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The Haul: The Life and Times and Deleted Scenes at Great Scott, 4/19/2009

It’s clear from my nearly non-existent concert photography feed that I’ve cut down greatly on the number of shows I see each year, but it’s hard for me to pass up seeing one of Allen Epley’s bands. Between Shiner (eleven times) and The Life and Times (eight times), I’ve seen Epley nineteen total times in eight different cities (St. Louis, Chicago, Champaign, Indianapolis, Newport, KY, Kansas City, New York, Boston). The biggest difference between this concert and their opening slot for the Hum reunion show in January was my familiarity with their new album, Tragic Boogie, and the highlights of that record sounded great. Still no “Mea Culpa” or “A Chorus of Crickets,” but they’ve got to plug the new wares, which I discuss at length below. Short take: behind Lula Divinia, The Egg, and Suburban Hymns, but still worth checking out.

I was running late the night of this concert and missed Constants, whose excellent “Passage” was leaking out onto Harvard Ave. as I entered Great Scott. Unfortunately, it was the last song of their set. I was looking forward to hearing some material from their upcoming album The Foundation, The Machine, The Ascension, but I’ll have to wait for the 3LP release on Mylene Sheath, which ships in late June. Six feet of artwork and two choices of vinyl color for pre-orders, so get in line.

I did get to hear the excellent Deleted Scenes for the first time, and damned if they didn’t put on a great show. Hard to pin them down to a single sub-genre, but the Dismemberment Plan, Talking Heads, indie pop, and even some math-rock came up during the set, never as a singular influence. Singer Dan Scheuerman has a captivating stage presence and their songs are even better live. I wouldn’t be surprised if their next record pushes them into headlining slots across the country, but I grabbed their debut full-length, Birdseed Shirt, and talked to Scheuerman after the show.

63. Deleted Scenes – Birdseed Shirt CD – What Delicate, 2009 – $8

Deleted Scenes' Birdseed Shirt

Deleted Scenes put on such a convincing performance that I had no choice but to pick up their debut full-length, Birdseed Shirt, on the loathed compact disc format. (It does not look like an LP is in the works, but my purchase of an album on CD almost assures it an eventual vinyl pressing.) Does Birdseed Shirt measure up to their live set? No, but it’s still a compelling album. There’s a considerable amount of production depth on these songs, but I’d argue that a few of the tricks (keeping vocals on one channel, for example), detract from the power of the songwriting. I keep meaning to give this album a few front-to-back spins, but I usually get stuck on highlights like the abrasive “Mortal Sin,” the gliding, melodic “Ithaca,” and the dourly triumphant “Turn to Sand.” They’ll be at TT the Bear’s on July 3rd, and I might just have to use that concert as an excuse to leave the house. Those live YouTubes are whetting my appetite.

64. The Life and Times – Tragic Boogie LP – Hawthorne Street, 2009 – $10

The Life and Times' Tragic Boogie

My fondness for Allen Epley’s massive, math-rock-influenced rock can admittedly affect my ability to assess his groups’ albums immediately after release, so excuse this long build-up to the discussion of Tragic Boogie. I remember claiming that Shiner’s Starless (2000) was an improvement upon Lula Divinia (1997) in a Signal Drench review, an opinion motivated by the initial surge of new music from one of my favorite groups and the desire to cement Shiner as one of the groups the magazine got behind, especially in light of a vicious Pitchfork review (which is now gone from the site). In hindsight, Starless was an occasionally awkward transitional record, suffering from too much deference from Epley’s guitar and Paul Malinowski’s bass to the second guitar being added by Joel Hamilton and Josh Newton. Whereas Lula Divinia felt mammoth with just three members, Starless feels strangely thin at points with four. The album felt less challenging than Lula as well, with both Epley’s songwriting and new drummer Jason Gerkin taking a more straightforward approach. I know there was a version floating around—either demos or an early studio cut—with Tim Dow still in the group, but I’ve never come close to hearing it, so it may very well be an urban legend. I doubt a change in drummers would have made “Too Much of Not Enough” a better song, however.

