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The Haul: The Life and Times' Suburban Hymns and The Magician

To prove that I’m documenting every physical piece of music acquired in 2009, here’s what I bought at the Hum / Life and Times / Dianogah show.

1. The Life and Times – Suburban Hymns LP – Hawthorne Street, 2007 – $12 new

The Life and Times' Suburban Hymns

I can understand how some Shiner fans might have lost interest with the second incarnation of The Life and Times during the group’s transition to a shoegaze/math-rock hybrid, but Suburban Hymns is my third-favorite Epley album behind Lula Divinia and The Egg. I enjoyed The Flat End of the Earth EP, especially “Raisin in the Sun,” but I can’t fathom Epley releasing album after album of relatively dry, restrained indie rock. “Houdini” is essentially a shoegaze song stripped of its aesthetic, so the progression to the shoegaze-inflected Suburban Hymns made sense.

With the exception of the overly similar “Running Red Lights” and “Charlotte Street,” the variation from song to song keeps Suburban Hymns fresh. “Coat of Arms” revives War-era U2 drum fills, “Mea Culpa” is a pulsing, dynamic rocker reminiscent of Shiner’s epic “The Simple Truth,” “Muscle Cars” is a chiming, melancholic lament, “Skateland” lurks with seething menace, and “A Chorus of Crickets” somehow makes the apocalypse a rousing event. While there are moments of levity, like the rare Epley love song “Shift Your Gaze,” I tend to be drawn to the songs lingering between resigned pessimism and detached malaise, just like Shiner’s best single, “Sleep It Off” b/w “Half-Empty.”

If you haven’t picked the album up, Hawthorne Street’s clear vinyl pressing is a fine option. (The Magician is pressed on translucent yellow vinyl.) It would have been nice to have a gatefold sleeve with more artwork like the point-on cover, but considering that only one Shiner album (Splay) was pressed on LP, I won’t complain about the lack of frills. Not every group can be Pelican, after all.

2. The Life and Times – The Magician LP – Hawthorne Street, 2008 – $10

The Life and Times' The Magician

Unlike Suburban Hymns, The Magician takes a full step toward shoegaze, particularly on the first two tracks, “I Know You Are” and “Hush.” There’s too much low end to lump them in with most “nu-gaze” groups—Jon always complains about how Loveless needed a proper drum recording—but Epley’s effects-laden vocals and drifting guitar lines are a long way from Shiner’s “Brooks” and “Released.”

While I enjoy those shoegaze tracks and the up-tempo “Ave Maria,” “The Sound of the Ground” stands above the other songs on this EP. The melodies are clearer and more memorable than those on the other songs (“Ave Maria” is closest). The primary guitar line, drenched in delay, is completely absorbing. Just as important, you can actually understand Allen Epley’s vocals. My biggest issue with the shoegaze version of The Life and Times is how it detracts from Epley’s lyrics, since Shiner songs like “Fetch a Switch,” “The Situationist,” “Cake,” and “The Egg” are so compelling because of the combination of the lyrics and those mammoth, churning riffs. I can live without the weight of those riffs—begrudgingly—since there’s something filling the void, but placeholder lyrics are a disappointment.

It’s funny that my first two purchases of the new year are double dips—I own CD copies of both of these releases—since that’s something I’ve been trying to avoid doing. In this case, I try to support The Life and Times whenever possible, and I hadn’t seen them since the vinyl had been pressed.

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