. He probably lifted it from someone like Son House – old people, if you’re feelin’ saucy, help me out with a fact check). Both versions of that song are, on a scale of one to ten, fucking brilliant because Elmore James had the musical chops to put his own stamp on the song. The Veils’ pastiche is so hackneyed as to be offensive, meaning that they botched the key thing in your argument: the interpretation. On the surface, it doesn’t matter that Finn Andrews gets his Frank Black on for “Killed By the Boom.” It matters that it’s cringe-inducingly bad. Look, I know that astute listeners will point out the heavy debt Tom Waits owes to Captain Beefheart and I’ve recently addressed Craig Finn’s need to find Jim Carroll and buy him a beer (or better yet: they can meet in L.A. and I will buy them both a beer), but the key difference is that Waits and Finn take their inspirations and mutate them into something that no one else is doing nor could anyone else do it as well.
The best musical moment on Sun Gangs is the first one because its the only song that makes me say, “Oh, that’s what Veils sound like.” The others make think, “Oh. That’s what would happen if you played in a really bad cover band that didn’t know the words to White Stripes, Pixies, and Muse songs so they mashed ’em all together into…whatever the fuck this is.” “Sit Down by the Fire” may be the only worthwhile track (hearing it on Lala was the reason I got this album) on Sun Gangs because it seems to try the least to be Big and/or Emotional. “Three Sisters” and “Larkspur,” two of the worst offenders, very obviously want to be Big and Emotional. And they’re embarrassing. “Sit Down by the Fire” doesn’t stress Andrews’s emotional intensity; he allows that track (and just that one) to breathe and to have its own space and exist for what it is. Actually, I’ll give “The House She Lived In” some props too and suggest that the album I wanted Veils to make was one that suits the mood of that track and the opener; that’s what I was in the mood for, and it’s a mood Finn Andrews set up me to be in by putting the simple and gorgeous “Sit Down by the Fire” first on the album. Sequencing is an art, kids, but it helps to have enough strong tracks to fill up an album. For examples of nearly flawless sequencing see London Calling, Okkervil River’s The Stage Names, Regina Spektor’s Begin to Hope, Billy Bragg and Wilco’s Mermaid Avenue, and (scoff if you want, but I hear scoffing causes cancer) the new Franz Ferdinand record. In fact, see any of those albums after you listen to “Sit Down by the Fire” and skip the rest of Sun Gangs.