Starless took a full three years after Lula to come out, in part due to label changes. The record was originally slated for the New York label Zero Hour, who’d put out Swervedriver’s 99th Dream and a few other semi-notable records, but they folded and left Shiner in the lurch. Was there major label interest in the group during this time as well? Who knows, but I suspect Epley, a music lifer, would not have minded some financial security. Starless ended up being released on Owned & Operated, run by Descendents/All drummer Bill Stevenson, but they didn’t feel a part of O&O like they did on DeSoto. It felt like a stopgap solution, much like Starless now feels like a stopgap record.

Thankfully their follow-up record, 2001’s The Egg rectified all of these concerns. Back on DeSoto Records, Shiner seemed dead set on pushing themselves to the fullest on The Egg, making a nastier (“Surgery”), more technically challenging (“The Egg”), more inspired album (“The Simple Truth”) than Starless. Jason Gerkin’s syncopated drumming on the title track seemed like a direct response to any fans who longed for Tim Dow’s deft work on “My Life as a Housewife.” I’d seen the group enough times leading up to the CD’s release to know that those songs would hold up. Eight years later, The Egg is essentially a 1B option to Lula Divinia’s 1A, since the latter feels a little more natural, less forced. The set list for their final show backs me up. Three songs from Splay, five songs for Starless, seven from The Egg (including Japanese bonus track “Dirty Jazz”), and seven from Lula Divinia (eight if you include “Sleep It Off”). Maybe the presence of original drummer Tim Dow at the show encouraged more Lula songs, but I trust Epley’s ability to assess the strength of his own material in the live setting.

Shiner’s farewell concert was a bittersweet send-off, but I never questioned why they broke up—The Egg pushed that group as far, as hard as it would go and there was no logical follow-up. Bringing in new collaborators and starting again made sense; so much sense Epley did it twice with The Life and Times. The John Meredith / Mike Myers line-up only lasted for The Flat End of the Earth EP, but the Eric Abert / Chris Metcalf line-up has now released two full-lengths and two EPs on four different labels. I discussed Suburban Hymns and The Magician when I picked them up on vinyl back in January, but it’s been three long years since the latter came out, stretched out by an extended label search. Sound like a familiar situation?

According to the painstaking liner notes, Tragic Boogie was initially conceived in April 2007 after a tour with the Appleseed Cast. That group’s Low Level Owl albums must’ve inspired the Life and Times’ home-recording impulse, since without a label footing the bill, only a home studio would allow Epley and company enough time to equal the Appleseed Cast’s experimentation-laden three weeks in the studio for that double-disc affair. After building a home studio and convening for several big sessions, they’d finished mastering the record in April of 2008. It took a year of label-searching before the record was released on the New York-based Arena Rock Recording Company. I’d like to think that two months is enough time to let Tragic Boogie sink in, so here goes.

Tragic Boogie is undoubtedly a home-recorded album, but not for the reason you might expect. No, it doesn’t sound thin in comparison to Suburban Hymns (recorded primarily at Matt Talbott’s Great Western Record Recorders by J. Robbins and Paul Malinowski) or The Magician (recorded at the Magpie Cage by J. Robbins). In fact, it sounds remarkably full, filled with bells and whistles like textural guitar overdubs, vintage keyboards, swirling background vocals. Epley states that they were aiming to make “the larger-than-life record we’d been hearing in our heads” and there’s no doubt that they succeeded in that aim. Tragic Boogie passes on the traditional rock template used for Suburban Hymns songs like “Running Red Lights,” “Coat of Arms,” and “Charlotte St” in favor of the explorative shoegaze approach of “Thrill Ride” and “My Last Hostage.” But how it comes through as a home-recorded album (much like compatriots National Skyline’s Bliss & Death) is in the dominance of this aesthetic shift over the base songwriting on a number of songs. Give a band enough time to tinker with guitar textures, drum sounds, and additional instrumentation, and there’s a definite risk that those elements will define the record. It’s far less likely that a home studio will cause a group to reevaluate their songwriting practices, Unwound’s Leaves Turn Inside You being a rare example.

