Quiet Loud Quiet and So Can You!, The Calm Blue Sea Review

The Calm Blue Sea

The Calm Blue Sea

2011 Modern Outsider Records

The Calm Blue Sea

Considering that most clearly defined musical genres often have a reproducible formula that makes it easy for upstarts home brew a label-ready sound it’s not surprising that the instructions for “post rock” sometimes feels as basic and uncomplicated as the recipe for ice cubes.

Step 1. Start quiet with clean guitar arpeggios, maybe some muted samples of a news reel or talk radio.

Step 2. Build everything up with, layer upon layer, with distortion, reverb, cymbals and e-bow till there’s a climax.

Step 3. Bring it back down to the single guitar, maybe a lazy drum or two.

Step 4. Repeat.

Or, if that’s too complicated just scribble “Quiet-Loud-Quiet” on a piece of masking tape and stick it to the top of your shoe, since that’s probably where you’ll be looking most of the time anyway.

The problem with, what, for convenience’s sake, we’ll just call “post rock” music is that it knows what it has: a hardy self-image and plenty of affable confidence and it’s had the same haircut since grade school; it found it’s groove early on and doesn’t really feel the need to change just because everyone else in town is breeding weird shaped inter-genre babies. It works as it is and there’s little need to tinker with the formula, and honestly even the smallest injection of mixed blood would see the music being sorted to a different section in the record store. You can have a little synth but not too much, you should steer clear of drum machines and try not to put in too many lyrics, also for consistency let’s keep song lengths above the five minute mark. Deviate from that too much and you’ve got a whole other gumbo that some picky, overly anal music nerd (like me) will have to classify and invent new sub-genres for. “Nu-post-alt-synth-grind-swirl-core” doesn’t need to exist so fucking watch yourself.

The GOOD part about post rock is, well, see above. You know what to expect and you feel confident that when you hear that waltzy, twinkling guitar and three minutes later the bass finally joins in and everything seems to be moving like an empty raft toward an unseen waterfall and sure enough there’s that predictable but never-the-less-exhilarating explosion of sound and you know some  film director is just dying to hang his misunderstood lead character’s pivotal moment of clarity and re-birth on it like a goddamn boat anchor. Then, like a rocket reaching space on the heels of a tower of fire, the sound freezes and drifts away and you’re left with the endless quiet introspection; that post-coital daze that brings you back from mind numbing ecstasy.

The debut, self-titled release by Austin’s The Calm Blue Sea was apparently groomed to pledge in the post rock fraternity and joining alumni like Mogwai and Godspeed! You Black Emperor in the house of QLQ (Quiet Loud Quiet… Delta Kappa… Something) and frankly they’re a shoe in. They’ve got the drone, they’ve got the grind, they’ve got the bombast and they’re not fucking around. This is some seriously top-shelf post rock and it’s got that right-out-of-the-box smell despite being forged from raw materials  unearthed almost a decade ago by their forefathers. The Calm Blue Sea are able to accept that torch and keep post rock alive. In fact they seem to take to the task with a ferocious intensity that their peers and elders never rose to. The second wave of “Literal” threatens to tear apart at the seams in places due to the teeth-cracking force of the band punching back against a tide of shrieking sonic miasma that’s one snapped guitar string away from drowning them in white-hot static. On the flip side of that you’ve got the patient, maddening build of “After the Legions”, the musical equivalent to watching a car in neutral slowly start to roll backwards on a flat driveway and crash (beautifully) into a mailbox.

The Formula is The Calm Blue Sea’s greatest ally as it creates a comfortable boundary for them to excel at what they do. Again, fans of the genre will be instantly familiar with the format and can bring TCBS into the fold of easily while their adherence to that format, coupled with their notable skill, provides a good entry point to those who want to discover what this whole “wordless, distorted, echoy, wall-of-sound” thing is all about. Despite this self-titled “debut” actually being somewhat of a re-issue from a minimally marketed album from 2008 the music still feels inspired and relevant. In part this is due to the band’s re-mastering of the original 6 tracks and including 2 others for the 2011 release but mostly it’s just exciting, inspiring music that will likely be just as good in ten more years as it was in 2008.

Typically I try to end my reviews with a hook, or some clever tie in to whatever seemingly unrelated topic I open with, but in this case I’ll just post a link to where you can hear the album in its entirety on NPR’s website.

