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The Haul 2010: The For Carnation's The For Carnation

The For Carnation – The For Carnation LP – Touch & Go, 2000 – $28 (eBay, 7/22)

The For Carnation's The For Carnation

It took me until 2010 to finally appreciate The For Carnation’s self-titled LP. Much like the group’s two previous releases, 1995’s Fight Songs EP and 1996’s Marshmallows, very little happens on The For Carnation. Those hoping for the climactic catharsis of Slint’s “Washer” and “Good Morning, Captain”—the two most physically jarring examples of Spiderland’s brilliance—encounter no dramatic crescendos in The For Carnation’s catalog, only carefully pruned plateaus of superhuman patience. The most dramatic moment on any of these releases comes on Fight Songs’s “Grace Beneath the Pines” when McMahan’s quietly spoken vocals become uncomfortable loud with the line “with crack heads and assassins and burn victims” before mumbling his way into the closing “and millionaires' sons.” There’s no incisive harmonic riff accompanying this peak, only a single strummed chord, far from the bombastic payoff of Slint’s high-water marks. For a band relying on patience, The For Carnation had worn mine thin by Marshmallows.

It certainly didn’t help that Slint’s offspring—Mogwai and Godspeed You! Black Emperor in particular—reveled in the dynamic range that The For Carnation had left behind. The immediacy of a distorted guitar climax is hard to deny. Yet as the thrill of those rollercoaster rides became commonplace by Godspeed’s demise and Mogwai’s descent into routine, I should have recognized that The For Carnation offered a crucial aspect of Slint’s legacy that had gone all-but-ignored in the formation of post-rock’s playbook: Brian McMahan’s engrossing storytelling.

This emphasis on storytelling is certainly not the sexiest or the most earth-shattering element of Slint’s success, but as Scott at Pretty Goes with Pretty (the author of the upcoming 33 1/3 on Spiderland, an honor which fills me with envy) eloquently puts it, Slint “earn[s] its drama,” and I’ll fill in the gap by saying that the storytelling is a big part of how they earn it. He mentions how “Don, Aman” thrives on “a palpable sense of foreboding and anxiety, both lyrically and musically.” It’s precisely that mood that The For Carnation explores. Each track, ranging from 5:36 to 9:29, plots a measured course through dimly lit wilderness, and five of the six are driven by McMahan’s involving storytelling.

I’ll focus on closing track “Moonbeams,” since it finally broke my decade-long mental block with The For Carnation. The musical backdrop is deceptive; built upon a lyrical bass line, a skeletal drum beat, intermittent guitar phrases, a cricket-like electronic whirr, and a haunting piano loop buried in the mix, it initially recalls the austerity of Marshmallows, but Christian Fredrickson’s (of Rachel’s) string arrangements add melodrama-free depth. It would make a worthy instrumental, but McMahan’s lyrics provide the song’s anxious tension. The opening couplet “Scatter the roots of our passage tonight / Discard the memories we chose to survive” hints at the song’s elliptical narrative, which only grows more confounding with each verse. The second verse offers, “When she was five years old there’s cake and bright lights / and when she was ten she became the maid’s bride.” The third turns the pronoun back around—“Stand up and face it although you’re half dead / Try to remember though they’ve taken your head”—then becomes inclusive: “Why we sleep fully dressed and rise only from bed / Who did this to us? Who did this to us?” Each softly sung line in “Moonbeams” resonates exponentially over the eerie landscape. (Taking ten seconds in between lines certainly helps that effect.) Piecing together a concrete narrative like the carnival trip of Slint’s “Breadcrumb Trail” from these disparate mental images is impossible—McMahan closes the song with “I climb to the top and I find where I am,” but he doesn’t pass along the coordinates. “Moonbeams” evokes (and occasionally invokes) a dream world of intangible unease. And the best part? You’re stuck there.

That’s the notion that took me so long to grasp: The For Carnation’s greatness lies in their staunch unwillingness to break the tension, to provide the natural release of a “Washer” or a “Good Morning, Captain.” “Tales [Live from the Crypt]” comes the closest, teetering precariously on the slashing guitar chords that might trigger an avalanche of noise, but it never topples. A decade ago I would have bellowed for chaos in this moment, but now I recognize how the convergence of all of the song’s instrumental tensions is better left with the threat partially revealed but not engaged or eliminated. Almost nothing happens, after all, but the desire for a break in the tension is transformed into a need.

The For Carnation is loaded with potential contradictions. Its sonic plateaus might encourage placement in your bedtime listening pile, but the songwriting demands foreground listening. It seems austerely minimal, but the attention to detail is astonishing. (Having guest performances from Kim Deal, Rachel Haden, Britt Walford, and John McEntire, among others, certainly helps.) It’s the closest companion album for Slint’s Spiderland, even if it casts aside that album’s most exciting moments. It’s one of the finest post-rock albums of the decade, even though it ignored the prevailing trends of the genre, specifically instrumental songwriting and noisy climaxes. A more accurate statement is that it’s one of the finest post-rock albums of the decade because it ignores those trends.