The relatively positive Pitchfork review of Tragic Boogie states that the first half of the album trumps a weaker second half on the merit of this massive, shoegaze-influenced aesthetic, but I’ll argue the opposite. The stretch of “The Lucid Dream,” “Tragic Boogie,” and “The Politics of Driving” is as strong as anything The Life and Times has done, since the meta-level storytelling feeds off of those echoing layers of guitar. “The Lucid Dream” is a woozy, My Bloody Valentine-esque (I don’t use the comparison lightly; they’ve earned it here) fever dream, drifting with violence, regret, and oblique perspectives on Epley’s continuing musical pursuits. The title track pulls things back into the light, connecting images of doomed astronauts to both the suburban lifestyle and the group’s ongoing difficulties in finding a label and a larger audience (“We’re floating in space in search of a home, with no radio”). The two-chord signal, the rubbery, expressive bass line, and the forceful drum fills propel this story onward. “The Politics of Driving” is the album’s highlight, giving enough space to the blend of Epley’s delay-heavy rhythm guitar, Metcalf’s keyboards, and Abert’s baritone guitar leads before kicking into gear with an ascendant, cathartic rush. The song sheds some insight into Epley’s desire to keep going in the face of those label difficulties, those personal changes, with lines like “But victory would fade / The winners felt their days had no meaning / And so they’d kneel and pray / For something new to chase / Into the deep blue sea” and “But we love them even more when they don’t return” recognizing the uncontrollable impulse to press forward, even if it means certain doom. Epley’s never shied away from meta-level songwriting—“The Situationist” has “I loved the time when a little clumsy rhyming could put the crown on your head,” “The Egg” is clearly about nurturing Shiner and pushing it forward, even as things break down—and these songs add to that ongoing, cross-band commentary.

Perhaps it’s my preference for Epley’s meta-commentary on his bands or his dark character studies (Shiner’s “Sleep It Off,” The Life and Times’ “Muscle Cars”), but my issue with the first half of the record is that a few of the songs seem content with vague imagistic lyrics without much meat to them. The first three songs are strong enough; “Que Sera Sera” works well as an equally triumphant and foreboding lead-off track; “The Fall of Angry Clowns” hits a rewarding chorus of “Strange feeling, growing older”; “Let It Eat” charges forward with aquatic vocals, “Regretting all the lost days… in a future world,” establishing a thematic consistency. But “Old Souls” wastes a nice vocal performance of “You wait for me and I will pick you up right here” with too many vocal effects on the other lines, “Dull Knives” loves/hates love with trite lines like “Push and shove, they fuck the pain away / They kiss the hurt away,” and “Confetti” is more memorable for its (admittedly awesome) descending guitar lead and acoustic outro than any of the lyrics. Add two solid instrumentals (“The Pain Don’t Hurt” and the album-closing “Li’l 4 Notes”) and a reasonably good song dating back to 2003 (“Catching Crumbs”) and I’m left wanting more to chew on. The three bonus tracks from the Japanese release—two remixes and the instrumental “Life Is Pleasure”—aren’t any help.

I’ve listened to Tragic Boogie a number of times and I’m still hearing new sonic touches, new overdubs, new vocal harmonies, so if you’re more interested in how the record sounds, it trumps anything else The Life and Times has released. Yet only half of the record has stayed with me from a lyrical perspective. I half-expected this change in musical priorities after the aesthetic-first approach for some of The Magician, but a large part of what appeals to me about Allen Epley’s music is how Shiner’s mammoth riffs and The Life and Times’ layered compositions interact with the lyrics. Epley’s three best records—Lula Divinia, The Egg, and Suburban Hymns—rely on this combination. Tragic Boogie, however, is only 75% there. I still rank it well above Starless, but it does remind me of the eventual disappointment over that record. Maybe I’m being too hard on one of my favorite musicians, but I personally hope The Life and Times will re-enter their home studio less enamored with the tricks of the trade and more comfortable thanks to a stabilized label situation, and with the critical insight of an external producer like Robbins or Malinowki, produce another album that ranks among Epley’s finest, not slightly below them. The aesthetic blueprint drafted here is ready and waiting.