NPR Exclusive First Listen: The Calm Blue Sea

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The Living and the Dead

If you can’t tell by the accent (I couldn’t), Jolie Holland hails from Texas. She sings like she’s from one of Tom Waits’ stranger dreams, with a musical style of pronunciation that lands her somewhere between Jesca Hoop and Joanna Newsom (not bad company, that.) 2006’s Springtime Can Kill You was one of the most underrated albums of that year and now Holland is back with the beautiful and comparitively straightforward The Living and the Dead which features two awesome guitary guests: Matt Ward (aka M. Ward aka the Him in She & Him) and Mister Marc Fucking Ribot (the most underrated guitar-player in modern music, responsible for some of the awesomely weird licks in Tom Waits stuff and a player on the occasional Elvis Costello tune).

Of the Jolie Holland albums I’ve heard, The Living and the Dead strikes me as the most personal to date, with a fair amount of these songs discussing faces from her past, both lovers and friends. “Corrido Por Buddy” is a heartbreaking true story of a junkie-friend of Holland’s who was so wasted away she couldn’t recognize him until he said her name. Seeing her long lost pal in this condition, Holland (who excels in empathizing with all the characters in her songs, much like the afore-mentioned Mr. Waits) can only say, “I wish I’d been/ a better friend.”

Albums so laden with tunes about death and loss of love can get too heavy too quickly and tumble into an abyss of unlistenability. Holland never allows The Living and the Dead to go there because the album is shot through with a wry, weary humor, best exemplified by this line in “Sweet Loving Man”: “That dark horse you’re riding/ has to carry me too”.  There are genuine bright spots as well, such as “Your Big Hands,” which features M. Ward playing what is basically the opening lick to “Honky Tonk Women.” “Your Big Hands” is “Honky Tonk Women,” if one of the women sang back to Mick Jagger, “I’ve got a bunch of stories/ I should’ve never told.” On her website, Holland says that “Your Big Hands” is a song that “Daniel Johnston made me feel brave enough to write,” and even calls the song “terribly naive.” Anyone familiar with Daniel Johnston’s work (and you should be) will get the comparison upon hearing “Your Big Hands.”

The instrumentation on The Living and the Dead runs the gamut from the country/folk of opener “Mexico City” to the classic rock of “Your Big Hands,” and Matt Ward gets credit for helping “shape the sound” of many of the tunes on this album, which leads me to this conclusion: if you’re hanging out with M. Ward these days, you’re probably pretty awesome.  The dude’s fingers are in some pretty awesome pies this year, not least of which was his album with Zooey Deschanel under the name of She & Him.

The Living and the Dead quiets down considerably after “Your Big Hands,” but it doesn’t lose any of its steam. The masterpiece of the back half of the album is “Love Henry,” an old tune that, according to Bob Dylan (who should know), predates the Bible.  It’s a song about a woman who murders her lover and is left singing to the parrot, who thinks it will be the next victim of her viciousness: “I won’t fly down/ I can’t fly down/ and light on your right knee/ a girl who’d murder her own true love/ would kill a little bird like me.” It’s a funny image for a murder scene, but Holland never plays it for laughs. In her hands, it’s a full-on tragedy, from the perspective of a talking bird who witnesses a murder.

Holland follows that slap-happy number with the heartbreaking (and heartbroken – Holland reports “really kind of crying and holding on to the piano” while writing it) “The Future,” with it sad refrain of “Hey, come on/ and wake up with me.” It’s a beautiful song for sure, but following an ancient murder-ballad, it makes for a depressing several minutes of your day. So what does Holland do to end the album?

She laughs her way through “Enjoy Yourself,” a very simple song that got stuck in my head after I saw Synecdoche, New York (It’s one of the most depressing and most beautiful movies I’ve ever seen) this weekend. It’s only one line: “Enjoy yourself/ It’s later than you think.” Whether that’s later in the night or later in life, I don’t really know, but if The Living and the Dead and Charlie Kaufman’s new opus (which honestly couldn’t have less in common with one another) could unify to convince me of one thing, it’s this: you have limited time. Make the most of it. Watch Charlie Kaufman movies and listen to Jolie Holland albums.